29 November 2018

Confronting the burden of consciousness

It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.

Woody Allen, What I’ve Learned

According to Peter Wessel Zapffe, Woody Allen is only partly right. Distraction is one way to suppress existential suffering, but there are three others: isolation, anchoring and sublimation.

Zapffe lays this out in his remarkable 1933 essay, ‘The Last Messiah’. In starkly poetic terms, he describes the psychological suffering that is unique to humans. This suffering, as he sees it, is the inevitable result of possessing a consciousness that can grasp the meaninglessness of existence and the inevitability of death. In response, individuals and society have built an impressive range of repressional strategies to manage these dangerous feelings. Zapffe describes what he believes are the four core strategies to repress the thoughts that threaten not only happiness, but the willingness to live.

Zapffe’s Four Repressional Strategies


By isolation I here mean a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling….

In everyday interaction, isolation is manifested in a general code of mutual silence… Among adults there are the rules of ‘tact,’ the mechanism being openly displayed when a man who weeps on the street is removed with police assistance.

Isolation is the refusal to give an audience to thoughts that break through the everyday world of routines and responsibility. Isolation simply responds with silence, hoping that the unpleasant truth will be gone as soon as possible.


Anchoring might be characterised as a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness….

Any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas.

Anchoring is the reliance on unquestionable beliefs and traditions to shield oneself from thoughts that would call life into question. If isolation is the refusal to acknowledge a troubling thought, anchoring is the belief that the thought can be rendered harmless by the protection offered by invincible and eternal truths: God, Nation, and so on. If one of these anchorings fails, it must be quickly replaced by another to prevent a crisis from appearing, whether in an individual or in a society.


A very popular mode of protection is distraction. One limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions….

The tactic is often fully conscious. Despair may dwell right underneath and break through in gushes, in a sudden sobbing. When all distractive options are expended, spleen sets in, ranging from mild indifference to fatal depression.

Distraction is perhaps the most common repression strategy, as it can take a nearly endless variety of forms. Disturbing thoughts are kept at bay by leaving no room for them to enter consciousness.


The fourth remedy against panic, sublimation, is a matter of transformation rather than repression. Through stylistic or artistic gifts can the very pain of living at times be converted into valuable experiences. Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends, fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects.

If distraction is the most common repression strategy, then sublimation is the rarest. The raw materials of unhappy consciousness are used to build something that transcends this suffering. As Zapffe points out, in order for this strategy to be deployed the initial feeling must in some sense be ‘betrayed’ in order to look at it with detachment. This perspective renders the feeling benign enough to confront and transform into something else.

Non-repressional strategies

The most controversial part of Zapffe’s essay is the recommendation he offers at its conclusion: humankind should cease reproducing and peacefully eliminate itself. In his view, this is the only solution to suffering that must inevitably plague a species equipped with a form of consciousness that goes beyond the requirements of mere survival. He saw consciousness as a tragedy with no possible redemption.

However, Zapffe describes sublimation as ‘transformation rather than repression’, unlike the strategies of isolation, anchoring and distraction. Sublimation means confronting troubling thoughts in order to make use of them for creative purposes. The transformation of suffering through creative means is one aspect of a larger non-repressional perspective: self-transcendence. I want to highlight it (along with a second, humorous nihilism) as non-repressional strategies that can confront the worst parts of human existence without leading to the conclusion that human existence is a mistake that should be erased.


Self-transcendence (sometimes called just transcendence, or in my styling, (self) transcendence) is a perspective that urges us to look beyond the particular accidents of the time and place we are born into. Through self-transcendence we can see ourselves as inextricably enmeshed in a reality larger than the solitary self. This connection can be made manifest in a number of ways: through the universal language of art, through dedicating oneself to the pursuit of deep knowledge, through offering care and love to others, through recognizing a connection to non-human beings and nature, and through losing oneself in ego-less wonder.

Abraham Maslow spent a good deal of time writing about transcendence towards the end of his life. In contradiction to the hierarchy of needs he made famous, Maslow came to believe that self-transcendence, rather than self-actualization, represented the highest peak of human achievement.

The peak experience of transcendence does not rely on repressing the dark aspects of life. Maslow wrote that transcenders ‘can be more ecstatic, more rapturous’ than self-actualizers, ‘yet maybe more prone to a kind of cosmic-sadness over the stupidity of people, their self-defeat, their blindness, their cruelty to each other, their shortsightedness.’ Rather than turning away from the dark corners of human nature and the suffering of inner experience, transcenders resist despair, seeing beauty and meaning in the finite life given to humans. By seeing a connection between our lives and the totality of all that exists, meaning is created that can’t be erased by the changing moods of inner experience. As Alan Watts wrote, ‘We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.’

Humorous nihilism

So we should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance: it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it.

Seneca, ‘On Tranquility of Mind’

Laughing at the absurdities of life has a long tradition. The philosopher John Marmysz coined the term ‘humorous nihilism’ to describe a perspective that confronts the hard truths of existence and responds with laughter rather than tears.

Humorous nihilism shares with self-transcendence a refusal to look away from unpleasant realities. A laughing nihilist doesn't use protective beliefs to fend them off or drown them in an endless stream of sights and sounds. Instead, the darkest thoughts are used as material for humor.

If the human condition is viewed as a joke – something ludicrous, and necessarily marred by imperfection – then it makes sense to stop trying to treat it like a puzzle with some sort of clever solution. Perhaps it would instead be more appropriate simply to linger in the presence of that incongruous gap between the way the world actually is and the way we wish it to be, staring into the abyss with fearless amusement. In so doing, nihilists might extract pleasure from a situation that would otherwise only bring frustration and pain.

Final thoughts

What makes Zapffe’s essay brilliant is his diagnosis of the human condition and the strategies individuals and societies use to fend off the troubling feelings that lay within. However, sharing his belief that human consciousness is a heavy burden does not automatically lead to sharing his belief that life must be doomed by it. The transformation of suffering and the meaning this struggle can bring are timeless themes from across human cultures, and they point toward a life philosophy that can withstand even the worst psychological suffering.

26 August 2018

What happened to ebook innovation?

When Steve Jobs and Apple came out against DRM on music files in 2007, it permanently changed how digital music was sold. To this day, Apple, Amazon and a host of other services continue to sell DRM-free music, even with the push to streaming services.

The situation with ebooks is much different: DRM is the standard. When you buy an ebook from Apple, Amazon or any number of smaller sellers, that book is locked into the service you bought it from with limited rights for what you can do with it. I don’t want to be too dramatic, but I view this as a massive tragedy for humanity. (I’ll assume readers are familiar with the arguments against DRM. If not, the Jobs letter linked above is a good place to start.)

In practice, the situation with books is even worse than it was with music. As Jobs’ letter points out, consumers could always buy the CD and rip DRM-free mp3s. So there was always an easy way to have digital music without DRM. With books, there is no simple way to create digital copies of the books you already own.

The result is that the possible advantages of ebooks are nowhere near fully realized. Neither iBooks nor Kindle are good pieces of software and there is little incentive for Apple or Amazon to innovate. Right now I don’t even have the ability to search across all my ebooks at once. As Patrick Collison said on twitter, “Getting books onto the screen was a good first step.”

I want beautifully typeset ebooks that I can read on any device, with a vibrant ecosystem of third-party software to help me annotate, cross-reference and synthesize everything I read. The alternative ebook readers I’ve found (that can view non-DRM files) are not good at all. Which makes sense, given the smaller size of the DRM-free ebook market.

Well, let me clarify: the legal market for DRM-free ebooks is small; the black market is massive. There are websites offering several million DRM-free ebooks for open download and other sites offering tools to remove encryption from Kindle books. So once again, DRM ensures that the people who actually paid for the ebook have fewer rights than the people who downloaded a free copy from a Russian server.

As I understand it, the push for DRM primarily comes from publishers. Until they have a reason to change, it’s up to authors, readers, students, and librarians to press this issue. I don’t see Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook publishing a “Thoughts on Books” letter any time soon.

In the meantime, there are some bright spots. Standard Ebooks is working to make definitive ebook editions of public domain books. They’ve also created a set of software tools to help with the ebook creation process.

14 December 2015

Designing self-sustaining systems

For me, “design” evokes hopefulness and future-thinking, while the word “technology” has the smell of the 20th century about it.

Technology and design both share a concern for creating solutions to problems. What causes them to diverge is a matter of ethics. Technology looks inward to itself and asks what is possible. Design looks outward to the human world and asks what is needed.

Technology evokes 20th century ideas of construction and progress. It also evokes the consequences of creations that took no heed to the environment they inhabited. Twentieth century technological progress swept the negative (to call them “unintended” would be too generous) side effects under the carpet: we exported demeaning labor to poor countries, threw our trash into the ocean, vented toxins into the atmosphere.

We no longer have the privilege of externalities in the 21st century. We are running out of corners to hide the trash. We have no choice but to confront the realities of population growth, strained natural resources, global warming, and the strife caused by the chasm between the global rich and poor.

To return to the word “hacking”, we could say that 20th century technology exemplified the negative sense of the word. Not hacking as a search for truth, but hacks—poor solutions to pressing problems.

Design is needed for its emphasis on people and the sense that “good enough” isn‘t good enough anymore. Designed solutions are those that understand the complex environment they inhabit and find solutions that empower and aid without causing destruction in some other corner of the world. Good design will, by definition, be design that exists in harmony with its environment. Self-regulating and self-sustaining systems are everywhere in nature. We can absorb their lessons.

Technology is representative of the 20th century mindset of brute force construction that caused negative externalities on a global scale. Design will become representative of the 21st century hope of coming to grips with the world-changing forces we’ve inherited and finding sustainable paths forward.

Design is technology with ethics. But, still, good intentions are not enough. For design to achieve its aims we must have accurate insight into the consequences of solutions. True innovation in this realm would be the ability to model the consequences of actions before they happen.

Bruno Latour has a fantastic essay that ends with a challenge to designers to do precisely this. We’ve long had the ability to accurately model the objects we design, but what is now needed is the ability to model the consequences of these objects. We need an accurate picture of the contexts and forces that will be altered by releasing new things into the world.

03 November 2013

Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect

The paper covering the tables at Svartengrens, one of my favorite restaurants in Stockholm, is a perfect expression of wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi can be summarized as the acknowledgement of three simple realities: ‘nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.’

On the paper, Svartengrens prints their name in rough and faded ink. As you eat, the paper picks up marks and stains: a ring from a water glass, drippings of fat, crumbs from a dessert.


Unlike the perfect cleanliness of a white table cloth, the faded lettering and plain paper seems improved by this patina of wear. It becomes a reminder of the roughness and imperfection of everyday life.

Food and eating are both intrinsically linked to the fleeting nature of experience. Food must be eaten in the short window between growth and decay. After that it becomes useful in a different way -- as fertilizer for another plant that will sprout and eventually decay.

I avoid restaurants that feature slickness and shine rather than the natural textures found in wood, stone and paper. These materials embrace wear and are made better by them. In a certain sense they are alive. They acquire a deeper character as they age. Their wear tells a story that reminds us of our own experience as finite beings. In contrast, a scratch or scuff in plastic or vinyl merely exposes the limited and lifeless nature of the material.

Food and eating is one area of experience in which wabi-sabi manifests itself. There are many others. The Disintegration Loops of William Basinski are a demonstration of time and decay within the domain of sound. As Basinski was transferring old analog tapes to a digital format, the tapes began to break apart as they played. The resulting sound had a damaged beauty that Basinski then captured.

What makes these works so memorable is not the fact that the loops are slowly disintegrating but the fact that we get to hear their deaths. In a very real way, we experience the muddled, ugly, brutal realities of life. What’s more, these muddled, ugly, brutal realities of life are, in their own way, incredibly beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than the original, pristine loops ever could have been.

Embracing wabi-sabi offers a profound understanding of human experience. Things arise and pass away. We carry the burden of the knowledge that we cannot remain forever. But this is what makes beauty and meaning possible.

29 May 2013

Creative work cannot be managed

Traditional management strategies are useless for problems that require creative thinking. And almost every job that has meaning for the future of humanity requires creative thinking.

Whatever opinion you may have about managers and their techniques, the actual history of the profession is likely far worse. For instance, this article covers research done at Harvard Business School about The Messy Link Between Slave Owners and Modern Management. A small excerpt:

Slave owners were able to collect data on their workforce in ways that other business owners couldn't because they had complete control over their workers. They didn't have to worry about turnover or recruiting new workers, and they could experiment with different tactics—moving workers around and demanding higher levels of output, even monitoring what they ate and how long new mothers breastfed their babies. And the slaves had no recourse.

“If you tried to do this with a northern laborer,” Rosenthal says, “they’d just quit.”

And then there's this history of scientific management from the New Yorker. Speaking about Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “Father of Scientific Management”, the article says:

Whether he was also a shameless fraud is a matter of some debate, but not, it must be said, much: it’s difficult to stage a debate when the preponderance of evidence falls to one side. In “The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong”, Matthew Stewart points out what Taylor’s enemies and even some of his colleagues pointed out, nearly a century ago: Taylor fudged his data, lied to his clients, and inflated the record of his success. As it happens, Stewart did the same things during his seven years as a management consultant; fudging, lying, and inflating, he says, are the profession’s stock-in-trade.

The problem goes even deeper. Dan Pink’s popular TED talk goes over research that shows increasing financial rewards for better performance actually produces worse results for creative tasks.

What’s the solution? Enable people to meaningfully engage with their own work. As Dan Pink summarizes it, people doing creative work want and need three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I’ve been on several software projects where progress had stalled and frustrations began to rise. The response? More meetings, more top-down control over low-level decisions, more aggressive scheduling of milestones. The result each time was the same: the project failed anyway.

As Alan Cooper tweeted, “Management is about choosing the proven alternative over the risky new one. Creativity is about taking risks to find new alternatives.”

In order to produce meaningful new things, we must move beyond industrial-era strategies and embrace collaboration and creativity among the people actually engaged in the work.

Alongside the ideas of autonomy, mastery, purpose, creativity, and collaboration, another idea deserves consideration: empathy. It's a mistake to think of empathy as a soft concept that must be kept separate from rational decision making. Empathy for the people we work with and the people we are creating products and services for will result in far better results than hard-headed calculation alone.

There are hopeful signs that these ideas are making their way to the people who found and run companies.