Cherchez la femme: In this prose poem, Dean Kyte visits Chinatown, meditating on its exotic mystery.

The one compromised pleasure that a man used to moving his gams as energetically as yours truly can take in the current, prison-like atmosphere of Melbourne is that forced confinement focuses the flâneur’s gaze inward.

Like Xavier de Maistre, who, in Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), takes the reader on a six-week walking tour around the room of a young officer under arrest in Turin, during the Melbourne lockdown, I’ve been taking flâneries through the footage I’ve shot in the course of my travels.

Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the product of one such prostrate promenade undertaken in bed as I flick through the files on my laptop.

One tires, after a time, of the narrow view afforded onto King street, and in such a blank, impersonal setting, eyes which are used to scanning the streets for occult meaning turn inward. Except in Paris, my introverted intuition has never been stronger than during this time: forced to look within myself for the visual stimulation I would usually seek externally in walking through the world, these days when I write or fool around with my old footage, new syntheses of memories and dreams emerge, new crystallizations of thought and image kaleidoscopically collide in miraculous revelations.

The prose poem I intone in the video above, “Chinatown(s)”, is one such synthesis of dream and memory, one such crystallization of thought and image.

I shot the raw footage on a rainy night in Little Bourke street a couple of years ago. Melbourne’s Chinatown is a particularly photogenic sight to see on nights when it’s raining hard, the red lanterns and the neon signs reflected viciously and viscously by the treacherous slate sidewalks.

Initially, I shot the footage with the intention of using it as the basis for one of the interactive menus on my latest Blu-ray Disc, Cinescritos: Writings in Image & Sound (2018). I set the camera up at a particular site in Little Bourke street which was as near as I could recall to the exact spot where I had tied into an attractive-looking dame whose life—and body—had briefly intersected with mine.

The dark and teary sky weeping on the camera lens, creating kaleidoscopic aureoles around the lanterns, had been intended to silently suggest what that spot means to me now.

But in looking back at the footage from the distance of two years hence, I suddenly recalled that this spot in Chinatown was significant to me for another brief but flaming intersection of bodies and lives: A deux pas behind the camera is Tattersalls lane, where, on another rainy day even further back in time, I had been lugged by a girl I had just as randomly picked up at my ‘office’ in Centre place.

One of the fun things for couples to do in Melbourne is to take a dérive around the city on a rainy winter’s day. Clinging to each other, flâneur and flâneuse, we took a random randonnée in the vicinity of Chinatown, escalating each other all the while.

In the course of our dérive, she steered me into Section 8, one of the more unusual Melbourne bars. It’s a popup bar cobbled together out of shipping pallets and packing containers in a carpark off Tattersalls lane. It’s not an ideal intimacy venue, but on an overcast, drizzly weekday morning when no one else is game to sit outside, you can end up going pretty far with a girl at Section 8—if the vibe between you is right.

We ended up going very far indeed that day—though not, the management will be relieved to hear, at Section 8. The place where she parted from my arms, a block east of Chinatown, was even more exposed than that, and again, the gentle rain that fell upon us as we inhaled each other’s kisses would seem, an eternity of minutes later, like a curtain of tears before my eyes as I watched her walk away forever.

I wrote in another post that I feel, after all my aventures, like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’: every femme is fatal for me, pumping a slug in my heart. And as I watched this one exit behind the curtain of tears that Melbourne lowered over the back-alley stage of our brief encounter, the mystery of the real, the way that what is external to us seems somehow to uncannily reflect the inner landscape of our consciousness, was an appropriate metaphor to mirror my perplexity at her départ.

So there is, as I evoke in the prose poem above, a sense of ‘oneiric encounter’, of sensual threat and promise for me about Melbourne’s Chinatown. It’s a place I tend to avoid in my flâneries, for the unbelievable successes in Daygame I’ve enjoyed there—(like dreams, they seem, in rational retrospect, almost too good to be true)—have left a couple of scars upon my heart.

Those two blocks of Little Bourke street evoke for me the ineffable yet dagger-like douleur au cœur I call the spleen of Melbourne.

And because of the fragrant odour of sensual threat and promise they evoke, Chinatowns more generally arouse this acute, erotic melancholy in me. The last night I spent in Paris, a girl hauled me back to her apartment in the Chinese quartier of Belleville. I remember standing at her balcony that late summer evening as she showered off the day’s work. Snoop that I am, I was looking across the street—as narrow as Little Bourke street—at the little dollhouse lives of the Asian families in the apartment-house opposite.

Their quotidian reality seemed as sensual to me as the wooden railing beneath my hands, the image of them before my eyes as sensual as the image in my mind of the girl, as magnificent as a bather by Ingres, sudsing her pearl-like belly in a room behind me.

And like her, like the railing, like tout Paris, they too would disappear from before my eyes in a couple of hours.

In the prose poem, I refer to these enclaves of sensual mystery as ‘Chinese embassies’, for there is a sense of autonomy about Chinatowns, in whatever city you encounter them.

They are privileged zones. The Chinatown of a city is like an arcade without a roof: it has all the phantasmagoric characteristics of the ‘dream street’ that Walter Benjamin identified with the passage.

Their friendship arches, like the two polychrome portals which bracket the approach to Chinatown in Swanston and Exhibition streets, serve to delimit the zone of foreign exclusivity just as the entrances of an arcade delimit its exclusivity from the street. Their lanterns hang above the street like the gas-lamps which hang in serried rows around the peristyle of the arcade.

The only difference is that, instead of internalizing the external by putting a roof over the street, Chinatowns externalize the internal, by unroofing the multi-storey rue-galerie of shops, exposing these ‘cathedrals of commerce’, with their naves and side-chapels, to the scrutiny of heaven.

As Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong observe in their journal article “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019), this organization of the street upon different levels, mixing the commercial with the residential, the public space with the private, is more semantically crucial to how we interpret the architecture of global Chinatowns than in other built-up urban areas.

‘While Chinatowns worldwide vary in their histories, configurations, peoples, power, and imagery,’ McDonogh and Wong write, ‘they are invariably lived at street level …. [T]hese street-level interactions mean that our eyes stray upwards only momentarily to arches, signs, or cornices or downward to half-hidden shops….’

Franz Hessel, in his book Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital (1929), declared emphatically that ‘[t]he flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new.’

McDonogh and Wong touch upon the fact (although it seems to me that they miss its fundamental significance) that the verticality of Chinese calligraphy in neon signage attached, over several storeys, to the façades of buildings is key to the unique way in which the flâneur ‘reads the street’ of global Chinatowns.

With a pinch of Japanese and Chinese at my disposal, the lurid neon swooshes of Hànzì leering in the night is a little less obscure to me than to most occidental barbarians. Nevertheless, as a cunning linguist, the pleasure I derive from ‘reading the streets’ of Chinatowns is not unlike the difficult pleasure I derive from attempting to read a book written in a language I am not yet proficient in: the words, sentences and pages formed by the hieroglyphs of all those things Herr Hessel enumerates are not just fragrantly ‘new’, but however bright the Sinograms beam, there are still lacunas in my understanding as vast and dark as the night itself.

You can perhaps intuit why I equate the quotidian yet mysterious banality of Chinatowns with the matter-of-fact mysteries of female behaviour.

This admixture of clarity and obscurity is the exclusive province of those ‘zones of mystery and ambiguity’ we call Chinatowns, and they seem an environmental metaphor for the ‘trade’ (deniable as such because it is plausibly deniable) that women make of love. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the Chinese genius for commerce in a hostile environment locates what is readable by the barbarian with a minimum of interpretation squarely at street level. The exotic mysteries of the Orient, however, are discreetly concealed in storeys above or below.

The intrepid—or foolish—flâneur who ventures into Chinatown must cast his eyes in the direction of his desires, must read the promises or threats opaquely veiled behind façades, just as a man must read a woman’s essential character behind the glittering mask she puts up as a front. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the ‘resolutely ordinary’ character of actual Chinatown streets interacts with our imaginary of them as ‘mythic’ and ‘mystical’ places. Likewise, behind the smoke and mirrors, the prosaic banality of women interacts with our ‘pedestalization’ of them as idols of virtue or of vice.

The ‘walk on the wild side’ afforded by Australian Chinatowns is a pretty tepid flirtation with vice. Brisbane’s Chinatown is now—like the rest of Fortitude Valley—a desert of gentrification. Sydney’s is a very shabby affair. Adelaide’s seems like an appendix to the Central Markets—which is where the real flâneurial action lies.

Only in Melbourne, it seems to me, can some vestigial sense of exotic danger still be experienced in Chinatown, and it is, I think, a function of Victoria’s more intimate and symbiotic historical relationship with China. Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t an ‘historical Disneyland’ of a Chinatown, a ‘World’s Fair’ pavilion set down between Swanston and Exhibition streets; that much of its history has mercifully been erased.

No, it’s part of the historical fabric of Melbourne itself as a nineteenth-century city, a Gold Rush city, with all the cosmopolitan grandeur of fabulous wealth built on the corrupt grasping of international chancers.

Though he makes no direct allusion to Chinatown, in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), the great nineteenth-century novel of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, Fergus Hume situates Little Bourke street as the epicentre of poverty and vice. After a dazzling tour of its big brother (as busy as its proverbial reputation), he leads us into Little Bourke street, whose lineaments we can still vaguely discern in Chinatown to this day:

‘But his guide, with whom familiarity with the proletarians had, in a great measure, bred indifference, hurried him away to Little Bourke Street, where the narrowness of the street, with the high buildings on each side, the dim light of the sparsely scattered gas lamps, and the few ragged looking figures slouching along, formed a strong contrast to the brilliant and crowded scene they had just left.’

San Francisco is another of these ‘nouveau riche’ nineteenth-century Gold Rush cities whose tony veneer of sophistication is like so much gilt over its foundations built on the hard graft and grasping for gold, and like Melbourne, it is famous for its Chinatown.

The symbiotic relationship that the Chinatowns of these cities have to their circumambient urban fabric is, I would contend, a function of the historical symbiosis of Orientals and Occidentals in San Francisco and Melbourne.

Their Chinatowns are more than ‘Eastern embassies’ that have failed to really take root on Western soil: they are, through their Gold Rush heritage, thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of their cities. The piquant charm of the Far East they add to the gaudy neoclassical architecture pining for the respectability of a European capital is part of the peculiar native charm of San Francisco and Melbourne.

The similarity between these two cities separated by an ocean is striking. In his story “Dead Yellow Women” (1925), the quintessential writer of San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, has the Continental Op loosen his laconic tongue just enough to provide this vivid description:

‘San Francisco’s Chinatown jumps out of the shopping district at California Street and runs north to the Latin Quarter—a strip two blocks wide by six long….

‘Grant Avenue, the main street and spine of the strip, is for most of its length a street of gaudy shops and flashy chop-suey houses catering to the tourist trade, where the racket of American jazz orchestras drowns the occasional squeak of a Chinese flute. Farther out, there isn’t so much paint and gilt, and you can catch the proper Chinese smell of spices and vinegar and dried things. If you leave the main thoroughfares and showplaces and start poking around in alleys and dark corners, and nothing happens to you, the chances are you’ll find some interesting things—though you won’t like some of them.’

Swap Swanston for California street, and Little Bourke street for Grant avenue, and the description might almost hold for Melbourne—including the final, stinging remark. For if I have found the femmes I’ve stumbled over in the laneways leading off Little Bourke street to be ‘interesting specimens’, in my bafflement after the fact, when I’ve woken up from the opium dream of their seductive charms, I haven’t liked the feeling that I’ve just had my breast pocket picked.

As an operative of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch, the Op is what we might call a ‘professional flâneur’ in Chinatown, though he would prefer the title he often gives himself of ‘manhunter’. I might occasionally tail some quail in Chinatown, but the Op is a big game hunter, after birds of any feather who are up to their necks in bad juju.

McDonogh and Wong state: ‘Chinatowns as mythic places often are linked to icons … of underground mysteries from film and literature that contribute to the global imaginary of Chinatowns.’ They remark ‘how powerfully Chinatown is an imagined space in popular culture, where truth and fiction mingle and images flow from cinema to history to tourism.’

Which leads me to the greatest depiction of this fluid, feminine zone of mystery and ambiguity in literature and film—Roman Polanski’s flâneur movie par excellence, Chinatown (1974), in which the eponymous, putative setting hardly figures as a physical place.

Robert Towne, who won the picture’s only Oscar for an original screenplay that has become legendary as the pinnacle of screenwriting perfection, has said that he always conceived Chinatown as a ‘state of mind’, and that he never intended the real location, in Los Angeles, to be shown.

Chinatown, to which the movie’s hero, Angeleno private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), makes constant, obsessive reference, is the primal scene of sexual trauma from which he cannot escape. Gittes, with his sharp suits, Florsheim shoes, and polished Hollywood manner, may have transcended his days as a flatfoot in L.A.’s Chinatown, but his profession as a ‘bedroom dick’ puts him right back in the torrid zone of fluid, feminine ambiguity.

He tells his paramour, black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), that Chinatown is a place that bothers everyone who works there. ‘You can’t always tell what’s going on,’ he says to this dame who’s as difficult to read as a Chinese newspaper. ‘Like with you.’

When you’re playing spoon with such a dish, it’s best to follow the advice the District Attorney gives his men in Chinatown and do ‘as little as possible’—for, as Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), tells Gittes, while ‘you may think you know what you’re dealing with, … believe me, you don’t.’

Gittes is the flâneur figure-cum-detective: his social mobility gives him a unique droit de cité in L.A., transcending the strata of society from grand monde to demi-monde, allowing him to read the tenor of the streets with the same vertical orientation that the flâneur must use as his compass in Chinatown.

In this world turned on its side, one might almost say that in the all-encompassing diffuseness of the criminal and sexual conspiracy he finds himself drowning in, ‘Chinatown’, for Gittes, is hardly a localized place but a state of doubleness, of recursive multiplicity that constitutes the whole of L.A.—a fluid nexus of evil whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

And, of course, at the heart of Gittes’ fearful yet fascinated relationship with Chinatown, there is his relationship with a woman—or women, rather. ‘Cherchez la femme,’ Mrs. Mulwray philosophically says as they lay abed after exertions, echoing the demands and directives of Gittes’ clients—and other interested parties—that he should ‘find the girl’ if he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.

But like water, there is no bottom to women’s mystery, and the alluring vessel is as arbitrary a beginning or ending point as the portals set over Chinatowns worldwide.

These are some of the thoughts I attempted to express in the video and prose poem above. In these times when contact with the outer world of Melbourne is forbidden to me, I turn my gaze inward and meditate on the mysteries of the women I have known in my flâneries around town, whose painful memories and perplexing dreams I thought I had drowned in the heart of me.

But, like the Lady in the Lake, they are not drowned, merely sleeping, and can be awoken once again by a pure heart.

I’ve made the soundtrack of this video available for purchase on my Bandcamp profile. If you would like to shout me half a coffee, you can download “Chinatown(s)” for $A2.00 and have the pleasure of my dulcet tones intoning the prose poem in your lugs pour toujours. Just click the link below.

A page from the manuscript of Dean Kyte’s forthcoming book, “Letter to My Niece”.
A page from the manuscript of Dean Kyte’s forthcoming book, Letter to My Niece. Listen to Dean read the page below.

What’s Melbourne like to live in at the moment? Grim, Jack. Very grim.

The world’s most liveable city has descended into something like the Mexican hell that Jim Thompson describes at the end of The Getaway: once you’re in the gulag, baby, there ain’t no way of getting out.

Except via the wooden kimono.

It was a little less than three months ago that I announced to you that long-term parking during Lockdown 1.0 had not been wasted time for yours truly. In this post, I announced that, besides having time to pen 27,000 words of commentary on the Coronavirus crisis, I had had time to write five complete drafts of a 6,000-7,000-word book on same for my seven-year-old niece.

Well, today I can announce that another massive step towards publishing this book has been accomplished: During Lockdown 2.0, I’ve had time to completely edit the audiobook version of my next book, recorded while I was ‘on parole’ between incarcerations.

You can listen to a sample of the audiobook above.

I am also pleased to announce the title of my forthcoming book: Letter to My Niece: Reflections during Lockdown on COVID, Technology, and the Next Generation’s Future.

It took me nearly 66 hours to research and write five complete drafts of this letter in which I attempt to explain the Coronavirus situation to my little niece; discuss the rôle I think that technology—particularly artificial intelligence—will play in her future; set forth some principles for moral comportment which I hope will serve her in times of existential uncertainty; and try to impart to her some spiritual message of hope, despite the darkness I foresee.

It was, as I said in the post where I discussed the process of writing this letter, an unexpectedly emotional experience for me. There were times when tears were streaming down my face as I penned the final, handwritten draft of the 31-page letter to her.

When I finished writing the letter on June 2, stay-at-home restrictions in Victoria were tentatively easing: we were at the end of our first week of post-lockdown liberty, although I, in a fever of literary activity, had still not left my little room at The Miami Hotel in West Melbourne.

I had my first housesit in two months scheduled for two days later in Bacchus Marsh, and I was determined the finish the manuscript before booking to Bacchus, so I could record the audiobook whilst there.

I said it took me nearly 66 hours to research and write the book from end to end. Well, to give you some comparison, it took me 5 ½ hours to record it and 48 ½ hours to edit it—a total of 54 hours.

In other words, it took me nearly as much time to record and edit what I wrote as it took me to write it.

But if you had told me at the beginning of June that five weeks later, after a brief flirtation with freedom, Melbourne would be slammed back in the slammer, and I would be editing—for weeks on end—the audio version of what I had written in the same little cell where I wrote it for weeks on end, I would hope, Señor, that you are—how you say?—loco.

No estás loco.

Copying the mail of chatter from states to the north and west of us, I doubt that anybody outside Victoria can really appreciate how dark the last two months have been for us—especially for those of us here in Melbourne.

We’re in a Stasi state: we’ve been jailed by our government for their incompetence during Lockdown #1.

When I announced the completion of Letter to My Niece to you in June, I said that I felt privileged to be a writer during the first lockdown, that the process of writing a book by hand for my little niece under such circumstances had felt like a reconnection with my ancient avocation: As the greatest minds have passed the lessons of their experience down to us by hand, their words surviving wars, pandemics and other catastrophes, so I was passing on a few sign posts gleaned from my own experience to the next generation.

But in Lockdown #2, there have been nights when I have sat in the little hotel room I am obliged by law not to leave and have literally cried at the unbelievable and escalating horror of Soviet-style repression I am ‘privileged’ to live through and bear witness to as a writer.

When I hear the horrendous tales of people’s despair in Melbourne during this second lockdown, I don’t feel privileged to be a writer, I feel fortunate.

I feel fortunate to have spent 37 years of life honing the mastercraft of focusing one’s mind and directing it, day after day, towards the realization of a distant goal: the translation of abstract thought into crystallized words on paper.

But for honing the mastercraft of focusing my mind and striving each day of this second incarceration to create—and re-create—the words I wrote three months ago in Letter to My Niece as an audiobook, I might easily be one of the heart-breaking number of people in Melbourne who, imprisoned by the Government, have ended their empty days in despair.

As I argued in this post, in understanding the situation here in Melbourne which precipitated a second lockdown, you cannot underestimate the rôle that boredom, that ennui, that a society of the spectacle suddenly relieved of all its levers of distraction played in metastasizing the discontent Melburnians feel with the Andrews Government.

A vacuum was created―and into lives and minds made suddenly empty, the Devil can find plenty of work to fill idle hands.

Fortunately, as a writer, I have work that occupies both mind and hands, and as much of an unendurable grind as I found it to edit 5 ½ hours of my own voice down to 67 minutes and 12 seconds, to turn up each day and winnow four more minutes of audio out of three hours’ work was as satisfying as that feeling a writer gets when the unenvisageable end of his book is finally glimmering on the horizon.

Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t the pleasure of hearing my own voice for three hours a day that kept my bird up!

No, it was a repetition of the effect I had experienced in writing the words during Lockdown #1.

It happens very, very rarely, but occasionally I write words that move me to tears, and being as merciless a critic of my own work as I am, when that all too rare event happens, I know the words are good.

Getting no words of hope from the Premier, I got them from myself.

When I recorded the voice track at Bacchus, I wasn’t aiming for anything except to get through what I knew would be an all-day slog of reading as efficiently as possible.

But when, several weeks later, I began to assemble and edit the raw tracks on the timeline and cobble together ‘perfect takes’ of each sentence, much as, when writing my books, I edit my sentences down to their final, ‘perfect’ form, I was astonished to hear something in my voice I was too exhausted to notice as I was recording it.

As I edited the voice track, I was occasionally moved to tears to hear my message to my little niece delivered with an intensity, and a sincerity, and a sternness of conviction we don’t often hear from so-called ‘leaders’, and other public speakers, today.

There isn’t a parental—let alone a paternal—bone in my body, and yet I was surprised to hear an almost ‘fatherly’ tone of intense, stern conviction—as of a man setting forth an uncompromising vision with the rectitude of absolute candour—in my voice, a tone which I hardly recognized as my own.

In keeping with the bespoke æsthetic of Letter to My Niece, it was important to me that my little niece should not only be able to read my words to her in my own hand, but that she should be able to hear my voice speaking the message of hope I had written to her.

The number of times I’ve spoken to her on the telephone could be counted on less than five fingers, so she has no knowledge of who her uncle is, what kind of character that man has, or what he believes in. The audiobook, as a kind of ‘read-along’ accompaniment to the text, was intended to give her as bespoke a reading experience and as intimate an introduction to her uncle as it’s possible for so intimate a medium for communicating thought to give.

So, having got through the grind of editing the audiobook, I’m up to the design and layout phase of my Artisanal Desktop Publishing process. I hope to be able to post one more update on my progress, giving you a glimpse of what I envision for the handwritten manuscript in book form, before I officially release Letter to My Niece in the Dean Kyte Bookstore.

I can hardly wait to add a fresh product to the Bookstore, but as I tell my clients, the working of writing and publishing is ‘a work of many days’, and wait I must—at least for a few more days yet.

Have you checked out my Bookstore lately? It’s undergoing a renovation and revamp, and I’m very pleased with how it’s progressing.

I’ve added new internal product pages for four out of five of my books, as at the time of this post. If you click on Flowers Red and Black, Brazen Gifts for Gold, Things we do for Love, or Follow Me, My Lovely…, you will be taken directly to internal pages for these books, where you can now preview them online in their available formats, hear and watch me read excerpts, and order copies from me directly.

I’ve also instituted a new ‘custom order’ service, so each product page has a contact form whereby you can inquire with me directly about bespoke orders.

If you have any special requests, such as that you would like me to write a specific, personalised message when I sign and dedicate the book to you, or if you would like to purchase a number of books as gifts and want me to take care of distribution on your behalf, you can drop me a line via these contact forms and I can negotiate a custom deal with you, bespoke to your needs.

You will find me very willing to accommodate you as best I can. Particularly if you know someone down here who could use the company of a good book, I’ll go out of my way to write an encouraging dedication and prepare a thoughtful package for them.

Self-portrait of Dean Kyte.
In captivity:  Self-portrait of Dean Kyte, locked down in his West Melbourne hotel room.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
— W.B. Yeats,
“The Second Coming”

 

Your Melbourne Flâneur has been conspicuously quiet the past few weeks, despite events in Melbourne which demand urgent comment and analysis.

The reason for the buttoned-up bouche is very simple: I’ve been trying to keep the little barque of my small business afloat—in spite of the unconscionable economic vandalism being visited upon Victoria from week to week by Daniel Andrews and his government.

So I may as well throw in a plug for myself at the start.  If you’ve been following my critiques of the Coronavirus situation with interest, you might also be interested in the personal services I can provide to you.  If you’re a creative writer and you’re seeking to self-publish a thoroughly bespoke book, my Artisanal Desktop Publishing service is probably the ticket for you.  I can bring the same critical scrutiny to editing your work as I’ve brought to analysing the Coronavirus crisis.

And while I aim to be unfailingly courteous and considerate of my clients’ feelings in framing my criticisms, as you know by now if you have followed me this far in my critique, I don’t pull any punches, so if there are weaknesses in your writing, you can trust me to tell you so, and I will also suggest some strategies, techniques and approaches to strengthen your message so it lands well with your intended audience.

My special skill is providing what I call ‘content strategy’ to my clients: I can counsel you on how to logically organize your writing at its deepest level so as to ensure maximal comprehension on the part of your readers.

Of course, it would be a much more pleasant experience for both of us to work together face-to-face, but that’s not an option at the moment.  Nevertheless, we can get a good rap going over Zoom, so if you’re further afield than Melbourne—parbleu! if you happen to be overseas, even—there’s no obstacle to us working together remotely as we edit, design and lay out your book.

Visit the Contact page to get in touch with me or to book a consultation.

All right, enough with the word from our sponsors.  Let’s unbottle the tough talk.

So in my last post on the Coronavirus, I made some predictions that rapidly proved to be prescient.  Principally, I said that the next frontier in the battle about the deadly reality of this invisible belief would be fought over masks, and I noted that Victorian premier Daniel Andrews—while not making the wearing of face coverings compulsory in Melbourne at that time—had strongly lent the colour of his support to them, which suggested an imminent move towards mandating masks.

A week later, the Premier announced that you could not put your snoot outside your door in Melbourne without a muzzle over it, under pain of a $200 fine.

There are times I hate being right, particularly when it comes to my occupational talent for reading the characters of people and predicting what they will do.

Mr. Andrews couldn’t win a hand in a poker game: he telegraphs his tells a week in advance of his play.

I was sincerely hoping he would not prove me right because I knew what it would mean for his character, and for the consequential state of play of this crisis in Victoria.

It would mean that the Premier was not capable of strategic thinking, merely tactical, and that he was prepared to risk plunging not just Melbourne or Victoria but the whole country into a Hobbesian state of nature for the sake of one ill-defined goal on the health dimension.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a political philosopher who lived through the English Civil War.  He observed to what a spectacular extent civil society can break down into a naked competition for individual power and resources.  Hobbes defined this condition as ‘the state of nature’—a multi-polar environment of mutual fear and distrust in which individuals leverage whatever tools, tactics and strategies of violence they have at their disposal to extractively centralize power and resources to themselves in a zero-sum game.

In his book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes described this state of nature as a ‘war of every man against every man’, and he said that the life of the individual in the state of nature would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

The zero-sum dynamics which underwrite our Faustian civilization in decline tend necessarily to drive us towards a Hobbesian state of nature: the fallacy of infinite derivatives in a world of finite resources must eventually lead to a societal collapse as our civilizational Ponzi scheme folds under its own unsustainable exponent.

You can’t keep Hoovering resources up to the top of the pyramid without the foundations collapsing under the weight.  And when that happens, alienated individuals start taking resources for themselves.

If you want to see what a state of nature might look like, take a glance across the pond at Portland and Seattle: the looting and rioting in those cities should be read as a cautionary tale of the civilizational collapse humanity is courting.

We’ve been slowly sliding towards the abyss of an all-out war of all against all for a very long time.  But it took the Coronavirus to expose just how weak the veneer of civility—and civilization—is in Western society.

Way back in March I raised the alarm with you in my first post on the Coronavirus, stating unequivocally that a global systems collapse had been triggered by the pandemic which would cascade through the economic system, through the political system, and ultimately through the geopolitical system.

I would propose that the more a civilization in its late period of senescent decadence tends towards a Hobbesian state of nature, the more one sees a quality I would call ‘mediocrity’ emerge—not only in the macro-character of its social and political institutions, but in the micro-character of the people who comprise them.

More specifically, in the descent towards a Hobbesian state of nature, we begin to more conspicuously notice in failing institutions such as governments the progressive emergence of individuals who are adept at playing the Hobbesian zero-sum power game of resource centralization and extraction from the commons.

Indeed, in the Hobbesian state of nature, I would argue, these mediocre individuals are naturally selected for by the mediocre conditions of the system.

In other words, mediocre individuals whose only genius is the tactical animal cunning which enables an organism to more or less optimally negotiate a salience landscape of risks and rewards in a state of nature begin to populate social and political institutions with increasing conspicuousness.

In the Western Anglosphere, for instance, it is hardly controversial to notice that the leaders of the four major English-speaking democracies—Mr. Trump in the United States, Mr. Johnson in Great Britain, Mr. Trudeau in Canada, and Mr. Morrison here in Australia—are all men who, prior to entering political life, had careers in the public sphere involving pretence, mendacity, deception or dissimulation—qualities which, if we were not living in conditions of an escalating state of nature, would have disqualified them for public office.

As an entrepreneur, Mr. Trump was an unashamed con man.  Mr. Johnson debased the profession of journalism with his lies.  Mr. Morrison had a career in ‘marketing’, and Mr. Trudeau was, of all things, a drama teacher.

In the Hobbesian state of nature, a capacity to pretend, to deceive, to dissemble, dissimulate or outright lie with bravura is not a political liability but a positive asset—for in a multi-polar environment of mutual distrust, in order to maximize one’s personal resources, one must be able to forge alliances of a temporary and contingent nature with other actors.

There are some resources which cannot be extracted from powerful rivals by main force but which require the subtle dissimulation of allyship in order for one to gain access to them.  These men at the apices of the pyramids of power in their respective countries are currently the most adept exemplars of the socially pathological phenomenon I call ‘mediocrity’.

Daniel Andrews is also a mediocre person.

But as, when I apply the word ‘mediocre’ to somebody, I mean it as a term of art which describes the integral quality of their character, its capacity under pressure, not as an insulting epithet, it would be as well to provide a technical definition of mediocrity, of the maladaptive, pathological traits which I believe the mediocre person typically possesses in the state of nature where he or she thrives—for the state of nature is the ‘ecological niche’ of the mediocre person.

In essence, my definition of the mediocre person is a conflation of Spengler’s Megalopolitan man and Flaubert’s bourgeois.  Spengler describes the pathology of this human phenomenon in The Decline of the West, while Flaubert, in Madame Bovary and in Bouvard et Pécuchet, illustrates the character of the mediocre person in action.

The mediocre person is a creature of the city in a civilization’s senescent period of decline, and as, in our Faustian Western civilization, the Megalopolis of ‘the City’ is now the World Wide Web, a global caliphate that is everywhere, we are all creatures of the city, and therefore more or less mediocre.

I’ll leave it to Spengler to describe the mediocre late-City man:  ‘They are the market-place loungers of Alexandria and Rome, the newspaper-readers of our own corresponding time; the “educated” man who then and now makes a cult of intellectual mediocrity and a church of advertisement; the man of the theatres and places of amusement, of sport and “best-sellers”.’

It’s perhaps worth noticing that in that short sentence, Spengler identifies all the métiers practiced by the four conspicuous examples of political mediocrity I identified above—journalism (Mr. Johnson), advertising (Mr. Morrison), theatre (Mr. Trudeau) and sport and other places of amusement, such as casinos, wrestling and television (Mr. Trump).

In its feminine manifestation, the mediocre person is Emma Bovary, indefatigably fatigued with ennui, and hence the constant victim of fashion.  And in its masculine form, the mediocre person is la Bovary’s nemesis, the progressive, pragmatically materialist pharmacist M. Homais, whom Flaubert later reprised as his two hapless copy-clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet.

Flaubert, in his pathological hatred for his own class, the bourgeoisie, delineates the essential qualities of the mediocre person, whom Spengler defines as ‘small and shrewd’, amply possessed of the animal cunning of the trading class.  Let us not forget that the etymology of the word ‘mediocre’ stems in part from the Latin medius—‘of middle degree, quality or rank.’

The mediocre person, by Flaubert’s lights, is eminently ‘middle-class’.

And the thing about the mediocre person is that he is not unintelligent.  You don’t get very far in the game of mercantile resource centralization and extraction if you don’t have an edge of intelligence over your competitors.  But I consider this form of ‘tactical’ intelligence to be ‘mere animal cunning’, the application of the predatory instinct to the social realm which is the human equivalent to the pure state of nature.

This form of predatory intelligence is purely middle of the range.  The life of the bourgeois, citified person is entirely geared towards the goal of maximal personal resource centralization and extraction from the commons, and his education system is necessarily geared towards facilitating this practical end.

But intelligence is really an index of one’s problem-solving faculties.  It’s true that ‘making a living’ in the social realm, extracting the resources from it that supports one’s life, is as much a demonstration of the human capacity to solve problems as the tactics and techniques that other organisms have evolved to extract resources from their environments.

But at the human level of intelligence, there are higher order problems to be solved than merely extracting the resources that one needs to make a living—particularly when the problems are of a species-wide, existential nature.

The most conspicuous aspect of the mediocre person is what Spengler calls his ‘intellectual mediocrity’, his relatively modest cognitive capacity to perform these higher order mental operations of abstract problem solving.

The mediocre person is narrowly educated to be ‘fit for purpose’ in the economic domain of resource extraction, but he is conspicuously poor in his capacity to perform sovereign sensemaking.  Thus, he is the continual prey of ideological possession: the mediocre person doesn’t have ideas of his own; ideas have him.  He is their spokesperson.

This is the ‘deindividuated memetic possession’ I spoke of in an earlier post on the Coronavirus as being a characteristic of low internal individualism, the deprecation of individual freedom of thought in favour of individual freedom of action.

And it was this characterological flaw of the bourgeoisie that Flaubert mercilessly satirized at the end of his life with his Dictionnaire des idées reçues, recognizing that mediocre people imbibe their ideas from the air exhaled by those around them.

I would submit that, en revanche, genuine intelligence is a capacity to handle complexity at a sufficiently high level of resolution; to tease all the relevant variables of a problem apart, like the strands of a great tapestry; to hold them separate yet relative in their dynamic relations with one another for as long as possible as one negotiates a solution which strategically balances these variables.

Except in the STEM fields, where we have scientists working tirelessly to discover a vaccine for the Coronavirus, that kind of intelligence, that kind of strategic thinking does not appear to be in very great supply to us in negotiating the aspects of this crisis which touch most directly on people—on the social, political and economic variables of this problem.

The short-term, tactical response of mediocre leaders such as Daniel Andrews is more to throw oneself bodily on the brake of one dimension—the health aspect of this crisis—and say, ‘Well, we will sort out all the long-term damage done on the other dimensions after we have got numbers under control.’

Yet it’s precisely that approach of looking to tactically solve one salient variable in the short term by ignoring, delaying or commuting the long-term strategic solution of tangential variables which has weakened our entangled global systems to the point of civilizational collapse.

The sensemaking capacities of our socio-political institutions—including governments—are found wanting in this crisis, and in Victoria, from day to day new evidence emerges—despite the Government’s efforts to keep mum—that both the institutions responsible for the state’s response to the Coronavirus and the individuals who comprise them are mediocre thinkers—tacticians whose short-term problem-solving skills backfired in the long term.

One of the major problems for collective sensemaking in negotiating the incomputable number of variables associated with our existential crises lies in the realization that democratized universal education—the Western model of mercantile education for narrow economic purpose—has failed our civilization.

We have three generations of the most educated human beings in history currently alive, and their pieces of parchment ostensibly credential these people as the most intelligent cohort of human beings who have ever lived at any one time in history.

But education is a Hobbesian resource extraction game too.  In the civilizational Ponzi scheme of infinite derivatives extracted from finite resources, democratized education is another numbers game:  You’ve got to get a lot of suckers through the doors of the universities; soak the value out of them; pass them (since that is what they’re paying you for in exchange for the exorbitant debt you’re saddling them with); and credential them—no matter how mediocre the quality of their thought.

And because, in the Western model of mercantile education for narrow economic purpose, universities are the gateways to the professions, you don’t have to follow this Ponzi logic many steps along the chain before you realize the dire consequences for collective sensemaking in all the institutions we depend upon for a civilized life—from law, to banking, to media, to education, and to public policy.

As the Peter Principle famously predicts, everyone in a Scientific Managerial hierarchy rises to a position just beyond the level of his competence.

But in this competitive landscape of personal advancement, the capability to rise to an ultimate position of hierarchical eminence which is beyond one’s sensemaking capacity to properly serve in represents one’s optimal capacity to fraudulently extract resources from the economy and centralize them to oneself.

And when all our institutions are populated by people who are not well-placed to serve our collective sensemaking and problem-solving needs, but are excellently placed to serve their own private interests, we are primed for a Hobbesian state of nature to ensue under conditions of common existential crisis and civilizational collapse.

Public life in these periods when the cultural paradigm is in decline attracts only mediocre people—short-term tactical thinkers like Mr. Andrews in Victoria, and Messrs. Trump, Johnson, Trudeau, Morrison et al. on the world stage.  It doesn’t attract the long-term strategic thinkers, for ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’

Spengler, co-opting the name given to that sanguinary epoch of ancient Chinese history, calls the Hobbesian state of nature in which mediocre individuals vie for political power the Period of Contending States.  He says: ‘In the degree in which the nations cease to be politically in “condition,” in that degree possibilities open up for the energetic private person who means to be politically creative, who will have power at any price, and who as a phenomenon of force becomes the Destiny of an entire people…. [W]e have now the accident of great fact-men.  The accident of their rise brings a weak people … to the peak of events overnight, and the accident of their death … can immediately plunge a world from personally secured order into chaos.’

Tactical thinking is about maximizing short-term benefits by negotiating a salience landscape of long-term costs.  Like a pinball glancing off an array of scoring targets, you negotiate a chancy path through this valley of consequential hazards which involves trying to maximize your current resources in the hopes that you will have enough of them at your disposal to eventually deal with the long-terms costs you are ignoring, delaying, or commuting.

The worst leaders are those who are the most brilliant at tactics, for, as Mr. Trump demonstrates, their agile, impulsive responsiveness to the random windfalls of chance in a rapidly evolving situation is often in temperamental contrast to the skill of predictively calculating long-term consequences and orienting micro-actions towards macro-goals.

It’s the difference between playing checkers and go.

Like all the so-called ‘leaders’ of our time, Daniel Andrews, by the evidence of his decisions, amply demonstrates that he is not capable of strategic thinking, the balanced negotiation of short-term costs to ensure the achievement of a long-term goal, because he is, like all the so-called ‘leaders’ of our time, a mediocre person.

The evidence of his decisions demonstrates that he has risen to a position beyond the level of his sensemaking competence, but not beyond the level of his capacity to play the Hobbesian social game for fun and profit.

The quality of Mr. Andrews’ thought is mediocre.  His manipulation of the ‘algebra of thought’—human language—to express his tactical calculations is mediocre.

Strategic leadership, the capacity to inspire social coherence by virally communicating a vivid, memetic sense of the situation which can be shared by a population, cannot emerge from tactical mediocrity in conditions of existential crisis.

Statesmen are poets in their thinking and speech: they communicate ‘the big picture’ so that the population can share their strategic vision and get behind it.

In the late period of civilizational decline, however, the politicians who emerge to seize power are small and mean prosateurs—eminently bourgeois in their mediocre thinking and speech.

Mr. Andrews cannot bring the Victorian people together behind a shared sense of what the Coronavirus situation is and what it means because, in his own mediocrity of thought and expression, he himself lacks the strategic capacity to visualize the landscape of salient hazards thrown up by the lurgy at a sufficiently high level of resolution and predictively calculate alternate pathways through it.

The aim of strategy in this situation is to find a pathway which balances the endurance of acceptable costs by the population on all relevant dimensions—not merely the health variable—so as to maximize the long-term benefits for the society from the short-term costs of their temporary distress.

The decisions that the Premier has made on the social, political and economic dimensions of this problem have the hollow, panicky ring of tactics about them rather the solid, reassuring ring of strategy.

Mr. Andrews’ government has lost its legitimacy as a prescriptive authority.  The authoritarian, Scientific Managerial approach the Premier has taken to this networkcentric problem—the dictates on mandatory masks, the escalation of repressive restrictions, the imposition of draconian curfews—is evidence that, due to his mediocrity as thinker, speaker, and leader, Mr. Andrews’ has, as I predicted at the end of my last post, lost the capacity to inspire endogenous compliance by Melburnians.

When you take an authoritarian, hierarchical Scientific Management approach to a networkcentric problem, you only attempt to impose more overt control on the problem when it is already clear that you have lost it.

Take, for instance, the issue of masks.

It’s well-known that transmission of the Coronavirus is not principally a function of whether one’s face is uncovered or not: transmission is principally a function of human mobility.  Hence the justification for repressive stay-at-home measures and social distancing.

So to anyone studying the science, when the Premier mandated the wearing of masks in Melbourne on 22 July, three weeks into the Stage 3 lockdown when everyone ought properly to have been at home, he was making the tacit admission that the Government had lost control of social distancing, had lost its monopoly on violence to restrict the movement of its citizens, and had therefore lost its legitimacy as a prescriptive authority.

Melburnians were refusing to keep apart from one another by staying at home.  In effect, when he mandated the compulsory wearing of masks in public, the Premier, having lost control of the people, was throwing up his hands and saying: ‘If you insist on breaking the rules by going outside and mingling, at least wear a mask while you’re doing it.’

There are calls for Mr. Andrews to resign, but in my view, that too is an example of short-term tactical thinking.

There is nothing to be strategically gained, as far as I can tell, from removing Mr. Andrews now:  Despite the revelations of his thoroughgoing incompetence, no challenger has stepped forward who demonstrates that he has a better familiarity with this crisis as it is relevant to Victoria at the macro-level than the Premier has acquired in the past five months, so it makes no sense to change horses mid-race.

The Premier must seek to undo the damage he has done.

Moreover, in the Hobbesian state of nature into which we are entering, you have more to fear in the long term from the person who demonstrates a more exquisite degree of mediocrity by dispatching the present incumbent in a coup than from the incumbent himself.

But if our democracy endures to another election, Mr. Andrews will have to step aside from the leadership of his party.  Unless he can tactically capitalize upon some extraordinary and inconceivable stroke of good fortune which entirely cancels out the record of his incompetence in this crisis and puts his reputation with the electorate into surplus, he is unsalvageably tainted and a political liability to his party.

They can’t retain political hold of resources with Lurch at the helm.

But whoever follows Daniel Andrews as premier, from whatever side of politics he or she comes, the odds are six, two and even that his successor will be of even more mediocre character than the Chairman of the Hoard himself.

Better put your seatbelt on.  There’s turbulence up ahead.

Antique shop, Brunswick street, Fitzroy, photographed by Dean Kyte.
Closed:  Antique shop, Brunswick street, Fitzroy.

It’s time once again to take up my pen and make some pragmatic appraisals of the current situation vis-à-vis the Coronavirus here on The Melbourne Flâneur.

As the world’s most liveable city is filed in the deep freeze yet again, your correspondent is embedded in a trench à deux pas from the front line: I have merely to turn my head and take a hinge out the window and I’m nez-à-nez with North Melbourne.

Your Melbourne Flâneur’s much-vaunted capacity to exercise his gams more dexterously than a Las Vegas showgirl is not even tested in this situation: a twenty-minute stroll would take me to 33 Alfred street, the North Melbourne tower block where 500 souls are battened down while the Coronavirus creeps among them.

So, what brought Melbourne to the extraordinary pass where the Premier was forced to reinstitute a metro-wide lockdown last Thursday?

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews didn’t exactly fall on his sword in his self-denouncing copping to culpability over the State’s handling of hotel quarantine.  It was, methinks, more an energetic probing of one’s innards with a poniard.

It will be for the State and Commonwealth inquiries to ultimately determine to what extent mishandling of Victoria’s hotel quarantine procedures was causative in the increase of community transmission we saw throughout June.  But to the snoopy snout of yours truly, the smoking pistol doesn’t seem to lie in this direction.

The breeze seems to my sniffer to be blowing from another direction, and I don’t buy the official line set forth by the Government and the media.

This is unfortunate, as it highlights the problems in schematic collective sensemaking of the Coronavirus which I have been at pains to parse in this series.

A number of factors, psychological and political—not all of them obvious—seem to me to have more directly caused the escalation in cases which led to the Melbourne lockdown.

Let’s take a range at the timeline of events.

In Victoria, to my eye at least, the graph line tracking the total number of confirmed cases appears to take on a distinct but shallow gradient around 3 May, coincident with the Cedar Meats outbreak in Brooklyn, in the City of Brimbank.

Now, of course, we should bear in mind—(for the Premier has bored us to tears with the repetition of this fact)—that Victoria has had one of the highest rates of testing for Coronavirus anywhere in the world, and the markedly different numbers in Victoria as compared to the rest of the country are in some sense a function of the fact that the testing regimen here has been so thorough.

But, as I’m going to argue throughout this article, Melbourne is once again under lockdown because of what might be called the ‘convenience of invisibility’ associated with this virus, and the more or less arbitrary response people can make in orienting their behaviour towards the reality of it due to its invisibility and its latency of manifestation.

On 8 May, following a meeting of the National Cabinet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a three-step plan for the gradual easing of Coronavirus restrictions in Australia.  Each step would be implemented approximately four weeks apart commencing in May, but the precise timetable for rollout would be at the discretion of individual states and territories.

In Victoria, the decision was taken to delay the easing of lockdown restrictions and the phased re-opening of the economy by a week or two, until more testing had been done.

One can debate the virtue of caution demonstrated in this decision, but as regards the rigorous attitude taken towards testing and data aggregation in Victoria with respect to the rest of the nation, the question for collective sensemaking seems to me to hinge on this point:

Given that the enemy is invisible; given its paradoxical speed of transmission and latency of manifestation; given its astonishing breadth of manifestation—from no symptoms at all right through to mortal respiratory failure—if one chooses to believe in the reality of a foe who reconciles all these contradictions in itself, such that it beggars the common sense and credulity of ordinary people to believe in it, and then one tests accordingly for this foe on the premises that it exists, that it is widespread, and that it is a clear and present danger to the community, one is going to find—as in the case of Victoria—more of what one is looking for than if one takes a less rigorous approach based on more limited credulity.

The cautious decisions taken by the State Government seem to reflect these assumptions in sensemaking.

Yet even within Victoria, the competition of credence and scepticism about the reality and severity of the Coronavirus, and the necessity for the hard economic measures which were taken to check it, was gathering political and social momentum.

By the middle of May, the Premier was under pressure for his apparent feet-dragging over the implementation of the COVIDSafe Roadmap.  The sedative of cash injections, which had kept people safely closeted on their fainting couches at home, was starting to wear off, and the natives were now getting restless, both physically and morally.

They wanted to get out of the house, and those with any financial stake in the economy wanted to get Victoria, the engine-room of the nation, firing on all four cylinders again.

In an egregious example of what I called, in an earlier article in this series, online viral incivility, Tim Smith, an Opposition front-bencher, tweeted that the Premier was a ‘friendless loser’ for his lenteur in opening up the state again to free movement and trade, and compared him to Lurch from The Addams Family.

But the criticism that the Premier’s approach to the easing of restrictions during the month of May was contradictory and inconsistent is valid.  On 24 May, with daily cases wrestled back down to ‘sustainable’ levels, Mr. Andrews announced that on Tuesday 26 May, the state would slowly begin to unzip the kimono in earnest.

The strategy was to join other states in territories at step 2 of the three-step recovery roadmap on 1 June, but with some modifications.  Restaurants, pubs and cafés—the agoras of Melbourne life—which were assumed, under the national roadmap, to be already open, would only be allowed to open their doors to sit-in patrons on 1 June, though at the capacity commensurate with step 2.

Tuesday 26 May is a very significant date on the Coronavirus timeline.  For as we were taking our first fresh breaths of the changeable Melbourne climate, fifteen hours behind us in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a man named George Floyd was taking his last breaths of life.

The significance of this event for the metastasis of the Coronavirus situation has not been properly appreciated.  This distant event, which would have been hardly remarked in Melbourne if the equilibrium of life had not been so thoroughly knocked off its axis by the world-historical disruption of a global pandemic, is more central to our current local crisis than many people realize, or the institutional authorities of government and media care to admit.

This unfortunate incident took preponderant hold of the public imaginary all over the world, and it also took hold in Melbourne, erasing from memory events in the media cycle which were much more locally relevant and had equally exercised the outrage of Melburnians only a month before.

A Spenglerian view of history is required to appreciate what is not even an irony but a deep morphological accord of nature, a ‘rhyme’ in the poetry of time which connects events in Melbourne and Minneapolis across miles and a month.

It’s a deep synchronicity of history that on 22 April, four police officers should be killed on Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway, the driver allegedly responsible for their deaths videoing and crowing over their final moments before fleeing the scene, and that on 25 May, one man in Minneapolis should be just as outrageously killed by four police officers, his final moments also obscenely videoed.

These two events are mirrors, inversions of each other, beats in the exponentially accelerating tattoo which time, in the 21st century, is undergoing as we cycle at ever-shortening revolutions towards existential catastrophe and civilizational collapse.

In the Spenglerian view, they are, in fact, the same event repeated: only in the superficial details, the ‘manifest content’ of the news stories, are they different from one another.  In their deepest morphology, they subscribe in all essentials to the structure and pattern of events which is characteristic of our post-Faustian times.

Both are manifestations of the principle of networkcentricity which I stated, in an earlier post, as being not only the fundamental characteristic of the Coronavirus, but of the conditions of life in the 21st century.

So why, then, should one event as horrific, as callous, and as contemptuous of human life as another, separated only by the beat of a month, have inspired a global phase shift of viral incivility online, the wave of which swept to engulf Melbourne, and the other, closer to home, should not?

The answer, I would submit, is that the exponent of belief, of credulity in the reality of the Coronavirus and the necessity of containing it, was higher in the month of April than it was in the month of May, and served to constrain the exponent of metastasizing viral incivility, which had itself undergone a step function in April and May due to the enforced idleness of a global lockdown.

Though the deaths of the four police officers on the Eastern Freeway, and the alleged behaviour of Richard Pusey, the man responsible for their deaths, was equally as outrageous as the death of George Floyd and the behaviour of Derek Chauvin and the other police officers responsible for his death, the response of Melburnians in April was not to stage a ‘peaceful riot’ to protest the outrageous behaviour of Mr. Pusey.

In compliance with what can only be considered (whether justified or unjustified) as the repressive measures of the Victorian Government to constrain freedom of expression and freedom of movement during a global pandemic, Melburnians stayed in their homes, and the extent of their demonstration against this local tragedy was to burn blue lights on their doorsteps, fly blue balloons, and tie blue ribbons to their mailboxes.

This too was an example of the viral spread of imitative behaviour in a networked world, an appropriation of the doorstep demonstrations Britons had lately made in applauding their National Health Service.

The spread of this positive behaviour was a rare example of viral civility: the synchronicity of the tragedy in Melbourne with the gratitude lately evinced towards front-line workers in Britain provided Melburnians not merely with a model for peaceful demonstration against an outrageous tragedy under conditions of social restriction, but it coincided with a positive global sentiment towards so-called ‘essential workers’ who were ‘on the front line’ of the pandemic protecting our health and safety—including police officers.

By contrast, after the death of Mr. Floyd on 25 May, there would be no global sentiment of gratitude towards the police.  In a mere month, they would go from being ‘essential workers’ to agents of state repression who ought to be ‘defunded’.

There’s no historical coincidence, no political irony in the fact that on the same day that Mr. Floyd was dying in outrageous circumstances, Melburnians were moving headlong to re-embrace their heavily restricted freedom with more alacrity than caution.  In this networked world on fast forward, the global mood, the whole tenor of feeling towards the Coronavirus had changed materially in a month, morphing, metastasizing just as fast as the virus itself via the global network of media.

What I am suggesting is that, by the time the first cautious easing of lockdown restrictions commenced in Victoria on 26 May, a critical threshold of disbelief in the reality of the Coronavirus, and of boredom with the novelty of circumstances which it had brought in its train, had taken hold of the public imaginary, not merely in Melbourne, but all over the world.

As regards the Australian scene, the sedative of cash injections and other bribes to stay at home could no longer placate the plebs.  More than two months of enforced idleness where the only social exposure was to a polluted global sensemaking architecture, a cognitive commons which had itself undergone a profound metastasis in viral incivility during that time, now had people hyped up and edgy.

They wanted to get out of the house.  They wanted to be near other people again—whatever the risk or consequence.

Moreover, it had taken more than two months of watching the Titanic of the economy sink from the safety of their living rooms for people to grok to some of n-th order infinite impact consequences of the Coronavirus which I alerted you to in my first post on this topic on 17 March.  Dimly, people began to compute that the medical component of this crisis was not even the most important aspect of this affair; that there were economic, political—and even geo-political—consequences which had been set in train in Wuhan months ago.

One of the most interesting trends I began to detect in the public conversation about the Coronavirus towards the end of the Victorian lockdown was the degree to which this nexus of crises was constellating itself on the dimension of age demographics.

The young people who would shortly throw social distancing to the wind were beginning to question the moral advisability of the decision taken by governments to preserve the lives of older people, who have done comparatively very well out of our broken politico-economic paradigm, by sacrificing the livelihoods of their impoverished offspring.

The rhetoric in April was that millennials were happy to make that sacrifice, that however atrophied their sense of civic responsibility towards their elders was by the successive deceits of Boomer governments, the fund of generational goodwill was still not entirely bankrupted.

I never believed that rhetoric.  A writer is a kind of ‘applied psychologist’, and once you’re cognizant of the psycho-social laws which govern human behaviour, you’re not deceived by such wishful thinking.

I could see a backlash coming promptly.  I knew that millennial bitterness over the betrayals of our current politico-economic paradigm ran too deeply to be materially altered by such a novel event—even one of global proportions—particularly as this world-historical event is the direct product of the extractive economic policies of successive Boomer governments, who have kicked the can of debt down the road to their children and grandchildren.

By the time the ABC broadcast their Q&A program focusing on the impact of the Coronavirus on young people on 18 May, just one week before the death of Mr. Floyd, it was impossible for a sensitive observer not to perceive that the tenor of sentiment towards the measures taken by state and Commonwealth governments, valuing human life above economic livelihood, had subtly changed.

In fine, credulity and credence in the reality of the Coronavirus had been corroded by two months of enforced idleness and exposure to a polluted cognitive commons.

The spectacle of our economy is a spectacle of distraction: almost all economic levers in a leisure-class society are pushed in the direction of maximally distracting individuals from thought.  With the mechanism largely on pause, people, in their invidious game-theoretic strategizing, began to catch up in their computations and calculate forward to the probable consequences of this crisis which I alerted you to in March.

In the case of the Coronavirus, the political problem for a government who enjoins a responsibility of idleness upon an able-bodied workforce that is normally distracted from civil unrest by the mechanics of an operating economy is that, if people are locked in their homes against an invisible enemy constellated of paradoxical contradictions, and if the government’s stay-at-home directives are successful in driving down mortality (thus rendering the virus even more ‘invisible’), people begin to question the reality of a foe they can’t see, and which beggars their common sense.

As regards the current situation in Melbourne, I argue that the Government’s success in driving down mortality during the first lockdown by miraculously engaging a willing compliance from a populace whose fund of trust they had utterly overdrawn prior to this crisis was instrumental in creating conditions whereby a second lockdown would become necessary, one in which compliance can only be engaged by overt coercion.

The issue for maintaining civil order is this:  The vacuum created by a cessation of economic activity which would have ordinarily distracted people from demonstrating their antipathies towards the Government, and the directive to stay at home so that the mortal consequences of the virus were rendered invisible to people, created conditions whereby an idle populace had time to imbibe counter-propaganda about the Coronavirus via a polluted cognitive commons.

Moreover, to put it in Realpolitik terms, if a government doesn’t set a sufficiently high benchmark on the levels of mortality it is prepared to tolerate among the population it is governing, it cannot make the clear and present threat to the public’s health sufficiently visible to encourage endogenous compliance with its stay-at-home directives.

I suspect that the majority of Western democratic governments—including Australia’s—rejected the herd immunity strategy (which would have favoured the economy) and chose suppression instead not out of any principled moral stance about ‘the sanctity of human life’, but because allowing a percentage of your population to die in peacetime not only makes you unelectable at the party-political level, but opens the state up to public liability issues in the future.

In Max Weber’s terms, killing a percentage of your population in peacetime amounts to an abuse of the monopoly of violence which the state arrogates to itself.

As far as I can see, there’s no way, in a liberal, enlightened, Western democratic society, for a government to get the balance right, and in favouring life over livelihood through a strategy of suppression, the National Cabinet opted to create conditions whereby the preservation of one demographic which was mortally vulnerable to the Coronavirus metastasized civil disaffection in another demographic which was vulnerable to its politico-economic effects.

This, I contend, was the nexus of factors which crystallized in the conjunction of George Floyd’s death and the easing of restrictions in Victoria on 26 May, and it was this conjunction which led to a phase shift, a further metastasis of the Coronavirus crisis, ultimately resulting in the present lockdown in Melbourne.

By 26 May, the distracting novelty of the situation and the one carrot the Government had at its disposal to encourage short-term compliance, the sedative of cash injections, had worn off, and the paranoid counter-narratives imbibed through the polluted cognitive commons of legacy media, Internet and social media had taken unconscious hold of the public imaginary.

I submit that when the Premier released us from lockdown, a critical threshold of incredulity had been passed in the public imaginary: people were ‘bored’ with the Coronavirus, and the successful insulation against its visibility which resulted from the Government’s suppression strategy had, during lockdown, given them time to think, to imbibe paranoid, conspiratorial counter-narratives, and to question the reality of this invisible, contradictory foe with whom very few of them had had direct contact and experience.

The rôle that boredom played in the resurgence of cases here in Melbourne cannot be overstated.

For it is one of the most salient contradictions in the behaviour of this paradoxical virus that it should spread exponentially within hours and yet take two to three weeks to become manifest in a population.  And in an economy of distraction which is operating on as advanced an exponent as ours, the tempo of which is being continually accelerated by the metastasis of the media cycle, that period of latency is now outside the scope of most people’s patience or memory.

Moreover, for those who were the least physically vulnerable to the Coronavirus but the most economically impacted by it, apart from having their goodwill towards their elders overdrawn, their patience for social distancing was also exhausted.  The exercise of liberty which had been severely restricted probably led to an over-compensation in free movement, and the high spirits of youth naturally drew people who had been physically apart more closely together than social distancing allowed.

Those are two of the more ‘innocent’ factors which contributed to the increase in cases during June.

But if one of the fault-lines of social inequality which this virus has exposed is age-based, it’s more than ironic bad luck for the Victorian Government that the death of Mr. Floyd should coincide with the political and economic anxieties of millennials, who have been agitated to civil unrest by a generation who is susceptible to the Coronavirus.

I could not have predicted that the death of a man in Minneapolis would be the catalyst to the backlash I was expecting against the severe social restrictions enjoined on us by governments as measures against the Coronavirus, but I knew that in this networked world it would require only a small historical incident to set the spark to the tinder of discontent that was primed to explode in a cascade of viral incivility all around the world—even in Melbourne.

Despite being equal in its tawdry, banal horror to the event in Minneapolis—and more locally relevant—the outrageous behaviour of Richard Pusey could not have gotten people into Swanston street en masse in late April for two reasons: their patient forbearance with the Government’s social distancing measures was not yet exhausted, and they still believed in the reality of the Coronavirus.

Those factors served to constrain civil unrest.  But the death of Mr. Floyd a month later coincided with a moment when the Government had to release people from their homes because willing, endogenous compliance with social restrictions was on the verge of faltering—if it had not already begun to do so.

In such cases, a government, if it is to preserve its legitimacy, must be seen to ‘give’ people back their liberty—for if they choose to take it back in spite of a government’s edicts, that government cannot maintain social order and cohesion in the long run.

And in a world where the legitimacy of all Western democratic governments is now being questioned by their populations, in its caution over the easing of restrictions, the Victorian Government, in mid-May, was entering a more delicate—and perhaps dangerous—period for the maintenance of social cohesion than is perhaps realized.

I doubt they could have averted the defiance of their edicts on public assembly and social distancing at the Black Lives Matter protest on 6 June by easing restrictions earlier, but they certainly judged the balance poorly by waiting until the unlucky date of 26 May.

Like the potential energy contained in an explosive charge, the kinetic impetus to exercise freedom of movement rather more than was permitted after such strict containment, and for atomized agents all feeling this release simultaneously to come closer together than social distancing allowed, coincided with an historical event which had no relevance to Melbourne, but which activated the political and economic angst of people who were bored with the Coronavirus, who were sick of the ‘holiday from life’ it had foisted upon them, and who, having been shut up in their homes, had been successfully insulated from local scenes of horror similar to those in Italy which might have convinced them of its reality.

For these reasons, I would characterize the protest in Melbourne on 6 June as a ‘peaceful riot’;—for it was, if anything, a rebellion against the governmental repression of stay-at-home restrictions and social distancing.

It was peaceful in the sense that there was—mercifully—no violence or property damage such as occurred at other protests around the world, but it was a ‘riot’ in the sense that the participants mutinied against the Government’s restrictions on public assembly and social distancing as set forth in the COVIDSafe Roadmap.

Moreover, they defied the Government deliberately and with forethought, for they had two weeks, between 26 May and 6 June, to organize the protest.

To regard the protest at a deeper level of morphological recursion, it was a deliberate rebellion against the Coronavirus itself—an emphatic statement of disbelief in it by those who were not demographically vulnerable to it, and whose economic futures had been wrecked by the Government’s response to it.

When the decision was taken to stage that protest in Melbourne, it was as imitative an instance of viral incivility in a networked world as the behaviour of Melburnians had been an instance of viral civility a month earlier, when they had imitated the behaviour of Britons by protesting the deaths of the four police officers on the Eastern Freeway from their doorsteps.

They had believed in the reality of the Coronavirus then, and the necessity to keep socially distant from one another even in a moment of communal grief and outrage.  That belief had corroded by 6 June to the point where only a demonstration of overt repression on the Government’s part could have prevented the contravention of its edicts regarding social distancing at the Black Lives Matter protest.

The morphological significance of that protest for the metastasis of the Coronavirus situation in Melbourne has not been properly understood because commentary has addressed itself to the manifest content of the protest.

It is a mistake to regard the protest in Melbourne—or any of the worldwide protests which metastasized from the incident in Minneapolis—as anything other than an unconscious movement of people together who no longer believed in the invisible reason they had lately believed in as a legitimate reason to stay apart.

What actually happened in Melbourne on 6 June, I contend, is something in line with the historical principles that Tolstoy sets forth at the end of War and Peace—some unconscious, psycho-social transmission of memetic virality.

As Tolstoy argues in his account of the campaign of 1812, unconscious beliefs command masses, and so long as those beliefs hold, an army can be swept from Paris to Moscow, carrying all before it.  But as soon as that common belief fails, as soon as a critical threshold of people no longer believe in the motive idea that was driving it, the social coherence of a people, their unity in decision and action, dissolves messily.

On 6 June, an unconscious decision was taken by a great mass of people in and around Melbourne to no longer believe wholeheartedly in the reality of the Coronavirus.  They did so in deliberate, premeditated imitation of other people they had seen take this same unconscious decision in America because another belief had supplanted the Coronavirus in the hierarchy of urgency and importance through the viral memetic transmission of social media.

This was an example of the imitative behaviour which attends the viral metastasis of incivility in a networked world which is now preponderantly tending towards a Nash equilibrium of global chaos.

In the morphological view, the protest was merely a convenient cover for the global disbelief, the global doubt in the reality of this invisible enemy that beggars belief in its weird contradictions and requires too much undistracted patience to observe its reality as visible effects.  It was the desperate searching for an excuse—any excuse at all—to shuck off the shackles of repressive restrictions and social distancing enjoined on restless people by governments they know do not have their best interests at heart.

Mr. Floyd’s unfortunate death provided a convenient excuse to get out of the house en masse.

Let us not read too deeply into the demographic makeup of attendees of the protest.  Except on the dimension of age, I think it’s a much less important factor in why this event was so key to the lockdown of Melbourne a month later than the fact that a mass communal event which defied social distancing acted unconsciously to set a visible—and to some observers, legitimate—precedent for less and less social distancing in the month of June.

The rise in cases in northern and western Melbourne throughout that month is less a function of the protest per se than it is a consequence of the implicit licence that event gave to Melburnians to become (as the Premier said with understandable exasperation) ‘complacent’ in their attitude towards social distancing.

Until a vaccine is rolled out, control of this virus will always be a function of the population’s endogenous compliance with social distancing.

The particular virulence of outbreaks in northern and western parts of Melbourne—the City of Hume, the City of Brimbank, the City of Moreland—is in some part a function of socio-economic levels in the northern and western suburbs which have been inordinately affected.

Socio-economic level as a function of education implies that in conditions of enforced idleness where the only constant social contact is via a polluted cognitive commons undergoing a metastasis in psychosis, people in these communities are more vulnerable to paranoid, conspiratorial counter-narratives to the Government’s propaganda, and therefore less likely to heed or trust its haranguings about the need for social distancing.

And it is precisely in these lower socio-economic suburbs of Melbourne where a more casual attitude towards social distancing is likely to manifest itself as an increase in cases.

In my flâneries, I have had a wide experience of Melbourne and Victoria since the beginning of June.  I’ve ventured into the City of Port Phillip and the City of Yarra; I’ve been to Sunbury, in the City of Hume; I was in Bacchus Marsh, in Moorabool Shire, at the time of the protest; and I’ve lately come back from Sale, in Wellington Shire.

In greater Melbourne, at least, my anecdotal observation in June and July was that, wherever I went, people had utterly abandoned the idea of social distancing.  It’s been rather vexing to endure people trying to sit in your lap while you’re standing up the last several weeks, practically draping themselves over you like a mink stole as you wait at traffic lights.

In the acceleration of the media cycle, the Coronavirus, in the minds of Melburnians, was ‘over’ weeks ago.

By means of online viral incivility, the outrageousness of the death of Mr. Floyd hijacked a sufficient threshold of attention in this economy of distraction as to push the Coronavirus down the news feed in people’s minds.

My prediction is that the next phase shift, the next level of metastasis that the Coronavirus will undergo is as a tool of overt coercion and repression by governments around the world.  In Australia, at least, our Government had a honeymoon period of trust with people which had more to do with self-interest than goodwill towards the Government: as long as people believed their lives to be threatened by this invisible foe, they were prepared to go along with the repressive measures prescribed.

But as Professor Liam Smith, a behavioural psychologist at Monash University who has been advising the Victorian Government, stated on the ABC’s 7:30 program, it is probable that we will see lower levels of compliance with a second lockdown in Melbourne.

This is because people are exhausted and bored with this pandemic, which is no longer a novel experience, and in their distractibility, their minds have become hardened and resistant to the Government’s message of social distancing.

Having heard Mr. Andrews’ uninspiring rhetoric all before, they’re tuning ‘Lurch’ out this time around.

Throughout human history, institutional authorities have used invisible beliefs to coerce endogenous compliance with their policies in the populations they govern.  The principle is that the belief is invisible but immanent within the population: the evil walks among us.  It is probably even within our own hearts and minds.

But unlike ‘the Devil’ in medieval times, the threat of ‘Communism’ during the Cold War, the threat of ‘terrorism’ after 9/11, or even the threat of systemic ‘racism’ that has undergone a phase shift in metastasis since the death of Mr. Floyd, the Coronavirus is the most ‘made-to-order’ invisible belief that governments have had to coerce endogenous compliance from their populations in a long time, because unlike the examples cited, the actual mortality of this invisible belief means that there is less room for doubt and plausible deniability by naysayers.

Moreover, if you don’t think the Coronavirus is a carpet-bagging gold rush on coercive data collection, another tool by governments to track and surveil your movements each time you enter a shop or sit down at a café, you’re not thinking about the long-term ramifications of the short-term justifications for ‘contact tracing’.

I’ll wager that the next front in the metastasis of the Coronavirus as an invisible belief to justify coercive endogenous compliance is the wearing of masks.

Just as a global dissolution of credulity in the Coronavirus began in America with the unfortunate death of Mr. Floyd, we already begin to see that societal fault-line manifesting itself in America.  While the Victorian Government hasn’t made the wearing of masks mandatory, the Premier leant the colour of his support to the wearing of masks over the weekend.

As an identitarian flag identifying those who subscribe to the faith and those who don’t, the wearing or not wearing of masks, I wager, will soon become weaponized as another convenient tool of governments to divide populations and keep them distracted from the carpet-bagging data-grab.  Mask-wearers will be suborned by their sense of duty into policing the infidels, shaming them into compliance through viral incivility on social media.

That’s my bet.  Anyone care to take that action?

Today The Melbourne Flâneur comes to you from Sydney!

Well, the video above does, anyway.  The footage—and the story contained in the brief essay I regale you with in the video—comes from a weekend stay in the inner-city suburb of Paddington some eighteen months ago.

I had just finished a housesit in Gosford.  I had been invited to stay a couple of nights in one of those beautiful old terrace houses which are so common in Sydney, looking after a couple of dogs for the weekend before I booked back to Melbourne.

The terrace house was a couple-three blocks back from Oxford street, overlooking the Art and Design campus of the University of NSW, housed in an old brick schoolhouse.  The terrace was two storeys and a sous-sol, one of those gloriously perverse constructions with Escher-like staircases, mashed in a block of similar houses on a slight slope.

When I have a housesit, I don’t usually go out at night.  As a flâneur, the street is my home, and I feel like I spend enough time on it, spinning my wheels ça et là in search of romance and adventure.

But to be so perfectly placed in Sydney for 48 hours was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Night #1 I ambled up Darlinghurst road to Kings Cross for dinner.  I was armed with my trusty Pentax K1000 and Minolta XL-401 Super 8 camera, both loaded for bear with Kodak Tri-X film.

My mission was to scout and clout some suitably seedy Sydney scenes on celluloid.

I chowed down in an Italian joint in Potts Point; took a tour of the lighted windows of the handsome homes in that part of town; dipped the bill on the terrace of Darlo as I scratched a dispatch to myself in the pages of my journal; and bopped back towards the pad.

My bowtie drew some comment as I crossed Oxford street, but I managed to make it to the other side without being assaulted.  As I was mainlining it down South Dowling street, my eagle œil de flâneur clocked something curious in Taylor street, a narrow, one-way artery branching off the Eastern Distributor.

That’s the footage you see in the video above.  My eye was caught by the gentle, teasing undulation of the verdant leaves veiling and unveiling the moon-like gleam of the streetlamp.  I set up my camera on the corner to capture it.

I sauntered back to the terrace house and ambulated the hounds, first one and then the other, before we all reported for sack duty.  The dogs were staffies, but the older one, Bella, was weak on her pins and only needed to go as far as the corner and back.  Buster was young and vigorous, and I was under orders to give him a tour of the whole block before retiring.

I got him on the lead.  The eerie, pregnant peacefulness of Paddington after midnight, an inchoate intimation of which I had scoped in Taylor street, symbolized for me in the striptease played by the leaves and the streetlamp, took hold of me as we passed the dark terrace houses.

I tried to imagine the inconceivable lives behind these elegant façades, the way you might take the front off a doll’s house to get a glim of the works inside.  I couldn’t do it.  The lives of Sydneysiders seemed too rich and strange.

We turned the corner into Josephson street, another narrow, one-way thoroughfare similar to Taylor street.  Buster got the snoot down to do some deep investigating while yours truly lounged idly by, doing some snooping of his own.

I took a hinge on the quiet street, attempting to penetrate the poetic mood of this friendly darkness which was in Josephson street too.  This ‘mood’ seemed to be general all over this part of Paddington.  I patted the pockets of my memory.  What did this place remind me of…?

It was then that ‘The Girl’ tied into us, and if you want to know what happens next—you’ll have to scroll up and watch the video essay!

It’s adapted from a couple of paragraphs I scribbled in my journal a couple of nights later, when I was on the train back to Melbourne, meditating on my weekend as a ‘Sydney flâneur’.  As the familiar scenes unspooled beside me on the XPT, taking me away from that brief oasis of unexpected experience, a nice coda to my Central Coast ‘holiday’, I got some perspective on what that poetic mood—which possesses me in all my photographs and videos—might be.

Nothing refreshes the flâneur, that restless spirit perpetually in search ‘du nouveau’, more than a fresh city to test his navigatory chops on.  My experience traipsing the streets of Paris has given me a navigatory nonchalance in any new urban environment which often astonishes—and sometimes even alarms—people.  Put a map in front of me and I’ll betray my bamboozlement by turning it ça et là, but my sense of topographical orientation—the map I make of places in my mind—is very good indeed.  I don’t have to be in a place very long before I’m naming streets to locals as though I’ve lived there all my life.

Sydney, however, still poses a challenge for me.  One of my readers, James O’Brien, put me on to the trick.  According to James, the secret to navigating Sydney is to think of it in terms of hills and Harbour: if you’re going uphill, you’re heading towards the Blue Mountains; if you’re going downhill, you’re heading towards Sydney Harbour.

It’s a neat trick.  I wish I had known it during my 48-hour furlough in Paddington.

On the Saturday, I decided to test my mastery of Sydney in a walk which will no doubt leave my Sydney readers wondering how I managed to do it without map or compass, a tent and several days’ provisions, and the assistance of a sherpa.

And indeed, as I look at my parcours in retrospect on Google Maps, the rather incredible breadth of that expedition (which included a few wrong turns) does seem to show up the difference between a ‘Melbourne flâneur’, like yours truly, and a ‘Sydney flâneur’.

A Sydney flâneur, I dare say, would never have attempted it, because the main difference between Melbourne and Sydney is that the former is a much more ‘walkable’ city.

In Melbourne, you can walk quite a distance, if you’re inclined to.  To walk from the city to Brunswick, or from the city to St Kilda, is not a wearisome proposition.  The streets are logically arranged, the terrain is not fatiguing, and the experience is altogether a pleasurable one.

But to be a Sydney flâneur requires strategy rather than rugged endurance.

To walk from Paddington to Green Square via Bourke street, then back up to Redfern via Elizabeth street, and finally across to Newtown, with no map and nothing but the sketchy guidance of the bicycle lane to orient you, probably strikes my Sydney readers as the flânerie d’un fou.

With time out for coffee at Bourke Street Bakery and diversions for the dispensing of dosh on vintage bowties and button suspenders at Mitchell Road Antiques, how on earth did I accomplish such a trajet in one day with hardly an idea where I was going?

Je ne sais pas.  But it was a thrilling experience to walk a city which I don’t think any city planner ever intended to be seriously trod.  You may be able to travel through Melbourne without a car, but Sydney?

Though I cheated on the way back, training from Newtown to Central, and bussing from Central to Flinders street, I wasn’t done filing down the heels on my handmade Italian shoes that day.

Night #2, heavily armed with cameras, tripod and paraphernalia, I attempted an even more ambitious nocturnal sortie for a flâneur who isn’t altogether au fait with Sydney.  My plan was to make a massive foot-tour to Circular Quay and back.

I struck out along Oxford street and rambled through Hyde Park around dusk.  I inhaled a digestif at Jet, in the Queen Victoria Building, while I unburdened myself to my journal.  Then I went on the prowl, Pentax primed, tacking stealthily towards Sydney Harbour by way of George street.

There was some sort of to-do in George street between the QVB and Martin place—I forget what, but a lot of revellers and rubberneckers.  My cat-like spirit bristled at the noise and lights and I was glad to get clear of them as I stalked north.

There was a full moon set to scale the sky over the Opera House that night.  Having purchased a fresh cartridge of Tri-X from Sydney Super 8, I set up my Super 8 camera by Circular Quay, counting off a long timelapse of the Harbour under my breath and remembering how I had once, on a disastrous second date, walked past this spot, arguing about the comparative architectural merits of the Harbour Bridge vis-à-vis the Opera House with a French girl I had picked up at Darling Harbour two days earlier.

We had not been able to agree on that or on anything else that day, and I had been glad to get my luggage out of her apartment, get rid of her, and get on a train back to Melbourne.

It was getting on towards midnight.  I retraced my way back to Town Hall via Pitt street, the lunacy of the high moon and the memory of past amours working their poetic powers upon my spirit, inspiring me to squeeze off a shadowy shot with the Pentax here and there.

I was too foot-sore to trudge on to Central.  I had been on my dogs all day, so I saved some Tuscan shoe leather and shouted myself a trip on the Opal card at Town Hall station.  On the short train ride, tired as I was, I had my senses sufficiently about me to admire the hard, shiny Sydney girls, hot and fast as the slug from a Saturday night special.

Once I had had it in me to cut across their frames and charm even the hardest chica, but I was beginning to think my days as a pocket-edition Casanova were over.

I thought of the girl in Josephson street.  Was I getting fussy in my encroaching middle age?  Or was I just developing belated good taste?

When I got back to the terrace around one a.m., I got the hounds out for their third and final walk of the day, but lightning did not strike twice:  I did not see the girl in Josephson street again.

I hope you enjoyed this reminiscence of one of my flâneries.  I received a lot of positive feedback from followers and visitors to this vlog saying that they enjoyed listening to me reading the audio versions of articles I wrote on the subject of the Coronavirus.  So I decided to start releasing the soundtracks of my videos—like the one at the head of this post—for purchase via my Bandcamp profile.

For $2.00, less than the cost of a coffee, you can have my dulcet tones on your pod pour toujours.  Just click the link below to support me.

“The Melbourne Flâneur”: “The Poetics of Noir”, by Dean Kyte
“The Poetics of Noir” (2020)

Dean Kyte, as photographed by Alfonso Perez (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram).
Hors des ombres: Portrait of Dean Kyte, photographed by Alfonso Perez de Velasco.

Being a Daygamer myself (albeit one who considers himself ‘retired’ from the Game), your Melbourne Flâneur is a very tough cookie to crack: knowing every trick and technique for stopping a stranger in the street, you can’t arrest the flow of my flânerie if I don’t want to stop for you.

But photographer Alfonso Perez de Velasco (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram), ‘loitering with intent’ near the corner of Lonsdale street, caught me on a good day as I sailed confidently down Elizabeth street, and I couldn’t turn down his sincere and complimentary request to snap a portrait of me, the photo you see above.

It’s perhaps too much of a cliché to say that this talented Madrileño now living and working in Melbourne has painted me in a typically Spanish light, with shades of Ribera about me, but I think he’s captured something essential about your sombre, sombrero’d scribe, that blend of light and dark inside a single look which is eminently Goyesque.

With my humour and melancholy, my Machiavellianism and my empathy, I am nothing if not contradictory, and I think Alfonso captures that ambiguity nicely.

It’s a handsome portrait, and very much in keeping with the moody Melbourne style of Alfonso’s street scenes, which really resonate with me. Though he works in muted colour, if you check out his photos on Instagram, I think you will agree there’s a certain similarity with my own black-and-white flânographs around town.

I was feeling ‘everything plus’ that day, all suited up and sharp enough to shave with as I recovered my mantle as a man about town.

As you can just make out in the photograph, I had my chalk-stripe, slightly zootish, suit on—what I call my ‘Big Sleep suit’. It’s my take on that handsome double-breasted chalk-stripe suit that Bogart sports in The Big Sleep (1946) while he’s flirting outrageously with Lauren Bacall.

I was wearing a black shirt with a grey-and-white floral pattern, dark silver tie, black display kerchief with grey Martini glasses on it (courtesy of Fine And Dandy and Brisbane Hatters), and a dark grey vintage Stetson Whippet to cap the ensemble. The slightly clashing touch of chocolate-coloured scarf and gloves was my only concession to the tardy onset of the Melbourne winter. I had my Dunn & Co. trenchcoat slung casually over my Czechoslovakian officer’s map-case, which serves as a stylish satchel for porting my tablet.

I was everything the well-dressed writer-about-town ought to be.

I wasn’t, as Raymond Chandler says, ‘calling on four million dollars’—(tant pis)—but I was just about to call on Elite Office Machines Co. in Carlton to pick up my freshly serviced Silver Reed typewriter.

So I was feeling O.K. that day.

Dean Kyte, as photographed by Alfonso Perez (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram).
Light and dark inside a single look: Humorous and melancholic, Machiavellian and empathetic, writers are ambiguous characters.

During lockdown, I had a chance to catch up on some reading, and one of the books that came my way was Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), by Richard Martin and Harold Koda. It was written at the tail end of the ‘Greed is Good’ eighties, so there’s a touch of quaintness about the authors’ commentary: though acknowledging that standards have slipped since the 1960s, Messrs. Martin and Koda have no clue as to how far they will descend in the thirty years up to the present day.

Their thesis is simple yet compelling: ‘We believe that men are knowing in making choices among style options, and that they dress to create or recreate social roles. Both men and women seek to realize roles and identities, but since men’s options in dress would appear to be the more acutely restricted, perhaps selecting a role has assumed more importance for them than it has for women. A man’s role is his operative identity; style choices follow therefrom.’

I like the phrase ‘operative identity’, for it points to the fundamental ‘uniformity’ of men’s style, the basis of almost every garment in the masculine wardrobe in an historical military analogue.

Indeed, Martin and Koda identify twelve such ‘operative identities’ that we men tend to take on as the social rôles by which we choose to be known, and their book is arranged in an ascending hierarchy of these ‘types’, from the ‘Jocks’ and ‘Nerds’ of the title, through the ‘Military Man’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘Sportsman’, up to the ‘Businessman’, ‘Man about Town’ and ‘Dandy’.

The argument seems true that, due to the mobility of action that is the masculine prerogative, at a certain point early in a man’s life, he chooses the rôle that he is going to play, the branch of ‘the Services’ he is going to go into.

Is he going to be a soldier? a blue-collar worker? a white-collar worker? a professor? There’s a ‘uniform’ for every métier that men undertake, and even the most récherché uniform, that of a literary dandy like yours truly, is thoroughly—albeit subtly—based in a military antecedent.

Martin and Koda go on to say: ‘Conventional wisdom has it that men dress to be conventional, but those with insight into male dress might hold that men dress to realize dreams, to be themselves through being someone other than themselves. If, as Shakespeare would have it, “apparel oft proclaims the man,” perhaps it is true that it both claims and proclaims him.’

I agree, for not only do we know a man by the uniform he wears, but the key point is that, unlike for the dames, our trade, boulot or profession is our operative identity: a man is the job he does, and in subscribing to the uniform, he subscribes equally to the professional etiquette of the rôle.

We have certain expectations of the cowboy, just as we have certain others of the lawyer, and the man who inhabits the uniform of either trade will seek earnestly to inhabit the professional expectations we have of him.

Indeed, for most men, it is a point of honour that their behaviour and comportment is congruent with the deportment of their life’s rôle.

But is there, you may ask, really a ‘uniform’ for a writer?

Well, Martin and Koda are instructive on this point, for not only is their book liberally seasoned with pictures of men of letters, but it opens with a spread lifted from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar Uomo in which a contemporary spin is placed on the ‘looks’ of such literary giants as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller, among others, demonstrating that men who spend their lives ‘off the stage of life’, cloistered in their studies, may be equally ‘leaders of fashion’ to other men.

‘Would a businessman care to walk in the shoes of James Joyce?’ Martin and Koda ask. ‘In the intimacy of a clothing decision, he might, signalling an affinity with the writer. … [T]he male chooses a family tree, a heritage, a sense of identity or likeness that is most compelling because it is not enunciated but simply visually implied.’

And indeed, surveying this spread and the other portraits of writers in this book, one sees a subtle uniform ‘visually implied’: the rakish chapeau, the tie—whether straight or bow—which is more alluring than the usual garotted neckwear, the suit of emphatic cut, or of bold stripes or mysterious patterns, the raincoat which is ported quixotically in all weathers.

I have observed elsewhere on this vlog the unusual number of writers who tend to be dandies. Why should we men of letters, cloistered away from celebrity-hungry eyes in our airy towers of intellect, be so passionate about such an ephemeral subject as fashion?

Well, as I said in my post on ‘What is a flâneur?’, there is no better prima facie indication of an orderly mind than the attention to detail that a man pays to his deportment. If a man cannot order the outer world of his person—(or, worse still, declines to do so, for this betrays a manque of strategy in his thinking)—it is doubtful whether he possesses the energies to order his abstract inner world through words.

In his book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore (2017), fashion journalist Terry Newman made a close reading of thirty authors and their sartorial style, arguing that the distinction between the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ man of letters is not really as invidious as one might think at first glance, with an analogue of the writer’s unique literary style manifesting in the arena of his personal style.

Reversing the lens, is there anything that could be divined about my style as a writer from how I dress?

Dean Kyte, as photographed by Alfonso Perez (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram).
Dandy in the underworld: The dandy and the gangster both appropriate and subvert the businessman’s style.

Well, judging from Alfonso’s pictures, I probably look like the man who runs the Melbourne underworld. More than once have others compared my sartorial style—the love of loud pinstripes and clashing contrasts of dark shirts and light-coloured ties—with that of Al Capone.

As Philip Mann observes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), the gangster, like the dandy, masters the sober uniform of the Businessman and pushes it to a récherché extreme, beyond the conventions of conservative rectitude, to the point of parody. The gangster, like the dandy, is the rebellious ‘inversion’ of the rôle of the Businessman. But whereas the dandy in some sense ‘satirizes’ the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Establishment, the gangster savagely exposes the blood on the Businessman’s hands, making no bones about the fact that the easy wealth of his ill-gotten gains comes from ‘making a killing’.

Certainly, the rather Italianate character of my prose, full of mannerist touches, might have an analogue in my Medicean love of outrageous intrigue.

It’s interesting to note that the Businessman eschews black in his wardrobe, whereas the gangster and the dandy both revel in it. As Martin and Koda say, ‘The rebel wears black. … Black serves as a sign of social militancy and provocation for men in a way that it does not for women. … [M]en in this century have worn gray or a limited palette of colors in deliberate avoidance of black. When black enters the wardrobe, it arrives with arresting authority and with a social goad.’

It’s the colour not merely of the transgressive Businessman personified by the gangster, but the colour of artists and poets, according to Martin and Koda. Citing Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion (1988), they describe the ‘triumph of black’ habitually ported by Charles Baudelaire as a ‘bohemian black’ which synthesizes the poet’s aspirations towards the Establishment of the French Academy with his inescapable outcast nature as an unreconstructable renegade.

And in its rebellious association with men who are intellectual threats to the established order of their societies, there is not merely something ‘clerical’ in the nature of black, according to Martin and Koda, but something perversely ‘spiritual’ about this most abjured colour: there is an almost satanic ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ about black, and the man who takes on the rebellious rôle of artist or poet takes on the uniform of an heretical priesthood, dedicating himself to ‘l’art pour l’art’.

I don’t know that I’m so habitually ensconced in black as I am in Alfonso’s photos, but certainly the Velázquean voluptuousness and elegance of black, its noirish, tenebrist radiance—with all the ambiguity and contradictions it suggests—makes it a staple of my wardrobe, a colour that synæsthetically resonates with my nature.

It’s a colour which symbolically connotes a man—whether he be gangster, spy, priest or poet—engaged in some shadowy enterprise, and as I said above, a writer’s work takes place ‘off-stage’, in the ‘backstage’ of life.

Nevertheless, there is a subdued ‘flamboyance’ about the writer: taking the stage only retroactively in the imagination of his readers, the deeply introverted, dandified man of letters perhaps sublimates his repressed performativity in the dark radiance of his uniform.

The trenchcoat, that outrageously démodé relic of the First World War has, ‘[i]n an almost inexplicable combination of meanings and implications,’ according to Martin and Koda, become inextricably associated with men who make their living by the pen and the typewriter, whether they are reporters or writers.

It has transformed itself, they say, from its weatherable functionality as a dependable part of an officer’s uniform, to the ‘sign of the individualist’ in civilian life.

‘It has since come to be identified with good taste,’ Martin and Koda write, ‘but with romantic overtones associated with writers, artists, and individualists…. Defying the convention of the wool overcoat, some men have insisted on wearing the trench coat as standard outer wear, not waiting for rain to justify the versatile and quixotic coat of the visionary….’

On the day Alfonso snapped me, I had just conveyed my freshly relined woollen overcoat to the dry-cleaner in anticipation of the Melbourne winter, so I just had my trenchcoat with me as a potential topcoat.

I would have had it anyway, for in Melbourne, one needs to be prepared for any eventuality—even at the risk of appearing ‘quixotic’—and I rarely step out the door without my trusty Dunn & Co. raincoat, which can equally serve as sufficient insulation against an autumnal Melbourne breeze.

I think the ‘visionary’ nature of this article of apparel probably stems from the ‘quixotic’ tendency of certain careful men (as any man of letters should be) to port it in all weathers, as a dependable, respectable, all-weather topcoat.

Winston Churchill, visionary individualist as a statesman, though quixotic to his contemporaries, was the writer not only prescient enough to foresee ‘the gathering storm’ of the Second World War from a long way off, but was the historian capable of compassing its complexity in retrospect, and he stubbornly ported his Aquascutum in fair weather as in foul.

With certain American writers—Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs among them—the trenchcoat has attained to the status of a signature element in their wardrobes, its patrician associations with officer’s garb and its democratic appropriation after the First World War suggesting a reversal of these writers’ pulpy American origins and their take-up by sophisticated Parisian publishers.

The trenchcoat’s style, like their literary styles, suggests the ‘down-at-heels’ elegance of a declassed gentleman.

For myself, being fundamentally a Parisian at heart, the trenchcoat is an ‘incontournable’ part of my uniform as a flâneur. It’s both strange and a testament to its hardiness and adaptability that this fundamentally British article should undergo so many transatlantic crossings, becoming indissociably associated in the public imaginary first with America, as the garment-of-trade of the intrepid reporter and gumshoe, and then with the French capital, as the grey flag of world-weary existentialists like Camus and Sartre, the tails of their raincoats flapping against the grey Parisian sky.

More than London, the trenchcoat, as article of choice of both Philip Marlowe and Jef Costello, seems as much the symbol of rainless L.A. as of perennially grey Paris, and Melbourne, sharing something of the atmospheric effects of the latter, is also a city in which the incognito camouflage of its mysterious greyness is appropriate for the writer-flâneur, a man whose profession is to be an ‘undercover reporter’ of life.

The thing about a trenchcoat is that, like a hat or a good pair of shoes, it requires the patina of age to look elegant. As Messrs. Miller and Burroughs demonstrate, a trenchcoat needs to look fashionably rumpled—like those gents themselves.

I’ve had my dun-coloured Dunn & Co. almost all my adult life—and it’s probably older than I am, since I acquired it in an op-shop on the Gold Coast when I was a mere gamin of twenty, by which time the venerable British brand had gone the way of all fashion.

It has traipsed with me through the jardin du Luxembourg, as my sole insulation against miserable days in Paris, just as it has served as an improvised blanket under which to do some fooling around with demoiselles Daygamed in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.

The Fedora and the trenchcoat, as the crown and the gown of your Melbourne Flâneur, this ‘prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’, as M. Baudelaire says, are probably the key symbols of my style, both personal and literary.

I’m most grateful to Alfonso Perez de Velasco for his handsome portraits of me, and I recommend that you check out his Instagram or visit his website to see more of his photographs, including Melbourne street scenes, other denizens of our fair city, and interesting travel pictures from around Asia.

As Coronavirus restrictions ease, today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I get out and about for the first time in two months, taking a flânerie to Bacchus Marsh.

Don’t be deceived by the boggy name: Bacchus Marsh is actually quite a nice place to visit, particularly at the start of winter, when all the trees along Grant street, leading from the station to the township, set up an arcade of red and yellow leaves for you to amble under.

At Maddingley Park, I take a breather at the rotunda to share with you a sneak preview of the manuscript for my next book—a 31-page handwritten letter to my seven-year-old niece, which I wrote during lockdown.

As soon as things got too hairy on the streets, your Melbourne Flâneur, that aristocrat of the gutter, folded up pack, shack and stack and got his handmade Italian brogues parked in more private and stable accommodation than he is used to treating himself to.

For two months, I was sequestered in a West Melbourne hotel room, my world reduced to a single window looking out on a narrow sliver of upper King street.  If I crowded into the left side of the window and craned my neck, I could entertain myself by trying to work out on what streets all the tall buildings in the Melbourne CBD were planted.

To say (as I do in the video) that I felt like I was in a ‘gilded prison’ is not to deprecate the kind folks at the Miami Hotel, who I’m very happy to recommend to any visitors to our fair city, but rather to suggest what a strange and vivid time it was to be a writer of a peripatetic persuasion, one who finds his home in the crowd.

In Australia, in the early days of the lockdown, we saw scenes of people returning from overseas being bundled and bullied into suites at Crown, on the government’s tab, and exercising, like les bons bourgeois that they are, their privilege to grouse on Instagram that their confinement in palatial conditions was not up to scratch.

These people enjoyed little sympathy from me.  As a writer, the argument that such palatial prison conditions were doing a permanent injury to their mental health cut no ice.  Rather, if the mental health of people forced to enjoy such self-isolation at Her Majesty’s expense deteriorates, it is evidence of how little developed are the mental resources of a chattering class to whom every ease and privilege is given in a society that clamours after more and more leisure aided and abetted by technology.

Harsh words, I’ll admit, but as a writer, I found my more modest confinement at the Miami a unique historical privilege which reconnected me with the ancient heritage of my craft and profession.

As soon as I was undercover, as those of you who followed my commentary on the Coronavirus crisis know, fearing the worst, I went straight to work and tried to scratch out every idea and cobble together every piece of research I could find in an effort to make good sense of what the continental was going on outside my little room.

For reasons of historical precedent I’ll explain, I felt—and feel—that the moral responsibility of the writer in a time of crisis is to throw the skills of his profession at the task of collective sensemaking.

And so, while my confrères at Crown faffed and fapped on Facebook and engaged in other acts of mental masturbation with their mobiles, I wrote.

And in fact, apart from penning six long articles on the Coronavirus (which, collectively, could constitute a book on their own), I wrote an entire book—five drafts in two months—for my little niece, attempting to explain the situation to her.

The fifth and final draft takes the form of a 31-page handwritten letter to my niece.  It took 25 hours to write, and you can see in the video what the entire manuscript looks like.  When spread out in three rows across a table capable of comfortably seating eight people, the manuscript is still wider than the tabletop.

It was an extraordinary experience to ‘write a book by hand’.  I thought, when I sat down to handwrite the final draft, that it was simply going to be a ‘copy job’, that I was not going to add anything new or creative to what I had worked up in the previous four drafts.

But when I got in front of the first page of my personalised stationery, when I had my two Montblanc Noblesse fountain pens (one filled with Mystery Black, the other with Corn Poppy Red ink) primed, the experience of committing myself to the words I intended to publish felt like no other book I have written.

Suddenly, the page became a ‘stage’ for me.  I was on the stage, and this was the performance.  The four previous drafts were mere ‘rehearsals’ for the Big Night, and having learnt my ‘script’, I felt free to improvise upon it, to add and change things as I spontaneously wrote the message of hope and support I intended to communicate to my niece.

Sometimes my eyes even filled with tears as I wrote.

If you know what a ‘Flaubertian’ writer I am, how much I bleed to get a single word onto the page that I am even provisionally satisfied with, you can imagine what an experience it is to write a book that is a ‘spontaneous performance’, where the words I ultimately committed myself to as the words I intended to say for all time to my niece about the Coronavirus, about the rôle of technology in human development, about the future of her generation, were as ‘humanly imperfect’ as only the words of a handwritten letter can be.

If you’re intrigued to know what I had to say to my niece, I give you a sample of the first few pages in the video above.

And it’s not simply the fact that the ‘spontaneity’ of a handwritten letter gives the book a sense of the ‘humanly imperfect’;—it’s in the fact of writing the text by hand itself.

It’s hard to remember, at our technological remove, that for most of human history, most writers have actually written—by hand.  No typewriters, and certainly no computers.  Truman Capote’s disparaging remark of Jack Kerouac—‘That’s not writing; that’s just typing’—could, regrettably, be applied to most so-called ‘writers’ of the 20th and 21st centuries.

This isn’t merely an élitist distinction.  There’s a qualitatively different experience to writing a complex work by hand.  The genius-level cognitive co-ordination of hand, eye and brain that James Joyce and Marcel Proust enjoyed would not have produced the greatest novels of the 20th century if these gents had been trained to peck out their thoughts—even at the touch-typist level of virtuosity—rather than guide a fountain pen fluidly across a page.

Moreover, I don’t think it’s coincidental that James Ellroy, who I regard as the greatest living writer, works a mano, has never used a computer, and reportedly doesn’t own a mobile phone.  This is a man who eschews distraction and espouses deep focus.  The density of his plotting and the inventiveness of his language are testaments to the profound cognitive relationship between writing by hand and the capacity to compass complexity through the abstract symbology of written language.

And though I often get compliments on my handwriting, when I look in awe at the handsome copperplate of some 18th- and 19th-century writers, so perfect-seeming and consistent as to appear to be machine-etched, I feel like the Queensland Modern Cursive of the words I have committed to the page for all time in this book are less ‘elegant’ than I should have liked my niece to read.

But, en revanche, writing a book where the final printed text will be ‘by my own hand’—in the most literal sense—gave me a feeling of reconnecting to the ancient art of my profession—dating back to those scribes whose elegant calligraphy has communicated such ancient books as Genji Monogatari down through ten centuries to us.

We’re too acclimatized to the profound revolution in writing which Gutenberg’s invention of movable type opened up for us nearly 600 years ago.  We don’t remember that most books—the Bible or Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry—were handwritten, illuminated manuscripts.  Our over-familiarity with type and font, the uniformity of letters and ‘standardization’ of print, has fundamentally changed the nature of what we mean, in the 21st century, by the word ‘writing’, forgetting that machine-printed words are not, as Truman Capote observed, writing at all (in the sense of creative human agency), but typing.

And so, although my handwriting in this book is less than consistent from first page to last, the letters being less ‘uniform’ and ‘standard’ than we are used to expect in a book made since Gutenberg’s time, I quite like the notion of having written a book for my niece which I hope will have the feel of an illuminated manuscript, like an ancient spiritual text, something that connects her, in this hour of crisis for humanity, with all the crises the generations of humanity have endured before her.

For it’s equally hard to remember, let alone imagine, in the 21st century, that most human beings have not known how to read or to write.  The profession of ‘scribe’ has always been a noble one—at least until the failed experiment of universal education depreciated it.

If any subtle message might be shaken out of the long articles I wrote on the Coronavirus during lockdown, perhaps it is the conviction that, in the most educated era that humanity has never known, this unnecessary débâcle could—and should—have been avoided.  That it wasn’t can be laid squarely at the feet of universal education, which has manifestly failed to realize its promise of making each successive generation more intelligent and engaged with the world than the last.

When you master written language, your capacity to verbally reason, to accurately perceive and interpret the pattern within chaotic events, is increased.  If you can write, if you can corral your thoughts in words, you become profoundly dangerous.

Is it any wonder that writers are always the first folks to be housed in the hoosegow when some authoritarian jefe comes to power?

It’s for this reason that the art of the scribe was kept out of the paws of the plebs for so many centuries.  To write—to really write—is to think, and I look with disgust—for my niece’s sake—upon a world where people are increasingly put through sixteen to twenty years of formal education and yet are still peasants in their thinking, giving no more evidence of being able to marshal and master their thoughts in a coherent, complex, logical argument than our magickal-thinking forebears.

As I say to my niece in the book, we are no more ‘advanced’ than our earliest ancestors.  It is simply that we are habituated to more complicated conditions of life.

The lockdown was a period when it was easy—too easy—for people to succumb to boredom and ennui, to indulge digitally in the lassitude and laziness which is the Shadow of our speed-mad species.  Prey to ‘the vultures of the mind’, undistracted by our manifold distractions, and oppressed by the very leisure that we clamour for, most people probably tried to drown themselves all the more in the delusive fakery and shallow abyss of screens during their ‘holiday from life’.

But—thank God—I am a writer, which means I was not wigged out at being locked in a hotel room with only my thoughts for company for two months.  Like William Blake, through my self-isolation I had mental health and mental wealth to sustain me.  Instead of seeking distraction, I was able to pour out the very resources of thought as ink onto paper.

Most writers, I realized as I stood at my window, looking, it seemed, at an invisible tempest swirling through the streets of Melbourne, have lived in times of profound chaos and unrest.  The privilege of education, the noble calling of their profession, enjoins upon them the moral responsibility to be ‘a witness to chaos’.

Whether natural disasters have disrupted the times they live in, or whether their societies have undergone enormous upheavals due to war or political division, the writer is the ‘journalist’, the faithful witness and reporter on ‘what life was like’ at these moments of history.

If you can write, by which I mean, if you can really think; if you have mastered, through the long apprenticeship of education, the abstract symbology of written language to the point where you can make dexterous calculations in the algebra of verbal reasoning, you cannot stand idly by at these moments, but the capacity to think, to reason, to explore ideas through language, and ultimately to shed some clarity on chaos by writing down the formula, the pattern of order you perceive in the disorder swirling all around you, is a moral mission arising from the competency of your professional cognitive skills.

As I stood at the window of my cell, I felt connected, in some spiritual way, with some of the great writers of history whose lives have passed in the midst of chaos.  Somehow their handwritten words have survived earthquakes, wars and plagues to guide humanity because some clarity in their delicate perceptions was worth preserving, despite the rending chaos which could easily have torn their words in shreds and scattered them to the winds.

Particularly, I felt a connection to that writer who is one of the most astute calculators of chaos in human affairs, il gran’ signor Machiavelli.  Many a time I stood at my window in those two months, blind, like Mr. Kurtz, to what I was looking at as I meditated on the horror of our time and the fears I have for my little niece’s future, and I felt like the divine, diabolical Niccolò avidly surveying the carnage of Florence as it continually changed hands.

He, I knew, would have loved to have been alive in this moment of global upheaval and naked power grabs.

This is not a situation I would wish on my niece.  But just as I feel privileged to have lived through such a crisis myself, I also think it’s a good thing for her to have experienced a world-historical event like a global pandemic so early in her life, and I hope the words I am going to give to her shortly will equally stand as an experiential guide for her going forward, something that will help to orient her as this event has done.

I am now at the design and layout stage, so the book will shortly be available for sale in the Dean Kyte Bookstore.  If you would like to register your interest in purchasing a copy when it becomes available, you can do so by dropping me a line via the Contact form, and I’ll be sure to get in touch with you as soon as it is ready for release.

Errol street, North Melbourne, evening, photographed by Dean Kyte.
Errol street, North Melbourne, evening.

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

In my previous post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I discussed the crisis in schematic collective sensemaking which the Coronavirus situation has exposed.

I stated that the pollution of our collective sensemaking environment, the ‘cognitive commons’ of the Internet, through a generalized game-theoretic strategy of viral incivility online has created the conditions for a wholesale descent into species-wide psychosis.

The Coronavirus crisis has exposed the multi-polar schizophrenia of our collective schema for apprehending and making good sense of reality.  Our individual capacities to make good decisions and take effective actions with respect to the reality of our situation is impaired, and this cumulative impairment of individual capacities has synergistic ramifications for our species’ capacities to make good collective decisions and take good collective actions to arrest the virus.

Moreover, the Coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our entangled, globalized supply chains.

If you think that good schematic collective sensemaking is tangential rather than fundamental to the systemic problems which the Coronavirus has exposed, I invite you to look carefully at supply chains.

In a superindustrial world where the citizens of developed nations don’t hunt and gather for themselves, but are wholly dependent upon an international network of strangers to provide for them, nowhere is the capacity of groups of people to make good collective sense of a situation and take efficient and effective action towards it more critical—more essential, as our governments insist on calling it—to collective wellbeing than in supply chains.

Here in Australia, the Department of Defence’s former Director of Preparedness and Mobilisation, Cheryl Durrant, released a confidential report she had commissioned last year on the state of the nation’s supply chains.

Ms. Durrant invited seventeen engineers from Australia’s key industries to a private meeting here in Melbourne.  She wanted to understand how the national supply chain would fare in the event of three distinct crises—including a global pandemic.

On Day 0, the engineers determined, there would be public hoarding, such as we saw with toilet paper, soap and hand sanitiser, and businesses would engage in ‘shortage gaming’—inflating their upstream demands for supply.

By the end of Week 1, water treatment systems in Australia would start to fail and a mass decoupling of labour would begin throughout the workforce.  By the end of Week 2, the national supply chain would be under stress.

By the end of Month 1, food would begin to run out and logistics would be impacted by fuel shortages.

And by the end of Month 3, we would be living in the Mad Max world.

A national depression would have taken hold, and the population would have become ungovernable because the supply chain was completely broken: no continuous electricity; water and sanitisation snafu’d; cyber security and undersea communication cables seriously degraded.

If you’re interested in reading the ABC article, I put a link to it here.

Just three months of supply separate Australia from complete anarchy and civilizational collapse.  If you don’t regard this very material, existential problem in the maintenance of supply as fundamentally a problem in the more abstract realm of collective sensemaking, allow me to lay out the argument for you.

Much of what I’m going to say, with respect to the Coronavirus, is focused on the global charitable supply chain, which has some fundamental differences to the commercial supply chain.  But I think the argument I am going to make can equally be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the challenges which the global commercial supply chain is facing in this pandemic.

The two most significant differences which are relevant to this analysis, but which are equivalent in the circumstances we currently find ourselves, are the inherent instability of not-for-profit supply chains as compared to their for-profit counterparts, and the question of who the ultimate ‘customer’ of the not-for-profit supply chain actually is.

In the first instance, the commercial supply chain, though it obviously has to deal with perturbation and disruption, has to deal with far less of it in the course of ordinarily doing business than the charitable supply chain.  The latter must be agile and resilient enough to cope with perturbation and disruption as a matter of course:—its charge is to establish lines of supply precisely in circumstances where the normal commercial supply chain has broken down.

The commercial supply chain has some capacity for resilience incorporated in its design, but it’s basically intended to operate in circumstances of stability.  The charitable supply chain tends to be more agile than resilient, as it is typically deployed in circumstances of great instability, although in time-critical emergencies it must obviously demonstrate extraordinary temporary resilience to cope with perturbation.

Moreover, it’s typically charged with ameliorating the social and environmental externalities of the commercial supply chain, which, as a for-profit entity, is better resourced than its not-for-profit counterpart.  This lack of parity in resources means that the charitable supply chain needs to be leaner and more agile in the deployment of its resources, which tends to undermine its resilience.

Indeed, as Oloruntoba and Gray noticed in their 2006 research paper “Humanitarian aid: an agile supply chain?”, there is evidence of a frequent lack of planning in not-for-profit supply chains.  This is perhaps surprising because, as Tomasini and Van Wassenhove observed, the cost of supply chain logistics typically constitutes 80 per cent of an humanitarian organization’s overhead.

You might imagine that charities would want to get such a figure down, since it absorbs most of the donations they receive and eats into the funds they have available to spend on their programs.  But as not-for-profit entities, their resources are already stretched pretty thin, and, as Arya and Mittendorf discovered in their 2016 paper “Donor Reliance on Accounting and its Consequences for the Charitable Distribution Channel”, even if it were possible for charities to hold the administrative costs associated with planning and rationalizing their supply chains steady, donors’ perception of the length of the supply chain still significantly influences their readiness to give.

And this leads me neatly to the second question:  Who is the ultimate ‘customer’ for goods and services delivered by the charitable supply chain?  The answer is not as obvious as might appear on the face of it.

In the for-profit sector, the answer is obvious: anyone giving us money in exchange for goods and services is our customer.

All the efforts of the commercial supply chain, therefore, are geared towards optimizing it for the most efficient and effective means of putting goods and services into the hands of customers because we are, ultimately, seeking the most efficient and effective means of taking cash out of their hands.

The implications for collective sensemaking should be obvious.  The schema of the commercial supply chain is oriented around the profit motive, and all the actors within the commercial supply chain, whether organizationally or as individuals, are on the same page about what every decision they make and every action they take is intended to accomplish.

Profit is a nice means of getting people to co-operate in a common endeavour.

In my previous post, I cited the research of Luís M. A. Bettencourt into the emergent properties of information aggregation with regards to the collective intelligence of non-expert groups.  As Bettencourt points out, we have some rather ubiquitous global collective intelligence networks that operate to connect supply chains both domestically and internationally.

They’re called markets.

But as Bettencourt points out, the efficacy of markets as collective intelligence networks is patchy at best.  Under conditions where the profit motive is not unchecked by means of the pricing mechanism, the group of non-experts who collectively constitute a market can accurately assess the relative value of goods and services.

But there are also legions of instances where markets, as collective sensemaking networks, get the value of things psychotically wrong—‘psychotic’ in the clinical sense.  Their schizophrenic perceptions and assessments of the relative value of things in the marketplace become completely divorced from reality.

This is what happens when ‘bubbles’ occur in markets.

According to Bettencourt, in situations of great entropic uncertainty such as the one we are currently facing, the individuals who constitute markets fall back on heuristics, cognitive biases towards loss aversion, and irrational behaviours such as ‘decision herding’.

‘… [T]he general structure of markets certainly has the potential for aggregating information efficiently,’ Bettencourt writes.  ‘The Achilles heel of markets resides, however, on the sources of correlation between traders.

‘… Thus any behavioral heuristic or external sign that destroys the independent decision making and actions of participants in a market can potentially destroy the efficiency of the market as a whole.  Because such endogenous and exogenous coordinating mechanisms are ubiquitous, it is important to recognize that markets may be (temporarily) wrong in pricing assets….’

Indeed, we currently have such a problem in our markets, a psychotic divorce between value demanded and actual value delivered which has had deleterious effects on the collective sensemaking network of the commercial supply chain.

But this collective inability to correctly perceive the relative value of things threatens to damage the charitable supply chain even more egregiously at a time when its capacity for the agile distribution of aid to people in need, and its capacity to demonstrate extraordinary temporary resilience in unstable conditions, are needed to meet the disruption and perturbation presented by the Coronavirus.

In my first post on the Coronavirus, I described our global financial system (citing economist Eric Weinstein) as a ‘global Ponzi scheme’, one in which value demanded has become radically decoupled from actual value delivered.

The price signal, which is the cornerstone of markets’ efficiency, has become hyper-inflated.

More specifically, the corollary of the price signal—good old-fashioned ‘profit’—has significantly distorted the signal which markets, as collectives of non-expert individuals, perceive as the relative value of goods and services provisioned through the commercial supply chain.

In the early days of the Coronavirus crisis, before the bug had really crept ashore, we saw in Australia a classic anecdotal example of how markets irrationally, psychotically react when entropic uncertainty suddenly rises to disturb the collective schema of supply.  It was a display of poor collective sensemaking which sent the price signal—and the profit motive—stratospherically spiralling.

When people got ‘caught short’ (pardon the pun) with respect to toilet paper, hoarding and profiteering sent the humble roll rolling like a bowling ball through the commercial supply chain, disrupting it significantly.  Due, I would contend, to the non-transparency of the commercial supply chain, the schematic perception of scarcity on the demand side of the equation was not allayed by protestations on the supply side that there was enough toilet paper to go round.

In other words, the schema of information surrounding supply with respect to toilet paper was incomplete to consumers.  There was a sudden surge in entropic uncertainty concerning this issue, and the non-transparency of the commercial supply chain made it difficult for consumers to attenuate their uncertainty without relying upon trust.

And when, as we have seen in other posts in this series, trust is eroded by the profit motive, there is little incentive for non-experts outside the schema of knowledge pertaining to a given field to trust the protestations of experts within it.

Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci told the ABC’s 7:30 program on 18 March that there was no problem with the supply of toilet paper—provided the supermarket and its competitors didn’t have to suddenly provide for the equivalent of double the national population.

Mr. Banducci stated that the disruption to the supply chain was not due to problems on the supply side, but that it was ‘unequivocally true’ that disruption was due to a surge in demand on the customers’ side.

The price that people were willing to pay for toilet paper—(the value they suddenly attached to it)—chased profit—(the value that unscrupulous hoarders were capable of demanding for toilet paper)—up a dizzying spiral staircase that had no rational relationship with the item’s actual value.

This anecdote gives evidence of the schizophrenic behaviour that possesses markets on both the supply and demand side when collective sensemaking goes awry.  It points to the fundamental disjuncture between the price signal and the profit motive which has ramifications for the collective sensemaking capacity of supply chains both commercial and charitable.

When we understand that the commercial supply chain, as it exists in markets underwritten by the relationship between the price signal and profit motive, is not fundamentally there to most efficiently and effectively supply tangible goods and intangible services to customers, but to most efficiently and effectively separate customers from their cash, we begin to perceive what the problem is for collective sensemaking in the not-for-profit supply chain.

The ‘market environment’ and the assumptions of price and profit which are the pillars of this collective sensemaking network are not suitable metrics of efficiency and effectiveness to apply to the not-for-profit supply chain.

Nevertheless, as we live in a networked environment of markets, the apple of not-for-profit enterprise must somehow make itself comparable to the orange of for-profit enterprise which preponderates and predominates in this environment.

So when we ask who the ultimate customer is for the goods and services supplied by charity, we discover that the ‘customer’ is not the person to whom charitable goods and services are ultimately being delivered because, as Oloruntoba and Gray point out, this person ‘seldom enters into a commercial transaction and has little control over supplies.’

Instead, just as in the commercial supply chain, the ‘customer’ for charitable goods and services is the person who ponies up the dough—the donor.

It sounds obviously irrational.  Yet it isn’t the fault of poor logic, but of poor collective sensemaking.  The logic of markets being applied to an area of human exchange which is not a market transaction based on price and profit does not compute.

Moreover, when (as we have seen in the case of toilet paper profiteering) the price signal of markets is distorted by the profit motive for centralized gain in a zero-sum game-theoretic dynamic, the application of for-profit supply chain principles to the not-for-profit distribution of goods and services to people in crisis compounds the problem in sensemaking which begins at first principles with the invalid application of market logic to charity.

I stated earlier that one of the defining characteristics of the charitable supply chain is its instability.  It can and does break down at the delivery point.  It can equally break down at any point along the chain of provision due to the extraordinary perturbations it must seek to withstand.

But—perhaps counterintuitively—the place where the charitable supply chain is most unstable is not at its delivery point, but at the head of the supply chain—the gathering point of donations for distribution to people in need.

This instability is due to the uncertain nature of funding for entities who are operating on a not-for-profit basis in a for-profit market environment.

As economic agents in a market environment predicated on the profit motive, charities must play by the same rules as for-profit enterprises and compete for the cash of governments and private donors.

In other words, their supply chains also need to be optimized so as to most efficiently and effectively separate cash from the hands of their ‘customers’.

You can see how this creates a logical problem in collective sensemaking.

For while the chain of charitable supply ought actually to be focused on most efficiently and effectively distributing aid to people in need, the market’s assumption that the person who has the cash is the same person who has a problem that the spending of cash can solve leads the charitable supply chain to double back on itself and concentrate its supply efforts primarily on obtaining resources and only secondarily on distributing them.

Moreover, as Oloruntoba and Gray point out, in the market environment where rivalrous not-for-profit supply chains are forced to compete for cash, ‘donors [are] generally more sympathetic to emergencies than longer-term aid and development….’

In my second post on the Coronavirus, I hazarded an intuition as to why an urgent, visible crisis such as a global pandemic catalyzes collective action when a more exponentially urgent yet invisible crisis such as global climate change does not.

The reason I put forth was that, when crises are collectively apprehensible by the sensorium of all the individuals in a group, and when individual impressions of clear and present danger can be compared via the vector of free speech, there is little doubt in the collective sensemaking environment as to what the problem is and what action needs to be taken to mitigate disaster.

When, on the other hand (as in the case of global climate change), a crisis is so vast—not only spatially, but temporally—that it cannot be immediately apprehended by the collective sensorium of individuals, doubt as to the reality of the looming catastrophe enters into the collective sensemaking environment, and the vector of free speech tends to obfuscate rather than enlighten the situation.

It does not matter that a putative crisis such as climate change is gathering momentum on an exponential several orders of magnitude greater than the Coronavirus.  Its spatial and temporal vastness puts such paradoxical breaks of inertia upon it that, even if the wave is bearing down on us at a rate of acceleration which makes the virus seem like a Model-T Ford by comparison, the wave is so huge that it is still beyond the limits of our individual senses to perceive.

It is not until it has narrowed to a point where the crest is right over our heads, when causes and effects can be linked by our senses, that, individually and as a collective, we will be able to perceive the clear and present threat of climate change and act to prevent it.

Until that point, global climate change is not an ‘urgent emergency’ for collective sensemaking as the global pandemic is, but a long-term crisis for which we have little sympathy and patience when it comes to funding charitable enterprises seeking to ameliorate it.

The sensual immediacy of a crisis focuses our perceptions of risk and implicitly co-ordinates our collective sensemaking response.  In my last post, I explained how the Ushahidi crisis-mapping platform acts to synchronize individual schemas into a collective schema which serves to slash entropic uncertainty around crises where the commercial supply chain has broken down and co-ordinate charitable response.

Our natural empathy is collectively activated when we see people in conditions of unmistakable crisis, and where charities might ordinarily find their funding tenuous in long-term projects of amelioration, they suddenly see a generous influx of resources from donors at the head of the supply chain.

But this creates a further problem in sensemaking.  I stated above that Arya and Mittendorf found that the bias which donors exhibit towards short-term emergencies as compared to long-term missions has significant repercussions for how charities organize their supply chains.

More specifically, in a climate of competition for donors’ dollars, a charity in the unenviable position of having a long-term mission is tempted to decentralize and externalize its supply chain—and thus lower its perceived overhead—disbursing funds to subsidiary charities to deliver key aspects of the mission.

Arya and Mittendorf state: ‘… [D]onor emphasis on reported program expenses puts charities in a bind—they must skimp on either administrative or fundraising infrastructure if they have any hope of generating funds from a skeptical public and this, in turn, facilitates a starvation cycle from which charities cannot fully recover….’

In 2015, Taticchi, Garengo, Nudrupati, Tonelli, and Pasqualino undertook a review of the literature on the relationship between networked Decision Support Tools (DSTs), Decision Support Systems (DSSs), and the Performance Measurements (PMs) generated by these interfaces in sustainable supply chains—that is, in supply chains seeking to balance the triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and social costs.

Although they focused on the commercial rather than the charitable supply chain, obviously the not-for-profit sector is at the forefront of trying to balance the economic, environmental and social impacts of its supply chain, and I think the findings of Taticchi et al. are relevant to the charitable sector.

Certainly, the collective sensemaking environment of the global charitable supply chain would benefit enormously from transparent tools and systems which supported efficient and effective decision-making by providing charities with PMs more in line with their social and environmental missions.

In the current non-transparent, market-based environment where charities are competing with each other for the cash of ‘sceptical donors’, as Arya and Mittendorf observe, the only PMs available to charities and donors alike are financial accounting metrics—and these are hardly transparent DSTs.

For organizations earnestly seeking to balance their triple bottom lines, accounting metrics are obviously not the best PMs for quantifying the efficiency and effectiveness of a charity’s initiatives with respect to its mission fulfilment.

The profit motive, which in the case of charities is translated into acquiring funds at the head of their supply chains, interferes with downstream delivery of the mission—which is primarily of a social and/or environmental, and only secondarily of an economic, nature.  The necessity to satisfy the economic bottom line of program spending for donors presents too great a temptation for charities to distort their efficiency and effectiveness with respect to this variable through ‘clever accounting’.

It is the non-transparent nature of accounting metrics and the up-front pressure of donors as the source of charitable supply chains which invidiously influences many charities to externalize and decentralize their supply chains so as to give the ‘customers’ to whom they are accountable the leanest impression of overhead as a proportion of total funds donated for program spending.

The ‘appearance’ of efficiency in the non-transparent, decentralized, charitable supply chain merely externalizes redundant inefficiencies to other charities, who must in turn demonstrate to their donors the efficiency of their program spending by offsetting these compounding redundancies to supply chain partners downstream of them.

As Arya and Mittendorf discovered, the problem for collective sensemaking in long-term charitable interventions is that, in a non-transparent supply chain environment where ‘perceived efficiency’ as a PM is a function of accounting metrics, charities externalize and decentralize their supply chains in order to cut their individual administrative burdens so as to appear to achieve a greater parity between the donations they receive in a given period and the program spending they disburse from donations received.

A better PM, according to Arya and Mittendorf, would be to assess the ratio between donations received in a given period and how impactful were the interventions on the mission which the donations enabled in that timeframe.

But by employing the DSTs of accounting metrics to focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of program spending rather than on the efficiency and effectiveness of mission impact, everyone in the collective sensemaking ecology of the decentralized charitable supply chain is prone to deception due to the displacement and deferral of the externalities introduced by the financial incentive to deceive donors.

A fair amount of social signalling—of what I would call ‘fiscal virtue signalling’, in fact—acts in tandem with the profit motive to distort accounting and corrupt efficiency for organizations whose missions extend over long time horizons.  And as a charitable organization matures and its revenue stream stabilizes, according to Arya and Mittendorf, the necessity for this social signalling of ‘perceived efficiency’ decreases, as it is less beholden to its donors’ perceptions of its ‘fiscal virtue’ in order to facilitate its supply chain.

The more urgent a charity’s mission is, the more condensed and centralized is its supply chain—not because a short, internalized supply chain translates donors’ cash into aid to recipients quicker, but simply because the charity is less concerned with maintaining an ‘appearance of efficiency’ over the long term.

You might be wondering why all this collective sensemaking jive bothers me with respect to the capacity of charitable supply chains to respond efficiently and effectively to the Coronavirus.  Well, here’s the kicker.

In the case of the Coronavirus, short-term, high-impact interventions are undoubtedly required in time-sensitive hot-spots.  We have seen precisely this necessity manifest in countries like Italy.

But on the whole, despite the ‘high visibility’ of the medical crisis, the incontrovertibility of that crisis as it struck all our senses and activated a global sensemaking response, Coronavirus is not a short-term emergency.

As lockdowns lift across the world, people slowly begin to apprehend that the Coronavirus is a long-term crisis whose entangled effects, like those of global climate change, will be very slow in becoming visible.  The crest of entangled economic, political, and geopolitical effects which this cause catalyzed is now rearing over our collective heads.

We can begin to see it.

And if the collective sensemaking environment which surrounds our supply chains—both commercial and charitable—showed signs of irrational disruption and schizophrenic perturbation at the beginning of this crisis, when supply was actually pretty stable, if global chains of supply are disrupted long-term, our capacity to maintain the civilization of our societies is frankly doubtful.

Moreover, in this climate of high entropic uncertainty where the for-profit supply chain, optimized towards efficiency in conditions of stability, is more distinctly fragile than its not-for-profit counterpart, it is likely that we are going to need to rely on long-term charitable interventions in the provision of goods and services to people across the world for a long time going forward.

The unique capacities for agility and extraordinary temporary resilience in the charitable supply chain need to be strengthened.

But a donor-centric supply chain approach in a non-transparent, market-based environment will neither ultimately satisfy donors, as the ‘perceived customers’ of the charitable supply chain, nor the actual customers—the recipients of aid themselves.

Both will be negatively impacted by false perceptions of efficiency (which will have ramifications for collective sensemaking assessments of actual efficiency in combating and curing the virus) and the externalized, compounding redundancies which poor networked sensemaking introduces into a non-transparent supply chain.

While there are obvious benefits for charities focused on urgent missions to have lean, centralized, internalized supply chains, the crucial necessity for all charitable supply chains, whether centralized or decentralized, is transparency.

To build the networked trust necessary to carry out their missions, organizations with long time horizons who require stable funding at the head of their supply chains need to be universally transparent, both to their donors and to their partners, via DSTs and DSSs focused on PMs which are relevant to their missions.

Long-term missions will necessitate large overheads associated with project planning and management.  Rather than using accounting metrics as PMs, a DSS/DST environment which is universally transparent both to donors and to partners in the decentralized supply chain would allow everybody to see the actual ratio between an organization’s administration and its program spending, and the ratio between its donations and its contribution to mission impact.

The universal transparency of such a networked collective sensemaking environment for global charity would build the conditions of trust necessary to demonstrate to donors that the outcomes of supply chain choices, whether extensive and decentralized or condensed and internalized, are the most efficient and effective choices in translating their cash into aid without resorting to non-transparent accounting practices which necessarily damage a charity’s trust with its donors, if exposed.

Moreover, if donors rather than aid recipients are to be regarded as the primary ‘customers’ for charitable supply chains, the people to whom charities are accountable for the provision of their goods and services, linking supply chain processes to effective, efficient outcomes through highly visible analytics in a universally transparent DSS/DST environment builds the trust necessary to maintain the supply of funds for long-term projects whose gains are incremental and difficult to gauge with the naked eye.

And by this logic, the schizophrenic schema of the global charitable supply chain would be able to right itself.  In a decision-making, action-taking environment which was universally transparent to both donors and workers in the charity sector, freed from the invidious necessity of having to conform to the logic of markets, the supply chain relationship between donors and the recipients of their aid would itself become transparent.

I think that, if donors saw how efficiently and effectively their donations were getting to the people who needed them, rather than perceiving themselves as the people to whom charities are accountable for their spending, donors would regard themselves as accountable to the eventual recipients of their aid.

This is because the transparency of the decision-making, action-taking environment enables that ‘high visibility’ between cause and effect we need to feel our natural empathy activated in order to give.  No matter how extended and decentralized the supply chain, if it had transparently demonstrated its optimal efficiency and effectiveness in translating cash to aid, donors, I think, would be placated by being able to see the linkages between the cause of their giving and the human effect on mission impact at the other end of the supply chain.

When we can directly gauge the impact of our giving, when we can see that it’s getting to the people who need it in a timely and efficient manner, our natural desire to give and to ameliorate the suffering of our fellow human beings will be more quickly engaged and our generosity amplified.

I’ve said that universal transparency of information is key to the collective sensemaking environment of supply chains, but it’s not the only non-negotiable in this equation.

Merely exchanging large quantities of universally transparent data is not sufficient to engender conditions of trust between supply chain partners.

Indeed, in the theoretic model proposed by Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen in their journal article “Travail, transparency and trust: A case study of computer-supported collaborative supply chain planning in high-tech electronics” (2004), the value of trust presupposes transparency.

According to Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen, mutual understanding of partners’ internal processes needs to be built over time through what they call travail—‘the struggling on the long and winding path towards transparency….’  This holistic understanding of one supply chain partner and its processes by another cannot be immediately gleaned simply by access to their data.  Thus, universal transparency of processes is generated through the travail of collective sensemaking, which engenders the necessary trust to reveal more and trust more.

In the model proposed by Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen, trust is the lynchpin of the algedonic loop created between interlinking supply chain partners who are each external environments to one another.  It is at the level of trust that the feedback loop generated by their interactions can either bifurcate towards increased openness of communication—and thus greater informational transparency—or increased gaming, which leads to poorer quality decision-making for the supply chain overall because the additive value of greater informational transparency is bypassed.

A theoretical model mapping the interaction between travail, transparency and trust in supply chains (as cited in Akkermans, Bogerd, & van Doremalen, 2004, p. 448).
A theoretical model mapping the interaction between travail, transparency and trust in supply chains (as cited in Akkermans, Bogerd, & van Doremalen, 2004, p. 448).

In collective sensemaking, it’s easy to imagine trust and transparency as ‘chicken-and-egg’ values: to build trust, you need conditions of transparency, but without of conditions of trust, there is no incentive to be transparent.

For supply chain partners, both commercial and charitable, who have to operate under the competitive logic of markets to secure resources, this dilemma would seem to be a Gordian knot.  Someone’s got to break through the impasse by being both transparent and trusting—and trustworthy.  That, to me, seems to be the sword which solves the dilemma.

It’s taking a risk, a leap of faith, to pre-emptively demonstrate trustworthiness, expecting one’s partners to follow one’s lead, but trustworthiness is the mechanism of transparency.  As Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen discovered in their survey of the literature, behaviours of transparency between supply chain partners—including a history of open communication and co-operative behaviours between organizations—engender the conditions for a ‘virtuous cycle’ of escalating trust and commitment to the universally transparent supply chain.

The travail of building transparency and trust through the mutual demonstrations of trustworthy behaviour helps to create conditions of what is called ‘coherence’ in the collective sensemaking space.

Coherence is when we’re all on the same page.  We have the same understanding of the situation because we all have access to universally transparent information.  We trust the information, and we trust each other to act in good faith.  But coherence of sensemaking can’t be achieved except by the earnest travail of building trust and transparency.

The first task for travail in the collective sensemaking environment surrounding supply chains is for partners to define a common goal which is external to their enterprises’ individual process-based goals.  This common external goal must be established in order to create the preliminary conditions for coherence, both within organizations and among the member organizations of the supply chain.

Obviously, defining such a common external goal comes more easily to charitable supply chains than to commercial ones.  The not-for-profit supply chain existing largely to ameliorate the externalities of the for-profit supply chain, charities with a common purpose more quickly and easily apprehend an external problem to be collectively solved.

But regardless of their orientation towards profit, it is the transparency and trust demanded by the initial travail of defining the common external goal of the supply chain which activates partners’ transparency and trust towards each other.

In their case study of a commercial supply chain, Akkermans, Bogerd, and van Doremalen noticed that ‘while the project team was struggling with describing and defining their joint business and supply chain, the level of trust increased.’

There’s a high degree of transparency—of intimacy, even—required in the collective sensemaking environment as supply chain partners achieve preliminary coherence in defining the common external goal via the vector of free speech.

And so, as I conclude this series of dispatches on the Coronavirus, I circle back to my initial concerns.

The Coronavirus is a long-term existential risk of infinite impact proportions.  Understanding it and acting in accord with the merciless reality of it demands global coherence in sensemaking, and the technology by which we communicate our thoughts to one another is the vector of free speech.

Our collective sensemaking environment, what I’ve called the cognitive commons of the Internet, is broken.  If we can’t get that network right—and pronto—our capacity to make good decisions and take good actions with regards to the distribution of common resources to ameliorate the pandemic is extremely limited.  It’s a problem for commercial supply chains.  It’s an even greater problem of charitable ones, who will be asked to do more with less.

If supply breaks down due to bad collective sensemaking, we come to the edge of the existential precipice I brought to your attention in my first post on the Coronavirus.

I’m going to leave it there—for the time being.

Since mid-March, I’ve written over 27,000 words on the subject of the Coronavirus—enough for a small book.

I want to thank everyone who has read and listened to these posts, who has liked and commented on them, and who has shared them with others.

My intention has simply been to contribute in as responsible a way as I can to collective sensemaking via the vector of free speech.  I’m heartened—and I’m humbled—by the number of people who have said to me, in comments attached to these posts, in telephone conversations, in emails and texts, that they have found my analysis and commentary on events helpful in interpreting and making sense of the Coronavirus situation.

I’m still monitoring this situation, but having finally got down—in all its grisly logic—the horrific image of catastrophe I saw in one instant when the reality of this situation finally hit home, I am, as you can imagine, rather exhausted by the effort of synthesizing a lot of research into the arguments I’ve advanced in these posts.

I’m still the monitoring the situation, but I’m interested in the economic, political, and geopolitical consequences of this crisis going forward.  That long-term story, as I’ve intimated above, is yet to be written.

If the masks completely slip from the faces of governments and other big actors going forward, such that their behaviour demands commentary and analysis via free speech, I’ll take up my pen again and try to offer you what value I can in that regard.

And as regards the egregiously crazy behaviour we’re seeing not just from governments and other big actors, but from individuals right across the board, I’d like to leave you with the thought I’ve tried to impress upon you throughout these posts.

As a problem for collective sensemaking, the Coronavirus is fundamentally a problem for the freedom of speech, and thus the freedom of thought.

But freedom of speech is not the right to say whatever you like.  It’s the responsibility to use human language—the tools of human thought—to think for yourself about this crisis.

With that, I sign off.  An audio version of this article is available for free download and redistribution under a Creative Commons licence from my Bandcamp profile, as are the other articles in this series.  If these thoughts are helpful to you, and if you think they will be helpful to others in building our collective sensemaking capacity, you are more than welcome to freely download and share them with others.

Full moon over the Melbourne CBD, photographed by Dean Kyte.
Full moon over Melbourne: A crazy time for humanity as people try to make collective sense of Coronavirus.

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

In my continuing analysis of the Coronavirus situation, this week on The Melbourne Flâneur I want to discuss with you how we make sense of this and the other n-th order infinite impact crises which are resulting from the Coronavirus pandemic.

In my previous post, I set forth a theory of how viral incivility operates online, via social media, to poison our collective sensemaking environment—what I call the ‘cognitive commons’—and how the pollution of disinformation, misinformation, and insufficiently targeted information creates ‘externalities’ for us all in the virtual environment, just as pollution creates externalities in the real world.

I stated in that post that online viral incivility is an abuse of the privilege of free speech, which is essentially an abuse of the freedom of thought.

It occurs when people who are high in external individualism—that is, who intrinsically value their freedom of will, of action, the right to ‘do what they like’, more than their freedom of thought—instrumentally use the privilege to speak their minds to spread bile, banality and abuse throughout the cognitive commons.

Free speech, as I said, is the vector along which human beings communicate their thoughts and ideas with one another, and when, in times of existential crisis, our cognitive commons are polluted with disinformation, misinformation, and information that not everybody needs to know, our ability to make sense of the Coronavirus crisis and to take concerted, collective action against it is severely hampered.

If, as a writer, I am concerned about the way that the Coronavirus has exposed the issues associated with free speech that Western democratic societies were debating prior to the pandemic, it is because the instrumental abuse of the privilege of free speech has profound implications and ramifications not only for how we understand this crisis by the best vector we have available to communicate with ourselves as a collective, but what we do to solve it and the other n-th order infinite impact crises it has unleashed.

Our ability to collectively apply our will and act in a concerted, global effort is predicated upon our collective ability to think and make communal sense of this crisis by means of speech.

The alternative to high external individualism, as I explained in my last post, is high internal individualism—the intrinsic valuing of freedom of thought, and its instrumental application in the freedom to act, to do, to speak.

Freedom of thought and its ancillary, freedom of speech, need to be intrinsically safeguarded because it is difficult to make a case whereby acting first and thinking second is a more appropriate response to a species-level crisis than thinking before acting.

The latter value, freedom of will, is therefore instrumentally guaranteed by the intrinsic value of freedom of thought—for free thought cannot be actualized except by freedom of action.

In my third post on this topic, I introduced you to the notion of networkcentricity as the symbol—and symptom—of life in the 21st century.  The more deeply we look into our collective reality, the more the metaphor of the exponentially expanding network jumps out at us as the mandala of our age.

The Coronavirus is an exponential network.  Our social media are exponential networks, and the Internet—‘the World Wide Web’—is an exponential network.  We begin to conceive the ecosystems of nature as ‘networks’: animals school, swarm, flock and herd in networks, and we ourselves, spread across the globe, are ‘networked’, physically and virtually.

And when we consider with what avidity people high in external individualism attach themselves to clustered groups based on shared interests, preferences and biases, willingly subordinating themselves to what I called, in my last post, the ‘memetic possession’ of ideology and groupthink, it appears as though the metaphor of the network has revealed something new about the intrinsic nature of man.

We too ‘swarm’ like ants and bees, ‘school’ like fish—and ‘herd’ like sheep.

The classical model of the sovereign, Cartesian individual, he who thinks himself into being, can no longer hold—and perhaps this critical thinker high in internal individualism is more an historical and social anomaly from his peers in the long race of man, one to be ‘replaced in the modern age by transhistorical impersonal forces,’ as Edward Said put it.

Psychologist Kenneth Gergen hazarded that ‘we may be entering a new era of self-conception.  In this era the self is redefined as no longer an essence in itself, but relational’ [my emphasis].

Perhaps it is not man’s ultimate destiny to realize himself as a sovereign individual in a social network, but to realize himself as a node, a neuron in a eusocial cognitive collective.

Perhaps we’ve always been a swarming creature, like ants or bees, in our deepest nature, and the extraordinary, outsize neural network which each one of us carries in his head, and which is the species characteristic and evolutionary advantage of homo sapiens—‘thinking man’—has merely required the technological development of a non-local, externalized, virtual neural network in order for us to realize our evolutionary destiny as a ‘hive mind’.

It is well-known that human beings are the most social animals on the planet.  All the fruits of civilization we enjoy are due to our sociality, our ability to co-operate and collaborate.

Equally, all the bad things that human beings do to one another can be attributed to our instinct for sociality and the absolute abhorrence which most human beings (your humble author excepted) feel at the prospect of being utterly cut off from human society.  Like siblings who tease and hurt one another, we would rather have another human being to hate, beat, violate and murder—or be hated, beaten, violated and murdered by—than be left utterly alone.

But despite the claims of E. O. Wilson, and despite the fact of being the most pro-social lifeform on our planet, we have never graduated to that condition which certain swarming insects, such as ants and bees, have evolved to, the condition of eusociality, where every member of the collective acts individually in the best interests of the collective.

Our individual consciousness, the rational mind which allows us to think, to discriminate, to divide, which enables each of us not merely to demonstrate the same freedom of will and action that other animals demonstrate, but gives each of us the potential for sovereign freedom of thought to manifest in free action, discriminates and divides our personal, individual interests from those of the collective.

When each of us can do whatever we like to maximize our own private fitness functions, what need have we, like ants and bees, to consider the maximal fitness function of the collective?

The consciousness of our individual sovereignty, the sense of ourselves as being ‘separate’ from one another, and from the larger network of nature, has been both the tool which has gotten us to the place where we are now as a species, and the hindrance which prevents us from evolving to a steady-state, sustainable model of eusocial fitness in a finite environment.

Technology, the exponentially exploding product of our consciousness, has finally produced the Internet and social media, intellectual technologies which manifest our species’ deep-seated avidity not merely to connect relationally with one another, but to have access to each other’s minds, to pool our cognitive resources in a geometric synergy which increases computing power exponentially as each neural node is added to the network.

Which is to say that, with the digital technology of the Internet and social media, we have finally evolved a means to consciously evolve ourselves.

In his journal article “The New Superorganic” (2004), F. Allan Hanson of the University of Kansas states that, in considering our capacity to pool and share our cognitive resources via the commons of the Internet, we should include the medium itself as essentially an agentic partner in this non-local, externalized hive mind.

Citing Gregory Bateson’s ‘provocative insight that the agent conducting any activity should be defined so as to include the lines of communication essential to that activity rather than cutting across them,’ Hanson defines agency as an ‘intelligent performance’ which ‘manifests mind’.  And the act or behaviour of ‘minding’, according to Hanson, is the management of information.

In other words, there is a generalized intelligence diffused in ‘the field’—the field vectorized by the medium of the Internet—as an embodied activity.  The field itself has intelligence and synergistically ‘manifests mind’—not merely the minds of all the individual users, but a geometric ‘over-mind’ which includes the relational architecture of the network itself.

What I’m calling ‘the field’, the integration of our lines of technological communication into the collective management of information, is a symbiotic, agentic partner which is itself coevolving in our species’ coevolution towards eusociality.

We know that there is a definite biological limit to the number of social relationships human beings can healthily maintain.  Robin Dunbar found that the number of 150 social relationships (taken as an average) is directly correlated to neocortical size in primates.

We know equally that the brain is not hardwired, but malleable.  Neuroplasticity allows neurons to forge new cortical connections, reorganizing our individual neural networks so that we can learn new things, new habits.

I would hazard that if we are to evolve, in a quantum leap, to a new steady-state, sustainable model of eusocial cognitive fitness in a world we are exponentially exhausting, a species-wide ‘consciousness-raising exercise’ needs to take place:  En masse, we need to forgo old cognitive habits and enter the brain’s ‘exploration mode’, leveraging our individual capacities for neuroplasticity to consciously create an external, non-local neural network of social relations which scales beyond Dunbar’s Number to include the whole human family.

How can we achieve such a biological and spiritual coevolution in consciousness when the complexity of our common crises is exponentially reducing our capacity to make good collective sense of our problems?

Fortunately, we have one cognitive technology which maps very nicely to the externalized, visual affordances of the Internet.  It’s called a ‘schema’.

A schema is a cognitive map.  It is the assemblage of items stored in long-term, unconscious memory arranged as organized patterns of knowledge, and the possession of complex, detailed schemas is absolutely essential for an individual to make good sense of himself, of the world, and of any given domain of knowledge.

‘Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time,’ says psychologist John Sweller.  ‘We are able to understand concepts in our areas of expertise because we have schemas associated with those concepts.’

Individuals have schemas.  At a higher level of recursion, groups such as churches, businesses, social organizations, political parties and nation-states all have schemas, which are composed of overlapping individual schemas based around shared perspectives, interests, preferences and biases.  And, at the highest level of recursion, humanity has one very schizophrenic ‘meta-schema’ composed of all schemas.

Schemas can be adapted very quickly, but their weakness is that they tend to remain static—even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

As a species, this is the situation we find ourselves in with respect to the Coronavirus.  The spirit of life in the 21st century demands that we should change our standard ways of perceiving, thinking and doing at an exponential rate, but we are very slow and reluctant to change even with a tsunami of entangled crises bearing down on us.

Human beings—like all organisms—have two main ways of perceiving reality, thinking about it, and acting in accord with their perceptions of and thoughts about what is real.  These two main ways have been variously defined: Herbert A. Simon defines them as ‘recipes’ and ‘blueprints’; Jordan Hall has described them as ‘habit mode’ and ‘explore mode’; and Luís M. A. Bettencourt calls them ‘exploitation’ and ‘exploration’.

These methods of thought and action have to do with relative perceptions of risk and reward.  Like all organisms, human beings like to minimize risk and maximize reward.  ‘Recipes’, ‘habits’ and ‘exploitation’ are all variations on this strategy: where there is a perception of low uncertainty (and therefore risk) in the environment, we respond to it in a habitual fashion, employing ‘recipes’ we’ve developed to exploit the maximum reward from the environment.

These cognitive and behavioural ‘short-cuts’ are useful: they optimize our thoughts and behaviour towards efficiency in highly predictable circumstances which accord with our schemas of reality.

‘Blueprints’, ‘explore mode’ and ‘exploration’ have to do with schema-formation itself.  In novel circumstances where risk to the organism is high and the promise of reward is uncertain, it is useful to approach the environment with a fluid conceptual map of reality, one which can be redrawn to identify risks and rewards.

Obviously, the cognitive and behavioural work of schema-formation is energy-intensive, and it would not be an efficient use of an organism’s energy to ‘remake the wheel’ in conditions where rewards can be predictably exploited.  But in novel circumstances of high risk, attempting to maximize a diminishing reward in preference to exploring alternatives in the environment is a maladaptive behaviour.

As Bettencourt puts it in his 2009 journal article “The Rules of Information Aggregation and Emergence in Collective Intelligent Behavior”, ‘uncertainty’ is essentially an entropic state: when what we know about a target variable X is less than what we don’t know, the domain of knowledge to which X refers is tending towards a state of disorder.

We use the cognitive and behavioural techniques of recipes and blueprints, habit mode and explore mode, exploitation and exploration to attenuate entropic uncertainty by bringing ‘order’ to complex problems.  We arrange what we know with respect to X in a schema which shows not only what information has been collected from habitual exploitation, but also the ‘holes’ in our knowledge which need to be explored and mapped.

The novel Coronavirus is a good example of X: being new, the amount of entropic uncertainty with respect to this target variable is high, and with high uncertainty, there is high risk and low reward.  There are things our doctors and scientists do know about X, information obtained from previous cognitive explorations which has been collectively absorbed into habitual exploitation, but on the whole, there are many more gaps in our knowledge of the Coronavirus due to its novelty.

The collective schema of ‘Science’ (which is composed of many of sub-schemas such as ‘Medicine’ and ‘Biology’, not to mention the sub-sub-schemas which individual doctors and scientists hold) helps to orient the collective quest for attenuating the entropic complexity associated with X.

To quote Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous phrase, there are ‘known knowns’ associated with the Coronavirus and there are ‘known unknowns’: the shared schema of Science allows us to know what we know with respect to this novel virus, but also to know what we don’t know and need to explore.

The example of the Coronavirus makes it clear that expertise is needed in domains of knowledge to develop schemas of thinking which accurately reflect reality in order to orient efficient action: the primacy of free thought undergirds the effectiveness of free will.

More specifically, the Coronavirus, as a risk which impacts all humans across a multitude of entangled dimensions, makes it clear that we need experts in all domains of knowledge if we are to develop a global schema which enables us to take effective collective action to mitigate the threat of the virus and all the n-th order infinite impact risks it entails.

And here precisely is where our meta-schema has broken down, for the popular distrust of experts produced by externalities in the global sensemaking architecture of our cognitive commons makes it that much harder for us all to be on the same eusocial page with respect to Coronavirus and individually act for the good of the collective.

Citations of the Dunning-Kruger effect with respect to the externalities introduced into our collective sensemaking environment by non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer communication of information through the Internet are now so frequent that the term hardly needs to be explained.

In fine, incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their competence in domains where they are not expert, and lacking well-developed schemas in these fields, they lack even the meta-cognitive capacity to accurately perceive their incompetence.

On the other hand, as Alexander Plencner of the University of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava explains in his article “Critical Thinking and the Challenges of Internet” (2014): ‘Because [the most competent individuals] were more experienced in tested domains, they were well aware of what they did not know.  But as soon as the researchers presented them their positive results, they adjusted their self-assessment to more objective levels.’

From this we can hypothesize two implications for the Dunning-Kruger effect.  If the target variable X represents a domain of skill or knowledge, then the schema that expert individuals have built up of X is lower in entropic uncertainty than for non-expert individuals, for not only is there more definite information with regards to X available to the expert within his schema, but there is less entropy regarding what is actually uncertain within the schema: these gaps are ‘known unknowns’.

But I would go even further and hypothesize that not only can we regard X as a domain of knowledge external to the expert, but that X may also describe a ‘meta-schema’ within the cognitive economy of the expert himself: the differential uncertainty of knowledge with respect to oneself.

As entropy diminishes in that domain through the assimilation of aggregated information derived from another, more objective source, so too does uncertainty about oneself, about one’s own cognitive competencies and aptitudes, one’s own fitness in accurately adjudging and acting with respect to reality, decrease, and the accuracy of one’s schema about oneself increase.

This differential knowledge about one’s own competency to accurately adjudge and act with respect to reality is not available to the non-expert prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect.  This is because, as Plencner observes, when such people are confronted with their negative results in the tested domain, they do not downwardly adjust their positive self-assessments as experts upwardly adjust their negative self-assessments.

So why does this happen?  Why do masses of people with access to ungated knowledge in the cognitive commons so radically overestimate their capacity to make good sense in domains which demand expert guidance to orient effective action?

I think two issues are at play with respect to schema-formation.

On the one hand, confronted with great entropic uncertainty such as we are facing with the Coronavirus, a maladaptive, habit-based approach which assumes there to be much less entropy in the present environment than there actually is leads people who are heavily invested in the status quo, such as politicians and inordinately successful businesspeople, to rehearse scripted, recipe-based responses intended to exploit fitness rewards which are, in fact, exponentially diminishing.

This is perhaps the easier of the two maladaptive mindsets to understand.  What I am essentially suggesting is that there is an overwhelming temptation for people who have been well-rewarded by exploitation to ignore the salient signals of danger in the environment and continue to employ the habit mode of exploitation when exploration would be a much more appropriate response to entropic uncertainty.

But on the other hand, the explosion of paranoiac conspiracy thinking which may be attributed to the popular distrust of experts in the non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer cognitive environment of the Internet demonstrates how explorative schema-mapping itself can be a maladaptive behaviour in response to a common crisis where we desperately need the responsible guidance of experts to direct us.

In this model we see that, when confronted with the same highly entropic, highly novel environment which the Coronavirus has thrust us into, non-expert individuals assume there to be too much salience in the environment: they misperceive what is actually noise as being ‘super-salient signal’.

And, paradoxically, instead of remaining open in explore mode, these people actually curtail and arbitrarily attenuate the complexity presented by the environment, seeking to collapse the super-salient signal they perceive as quickly as possible into an alternative schema which is itself more a product of exploitative habit than of genuine intellectual exploration.

In the two cases I’ve described above, both schemas are faulty, the first because it fails to apprehend novel irregularities in the environment as such, and the second because it misapprehends novel irregularities as being regularities in a schema which bears even more doubtful fidelity to reality.

One could say that in the paranoid, psychotic schema of conspiracy thinking which has exponentially exploded with the Coronavirus, the exploratory mode of schema-making itself is ‘hijacked’, exploited by habit mode.  It condenses novel irregularities too quickly into the regularities of an inaccurate, totalizing discourse which is an alternative to the ‘official story’ of the experts, producing not ‘alternative knowledge’, but what Damian Thompson calls ‘counterknowledge’—an ignorance which is the inverse of knowledge.

Why has this happened?

In my first post on the Coronavirus, I posited a theory of value extraction.  When it comes to extracting reward from any given domain of competence, an expert in that field will always be a fitter agent than a non-expert.  Our institutions—governments, corporations, universities and media—are composed of specialized experts who, due to their fitness in their respective domains, have derivatively extracted more and more real value from the commons, which they have centralized to themselves.

And information—the commodity that experts traffic in—is itself an extractable resource which, like more tangible resources, can be siloed and centralized to oneself for exclusive value gain.  With information as with wheat, corn, oil, gold or a Coronavirus vaccine, if you have the market cornered on some domain of knowledge, you can name your own price in parsing the resource out to the non-initiate.

The inequalities associated with hierarchies of experts deriving inflated value from the mass of non-experts under a policy of extraction has activated a sense of distrust in the populace.

It is very difficult to trust the motives of someone who stands to gain materially—often at our expense—by compelling or influencing our compliance with their vested prescriptions.  Whatever gain we might get from accepting the advice of experts is still differentially less than the exorbitant gain they extract from us by compelling compliance with their recommendations.

At the world-historical moment when we meet the crisis of the Coronavirus, hierarchical authorities of all kinds have lost their credibility with the populace due to the progressive erosion of trust that is a consequence of their extractive policies.

In response to the perceived greed of experts, whose superior sensemaking capacity is compromised and corrupted by vested interest in compelling compliance with their prescriptions, in the cognitive commons of the Internet and social media, people prefer and crave peer-to-peer recommendations from those they actually know and trust.

Knowledge is power, and since power inevitably corrupts, the justification for a distrustful, conspiratorial view of hierarchical authority due to the abuse of experts who have eroded our collective sensemaking capacity for personal ends is legitimated in the population, and the alternative—non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer sensemaking by non-experts—is popularly preferred.

In essence, at the moment in history when humanity desperately needs to be guided by its experts in schematic collective sensemaking, the great mass of people perceive that those who have access to the most—and the best—information do not have the collective’s best interests at heart.

The successive and exponential erosion of public trust through a policy of extraction by the fittest members in our society leads non-experts to believe that these people ‘lack empathy’ for them, since they continually extract hyper-inflated value in return for the little, heavily compromised information they parse out in return.

And in some sense, this perception of a ‘lack of empathy’ in our ‘egghead experts’ represents the differential between the game-theoretic sociality of our species and the eusociality towards which we need to collectively evolve.

The aggressive rationality, the ability to divide, discriminate and derive in our expert discernment of reality is the one-sided, left-brain development which has enabled us to optimize towards our present efficiency as a species: our reason-based collective schema is the most detailed and accurate map of reality on the planet.

But until we can transcend the neocortical limit of Dunbar’s Number, until we can consciously regard the members of our species who are most distant from us as being as much a part of ourselves as our nearest and dearest—that is, until we evolve our right-brain empathic capacity to think in wholes just as well as we can think in derivatives—we cannot transcend our game-theoretic sociality to our eusocial destiny of creating a collective schema which enables us to make the most efficient sense of reality.

How do we make such a collectively coherent map of reality which facilitates efficient, concerted action in the world towards the solution of highly complex, highly entropic problems?

The first thing to acknowledge is that non-experts have as great a place at the table in schema-formation as experts, for as Bettencourt notes, there are a surprising number of instances ‘when a solution produced by an informal collective of individuals, each with partial information, can surpass in quality and speed those produced by experts….’

We need diversity, but, as Jackie Jeffrey of Middlesex University states in her article “Diversity management through a neuro-scientific lens” (2015), the mania to include ‘diverse perspectives’ in our collective decision-making has to be re-oriented from its present approach, based on superficial and external group differences, to a ‘brain-based approach’.

‘In a review of a variety of literature and organizational policies from around the world,’ Jeffrey writes, ‘all appear to think about diversity from an equal-opportunities perspective dominated by what is perceived as “homogenous group differences, most of which are rooted in some form of oppression”.’

While it stands to reason that people from diverse races, sexes, ages and religious backgrounds bring something that is diverse to collective sensemaking, these ‘homogenous group differences’ are not the best selection criteria for geometrically amplifying our cognitive diversity in collective schema-formation.

As Jeffrey, quoting the Co-Intelligence Institute says, these homogenous group differences ‘“overshadow [the] hundreds of other differences, most of them very individual—and many of which are far more significant to our ability to generate collective intelligence” needed to effectively manage diversity….’

Individual differences in thinking style—which of course may be influenced by generic differences but are rarely determined by them—are the keys to leveraging the cognitive diversity necessary to develop a species-wide schema which will facilitate coherent and efficient collective action in the face of existential risk.

Moreover, as F. Allan Hanson points out, the individual differences in thinking style necessary to leverage cognitive diversity are enhanced by our individual interactions with the cognitive tool we use to collate and communicate information—the Internet.

The indexing of information on the Internet rather the traditional classification of it in rigid, hierarchical, taxonomic schemas enables different thinkers to ‘pull out’ different data sets from the cognitive commons.  The creative capacity to fluidly and individually reconceptualize schemas of human knowledge through indexing facilitates the inclusion of diverse perspectives in the meta-schema of our cognitive commons.

So in terms of complex problem-solving with respect to the incomplete schema of any one of our existential risks, there are definitely advantages to the non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer cognition which the Internet facilitates as an agentic partner in the management of information.

For if, as I stated in my third post on the Coronavirus, all the problems of our century are variations on the question of how we deal, as a species, with the non-linear progression of exponentials through networks, it is heartening to note, as Bettencourt does, that information itself—like the Coronavirus, like the Internet, like the network of humanity—also aggregates in a non-linear, exponential fashion.

The solution to our problems is in the form-problem itself.

Unlike matter or energy, Bettencourt states, the peculiar characteristic of information as a quantity is that ‘knowledge from many sources can in fact produce more information (synergy) or less (redundancy) than the sum of its parts.’

This can occur even in relatively non-expert populations.  If we view information, as Bettencourt does, as ‘a sort of differential between two levels of uncertainty’ with respect to a target variable X, then the entropic uncertainty regarding the schema which X constitutes can be synergistically diminished even by a group of non-experts pooling their cognitive resources.

In this example, each individual in the collective has a schema which includes partial information with respect to X.  Where the knowledge gained from each member about X is not merely additive in relation to X, but adds to the knowledge of the other members of the collective, synergy emerges from the pooling of cognitive resources.

The uncertainty surrounding the communal schema of X is reduced, but the uncertainty in the meta-schema of the group as a whole is also synergistically reduced.  As more information is transactively introduced into the consciousness of the group via the mechanism of free speech, the more probable it becomes that something somebody says unlocks a piece of information in another member’s mind which helps to fill in another gap in the schema surrounding X.

As Bettencourt says, so long as the pieces of information pooled in this form of collective cognition are ‘conditionally dependent’ (that is, they are relevant to the target variable X) yet still reasonably independent of one another, synergistic problem-solving of superior speed and quality can occur even among a population of non-experts.

How much quicker and more discerning, therefore, could our responses be to common existential problems like the Coronavirus if we transactively utilized the detailed individual and communal schemas of experts in guiding non-expert decision-making at scale?

But there’s also a place for redundancy—the aggregation of information which adds nothing new to the schema yet serves to confirm what can definitely be known about X—in schema-formation.

In triangulating and triaging information for collective sensemaking, redundancy serves the important function of validating and verifying the accuracy of information contributed by individual sources.  As Bettencourt points out, it is not sufficient that the pool of information should be ‘conditionally dependent’ with respect to the entropic state of X, but it is also necessary that the sources of information themselves should be ‘sufficiently independent’ of each other so as to confirm what can be communally known about X.

There is, therefore, a ‘social compact’ which we enter into whenever we undertake collective sensemaking via the cognitive commons.

The social compact is that each neural node in the network will earnestly contribute to reducing entropic uncertainty with respect to a communal problem through mechanisms of synergy and redundancy without needlessly and deliberately introducing misinformation about X, disinformation about X, or information which is not conditionally relevant to X into the cognitive commons.

I’ve described schemas as being ‘cognitive maps’.  When dealing with complex problems in cognition, rather than attempting to organize information within abstract taxonomies and rubrics, it’s often easier to ‘visualize’ information, and this is certainly true when it comes to cognition at scale.

As human beings, we have a right-brain bias towards holistic, visual thinking, which comes more naturally to us than left-brain, language-based reasoning.  The popularity of ‘brainstorming’ and other communal sensemaking activities which visualize information demonstrates that, when it comes to getting everyone ‘on the same page’ conceptually, it’s often best to get everyone on the same page literally, mapping out the network of connections which random ideas suggest.

When it comes to complex problems which require collective sensemaking to solve, the target variable X is both the problem and the schema—the domain of knowledge to be mapped.

My favourite example of a cognitive technology which seems to perfectly illustrate how schematic collective sensemaking attenuates this paradox is the crisis-mapping platform Ushahidi.

Developed after the Kenyan general election in 2007, the platform was initially designed to visualize real-time reports of post-election violence onto a map of Kenya.  It’s had many applications since then, most notably in crowdsourcing information and co-ordinating crisis response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

When it comes to as visceral a problem as an earthquake, it’s difficult for a population not to be on the same cognitive page: the crisis is sensed, known, experienced, and felt.  Problem and schema coalesce: X is the crisis, and we need, as a collective, to rapidly understand and rapidly respond to X.

As Claude Gilbert defines the problem: ‘disaster is first of all seen as a crisis in communicating within a community—that is, as a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people.’

With the Ushahidi crisis map of Haiti, information about the crisis from the edges of the network—the sources on the ground who were most immediately knowledgeable about real conditions—was visually organized, in real-time, onto an open-source map of Haiti.

And as Craig Clarke, an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Marine Corps, told Jessica Heinzelman and Carol Waters in their report “Crowdsourcing Crisis Information in Disaster-Affected Haiti” (2010) : ‘In this postmodern age, open-source intelligence outperforms traditional intel….  The notion of crisis mapping demonstrates the intense power of open-source intelligence….  [W]hen compared side by side, Ushahidi reporting and other open sources vastly outperformed “traditional intel” [after the Haiti earthquake].’

The reason Ushahidi and other open-source platforms which intrinsically value free speech in order to instrumentally facilitate free action provide better intel than traditional sources is because mutually dependent data from the edges of the network synergistically produces more information about a given unknown situation X, but it also enables verification of the accuracy of information through the redundancy of reports.

As more information is mapped onto the crisis map, the entropic uncertainty inherent in the schema which the crisis map visualizes reduces.  More information is produced which enables the collective to identify known knowns in the schema, and known unknowns which require further investigation and report.

The extraordinary thing is that this wealth of actionable information, which was vastly superior to the expert systems of crisis responders, came largely from a population of non-experts.  As Heinzelman and Waters write: ‘Of the more than 3,500 messages published on the Ushahidi-Haiti crisis map, only 202 messages were tagged as “verified”….’

Since the Haiti crisis, Ushahidi has developed better systems for triangulating and triaging crowdsourced information to better conserve the social compact of collective cognition, but even in this instance, when the technology was in its beta phase, in terms of efficiency of actionable response, the net benefits associated with schematic collective sensemaking far outstripped the hierarchical siloing of information in expert crisis response systems.

Moreover, if experts are to regain the trust of populations, there is a lesson for them to learn from the Ushahidi-Haiti crisis response which is appropriate to their expertise.

What Heinzelman and Waters call ‘sentiment analysis’, the algorithmic processing of large volumes of written language derived from emails, text messages, and social media posts to derive the overall mood of given populations in real-time, would enable experts to rebuild their empathy with the collective by demonstrating that they hear the emotions of non-experts and are sincere in offering solutions which address their emotional concerns.

Sentiment analysis at scale would enable authorities not merely to regain the trust of populations by allaying their apprehensions in real time, but would serve to mitigate extremist polarization.  As Plencner observes: ‘When dissatisfaction is strong enough and overtakes [a] critical mass of [the] public, the electorate often turns towards radical political parties.’

Failing to get their needs and concerns adequately acknowledged and addressed by mainstream experts leads non-experts to succumb to the pull of polarization and the consequent schizophrenic breakdown in schematic collective sensemaking.

As an existential threat which affects us all, the Coronavirus has revealed the urgent necessity for our species to develop a coherent shared map of reality which will facilitate agile collective action to curtail exponential risks.

It’s also exposed how fractured our communal sensemaking environment is, how deeply out of touch we are with reality, both individually and collectively.

In this article I’ve attempted to earnestly contribute to the conversation by setting forth a synthesis of evidence and ideas which I hope points towards a reasonable understanding of this crisis, and what we can do to solve it.  If you have found these ideas helpful, I invite you to freely download and redistribute an audio version of this article to members of your network, available from my Bandcamp profile.

“+ = 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.