“+ = Love”: Hawke street, West Melbourne, photographed by Dean Kyte.
Sign of the times: A cryptic equation appears in the sky over West Melbourne.

You can download this free audio version of the article below here.

In my ongoing analysis of the Coronavirus situation here on The Melbourne Flâneur, today I lay out for you the next conceptual block in the argument I began to advance in my first post on this crisis.

Last week, I introduced you to the concept of ‘networkcentricity’, particularly as it relates, at a metaphysical level, to a new experience of the conditions of life in the 21st century.

La grille’, as M. Foucault calls it, has revealed a new way of regarding life and the world.  The Internet, as a cultural product, is the most visible metaphor of what we sense, in this century, to be the underlying structure of nature, of human relations, and of the artificial systems that human beings create: the network.

All the escalating problems we have faced in this century across every domain, culminating in the Coronavirus, have been particular variations on a single, general theme:  How do we evolve from a complicated, linear, ‘process-based’ view of life to the complex, non-linear, ‘network-centric’ vision of life which we feel, at a deep somatic level, to be a more accurate model of reality?

In my previous post, I put this ‘soul-problem’ for post-Faustian man in more concrete terms: all the environmental, social, political, economic, geo-political problems we have faced since September 11, 2001 may be summarized as the conscious need to come to fundamental grips, both at an individual and collective level, with the understanding of how exponential curves interact geometrically with complex, adaptive, networked systems.

In that post, I stated that the prevailing paradigm of ‘business as usual’ was predicated on a linear, arithmetic systems model called ‘Scientific Management’, an industrial and military approach to systems which was templated for global use after World War II.

Scientific Management, as a linear, process-based model of systems, is complicated but not complex: it assumes that life moves in a gently curving arc of infinite progress, with only slight, manageable disruptions, so that when unexpected, thoroughly disruptive exponential events such as the Coronavirus occur, the centralized, pyramidal structures of Scientific Management fail spectacularly because they are optimized for efficiency in predictable circumstances rather than for resilience in exceptional circumstances.

Moreover, Scientific Management assumes that the human agents who compose these linearly-organized pyramidal structures are more or less ‘fixed’ within a hierarchy: progression up or down the pyramid is possible, but only along restricted lines of process.

The Internet, as our quintessential cultural product in the 21st century, does not resemble this mechanical model of the world.  And social media, the second-generation child of the Internet, resembles it even less.

In my second post on the Coronavirus, I stated that the exponential spread of this virus around the world could be directly attributed to restrictions on freedom of speech in China.  The doctors who initially discovered the Coronavirus networked their collective cognitive resources online.  The vector along which human beings communicate their thoughts to one another is human language, and the Chinese government’s restriction of these doctors’ ability to freely communicate with one another in the early hours of this crisis facilitated the exponential curve of existential crisis we are now travelling on.

It is more than ironic, it is in deep morphological accord with the nature of this world-historical problem that the Coronavirus, as the most visible symbol of it, should have originated in the nation with the most repressive attitude towards free speech.  The Chinese have given the decadent West an incontrovertible case study of how the diminishment of the West’s most cherished value leads ultimately—and very quickly—to massive mortality and civilizational collapse.

The semantic games which the body politic of western nations have played with the issue of free speech on social media could only be played in conditions where the exponential metastasis leading to massive mortality and civilizational collapse is not consciously apparent to the players.

This toying with the ‘right to express oneself’ is part of what I called, in my second post, the ‘abuse’ of the privilege of free speech.  It is notable that this abuse is most egregiously committed by those who utilize their privilege instrumentally in order to destroy free speech as a value.

But abuse of the privilege is more generalized than that.

With the Coronavirus crisis, we find ourselves palpably confronted with the cusp of two paradigms.  The decentralized, horizontal peer-to-peer network we want—and need—to evolve to as a species is operating under the hampering restrictions of the centralized, hierarchical paradigm of Scientific Management.

Instead of geometrically enhancing our collective cognitive capacity to make sense of the brave new world of the 21st century, our quintessential cultural product, which was developed with the intention of horizontally networking minds, is forced to operate under the assumptions of the Scientific Managerial mindset, which limits peer-to-peer communication in favour of top-down broadcast.

And because, under the extractive assumptions of Scientific Management, every actor in the network is jockeying to be at the top of the hierarchy, broadcasting his views to the network at large so as to centralize attention to himself, the Internet is polluted by egregious abuses of the right to express oneself.

The broadcast mindset of the Scientific Managerial paradigm economically rewards the centralization of attention to oneself (and thus the extraction of cognitive resources from the commons) in a multi-polar arms race of escalating bile, banality and abuse.

Rather than putting us in a position to make good sense of this crisis, our quintessential cultural product, hobbled and hampered by a moribund paradigm which restricts its efficacy, has, instead of geometrically networking minds, geometrically facilitated the pollution of disinformation, misinformation, and information which not everyone in the network needs to know, broadcasting these ‘externalities’ into the ecology of our collective sensemaking environment.

Web 2.0, the ‘Social Web’, the network of social networks, has facilitated this pollution.  The danger which attends the universal right to the free expression of thought—a danger which can never be satisfactorily counterbalanced—is that actors will abuse their privilege by virally disseminating disinformation and misinformation, or by broadcasting information which is not ‘in the public interest’ of the collective—or by speaking uncivilly to one another.

Just as in our physical environment, there are ‘externalities’ which are displaced and deferred to the cognitive commons when agents who are act extractively under the Faustian, Scientific Managerial mindset pollute the virtual environment of collective sensemaking in order to mine a derivative profit from it which they centralize to themselves.

Privatizing the profit, they socialize the cognitive cost of what I call ‘viral incivility’.

What makes finding a global solution to the Coronavirus crisis—and to all the other n-th order infinite impact risks which it has set in train—more difficult is that the exponential curve of the virus in our polluted real environment is matched by the exponential curve of poor collective sensemaking in our equally polluted virtual environment.

And the vector along which pollution in the collective sensemaking environment travels and is externalized to the cognitive commons is the vector of free speech.

When free speech is abused by individuals availing themselves of the sword of incivility, our collective ability to make sense of this crisis is weakened, as our willingness to communicate freely with one another, sharing ideas which may be horizontally scaled to solve this existential crisis with exponential speed, is diminished.

Human beings are neither essentially co-operative nor essentially competitive.  We ‘optimize’ our behaviour towards either co-operation or competition based on the strategies we perceive others in the social environment to be using.

In an environment of extractive value-taking, such as the one that operates under Faustian, Scientific Managerial conditions, a social strategy of competition for resources is an optimal short-term approach for an individual to take.

However, in a network-centric environment of mutual value-giving, the player who is optimized to compete by extractively centralizing common resources to himself will find himself outnumbered by co-operative, collaborative players who endogenously censure him.

In 2016, Antoci, Delfino, Paglieri, Panebianco, and Sabatini published the article “Civility vs. Incivility in Online Social Interactions: An Evolutionary Approach”.  The researchers designed a game whereby players could choose to behave civilly (strategy P) in face-to-face and online interactions with others, uncivilly (strategy H), or could choose to ‘opt out’ of online interactions completely and keep their face-to-face interactions with other players to an absolute minimum (strategy N).

Antoci and his colleagues found that if the number of trolls who only meet other trolls in the social environment is less than the number of civil players who only meet trolls, then the social network optimizes towards a strategy of civility.

The researchers conjectured that this is because trolls have an ‘aversive reaction’ to meeting other trolls: they get less pay-off from encountering people as uncivil as themselves, and thus seem to abandon the strategy of incivility as the social network preponderantly selects for polite interaction.

If, on the other hand, the number of civil players who only meet other civil players in the social environment is less than the number of trolls who only meet civil players, then the social network will virally optimize towards a strategy of incivility.

Trolls will get more of a pay-off under these conditions because the number of ‘victims’ upon whom they can visit the sword of incivility is greater, and the cost to civil players for interacting with the preponderant number of trolls discourages them from pursuing civility as a strategy.

But the truly interesting finding concerns the third strategy, N.  Opting out of online social networks altogether and reducing one’s face-to-face interactions with others was found by the researchers to be the optimal social strategy, despite the fact that N players received less pay-off than either civil players or trolls.

Where all players in a social network opt out of online interaction due to incivility, the researchers found that a strict Nash equilibrium is created; that is, all players know the strategies of all other players in the social network, and no individual player can gain a personal advantage by simply changing his own strategy.

But of course, what is mathematically ‘optimal’ is hardly optimal as a social strategy.  The researchers described the Nash equilibrium created by everyone choosing to opt out of online social interaction as a ‘social poverty trap’.

‘The analysis of dynamics shows that the spreading of self-protective behaviors triggered by online incivility entails undesirable results to the extent to which it leads the economy to non-socially optimal stationary states that are Pareto dominated by others,’ Antoci and his colleagues wrote.

In an economy of attention such as our collective sensemaking environment, an environmental strategy of incivility will transmit itself virally among players, with those who are most adept at wielding the sword of incivility extractively centralizing to themselves the resources of collective attention.

Not only is the ‘social capital’ of collective cognitive resources available to solve problems extracted from the network as more and more players opt out of it due to viral incivility, but the ‘social capital’ which is available to the most uncivil players, the social network of minds they can activate through influence, is extracted from the commons and privately centralized to them.

Those who are richest in bile, banality and abuse profit the most from online social networks operating under Scientific Managerial restrictions in terms of the ‘prestige’ they garner to themselves by adopting a competitive, linear approach in these non-linear, network-centric environments.

But, as Antoci et al. make clear, there is an externalized cost which these actors displace and defer to the commons, one which we all must bear as the well of collective sensemaking becomes progressively poisoned by viral incivility.

Citing the work of Fred Hirsch, these researchers noted that the preferential adoption of opting out of the network is not driven by ‘mutating tastes’.  We do not want to ‘self-isolate’ from the virus of online incivility.

As Hirsch says in his book Social Limits of Growth (1977): ‘If the environment deteriorates, for example, through dirtier air or more crowded roads, then a shift in resources to counter these “bads” does not represent a change in consumer tastes but a response, on the basis of existing tastes, to a reduction in net welfare.’

Likewise, in the reduction of net welfare which the Coronavirus has introduced into our physical environment, we are forced to massively divert economic resources to counter the externality of this ‘bad’, and to adopt ‘social distancing’, a self-defensive behaviour which is perverse to our deeply social nature as human beings.

And just as in our physical self-isolation from each other due to the Coronavirus, ‘social distancing’ from the virus of online incivility is an attempt to mitigate the externalities which have been introduced into our collective cognitive environment.

So how does this virus of online incivility, which causes us to socially distance ourselves from each other even in real life, operate?

I am going to propose a model of viral propagation in online social networks for you to consider.

There are two main models of viral propagation, the ‘threshold’ and the ‘cascade’ models.  My intuition is that, in online social networks, both models of virality are interacting.

As a node who enters an online social network, you can initially only influence your nearest neighbours, or what are called your ‘degrees’.  Your degrees are the people known to you from real life whom you link to (or forms ‘edges’ with) in the social network by sending them friend invitations, following them, or by availing yourself of the sundry other instruments which social networks offer to facilitate linkages between their users.

The sending of solicitations to others as invitations to form edges with you I am going to call ‘outgoing edges’.  Initially, you are trying to form these outgoing edges by creating linkages in the online network between yourself and the degrees you already know offline.  You are forming outgoing edges with degrees you are already ‘in sympathy with’: these are your friends and family members, people with whom you share interests, hobbies, preferences—and even biases.

And as Saurabh Mittal says in his paper “Emergence in stigmergic and complex adaptive systems: A formal discrete events systems perspective” (2013), ‘As nodes with their preferences and biases acquire links, their behavior seems to facilitate more link making, i.e. they start portraying affinity for new links’ [my emphasis].

As people accept your solicitations to form outgoing edges with them, you receive positive feedback:—who knew that you were such a ‘socially likeable person’?  The famous dopamine response kicks in and you hunt high and low for new opportunities to form outgoing edges with people further and further afield.

Within the individual economy of the node, this is the beginning of the exponential curve towards network-wide virality.

At a certain point, you will start to receive a small number of solicitations—what I shall call ‘incoming edges’—and the satisfaction of being sought after by others is even more pleasurable than the dopamine response you get from having your outgoing edge solicitations accepted.

A person who gives a fair amount of time to the exchange of edge solicitations, and to nourishing their small strong-tie network of edges, will form part of a cluster: a group of tightly connected nodes which evolve around shared interests, preferences, and biases.

Kwak, Lee, Park, and Moon found in their 2010 paper “What is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media?” that sharing behaviour is based on a principle of homophily, whereby users share content more frequently—more virally—the more similar are their shared interests, preferences and biases.

At this stage, I am suggesting, virality is still rather a local affair.  It is assumed that civility is the dominant internal communication strategy of the cluster.  These are, after all, people who like one another and share interests, preferences and biases.  And it is at this stage of ‘local virality’ that I see the threshold model of neighbouring nodes influencing each other operating.

But for virality to occur at a network-wide level, clusters require a lot of ‘weak-tie connections’: each node in the cluster will know degrees who are outside the cluster, and who are themselves nodes in other clusters.  It is along the edges formed by weak-tie connections, the casual communications between people who know each other and are in varying degrees of sympathy with each other, that the threshold model of viral incivility has the potential to metastasize into a cascade model.

Stanley Milgram famously found that only ‘six degrees of separation’ lie between two complete strangers.  We all know people who seem to know everyone.  These people are particularly socially adroit, with above-average communication skills.  They have catholic interests and preferences, are unusually well-connected across all stratas of society, and seem to have a cognitive capacity to maintain social relationships well-above Dunbar’s Number.

These people, with anomalous numbers of edges connected to themselves, are what are called ‘hubs’, and hubs are very important in regulating the flow of information in social networks.  Indeed, without hubs, who activate the power law which underwrites the exponential virality of information flow across social networks, disparate clusters with disparate interests, preferences and biases would never join together to form a social network because the differences between them would be too great.

Hubs are the ‘social glue’ which hold large social networks together.  Being popular, they are ‘highly levelled’: that is, they have a high number of interactions with a high number of incoming edges.

And it is specifically on the pivot of the hub that I am suggesting the phase transition from threshold to cascade is activated in terms of viral incivility.

Jordan Hall, citing the work of Joseph Henrich, has observed that one of the very few hard-wired traits that human beings are born with is the habit of scanning their social environments with a view to identifying the most important people in it, the people they should pay attention to.  They do this, Hall says, by paying attention to the people whom the other people in their social environments are paying attention to.

Earlier I said that the collective sensemaking environment of Web 2.0 is an ‘economy of attention’.  What I meant to say is that it is an ‘economy of prestige’, where attention is to prestige what cents are to dollars.

We ‘pay attention’ to people online, and in so doing we give them ‘prestige’.  The thing about prestige, as Cataldi and Aufaure found in their 2015 paper “The 10 million follower fallacy: audience size does not prove domain-influence on Twitter”, is that it rarely extends beyond a certain domain of ‘expertise’.

Online, we talk of well-connected hubs as being ‘influencers’: the prestige they gain from the attention of friends and followers enables these hubs to exercise influence upon them, with long tails into their weak-tie networks.  But Cataldi and Aufaure found that the influence of hubs rarely extends beyond a domain in which they are acknowledged to be expert by their followers, and therefore have prestige.

And not only are the most influential hubs ‘highly levelled’, the domains in which they are acknowledged to be ‘expert’ are influential, and thus ‘highly levelled’.

This is the case of celebrities such as movie stars, pop musicians, and politicians: they are regarded as being ‘authoritative’ in their respective domains by the incoming edges who direct attention to them, and the credibility these hubs have with their incoming edges underwrites what I call a ‘prestige economy’—an economy of preferential attention.

However, despite their inordinate penetration into weak-tie networks, most hubs don’t have significant influence beyond their domains of prestige.

As Cataldi and Aufaure noted, when Barack Obama (who was the most influential hub in the political domain on Twitter at the time of their study) tweeted information in fields other than the strictly political, the dissimilarity of this information with the interests, preferences and biases of those edges affiliated with him because of his perceived authority in the political domain tended to restrict its virality.

However, well-positioned hubs whose influence straddles adjacent, highly-levelled domains of interest, and who thus have the attention of incoming edges across multiple domains, have the potential to activate virality at the cascade level due to their extraordinary degree of penetration into diverse weak-tie networks.

And the information which is most viral;—that is, which tends to spread the farthest fastest in social networks forced to operate under the extractive assumptions of the Scientific Managerial paradigm;—is bilious, banal, and abusive, exercising the attention of the cognitive commons in negative ways.

I am in indebted to Olivier Driessens of Ghent University for providing the next conceptual component in the model of online viral incivility I am proposing.  In his journal article “Celebrity capital: redefining celebrity using field theory” (2013), Driessens extends Pierre Bourdieu’s analyse des champs by adding a new form of ‘capital’ to Bourdieu’s taxonomy which I think is useful in understanding what I am calling the online ‘economy of prestige’.

Driessens, adapting his definition of ‘celebrity capital’ from the work of Robert van Krieken and Joshua Gamson respectively, describes it as ‘a specific kind of attention-generating capacity’ that is not reducible to Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic capital’—another name for ‘distinction’, or what I am calling ‘prestige’.

According to Driessens, ‘celebrity capital finds its material basis in recurrent media representations or accumulated media visibility.’

In the model of online viral incivility I am proposing, you first gain ‘celebrity capital’ by generating large numbers of incoming edges who are in sympathy with your interests, preferences and biases.  The key driver of virality is the capacity to extractively centralize the attention of incoming edges, whose esteem hierarchically elevates you as a hub of influence.  At this stage, viral influence is local and threshold.

At the point where you become a hub, you have amassed sufficient celebrity capital within the field as to be able to convert the currency of inward attention into Bourdieu’s ‘social capital’: you now have a network of minds centralized to yourself who acknowledge your authority and prestige in a given field.

The preponderant social capital you have gained within this cluster is being disseminated to the in-group’s weak-tie network, gaining more or less attention from users with adjacent interests, preferences and biases.  To the greater or lesser degree that the information you propagate through bile, banality or abuse is similar to the interests, preferences and biases of these weak-tie nodes on the periphery, to that same extent does your local, threshold capacity to generate viral incivility have the potential to cascade exponentially throughout the entire social network.

It does so because, when a certain level of critical mass is reached, the social capital you have centralized to yourself in a Pareto distribution is again convertible into Bourdieu’s ‘symbolic capital’.  The Pareto-dominant actor has ‘distinction’ within the field: his extraordinary authority is recognized as ‘legitimate’ by those under him in the hierarchy.

But, more tellingly in this model, symbolic capital is not merely recognized as legitimate by your followers, it is legitimated when it is misrecognized by your enemies.

What do I mean by this?

If you have accrued such a Pareto-dominant following that you have acquired symbolic capital with a cluster of people sympathetic to you, the mere fact that those outside the cluster who do not regard your symbolic capital as legitimate pay you any attention at all is itself a recognition of the legitimacy of your symbolic capital.

In an attentional economy, you gain prestige even from your enemies.  If you have surfed the exponent to the extent that it has brought you to the awareness of those most dissimilar to you in their interests, preferences and biases, and who thus regard you as a threat to be watched, you are further compounding the attention you are extracting from the network.

The classic example I would adduce of just how far surfing an exponential wave of bile, banality and abuse can take an individual actor, a well-positioned hub capable of transcending fields under the model I am proposing, is the present leader of the free world.

Mr. Donald J. Trump is a hub who had celebrity capital across multiple fields—principally financial and entertainment—when he chose to run for the highest office in the land.

As a hub with an inordinate weak-tie network, he was able to convert the celebrity capital he had centralized to himself with his bilious, banal and abusive plays for attention into a huge social network of minds, many of whom were prepared to accept him as an authority in a field he had, in 2016, no legitimate pretensions to—the political.

Having centralized attention to himself, Mr. Trump had an inordinate number of clustered vectors in adjacent domains along which he could propagate bile, banality and abuse in viral surges which were capable of washing through his extraordinary weak-tie network into the social network as a whole.

Activating the social capital he had accrued by exercising his social network with cascade surges of bile, banality and abuse, Mr. Trump gained the attention of enemies who exponentially contributed to the symbolic capital he had gained with his followers.  Their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of his claims to the political field was itself a compounding recognition of the legitimacy of the symbolic capital he had gained with his followers—for his enemies invested him with the symbolic aura of a bogeyman one should pay attention to, and be legitimately fearful of.

Whatever you think of Mr. Trump, I submit his Pareto dominance on social media as the exemplar of my theory of how the externalities of online viral incivility operate under the Faustian, Scientific Managerial paradigm.

Bile, banality and abuse work.  Swap out Mr. Trump for your favourite YouTuber as an example of ‘bile’, or your favourite model on Instagram as an example of ‘banality’, and I think my theory holds.

In their review of the literature, Antoci and his colleagues found ample evidence to support the empirical observation that many social media users have made: that people—including themselves—are much more ready to behave badly online than in face-to-face interactions with others.  Experiments show that computer-mediated communication tends to make users more impulsive in responding to textual cues, more assertive—even aggressive—in their speech and writing, and quicker to abandon the civility they would ordinarily employ in face-to-face encounters.

In other words, computer-mediated communication tends to ‘disinhibit’ people.  As Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire put it in a pioneering study, ‘The overall weakening of self or normative regulation might be similar to what happens when people become less self-aware and submerged in a group, that is, deindividuated.’

I have already observed that clusters in social networks form around shared interests, preferences and biases.  The deindividuated anonymity of computer-mediated communication, the way the screen itself acts as a ‘mask’, seems to lead to a decoupling of the spiritual and somatic senses of self: in the non-corporeal space of the online cluster, people coalesce in a metastatic fashion with other disembodied avatars who, like some perverse deity, are the million amorphous faces of the ideas, opinions and ideologies which collectively, memetically possess them.

Thus you have a basis for the polarized virality we see on social media, as armed camps of decorporealized, deindividuated agents coalesce around ego-based ideas of ‘who they think they are’.

And yet the curious paradox of this process of deindividuation is that every node in the cluster of memetic possession feels itself to be an ‘authentic individual’.  Certainly, as Driessens admits, one cannot acquire celebrity capital without recognizability, the differentiated ‘well-knownness’ which comes from repeated self-representation on social media and accumulated visibility within the panoptic cluster.

Gina Gustavsson, of Uppsala University, put forth an interesting metric with which to measure how different people value individualism in her paper “The Problem of Individualism” (2007).  On the one hand, we have what Gustavsson calls ‘internal individualism’, or freedom of thought, and on the other, ‘external individualism’, or freedom of action.

In Gustavsson’s view, low internal individualism is a function of subconscious forces within the individual himself, lower ‘selves’ consisting of ‘irrational desires such as passionate love and hatred or the need I might feel to conform to others’ expectations, or to distinguish myself from others and show originality at any cost.’

This is the ‘memetic possession’ of deindividuated virality which I spoke of.  A person with low internal individualism is fettered by these memetic lower ‘selves’, which interfere with his capacity for sovereign, original, individual thought.  He is the prey of ideology, and within the cluster, individuals accrue celebrity capital from the paradoxical display of an outrageous, provocative ‘originality’ which is, in fact, deeply conformist with the interests, preferences and biases of the in-group.

With viral contagions on social media, I would contend, what you see is a deindividuated coalescence of phony ‘individuals’ clustered around charismatic hubs with whom they identify their ‘individuality’.  And these hubs, it should be mentioned, are themselves often under the memetic possession of ideology.

The lower ‘selves’ of the in-group may be provoked to reaction by out-group others in the online space, and certainly, as Antoci and his colleagues found in their survey of the literature, these lower ‘selves’ do not restrain the person low in internal individualism from behaving uncivilly online.

Interestingly, Gustavsson proposed that a person high in internal individualism, one who intrinsically values freedom of thought, will value freedom of action instrumentally, as a mechanism to safeguard his intrinsic value.  Conversely, a person high in external individualism, one who intrinsically values freedom of action, will instrumentally value the freedom to think what he likes in order to guarantee that he can do what he likes.

According to Gustavsson, those who prefer external individualism will manifest a high preference for doing, rather than thinking, whatever they like.  In the online space, if you value the right to ‘be who you are’ (or rather, who you believe yourself to be), in the prestige economy of social media, the right of free speech is instrumental to acquiring celebrity capital for the still more instrumental purpose of activating social capital in the viral dissemination of memetic representations of who you believe yourself to be.

This, of course, creates externalities in the networked commons.  The instrumental abuse of free speech, which I said, in my second post, is merely the mechanism by which free thought flows in the neural network of our cognitive commons, by virally disseminating bile, banality and abuse may privately profit the individual low in internal individualism, but it socializes a cost we all must bear.

And when, as a species, we face multiple exponential curves of existential crisis, the exponential propagation of viral incivility in our collective thinking space prevents us from leveraging the geometric capacity of our cognitive network to evolve exponentially scalable solutions.

In the face of viral incivility online, more and more of us opt out of the conversation, leaving the field to the most uncivil players to extract the most attention with bile, banality and abuse.  And thus our quintessential cultural product becomes, as Antoci and his colleagues defined it, a ‘social poverty trap’.

In their conclusions, Antoci et al. stated that ‘the government should probably enforce policies to prevent defensive self-isolating behaviours….’  Perversely, we see, in the Coronavirus crisis, governments actually enforcing policies of defensive self-isolation which lead to precisely the social poverty trap Antoci and his colleagues warned against.

Given that we cannot go out of our houses—possibly for months—due to the viral externalities in our physical environment, I hazard that we will see the viral externalities in our online social environment increase as people are thrown back upon the cognitive commons for social interaction, and that many more people will ‘opt out’ of the conversation around finding solutions to our common crises.

With social poverty traps without and social poverty traps within, the personal cost to individuals of ‘thinking publicly’ in a poisonous environment might be too great.

As with my previous posts on the Coronavirus, I’m making an audio version of this article freely available for download and redistribution under a Creative Commons licence via my Bandcamp profile.  If you would like to share the theory I’ve advanced with other members of your social network, I invite you to download the audio version here.

Man's capacity to travel at speed
This series of graceful arcs, describing the overlapping half-lives of humanity’s various modes of transport since 1800, combine to form an exponential curve.  Taken from Stafford Beer’s The Brain of the Firm (1972).

You can download this free audio version of the article below here.

Last week on The Melbourne Flâneur, I stated that the reason why we avail ourselves so frequently of the metaphor of viruses and virality is because it describes the exponential way that information travels around the globe in contemporary life.

As a writer sensitive to cliché, I’m getting sick of hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ in the discourse surrounding the emerging Coronavirus situation, because this world-historical event is not unprecedented.

It would be more accurate say that, with the apparition of Coronavirus, for the first time in human history we are confronted with a ‘visible metaphor’ which illustrates—like a time-lapse film—just one of the exponential curves of existential crisis that humanity has been travelling on since at least the Industrial Revolution.

For the first two centuries, it appeared as though we were more or less on a straight line, one which appeared to be rising only very gradually thanks to ‘infinite progress’—‘la grande idée moderne’, as M. Baudelaire vituperatively called it, with its ‘odeur de magasin’.

Then, about 1960, the line began to rise appreciably at double the rate in half the time.

It’s no historical coincidence that at the beginning of the decade, President Kennedy should call for a man to be put on the moon by the end of the same decade.  Anyone who has read Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (1970) will have an appreciable sense of just how exponentially technology had to double and redouble itself in order to accomplish that goal.

By 1960, the line of technological progress was already very steep indeed.  However, the gradient appeared to the generations alive at that time to be, if not gentle, then at least ‘manageably uncomfortable’.  The steepness of the gradient they were travelling on was imperceptible due to what Robert Greene calls ‘generational myopia’.

They had the sense that they were still more or less in level relation to the x-axis.  They had no sense at all that they had ceased to move appreciably along it and were, instead, now moving upward by compounding leaps in relation to the y-axis.

The paradox of exponential technological progress which feeds into Greene’s theory of generational myopia is that the rate of change is so fast that it appears to the observer travelling on the runaway train that hardly any progress is being made at all.

To explain the feeling contained in that paradox by another metaphor, we are on a planet which is hurtling around the sun at a rate of about 107,000 kilometres per hour, and yet we are so fundamentally, somatically adjusted to this movement that it feels to us as though the earth is perfectly still.

If the earth were to suddenly stop—or even to reverse its motion—I’m sure that this novel experience would make itself palpably felt to every individual of every species.

But so long as our vision of infinite progress is bounded by the frame of our own lifetime, we have no real sense of where we came into the world on this curve, and its differential relationship to the point where we will exit it—let alone the shape of the exponential curve for all the generations who will experience it.

We are, in essence, unconscious to this imperceptible reality which is taking place at a level above the cognitive capacity of both temporally limited individuals and generations to consciously perceive.

I said in my previous post that the exponential nature of Coronavirus is not merely a visible symptom of the invisible relationship we have been having with exponential technological progress for the past 300 years, but that it is a visible symbol of it.

And at some level, to consciously grasp the vastness of a phenomenon which is operating unconsciously across centuries, at a multi-generational level, we will have to grapple with the symbol of it.

When I was a young film critic on the Gold Coast in the early naughties, an old American gentleman who lived not far from me gave me a book which has been the single most influential work of philosophy upon me as a writer.  It was a complete, unabridged edition of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918/1922).

Every culture, according to Spengler’s morphological view of history, has its ‘symbol’, the internal image that it is looking for in the external environment, and which accords with its deepest ‘soul-feeling’ for the true nature of the world.  For Western man (or ‘Faustian man’, as Spengler calls him), that image is a line, a gently curving arc which disappears at the vanishing point—the symbolic thrust into the infinite.

All the products of a culture are the material images of this symbol.  For Faustian man, the ogival arches of Gothic cathedrals—indeed, the cathedrals themselves—one-point perspective in oil painting, double-entry bookkeeping, long-range diplomacy and long-range warfare, trains, telegraphs and telephones—and even rockets—are all images of this symbolic thrust into the infinite, the belief that, in the furthest reaches of the cosmos, or in the indivisible heart of the atom, we will, eventually, touch the Face of God.

The quintessential cultural product of Faustian man is the discovery of differential calculus;—and indeed, without the discovery of how to plot the rate of change of a curve in the 17th century, NASA would not have been able to land a man on the moon in the 20th.

But Spengler—who predicted that such a soul-deep drive to parse out smaller and smaller differentials to the point of infinity would eventually result in the cataclysm of the First World War—saw that, by the 20th century, the culture of the West had ossified into a civilization—and that civilization was dying at a differential clip.

The symbol of the ‘gentle arc’ of infinite progress upon which it believed itself to be travelling no longer served it.  Instead, by the dawn of the 20th century, that gentle arc had become an exponential curve.

Spengler predicted a long and painful decline for the West in which people would progressively lose faith in this symbol which had underwritten all the spectacular progress they enjoyed.  But despite the decline into chaos, Spengler offered an olive branch of optimism: a new symbol, something that spoke more directly to the spirit of the time, to people’s intrinsic feeling about what the true nature of the world is at the moment of crisis, would spontaneously emerge to form a new culture.

In my view, a widespread, conscious understanding of the nature of the exponential arc we are travelling on is required to perceive this symbol, and the Coronavirus, our exponential bête noire, the archetypal shadow of all the poisonous virality we visit upon one another in a networked world, is the dark mirror which reflects the symbol of our time.

That symbol is the decentralized, distributed, horizontally scaling neural network.

The Millennial generation are no longer Faustian men, but are the inheritors of the Faustian soul-feeling for differentials, for the rate of change of a curve.  Their curve, however, is exponential, rising not in an arithmetic but in a geometric progression, just as a neural network compounds its computing power exponentially with the introduction of each new node to the network.

Physicist Theodore Modis said that (following the differentials established by the Faustians), ‘by the year 2025 we would be witnessing the equivalent of all the major milestones of the twentieth-century [i.e. electricity, automobile, DNA structure described, nuclear energy, WWII, space travel, Internet, human genome sequencing] in less than a week’.

The exploding exponential curve, the accelerating thrust towards the point of singularity as it manifests itself in the metastasis of networks, appears to me to be the symbol of the new culture which will emerge from this crisis—if we survive the differential cataclysm of societal disintegration and atomization.

This was the danger I alluded to in my previous post when I stated that viruses are symptomatic of the vulnerabilities endemic in the new, ‘network-centric’ mode of life we find ourselves in at the start of the 21st century.

These emergent, decentralized networks of self-organizing agents find their geometric efficacy hampered as they are forced to operate under the linear, arithmetic restrictions of hierarchical global legacy systems based on the infinite derivative extraction of finite resources.

These fragile, ailing global legacy systems are symbolic artefacts of the Faustian world-view.  They are examples of a systems paradigm called ‘Scientific Management’, which emerged in excelsis from the military and executive approach taken to winning the Second World War.

Scientific Management is about the efficiency of linear processes, and is therefore dependent upon hierarchy for its effective execution.  It was adapted, as a morphological archetype, to a mechanistic age based on linear processes and literal ‘chains of supply’.  Under the conditions of World War II, where Allied success depended upon maintaining a centralized supply chain, it is understandable that a Scientific Management approach to systems should then be templated for post-war use in organizations such as governments and businesses all around the world.

The Baby-boomers, as the last Faustian people pur-sang, enjoyed the benefits of the Scientific Management approach instituted by their parents.  And, as Jordan Hall has observed, the meme of ‘O.K., Boomer’ is a reaction of frustration on the part of Millennials to the deep, almost somatic intuition that the centralized, hierarchical application of Scientific Management to global systems which was templated after Bretton Woods is no longer functional in a decentralized, networked world order.

In contrast, the ‘network-centric’ paradigm is about managing the ‘flow’ of intangible information, and the intuitive emergence of knowledge creation by self-organizing systems.  It emerged as an alternative approach to Scientific Management in the 1990’s, with the wider and wider diffusion of networked computers in what we now call the ‘Internet’.

Network-centric systems such as the Internet—(which, as a cultural product, is surely to post-Faustian man what calculus is to Faustian man)—operate by means of exponentials: the computing power of a network follows a geometric progression in proportion to the number of nodes which plug into the network.

The Coronavirus is also a decentralized, distributed, horizontally scaling neural network like the Internet.  And as the ‘shadow symbol’ of our time, it is actually showing us how our global order needs to be restructured in a network-centric fashion to out-flank it and other infinite impact crises which operate geometrically rather than arithmetically.

The virus is actually telling us how we need to behave as a collective in order to out-flank it.

It is telling us how we have to reorganize our common life as a distributed, decentralized, networked collective in order to deal effectively with the common existential challenges we will face in confrontation with our global ‘soul-image’, the exponential curve as it manifests in complex adaptive systems.

When I saw, on Four Corners last week, the havoc that Jair Bolsonaro’s government is wreaking in the Amazon, I had to shake my head with exasperation—not because I’m so concerned environmentally, but simply because, once you’re aware of infinite impact risks and the interaction of exponential curves of existential crisis in complex adaptive systems, you clearly see that the savannization of the Amazon is but another particular example of the same general morphological ‘soul problem’ which Coronavirus is making visible to us in another manifestation.

The soul problem of our time is to consciously see and understand how the exponential curve interacts in networked systems.

What made me shake my head was the observation that Senhor Bolsonaro—as an old military man and a Boomer to boot—is failing to apprehend the symbol of our time: instead of taking a geometric, network-centric view of the Amazon and its interaction with global systems, he and his government are proceeding on the linear, arithmetic assumptions of Scientific Management.

In other words, this old warrior is taking a World War II approach to 21st century problems.

Daniel Robert Alexander of the University of Phoenix, writing as long ago as 2008, chose, as the subject of his PhD thesis, to ask military and business leaders what naturally occurring and human-induced crises they thought that they would confront in the years between 2015 and 2025, and what leadership competencies they thought they would need to combat these crises.

‘The problem is,’ Alexander wrote, ‘beginning in the second decade of the 21st century, executive decision-makers who do not have the leadership competencies necessary to generate appropriate responses to human-induced and naturally occurring crises will adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people within hours….’

The infinite impact tsunami of a human-induced health, global economic and global political crisis has been ‘selected for’ by two generations of leaders, post-World War II, who followed a systems paradigm based on Scientific Management.  And due to the exponential curve we are travelling on, the n-th order infinite impacts derived from this approach are now affecting lives and livelihoods at an exponential rate within hours.

It would be unfair to attach blame to the Greatest Generation for bandaging together a coherent global order based on the short-term efficiency of Scientific Management practices out of the shattered remnants of World War II, a fragile world they could delicately pass on to their children.  After all, as Spengler had predicted, by that stage, we were well beyond the civilizational curve.

Moreover, the children of the Greatest Generation had lost faith in the Faustian project, and rejected the fragile chalice they were being handed—although they did not disdain to suck the last remaining dregs of wine out of it.

And it would be unfair to attach inordinate blame for this predicament to the Baby-boomers, who, for most of their watch, have not had the fully networked technology, nor the native adjustment to it, to properly envision a network-centric rather than Scientific Managerial global order.

But when one considers that all the levers of power that might have attenuated this crisis in its early days, well before its exponential explosion, are in the hands of a generation who did not effect a peaceable transition to a network-centric model of distributed, decentralized governance when that technology became functionally available during their watch, but have instead compounded this crisis by tackling it arithmetically, with a Scientific Managerial approach, rather than geometrically, in line with its true nature, you can see, as Alexander says, that the Baby-boomers do not have the leadership competencies necessary to tackle this and similar crises.

The weakness in the network-centric model which makes it vulnerable to viral attack, both literally, as regards human lives, and metaphorically, in the online space, is due to the fact that, as our global legacy systems are centralized, linear and hierarchical, it must perforce operate under the moribund and restrictive global governance architecture of Scientific Management.

As Heather Heying has noticed, if data about the Coronavirus were distributed transparently in a decentralized global network, much of the ‘hard reboot’ economic response to this crisis which Baby-boomer leaders are pressing for—and the probable recession it will entail—could be mitigated.

The strength of the network-centric model lies precisely in the fact that it decentralizes the computing power necessary to evolve a geometric solution, delegating data to knowledge workers within the network, rather than ‘silo-ing’ data within linear, centralized, pyramidal structures where population-level decision-making is restricted to an élite.

This is because the network has a better ‘situational awareness’ than the Scientific Managerial élite: it has more points of contact with the reality of the situation.

Neural nodes positioned closer to the field of action—such as doctors and medical researchers—have a better sense of what resources are required and how they can be most effectively deployed than the Minister of Health who, as a single neural node, is charged with compassing all the complexity of the problem, evolving a population-level strategy, and executing on it.

As Alexander says in his thesis, ‘In a Network-Centric organization, decision-making is decentralized to mid and junior-level leaders who are positioned along the outer organizational boundaries where information flows in a timely manner.’

These mid-level leaders are equivalent to System Three in Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model: in a network-centric response to Coronavirus, knowledge workers such as senior doctors and medical researchers would have a large degree of ‘autonomic discretion’ to regulate the negative feedback of the virus, as they have access to real-time input information.

The rôle of political and executive leaders in the network-centric landscape, according to Alexander, is to provide ‘visionary guidance’ rather than to micro-manage a macro-crisis which it is beyond the cognitive ability of a hierarchical élite to handle—particularly if those leaders are part of a generation which cannot properly envision the symbolic image of the problem.

The Baby-boomers cannot properly see that all the escalating problems we have been facing in this century—from global terrorism to global climate change—are, like the Coronavirus, merely particular examples of a general morphological problem which can be summarized as ‘the geometric interaction of exponentials with networked systems’.

To communicate the visionary guidance needed for a networked global society to take concerted, innovative action on common problems, the torch needs to be passed to the generation who has a native adjustment to the concept of networks.

Milton and Jacqueline Mayfield found that a leader’s communication ability had a direct impact on the capacity of workers to think innovatively.  In Australia, we saw our Prime Minister signally fail to communicate to the network the dangers of taking a dip and a tan at Bondi Beach.  This is a manifest example of how the Scientific Managerial approach of hierarchical ‘broadcast’ to a decentralized network which no longer has respect for hierarchies is an incompetent leadership strategy.

In some sense, it’s difficult not to intuit that the draconian, paternalistic measures that are being taken by governments around the world are in significant part due to Scientific Management’s distrust of the network to effectively organize itself—their distrust, in short, of people’s capacity to think for themselves and innovate horizontally-scalable solutions.

It appears, in fine, as though they don’t trust people to ‘do the right thing’.

The invisibility of the Coronavirus, and its latency of manifestation, gives every appearance of being exploited by governing élites as a convenient tool to instil fear into networked populations they can no longer control by a Scientific Managerial approach on the one hand, and as a convenient excuse to stage a ‘bloodless coup’, wresting wholesale liberties from them on the other.

This prima facie appearance of a Faustian gambit to derive and extract whatever remaining value is still on the board from people under the guise of paternalistic ‘care’ for their health will have to be monitored by national populations very closely in the coming days and weeks as the game-theoretic dynamics of our collapsing Faustian order play themselves out.

It’s clear, as M. Baudelaire divined as early as the mid-nineteenth century, that no guarantee underwrites the myth of ‘infinite progress’ along a linear trajectory.

If we survive the unfolding infinite impact crises, the image of the gracefully curving line disappearing into the horizon will no longer serve us as a model of reality.

It is in the symbolic image of the neural network that we will find our way not forward, but upward.

As with my previous post on the Coronavirus, I am making the audio version of this article freely available via my Bandcamp profile, so if you find these insights and articulations valuable and you know someone else who you think would also derive value from them, I invite you to download it here and share it with your network.

Hawke street, West Melbourne, night, by Dean Kyte.
The view from quarantine: Hawke, Curzon and Miller streets, West Melbourne, night.

You can download this free audio version of the article below here.

In my last post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I introduced you to the concept of infinite impact risks: extremely low-probability events which have the potential to inflict incalculably devastating impacts upon human civilization.

In that post, I alerted you to the fact that global pandemics such as the Coronavirus represent one such infinite impact risk: if we define a civilizational collapse in this context as a dramatic decrease in human population, the Coronavirus, which compounds itself exponentially by means of a power law, certainly has the potential to inflict an incalculably devastating impact upon human civilization.

But the problem, which I alerted you to in the previous post, is that the Coronavirus is merely one of two or three infinite impact risks which have been triggered by the contagion.

The Coronavirus may be considered a ‘first-order’ infinite impact problem in that it unleashes a set of consequential issues which are directly health-based.

But, as I discussed at length in my previous post, all the consequential issues which have their locus of origin in the Coronavirus are not directly health-based.

The Coronavirus has triggered a ‘second-order’ infinite impact risk—the potential for a global systems collapse.  In my previous post, I explored how a directly health-based problem has had indirect consequences in the global financial system, leading to a sudden contraction in confidence which will doubtless have an impact on human civilization at least equal to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

Not all civilizational collapses through the actualization of infinite impact risks may be defined as a dramatic decrease in human population—although extremely high mortality is usually attendant upon infinite impact conditions.

With the second-order threat of a global systems collapse, we must necessarily consider the strain that the first-order threat of a global pandemic places upon our health-care systems, which in turn has consequential impacts upon mortality rates.

However, with systems such as the global financial system, the definition of ‘civilizational collapse’ would be more accurately stated as a dramatic decrease in the complexity of global systems extended across an extremely long timeframe—decades, generations, even centuries.

But there is at least a third order of infinite impact risks which may be triggered in the event of a second Great Recession—or even a second Great Depression.

In my previous post, I stated that much of the civil unrest we have seen growing and metastasizing in wealthy, developed, democratic western societies during the last decade has a significant locus of origin in the response (or lack thereof) of one complex system—the politico-regulatory—which largely abrogated its duty to reform another complex system—the financial—which was manifestly ailing.

Both systems, it ought to be stated, were—and are—in such dire need of reform that it is perhaps impossible to expect one terminally ill system to have the capacity to fix another.

But the net result of institutional inertia on the part of the politico-regulatory system which, in wealthy, developed, democratic western societies, is charged with representing ‘the people’ and the interests of ‘the people’, has been an obvious breakdown in trust of those mechanisms which, in a civilized society, underwrite the mutual exchange of value: intangible civility, politeness, and discourse, and tangible currency.

With regards to the financial system, if, under a policy of economic extraction of common wealth which leaves the majority of a nation’s population vulnerable to the predation of a well-heeled few, the people cannot depend upon the political system and the representatives it elects to defend them against such predations, it is reasonable to predict that trust in the system (which has already been significantly eroded over decades) will decline dramatically, and that other non-legal mechanisms of maintaining social order and cohesion in the populace (such as civility, politeness, and the intercourse of ideas through language) will similarly deteriorate.

The third-order ramifications which are implicit in the Coronavirus situation, therefore, are that not only is there the potential for a catastrophic loss of human life, due in part to the failure of global health-care systems, nor even that entangled global financial markets of value exchange will be completely shattered by the turbulence, but that civil societies, which are teetering in the most wealthy, developed and democratic nations, will become ‘ungovernable’, breaking down into widespread civil disorder—which in turn, as an indirect consequence, will compound the mortality unleashed by the virus.

If this extrapolation strikes you, dear readers, as rather far-fetched thinking, I beg you to return to the initial premiss: the Coronavirus is an extremely low-probability event, operating on an exponential curve, which has in fact actualized itself, and is compounding itself every few days.

We are now very much in train to experience first-order consequences of the Coronavirus—indeed, we are experiencing them—and we are even beginning to see, in the health-care, financial and political systems, second-order consequences which will themselves accelerate on an exponential curve if not checked early on.

Having laid out this preparatory line of reasoning, I now turn to the substance of my post.

As a writer, I have observed with obvious professional concern the escalating struggle over the issue of ‘free speech’ in our wealthy, developed, democratic western societies in the last few years.

Free speech has become one of the major eminences to be taken back—or bombed to oblivion—in the escalating skirmishes of anxiety which have possessed western people whose trust in the mechanisms of civil society were undermined completely by the Global Financial Crisis.

In the metastasis of popular thought, the debate over the relevance of free speech in civilized societies has been framed as really a debate over ‘kindness’: we ought to restrain ourselves, consider the effect of our words upon others before speaking, and certainly not say anything that is wilfully, maliciously unkind.

This is an admirable principle, and it is certainly a good rule of thumb to observe in the practical application of free speech.  Many of the objections which the advocates of ‘fair’ speech have to ‘free’ speech may in fact be resolved by the acknowledgment that speaking with wilful malice and not exercising as much discretion as possible (under the fluid circumstances of conversation) in tailoring one’s communication to the intended recipient is not, in fact, a legitimate exercise of free speech, but an abuse of the privilege which civil society generously affords us.

Understood in those terms, the in-principle objections to free speech which have lately arisen miss the mark of why we have the mechanism of free speech in civil societies in the first place.

The issue of ‘kindness’, of speaking ‘fairly’ rather than ‘freely’ to others, is only relevant as an operational courtesy—a kind of ‘Robert’s rule’ we all agree on as a procedural condition of entering into free discourse with one another.

There would be no incentive for you to speak freely with me if you knew I wasn’t going to make my absolute best effort to tailor my message fairly to you and to your personal circumstances, so as to achieve maximal comprehension on your side of the idea I am attempting to communicate to you.

And certainly we see communications between human beings regularly break down precisely because one or both parties choose to unsheathe the sword of unkindness which, previously, it had been taken as a unwritten rule that neither party would take out of their respective scabbards in discussing a given issue or topic.

The argument that has taken hold of the popular consciousness in western societies, viz.—that free speech is no longer ‘relevant’, that it is a mechanism and privilege—only patchily guaranteed by law in many western nations—which has largely been superseded by the mutual obligation to speak fairly and kindly to one another, has been predicated on examples which do not pose an existential threat to human life and civilization at scale.

The Coronavirus, as just such an existential risk with the potential for infinite impact, is an example of why free speech is, as a principle and mechanism of discourse, more important to human beings now than it has ever been.

And the escalation of the Coronavirus to the exponential level of a global pandemic which threatens at least three consequential orders of infinite impact upon human life and civilization is directly attributable to the repression of free speech.

The doctors in China who initially identified the novel virus utilized the mechanism of free speech to pool knowledge and share relevant information in the decentralized, distributed forum of a WeChat group.

This self-organizing collective intelligence was, in its vestigial form, what cybernetician Stafford Beer, in his book The Brain of the Firm (1972), describes as a ‘multinode’: a self-organizing neural network developed to solve a problem of considerable complexity which involves the inverse exponential reduction of that complexity until an actionable solution is reached;—in other words, until a vaccine for Coronavirus is developed.

But as we now know, the Chinese doctors who initially discovered Coronavirus, and who used their limited free speech to pool cognitive resources in the development of a solution to the problem, were stymied by the local and central government of China from communicating with each other.

Not only that, but they were prevented from doing their duty and communicating to the world the real and present danger of the virus at an early stage when it might have been contained on its exponential trajectory.

The WeChat multinode was banned, and the doctors were not merely disciplined by their institutions for communicating with each other, but they were arrested by the police for this exercise of free speech.

‘The police will investigate and punish with zero tolerance those illegal acts that fabricate and spread rumours and disrupt social order,’ a statement by the Chinese police read.

It is easy, therefore, to see in this non-abstract example which has had practical and material consequences for us all, what the ‘cost’ is for human life and civilization when we repress free speech.

The reason we have free speech as a mechanism of civil discourse is not, fundamentally, so that everyone can express his or her opinion.  The expression of opinion is a function of free speech.

The fundamental purpose of the mechanism is to pool cognitive resources by means of the most effective vector human beings have for the communication of complex ideas to one another: human language.

When we limit the ability of human beings to express their contingent intuitions—call them ‘opinions’, if you will—about the state of complex existential situations which are changing exponentially, we limit our ability to think collectively and develop solutions which may narrowly avert the rising certainty of infinite impact risks.

Obviously, extended the privilege to express what he knows and sees, an obligation is upon each individual in the multinode network to state his perceptions to the collective in as clear and mindful a way as possible, tailoring his speech in as far as he can to his listeners so that the greatest number of recipients of his message can accurately share his vision of events.  This is the unwritten responsibility of ‘fair speech’ which is attached to the right of ‘free speech’.

And I hope, as a writer, that you begin to intuit from the foregoing the concerns I perceive for us all in the diminishment of this fundamental value as exponential curves of existential crisis now begin to sharply rise.

I said in my last post that leadership in this situation will come from individuals who are experts in their respective disciplines giving their fullest gift of value to the collective, making an earnest effort in their relations to recouple the value they ask of others with the actual value they provide to them.

In other words, they will attempt, in peer-to-peer relationships, to reinstitute the fundamental value of ‘trust’ which institutions had gradually eroded prior to 2008, and have completely undermined since.

For a writer whose vocation and avocation is the vector along which free thought travels to other minds, the vector of human language, the existential seriousness of the situation we collectively face demands that I no longer keep my own counsel but say what I have been perceiving in the world for a very long time.

A careful, artful articulation of where the exponential trends in our human systems seem to be heading—and where they could go much faster under the infinite impact risk posed by Coronavirus alone—needs to be respectfully tendered for the consideration of the collective.

Free speech is the ‘checksum’ of human reasoning: just as you might submit mathematical calculations you have made to another person in order to check that you haven’t dropped a carry-over somewhere, we submit carefully articulated perceptions of what really appears to be going on to our peers via free speech in order to see if there is some communal agreement about the accuracy of the perceptions.

And if a critical mass of thinkers who are able to extrapolate far enough along the line all agree that something is awry in the global organization of systems and infrastructure we all depend upon for a civilized life, something which makes us existentially vulnerable to the threat posed by Coronavirus, it is time for the multinodal network to utilize the mechanism of free speech to fast-track solutions to these complex problems.

But the complexity of this ‘complex of problems’ is itself problematic in the rapid development of workable solutions.  The ‘simplicity’ of a visceral, existential crisis to a population of people appears to me to be proportionate to the ability of that population to co-operatively respond in an action which circumvents it.

It has been my observation that where a problem is simple, concrete, definable and defined, where sensual perceptions of what the problem actually ‘is’ can be effectively verified by a collective population via the checksum of free speech, then concerted, co-operative, collaborative action can rapidly be taken en masse.

The ability to perceive the event with one’s physical senses—and to perceive it with a degree of accuracy—is checked against communal, peer-to-peer perceptions, and where individual perceptions of the nature of the event are communally validated, then effective action to combat the existential crisis tends to rapidly occur.

Conversely, where, as in this instance, the problem is complex and abstract; where at least three orders of existential risk are involved; where the exponential has not yet grown to the perilous point where it is viscerally inescapable to all our senses; and where consensual meaning of the nature of the existential crisis cannot easily be arrived at, the ability for us to fast-track global solutions which might contain the existential problem before its exponential path makes it manifestly visible to us is difficult.

There’s a reason why we use viruses so frequently as a metaphor for the exponential way that information travels around the globe in our current way of life.

It is because viruses are symptomatic of the vulnerabilities endemic in this new, ‘network-centric’ mode of life—particularly as it operates under the fragile, ailing dynamics of our inherited, hierarchical global legacy systems.

The exponential nature of the virus is itself not merely symptomatic of, but eminently symbolic of the exponential nature of all of our declining Faustian systems, based on infinite derivatives of finite resources.

In 2008, we saw how purely imaginary ‘derivatives’, numbers completely decoupled from redeemable material currency, brought us to the edge of an abyss where total social breakdown and civilizational collapse may have rapidly ensued.  Our highly entangled network of global finance, being managed on a linear, hierarchical model, proved itself eminently vulnerable to the cascading effects of virality.

If free speech is currently a contested ground, it is because we are not ‘inoculated’ in this new, network-centric environment to the slings and arrows of poor ratiocination and wilfully malicious comment which can be hurled at us with exponential speed and exponential growth by people on the other side of the world whom we have never heard of.

These are the ‘externalities’ of social media discourse which arise from the same infinite derivative approach to the finite resources of human beings—their intelligence and capabilities for goodwill and good faith in each other.  Just as, in the environmental context, extractive actors have displaced and deferred externalities to the commons, actors who abuse the privilege of free speech on the Internet displace and defer intellectual and emotional externalities into the collective intelligence ecology, poisoning collective sensemaking by their ‘unkindness’.

But that is no reason to get rid of the mechanism of free speech.  On the contrary, the same exponential power laws which are currently driving a crisis in meaning that have imminent mortal and existential consequences for human civilization are the same exponential power laws which can be leveraged to pool our collective intelligence in a distributed, decentralized global systems network capable of finding consensual meaning to our common challenges.

So I’m submitting my reasoning to you, dear readers.  I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  That’s what comments at the bottom of blog posts are for—nice substantive exchanges of perspective.  In case you haven’t recognized the fact, blogs are multinodal networks of collective sensemaking too which are premised on an assumption of free speech, and if my concern seems out of order to you, I’d like to hear an alternative argument from you.

On the other hand, if you think the reasoning I’ve taken care to set forth in this article is sound, I invite you to share it with others in your multinodal networks who you believe will find value in these articulations.

I am also making the audio version of this article freely available via my Bandcamp profile, so if you know someone who would prefer to hear these thoughts expressed rather than read these words, I invite you to download it here and share it with your network.

Charles_Ponzi
The talented Mr. Ponzi: Charles Ponzi (1882-1949), dapper dandy and absolute scoundrel.

In 2017, I worked with my good friend Paul Forest on a submission he was preparing for the Global Challenges Foundation.  Through their New Shape Prize, the foundation was seeking ideas to reform global governance in order to ameliorate potential future threats to humanity.

You can read the paper that we wrote together here.

A document that we referenced significantly in framing our response was the Global Challenges Foundation’s own white paper, 12 Risks that threaten human civilisation: The case for a new risk category (2015).  The paper is the first report to explore a class of risks to human civilization ‘that for all practical purposes can be called infinite.’

The twelve risks which the authors explore in the report include the usual suspects, such as climate change, nuclear war, bad global governance and financial systems collapse.  They also include such ‘sci-fi’ scenarios as asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, and the threats to humanity posed by artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

And then there is the threat posed by global pandemics such as Coronavirus.

The authors found that in most financial assessments of risk, these twelve infinite-impact scenarios were rarely considered for two reasons.  On the one hand, they are so low in probability that their inclusion in forecasting would unduly unbalance calculations of risk.  On the other hand, if any one of these low-probability risks were to eventuate, their ultimate impact on human society would be incalculable.

But the problem is, that in many circumstances, if any one of these twelve infinite-impact risks were triggered, it would likely have a ‘knock-on’ effect, triggering other infinite-impact risks which would further compound an incalculably devastating scenario.

I think we begin to see this knock-on effect taking place with Coronavirus.  What began as a health crisis is now metastasizing into a financial crisis which could easily trigger a global systems collapse—in addition to killing significant swathes of the global population.

I do not think it is at all controversial to posit the view that the systems we currently rely upon as a global population—political, economic, educational, environmental—are not fit to withstand the common challenges we face.  These are ‘legacy systems’ which are not adapted to withstand the conditions of novel complexity and rapid rates of change that are now our ‘new normal’.

In the case of our global financial system, it is clear that, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, a necessary opportunity to reform a legacy system which had demonstrated the limits of turbulence it could withstand was lost.

It is also clear that much of the political and civil unrest which has metastasized in western democracies post-2008 may be traced to the institutional inertia inherent in one complex system—the politico-regulatory—making insufficient efforts to reform another complex system—the financial—with its own institutional inertia.

The mounting civil unrest manifesting in the body-politic of western democracies is the consequence, in large part, of an inchoate sense in ordinary people that the currency which lubricates civil exchange in society, decoupled from a material standard, is fundamentally bankrupt, and that the political and financial systems have conspired in a thoroughly extractive fiscal policy to vacuum out all remaining value.

Whatever the truth of this popular intuition, the politico-regulatory system which governs us finds itself in an uncomfortable position: having thoroughly eroded the trust of the populace it governs through its institutional inertia, its inability, and even unwillingness, to effect reform in the financial system, it now demands the people’s trust when another infinite-impact risk threatens in the public health system—one which will likely spill over into the financial system with more globally devastating results than we experienced in 2008.

Indeed, at the most immediately visible financial level, that of the everyday civil exchange of currency for goods, we begin to see how the public incivility which has progressively mounted since 2008, being accepted by the body-politic more or less as a ‘new behavioural normal’ in a world where all our systems are revealing their unfitness for present conditions, has begun to manifest itself as a breakdown in social order.

The instances of ‘panic buying’ in supermarkets and online profiteering reveal the fear of missing out—and the greed it rapidly metastasizes into—which underwrites the zero-sum dynamic of competition in capitalism.  In 2008, this zero-sum dynamic saw all the chips on the table accrue to the crooks of the financial system, while the little man was left bereft, feeling betrayed by the political regulators who were elected to defend his interests.

It’s easy to feel some measure of sympathy for these ordinary people, whose civility has been so eroded by the betrayal of civilized systems meant to safeguard the social order, and who act barbarically in supermarket aisles, possessed by a financial ‘panic’.

The last time this happened to these ordinary people, twelve years ago, their fear of missing out was justified.  One can understand why they would want to buy up all the stock of quotidian things it is in their financial power to acquire when the ‘Masters of the Universe’, who have exponentially more means at their disposal, could easily stockpile and profiteer for themselves, sucking the last penny out of these ordinary people.  Again.

For some years I’ve had an interest in the con game.  If you’re a student of human psychology (and of course, if you’re a writer, you ought to be), few fields of study reveal the immutable laws of social dynamics in more pronounced relief than the confidence game.

Having intuited that we now live in the fraudulent world of the ‘long con’, a world of ‘fakeness’ and kayfabery, of screens and surfaces upon which the counterfeit of life doesn’t even have to be good, it just has to be ‘believable’ by some sucker somewhere, I should have been less shocked to recently hear economist Eric Weinstein give the elegant articulation to what I had sensed and ought, with my interest in the classic con game, to have been able to define for myself: our global financial system is a global Ponzi scheme.

When the currency of civil exchange is decoupled from a material standard for which it can be redeemed, you introduce nice conditions for a Ponzi (or pyramid) scheme to take root.  I do not necessarily mean to suggest a return to the gold standard; rather, more abstractly, I am suggesting that the numerical, monetary value I demand of you must be attached to a commensurate value, whether in the form of a tangible good or intangible service, which you agree is exactly equivalent.

In wealthy western democracies, where a trend towards an ‘imaginary mathematics’ of value demanded decoupled from actual value provided began to take root in the 1970’s, the conditions for a society-wide pyramid scheme of extractive value-taking was established.  And with less and less new entrants (read: marks) into the pyramid available at the national level, the scheme had to be exported and globalized in order to remain viable.

Hence the blowback, in 2008, of ‘toxic derivatives’ and other insane feats of financial imagination based on a principle of extracting real monetary value from fictitious values decoupled from a material standard for which they could be redeemed.

I am sure I am not alone in noticing that in our extractive western ‘service economies’ (which are conspicuous in their lack, for the most part, of producing goods to which a real material value is equivalently attached) that the price demanded for common goods like bread and milk is far above the actual value which the consumer gets out of them.

Moreover, at the other end of the spectrum, in the service sector, we have institutions of higher education which extract monetary value from students in exchange for worthless credentials, ‘mortgaging’ future earnings which these institutions know are impossible for students to realize under the zero-sum dynamics of a mature pyramid scheme, and landlords who charge exorbitant rents for four walls and a roof simply because a desperate market will bear the value demanded.

Whether in the case of small goods or large services, the value of what is actually being provided is significantly less than the extractive value being demanded.

When you consider that the policy of extractive value under a competitive, zero-sum dynamic extends equally to small things in our society as to large, you can see how, under infinite-impact conditions, trivial items like hand sanitiser can easily command prices of ten or twenty times the real value which the consumer can obtain from them.

The infinite-impact risk of Coronavirus has exposed the infinite-impact risk of a global systems collapse which is immanently embedded in the competitive, zero-sum dynamic of our global financial system, based as it is on a principle of extractive value-taking radically decoupled from equivalent value-giving.

In my own life, the panic and sudden contraction of the market has immediately exposed me to risk on both the health and the financial fronts.

As some of you know, I housesit as a means of lowering my personal overhead.  Under the extractive conditions of our economy, I simply can’t afford to pay rent.  In exchange for a place to stay, I look after people’s homes and pets while they are away.

While I rarely get anything out of it in the way of money, I like housesitting because the value proposition is equivalent on both sides: I render a valuable service to homeowners for a given period of time, and for that given period I can live in some comfort.

Although, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, I’m technically a homeless person, housesitting is usually a pretty nice way to be homeless—when Coronavirus doesn’t create a double panic, causing people to cancel their travel plans at the last minute and the market for available housesits to suddenly contract.

So at the moment, I really am homeless, with no safe-haven where I can sequester myself in order to preserve my health.  Instead, I’m spinning my wheels at the dingy hostel I usually only bunk down at for a night or two between sits.

But (as you may infer from the extensiveness of the economic argument I have made in the foregoing) I am almost less concerned about my health than the immediate economic impact that Coronavirus is having upon my circumstances.

The non-financial value-exchange market of housesitting is a nice analogue for the sudden contraction we are beginning to see in our global financial markets.  When you’re aware of the number, gravity and cumulative likelihood of infinite-impact risks which threaten human civilization, you are prepared to accept that this global pandemic will, in all probability, trigger a global financial downturn at least equal to, but probably greater than the one we experienced in 2008.

Our global pyramid scheme of extractive value-taking barely withstood that turbulence, without the presence of a second infinite-impact risk to compound it.

It’s clear that a competitive, zero-sum dynamic of extractive value-taking radically decoupled from value-giving is not serving humanity well in the face of a class of risks which can cause both the total extinction of our species and our planet, and completely collapse the social order and infrastructure we depend upon for a civilized life.

Under such circumstances of crisis, it becomes clear that, in order to restore confidence in a marketplace where trust has been thoroughly eroded by the extractive assumptions of zero-sum competition, the risks we collectively face become an opportunity to reform our global financial system by recoupling the value that we ask of others to the value we are prepared to offer them.

Lately, in these times of crisis and panic, I’ve been re-reading David Deida’s The Way of the Superior Man (1997).  It’s not a well-written book by any means, but it’s one of the few I carry everywhere in my suitcase.  Sometimes I need to be reminded of what it is to be ‘a man’—which is almost more a vocation, an ideal standard of conduct to aspire to, than a biological condition of what you’re packing in your pocket.

Truth-telling, the integral alignment of thoughts, words and deeds, firmness of will, determination in purpose, decisiveness in action—these are just some of the virtues which Deida attributes to the ‘superior man’, the person who embodies the ideal standard of the masculine principle.

A superior man does not withdraw or close in upon himself in times of crisis such as those we are experiencing, says Deida.  He maintains an open heart in the face of grave challenge and continues to offer his fullest gift—the unique value which only he can provide—to others, living at what Deida calls his ‘real edge—his place of fear.

‘Your edge,’ Deida says, ‘is where you stop short, or where you compromise your fullest gift, and, instead, cater to your fears.’

I know I haven’t been playing my real edge lately, giving fully of the unique value I can provide to others with my gift for words.  The double risk to health and wealth which Coronavirus poses is an existential opportunity to do my small part in the reform of how we do business with each other, providing commensurate value of service in exchange for monetary value.

For confidence to be restored in a market where extractive value-taking has thoroughly eroded public confidence, leadership—the masculine virtue sine qua non—needs to be shown by individuals who don’t buy into the fraudulent zero-sum assumptions of our legacy economic system.

These individuals will demonstrate leadership in their own small fields of expertise—the places where they can give their fullest gifts to others—and they will, in their personal economic conduct, make earnest efforts to recouple the value they demand in trade to the actual value they provide to others.

In one of his homilies, Deida invites you to describe your edge with respect to your career, and if I’m honest with you, at the moment, my edge of fear is this:

Finding myself temporarily homeless and with no immediate way to protect my health, my small business based on providing my gifts as a writer, editor and desktop publisher to other small businesspeople, to academics, and to other writers and creatives is so fragile that it could easily fold up under present economic conditions by the end of the month, and I would be on the street and without a cent.

Equally, I fear that, if I offer my true gift in the open-hearted way that Deida prescribes, what I offer, under the prevailing extractive economic assumptions, won’t be valued by others—that I will meet a wall of silent indifference which leads to the street.

That’s my edge right now, and as Deida says, there’s nothing dishonourable about admitting your fear as a man—provided you’re prepared to lean into your edge of fear and play it.  ‘… [A] fearful man who still leans into his fear, living at his edge and putting his gift out there, is more trustworthy and more inspirational than a fearful man who hangs back in the comfort zone….’

If I learned anything from my days of doing Daygame, the golden lesson is this:  When things are not are not going well for you in life, your first order of business should be to see where and how you can offer value to others.  Nourish your existing relationships by pre-emptively offering value, and seek to form new relationships by pre-emptively offering value.

So this is my offer of value to you, dear readers:  I’m in pretty desperate need for ready cash to get myself into a safe environment and stabilize my business during this contraction of confidence.  And I’m prepared to offer you value for value.

Times are going to be tough for us all during this downturn, but narratives will still need to be skilfully told, and images will still need to be manicured and managed.

Do you require bespoke writing, editing, graphic design and desktop publishing services?  Do you know somebody who does?  I would sincerely appreciate any introductions and recommendations you can offer, either in the comments below, or via my Contact form.

During this period of financial contraction, I’m going to be lowering my rates to take better account of the real financial circumstances in which clients—old and new—find themselves.  So if you’re new to my Bespoke Document Tailoring and Artisanal Desktop Publishing services, this is an opportunity for you to experience the genuine value I seek to provide businesspeople, academics, and other writers and creatives by giving my fullest gifts to them, with some absorption of the risk on my side.

In any event, if you are genuinely sincere in wanting to work with me and provide value for value on your side, you will find me very willing to negotiate an appropriate service which is optimal to your budget, no matter how modest.

If you would like to experience the difference of working intimately with a wordsmith who is determined to provide you with equivalent value in service to the price we ultimately negotiate, one who will take on your concerns as his own, I invite you to contact me directly by calling (+61) 0423 296 927, or by filling in this Contact form.

And yes, I’m very open to working with overseas clients.  One of the few advantages of the Coronavirus situation is that it facilitates remote collaboration, and with the decline in the Australian dollar, if you’re based in the States, Canada, Britain, Europe or New Zealand, it’s a very advantageous time for you to explore how I can bring value to your business, academic, or creative writing via online collaboration.

This has been a long and very different post from the ones you usually expect of me, dear readers.  I obviously felt some trepidation about speaking so baldly about my own situation, but I felt even more trepidation about setting forth a long and complex intuition about the political and economic state of the world at the moment.

You’ve seen a very different side of me from your ebullient Melbourne Flâneur who waxes lyrical on flânerie and art.  l hope this very different kind of post has brought value to you in your own evolving perspectives on the crises we are facing, and I look forward to engaging with your thoughts and intuitions in the comments below.

Uniacke court, rainy evening, by Dean Kyte
Uniacke court, rainy evening. Shot on Kodak T-MAX 400 film.  Shutter speed: 60.  Aperture: f.2.82.  Focal range: infinity.

Achtung!  The track above is best heard through headphones.

It’s been a while since I have uploaded to The Melbourne Flâneur what I call an ‘amplified flânograph’, an analogue photograph taken in the course of my flâneries around Melbourne with a third dimension added to it—a suitably atmospheric prose poem read by yours truly.

I think you will agree that voice and soundscape add a dimension of depth to this image of Uniacke court, a laneway off Little Bourke street between Spencer and King streets famous to aficiónados of Melbourne street art.

It’s one of Melbourne’s ‘where to see’ places—and no more so than when it’s raining.

The image above was not my first attempt to capture Uniacke court on black-and-white film at a very specific time under particular weather conditions.

This shot, taken on a rainy Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. during winter last year, was the second-to-last exposure on my roll of Kodak T-MAX.  It was something of a miracle, because not only did I want to capture this image on that day, at that time, under those conditions, but the laneway acts as service entrance for a number of bars and restaurants, so you have to judge the timing of the shot very well: Uniacke court tends to fill up with cars around 6:00 p.m., blocking the wonderful mural by Melbourne street artist Deb on the back wall.

I had attempted to nab the same shot less than two weeks earlier.  Knowing that I had only six shots left on the roll, and that it was unlikely that I would get my dream day, dream time, dream weather conditions, and a conspicuous absence of heaps heaped up in the court, I had come past on a Thursday evening, around 5:40.

Wrong day, wrong time, no rain, and plenty of jalopies jungling up the laneway all equalled a wasted shot I squeezed off reluctantly.

But when my dream day, time and weather conditions rolled around ten nights later, you can bet your bippy I hustled my bustle up Spencer street P.D.Q. against a curtain of driving rain to clip the redheaded cutie holding court over Uniacke court.

And only one car to mar my Hayworthian honey’s scaly embonpoint!

The short ficción I’ve added in the audio track accompanying the photograph is the feeling of that image, the feeling of ineffable mystery which initially drew me to Uniacke court and caused me to make a mental note that some fragrant essence of the place makes itself manifest on rainy Sunday evenings at 6:00 p.m., and that I ought to make the effort to haul out my ancient Pentax K1000 at precisely that time, under precisely those weather conditions, and try and capture that ethereal, ectoplasmic essence on black-and-white emulsion.

Like those weird ellipses in David Lynch’s films, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what dark aura I found emanating from the fatal femme’s breast.

In a recent post, I called flânography ‘the poetry of photography, and described it as an attempt to photograph the absent, the invisible, the unspeakable energy of places.  In many ways, the addition of an expressly poetic description of the laneway and the construction of an ambient soundscape intended to immerse you in my experience is the attempt to ‘amplify’ that absent, invisible, ‘indicible’ dimension of poetry I hear with my eyes in Uniacke court.

Last week I ran into Melbourne photographer Chris Cincotta (@melbourneiloveyou on Instagram) as he was swanning around Swanston street.  In the course of bumping gums about my passion for Super 8, Chris said that, while he had never tried the medium, he was all for ‘the romance’ of it.

Knowing his vibrant, super-saturated æsthetic as I do, I could see, with those same inward eyes of poetry which hear the colourful auras of Uniacke court, how Chris would handle a cartridge of Kodak Vision3 50d.  And that inward vision of Chris’s vision was a very different one indeed to my own.

That flash of insight got me thinking about the way that qualitatively different ways of seeing, based in differences of personality, ultimately transform external reality in a gradient that compounds, and how, moreover, two individuals like Chris and myself could have developed radically different visions of the same subject: Melbourne.

It could be argued that, if you spend as much time on the streets as Chris and I do, the urban reality of Melbourne could rapidly decline for you into drab banality.  But for both of us, Melbourne is a place of continual enchantment, though I think the nature of that enchantment is qualitatively different, based in fundamental differences of personality.

The individual’s artistic vision encompasses a ‘personal æsthetic’, based in one’s personality, which dictates preferences and choices in media which compound as they are made with more conscious intent and deliberation.

Where Chris prefers the crisp clarity of digital, which imparts a kind of hyper-lucidity and sense of speedy pace to his photos, I prefer the murky graininess of film—still compositions which develop slowly.

While Chris tends to prefer working in highly saturated colour that is chromatically well-suited to highlight Melbourne’s street art, I work exclusively in black-and-white.

And while I know that Chris labours with a perfectionist’s zeal in editing his photos so that the hyper-lucid clarity and super-vibrant colours of his images faithfully represent his vision of Melbourne, I prefer to do as little editing as possible, working with the limitations and unpredictability of film to try and capture my vision of Melbourne ‘in camera’ as much as possible.

If I were to offer an analogy of the æsthetic difference created by these cumulative preferences and choices in equipment, medium, and attitude to editing, I would say that Chris’s photographs feel more like the experience of Melbourne on an acid trip, whereas my own pictures give the impression of a sleepwalker wandering the streets in a dark dream.

The city is the same, but the two visions of it, produced by these cumulative technical preferences and choices, are very different.

But where does the vital æsthetic difference come from?

Ultimately, the personal æsthetic which dictates different preferences and choices in equipment, media, and attitudes to editing are couched in two different artistic visions of the same subject, and these inward visions produce two radically different ways of physically seeing Melbourne.

With his crisp, colourful, action-packed compositions, Chris, I think, has a very playful, ludic vision of Melbourne: he sees it as an urban wonderland or playground.

And this is perfectly consonant with his gregarious, extroverted character.  For those of us who are fortunate to know him, Chris is as much a beacon of light diffusing joyous colour over Melbourne as his own rainbow-coloured umbrella, and I notice that he effortlessly reflects the colourful energies of everyone he talks to.

If I am ‘the Melbourne Flâneur’, I would describe Chris Cincotta as—(to coin a Frenchism)—‘the Melbourne Dériveur’: his joyous, playful approach to exploring the urban wonderland of Melbourne with the people he shepherds on his tours seems to me to have more in common with Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive than with my own more flâneuristic approach.

Being an introvert and a lone wolf on the hunt for tales and tails, while I’m as much a ‘romantic’ as Chris, it’s perhaps little wonder that the ‘Dean Kyte æsthetic’ should be very different, more noirish as compared to Chris’s Technicolor take: the romance of Melbourne, for me, is dark, mysterious, and I see this city in black-and-white.

Melbourne is not a ‘high noir’ city like American metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles.  Rather, there is a strain of old-world Gothicism in Melbourne which, when I sight sites like Uniacke court through my lens, reminds me more of the bombed-out Vienna of The Third Man (1949), or the London of Night and the City (1950).

And if Chris is a beacon of colourful light to those of us who know him, the ambiguity of black-and-white is perhaps a good metaphor for my character, from whence my personal æsthetic proceeds.

If there is a ‘Third Man’ quality to Melbourne for me, it’s perhaps because there’s a touch of Harry Lime in me—the rakish rogue.  Like Lime, whose spirit animal, the kitten—an ‘innocent killer’—discovers him in the doorway, you might find me smirking and lurking in the shadows of a laneway, revelling, cat-like, in the mysterious ambience of ‘friendly menace’ in the milieu, what I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.

If you haven’t checked out Chris Cincotta’s work on Instagram, I invite you to make the comparison in styles.  It’s fascinating to see how two artists can view the same city so differently.  And being so generous with his energy, I know Chris will appreciate any comments or feedback you leave him.

Here’s a newsflash for those of you who have not been keeping up to date with the hourly drama that is the weather in Melbourne: it’s been a bit funny lately.

Melbourne is perhaps the only city in the world where the question, ‘What will I wear today?’ is an existential dilemma.

We’ve been having the ‘worst of both worlds’ these past couple of weeks: it’s been both muggy and cold, which means that if you dress for the humidity, you freeze, and if you dress for the rain, you sweat.

That was the uncomfortable dilemma I was living with when Melbourne photographer Tommy Backus (@writes_with_light on Instagram) caught me on the steps of the Nicholas Building in Flinders lane last week.

I first met Tommy in Frankston, where he took some handsome portraits of me, which you can check out here. It was a pleasure to run into him again, and a greater pleasure still to receive a compliment from him on my fashion. I had just come from a business meeting, and before that I had been cursing the ‘bloody Melbourne weather’: cold and rainy as it was, it was too damn muggy to be wearing a three-piece wool suit.

Such is the price of being a dandy, or ornate dresser, in Melbourne: your Melbourne Flâneur, dear readers, suffers on the crucifix of fashion.

You will doubtless recall that when I set forth my thoughts on what is a flâneur, I said that, in addition to being a pedestrian and the keenest possible observer of the æsthetic qualities latent in the urban environment, the flâneur must necessarily be a dandy.

This was the most controversial premise in my argument, but the logic was straightforward and sound: Charity, I said, begins at home, and a man who does not regard himself first and foremost as a worthy æsthetic object of investigation is highly unlikely to bring to bear that acute perspicacity to æsthetic detail in the external world which I attribute to the flâneur if he does not first of all attend to the details of his own person.

But let us not be in confusion about the dandy philosophy. As M. Baudelaire cautions us: ‘Dandyism is not, as many people who have hardly reflected on the subject appear to believe, an immoderate taste for clothes and material elegance. These things, for the perfect dandy, are merely symbols of the aristocratic superiority of his spirit.’

As Philip Mann discerned in his book The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), at heart, æsthetically-minded men who are accursed with the ‘pathology’ of dandyism seek to square the circle of life and art, of form and content, to unify self with the meaning that self creates. The dandy, says Mann, seeks ‘to become identical with himself’—that is, to become identical with his ideal of personality by applying the rigorous æsthetic of a work of art to his own life.

Thus, it is not difficult to see (as per Baudelaire) that the dandy’s outer person may be the canvas of his mind, and that the object of the ‘art’ of dandyism is to integrate the wood of character with the veneer, the outer being a platonic reflection of the inner.

But again, let us not fall precipitately into the error which would appear (superficially at least) to be the next logical steppingstone in our analysis of the dandy life: the dandy is not a ‘fop’.

Though he is androgynous by his very nature, arrogating to himself the feminine privilege of display, there is nothing ‘effeminate’ about the dandy.

As Beau Brummell—the first dandy, and an implacable foe of the kind of ‘peacockery’ in men’s fashion which he set himself to reform in the early nineteenth century—presciently divined, the essence of masculine beauty is of a ‘moral’ (that is, a spiritual) variety, in contradistinction to the physical quality of feminine beauty, and lies in masculine virtues, to wit:—simplicity, rectitude, honesty, discrimination, rigour and sobriety.

Along these classic lines, Brummell designed for himself the first modern ‘suit’—the perfection of masculine costume which, although it has been endlessly tinkered with, modified and refined since his day, will never be superseded by any masculine costume anywhere in the world, precisely because it gives the perfect outward form to the inner, spiritual qualities we associate with that being we call a ‘man’.

The dandy, in seeking to ‘become identical with himself’, identical with his ideal of personality, is not the epitome of masculine beauty because his clothes give him some special ‘aura’ he would otherwise lack, the way that dress, lingerie, makeup and jewellery heighten a woman’s allure and dissimulate her flaws; it is rather because he is at his ‘most transparent’—his most naked, even—when he is fully and perfectly dressed.

Any woman will tell you (by her behaviour, if not by her words) that the thing all women find most attractive in men is not their confidence, but their congruence—the transparent alignment of thoughts, words, and actions.

‘Honesty’ is a closely related quality in the constellation of masculine virtues which comprise congruence, and likewise, any woman will tell you (probably by her words, and certainly by her behaviour) that the thing she finds least attractive in a man is any whiff of ‘dishonesty’, any lack of transparent congruency in his thoughts, words and actions.

And it certainly does not go without saying that in adhering with especial scrupulousness to the rigorous and merciless rules of correct masculine attire which Mr. Brummell was the first to articulate, that a man cannot depart from the masculine virtues of simplicity, rectitude, discrimination and sobriety and still consider himself to be a dandy.

In other words, in contradistinction to what ‘many people who have hardly reflected on the subject appear to believe’, there is no place for the garish or the gaudy in the dandy’s wardrobe. Display for its own ebullient sake (that is, to ‘draw attention to oneself’) is exclusively a quality of the feminine.

The dandy does not ‘seek attention’. Rather, attention naturally finds him;—for we are always attracted to someone who shines with the aura of self-knowledge—including the knowledge of the ‘beauty’ of his own being, which he wears proudly, honestly, transparently for all the world to see, with modest confidence.

We are, in fine, attracted to anyone who gives evidence of being congruent with himself, for such a man, we know, is not easily found, and if he gives evidence of this, it is likely that he is in possession of other masculine virtues, such as honesty, reliability, dependability.

What distinguishes the dandy, however, from even the man who is very well-, very correctly, dressed with respect to ‘the details’ of his deportment, is that the dandy transcends the rules.

When anybody asks me, I tell them that if I were to define my personal style, it would be to say that I am ‘outrageously conservative’ in my approach to fashion.

That is, while I follow the rules scrupulously, as in the photograph above, some hint of my Aquarian nature always escapes the repressive, saturnine influence of Capricorn in me, whether that’s in the fine rainbow pinstripe of the otherwise sober black suit; the almost perfectly complimenting blue floral shirt and tie; or the bottle-green snapbrim Fedora, the Akubra I wore as a flâneur in Paris, with its jaunty red feather.

While perhaps outrageous in themselves, taken as an ensemble, they contribute to an effect of conservatism so extreme that they transcend sobriety in a rather unique way, one which conveys (if I am correctly interpreting the compliments I tend to get from people) the intense creativity and originality I bring to my work as a writer, which is always tempered by my equally intense adherence to precision, correctness, tradition, and ‘bonne forme’.

That is the vital æsthetic difference, the piquant je-ne-sais-quoi of exotic quality I bring to the bespoke writing, editorial and publishing concerns of my clients: like a tailor labouring in a noble and venerable tradition, they know that I will not only follow ‘the rules of good form’ scrupulously, but that, as an irrepressible artist, I will innovate to an unexpected degree within the very narrow latitude of creativity those rules allow to create a document unique to them.

What thinketh you, dear readers? Is the world ripe for a resurgence of dandyism—of ‘beautiful men’ who say and think and do in alignment with the highest versions of themselves? And do you agree that attention to the æsthetic essence of oneself is a cornerstone to being a flâneur?

I’m interested, as always, to contend, defend and generally converse with you in the comments below.

And I recommend you also check out Tommy Backus’s photographs on Instagram. As I said to him last week, it was nice to be able to put names to some of the kooky characters I’ve clocked around town.

It’s a bit cheeky, but in today’s post, I’m sharing with you the same video I posted on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog last week.  The same, that is, but different.

I just got back some Super 8 footage I shot in Bendigo from the folks at nano lab, Australia’s small gauge film specialists.  At the time I wanted to get the video above online, the reel of Kodak Tri-X was at their lab in Daylesford undergoing ‘magic’.

So I sneakily put some ‘placeholder’ shots into the intro and outro which I hoped I would be able to later replace with some Super 8 footage—if it was any good.

Tri-X, as Kodak’s signature black-and-white film stock, is very difficult to wrangle.  You can get some absolutely magical shots with Tri-X, but it doesn’t peer into the shadows very well, so you have to be either very good or very lucky—or both—to get consistently good results from it.

I’m not that good.  In Bendigo, I was experimenting with the manual exposure settings on my trusty Minolta XL 401 Super 8 movie camera, so much of what was on the reel came back overexposed.

But when I dragged the gamma way down on the footage, I got some lovely shots of the Venus Pudica in Rosalind Park and the Alexandra Fountain—the more so, I think, for their being so grainy.  Brief as they are, I think they add a nice bit of contrast to the digital footage in the video, and I’d love to hear your reactions.

People are always a bit nonplussed when they discover I’m so hipped on Super 8.  As I was finishing up the shot of the Talking Tram trundling into Pall mall, a guy came up to me and asked me why I was shooting on film—as if I was breaking some bourgeois law of conformity.

‘Most people are using digital,’ Constable Plod of the Conformity Police complained as he signed my citation.

Shooting on Super 8 is indeed an expensive hobby, but there’s a qualitative æsthetic difference to Super 8 which sends me.

In my previous post, I stated that flânerie is an ‘altered state’: the invisible poetry which hovers behind objects in the urban environment is made visible through the flâneur’s ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens,’ as M. Rimbaud puts it.

And in my recent post on flânography, I argued that this artform I had coined was the ‘poetry of photography’.  I declined in that post to set forth my thoughts on the relative merits of analogue and digital photography vis-à-vis flânography, but a discussion of Super 8 seems like a good place to examine that distinction.

For me, the medium of film—and particularly Super 8—goes much further than digital photography and videography can in manifesting that ‘invisible poetry of the visible’ I talked about in the earlier posts.  The chemistry of film grain does something magical that pixels cannot do in making that elemental molecular and atomic substrate vibratingly visible.

You can see that most pointedly in the overexposed shots I inserted into the video, where raking down the gamma reveals the Venus Pudica and the statues of the Alexandra Fountain as hardly anything more than dense constellations of buzzing black and grey atoms on a white field.

For me at least, the ‘murkiness’ of film is more like how I actually see and experience the world—a kind of ‘darkness at noon’.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got 20/20 vision the same as you.  But those of you who have read Dean Kyte’s books will know that they’re a bit of a ‘trip’: even the most banal and quotidian experience erupts for yours truly (c’est moi in the snappy chapeau) in recursive dimensions of abstract meaning, and much more than digital videography, Super 8 has the ‘look’ of my life—the flâneurial experience of groping mole-like through the dazzling, sun-bright darkness of the blindingly obvious.

There’s a high-resolution quality to the experience of flânerie which the low-resolution quality of Super 8 paradoxically matches in a Baudelairean correspondance.

If you compare the video footage to the Super 8, I don’t think we will be in too much disagreement when I say that the digital footage looks more ‘like’ the things depicted in Bendigo than the film footage, the same way a realist painting of a person, tree or building looks more ‘like’ the subject than an impressionist version of same.

But when I got my Super 8 footage back from nano lab, the black-and-white flâneurial footage looked more like how I remembered Bendigo to look from the distance of a week and a few hundred kilometres.  There is not that dead, flat ‘factuality’ which raw digital footage has, but a reconstitutivebeing’ in film footage—as though it’s happening all over again, but for the first time.

As a medium, Super 8 has a look more like our memories—fuzzy, fragile, juddery and inexpertly framed.  And shot on Tri-X, even cars and people look different when rendered through the rheumy eyes of Super 8: a scene as modern for me as two weeks ago now looks like it took place in a distant past.

In the altered state of flânerie, you are aware of the density of things, but also of their porous transience, and somehow the fragility of Super 8 captures the ‘eternality of the ephemeral’.  You can see the grand buildings of Bendigo’s Charing Cross passing behind the Talking Tram in the footage: these magnificent buildings have lasted for over a century, but they too will eventually fall into dust.

As Céline (Julie Delpy) says to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise (1995) as they regard a poster for a Seurat exhibition: ‘I love the way the people seem to be dissolving into the background. … It’s like the environments, you know, are stronger than the people.  His human figures are always so – transitory.’

I feel the same way when I look at the shots I took of the Venus Pudica: the tenacious endurance of inertia in marble sculpture—and also its fragility—are equally manifest when you see the outlines of this goddess fading in and out with the buzzing, porous granularity of changing sunlight registered so subtly and yet so roughly and approximately on Super 8 film.

Last year I asked and answered the question, ‘Are there flâneur films?’, and my conclusion was that the flâneur in film is more a quality of certain films themselves—something in the way they are shot and edited—than a human character or presence within them—prototypical flâneur movies like Before Sunrise to the contrary.

Despite the expense of shooting on film, Super 8 seems to me to be the perfect medium to produce such a ‘flâneur cinema’ or ‘cinema of flânerie’ precisely because the medium itself is attuned to this more impressionistic way of seeing the world, and because the camera itself is lightweight, discreet and versatile—ideal for a dandy engaged in curious æsthetic espionage.

As Jeff Clarke, the CEO of Kodak, has rightly observed, we—human beings—are analogue too; we’re not digital.

Our bodies and the world we live in are not made up of pixels.  We’re not reducible to passels of ‘data’.  It’s meet that we should see the world with the same messy, organic frame as Super 8.

And it’s the handcrafted, artisanal experience of working with film, working with something as real and tangible and fragile as myself, that really sends me when it comes to shooting on Super 8.

I feel a sense of vital involvement, my total being is engaged when I work with film.  It’s the rapport of one physical, analogue being working with another.  And this vital engagement of energies between real, living things is one of the qualitative æsthetic differences of working with film.

If I could have said one thing to Constable Plod which explained why I was using film instead of digital to capture the shot of the Talking Tram, it would have been that.  As a ‘film maker’, I felt like I was actually ‘making’ something which required art, craft and skill to accomplish.

There’s no particular ‘skill’ required in digital photography or videography, but using film demands the development of skill—particularly the skill of patience, which is hardly required in our HD, ADD world where you can carelessly click a pic with your phone.

I had to wait twenty minutes at the corner of Pall mall and Mitchell street to ultimately get the shot of the Talking Tram passing through Charing Cross.  I had my camera set up on my dinky tripod, my settings checked, double-checked, and triple-checked.  I had tested the tension of the pan lever several times and the position of the spirit level.  I had all my senses on high-alert for the least spectre of a tram shimmering in the furthest distance of that broilingly hot day—all so I would have enough time to get set for it when it passed into frame.

And one of the upsides of working with film is that I think my videography has benefited enormously from the development of the skills demanded by film.  I’m much more deliberative in my framing and composition when I set up digital camera, and much more attentive to the qualities of light.

It’s over to you, chers lecteurs.  What do you think?

Do you agree with ‘us analogue purists’ that film is far superior to digital in every æsthetic respect, or would you rush to the fray to defend ‘the way of the future’ against the infidel Luddites?

Are you interested in getting into film?  Were you once into film and ‘went digital’—and would you like to go back?

I look forward to having a lively discussion with you in the comments below.

And if you would like to look at all the raw footage I shot on Super 8 in Bendigo (including some alternate takes which didn’t make the cut in the video above), I’ve posted that below.  Nothing fancy, no music or sound effects, just the facts, ma’am.