What If We Already Know How to Live?
This essay was originally published on Ribbonfarm.
Sometimes, an event seismic enough to rip a fault line through history forever divides time into two equally infinite halves: before said event, and after. Among the previous divisive events in time, I can think of fire, and language. Suggesting the internet did so for society is nothing new, but I suggest the digital age did so for the most basic, insoluble of human questions: how to live. The question is a pure expression of philosophy, distilled and stripped of distractions. I view digitalization on the seismic scale of fire and language, forever changing the landscape of the question, splitting the history of our existential strivings into before and after.
Philosophy is, in part, kept alive by ever-changing sociocultural circumstances that demand new lived responses to its question. But the changes brought by the digital age are of a magnitude beyond the routine vicissitudes of history. The global distribution of knowledge is arming, perhaps overloading us with more information than ever before, and the proliferation of digital interfaces is reprogramming how we experience life itself, our attentive and perceptual faculties.
Annie Dillard asked in 1999: “Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” Asking the same question now is a new inquiry, for things are no longer as they were. That was all before. Inaugurated by information abundance & global connectivity, philosophy begins a new timeline. The ‘after’ has just begun. How has our inquiry into how to live metamorphosed? What new challenges animate our search for a fullness of being? What is philosophy after the internet?
To make sense of this old question in new circumstances, we can squint beneath its surface: what are we asking, really, when asking how to live?
Nietzsche wrote that while truth can stand on one leg, it’s sturdier upon two. By expressing an idea from at least two perspectives, we give truth “a right and a left foot” to walk, to journey along with the procession of time. Asking how to live, too, is a question built of two legs. Philosophy is an inquiry of both the known & the unknown, of 1) discovery, and 2) design.
Discovery: What of the unknown can we still learn in pursuit of living well? What unknown wisdom remains to be discovered?
Design: How can we implement what we’ve already discovered into our lives? How can I assimilate and apply the wisdom gleaned through discovery into my lived experience, so it isn’t just cognitively known but viscerally felt?
What makes the digital age such a watershed moment in the history of philosophy is the sweeping up of everything humankind learned in the discovery column and rendering it all instantaneously accessible from anywhere, anytime, to almost everyone. The same knowledge that once required inter-cultural travel, wide reading of many books, and diverse conversing with learned people, became accessible from the comfort of one’s toilet while still wearing pajamas.
What I’m getting at is the possibility that the basic human conundrum is no longer driven by a deficiency in discovery, but in design. That now more than ever, we’re equipped with the information needed to live well, but aren’t integrating that information into our daily routines, our lived realities. There’s a lag between what we’re discovering and how we’re living.
This is where I get off asking, playfully: what if now, to some non-trivial degree, we already know how to live? What if our trouble lies in acting upon that knowledge?
If so, the human dilemma is no longer defined by a scarcity of knowledge, but a friction between knowledge and behavior. Smoothing this friction, and the bulk of philosophical work as we search for our bearings in the digital age, is a matter of design. Philosopher Felix Guattari coined the term “ecosophy” to describe the threaded relationship between subjectivity — our mentalities, those deep pools of consciousness where ‘how to live’ arises as a question to begin with — and the larger social & material environments in which we live:
“Without modifications to the social and material environment, there can be no change in mentalities. Here, we are in the presence of a circle that leads me to postulate the necessity of founding an ‘ecosophy’ that would link environmental ecology to social ecology and to mental ecology.”
More recently, Mark James’ eco-behavioral design (EBD) describes behavior change as an ecological outcome, arising from the relationship between environmental factors rather than individual willpower. So, as with Guattari, changing behavior requires a change in an individual’s larger ecology of being.
With this parallax shift, we ask the same question of how to live from a different angle. Our behavior, continuum of experiences, our senses of elation & despair, our wisdom & compassion, our mental & physical lives are all construed as relational tensions largely, if not entirely, tuned by our ecological surroundings. ‘We’, our complex and subjectively experienced lives, are local, but interdependent expressions of the cosmic ecology. The Universe as one big, seething entity comprised of successively smaller, constituent ecologies. We are all at its center, for as the saying goes, its center is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere. From this orientation, there is no ‘philosophy of design’. Philosophy is design. Living differently, living better, is not a matter of individual will power, but of ecological reconfiguration.
Asking ‘what if we already know how to live?’ is an especially brazen question against the turbulent backdrop of our times. But putting the question a little differently might help show why it’s still useful to ask.
In economic terms, this is like asking if we now find ourselves in a situation where the marginal returns on designing the ecological determinants of our lives (economic, political, social, educational) in accord with what we’ve already learned about living are outpacing the returns on further discovery. Put on a graph, it’d look something like this:
The line of benefit for ‘discovery’ remains constant because I’m not sure engaging with the unknown will ever yield diminishing returns. It is infinite; no matter how much we learn, it’s size remains the same. It remains one of the most vitalizing relations available to the human psyche, and an animating force behind great art. But it is conceivable that, at particular moments in history, the returns on design will outweigh the returns on discovery.
If we zoom out from the graph, we might find that such critical points where the benefits flip from one leg of philosophy to the other are cyclical. That asking how to live is an ongoing, recursive relationship between discovery and design, between finding new answers and embedding those answers into our civilizational systems:
While I’m enjoying the use of my drawing pad, another way to visualize the relationship between discovery and design is in the form of two adjacent containers:
The flood of information made available through the internet filled the discovery container with more than it can hold. We’re spilling things, getting the fabric of human life all wet. These moments of imbalance are when priority shifts from discovery to design. At these points, the work falls upon those positioned between the two containers, using what we’ve discovered to imagine and implement new designs, to convert influxes of knowledge into wisdom that can be embedded into the internal logic of our ecologies, enriching the relational environments from which our sense of being is woven.
The Givenness of Things
When Dillard asked how to live, she began with “Given things as they are”. But ecosophy approaches the things of life as if they, at least to a significant degree, are not given. Rather, they are emergent properties of ecological design. If things are no good, an ecosopher traces the undesirable outcome back to a design flaw.
Operating within poorly or negligently designed ecologies is like swimming up a vertical waterfall. If we aspire to behave in ways conflicting with the latent incentive structures of our ecologies, we are forced to labor against the mechanisms of our own becoming. What might be done if the ecosopher successfully traces an undesirable outcome back to a design flaw? What real-world changes might we pursue if taking Guattari’s method seriously of modifying our mentalities by modifying our social and material environments? Strategies are specific to the ecology in question, but we can survey a few.
Looking to these ecologies, we find them successively nested, overlapped and intermingled like tangled roots. Interwoven rhizomes. The individual begins in the mind, with their patterned relations to the ceaseless stream of consciousness, the thoughts and apparatus of subjectivity that populate our interior space; we then exteriorize ourselves in the domestic sphere, the design of living spaces, frequented rooms; next we extend through our social relations and rituals; we extend further on through the myriad digital interfaces proctoring attention & perception; and further still through our economic, political, and cultural institutions creating the frameworks for our livelihood, conditioning the extent of collective imagination.
We exist at the nexus of these ecologies. “I” am an expression of the meeting place between all of my constituent spheres. How are these ecologies designed? What modes of being, or modalities of ‘I’, do they support?
We can find dubious or vestigial incentive structures latent in most ecologies: obsessive preoccupations with internal monologues aggravate insecurities, anxieties, and narcissism; social relationships increasingly center around distractive, palliative entertainment rather than genuine play that’s so crucial to well-being and healthy relationships; pervasive technological interfaces carry subsurface agendas of corralling and hoarding our attention through dopamine spikes; and economic ideologies espouse no further view of human progress than quantifiable growth.
Things are not all bad, and these perspectives are one-sided. Still, I would like to briefly visit each of these ecologies in turn, dwelling further on their respective roles in co-creating our lives, and their design potentials for improving them.
I. PERSONAL DESIGN
Exploring the formative and dominant forces in a person’s relationship with their own mind is beyond the scope of this essay, and this author’s ability. It’s nevertheless the starting point for one’s approach to the question of how to live. Guattari calls this the mental ecology. Who, or what, is doing the asking? An ego? An organism? A local expression of an interconnected and continuous cosmic ecology?
In a collection of essays on “Man’s Relation to Materiality”, Alan Watts writes that each ‘I’ is an “arabesque of tubes, filaments, cells, fibers, and films that are various kinds of palpitation in this stream of liquid energy.” By default, though, I feel myself to simply be me. A single, fixed, discrete person. Yet what is taught by adepts, mystics, and philosophies the world over, is that what we experience ourselves to be is largely an ecological outcome of the conditioning beliefs and systems in which consciousness develops. That contemplative practice can loosen our fixed sensations of being a discrete ‘self’.
Watts writes that our sense of identity is, indeed, an ecological production:
“We need to become vividly aware of our ecology, of our interdependence and virtual identity with all other forms of life which the divisive and emboxing methods of our current way of thought prevent us from experiencing.”
How? Adepts, mystics, and philosophers advocate various practices and permutations of stillness. Non-verbal inquiries into the nature of consciousness, piercing through the obfuscatory web of self-referential thoughts (a practice neuroscience now suggests correlates with dampening activity of the brain’s Default Mode Network).
Suffice to remark that these practices both produce, and require, stillness. Affording people the stillness to ferment in meditation is not a prominent ecological feature of the developed world. Busyness and distraction are commodified states of being, stillness is not.
II. LIVING SPACES
“For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space)
We create our living spaces, and then our living spaces create us. Behavior is a negotiation between us and our spaces. But the design of common living spaces, including bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, are rarely done with behavior in mind. Alan Watts again:
“The problem…is that our homes exhibit the same lack of material competence and biological intelligence as our cooking and clothing. They are made for posturing persons instead of living organisms.”
In his essay collection, Watts lays a blueprint for better designed kitchens, living rooms, and clothing. And while these remain prescient, they do not uproot the most urgent of domestic specters: loneliness.
Despite studies consistently insisting that strong social relationships and vibrant communities are essential ingredients for well-being, we continue isolating ourselves into separate, solitary living quarters. Communes rarely unfold in line with their utopian aspirations, but the Dutch are pioneering a new form of domestic conviviality.
Bofællesskab is the Danish word for cohousing communities, which are one among many design remedies for loneliness. These are groups of private residences clustered around communal spaces, spanning kitchens to parks. The workload of everything from cooking, childcare, to grounds maintenance are distributed equally among residents, and social ties strengthened in the process. The benefits are legion.
It may feel odd at first, but what could be a more direct practice of philosophy? Redesigning our most frequented spaces – kitchens, bedrooms – and rethinking the communities, or lack thereof, comprising where we live. Few aspects are as central to how we live than where we live.
III. MEDIA DESIGN
The digital turn expanded, exploded media from a handful of technologies into a near-omnipresent interfacing with one medium or another. The proliferation of these digital interfaces is reprogramming our means of experience, how we interact with and direct attention in the world. Media theorist Yves Citton calls this process ‘electrification’:
“…the programming of our perceptions by our technical devices necessarily leads to the programming of our behavior…Electrification is in the process of reconfiguring…the way in which we perceive and evaluate our lived experiences.”
Of particular significance is the fluency between perception and behavior. If we understand ‘how to live’ as, ultimately, a behavioral question, then this link means it is firstly a question of perception. We behave in relation with what, and how, we perceive.
Citton’s concern is with the incentive structures guiding the electrification of perception. Like Watts on our living spaces, Citton charges the media ecology with neglecting salient aspects of our well-being, instead pursuing vestigial, existentially bankrupt logic inherited from the previous era:
“Our collective attention is currently being abused by the inertia of obsolete economic models, inspired by the logic of an industrial capitalism inherited from the twentieth century, which ignores the specificity and the properties of the attention ecology. Can we hope to see digital cultures overcome the impasses of an attention capitalism subjected to the financial logic of ratings?”
Earlier I mentioned that the basic quagmire of living better is different in the digital age, that there’s a lag between what we’re discovering and how we’re living, and that meaningful behavior change is proving a larger philosophical puzzle than discovering what those improved behaviors are.
These vested, archaic incentive structures are among the many obstacles to these meaningful behavior changes. The feedback loop between discovery and design is not quick enough. Our systems continue emphasizing themes of the past, rather than reconfiguring to suit the present (much less minding the future).
There are already corrective movements on the media front. Ex-employees of Facebook, Google, Twitter are all speaking out against the troublesome internal logic of their software. “Human-centered design” has a Wikipedia page, engraining it in the public consciousness. As we continue to realize ourselves as participants in an attention economy, we are coming to consider how our attention is treated. Can we imagine a digital world in which an interfaces’ underlying incentive is not to boost ratings, but enrich the quality of their user’s attention? Not to capture attention, but enable autonomy?
IV. ECONOMIC DESIGN
If philosopher Peter Sloterdijk is correct in proclaiming: “it is time to reveal humans as the beings who result from repetition”, then it’s quite literally true that the economy creates us. In neoliberal capitalist culture, work is the engine of our own becoming. What repetitions comprise our days, demand our time more frequently than work? What anchoring activity plays a larger role in the circumstances of our lives? What demand of the modern world does more to shape our existence than the pursuit of financial means?
Work, for most, is just that: a means. We work for things. Money to pay rent, food to eat, spending money, stability for retirement later in life. So it made sense that 20th century economists forecasted that gains in productivity via technology would lead to us receiving more of the things we work for, with less of the actual work. Economic growth would shift the balance of time from engaging with our means, to engaging with our ends. This, of course, didn’t really happen.
Derek Thompson’s recent viral essay in The Atlantic diagnoses part of the problem as workism, where we came to ask from work more than it might reasonably deliver:
“The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production.”
David Graeber performs a more sprawling and incisive study in his book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, razing right down to the philosophical bone of capitalism. He contends that the design of economics today has apparently forgotten what the economy is for. Where wealth was once just a means by which humans became better humans (sought to actually live better), the industrial revolution lubricated the boundless pursuit of wealth, and we took the bait, replacing ends with the means themselves:
“…prior to the industrial revolution, it never seems to have occurred to anyone to write a book asking what conditions would create the most overall wealth. Many, however, wrote books about what conditions would create the best people – that is, how should society be best arranged to produce the sort of human beings one would like to have around, as friends, lovers, neighbors, relatives, or fellow citizens? This is the kind of question that concerned Aristotle, Confucius, and Ibn Khal-dun, and in the final analysis it’s still the only really important one. Human life is a process by which we, as humans, create one another; even the most extreme individualists only become individuals through the care and support of their fellows; and ‘the economy’ is ultimately just the way we provide ourselves with the necessary material provisions with which to do so.”
Graeber’s two major books, Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs offer two modifications to realign economic ecology with the intent of creating better humans, of fostering better lives: a cancellation of all private debt (otherwise known as a debt jubilee, or a clean slate), and universal basic income (UBI).
I’m not going to talk about debt, because the psychological torture it’s responsible for is so unconscionable, and so unnecessary, that I get too worked up. We’re torturing our fellow humans with imaginary monsters mistaken as real, in the forms of predatory interest rates and a lack of basic human kindness.
For Graeber, UBI is about freedom. It is about facilitating the transition from lives of compulsion, to lives of autonomy, lives of our own choosing:
“What Basic Income ultimately proposes is to detach livelihood from work…Most of us like to talk about freedom in the abstract, even claim that it’s the most important thing for anyone to fight or die for, but we don’t think a lot about what being free or practicing freedom might actually mean.”
Detaching livelihood from work might force us to consider how else to countenance our identities. Who are we, if not compelled to participate in labor we’re not particularly interested in? What are we even interested in? These are questions we are each to ask and explore for ourselves; invitations into meaningful discovery.
Before this kind of discovery becomes available to more than a handful of individuals, the relevant discussion is whether compulsory work is the final destination of our economic ecology. Such is the promise of universal job guarantees: work as the ultimate economic promise, and the unmoving anchor of identity production. If we can design things so that humans aren’t obligated to structure their lives around work they’d rather not do, should we? Why or why not? If not, then economically radical policies, questions of design, whether UBI or otherwise, are philosophically pressing questions.
If our collective imaginations are atrophied, we can return to the vision of Alan Watts, equal parts radical and sane:
“If, if we get our heads straight about money, I predict that by AD 2000, or sooner, no one will pay taxes, no one will carry cash, utilities will be free, and everyone will carry a general credit card. This card will be valid up to each individual’s share in a guaranteed basic income or national dividend, issued free, beyond which he [or she] may still earn anything more that he desires by an art of craft, profession or trade that has not been displaced by automation.”
Resuming Our Stride
Such ecological reconsiderations are philosophy in action. Philosophical work in our time revolves around tightening the feedback loop between discovery and design. It’s a weaving of wisdom into the ecological fabric that comprises our being.
If this essay serves any ecologically reconstructive purpose, perhaps it might unmoor our ideas regarding what philosophy is, and help redirect our actions towards the central concerns of living well. At its heart, philosophy is not a department alongside other disciplines; it lies underneath. It is the curved spacetime underlying and funneling all other inquiry down into our inmost question: how to live. It’s the connective tissue between architecture, economics, interior design, media technology, social events, time use, and our experience of life.
Philosophy that shirks its design component is an unmoving stump, Nietzsche’s one-legged truth that will stand, but cannot walk. It cannot journey through and evolve alongside the times. Now more than ever, the digital age calls for the design foot to step forward. For philosophy to act upon both the individual mind and the sociocultural framework. Meditate. Build houses. Engage in meaningful social activities. Build full on living communities. Build new media interfaces. Imagine new economic policies. Rebuild politics.
Earlier, I defined the design leg of philosophy as seeking to assimilate “the wisdom gleaned through discovery into my lived experience, so it isn’t just cognitively known but viscerally felt.” It isn’t enough simply to ‘know’, wisdom is a felt-sensation. We are nerve endings to the composition of our ecologies. The internet made knowledge globally available, distributed access to the resources for rebuilding and enriching our ecologies like never before, while also frazzling our attentive capacities for doing so.
So we stand as a culture, frazzled in the wake of an electrified society, asking with Annie Dillard: “Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” Where the hippies set off to discover themselves, we may now prefer, recognizing ‘selves’ as interwoven nodes of ecological systems, to do the communal work of designing ourselves.