Tayken on the Quarter
If you (like me) are wondering WTF is going on right now, and have been asking yourself why things feel so deeply strange with regards to information and communication, here’s an extended quarterly riff (along with a few musings on Clubhouse; the latest social rage to go as viral as #Covid).
Don’t worry, I’ll tayk on NFTs in Q2.
The Evolution of Logos
Crazy to think that somewhere on earth a hundred thousand years ago, words emerged and started flowing from the mouths of naked apes. Our ancient ancestors did indeed create language — lowercase logos. And while we still had to eat and avoid getting eaten, adding the layer of language to our brains and to our tribes unlocked worlds upon worlds of complexity, abstraction and novel possibility. We gained the capacity to reflect, theorize, learn from the past, plan for the future, tell tales, sing songs, invent gods, and of course worship them with relentless fervor.
And of course with language, we created culture; rather crucial because, despite the hype, we are actually shit at inventing things (apes and crows do a better job at generating tools than human children) but we’re awesome at passing along our collective intergenerational insights. So we’re dumb as rocks taken one at a time, but the smartest organism to have ever existed taken collectively over generations.
For 99% of human existence, the truth of our words (Logos) was directly mediated by the tone of our voice (i.e. oral traditions). An elder would stand up and recite their myths, or recount the year’s events, or argue for peace or war, and the tribe could judge — immediately, viscerally, whether those words could/should be trusted. It’s Polyvagal Theory pulled straight out of the textbook and stretched across time. We’d know in a heartbeat whether someone was safe and sound, or just talking shit…and yes, our ancestors talked plenty of shit.
The Rastafarians of Jamaica (yes, my parents were hippies) even have a term for it — they call it WordSoundPower…meaning the embodied truth and strength that someone communicates when aligned with higher purpose. Gandhi called it satyagraha; MLK turned it into SoulForce; and on and on…
For most of our time as homo sapiens, that’s how tribal communications was carried out — even the hand written illuminated manuscripts of medieval monks tried to carry some of that spoken power to the parchment in the form of painstaking art and embellishment. “These words are rather important; I recommend they be cherished” the clerics’ script would insist…that is until Gutenberg and the printing press abstracted Wordsoundpower into inkblots, phrases, and pages. And at first, it was only sacred texts like the bible that got printed, but as production scaled, selection declined, and it was only a hop and skip to Harlequin romances and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Words and writers got divorced from the truth of each other (giving rise to the saying, ‘If you love the book, don’t go meet the author!’).
Today — Logos has gotten so compressed, so deeply anorexic, that it’s getting damn near impossible to detect the truthfulness in any signal anymore. It’s Fake News told with a straight face. Instagram memes spouting inspirational quotes that bear zero relation to the embodied wisdom of the originator. Crankpot, flat-earth conspiracies that boggle the mind but apparently capture hearts are the new bell of the ball. Do we fall in line or put up a fight?
We’ve come a long long way from the beginning, back when Logos was enough to make this wild world from scratch.
Carnies in the Clubhouse
You might have heard lately about a chummy little social media app called Clubhouse, that’s all about the unscripted spoken word. It kicked off last year with a small beta launch and for a while, in those innocent early days of global quarantine, became a place that real humans, devoid of filters and fake, could gather to chat. It was also invite only, and the pond was stocked with all sorts of cultural creatives, Valley ballers, and bored celebs that have made the chance encounters and intimate access of the platform all the more intoxicating. (see Elon’s recent drop-in that got reposted online ad infinitum).
Since then, the place has been overrun with carnies, all piling into the club to milk the pool of cultural capital, and self-promote their way to riches. There’s even a simple way to tell who’s milking the madness — the length of one’s bio. If it’s short, or non-existent, (like Elon Musk or Marc Andreessen) then you know it’s likely a real person with real accomplishments. If it’s a full paragraph filled with emojis, trumpeted achievements, and dollar signs, then they’re almost certainly onto the hustle.
- First the street artists and vandals arrive, and make something novel and beautiful together.
- Then the patrons show up with a keen eye for what’s next; modern day Medicis trying to integrate with the artists they nurture forming a symbiotic ecosystem.
- But then come the carnies (or sociopaths if you’re feeling less generous) with an eye for what’s next, but no particular love for it. They seek to harness the buzz and skim off the top for their own benefit.
- And finally, come the poor benighted tourists — late to the party (amazing, we’re actually sipping $25 cocktails at the Standard Hotel like Beyonce!)
As Clubhouse has now taken on a potential billion dollar valuation, and is tracking to open the floodgates to the Lumpenproletariat (i.e. anyone who couldn’t wrangle an invite) expect the Carnies to line the entry ways, perfectly happy to fleece the newcomers. It won’t be pretty, but then again, it never has been. But all of this discussion of social physics is only so interesting — what’s more fascinating is why something so overwhelmingly minimalist like Clubhouse got traction in the first place. Now that’s worth pondering.
Somehow, all the low-fi vocalities, in a world consumed by Zoom fatigue and the utter vacuousness of platforms like Instagram and TikTok, felt intimate, dare I even say restorative.
Why? If I had to guess, I’d say #WordSoundPower.
In fact, Bob Marley had so much of it that the CIA tracked him for fear that his singing could foment a third world revolution. MLK’s rhythmic tonal oration briefly healed a nation and reminded us of the better angels of our nature. Kanye (on an occasional good day) reminds us not only that Jesus walks, he also talks.
And in a world that’s literally starving for the sustenance of true Logos, Clubhouse is weirdly filling a void in all of our isolation and fragmentation (podcasts do too, but they’re one-to-many communication vs. the live, interactive some-to-some communication that is Clubhouse).
Interestingly, it seems David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford, has inadvertently discovered why people are finding the app so addictive and so “fresh” even though it’s the oldest technology we humans have ever known. In a recent experiment, David has advanced a bold new thesis on why we dream.
*TL;DR — it’s to prevent our ever adaptive brains from appropriating all of those visual cortex neurons for other purposes while we’re getting some shut-eye. Like putting your coat on a seat to save it for a friend, Eagleman’s theory is that we dream to prevent our brains from snagging all of that unused synaptic real estate for other purposes while we’re hitting the nightly snooze button.
But he also discovered something else: not only do our brains constantly adapt and rewire themselves (what he calls the “Mr. Potato Head Theory” of neuroplasticity — where a blind person can adapt their unused visual cortex to process taps from a cane, or boost their hearing) — we all do it, all the time, and it can take under an hour to do so — which more or less unlocks the secret of Clubhouse and its billion dollar valuation for something as low-tech as modern AM talk radio, but as intimate as the campfire cravings of our ancient past.
In as little as an hour, our strained eyes, and over-filtered selves get to shut off the barrage of visual and digital stimuli and tune in to the WordSoundPower of other human meat bags in real time. So if you hear more hot-takes on Clubhouse and find yourself pondering why it’s so buzzy, consider that what’s old is new again. We’re all craving a high fidelity signal and a whole lot less noise. #sameasiteverwas #sameasiteverwas
*Keep in mind: Anything worth exploring takes a moment to setup, contextualize, and then riff on to get anywhere interesting (much to the chagrin of marketing teams who always ding you for writing long posts at a high school rather than a grade school level — but I figure, if you’ve gotten this far, you can handle it and the #1 rule of communication is to assume your audience is smart enough to handle it. I’d much rather be Brain-pickings on Acid than BuzzFeed on Prozac ;)
Without question, time is getting thicker, and at the same time, Logos thinner and thinner. And that’s surely causing much of our grief in the modern-age.
If we once again wind back the clock to our hunter gatherer days, what happened on any given Sunday was likely to be pretty similar to what had happened the day before, or the day before that, or the generation before that — all the way back into the primordial mists of the past. The “bit rate” was slow and predictable. Time, in the sense of the amount of information coming at us, was silicon wafer thin. But then, with the advent of industrialism, telegraphs, radios, televisions, and most recently, the damn internet, the world has increasingly been piped into our living rooms, and the frame rate ramped up exponentially. Sorry folks, this truth isn’t up for debate.
In 1982, futurist and inventor Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900, human knowledge had doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years. And by 1982, it was doubling every 12 months. With the advent of the IoT and AI/ML, IBM recently predicted that this doubling will occur every 12 hours. And that’s pretty much broken our brains (or it has mine anyway). Not just in the sheer volume and complexity of information, but in its downstream implications.
We’re becoming acutely aware of where we’ve come from, how we got here, what’s possible, and our delicate interdependencies and vulnerabilities. Not to mention, what we’re responsible for and what we’re powerless over. It’s a lot to process.
Never before have teenagers had to wrestle with the very real prospect that they may not inherit a world more or less like the one their parents knew. While the rest of us now bear the burden of holding the whole Alpha and Omega shooting match in our heads — from the Big Bang all the way to potential extinction, with overlapping overwhelming existential risks crashing down around our ears (via Clubhouse or otherwise) on the daily.
For a deeper dive, check out this MIT Press piece — a timeline of humanity’s self awareness of our own vulnerabilities (also linked in the taykentots below). Perhaps the most psychoactive article I’ve read all year. And while rapturous ideologies have been present in religious contexts for ages, they almost always reflected an abrupt transformation of life, the universe and everything — rather than a chilling extinction. It wasn’t until Haley’s Comet, the development of evolutionary theory, and the invention of atomic warfare that we became acutely aware that humanity could end, but that life could, and likely would go on without us.
That’s a very different prospect — so overwhelming in fact, that it wasn’t until the 1800s that the first dystopian piece of science fiction was even written — called, appropriately The Last Man. The burden of telling that tale was apparently so intense that the author committed suicide, immediately after printing. It seems existentialism is far from a modern phenomenon. This overwhelming burden of awareness is causing us to crumple in grief. And it’s not just the fact that we could go the way of the Dodo.
When millions of people around the world saw the video of George Floyd, with a blue knee on his brown neck, and his words “I can’t breathe,” it clearly broke something in our collective hearts. (this itself is an example of thickening Chronos — we’re not just aware of our own lives or village, we’re aware of everyone everywhere, all at once). It’s no wonder anxiety is on the rise. Never mind the more rigorous analyses after the fact that suggested, statistically, blue on black violence was less the issue than militarized police response more broadly. It was a gestalt hit of something profound and deeply wrong with a society that’s supposed to care for everyone, and for officers to live up to the commitment “to serve and protect.”
And the same goes for the paroxysms of the #MeToo movement. The outrage, and grief, of so many being abused and misused for so long has created a reactive rage. It’s not especially “rational” or necessarily even strategic for the longer term goals of sexual safety and gender equality, but it is expressing a repressed anger that has been tamped down for too long. We ache for the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it could/should be.
But really, what did we expect? I mean, nobody promised us a rose garden full of kittens and rainbows.
If we’re outraged now about all the injustice in the world, it’s worth asking ourselves when was it ever more just? It’s critical to appreciate this fact, otherwise we become tempted to tear down what we’ve got in the hopes of getting what we deserve. The way out, so it seems, might just be through.
In reality, life on earth has been a thinly veiled knife fight from the beginning, and all our hands are bloody. Nearly ten percent of Asians share Genghis Khan’s DNA (and he wasn’t a Mormon polygamist either. Those numbers are the stark genetic record of war and rape.) Just thirty two generations ago (think I have that right), the Yale statistician Joseph Chang showed that we all shared a single common ancestor! We’re all rapists and murderers, slavers and enslaved. Conquerors and the conquered. The collective blame and burden is ours, together. And perhaps that’s even more to handle. But it also gives us a path forward.
“Ain’t no saint without a past, nor sinner without a future,” one Dolly Parton reminds us.
So as we come unstuck in time, and become overwhelmed by the enormity of being aware of past, present and future all at once, the only way to handle all of that — the pitfalls and the potential, is to open our hearts even further to the great unfolding that is the human condition in 2021.
The agony and the ecstasy — both, forever, or at least, for as long as it takes. As Alice Walker once wrote, “my heart’s been broken open so many times now, it just swings open wide now, like a suitcase.” So what’s the solution to struggling through a world filled with skinny Logos, and bloated Chronos? (no body shaming, these are hyper-objects y’all).
Well, it seems like we need to anchor our courage to the sticking point, let our hearts open in the breaking, and hold minds clear enough in the eye of the storm to take it all in without short circuiting into tribalism or conspiracy theory. In other words, the only refuge from getting completely overwhelmed by how thick Chronos is becoming, is to step out of it altogether and reside in the deep-here-and-now, (what Jamie Wheal calls Kairos — sacred time).
There, everything is redeemed in the unfolding. The endless struggle of humanity to find its way, to rise up from the muck and grime and blood and guts of our nasty, brutish and short, existences and craft what Charles Eisenstein calls “the better world our hearts know is possible.”
We can do it, but only if we all commit to playing the long-game — and that requires rebalancing the informational overwhelm and the burden of awareness we’re all crumpling under, and taking our walk towards what will become a much longer, more glorious war.
Speaking of…Pink Floyd may have summed it up best in their coda to Dark Side of the Moon. It’s a beautiful catechism, and worth tuning in and turning up as you contemplate the years yet to come…
All that you touch; and all that you see
All that you taste; all you feel
And all that you love; and all that you hate
All you distrust; all you save
And all that you give; and all that you deal
And all that you buy, beg, borrow or steal
And all you create; and all you destroy
And all that you do; and all that you say
And all that you eat; and everyone you meet
And all that you slight; and everyone you fight
And all that is now; and all that is gone; and all that’s to come
And everything under the sun is in tune; but the sun is eclipsed by the moon