Jan 24, 2017

Freewrite rescued from my email drafts: 4

Part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

I like writing these vignettes. I'm opened up, I'm loose, we are doing this. And there is a lot of ground to cover.

I like doing things, but I also like consuming things. Though my orientation has changed since I was a teenager, a lot of how I spend my time hasn't. A large portion of my waking life, possibly the majority of it, is spent in mediated experience. By mediated experience, I essentially mean experience that has been designed to be consumed. Watching television is the archetypical example, but there are many more subtle forms (as an example, television has the problem of being both mediated, i.e. curated for consumption, and passive, i.e. able to be experienced with minimal effort, and there is thus a danger of conflating the two aspects. Much of the danger I'm reacting against comes from the mediated aspect, and there are many passive experiences which I whole-heartedly endorse).

Other forms of mediated experience include: reading the news online, playing a video game, attending a concert, viewing snapchats from your friends, reading a letter, viewing representational art in a museum, reading a magazine article, watching pornography, eating at a fancy restaurant (especially prix fixe), scrolling through your facebook news feed, walking through a flower garden, participating in a conversation that feels as if it were following a script (e.g. one entirely composed of small talk).

Conversely, forms of unmediated experience include: hiking, riding a bicycle, reading a private diary, using the bathroom, cooking (especially without using a recipe), improvising music, writing a letter, commenting on a television show you're watching with a friend, waiting to fall asleep at night, petting a dog, sailing, having an intimate conversation, reading a book (debatable, the case is strongest for books that were not intended to be read, but many books are written for their own sake to some degree, and to the extent that this is the case, the experience of reading such a book is unmediated).

I should point out that this is not a binary distinction, but a spectrum. Experiences can be more or less mediated, and the degree of mediation can shift during an experience (e.g. a conversation that begins in small talk can open up into a more intimate conversation where everyone is engaged and no one is "following a script").

I'm tempted to label unmediated experiences as more "authentic" or more "real" than mediated experiences, but this would invite confusion. In a literal sense, both types of experience are equally "real." So for simplicity, I'll only use the terms "(un)mediated" to refer to the distinction I'm pointing to.

As you might gather from the subtext, I think mediated experiences are less valuable than unmediated experiences, and potentially detrimental. Unmediated experience feels more lively, and is often either creative or vividly sensory (again, not without exceptions and all of these distinctions have fuzzy borders). Mediated experience is more comfortable, more palatable, and easier to slide into. You don't need to work very hard to start having a mediated experience, and once you're in the experience, it can be hard to pull yourself out (e.g. internet browsing, television surfing, Netflix binging, video game marathons all distort the imbiber's perception of time).

Our society is set up to deliver a consistent pipeline of mediated experience. In fact, it can be difficult to regularly obtain unmediated experience.

"Retreats," "unplugging," and "detoxing" all point to interventions intended to increase the proportion of unmediated experience in one's day. These interventions are temporary, a period to refresh and/or reflect before returning to a highly mediated lifestyle. We could view these interventions as recovery – in some way I don't understand, mediated experience wears us down, makes us feel worn out, burnt out, drawn thin. In a "detox" intervention, we temporarily detach ourselves from the pipeline of mediated experiences, and this is recuperative. Thus recovered, we then return to our regular lifestyle, rested, renewed, and resolved to be better people. I suspect that many planned lifestyle changes are made on retreats, but these are likely ineffective in the medium-term. I have not observed anyone who has returned from vacation a new person, living by a new set of precepts in an enduring way. Mediation seeps back in. This isn't surprising, given the design of society we lie in. Mediated lifestyles are dominant in our culture, and they don't appear to be trending down.

There exists a class of people who reject the dominant culture. They either opt-out entirely (e.g. Chris McCandless or Richard Proenneke), or install themselves in a more favorable subculture (e.g. cults of religion & of personality, the more hardcore elements of the rationality community, various monastery traditions, hippy communes; note that subcultures may also carry some degree of mediation, though I suspect that it is generally less than that of mainstream American culture, simply because mainstream American culture is mediated to an extreme degree). Regardless of which route they choose, these people are usually considered Other by the mainstream culture (in the same way that other mainstream cultures, e.g. Saudi Arabian Sunni culture, are considered Other). They are not accepted or normalized, though their stories may be romanticized and packaged as entertainment. But these paths are held separate – "joining an Amish community" or "taking a few years to connect with nature" are not considered legitimate life paths for mainstream Americans. Indeed, they aren't even on the menu of possible life paths handed to young Americans when they begin considering what to do with themselves.

The opt-out path is not appealing to me. One response to the question of "how ought I live in my culture?" is indeed to rebuff the culture and live life elsewhere. But a more interesting response is to attempt to live a good life within the culture, having seen its failings. There is an altruistic component to this – I believe that life outside mainstream culture is likely more fulfilling, likely better for the individual. But life outside does not help anyone inside the culture (a thorough-going hermit helps no one at all), and making the world better is an important component of my conception of a good life. Opting out does not check the "making the world better" box, and that makes it a non-starter for me.

So the question becomes "how ought I live in my culture, given that I don't reject it?" And this is a challenging question. The standard answer ("standard" in the sense that most people appear to live in this way) is to assimilate – accept the mediated lifestyle, tap out every six months when you feel exhausted, then dive back in, hoping to make marginal improvements to your routine. Keep doing this, year after year, until you forget the mediated/unmediated distinction and accept mediated experience as reality. This is not a very generous characterization, but it is how I have modeled the things I've observed so far.

The standard answer is unsatisfying to me; in fact I'm terrified of it. It feels like the default, it feels like what happens to you once you let your guard down, or after you've made one too many compromises. I'm not sure how rational my terror is – in its defense, the standard answer does seem comfortable, and it could in fact be quite pleasant once you've acclimated. But I can't accept it. My intuition is that it is not an outcome I would be happy with; that, if I took the standard approach, I would have a moment of clarity in my mid-60s, realize what had happened, then collapse in despair until I had collected enough of myself to seek some small succor from the mediated pleasures which had grown so familiar.

So I need another approach.

[rereads: 2, edits: written in June 2016, a couple stylistic things but largely untouched]