I’d like to thank Asia Noble for the illustrations this week. If you are looking for a talented illustrator, you can find her at http://asianoble.co/ or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d also like to thank Bill Ledley and Ryan Vanzo for their valuable feedback. Now on to the post.
I laid out six beliefs in the Founder’s Letter. Over time we’re going to explore each of these beliefs in detail. There is a high degree of interconnectivity between the beliefs, but the first belief – you have control over your life and if you don’t realize it you can rewire your brain – is foundational. I think developing a sense of control over your life is more important today than ever before. But first we’re going to need a little bit of history to understand why.
Technology, Scarce Resources, and How Society Changes
Humans are very good at creating and using technology to solve problems. We’ve had a tendency to make better technology over time. These technologies change the way we fulfill our basic needs. We’re able to do this through the knowledge loop. The knowledge loop is a process. We discover something, next we create new stuff based on what we discovered, then that new stuff helps us discover something else, and the cycle continues. Sometimes these improvements in technology have sweeping effects that shake the foundations of society. This occurs when the new technology changes society’s scarce resources. The various agricultural revolutions changed the scarce resource from food to land. The industrial revolution changed the scarce resource from land to capital.
These shifts in scarce resources resulted in positive and negative outcomes for different people. The agricultural revolutions created cities, the division of labor that made making more technology possible, and the foundations for the industrial revolution. The downsides were patriarchy, slavery, wars over land, and poor diets.
The industrial revolution created jobs for displaced farmers, mass production, leisurely lifestyles, air travel, better medicine, an efficient education system, and rich cities. It also resulted in the military-industrial complex, urban sprawl, global warming, nuclear weapons, and two World Wars.
The Scarce Resource is Changing
We’re currently going through a phase transition caused by the rise of digital technology and the internet. In the book, World After Capital, Albert Wenger, a venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures, argues that digital technology is shifting the scarce resource from capital to attention. The gist is that capitalism was very successful at creating a shit-ton of capital. So much capital that we can or will soon be able to cover the basic needs (shelter, education, healthcare, clothing, food) of every single person on earth 1.
Digital technology allows for the distribution of information with near zero marginal costs. That means anything you create digitally, can be sent to every person on the planet. Since the cost of creation is fixed, each additional copy has a lower unit cost. This is one of the reasons why apps sell for $0.99 and music is basically free on the internet. The upside is that this means the knowledge loop can spin faster than at any other point in human history. The caveat being that misinformation and shocking news can also spread faster. So what you pay attention to matters. You can either improve your mind faster than ever before or you can hide at home, scared, playing Call of Duty on your couch while eating food that contains 300 ingredients you can’t pronounce.
Psychological Freedom and Why It Matters
Wenger argues that we need to have three things in order to take full advantage of scarce attention and thrive in the knowledge economy: informational freedom, economic freedom, and psychological freedom. If you’re reading this you have access to knowledge and thus informational freedom. Economic freedom means escaping what Wenger calls the job loop. The job loop is having to work most of the day just to be able to pay for your basic needs. When you are economically free, you have the ability to choose how you spend your time (Wenger argues for a Universal Basic Income to free people from the job loop).
Psychological freedom is the ability to structure your own life through managing your emotions and applying your free will. It’s being able to deal with uncertainty through trial and error. It means not being afraid to create and share because you have a deep understanding that any feedback you receive can only make you better. It’s being able to die living life rather than to live life dying.
Developing psychological freedom is more important than ever when attention is the scarce resource. I quote Wenger at length:
It’s important, first of all, to acknowledge the profound psychological dimensions of the breakdown of the industrial society. Social and economic disruption makes life more stressful; we’re more afraid then ever of losing our jobs, and we’re in general unsettled by what we perceive to be the heightened pace of change… For the knowledge loop to truly succeed, each of us as individuals must adapt. Not merely must we wean ourselves away from unhealthy uses of technology; we must look honestly at ourselves and recognize that we are not well prepared psychologically for the freedoms the knowledge loop requires. As we break with ways of thinking associated with the job loop and scarcity, we must identify the deep-seated fears and emotional attachments that hold us back from engaging fully in an economy bereft of jobs. Until we do, the knowledge loop will not fully take hold, and we will never feel the sense of security and calm we crave. Right now our technologies and the systems they make possible are mastering us; we need to learn how to master them.
The Breakdown of the Industrial Society
Our society is facing an identity crisis of epic proportions. We trained ourselves to be cogs in an industrial system for the people who had the means (psychological and capital) to create their own realities. Many of us gave up our creativity and curiosity in return for a predictable life with a pension.
We built our self-identities on a system that neatly laid out what we had to do to in life. It went something like this… You went through the assembly line-like public education system and either got a satisfactory factory job or went to college. After college you got a job at a great company. You mostly stuck with either choice for your whole life, which was followed by retirement and a healthy pension. If your company failed, the government had your back. All the while, you spent your money (which is really the value society placed on your labor hours, i.e. your time) consuming products to feed your self-identity so you can measure your relative “success” versus everyone else.
This was the cost society had to pay to get to today. The optimistic case I will present is that despite all the uncertainty, the collapse of the industrial institutions, the rise of automation and globalization, this is the greatest point in history to be alive. In each of your pockets is a super computer with access to the entire wealth of human knowledge ever created and the possibility to connect with billions of people on the planet. You just need to develop the mindset to take advantage of these facts.
We Can All Develop Psychological Freedom
I truly believe each of us has the potential to create our own meaning in this world by utilizing and participating in the knowledge loop. There is an abundance of resources available to help us in this journey. The way to take advantage of them is to develop a creative mindset based in experimentation and iteration (Silicon Valley calls it the hacker mindset). It is the complete opposite of the education system’s standardized tests. This mindset favors creating something without knowing if it will work, observing the results, and then iterating based on the feedback. It’s okay if something doesn’t work, try something else. You can figure out a way.
Fortunately for us, the cost of creating and running life experiments is in secular decline. It’s only going to get cheaper too. If you have the right mindset, you can take advantage of the vast distribution and fulfillment network Amazon is building, you can take advantage of communication mechanisms like Twitter, Medium, Facebook and WordPress, you can outsource creating designs to people all over the world on sites like Fiverr, and you can meet all sorts of people who share your interests on sites like Meetup. But you have to become extremely comfortable with uncertainty. Ironically, in order for something like a Universal Basic Income to work, we each need to take greater individual responsibility for our mental well being. Nobody is going to do it for you.
We can wait for society to reach a breaking point or we can start doing something about it now. Opportunity is available to the prepared mind. Regardless of whether or not you are economically free today, you can develop psychological freedom.
Next, we’ll examine some of the pernicious mental loops that prevent us from being psychologically free.