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.
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.
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?
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.
You can download this free audio version of the article below here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can download this free audio version of the article below here.
Last week on The Melbourne Flâneur, I stated that the reason why we avail ourselves so frequently of the metaphor of viruses and virality is because it describes the exponential way that information travels around the globe in contemporary life.
As a writer sensitive to cliché, I’m getting sick of hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ in the discourse surrounding the emerging Coronavirus situation, because this world-historical event is not unprecedented.
It would be more accurate say that, with the apparition of Coronavirus, for the first time in human history we are confronted with a ‘visible metaphor’ which illustrates—like a time-lapse film—just one of the exponential curves of existential crisis that humanity has been travelling on since at least the Industrial Revolution.
For the first two centuries, it appeared as though we were more or less on a straight line, one which appeared to be rising only very gradually thanks to ‘infinite progress’—‘la grande idée moderne’, as M. Baudelaire vituperatively called it, with its ‘odeur de magasin’.
Then, about 1960, the line began to rise appreciably at double the rate in half the time.
It’s no historical coincidence that at the beginning of the decade, President Kennedy should call for a man to be put on the moon by the end of the same decade. Anyone who has read Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (1970) will have an appreciable sense of just how exponentially technology had to double and redouble itself in order to accomplish that goal.
By 1960, the line of technological progress was already very steep indeed. However, the gradient appeared to the generations alive at that time to be, if not gentle, then at least ‘manageably uncomfortable’. The steepness of the gradient they were travelling on was imperceptible due to what Robert Greene calls ‘generational myopia’.
They had the sense that they were still more or less in level relation to the x-axis. They had no sense at all that they had ceased to move appreciably along it and were, instead, now moving upward by compounding leaps in relation to the y-axis.
The paradox of exponential technological progress which feeds into Greene’s theory of generational myopia is that the rate of change is so fast that it appears to the observer travelling on the runaway train that hardly any progress is being made at all.
To explain the feeling contained in that paradox by another metaphor, we are on a planet which is hurtling around the sun at a rate of about 107,000 kilometres per hour, and yet we are so fundamentally, somatically adjusted to this movement that it feels to us as though the earth is perfectly still.
If the earth were to suddenly stop—or even to reverse its motion—I’m sure that this novel experience would make itself palpably felt to every individual of every species.
But so long as our vision of infinite progress is bounded by the frame of our own lifetime, we have no real sense of where we came into the world on this curve, and its differential relationship to the point where we will exit it—let alone the shape of the exponential curve for all the generations who will experience it.
We are, in essence, unconscious to this imperceptible reality which is taking place at a level above the cognitive capacity of both temporally limited individuals and generations to consciously perceive.
I said in my previous post that the exponential nature of Coronavirus is not merely a visible symptom of the invisible relationship we have been having with exponential technological progress for the past 300 years, but that it is a visible symbol of it.
And at some level, to consciously grasp the vastness of a phenomenon which is operating unconsciously across centuries, at a multi-generational level, we will have to grapple with the symbol of it.
When I was a young film critic on the Gold Coast in the early naughties, an old American gentleman who lived not far from me gave me a book which has been the single most influential work of philosophy upon me as a writer. It was a complete, unabridged edition of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918/1922).
Every culture, according to Spengler’s morphological view of history, has its ‘symbol’, the internal image that it is looking for in the external environment, and which accords with its deepest ‘soul-feeling’ for the true nature of the world. For Western man (or ‘Faustian man’, as Spengler calls him), that image is a line, a gently curving arc which disappears at the vanishing point—the symbolic thrust into the infinite.
All the products of a culture are the material images of this symbol. For Faustian man, the ogival arches of Gothic cathedrals—indeed, the cathedrals themselves—one-point perspective in oil painting, double-entry bookkeeping, long-range diplomacy and long-range warfare, trains, telegraphs and telephones—and even rockets—are all images of this symbolic thrust into the infinite, the belief that, in the furthest reaches of the cosmos, or in the indivisible heart of the atom, we will, eventually, touch the Face of God.
The quintessential cultural product of Faustian man is the discovery of differential calculus;—and indeed, without the discovery of how to plot the rate of change of a curve in the 17th century, NASA would not have been able to land a man on the moon in the 20th.
But Spengler—who predicted that such a soul-deep drive to parse out smaller and smaller differentials to the point of infinity would eventually result in the cataclysm of the First World War—saw that, by the 20th century, the culture of the West had ossified into a civilization—and that civilization was dying at a differential clip.
The symbol of the ‘gentle arc’ of infinite progress upon which it believed itself to be travelling no longer served it. Instead, by the dawn of the 20th century, that gentle arc had become an exponential curve.
Spengler predicted a long and painful decline for the West in which people would progressively lose faith in this symbol which had underwritten all the spectacular progress they enjoyed. But despite the decline into chaos, Spengler offered an olive branch of optimism: a new symbol, something that spoke more directly to the spirit of the time, to people’s intrinsic feeling about what the true nature of the world is at the moment of crisis, would spontaneously emerge to form a new culture.
In my view, a widespread, conscious understanding of the nature of the exponential arc we are travelling on is required to perceive this symbol, and the Coronavirus, our exponential bête noire, the archetypal shadow of all the poisonous virality we visit upon one another in a networked world, is the dark mirror which reflects the symbol of our time.
That symbol is the decentralized, distributed, horizontally scaling neural network.
The Millennial generation are no longer Faustian men, but are the inheritors of the Faustian soul-feeling for differentials, for the rate of change of a curve. Their curve, however, is exponential, rising not in an arithmetic but in a geometric progression, just as a neural network compounds its computing power exponentially with the introduction of each new node to the network.
Physicist Theodore Modis said that (following the differentials established by the Faustians), ‘by the year 2025 we would be witnessing the equivalent of all the major milestones of the twentieth-century [i.e. electricity, automobile, DNA structure described, nuclear energy, WWII, space travel, Internet, human genome sequencing] in less than a week’.
The exploding exponential curve, the accelerating thrust towards the point of singularity as it manifests itself in the metastasis of networks, appears to me to be the symbol of the new culture which will emerge from this crisis—if we survive the differential cataclysm of societal disintegration and atomization.
This was the danger I alluded to in my previous post when I stated that viruses are symptomatic of the vulnerabilities endemic in the new, ‘network-centric’ mode of life we find ourselves in at the start of the 21st century.
These emergent, decentralized networks of self-organizing agents find their geometric efficacy hampered as they are forced to operate under the linear, arithmetic restrictions of hierarchical global legacy systems based on the infinite derivative extraction of finite resources.
These fragile, ailing global legacy systems are symbolic artefacts of the Faustian world-view. They are examples of a systems paradigm called ‘Scientific Management’, which emerged in excelsis from the military and executive approach taken to winning the Second World War.
Scientific Management is about the efficiency of linear processes, and is therefore dependent upon hierarchy for its effective execution. It was adapted, as a morphological archetype, to a mechanistic age based on linear processes and literal ‘chains of supply’. Under the conditions of World War II, where Allied success depended upon maintaining a centralized supply chain, it is understandable that a Scientific Management approach to systems should then be templated for post-war use in organizations such as governments and businesses all around the world.
The Baby-boomers, as the last Faustian people pur-sang, enjoyed the benefits of the Scientific Management approach instituted by their parents. And, as Jordan Hall has observed, the meme of ‘O.K., Boomer’ is a reaction of frustration on the part of Millennials to the deep, almost somatic intuition that the centralized, hierarchical application of Scientific Management to global systems which was templated after Bretton Woods is no longer functional in a decentralized, networked world order.
In contrast, the ‘network-centric’ paradigm is about managing the ‘flow’ of intangible information, and the intuitive emergence of knowledge creation by self-organizing systems. It emerged as an alternative approach to Scientific Management in the 1990’s, with the wider and wider diffusion of networked computers in what we now call the ‘Internet’.
Network-centric systems such as the Internet—(which, as a cultural product, is surely to post-Faustian man what calculus is to Faustian man)—operate by means of exponentials: the computing power of a network follows a geometric progression in proportion to the number of nodes which plug into the network.
The Coronavirus is also a decentralized, distributed, horizontally scaling neural network like the Internet. And as the ‘shadow symbol’ of our time, it is actually showing us how our global order needs to be restructured in a network-centric fashion to out-flank it and other infinite impact crises which operate geometrically rather than arithmetically.
The virus is actually telling us how we need to behave as a collective in order to out-flank it.
It is telling us how we have to reorganize our common life as a distributed, decentralized, networked collective in order to deal effectively with the common existential challenges we will face in confrontation with our global ‘soul-image’, the exponential curve as it manifests in complex adaptive systems.
When I saw, on Four Corners last week, the havoc that Jair Bolsonaro’s government is wreaking in the Amazon, I had to shake my head with exasperation—not because I’m so concerned environmentally, but simply because, once you’re aware of infinite impact risks and the interaction of exponential curves of existential crisis in complex adaptive systems, you clearly see that the savannization of the Amazon is but another particular example of the same general morphological ‘soul problem’ which Coronavirus is making visible to us in another manifestation.
The soul problem of our time is to consciously see and understand how the exponential curve interacts in networked systems.
What made me shake my head was the observation that Senhor Bolsonaro—as an old military man and a Boomer to boot—is failing to apprehend the symbol of our time: instead of taking a geometric, network-centric view of the Amazon and its interaction with global systems, he and his government are proceeding on the linear, arithmetic assumptions of Scientific Management.
In other words, this old warrior is taking a World War II approach to 21st century problems.
Daniel Robert Alexander of the University of Phoenix, writing as long ago as 2008, chose, as the subject of his PhD thesis, to ask military and business leaders what naturally occurring and human-induced crises they thought that they would confront in the years between 2015 and 2025, and what leadership competencies they thought they would need to combat these crises.
‘The problem is,’ Alexander wrote, ‘beginning in the second decade of the 21st century, executive decision-makers who do not have the leadership competencies necessary to generate appropriate responses to human-induced and naturally occurring crises will adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people within hours….’
The infinite impact tsunami of a human-induced health, global economic and global political crisis has been ‘selected for’ by two generations of leaders, post-World War II, who followed a systems paradigm based on Scientific Management. And due to the exponential curve we are travelling on, the n-th order infinite impacts derived from this approach are now affecting lives and livelihoods at an exponential rate within hours.
It would be unfair to attach blame to the Greatest Generation for bandaging together a coherent global order based on the short-term efficiency of Scientific Management practices out of the shattered remnants of World War II, a fragile world they could delicately pass on to their children. After all, as Spengler had predicted, by that stage, we were well beyond the civilizational curve.
Moreover, the children of the Greatest Generation had lost faith in the Faustian project, and rejected the fragile chalice they were being handed—although they did not disdain to suck the last remaining dregs of wine out of it.
And it would be unfair to attach inordinate blame for this predicament to the Baby-boomers, who, for most of their watch, have not had the fully networked technology, nor the native adjustment to it, to properly envision a network-centric rather than Scientific Managerial global order.
But when one considers that all the levers of power that might have attenuated this crisis in its early days, well before its exponential explosion, are in the hands of a generation who did not effect a peaceable transition to a network-centric model of distributed, decentralized governance when that technology became functionally available during their watch, but have instead compounded this crisis by tackling it arithmetically, with a Scientific Managerial approach, rather than geometrically, in line with its true nature, you can see, as Alexander says, that the Baby-boomers do not have the leadership competencies necessary to tackle this and similar crises.
The weakness in the network-centric model which makes it vulnerable to viral attack, both literally, as regards human lives, and metaphorically, in the online space, is due to the fact that, as our global legacy systems are centralized, linear and hierarchical, it must perforce operate under the moribund and restrictive global governance architecture of Scientific Management.
As Heather Heying has noticed, if data about the Coronavirus were distributed transparently in a decentralized global network, much of the ‘hard reboot’ economic response to this crisis which Baby-boomer leaders are pressing for—and the probable recession it will entail—could be mitigated.
The strength of the network-centric model lies precisely in the fact that it decentralizes the computing power necessary to evolve a geometric solution, delegating data to knowledge workers within the network, rather than ‘silo-ing’ data within linear, centralized, pyramidal structures where population-level decision-making is restricted to an élite.
This is because the network has a better ‘situational awareness’ than the Scientific Managerial élite: it has more points of contact with the reality of the situation.
Neural nodes positioned closer to the field of action—such as doctors and medical researchers—have a better sense of what resources are required and how they can be most effectively deployed than the Minister of Health who, as a single neural node, is charged with compassing all the complexity of the problem, evolving a population-level strategy, and executing on it.
As Alexander says in his thesis, ‘In a Network-Centric organization, decision-making is decentralized to mid and junior-level leaders who are positioned along the outer organizational boundaries where information flows in a timely manner.’
These mid-level leaders are equivalent to System Three in Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model: in a network-centric response to Coronavirus, knowledge workers such as senior doctors and medical researchers would have a large degree of ‘autonomic discretion’ to regulate the negative feedback of the virus, as they have access to real-time input information.
The rôle of political and executive leaders in the network-centric landscape, according to Alexander, is to provide ‘visionary guidance’ rather than to micro-manage a macro-crisis which it is beyond the cognitive ability of a hierarchical élite to handle—particularly if those leaders are part of a generation which cannot properly envision the symbolic image of the problem.
The Baby-boomers cannot properly see that all the escalating problems we have been facing in this century—from global terrorism to global climate change—are, like the Coronavirus, merely particular examples of a general morphological problem which can be summarized as ‘the geometric interaction of exponentials with networked systems’.
To communicate the visionary guidance needed for a networked global society to take concerted, innovative action on common problems, the torch needs to be passed to the generation who has a native adjustment to the concept of networks.
Milton and Jacqueline Mayfield found that a leader’s communication ability had a direct impact on the capacity of workers to think innovatively. In Australia, we saw our Prime Minister signally fail to communicate to the network the dangers of taking a dip and a tan at Bondi Beach. This is a manifest example of how the Scientific Managerial approach of hierarchical ‘broadcast’ to a decentralized network which no longer has respect for hierarchies is an incompetent leadership strategy.
In some sense, it’s difficult not to intuit that the draconian, paternalistic measures that are being taken by governments around the world are in significant part due to Scientific Management’s distrust of the network to effectively organize itself—their distrust, in short, of people’s capacity to think for themselves and innovate horizontally-scalable solutions.
It appears, in fine, as though they don’t trust people to ‘do the right thing’.
The invisibility of the Coronavirus, and its latency of manifestation, gives every appearance of being exploited by governing élites as a convenient tool to instil fear into networked populations they can no longer control by a Scientific Managerial approach on the one hand, and as a convenient excuse to stage a ‘bloodless coup’, wresting wholesale liberties from them on the other.
This prima facie appearance of a Faustian gambit to derive and extract whatever remaining value is still on the board from people under the guise of paternalistic ‘care’ for their health will have to be monitored by national populations very closely in the coming days and weeks as the game-theoretic dynamics of our collapsing Faustian order play themselves out.
It’s clear, as M. Baudelaire divined as early as the mid-nineteenth century, that no guarantee underwrites the myth of ‘infinite progress’ along a linear trajectory.
If we survive the unfolding infinite impact crises, the image of the gracefully curving line disappearing into the horizon will no longer serve us as a model of reality.
It is in the symbolic image of the neural network that we will find our way not forward, but upward.
As with my previous post on the Coronavirus, I am making the audio version of this article freely available via my Bandcamp profile, so if you find these insights and articulations valuable and you know someone else who you think would also derive value from them, I invite you to download it here and share it with your network.
You can download this free audio version of the article below here.
In my last post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I introduced you to the concept of ‘infinite impact risks’: extremely low-probability events which have the potential to inflict incalculably devastating impacts upon human civilization.
In that post, I alerted you to the fact that global pandemics such as the Coronavirus represent one such infinite impact risk: if we define a civilizational collapse in this context as a dramatic decrease in human population, the Coronavirus, which compounds itself exponentially by means of a power law, certainly has the potential to inflict an incalculably devastating impact upon human civilization.
But the problem, which I alerted you to in the previous post, is that the Coronavirus is merely one of two or three infinite impact risks which have been triggered by the contagion.
The Coronavirus may be considered a ‘first-order’ infinite impact problem in that it unleashes a set of consequential issues which are directly health-based.
But, as I discussed at length in my previous post, all the consequential issues which have their locus of origin in the Coronavirus are not directly health-based.
The Coronavirus has triggered a ‘second-order’ infinite impact risk—the potential for a global systems collapse. In my previous post, I explored how a directly health-based problem has had indirect consequences in the global financial system, leading to a sudden contraction in confidence which will doubtless have an impact on human civilization at least equal to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.
Not all civilizational collapses through the actualization of infinite impact risks may be defined as a dramatic decrease in human population—although extremely high mortality is usually attendant upon infinite impact conditions.
With the second-order threat of a global systems collapse, we must necessarily consider the strain that the first-order threat of a global pandemic places upon our health-care systems, which in turn has consequential impacts upon mortality rates.
However, with systems such as the global financial system, the definition of ‘civilizational collapse’ would be more accurately stated as a dramatic decrease in the complexity of global systems extended across an extremely long timeframe—decades, generations, even centuries.
But there is at least a third order of infinite impact risks which may be triggered in the event of a second Great Recession—or even a second Great Depression.
In my previous post, I stated that much of the civil unrest we have seen growing and metastasizing in wealthy, developed, democratic western societies during the last decade has a significant locus of origin in the response (or lack thereof) of one complex system—the politico-regulatory—which largely abrogated its duty to reform another complex system—the financial—which was manifestly ailing.
Both systems, it ought to be stated, were—and are—in such dire need of reform that it is perhaps impossible to expect one terminally ill system to have the capacity to fix another.
But the net result of institutional inertia on the part of the politico-regulatory system which, in wealthy, developed, democratic western societies, is charged with representing ‘the people’ and the interests of ‘the people’, has been an obvious breakdown in trust of those mechanisms which, in a civilized society, underwrite the mutual exchange of value: intangible civility, politeness, and discourse, and tangible currency.
With regards to the financial system, if, under a policy of economic extraction of common wealth which leaves the majority of a nation’s population vulnerable to the predation of a well-heeled few, the people cannot depend upon the political system and the representatives it elects to defend them against such predations, it is reasonable to predict that trust in the system (which has already been significantly eroded over decades) will decline dramatically, and that other non-legal mechanisms of maintaining social order and cohesion in the populace (such as civility, politeness, and the intercourse of ideas through language) will similarly deteriorate.
The third-order ramifications which are implicit in the Coronavirus situation, therefore, are that not only is there the potential for a catastrophic loss of human life, due in part to the failure of global health-care systems, nor even that entangled global financial markets of value exchange will be completely shattered by the turbulence, but that civil societies, which are teetering in the most wealthy, developed and democratic nations, will become ‘ungovernable’, breaking down into widespread civil disorder—which in turn, as an indirect consequence, will compound the mortality unleashed by the virus.
If this extrapolation strikes you, dear readers, as rather far-fetched thinking, I beg you to return to the initial premiss: the Coronavirus is an extremely low-probability event, operating on an exponential curve, which has in fact actualized itself, and is compounding itself every few days.
We are now very much in train to experience first-order consequences of the Coronavirus—indeed, we are experiencing them—and we are even beginning to see, in the health-care, financial and political systems, second-order consequences which will themselves accelerate on an exponential curve if not checked early on.
Having laid out this preparatory line of reasoning, I now turn to the substance of my post.
As a writer, I have observed with obvious professional concern the escalating struggle over the issue of ‘free speech’ in our wealthy, developed, democratic western societies in the last few years.
Free speech has become one of the major eminences to be taken back—or bombed to oblivion—in the escalating skirmishes of anxiety which have possessed western people whose trust in the mechanisms of civil society were undermined completely by the Global Financial Crisis.
In the metastasis of popular thought, the debate over the relevance of free speech in civilized societies has been framed as really a debate over ‘kindness’: we ought to restrain ourselves, consider the effect of our words upon others before speaking, and certainly not say anything that is wilfully, maliciously unkind.
This is an admirable principle, and it is certainly a good rule of thumb to observe in the practical application of free speech. Many of the objections which the advocates of ‘fair’ speech have to ‘free’ speech may in fact be resolved by the acknowledgment that speaking with wilful malice and not exercising as much discretion as possible (under the fluid circumstances of conversation) in tailoring one’s communication to the intended recipient is not, in fact, a legitimate exercise of free speech, but an abuse of the privilege which civil society generously affords us.
Understood in those terms, the in-principle objections to free speech which have lately arisen miss the mark of why we have the mechanism of free speech in civil societies in the first place.
The issue of ‘kindness’, of speaking ‘fairly’ rather than ‘freely’ to others, is only relevant as an operational courtesy—a kind of ‘Robert’s rule’ we all agree on as a procedural condition of entering into free discourse with one another.
There would be no incentive for you to speak freely with me if you knew I wasn’t going to make my absolute best effort to tailor my message fairly to you and to your personal circumstances, so as to achieve maximal comprehension on your side of the idea I am attempting to communicate to you.
And certainly we see communications between human beings regularly break down precisely because one or both parties choose to unsheathe the sword of unkindness which, previously, it had been taken as a unwritten rule that neither party would take out of their respective scabbards in discussing a given issue or topic.
The argument that has taken hold of the popular consciousness in western societies, viz.—that free speech is no longer ‘relevant’, that it is a mechanism and privilege—only patchily guaranteed by law in many western nations—which has largely been superseded by the mutual obligation to speak fairly and kindly to one another, has been predicated on examples which do not pose an existential threat to human life and civilization at scale.
The Coronavirus, as just such an existential risk with the potential for infinite impact, is an example of why free speech is, as a principle and mechanism of discourse, more important to human beings now than it has ever been.
And the escalation of the Coronavirus to the exponential level of a global pandemic which threatens at least three consequential orders of infinite impact upon human life and civilization is directly attributable to the repression of free speech.
The doctors in China who initially identified the novel virus utilized the mechanism of free speech to pool knowledge and share relevant information in the decentralized, distributed forum of a WeChat group.
This self-organizing collective intelligence was, in its vestigial form, what cybernetician Stafford Beer, in his book The Brain of the Firm (1972), describes as a ‘multinode’: a self-organizing neural network developed to solve a problem of considerable complexity which involves the inverse exponential reduction of that complexity until an actionable solution is reached;—in other words, until a vaccine for Coronavirus is developed.
But as we now know, the Chinese doctors who initially discovered Coronavirus, and who used their limited free speech to pool cognitive resources in the development of a solution to the problem, were stymied by the local and central government of China from communicating with each other.
Not only that, but they were prevented from doing their duty and communicating to the world the real and present danger of the virus at an early stage when it might have been contained on its exponential trajectory.
The WeChat multinode was banned, and the doctors were not merely disciplined by their institutions for communicating with each other, but they were arrested by the police for this exercise of free speech.
‘The police will investigate and punish with zero tolerance those illegal acts that fabricate and spread rumours and disrupt social order,’ a statement by the Chinese police read.
It is easy, therefore, to see in this non-abstract example which has had practical and material consequences for us all, what the ‘cost’ is for human life and civilization when we repress free speech.
The reason we have free speech as a mechanism of civil discourse is not, fundamentally, so that everyone can express his or her opinion. The expression of opinion is a function of free speech.
The fundamental purpose of the mechanism is to pool cognitive resources by means of the most effective vector human beings have for the communication of complex ideas to one another: human language.
When we limit the ability of human beings to express their contingent intuitions—call them ‘opinions’, if you will—about the state of complex existential situations which are changing exponentially, we limit our ability to think collectively and develop solutions which may narrowly avert the rising certainty of infinite impact risks.
Obviously, extended the privilege to express what he knows and sees, an obligation is upon each individual in the multinode network to state his perceptions to the collective in as clear and mindful a way as possible, tailoring his speech in as far as he can to his listeners so that the greatest number of recipients of his message can accurately share his vision of events. This is the unwritten responsibility of ‘fair speech’ which is attached to the right of ‘free speech’.
And I hope, as a writer, that you begin to intuit from the foregoing the concerns I perceive for us all in the diminishment of this fundamental value as exponential curves of existential crisis now begin to sharply rise.
I said in my last post that leadership in this situation will come from individuals who are experts in their respective disciplines giving their fullest gift of value to the collective, making an earnest effort in their relations to recouple the value they ask of others with the actual value they provide to them.
In other words, they will attempt, in peer-to-peer relationships, to reinstitute the fundamental value of ‘trust’ which institutions had gradually eroded prior to 2008, and have completely undermined since.
For a writer whose vocation and avocation is the vector along which free thought travels to other minds, the vector of human language, the existential seriousness of the situation we collectively face demands that I no longer keep my own counsel but say what I have been perceiving in the world for a very long time.
A careful, artful articulation of where the exponential trends in our human systems seem to be heading—and where they could go much faster under the infinite impact risk posed by Coronavirus alone—needs to be respectfully tendered for the consideration of the collective.
Free speech is the ‘checksum’ of human reasoning: just as you might submit mathematical calculations you have made to another person in order to check that you haven’t dropped a carry-over somewhere, we submit carefully articulated perceptions of what really appears to be going on to our peers via free speech in order to see if there is some communal agreement about the accuracy of the perceptions.
And if a critical mass of thinkers who are able to extrapolate far enough along the line all agree that something is awry in the global organization of systems and infrastructure we all depend upon for a civilized life, something which makes us existentially vulnerable to the threat posed by Coronavirus, it is time for the multinodal network to utilize the mechanism of free speech to fast-track solutions to these complex problems.
But the complexity of this ‘complex of problems’ is itself problematic in the rapid development of workable solutions. The ‘simplicity’ of a visceral, existential crisis to a population of people appears to me to be proportionate to the ability of that population to co-operatively respond in an action which circumvents it.
It has been my observation that where a problem is simple, concrete, definable and defined, where sensual perceptions of what the problem actually ‘is’ can be effectively verified by a collective population via the checksum of free speech, then concerted, co-operative, collaborative action can rapidly be taken en masse.
The ability to perceive the event with one’s physical senses—and to perceive it with a degree of accuracy—is checked against communal, peer-to-peer perceptions, and where individual perceptions of the nature of the event are communally validated, then effective action to combat the existential crisis tends to rapidly occur.
Conversely, where, as in this instance, the problem is complex and abstract; where at least three orders of existential risk are involved; where the exponential has not yet grown to the perilous point where it is viscerally inescapable to all our senses; and where consensual meaning of the nature of the existential crisis cannot easily be arrived at, the ability for us to fast-track global solutions which might contain the existential problem before its exponential path makes it manifestly visible to us is difficult.
There’s a reason why we use viruses so frequently as a metaphor for the exponential way that information travels around the globe in our current way of life.
It is because viruses are symptomatic of the vulnerabilities endemic in this new, ‘network-centric’ mode of life—particularly as it operates under the fragile, ailing dynamics of our inherited, hierarchical global legacy systems.
The exponential nature of the virus is itself not merely symptomatic of, but eminently symbolic of the exponential nature of all of our declining Faustian systems, based on infinite derivatives of finite resources.
In 2008, we saw how purely imaginary ‘derivatives’, numbers completely decoupled from redeemable material currency, brought us to the edge of an abyss where total social breakdown and civilizational collapse may have rapidly ensued. Our highly entangled network of global finance, being managed on a linear, hierarchical model, proved itself eminently vulnerable to the cascading effects of virality.
If free speech is currently a contested ground, it is because we are not ‘inoculated’ in this new, network-centric environment to the slings and arrows of poor ratiocination and wilfully malicious comment which can be hurled at us with exponential speed and exponential growth by people on the other side of the world whom we have never heard of.
These are the ‘externalities’ of social media discourse which arise from the same infinite derivative approach to the finite resources of human beings—their intelligence and capabilities for goodwill and good faith in each other. Just as, in the environmental context, extractive actors have displaced and deferred externalities to the commons, actors who abuse the privilege of free speech on the Internet displace and defer intellectual and emotional externalities into the collective intelligence ecology, poisoning collective sensemaking by their ‘unkindness’.
But that is no reason to get rid of the mechanism of free speech. On the contrary, the same exponential power laws which are currently driving a crisis in meaning that have imminent mortal and existential consequences for human civilization are the same exponential power laws which can be leveraged to pool our collective intelligence in a distributed, decentralized global systems network capable of finding consensual meaning to our common challenges.
So I’m submitting my reasoning to you, dear readers. I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below. That’s what comments at the bottom of blog posts are for—nice substantive exchanges of perspective. In case you haven’t recognized the fact, blogs are multinodal networks of collective sensemaking too which are premised on an assumption of free speech, and if my concern seems out of order to you, I’d like to hear an alternative argument from you.
On the other hand, if you think the reasoning I’ve taken care to set forth in this article is sound, I invite you to share it with others in your multinodal networks who you believe will find value in these articulations.
I am also making the audio version of this article freely available via my Bandcamp profile, so if you know someone who would prefer to hear these thoughts expressed rather than read these words, I invite you to download it here and share it with your network.
In 2017, I worked with my good friend Paul Forest on a submission he was preparing for the Global Challenges Foundation. Through their New Shape Prize, the foundation was seeking ideas to reform global governance in order to ameliorate potential future threats to humanity.
You can read the paper that we wrote together here.
A document that we referenced significantly in framing our response was the Global Challenges Foundation’s own white paper, 12 Risks that threaten human civilisation: The case for a new risk category (2015). The paper is the first report to explore a class of risks to human civilization ‘that for all practical purposes can be called infinite.’
The twelve risks which the authors explore in the report include the usual suspects, such as climate change, nuclear war, bad global governance and financial systems collapse. They also include such ‘sci-fi’ scenarios as asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, and the threats to humanity posed by artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.
And then there is the threat posed by global pandemics such as Coronavirus.
The authors found that in most financial assessments of risk, these twelve infinite-impact scenarios were rarely considered for two reasons. On the one hand, they are so low in probability that their inclusion in forecasting would unduly unbalance calculations of risk. On the other hand, if any one of these low-probability risks were to eventuate, their ultimate impact on human society would be incalculable.
But the problem is, that in many circumstances, if any one of these twelve infinite-impact risks were triggered, it would likely have a ‘knock-on’ effect, triggering other infinite-impact risks which would further compound an incalculably devastating scenario.
I think we begin to see this knock-on effect taking place with Coronavirus. What began as a health crisis is now metastasizing into a financial crisis which could easily trigger a global systems collapse—in addition to killing significant swathes of the global population.
I do not think it is at all controversial to posit the view that the systems we currently rely upon as a global population—political, economic, educational, environmental—are not fit to withstand the common challenges we face. These are ‘legacy systems’ which are not adapted to withstand the conditions of novel complexity and rapid rates of change that are now our ‘new normal’.
In the case of our global financial system, it is clear that, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, a necessary opportunity to reform a legacy system which had demonstrated the limits of turbulence it could withstand was lost.
It is also clear that much of the political and civil unrest which has metastasized in western democracies post-2008 may be traced to the institutional inertia inherent in one complex system—the politico-regulatory—making insufficient efforts to reform another complex system—the financial—with its own institutional inertia.
The mounting civil unrest manifesting in the body-politic of western democracies is the consequence, in large part, of an inchoate sense in ordinary people that the currency which lubricates civil exchange in society, decoupled from a material standard, is fundamentally bankrupt, and that the political and financial systems have conspired in a thoroughly extractive fiscal policy to vacuum out all remaining value.
Whatever the truth of this popular intuition, the politico-regulatory system which governs us finds itself in an uncomfortable position: having thoroughly eroded the trust of the populace it governs through its institutional inertia, its inability, and even unwillingness, to effect reform in the financial system, it now demands the people’s trust when another infinite-impact risk threatens in the public health system—one which will likely spill over into the financial system with more globally devastating results than we experienced in 2008.
Indeed, at the most immediately visible financial level, that of the everyday civil exchange of currency for goods, we begin to see how the public incivility which has progressively mounted since 2008, being accepted by the body-politic more or less as a ‘new behavioural normal’ in a world where all our systems are revealing their unfitness for present conditions, has begun to manifest itself as a breakdown in social order.
The instances of ‘panic buying’ in supermarkets and online profiteering reveal the fear of missing out—and the greed it rapidly metastasizes into—which underwrites the zero-sum dynamic of competition in capitalism. In 2008, this zero-sum dynamic saw all the chips on the table accrue to the crooks of the financial system, while the little man was left bereft, feeling betrayed by the political regulators who were elected to defend his interests.
It’s easy to feel some measure of sympathy for these ordinary people, whose civility has been so eroded by the betrayal of civilized systems meant to safeguard the social order, and who act barbarically in supermarket aisles, possessed by a financial ‘panic’.
The last time this happened to these ordinary people, twelve years ago, their fear of missing out was justified. One can understand why they would want to buy up all the stock of quotidian things it is in their financial power to acquire when the ‘Masters of the Universe’, who have exponentially more means at their disposal, could easily stockpile and profiteer for themselves, sucking the last penny out of these ordinary people. Again.
For some years I’ve had an interest in the con game. If you’re a student of human psychology (and of course, if you’re a writer, you ought to be), few fields of study reveal the immutable laws of social dynamics in more pronounced relief than the confidence game.
Having intuited that we now live in the fraudulent world of the ‘long con’, a world of ‘fakeness’ and kayfabery, of screens and surfaces upon which the counterfeit of life doesn’t even have to be good, it just has to be ‘believable’ by some sucker somewhere, I should have been less shocked to recently hear economist Eric Weinstein give the elegant articulation to what I had sensed and ought, with my interest in the classic con game, to have been able to define for myself: our global financial system is a global Ponzi scheme.
When the currency of civil exchange is decoupled from a material standard for which it can be redeemed, you introduce nice conditions for a Ponzi (or pyramid) scheme to take root. I do not necessarily mean to suggest a return to the gold standard; rather, more abstractly, I am suggesting that the numerical, monetary value I demand of you must be attached to a commensurate value, whether in the form of a tangible good or intangible service, which you agree is exactly equivalent.
In wealthy western democracies, where a trend towards an ‘imaginary mathematics’ of value demanded decoupled from actual value provided began to take root in the 1970’s, the conditions for a society-wide pyramid scheme of extractive value-taking was established. And with less and less new entrants (read: marks) into the pyramid available at the national level, the scheme had to be exported and globalized in order to remain viable.
Hence the blowback, in 2008, of ‘toxic derivatives’ and other insane feats of financial imagination based on a principle of extracting real monetary value from fictitious values decoupled from a material standard for which they could be redeemed.
I am sure I am not alone in noticing that in our extractive western ‘service economies’ (which are conspicuous in their lack, for the most part, of producing goods to which a real material value is equivalently attached) that the price demanded for common goods like bread and milk is far above the actual value which the consumer gets out of them.
Moreover, at the other end of the spectrum, in the service sector, we have institutions of higher education which extract monetary value from students in exchange for worthless credentials, ‘mortgaging’ future earnings which these institutions know are impossible for students to realize under the zero-sum dynamics of a mature pyramid scheme, and landlords who charge exorbitant rents for four walls and a roof simply because a desperate market will bear the value demanded.
Whether in the case of small goods or large services, the value of what is actually being provided is significantly less than the extractive value being demanded.
When you consider that the policy of extractive value under a competitive, zero-sum dynamic extends equally to small things in our society as to large, you can see how, under infinite-impact conditions, trivial items like hand sanitiser can easily command prices of ten or twenty times the real value which the consumer can obtain from them.
The infinite-impact risk of Coronavirus has exposed the infinite-impact risk of a global systems collapse which is immanently embedded in the competitive, zero-sum dynamic of our global financial system, based as it is on a principle of extractive value-taking radically decoupled from equivalent value-giving.
In my own life, the panic and sudden contraction of the market has immediately exposed me to risk on both the health and the financial fronts.
As some of you know, I housesit as a means of lowering my personal overhead. Under the extractive conditions of our economy, I simply can’t afford to pay rent. In exchange for a place to stay, I look after people’s homes and pets while they are away.
While I rarely get anything out of it in the way of money, I like housesitting because the value proposition is equivalent on both sides: I render a valuable service to homeowners for a given period of time, and for that given period I can live in some comfort.
Although, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, I’m technically a homeless person, housesitting is usually a pretty nice way to be homeless—when Coronavirus doesn’t create a double panic, causing people to cancel their travel plans at the last minute and the market for available housesits to suddenly contract.
So at the moment, I really am homeless, with no safe-haven where I can sequester myself in order to preserve my health. Instead, I’m spinning my wheels at the dingy hostel I usually only bunk down at for a night or two between sits.
But (as you may infer from the extensiveness of the economic argument I have made in the foregoing) I am almost less concerned about my health than the immediate economic impact that Coronavirus is having upon my circumstances.
The non-financial value-exchange market of housesitting is a nice analogue for the sudden contraction we are beginning to see in our global financial markets. When you’re aware of the number, gravity and cumulative likelihood of infinite-impact risks which threaten human civilization, you are prepared to accept that this global pandemic will, in all probability, trigger a global financial downturn at least equal to, but probably greater than the one we experienced in 2008.
Our global pyramid scheme of extractive value-taking barely withstood that turbulence, without the presence of a second infinite-impact risk to compound it.
It’s clear that a competitive, zero-sum dynamic of extractive value-taking radically decoupled from value-giving is not serving humanity well in the face of a class of risks which can cause both the total extinction of our species and our planet, and completely collapse the social order and infrastructure we depend upon for a civilized life.
Under such circumstances of crisis, it becomes clear that, in order to restore confidence in a marketplace where trust has been thoroughly eroded by the extractive assumptions of zero-sum competition, the risks we collectively face become an opportunity to reform our global financial system by recoupling the value that we ask of others to the value we are prepared to offer them.
Lately, in these times of crisis and panic, I’ve been re-reading David Deida’s The Way of the Superior Man (1997). It’s not a well-written book by any means, but it’s one of the few I carry everywhere in my suitcase. Sometimes I need to be reminded of what it is to be ‘a man’—which is almost more a vocation, an ideal standard of conduct to aspire to, than a biological condition of what you’re packing in your pocket.
Truth-telling, the integral alignment of thoughts, words and deeds, firmness of will, determination in purpose, decisiveness in action—these are just some of the virtues which Deida attributes to the ‘superior man’, the person who embodies the ideal standard of the masculine principle.
A superior man does not withdraw or close in upon himself in times of crisis such as those we are experiencing, says Deida. He maintains an open heart in the face of grave challenge and continues to offer his fullest gift—the unique value which only he can provide—to others, living at what Deida calls his ‘real edge’—his place of fear.
‘Your edge,’ Deida says, ‘is where you stop short, or where you compromise your fullest gift, and, instead, cater to your fears.’
I know I haven’t been playing my real edge lately, giving fully of the unique value I can provide to others with my gift for words. The double risk to health and wealth which Coronavirus poses is an existential opportunity to do my small part in the reform of how we do business with each other, providing commensurate value of service in exchange for monetary value.
For confidence to be restored in a market where extractive value-taking has thoroughly eroded public confidence, leadership—the masculine virtue sine qua non—needs to be shown by individuals who don’t buy into the fraudulent zero-sum assumptions of our legacy economic system.
These individuals will demonstrate leadership in their own small fields of expertise—the places where they can give their fullest gifts to others—and they will, in their personal economic conduct, make earnest efforts to recouple the value they demand in trade to the actual value they provide to others.
In one of his homilies, Deida invites you to describe your edge with respect to your career, and if I’m honest with you, at the moment, my edge of fear is this:
Finding myself temporarily homeless and with no immediate way to protect my health, my small business based on providing my gifts as a writer, editor and desktop publisher to other small businesspeople, to academics, and to other writers and creatives is so fragile that it could easily fold up under present economic conditions by the end of the month, and I would be on the street and without a cent.
Equally, I fear that, if I offer my true gift in the open-hearted way that Deida prescribes, what I offer, under the prevailing extractive economic assumptions, won’t be valued by others—that I will meet a wall of silent indifference which leads to the street.
That’s my edge right now, and as Deida says, there’s nothing dishonourable about admitting your fear as a man—provided you’re prepared to lean into your edge of fear and play it. ‘… [A] fearful man who still leans into his fear, living at his edge and putting his gift out there, is more trustworthy and more inspirational than a fearful man who hangs back in the comfort zone….’
If I learned anything from my days of doing Daygame, the golden lesson is this: When things are not are not going well for you in life, your first order of business should be to see where and how you can offer value to others. Nourish your existing relationships by pre-emptively offering value, and seek to form new relationships by pre-emptively offering value.
So this is my offer of value to you, dear readers: I’m in pretty desperate need for ready cash to get myself into a safe environment and stabilize my business during this contraction of confidence. And I’m prepared to offer you value for value.
Times are going to be tough for us all during this downturn, but narratives will still need to be skilfully told, and images will still need to be manicured and managed.
Do you require bespoke writing, editing, graphic design and desktop publishing services? Do you know somebody who does? I would sincerely appreciate any introductions and recommendations you can offer, either in the comments below, or via my Contact form.
During this period of financial contraction, I’m going to be lowering my rates to take better account of the real financial circumstances in which clients—old and new—find themselves. So if you’re new to my Bespoke Document Tailoring and Artisanal Desktop Publishing services, this is an opportunity for you to experience the genuine value I seek to provide businesspeople, academics, and other writers and creatives by giving my fullest gifts to them, with some absorption of the risk on my side.
In any event, if you are genuinely sincere in wanting to work with me and provide value for value on your side, you will find me very willing to negotiate an appropriate service which is optimal to your budget, no matter how modest.
If you would like to experience the difference of working intimately with a wordsmith who is determined to provide you with equivalent value in service to the price we ultimately negotiate, one who will take on your concerns as his own, I invite you to contact me directly by calling (+61) 0423 296 927, or by filling in this Contact form.
And yes, I’m very open to working with overseas clients. One of the few advantages of the Coronavirus situation is that it facilitates remote collaboration, and with the decline in the Australian dollar, if you’re based in the States, Canada, Britain, Europe or New Zealand, it’s a very advantageous time for you to explore how I can bring value to your business, academic, or creative writing via online collaboration.
This has been a long and very different post from the ones you usually expect of me, dear readers. I obviously felt some trepidation about speaking so baldly about my own situation, but I felt even more trepidation about setting forth a long and complex intuition about the political and economic state of the world at the moment.
You’ve seen a very different side of me from your ebullient Melbourne Flâneur who waxes lyrical on flânerie and art. l hope this very different kind of post has brought value to you in your own evolving perspectives on the crises we are facing, and I look forward to engaging with your thoughts and intuitions in the comments below.