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There are a fair number of people I know who think social networks of various types are going to help us out with the challenges we face in the future. While I see their point — and am myself a participant in a number of these networks — I’m not quite as definitive.

Indeed, there are moments when I think these have been a bad move, not progress in any way, but a true regress.

My reason for saying this is that I look at the ethics surrounding social network members. Increasingly, people seem to accept “friendship” on a social network (a connection, if you will) not because this is someone they want to connect to as a person, but simply because the connection may be useful some day.

If this isn’t treating the other person as an object, I’m having trouble figuring out what is.

I’ve had people insist, for instance, on LinkedIn and Naymz, first that I connect with them and second that I write a “recommendation” of them. But the person, in this case, is not a former colleague, subordinate, superior or client. They’re someone who was at a company I was at, but years later, and half-way around the planet to boot. To say I don’t know them! is an understatement. Yet to refuse them is to get a follow-up message demanding that I “do them this favour”, typically from someone else who can act as a bridge to spread a little guilt about my not doing it. LinkedIn also comes with groups, messages requesting answers to questions and the like. If you’re (as I have been) paid for problem solving, these represent not only a time sink, but (and far more important) the expectation that I’ll “work for nothing” because the interrogator “has a need”.

Then there’s the people who’ve, on Twitter, decided to follow me for no better reason than to sell to me, or to retweet what I post along with their own message (that I don’t endorse). I spend more time these days blocking people like this than I do reading what those people I do know and care about (personally or professionally) put up online.

Facebook, of course, allows people who barely know you exist to plague you with requests to join causes (theirs, not mine), play games (their kind, not mine), etc. I tend to be a little more tolerant of this here, since I’m aware that this was Facebook’s original purpose — and that I, too, play group games on Facebook and thus have indicated, to my fellow players, some level of interest.

Facebook’s own incessant advertising sponsoring messages I don’t want to see (and can’t make go away, as I can “suggestions” from friends or even from Facebook itself — the “you haven’t talked to Jane Doe lately, send her a message” type) based on Facebook’s analysis of “what might interest me” indicates a different kind of plague, but then the service is free and must be paid for somehow. I may not understand why I get advertising for Montréal facilities (I haven’t been in Montréal in over a decade) and services, but then, there’s no click-through there, either. It can be lived with.

There has never been a communications mechanism that isn’t used in ways that betray respect for the individual person, or who treat the person as an object for manipulation rather than as another human being with their own subjective states. “Watson, come here, I need you” turned into dinner hour telemarketing calls bypassing the “do not call” registry because they come from organizations I already do business with claiming an implicit “prior approval to receive the call”. (That they do this after barraging me with the multiple question routine required by the Protection of Electronic Documents and Personal Information laws is utterly and completely ridiculous — about as ridiculous as all other attempts to stem the flow of communication have been.)

What is truly annoying, however, is that if I expend all the on-going effort to police these various channels and sites, weeding out the unwanted communiqués and requests to join, and the like, is that too many people who ought to pass muster as the types of connections, or “friends”, these services are created for, such as people you once worked with, people who were once clients, etc., are themselves “posing” in public rather than being themselves. (Or, perhaps, this really is who they became, in which case breaking the connection beckons!)

If social networks are ever to do what their proponents claim they can do to change our world, we’re going to have to seriously re-form (in the sense of reshaping the moral fibre of) their users.

The high quality of comments appearing on this blog — and I include all the ones I personally didn’t agree with when I say this — is indicative of what a social network promises, but doesn’t deliver. I know my interlocutors here don’t share all my moral convictions or ethical stances. They do remember that behind the words lies a person (as I try to, too, when reading their words). It makes for learning and growth potential to do so.

A few people doing that is far more powerful, in the long run, than any number of hundreds of thousands who join an electronic “fan page” or “group”, just as a well-thought out recommendation with a specific situation spoken of is far more helpful than having hundreds of the things collected that sum up to “arm twisted: ‘great’ guy!”.

Earlier in this post, I used the phrase “if social networks are ever to do …”, but, of course, software does nothing without the humans who put it to work. So, if social networks are ever to live up to their proponents’ vision of what they could accomplish in changing the world, it is up to each of us to use them with careful attention to appropriate ethical behaviour.

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In the past few years I have noted a trend which has passed into “majority country” (that is, most people I deal with regularly show the behaviour): poor understanding from reading while multitasking.

Let me begin by making something clear: I am not a neuroscientist, am not running experiments under controlled conditions, and am not pitching anything here. This is simply an often-repeated observation, where the contrary observation is falling off. Also, although I get to “go back over the material” much more readily with things written, I observe exactly the same pattern occurring in telephone usage, even in meetings.

Observation: An increasing number of people are “getting things backward”.

This observation shows up again and again with simple things, such as misinterpretation of what is written (or said). Examples are:

  • I’m asked, in email, when, “later this week”, I can meet for coffee. I answer “anytime but 1-3pm on Thursday”. Over 80% of the time, I’ll receive a meeting invite for coffee for 1.00pm Thursday. There’s less misunderstanding if I answer “Thursday at 3.00” — but more than 90% of the time the reply to that is “can’t do it, pick again” — yet attempts to short-circuit four to six exchanges trying to find a common time by offering broad windows seldom work, either.
  • I receive a request to call someone. They are in a different time zone, so, when I call (and get voicemail) I leave two numbers: my work number “good to 2.30 your time” and my home number “good after 4.00 your time”. More than 75% of the time I’ll come in the next morning to find a message left in the evening at work, or come home the next day to find my home was phoned during the day. By the way, whether I do the time conversions or not, there is no difference in the pattern.
  • I write something — from a tweet on Twitter to a long post here to an email — and the reply immediately indicates that something not said was seized upon and treated as the central point of the whole thing. (You can see that in the comment chain for yesterday’s post.) There are certain subjects I’d expect that for — writing in support of a politician or policy will do that for you when a partisan is the interlocutor — but this occurs over the smallest things, and routinely.)

I could go on, but that establishes the types of things I’m talking about.

Most of us are forced into “multitasking”, even if we consciously set out to avoid it. Our computers are generally set to alert us if an email is received, for instance. That little “bing” (no matter how innocuous the sound) or flashing box in the corner of the screen saying “new message” for a moment or two is a distraction: it breaks our concentration.

Short-term memory — what we have just taken in or just thought — is fragile. (People who have trouble remembering the names of people they meet, for example, often have no trouble remembering the name of one new person, or even two or three encounters in the course of the day. Constantly meeting new people during the day, on the other hand, wipes out most of the names. Memory seems to require a period of consolidation — which we typically find in sleep, from short naps upward, or in meditative time — to retain the short-term inputs. This becomes more important the older we get: a young person’s eidetic or photographic memory converts into an equally bad memory as everyone else’s as the years pile up. As the average age in the population has risen, it does not surprise me that in general the evidence of short-term memory deficiency is getting more obvious.)

As I write this post, for instance, the sound is turned off. So is the “Growl” message system. As is the phone — call forwarded to voicemail — and all other applications. No music, closed door. Absolutely no Blackberry or iPhone pushing things my way! Writers can find periods to do this. Most people do not have work that allows for that degree of isolation.

The typical person, at work in an office, has their email application open, a phone and a cellphone with pushed messages, and, depending on the nature of their work, a Twitter feed picking up new tweets and other social network messages (e.g. Tweetdeck, which will hook up to LinkedIn and Facebook as well). In turn, alerts and information boxes are popping into sight and fading out, and soft chimes and beeps announce new events. Not only does all this interfere (this is an observed phenomenon) with sustained effort, it interferes (again, observed in others) with simple information, like reading an email or listening to a voicemail whose purpose is to communicate a contact point, a time option, etc.

The Effect of “Sort Of” Understanding

In an office setting, the net effect of all this is to slow work down. Meetings take longer because the participants are constantly interrupted while in it — and they interrupt themselves (again, an observed data point) from “lack of stimulus” if they are required to “check all technology at the door”. We have apparently given ourselves a good case of Pavlovian conditioning and require a new pellet periodically to tell us to “run the maze” one more time!

What the apparent outcome of all this means is that the average person is losing — or has lost — their ability to focus their attention for long periods of time, take in complex matters, and do sustained intellectual work. Given a book that requires serious attention to be more than just “words passing before the eye” — say a work of philosophy or a nineteenth-century novel — most people today cannot sustain themselves through long passages, remember the point made a few pages earlier and include it in the author’s point being made now, or, later, separate the essential from the accidental to communicate the content to another person.

There was a book I picked up in the UK in the late 1990s entitled 108 Tips for Time Travellers. It was a collection of technology columns written for a newspaper. Each chapter was thus two pages long: a typical 700-word column length. Even then, a decade ago, before social networking and the BlackBerry-style expectation that an email sent should be responded to immediately had fully set in, I knew many people who read that book — over fifty to one hundred days! They could cope with no more than one chapter at a time. Reading a second (especially if the topic changed) meant they could remember nothing from the first one!

These people were all senior executives, in charge of budgets ranging from $100 million to $10 billion, with hundreds of employees and complex sets of portfolios of activity on the go. How well were these being managed, if recall was that impaired?

What I observe taking the place of actual comprehension is “what I thought he said”, instead. I have sat through innumerable meetings where the discussion was deadlocked because the various camps represented were all dealing with “false memories” of what they thought they’d read or heard. I have watched people, when presented with the source document, deny it said what it said — they couldn’t focus enough to hold their impression and the new reading side-by-side long enough to evaluate the differences.

Are Younger People “Different”?

There’s a constant theme in the work-a-day world now that the younger generation that has grown up chatting on MSN, listening to iTunes, playing a first-person-shooter game, and writing a paper (with Google providing multiple “reference” sites) all at once can cope with the distractions of multitasking in ways those of us who grew up in a world of books can’t. I certainly see the switching speed, and the ease with which the entire visual field is treated as a unit, “seeing” everything all at once.

Seeing the understanding is much harder. I am not convinced that the apparent comprehension level is anything more than (a) a tendency to gather in information through video rather than reading, (b) far lesser expectations in schools and (c) the advantage of youth in retaining short-term memory “just long enough” (if they couldn’t, cramming wouldn’t work, yet it obviously does).

And, in almost all cases, the ability to actually read a book that thirty years ago was considered “age appropriate” is very hard to come by. Does this help explain why texts are less common in universities and ring-bound sets of short papers, handouts, etc. are the prevalent form of class-required reading?

I do know this: if I put the world down, I can handle much more complex material — and generate it. This is why I’ve been busy purging “feeds”, no longer subscribing to RSS because it “might” be interesting. I killed my push life — I no longer even have a cell phone. Aging requires me to “jot down” or “check again” to handle short-term memory, but the ability to chew through and understand complex material — almost lost, comparatively speaking, two years ago! — is back.

You may want to experiment for yourselves. I sincerely doubt those who praise, and those who decry, our current connected, multitasking world will shift their views, no matter how many experiments are run. But you might find what level and depth of interruption impairs you — and what level opens you up.

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Three recent posts on the subject of community —John Michael Greer’s “The Costs of Community”, Sharon Astyk’s “On the Problem of Community”, and Rob Hopkins’ “Why ‘Community’ Might Not Need ‘Organising'” — coupled with an exchange of comments in recent days on this blog and on Facebook over applying the principle of subsidiarity and moving much decision-making lower down the governmental/organizational food chain have got me reflecting today on what kind of action, if any, we should be working to make happen in our communities.

Actually, to be completely fair, the “we” in that sentence means “each of us as individuals” and, yes, each of us belongs to multiple communities.

Our Multiple, Fractal Identities

For Dominion Day, 2008, I wrote a short essay on the multiple identities each of we Canadians find within ourselves. Recalling David Hume (who held that our notion of “being” a persistent person [or ‘identity’] through time was an illusion of memories alone), the notion that you, yourself and I, myself, are a collection of identities is not completely strange. On the one hand, I am myself; I perceive myself as persisting through change; I see myself as the same person no matter in what setting I find myself, nor what role I play (parent, manager, coach of the ball team, amateur philosopher, you name it). Yet, at the same time, we recognize (ask anyone interviewing a short list of candidates to join their organization!) that the pattern of experiences a person has lived through — a combination of where they’ve been and what roles they were asked to play — makes for differences between one person and another that matter to the decision no less so than their “personality” or credentials. The person, for instance, who has been an entrepreneur and returns to take up a profit-and-loss managerial role brings a quite different “identity” to the game than the one who has climbed the managerial food chain in a number of very large organizations.

So if we (to use Dave Snowden‘s well-known coinage) are fundamentally Cynefin, then it is a reasonable inference that not only will we bring different fragments of our “selfs” to different communities (work, sport, volunteer, protest, etc.) we affiliate to, but we will, in turn, find that our “selfs” begin to shift in response to the role we play in each community, and the impact of that community in support of, or as a distraction from, other roles we play in other communities. (The “involved person”, for instance, must take time from her or his family or relationship, just as any “political family” adjusts and subordinates its members’ behaviours in support of the politician-family member.) What’s equally important to remember in this is that some of those fragments are no longer roles being played in communities — they are inherited from natural faith (see Thomas Langan, Being and Truth), from upbringing, from systems of thought adopted by the individual (whether integrated with other facets of the individual or not), and from prior roles played but no longer in “force” (e.g. playful child, student, previous careers, etc.).

Why “Municipality” Isn’t Enough

Much of the thinking on subsidiarity, moving power closer to the people by rendering decisions at the “lowest” effective level, has focused on moving power down to municipal levels where, it is generally asserted, people stand the best chance of coming together as a community and having real influence on the decisions that affect their community’s future. I don’t want, for a moment, to suggest that municipalities offer no hope. But think for a moment: the municipality I live in — Toronto, Canada — has more seats in the Canadian House of Commons than seven of the ten provinces do (one of those anomalies that emerge with concentrated populations in urban areas and a lower chamber based on representation by population). That base population in excess of 2,500,000 exceeds the population size of 83 countries (out of 223). Yet many of the issues in creating a viable, sustainable community require a larger structure — to integrate transportation, for instance — not a smaller one.

You may say that communities the size of Toronto aren’t what’s meant by “community”, and I imagine that each of Toronto’s 22 wards are bigger (at an average size of 113,600 people each, or 93% of the estimated 2009 population of the province of Prince Edward Island) than you mean, too. Most people who write on community at a municipal level — a “living place” level — tend to focus on village-sized units, and thus on neighbourhoods when the municipality itself exceeds village size. Indeed, in cities, we see “residents’ associations” and “business improvement associations” sized precisely thus, to walking distances and populations of 1,000-5,000 depending on density. Yet these — when the village is not a “true” village habitation — tend not to have a political structure.

Subsidiarity matters, and moving decisions down from central and remote governments is worth striving for. But most municipalities people live in — and with roughly 50% of world population now urbanized there are many countries where urban dwellers exceed 75% of the total national population — are larger than “communities”. (I note in passing that the United States and Canada are shown to have roughly similar urbanization rates at around 80%, although anyone familiar with both countries knows that on both coasts of the USA the spaces between cities and their suburbs — the “statistical metropolitan areas” — tends to be filled with “exurbs”, whereas in Canada the similar space is filled with open farms and forests, coupled with true villages and small towns that are not part of the commuter shed. Statistics alone — as always — don’t tell the whole story!)

Communities of Ideas, of Practice, of Intention and of Action

Many claims have been made as well for the creation of other kinds of communities, and, indeed, as social media tools have spread, so, too, the ability to create facet- or fractal-based communities has been touted as the way to bridge the gap between municipal size and decision effectiveness. (Indeed, long before the tools came along, communities were built by round-robin letters or scheduled meetings — think of how science was done in the seventeenth century, both by letter between practitioners and with the formation of entities such as the Royal Society. Then, too, many have noted that our primary interests today are seldom as strong with those who happen to inhabit the same block of flats, or streets, and more often with those who are part of our profession, or work at our firm, or via the activities we take part in. (There was nothing as rewarding as a Little League baseball season, to watch lawyers, management consultants, air conditioning installers and salespeople for radio advertising come together and simply be ball fans, coaches and scorekeepers, as they sped up their adjustment from “work” persona to “parent” or “fan” persona. Fragment-shifting is not automatic! — something every employer decries when “family matters” get in the way of “work”.)

There have been many successes, but no group has as of yet solved the most important problem: is this organization capable of achieving its goals without “going political”?

Let me define that: “going political” means overcoming the fact that we play multiple roles, live as fragments, have fractal identities, etc. and therefore may not be involved, or, if involved, be passionate enough to contribute much, to the community — and so our participation is legislated, through required actions and/or fees. (Note that communities that act to lobby for, or agitate for, established political authorities to provide said “legislation” on their behalf, must be judged appropriately. When Gandhi put pressure on the British to leave India, he required nothing of them than that they stop legislating and administering Indian life. He asked for no favours, no special treatment, no “positive” actions. This is quite different from the community that “demands”, that “requires”, that requires mandated support (e.g. KAIROS and its government subsidy, now cut), and the like.)

Those that don’t require this certainly are true communities, although they may struggle in the face of the many to succeed. Some will make some real progress (e.g. the Bowen Island, BC, citizen eGovernment movement) and then fade into the background or die out as initial objectives are met or the process goes longer than intended. Others will continue years of operation (most community activities and community-led social services, such as Crisis Centres), with or without subsidies, but with no strategic change from one year to the next. (This is not necessarily a bad thing — one does want certain things to be continuously delivered! — but it can make renewing leadership and participation a challenge at times, and, if subsidized, the avoidance of demanding legislation to enforce the subsidy is a constant challenge.)

The technology has allowed for non-geographic communities to operate at least as fast — and often faster — than “ground”-based communities, especially in growing! But numbers — as the various Facebook pages and Twitter hashtag communities have shown — are minimal levels of involvement, and seldom if ever lead to the achievement of anything other than “we hit our number”. As the work world has shown, social networks in professions and organizations that already exist can be valuable sources of action — consider crowd-sourcing a technology strategy at the UK Department of Work and Pensions as an example — but many relationships between these people in some of their roles and facets were “mined” to help this along. In other words, the technology can amplify the community, but it far less often does much of meaning without either a leadership cadre setting the terms for the “members” — or human relationships within it and the time to discuss action.

Community, then, is truly a double-edged sword, ready to cut into the principle of community on the one side by forgoing subsidiarity to the personal member in favour of power relationships and the exercise of higher authority to achieve ends, and on the other by falling afoul of Dunbar’s Number if true human relationships are to be depended upon. (Technology might make for a doubling of the mild acquaintance category … but I don’t think “much more” is currently possible.)

This does not mean “ignore the whole thing”. Those who call for community to deal with the transition of our society, who worry about health and welfare, who are concerned about energy, our economy or our ecology, have not invented their concerns, no matter how much the “true believers” for resonant and grating causes alike one to believe that! (Nor, too, are their opponents to be so easily dismissed — few matters are as “settled” as their proponents or opponents claim. To take but one example, those who promote dense public transport systems claim “the future of the suburbs is to die”. The availability of affordable energy may well tend in that direction, and building the transportation system takes sufficient time that a decision to proceed must be made years ahead of a crisis. Yet we, as a society, have invested much of our capital in the suburbs, and should be trying to put as much of it to work as we can, which may well lead to ways to maintain the “suburban way of living”.)

As always, finding a middle route between force and despair, and coming closer to who we are (human nature), offers us the most opportunity to succeed.

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We live in a society — especially true in North America but generally true throughout the West — that puts a high premium on “the new thing”. This “technological framework” — and by this I mean our practices, processes, methods, etc. just as much as I do our gadgets, computer systems and the like — forms a horizon that limits many, if not close to all, of us into a set of presumptions that favour new developments, new tools and new inventions.

(Let me interrupt here: those who dramatically oppose such developments are not better. In many ways the proponent and the opponent depend on each other. They are as complementary as are yin and yang. The more interesting opponent is the one who can escape the framework once in it, not the one who reinforces it in their “opposition” to it.)

In his seminal essay, “Die Frage nach der Technik” (from 1947, and published first in 1954 in Vorträge und Aufsätze), Martin Heidegger explored the way our beings are formed by life inside this framework. As a horizon of interpretation, certain questions and types of formation are closed and excluded just as others are aided and abetted by it. Heidegger worried about the effect of this concentrated frame on our beings.

I’ve made my living for more than three and a half decades now from operating near the coalface of modern information technologies, and from the überbiegende Technik of management theory and practice. Beyond that, I’ve been an early adopter of many technologies, from usable (i.e. non-programmer-skill-based) computing to social networks and their offspring. These are not things and ways of acting that I’m purporting to give up, nor have I changed my belief structure to suggest that I’ve become a “technological ‘atheist'”. Rather, what has become clear is that older ways of doing things have not lost their utility in the face of the new — and that they may offer their own forms of beauty, truth and goodness that are harder to find deep in the technological milieu.

Take writing, for instance. Today I sit in front of the computer screen, typing the characters that make up this short piece into a window on a webpage. Highly modern, indeed — and easy to make changes in. I don’t, for a moment, think that we are unable to write well with such tools. Clearly those of us who care to write well can write well here. (Perhaps one might object to the vast sea of bad writing these tools and this medium bring forth, but the option to bypass these works remains with us, and it is only by making one’s bad writing better through ever-more writing and criticism that we improve, so bad writing’s prevalence does not worry me.)

Alas, this experience is missing some elements. When I pick up my fountain pen, and pull out a journal with acid-free paper, and go to begin to put my thoughts down, my internal dialogue is generally far more engaged in the task of writing than it is where cutting-and-pasting, backspacing and typing over, etc. are the norm. That one can stroke through material and rewrite it on the page in ink does not change the feeling that one ought to do a better job of forming the work, for the page shows everything from the ink splotch from lingering with the nib, to the obvious turns in direction kept in to avoid such edits, to edits themselves. There is an exposure on what feels a personal level — through these signs, through the evolution of one’s handwriting, to the style of handwriting one affects, and the use of the page space and colour of ink, for instance — that is less obvious in the computer-driven networked space. It is not that we can’t colour our digital “ink”, introduce our editing thoughts, etc. — but it is not the normal worry, and so there is a sense of distance.

Do I work on my handwriting, trying to form letters and words clearly? My handwritten work will show you this and allow you to infer it. Me, too! — instead of “multitasking” by attending to the open Twitter client, Skype chats, emails arriving, etc. while attempting to write a piece that says what I want to say and that’s worth reading by you, I am instead “multitasking” by attending to the potential beauty in physical form, to my change in this over time, etc.

None of this is exhaustive, of course — but worries about the beauty of the physical form, or the change in form produced over time are outside the technological frame. They are part of what can and is often lost.

Other ways of including these persist, of course. Choosing to style a well-known and oft-translated work such as “The Question Concerning Technology” by its original German title could be an insistence on the author’s form — a recognition that what ‘Technik’ means in German is more than what ‘Technology’ means in English — a preference for the German language — a desire to find reasons to use italicized text for its appearance — and more. So it is not that “the old” has beauty and “the new” does not, but the motifs do differ, and the easy recognition of the figure against the ground by the reader of inherent beauty, inner truth, expression of natural faith, objective goodness and subjective value may differ significantly.

In the newer online world, what matters — despite the ease of the author’s publishing his or her work! — is the reader. As was said in a Facebook comment on yesterday’s posting here, “I want all the comments assembled in one place”. (The author of that statement went on to conclude with the name of a newly-launched tool purporting to do just that: the search for a technology to “do more”.) Fair enough. I, too, would “like all the comments in one place” — but I do recognize that the answer is not necessarily to be found in a new technology, yet another place to go or thing to do in the course of a day.

For I also value the feel of the heavy pen in my hand — the feel of the ink flowing onto the page — and the slower pace involved (for I do type at a goodly speed), especially when attending to my handwriting so as to maintain its clarity and legibility and, dare I say, potential beauty — and think it good in an objective sense that it gives me the time to play with words in a different and (in my case) more fulfilling way than typing here does. In both cases, incidentally, I must have the bulk of the work in my mind before I begin: it remains a blank page whether on the screen or in a book until that has happened. So the “time” issue does not translate, for me (it may well for others), into “time enough to do a better job” — but the slower pace (as with “slow food”, walking rather than driving, etc.) allows much more of the world to “be present” and to presence itself to me in novel ways. That is worth my praise of older ways all in itself.

So I do not think technology and technique will be our saving grace, and not because we’ve left some problems too long (although we have). Rather it’s because, as Carroll Quigley ably pointed out in his The Evolution of Civilizations, of the six major axes of human endeavour he pointed out any of Man’s civilizations, at any point in their time, lives to emphasize some of these over others. It’s because, as Eric Voegelin, pointed out in his five volumes of Order and History, that we can lose the maximal differentiation of experience developed (in these axes) in de-emphasizing that axis and pushing another forward. This is what Heidegger was getting at.

I believe, in this twenty-first century, the technological framework has driven so hard in a few directions that we have lost much on the other axes — and I worry that our ahistorical way of looking at the world means that, should we want to “go back” and pick up some of these past axes of interest, we will not be able to without a long period of reconstruction and redevelopment, a (as Jane Jacobs argued in her last book) Dark Age Ahead. There are other times in history where this has happened before. It is worth worrying about.

If this worries you, consider trying a few older techniques for things. Become a craftsman at something. Pick up a nib-style pen and write. Fix, not replace, a small electrical appliance (don’t overlook buying an old one to see how tools from two generations ago were designed for repair, unlike many of today’s). In other words, try and move outside the realm of “the new”. You may shift your own horizons by doing so.

That, indeed, will make you better prepared for troubled times if they come. For the one truth about pushing any techniques too far is, in the words of Joseph Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies.

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