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In my interview I explored Everett’s new ideas in detail. I’ve mentioned before that I was skeptical of his claims. The big question I’ve been asked since doing the interview is, did it change my mind?
A Time for Minimalism, a Time for Change
A while back I wrote about three ways to travel without a job. The three I highlighted were minimalism, primitivism and being a mendicant. At the time I focused mainly on how each one works and pointed out that each method requires a change in lifestyle.
At their root, they are lifestyles. Nothing more, nothing less. This includes minimalism.
Like any chosen lifestyle, none is an end in and of itself. They are means.
Maybe I have a little bit of distance on this issue, because I never got swept up in the minimalist movement. I came in sort of at the end of its rise, and had already learned much of its joys anyway from living in the woods with nothing but a knife and hatchet.
So I’ve always seen minimalism as a means to an end. You don’t throw out your stuff to have less stuff, you do it so you can use the extra money and freedom to do something worth doing.
Reading Everett’s writing, you can see this understanding coming a mile away. He fell into minimalism almost incidentally, so he could keep living after he abandoned his job and left home. It made him successful because he wrote very eloquently about how he did it. But at no time do you really hear him say, “My dream in life is to coach people on throwing out things.”
He got sick of repeating the virtues of that lifestyle. As he puts its, once you don’t have to fight for the money to survive you just sort of get bored.
So he declared Fuck Minimalism, and he left some broken hearts along the way. In the wake of his announcement, minimalist bloggers almost universally cried out to reaffirm that minimalism is still worthy. It’s a tool you can use to do great things.
The funny thing is, that was Everett’s point.
He never says minimalism is dead or useless. He basically says it’s just the starting point. Ultimately that’s true of any lifestyle philosophy—minimalism, veganism, or even the heroic life. Living the life is just the launchpad for actually doing something important.
So, without even touching the cyborg issue yet, I will say that Everett made a good call by getting out of writing about minimalism and throwing himself into a new project. Maybe he didn’t need to wipe his old blog or discontinue The Art of Minimalism, but that’s his style.
Cybernetics and the Art of Conversation
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that everything Everett says cybernetics can do is true… but none of it is new.
Let’s look at exactly what powers he says technology offers, stripped of the language he uses to describe them:
- Correct use of Twitter allows you to synchronize thoughts with faraway people so perfectly that you can write blog posts that express each other’s thoughts. You have the same thoughts at the same time, without even communicating about them.
- By having friends on the ground send pictures from their daily life, you can get to know a place intimately before you travel there.
- You can build a digital persona online. We didn’t really talk much about “second selves” in the interview, but the idea is that Web 2.0 lets you build an online version of yourself, complete with personality (your branding), knowledge (links, articles, blog posts) and friends (friends). You can use this second self to take care of you, essentially by employing it for business.
Now I want to take a moment to talk about how each of these things is truly and legitimately awesome. The picture thing may not sound that impressive, because people have been doing that with travelogues and guidebooks and postcards forever—but consider how much more complete and personal it is to discover a place through vignettes of friends on Path. That’s pretty different from watching the Discovery channel.
So it is useful, powerful stuff.
But at the same time, none of it seems particularly new to me. Most married couples can finish each other’s sentences and write each other’s blog posts. I’ve experienced the same thing with my apprentices at the temple. If you share a lot of time with someone, and work together on shared ideas with that person, eventually it’s going to seem a lot like you have telepathy with them.
That doesn’t require Twitter.
You can make the argument that Twitter allows it to happen quicker or with less work. Or maybe even with more people all at once. And even just knowing that this longstanding part of human experience can happen through satellites is an important discovery. Let’s not underestimate that.
But is that really cybernetics? Is that really the kind of the man-to-machine integration that the word conjures up? Or cyborg for that matter?
The same goes for the second self. It is really a gem of the ex-postmodern world that we can make a living by maintaining a brand, blog and digital product online. It’s cool that we can start projects in the cloud and see them progress as intended while offline. There is no denying that this is a new dimension to human labor and commerce that changes the way our economy functions.
But if you read Everett’s early posts about second selves—“read” past tense, as they’re wiped now—he initially conceived of them in the same way yoga conceives of energy bodies around the physical body.
Energy bodies are metaphysical. They are very real to those who feel them, but they don’t correspond to any known energy spectrum, cannot be detected by science, and have no effect on the material world. They exist primarily in the mind of the yogi.
This is an apt description of second selves. They are not conscious, and are not “selves” at all. They are really just business constructs that promote your ideas and interests for you. They are made out of blog posts and hyperlinks. They may let you be remembered after you die, but they won’t make you immortal. You can’t upload your brain into them.
So does that really make you a cyborg?
Everett’s Great Discovery
I’m really grateful to Everett for giving me his time and sitting down for the interview. I’ve developed a profound respect for him because I believe he is, in fact, designing new uses for technology.
He also uses exclusivist language. To Everett, the experiences come first. If you want to learn about this stuff, you have to try it yourself. Explaining it to outsiders is not a priority.
But that necessarily leads to a lack of accessibility. Millions of people would benefit from learning to use Twitter on a higher level—but they won’t do it, because hearing talk of cyborgs and telepathy turns them off at the start.
This opens the door to a really fertile area of online entrepreneurship: whoever can take these same techniques and package/teach them in a way that doesn’t sound mystical will make a fortune.
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