In this week’s brief essay, I want to take a step back and describe my motivations for sending you these emails. For those of you watching the Super Bowl, you may notice some of the themes I raise during the game and during the commercial breaks.
Survival Aesthetics, The Principles
First of all, what is “Survival Aesthetics”?
It is a contrived phrase I came up with because I didn’t know what else to call this series. I’m still discovering what I even meant by it, but a few organizing principles have percolated.
First: from the human perspective, the world is more uncertain and probabilistic than it is finite and deterministic.
Second: diversity (of both the ideological and biological type) is a necessary condition of a flourishing ecosystem.
Third: causality cannot be fully ascertained. This doesn’t mean we cannot know anything, but rather that the magnitude of effects are more important than the predictability of outcomes. The scope of certitude-seeking should be careful not to grow too expansive.
Fourth: “Do no extinction” is a more useful rule of thumb than “Do no harm.” Even if you seek to do no harm, you may cause harm. This is an unfortunate truth. Thus, biological organisms necessarily wield an immense ability to heal (up to a point). Never allow any one decision to irreversibly erase a system’s ability to heal.
Fifth: “Do not go extinct” is the complementary law for individuals. Individuals must strive to adapt to changing circumstances, embrace environmental stressors, and develop a knack for healing. Never allow any one decision to irreversibly erase your ability to heal.
To compress these statements even further:
1. Protect the collective from the tyranny of the individual (Chaos).
2. Protect the individual from the tyranny of the collective (Order).
None of this should be any surprise to those familiar with the fledgling field of complexity studies. In fact, much of what I’ve written so far has unwittingly been a watered-down articulation of what researchers in this field study rigorously. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the works of the Santa Fe Institute, the New England Complex Systems Institute, Geoffrey West, Cormac McCarthy, Nassim Taleb, Yaneer Bar Yam, Garrett Hardin, and many others.
Survival Aesthetics, The Motivation
A grumpy but well-intentioned veteran teacher once watched me teach a lesson on systems of equations. After class, she chided me for trying too hard to build rapport with the students.
Later that same day, another teacher came to observe my classroom (I enjoyed having veterans watch my classes; it helped me gauge how badly I was sucking). She was one of the most loved teachers at the school; her intense yet loving personality made it difficult for anyone to not want to make her happy. This was her advice for me:
"I really like what you're trying to do to get the kids involved, but you still have a long ways to go. Don't fall into the trap of structure. Learn to embrace and orchestrate the chaos. Kids don't learn passively; you need to get their energy levels up, then manage that energy."
She offered to show me how to do it.
The very next day, she taught a lesson to my first period class. It was organized chaos. Students clambering out of their seats to get a better look at the board; kids yelling out answers, then quickly covering their mouths (because they knew they shouldn't have blurted it out).
Yet the teacher was in complete control. She already knew every single student by name and had already developed strong relationships with most of them. So a single stern look immediately translated to "I love you, but if you don't shut up, me and your mom are going to have a chat later this week."
My mentor opened my eyes to the invisible logic that exists in seemingly chaotic systems, if only I took some time to understand it. Her key insight was that her relationships with students were far more important to her teaching than any stern pedagogy.
Survival Aesthetics, The Observations
“The utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations.”
- James Scott, Seeing Like a State
A small number of variables deliver outsized, nonlinear influence on the behavior of systems. This stands in stark contrast to the pursuit of linear legibility that I’ve seen myself and other Ivy League-educated elites obsess over.
The difference between the two is best explained via illustration:
We are beginning to learn more and more about how this reality should affect our ethics and our decisions. Survival Aesthetics seeks to connect these observations to generalized laws on how to see and how to live. Where and how we choose to place our attention matters.
I’ll close off this week with a few of these observations:
- Intermittent fasting, a concept long practiced in many religious traditions, is quickly gaining empirical support for its health advantages over “grazing” (eating small meals every couple hours).
- Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among former football players stems from repeated hits to the head exceeding a particular magnitude of force.
- Iron deficiency is a common cause of illness in developing countries; iron overload is a common cause of heart disease in developed countries.
- Less than 1% of Y Combinator’s investments account for over 60% of their returns.
- We can only store about seven “items” in our short term memory at a time.
- There is an upper limit to the size of an organization before the internal coordination costs exceed the transaction costs paid by individuals directly participating in the market.
- Adding more people to a behind-schedule project makes the project go even further behind schedule.
Hope you enjoyed reading! Please share any thoughts/feedback/ideas. I'm always excited to read what you've got for me.
Happy Sunday and until next time.