ribbonfarm: A Brief History of Existential Terror

by 9eB11 min read1st Mar 201711 comments


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Well, I for one really liked this post a whole lot.

Gonna go out on a limb here and say I can't take this article too seriously. It is chalk full of false dichotomies:

The very premise of this article rests on the idea that human beings live solely by our need to balance between two sides of a spectrum.

"An author working on a book, or a freelancer working on a project, or an entrepreneur working on a business, does not spend their time in a perpetual state of flow, but rather experiences little moments of flow, while mostly vacillating between anxiety and boredom."

Why couldn't a freelancer experience moments outside this spectrum? Why does the author frame our life's experience as bound to this particularly solitary scale? What about the spectrum of awareness of self and surroundings? What about the spectrum of communicability with others, a social spectrum?

The author treats the subject, a human being, as alone, with mention of social interaction as being merely a product of our conformism, which too, rests on a premise based upon a false dichotomy:

"The widespread existential vacuum of the 20th century, the feeling of boredom, was brought on by both biological and cultural evolution: biological in that man is the only creature whose behaviour is not guided by instinct alone, and cultural in that during the 20th century many traditions that constrained behavior collapsed, organized religion being the major one. For most, the vacuum is filled by one of two strategies, both of which seek to avoid the sensation of existential terror: conformism (doing what everyone around them is doing), or totalitarianism (seeking someone out to tell them what to do). The clueless seek out both the totalitarianism imposed upon them by the sociopaths, and the conformism imposed upon them by the rest of the clueless class, as ways to relieve the pressure of the existential vacuum. "

The author sees two camps: the rulers and the ruled. The author has no conception of anything resembling cooperation. Like humans couldn't POSSIBLY be social creatures capable of communal efforts.

I'm not sure what else to say. While I support the message that one needs balance between boredom and anxiety, I can't help but find the article imposing a blind view on the subject.

Many Ribbonfarm posts shouldn't be read like LW posts; the point is not to evaluate a bunch of claims for their truth value, it's more to read some poetry and see what thoughts, feelings, felt senses etc. it causes in you.

Why cache different approaches to analyzing an article to different articles? What do you expect to gain from such a heuristic?

Depression is perhaps too strong a term. In my observations it seems to mostly manifest in a subclinical form of depression commonly called “being bored as fuck.”

This ignores possible physiological causes, such as bad nutrition or lack of exercise. I find it ironic that the author later writes:

When I went to the doctor seven years ago with back pain, I was prescribed a chair with more lumbar support and told to “take it easy.” What actually cured the back pain was the opposite: a standing desk and strength training. I was suffering from too little stress, not too much.

Note that "too little stress" in this cases didn't mean "bored as fuck", but it means lack of exercise. Maybe on a sufficiently abstract level it seems the same, but for everyday life "your mind doesn't have enough fear" and "your body doesn't have enough exercise" are two different statements, leading to two different advices for cure.

Even the diagnosis that we don't have enough fear seems not specific enough. It's true that we have the safe roads in life, which are quite boring. But you can always fuck up your life easily, for example by becoming a drug addict, or doing crime.

What seems missing to me are the culturally approved ways to increase the risk moderately. Many choices are binary: you either do crime or you don't; you either use drugs or you don't; you are either an employee or an entrepreneur; you are either a citizen of country X or country Y. Situations where one option seems too boring, but the other one too risky, and there seems to be no way to increase the risk gradually. When you do 90% of university, you won't get 90% of the diploma. It may be very complicated to find a part-time job on the job market.

Some of these examples probably aren't good ones, but I hope the idea behind them gets across. The safe way seems conditional on you staying on the safe way 100% of the time; you have the option to go completely crazy, but seem to be few options to go 10% crazy.

Many choices are binary: you either do crime or you don't; you either use drugs or you don't; you are either an employee or an entrepreneur; you are either a citizen of country X or country Y.

I disagree, both in general and specifically. All your examples are actually not binary:

  • Alice torrented a recent movie. Does she do crime?
  • Bob was in Amsterdam for a couple of days and ate a hash brownie. Does he use drugs?
  • Charlie is a freelancer consultant on a long contract. Is he an employee or an entrepreneur?
  • Dave is a citizen of US, Canada, and Israel. Which single country is he the citizen of?

seem to be few options to go 10% crazy

I don't see this as true. Extreme sports, backpacking in Guatemala, Burning Man, weird hobbies, etc. etc.

What you may be pointing in the direction of is that if you are enmeshed in a web of routines and responsibilities -- a wife, a kid, a mortgage, a stable social circle, etc. -- breaking out from it is difficult to do partially. You either need to slowly and carefully ("safely") rearrange that web, or you need to do a Gauguin and set off for Caribbean or Pacific islands.

Congratulations on defeating my argument using mostly non-central examples.

(By the way, you can also get 90% of the university diploma, if you just get the diploma, and then tear off 10% of it; or copy it on a printer that uses less saturated ink.)

Centrality is in the eye of the beholder :-) I would be surprised if e.g. no one on LW had dual citizenship or was a consultant. And torrenting movies and occasionally eating hash brownies is much more widespread than that.

"using mostly non-central examples"

All categories are binary according to their central examples; none are, according to their edge cases.

The non-binariness of things seems to me to be a fundamental tenet of the post-rationality thing (ribbonfarm is part of post-rationality). In particular, Chapman writes extensively on the idea that all categories are nebulous and structured.

I also think there are options to control your risk factor, depending on the field. You can found a startup, you can be the first startup employee, you can join an established startup, you can join a publicly traded corporation, you can get a job in the permanent bureaucracy. Almost every spot on the work risk-stability spectrum is available.

Perhaps the real question is why some particular fields or endeavors lend themselves to seemingly continuous risk functions. All of Viliam's categories are purely social structures, where other people are categorizing you. So perhaps it's not about the risk inherent in an activity but being labeled that fits his intuition. People might label you a drug user if you smoke marijuana in their map, but in the territory the continuum of "having used marijuana once" to "uses heroin daily" is not only continuous but many-dimensioned.

I'm working part time (4 weeks on 1 week off). It allows me to go 20% crazy. I'm probably not as good at my day job as I could be and unlikely to rise through the ranks. But I value the crazy higher than those things.