Phronetic

Speech is easy, and ambiguous

It sometimes happens that someone perfectly elucidates an idea or insight you’ve been struggling to patch together. It happened to me yesterday—I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came across this from Adam Elkus:

“I have the opposite prejudice as the one famously expressed in Phaedrus. I’m inherently suspicious of anyone that privileges orality over written communication.

Most of my suspicion has less to do with the paper trail issue and more with the ways in which a charismatic speaker can get people to quite literally lose their grip on reality

This can also be done with the written word. But the significance of nonverbal communication in phonocentric modes of communication makes it also both easier to do and harder to diagnose.”

I understand where Elkus is coming from. Firstly, he is—to a greater degree than me—critical of Jordan Peterson, the “secular evangelist” at the helm of one of the culture war’s biggest hype trains. I suspect the above comments are made partially with him in mind. Second, after reading much about the Second World War and Nazi Germany, I’ve come across Adolf Hitler’s ability to make his audience “lose their grip on reality”, typically via vague assertions of political policy, generic appeals to ideology, a liberal use of us-versus-them posturing and exaggerated displays of emotion, all wrapped in a facade of unquestionable authority and irresistible momentum.

But the more interesting consequence of Elkus’ statement is not that I agree with it, but that it correlates with the uneasiness I feel when I think of podcasts.

Everyone and their mum has a podcast now. The reason, perhaps, is that it’s easy to do. As Seth Godin says, no-one gets talker’s block. Further, most of the time, the host has “interesting people” as guests, so the conversation usually covers old ground instead of breaking new ground—guests talk about current or previous work, instead of uncovering new insights or treading new trails of thought. Thus, when it comes to podcasting, the barrier to entry is low.

However, as Brent Beshore observed, more people seem to have “life-changing” experiences because of a podcast episode than because of a book they’ve read. And I think it has to do with what Elkus talked about—ambiguity in speech versus concreteness in prose.

Both oral and written communication are proxies of thought. But it just so happens that the latter is a much better indicator than the former. Try it for yourself. Try explaining a closely held idea to someone by speaking and to a different person via writing. It’s easier to talk about something than write about it because verbal communication has fewer barriers. Whereas when you read something someone has wrote about an idea, it’s easy to diagnose either the idea or its communication as shoddy.

So, oral communication is a more ambiguous representation of thought and thus more impactful on the majority than the written word. It’s why podcasts are so popular, why politicians are able to be so slimy, why demagogues are able to rise to positions of power, and why we should be wary of those who persuade with their mouth instead of their pen.

Emotion

Tiago Forte recently tweeted that “The key to ultimate productivity is being completely driven by your emotions.” A few years ago I’d have vehemently disagreed. But nowadays, I think that Tiago’s idea is an understatement. See, I think the foundation of all great human achievement is found in emotion.Those great discoveries that we typically attribute to reason? What was the driving force behind them? The great structures, the great inventions, the reality-altering modes of thinking and doing? What compelled the person who found them to look and keep looking? Emotion, emotion, emotion.

The claim that our ability to use reason to check emotion is what separates us from our ape ancestors is, thus, off the mark. What separates us from our descendants, what has enabled humanity’s ascendance, is the use of emotion to empower our reasoning. We are only able to fly so high—and stoop so low—because emotion amplifies our thought to the most incredible degree. Emotion—be it positive or negative—is what enables us to endure, to create, to speculate, to challenge, and ultimately, to care.

The grand function

I’m a proponent of the many paths approach, the idea that the human mind functions best when it has multiple avenues of activity to explore and proceed down. However, what I believe really empowers the many paths approach is the connectedness of the different avenues. Essentially, by engineering your activities so that each one supports every other it is possible to attain otherwise unattainable achievements. I’ll give you an example from my own plate of activity (of the interconnectivity of avenues, not of unattainable achievement).

I keep a master project list. It currently has seven entries, six of which are related to the reading-writing spectrum, and all of which support one another. Here’s how it works:

I read (project 1) old and new books, and online material sourced through Reddit, Twitter, newsletters, and browsing. What I read is then filtered and entered into my commons (project 2), into my scrapbook (project 3), is directly incorporated into my blog (project 4), or tagged as research for my current book (project 5). This reading and writing then serves as practice for my editorial work (project 6). Further, what I write in longform, shortform, or for editorial work, informs what I read online and off, how I read it, and what I’m looking for.

The aim here is a more organic structuring of activities. Consider the human body and it’s various systems—respiration, digestion, the senses, the muscles. Each one has its own particular function but they all contribute to and enable the grand function. That is the ultimate goal: every project supports and informs the other, and they all align for the achievement of a higher end.

Restricting the flows of reality

In Trust Me I’m Lying—a handbook that teaches the true mechanics of media—Ryan Holiday describes a five-tier funnel. It looks like this:

All that happens > All that is known by the media > All that is newsworthy > All that is published > All that spreads

This tiered structure succinctly illustrates the opacity of all the media that is produced. Or as Holiday puts it shortly after describing the above funnel: “…the media is a mechanism for systematically limiting the information seen by the public.”

Now, I have as vested an interest as anyone in understanding the function of the media, both on- and offline. But the news funnel Holiday presents is significant to me primarily because it mirrors our own, personal information filtering systems. I’ll give you an example using the process I deploy to deposit tweets into my scrapbook.

At the top of the funnel is still “All that happens”. Below that we have, “All that is known by Twitter users”. Underneath, “All that is tweetworthy”, followed by “All that is tweeted”. Now, here is where it gets personal—the previous stages are followed by “All that makes it into my feed”, “All that I see” and “All that I ‘like’”. I then review my ‘liked’ tweets for worthy scrapbook candidates—”All that I bookmark”—and finally, out of that small selection I get “All that I put in my scrapbook”. That’s nine distinct steps in this particular information filter.

All that happens > All that is known by Twitter users > All that is tweetworthy > All that is tweeted > All that makes it into my feed > All that I see > All that I ‘like’ > All that I bookmark > All that I put in my scrapbook

Other takes on the idea of a “filter”: previously, I realised that possibly the key to macro-productivity is “strong filters”. As a directive to myself, it looks like this: Saying no and setting boundaries allows you to create quiet and stillness which you can use to discover and work on what is essential. Also, consider the idea of “strong filters” identified by Nassim Taleb during his consideration of the success of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett:

“So I figured out something about the success of Munger-Buffett. It is not in the strategies they run, but in their very, very, very strong filtering.

Simply it is generalized flaneuring. Charlie Munger: “We have no system for estimating the correct value of all businesses. We put almost all in the “too hard” pile and sift through a few easy ones”. “Warren (Buffett) talks about these discounted cash flows. I’ve never seen him do one”. (in Tren Griffin’s book)

The implication is that the nuances of the “genre” as strategy matter less than filtering. Because of such nonlinearity, Buffett’s performance is no longer correlated with that of the strategy.”

So, the idea of a “filter” can be applied to information flows (Holiday’s funnel and my scrapbook process) and as a strategic structure (Buffett/Munger’s sorting process and my macro-productivity ideology). What else? For starters, it is an evolutionary imperative. A single organism must sort and process—filter—inputs from its environments in order to survive and thrive. And collectively, the process of evolution filters species themselves.

Which raises a few simple questions in my mind: What’s better—strong filters or weak filters? And further, how do we evaluate the quality of a filter? Let’s stick with the domain of information management to explore the answers, and take the questions in reverse order.

First, to evaluate the quality of a filter is simple, but not easy. We just have to look for positive and negative effects in the short and long term. For example, if my information sources and filtering processes are poor, I’ll likely make ill-informed decisions, miss opportunities and insight, and ultimately be harmed. If they are great, the reverse should happen. Naturally, the ability to observe this is hampered by the fact that there’s only one me, at any one time in reality. I have no baseline to make a comparison with. Which means that the quality of a filter can only really be deduced by either comparing them to other people’s filters or by considering the impact of the filter’s use over time. Either way, it’s a subjective decision.

Second, strong or weak filters? Or alternatively put, how much gets through? That depends on the receptacle. For example, the Twitter feed of someone who follows one hundred specifically selected accounts has an easier time processing what he sees in his feed than someone who follows five thousand whimsically chosen accounts. Think of it as an allocation of thought. Strong filters do the thinking for you in the future but require more thought in the present to set up, whereas weak filters demand less thought now and more thought later. Again, a judgement call.

I’ve read the words above multiple times, mainly to figure out what I was trying to get at. I think it was this: filters are an unavoidable part of existence so it pays to examine and improve their quality, the type of signal they find amongst the noise, and to consider whether they are restricting the flows of reality too little or too much.

Coming together, breaking apart

In a recent Breaking Smart newsletter Venkatesh Rao said:

“The reason I’m working on this stuff and trying to use talks to work out some of the tricky bits is that I’m trying to get another book project going. Yeah yeah, I know, I already wrote a book about time (Tempo, in case you didn’t know), but I feel another one brewing in the élan vital. My spidey senses are tingling and my zeitgeist-sensing implant is telling me the kairos is right for such a book. This one’s going to be different, all about subjective time and how you can program reality to manipulate your stream of consciousness. I’m kinda excited about it because it would sort of pull together a few key current themes of Breaking Smart and Ribbonfarm, as well as further development on some of the most intriguing threads I uncovered, but did not develop, in Tempo. We’ll see how it goes.”

So, Venkatesh’s separate projects—Breaking Smart, Ribbonfarm, Tempo—are starting to converge. Why does this matter? Well. I’m a big advocate of what I call the “many paths” approach. It’s an idea I pinched from B.H. Liddell Hart’s biography of William Sherman:

“To the irresistibility of this progress Sherman’s flexibility contributed as much as his variability of direction. Moving on a wide and irregular front—with four, five or six columns, each covered by a cloud of foragers—if one was blocked, others would be pushing on.”

The above idea applied means that an individual should keep multiple enterprises on the go at once, because as Hart says, “if one was blocked, others would be pushing on.” I try to embody this in my own life—a quick survey of my projects:

Phronetic: a daily blog about mastery, strategy, and practical philosophy.
– A novel (currently in the research and ideation phase).
– A longform essay on near-deathness.
– Freelance editorial work via Swell & Cut.
– Reading and research related and unrelated to the above.
– The upkeep of my Commons.
– Movement: strength training, cycling and practice of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

I count seven separate avenues or “projects”, which means seven different opportunities for progression. Thus, if I find myself unwilling to work on the novel, I can write some blog posts. If I don’t feel like writing blog posts, I can do editorial work or come up with strategies for lead generation and conversion. If I don’t feel like writing at all, I can go read, or review books and add ideas to the commons. If all that is too much intellectual heavy lifting, I can go and weight train, or practise some BJJ movements, or trawl Reddit, Twitter and follow breadcrumbs on the internet to find things to add to my scrapbook.

So, the passage from Venkatesh’s newsletter highlights “convergence”; the passage from Hart’s biography and the idea of the “many paths approach” could be called “divergence”. And those two labels together indicate the two main phases of a life. Specifically, life and its components are always in a state of convergence or divergence, a coming together or a breaking apart.

divergence convergence

Past and present opacity

I’m currently engaged in a deep dive into the murky depths of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. And after reading numerous accounts of the same events, I’m beginning to realise the opacity of history, that there is so much we cannot determine about the past. Yet, whilst understanding this opacity I still proceed to try and learn from what has come to pass. To take reliable lessons from the descriptions and recounting of episodes which I know are unreliable. For example, I often read an account and think to myself that I am beginning to attain some measure of clarity about an event or figure. I wish to end this, to forever cement my distrust of history as we know it and as we commonly consume it. And yesterday, I discovered how.

I imagine that, as an historian of the future, I am able to travel back to the time which I wish to document, and I decide to write a comprehensive history of the events of 2018. But where do I start? The paralysis that confronts me at asking this question will have a definite effect; I’ll focus down, impose some constraints. Perhaps I opt to write a comprehensive treatise on the state of online privacy and security. Fine, but again, “Where do I start?” With the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation? With any of the countless data breaches and malicious attacks that have occurred during the year? Either one would be a good jump-off point, but either one would quickly reveal how much more digging I have to do.

For example, the General Data Protection Regulation was proposed to the EU in January 2012, voted on and negotiated throughout 2013, ‘14 and ‘15 and adopted in 2016. From then, a two year transition period began after which all EU member states were expected to abide by its commands. So the history of the GDPR is a history that spans years. And of those each individual years, I will have to chart the social, political and cultural climes that were in effect across a multitude of continents, countries and regions. Further, I will have be aware of all the primary players, the secondary players, the tertiary players, and all those who had a significant yet infinitesimal effect on proceedings—meaning individuals and institutions, many of whose involvement I will be unable to quantify or even find evidence of.

Seen from this perspective, the motivation for the genre of history—that we can, first, understand the past, and second, learn from it—is laughable. Every moment that passes is indelibly intertwined with every moment that has gone before it in some way, and I can never trace this continuity and connection totally. Thus, history is opaque because our experience of the world we live in—and our knowledge of our own existence within said world—is opaque. Heck, as you read this your subconscious mind is sifting through current and previous stimuli and imagining the presence and impact of those you’ll be exposed to in the future.

Approached from another angle—as humans we truly struggle to know the present, so what makes us think we can know the past?

The perpetual war of Society C

One of my favourite maxims regarding entrepreneurship is:

The more value I create, the less I need to capture.

Providing £100,000 of value allows me to claim, as compensation, a smaller relative percentage than if I provide £100 of value. Naturally, the specific figures matter less than the idea—the aim is, in all projects and transactions, to create so much value that I need only take the tiniest slice as payment.

However, this formulation of the concepts of “value created” and “value captured” is pointed at the level of individual relationships, of interaction between client and service provider. But what if we scaled it up to the societal level? Well, then we need to introduce a third action—“consume”. And when we say that actors in a society have only three choices…

  1. create value,
  2. capture value, or
  3. consume value

…then we end up in some intriguing places. These are best illustrated by plotting the three “C”s on a Penrose triangle and mapping out the different domains.

the three C’s of society.png

One thing to note is that the differences between the domains are one of emphasis. For example, The Capitalist Kingdom emphasises the creation and capture of value, but still requires consumption to function. The same applies to the others. Now, with that out of the way, allow me to explain the rationale behind the three realms.

The Capitalist Kingdom emphasises the creation and capture of value, and de-emphasises consumption. The primary example of this ideological leaning, to my mind, is Apple. One of the most valuable companies around, it specialises in large scale fulfilment of high end consumer tech demands. Their aim is not cheap and cheerful, but best in class, be it phones, tablets or laptops. But even more extraordinary than this ability to create value for their customer base using a diverse array of means is the company’s ability to capture the majority of the value they create. Braeburn Capital, an asset management company and subsidiary of Apple Inc., is the custodian of Apple Inc’s cash reserves—reserves that are now estimated to be at over two hundred billion dollars.

Companies like Apple and Amazon are the de facto rulers here. Their ability to create value at a large scale and capture a great portion of said value bestows upon them regal status. The nobility of The Capitalist Kingdom are smaller players. They are individuals or organisations that either work a variant of the same magic but at a lesser level, or are individuals and organisations that, because of the extreme value they create and the systems they deploy, happen to end up with stores of value.

The Socialist Republic also emphasises value creation, but it is more interested in consuming the value created, as opposed to capturing and storing it. In The Socialist Republic, created value is distributed back to the populace—including to those who had a minimal, or zero, part in creating it. Its constituents and its elected representatives see value like water, as something essential to all life and something whose circulation and use should be available to all. Because of this, those who ensure others get to consume their fair share of value are just as celebrated and idolised as those who create it in the first place.

The Wastelands isn’t a nice place. Here, nobody cares about the creation of value. Their mantra is “Take take take, hoard hoard hoard”, with little thought or effort devoted to the origins of the thing they so desperately seek. The constituents of this land are bandits, terrorising other parties, taking whatever they want—and if they can, what they don’t want as well—via an endless campaign of indirect and direct manipulation and force. They are interested only in competition; cooperation, either for the benefit of society at large (like The Socialist Republic) or for the gain of a select alliance (like The Capitalist Kingdom), is anathema to them. Thus, the mightiest of this barren landscape are simply the most devious and the most unscrupulous—they are the ones that are able to look you in the eye, welcome you into an embrace and push the knife deep into your back.

Perhaps the simplest way to differentiate between the three is to compress their tendencies, emphasis and ideals into a single word. So:

the three C’s v2.png

“Community”, “Competence” and “Cunning”—the term which most resonates with you is an indication of which domain, and thus which values, you most value.

Now, in a world populated with humans and divvied up into territories via boundaries, conflict is inevitable. I’m reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, where the three superstates—Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia—are in a state of perpetual war, where the actual warfare is conducted on neutral ground, where alliances shift yet seem to be timeless, and where no superstate is either capable or willing to win by entirely eradicating another. It is this idea of borders, alliances and perpetual war that I will turn to now.

the perpetual war of society C.png

Looking at the rather contradictory arrows labelling each neighbour as both “friend” and “foe”, the obvious question is, “How?” Let’s deal with alliances first, which are enabled by a shared belief.

Although what they choose to do with it differs, the Socialist Republic and the Capitalist Kingdom find common ground via their belief in value creation. The Wastelands and the Socialist Republic are united by the perception that value is a means to an end, a thing that people use to live. And The Wastelands and the Capitalist Kingdom understand one another because both recognise the merit in the storage of value.

What about opposition? Well.

The Capitalist Kingdom despise the Socialist Republic. For the former, Competence is the master and they believe that anyone not possessing it is suspect. Further, they cannot comprehend the idea that those who add nothing receive something, which is a commonplace practice in the Socialist Republic. The Capitalist Kingdom also takes issue with the Wastelands because its people want to take without giving. For the Wastelanders, competence is unnecessary if you’re cunning enough.

The Socialist Republic despises the Capitalist Kingdom because of the way they consolidate value. They store it up, refusing to spread it around to those who need it. The Republic are also at odds with The Wastelands because people there see no moral conflict in taking from someone in need simply because they don’t have the wiles to protect what they have.

Finally, the Wastelands despises the Socialist Republic for its community, which to them represents a threat, a way for those who don’t deserve a thing to survive at the expense of those who do. They also feel enmity towards the Capitalist Kingdom for its deification of a fool’s virtue—competence.

To me, the concept of Society C, its perpetual war, and the mapping of its three primary elements—create, capture and consume—to a Penrose triangle—an impossible object—illustrates the absurdity of the current cultural climate. Society C and this place called Earth are home to conflicts with numerous, intertwined factions, the members of which see everyone else, at some point and on some issue, as both friend and foe.