Rolling the Rock:  Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life


Here’s a link to my latest LinkedIn Pulse article:  Rolling the Rock:  Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life.  In it, I talk about a key psycho-neurological function known as “the pleasure of being the cause.”  As I say in the article, “The conversation is going to get philosophical, but it will be worth it. So get yourself a cup, close the door, turn off the ringer, take a breath. This won’t be spin. It’s based on good ideas from smart people.”




What is “The Economy” Anyway?

Throughout this series, we’ve heard from numerous commentators who believe that conventional economic thinking isn’t keeping pace with the technological revolution, and that polarized ideological posturing is preventing the kind of open-minded discourse we need to reframe our thinking.

In this short TED talk, the author[1] of Americana:  A Four Hundred Year History of American Capitalism suggests that we unplug the ideological debate and instead adopt a less combative and more digital-friendly metaphor for how we talk about the economy:

“Capitalism… is this either celebrated term or condemned term. It’s either revered or it’s reviled. And I’m here to argue that this is because capitalism, in the modern iteration, is largely misunderstood.

“In my view, capitalism should not be thought of as an ideology, but instead should be thought of as an operating system.

“When you think about it as an operating system, it devolves the language of ideology away from what traditional defenders of capitalism think.”

The operating system metaphor shifts policy agendas away from ideology and instead invites us to consider the economy as something that needs to be continually updated:

“As you have advances in hardware, you have advances in software. And the operating system needs to keep up. It needs to be patched, it needs to be updated, new releases have to happen. And all of these things have to happen symbiotically. The operating system needs to keep getting more and more advanced to keep up with innovation.”

brain tilt

But what if the operating system has gotten too complex for the human mind to comprehend?  This recent article from the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado[2] observes that “Human ingenuity has created a world that the mind cannot master,” then asks, “Have we finally reached our limits?” The question telegraphs its answer:  in many respects, yes we have. Consider, for example, the air Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that’s responsible for keeping us safe when we fly:

“TCAS alerts pilots to potential hazards, and tells them how to respond by using a series of complicated rules. In fact, this set of rules — developed over decades — is so complex, perhaps only a handful of individuals alive even understand it anymore.

“While the problem of avoiding collisions is itself a complex question, the system we’ve built to handle this problem has essentially become too complicated for us to understand, and even experts sometimes react with surprise to its behaviour. This escalating complexity points to a larger phenomenon in modern life. When the systems designed to save our lives are hard to grasp, we have reached a technological threshold that bears examining.

“It’s one thing to recognise that technology continues to grow more complex, making the task of the experts who build and maintain our systems more complicated still, but it’s quite another to recognise that many of these systems are actually no longer completely understandable.”

The article cites numerous other impossibly complex systems, including the law:

“Even our legal systems have grown irreconcilably messy. The US Code, itself a kind of technology, is more than 22 million words long and contains more than 80,000 links within it, between one section and another. This vast legal network is profoundly complicated, the functionality of which no person could understand in its entirety.”

Steven Pinker, author of the recent optimistic bestseller Enlightenment Now (check back a couple posts in this series) suggests in an earlier book[3] that the human brain just isn’t equipped for the complexity of modern life:

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo Sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.”

In other words, we have our limits.

Imagine that.

So then… where do we turn for appropriately complex economic thinking? According to “complexity economics,” we turn to the source:  the economy itself, understood not by reference to historical theory or newly updated metaphor, but on its own data-rich and machine-intelligent terms.

We’ll go there next time.

[1] According to his TED bio, Bhu Srinivasan “researches the intersection of capitalism and technological progress.”

[2] Samuel Arbesman is the author. The Center’s mission is to “propel the future of technology policy and innovation.”

[3] How The Brain Works, which Pinker wrote in 1997 when he was a professor of psychology and director of The Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

Economics + Math = Science?

mathematical equation

The human brain is wired to recognize patterns, which it then organizes into higher level models and theories and beliefs, which in turn it uses to explain the past and present, and to predict the future. Models offer the consolation of rationality and understanding, which provide a sense of control. All of this is foundational to classical economic theory, which assumes we approach commerce equipped with an internal rational scale that weighs supply and demand, cost and benefit, and that we then act according to our assessment of what we give for what we get back. This assumption of an internal calculus has caused mathematical modeling to reign supreme in the practice of economics.

The trouble is, humans aren’t as innately calculating as classical economics would like to believe — so says David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, in his new book Bullshit Jobs: :

“According to classical economic theory, homo oeconomicus, or “economic man” — that is, the model human being that lies behind every predication made by the discipline — is assumed to be motivated by a calculus of costs and benefits.

“All the mathematical equations by which economists bedazzle their clients, or the public, are founded on one simple assumption:  that everyone, left to his own devices, will choose the course of action that provides the most of what he wants for the least expenditure of resources and effort.

 “It is the simplicity of the formula that makes the equations possible: if one were to admit that humans have complicated emotions, there would be too many factors to take into account, it would be impossible to weigh them, and predictions would not be made.

“Therefore, while an economist will say that while of course everyone is aware that human beings are not really selfish, calculating machine, assuming they are makes it possible to explain

“This is a reasonable statement as far as it goes. The problem is there are many dimensions of human life where the assumption clearly doesn’t hold. — and some of them are precisely in the domain of what we like to call the economy.”

Economics’ reliance on mathematics has been a topic of lively debate for a long time:

“The trouble… is that measurement and mathematics do not guarantee the status of science – they guarantee only the semblance of science. When the presumptions or conclusions of a scientific theory are absurd or simply false, the theory ought to be questioned and, eventually, rejected. The discipline of economics, however, is presently so blinkered by the talismanic authority of mathematics that theories go overvalued and unchecked.

“In 1886, an article in Science accused economics of misusing the language of the physical sciences to conceal ‘emptiness behind a breastwork of mathematical formulas’. More recently, Deirdre N McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics(1998) and Robert H Nelson’s Economics as Religion (2001) both argued that mathematics in economic theory serves, in McCloskey’s words, primarily to deliver the message ‘Look at how very scientific I am.’

“After the Great Recession, the failure of economic science to protect our economy was once again impossible to ignore. In 2009, the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman tried to explain it in The New York Times with a version of the mathiness diagnosis. ‘As I see it,’ he wrote, ‘the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.’ Krugman named economists’ ‘desire… to show off their mathematical prowess’ as the ‘central cause of the profession’s failure’.

“The result is people… who trust the mathematical exactitude of theories without considering their performance – that is, who confuse math with science, rationality with reality.

“There is no longer any excuse for making the same mistake with economic theory. For more than a century, the public has been warned, and the way forward is clear. It’s time to stop wasting our money and recognise the high priests for what they really are: gifted social scientists who excel at producing mathematical explanations of economies, but who fail, like astrologers before them, at prophecy.”

The New Astrology:  By fetishising mathematical models, economists turned economics into a highly paid pseudoscience,” Aeon Magazine

Economists may bristle at being compared to astrologers, but as we have seen, their skill at prediction seems about comparable.

In the coming weeks we’ll look at other models emerging from the digital revolution, consider what they can tell us that classical economic theory can’t, and how they are affecting the world of work.

Protopia: Progress Step by Step

“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds.
The pessimist fears it is true.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb

“In the long term, optimists decide the future.”

Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine

Last week we heard professional skeptic Michael Shermer weigh in as an optimistic believer in progress (albeit guardedly — I mean, he is a skeptic after all) in his review of the new book It’s Better Than It Looks. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to stake a homestead claim on the Utopian frontier:  the title of a recent article tells you what you need to know about where he stands on that subject:  “Utopia Is A Dangerous Ideal: We Should Aim For Protopia.”[1]

He begins with a now-familiar litany of utopias that soured into dystopias in the 19th and 20th Centuries. He then endorses the “protopian” alternative, quoting an oft-cited passage in which Kevin Kelly[2] coined the term.

“Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.”

Doesn’t sound like much, but there’s more to it than appears. Protopia is about incremental, sustainable progress — even in the impatient onslaught of technology. Kelly’s optimism is ambitious — for a full dose of it, see his book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (2016). This is from the book blurb:

“Much of what will happen in the next thirty years is inevitable, driven by technological trends that are already in motion. In this fascinating, provocative new book, Kevin Kelly provides an optimistic road map for the future, showing how the coming changes in our lives—from virtual reality in the home to an on-demand economy to artificial intelligence embedded in everything we manufacture—can be understood as the result of a few long-term, accelerating forces.

“These larger forces will completely revolutionize the way we buy, work, learn, and communicate with each other. By understanding and embracing them, says Kelly, it will be easier for us to remain on top of the coming wave of changes and to arrange our day-to-day relationships with technology in ways that bring forth maximum benefits.

“Kelly’s bright, hopeful book will be indispensable to anyone who seeks guidance on where their business, industry, or life is heading—what to invent, where to work, in what to invest, how to better reach customers, and what to begin to put into place—as this new world emerges.”

Protopian thinking begins with Kelly’s “bright, hopeful” attitude of optimism about progress (again, remember the thinkers we heard from last week). To adopt both optimism and the protopian vision it produces, we’ll need to relinquish our willful cognitive blindness, our allegiance to inadequate old models and explanations, and our nostalgic urge to resist and retrench.

Either that, or we can just die off. Economist Paul Samuelson said this in a 1975 Newsweek column:

“As the great Max Planck, himself the originator of the quantum theory in physics, has said, science makes progress funeral by funeral: the old are never converted by the new doctrines, they simply are replaced by a new generation.”

Planck himself said it this way, in his Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Progress funeral by funeral[3]…. If that’s what it takes, that’s the way protopian progress will be made — in the smallest increments of “better today than yesterday” we will allow. But I somehow doubt progress will be that slow; I don’t think technology can wait.

Plus, if we insist on “not in my lifetime, you don’t,” we’ll miss out on a benefit we probably wouldn’t have seen coming:  technology itself guiding us as we stumble our way forward through the benefits and problems of progress. There’s support for that idea in the emerging field of complexity economics — I’ve mentioned it before, and we’ll look more into it next time.

[1] The article is based on Shermer’s recent book  Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

[2] Kelly is a prolific TED talker – revealing his optimistic protopian ideas. Here’s his bio.

[3] See the Quote Investigator’s history of these quotes.

Utopia Already

 “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born you’d choose now.”

Pres. Barack Obama, 2016

It’s been a good month for optimists in my reading pile. Utopia is already here, they say, and we’ve got the facts to prove it.

Enlightenment NowHarvard Professor Steven Pinker is his own weather system. Bill Gates called Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now  “My new favorite book of all time.”

Pinker begins cautiously:  “The second half of the second decade of the third millennium would not seem to be an auspicious time to publish a book on the historical sweep of progress and its causes,” he says, and follows with a recitation of the bad news sound bytes and polarized blame-shifting we’ve (sadly) gotten used to. But then he throws down the optimist gauntlet: “In the pages that follow, I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong — wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong wrong.”

He makes his case in a string of data-laced chapters on progress, life expectancy, health, food and famine, wealth, inequality, the environment, war and peace, safety and security, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge and education, quality of life, happiness, and “existential” threats such as nuclear war. In each of them, he calls up the pessimistic party line and counters with his version of the rest of the story.

And then, just to make sure we’re getting the point, 322 pages of data and analysis into it, he plays a little mind game with us. First he offers an eight paragraph summary of the prior chapters, then starts the next three paragraphs with the words “And yet,” followed by a catalogue of everything that’s still broken and in need of fixing. Despite 322 prior pages and optimism’s 8-3 winning margin, the negativity feels oddly welcome. I found myself thinking, “Well finally, you’re admitting there’s a lot of mess we need to clean up.” But then Prof. Pinker reveals what just happened:

“The facts in the last three paragraphs, of course, are the same as the ones in the first eight. I’ve simply read the numbers from the bad rather the good end of the scales or subtracted the hopeful percentages from 100. My point in presenting the state of the world in these two ways is not to show that I can focus on the space in the glass as well as on the beverage. It’s to reiterate that progress is not utopia, and that there is room — indeed, an imperative — for us to strive to continue that progress.”

Pinker acknowledges his debt to the work of Swedish physician, professor of global Factfulnesshealth, and TED all-star Hans Rosling and his recent bestselling book Factfulness. Prof Rosling died last year, and the book begins with a poignant declaration:  “This book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance.” His daughter and son-in-law co-wrote the book and are carrying on his work — how’s that for commitment, passion, and family legacy?

The book leads us through ten of the most common mind games we play in our attempts to remain ignorant. It couldn’t be more timely or relevant to our age of “willful blindness,” “cognitive bias,” “echo chambers” and “epistemic bubbles.”

Also this week, professional skeptic Michael Shermer weighed in on the positive side of It's better than it looksthe scale with his review of a new book by journalist Gregg Easterbrook — It’s Better Than It Looks. Shermer blasts out of the gate with “Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever.” He also begins his case with the Obama quote above, and adds another one:

“As Obama explained to a German audience earlier that year:  ‘We’re fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,’ adding ‘that it’s been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies. We’re wealthier and healthier and better educated, with a global economy that has lifted up more than a billion people from extreme poverty.’”

A similar paeon to progress begins last year’s blockbuster Homo Deus (another of Bill Homo DeusGates’ favorite books of all time). The optimist case has been showing up elsewhere in my research, too. Who knows, maybe utopia isn’t such a bad idea after all. In fact, maybe it’s already here.

Now there’s a thought.

All this ferocious optimism has been bracing, to say the least — it’s been the best challenge yet to what was becoming a comfortably dour outlook on economic reality.

And just as I was beginning to despair of anyone anywhere at any time ever using data to make sense of things, I also ran into an alternative to utopian thinking that both Pinker and Shermer acknowledge. It’s called “protopia,” and we’ll look at it next time.

Utopia For Realists Cont’d.

“Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind.”

Rutger Bregman

utopia for realistsContinuing  with Rutger Bregman’s analysis of utopian thinking that we began last week:

“Let’s first distinguish between two forms of utopian thought. The first is the most familiar, the utopia of the blueprint. Instead of abstract ideals, blueprints consist of immutable rules that tolerate no discussion.

“There is, however, another avenue of utopian thought, one that is all but forgotten. If the blueprint is a high-resolution photo, then this utopia is just a vague outline. It offers not solutions but guideposts. Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, it inspires us to change. And it understands that, as Voltaire put it, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As one American philosopher has remarked, ‘any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of the blueprint.’

“It was in this spirit that the British philosopher Thomas More literally wrote the book on utopia (and coined the term). More understood that utopia is dangerous when taken too seriously. ‘One needs to be believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them,’ observes philosopher and leading utopia expert Lyman Tower Sargent. Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind. And that’s vital. As people and societies get progressively older they become accustomed to the status quo, in which liberty can become a prison, and the truth can become lies. The modern creed — or worse, the belief that there’s nothing left to believe in — makes us blind to the shortsightedness and injustice that still surround us every day.”

Thus the lines are drawn between utopian blueprints grounded in dogma vs. utopian ideals arising from sympathy and compassion. Both begin with good intentions, but the pull of entropy is stronger with the former — at least, so says Rutger Bregman, and he’s got good company in Sir Thomas More and others. Blueprints require compliance, and its purveyors are zealously ready to enforce it. Ideals on the other hand inspire creativity, and creativity requires acting in the face of uncertainty, living with imperfection, responding with resourcefulness and resilience when best intentions don’t play out, and a lot of just plain showing up and grinding it out. I have a personal bias for coloring outside the lines, but I must confess that my own attempts to promote utopian workplace ideals have given me pause.

For years, I led interactive workshops designed to help people creatively engage with their big ideas about work and wellbeing — variously tailored for CLE ethics credits or for general audiences. I realized recently that, reduced to their essence, they employed the kinds of ideals advocated by beatnik-era philosopher and metaphysicist Alan Watts. (We met him several months ago — he’s the “What would you do if money were no object?” guy. )

alan watts cartoon

The workshops generated hundreds of heartwarming “this was life-changing” testimonies, but I could never quite get over this nagging feeling that the participants mostly hadn’t achieved escape velocity, and come next Monday they would be back to the despair of “But everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.”

I especially wondered about the lawyers, for whom “I hate my job but love my paycheck” was a recurrent theme. The Post WWII neoliberal economic tide floated the legal profession’s boat, too, but prosperity has done little for lawyer happiness and well-being. True, we’re seeing substantial quality-of-life change in the profession recently (which I’ve blogged about in the past), but most have been around the edges, while overall lawyers’ workplace reality remains a bulwark of what one writer calls the “over-culture” — the overweening force of culturally-accepted norms about how things are and should be — and the legal over-culture has stepped in line with the worldwide workplace trend of favoring wealth over a sense of meaning and value.

Alan Watts’ ideals were widely adopted by the burgeoning self-help industry, which also rode the neoliberal tide to prosperous heights. Self-help tends to be long on inspiration and short on grinding, and sustainable creative change requires large doses of both. I served up both in the workshops, but still wonder if they were just too… well, um…beatnik … for the law profession. I’ll never know — the guy who promoted the workshops retired, and I quit doing them. If nothing else, writing this series has opened my eyes to how closely law practice mirrors worldwide economic and workplace dynamics.  We’ll look more at that in the coming weeks.

Utopia For Realists

“Progress is the realization of utopias.”

Oscar Wilde

utopia for realistsDutchman Rutger Bregman is a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Class of 2017. He’s written four books on history, philosophy, and economics. In his book Utopia for Realists (2016), he recognizes the dangers of utopian thinking:

“True, history is full of horrifying forms of utopianism — fascism, communism, Nazism — just as every religion has also spawned fanatical sects.

“According to the cliché, dreams have a way of turning into nightmares. Utopias are a breeding ground for discord, violence, even genocide. Utopias ultimately become dystopias.”

Having faced up to the dangers, however, he presses on:

“Let’s start with a little history lesson:  In the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly. As recently as the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) described life as one giant vale of tears. ‘Humanity is great,’ he wrote, ‘because it knows itself to be wretched.’ In Britain, fellow philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) concurred that human life was basically, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

“But in the last 200 years, all that has changed. In just a fraction of the time that our species has clocked on this planet, billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, smart, healthy, and occasionally even beautiful.[1]

“Welcome, in other words, to the Land of Plenty. To the good life, where almost everyone is rich, safe, and healthy. Where there’s only one thing we lack:  a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Because, after all, you can’t really improve on paradise. Back in 1989, the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama already noted that we had arrived in an era where life has been reduced to ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’[2]

“Notching up our purchasing power another percentage point, or shaving a couple off our carbon emissions; perhaps a new gadget — that’s about the extent of our vision. We live in an era of wealth and overabundance, but how bleak it is. There is ‘neither art nor philosophy,’ Fukuyama says. All that’s left is the ‘perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’

 “According to Oscar Wilde, upon reaching the Land of Plenty, we should once more fix our gaze on the farthest horizon and rehoist the sails. ‘Progress is the realization of utopias,’ he wrote. But the farthest horizon remains blank. The Land of Plenty is shrouded in fog. Precisely when we should be shouldering the historic task of investing this rich, safe, and healthy existence with meaning, we’ve buried utopia instead.

“In fact, most people in wealthy countries believe children will actually be worse off than their parents. According to the World Health Organization, depression has even become the biggest health problem among teens and will be the number-one cause of illness worldwide by 2030.[3]

“It’s a vicious cycle. Never before have so many young people been seeing a psychiatrist. Never before have there been so many early career burnouts. And we’re popping antidepressants like never before. Time and again, we blame collective problems like unemployment, dissatisfaction, and depression on the individual. If success is a choice, so is failure. Lost your job? You should have worked harder. Sick? You must not be leading a healthy lifestyle. Unhappy? Take a pill.

“No, the real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better. We can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got. The real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,’ a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented.[4]

After this assessment, Bregman shifts gears. “The widespread nostalgia, the yearning for a past that really never was,” he says, “suggest that we still have ideals, even if we have buried them alive.” From there, he distinguishes the kind of utopian thinking we do well to avoid from the kind we might dare to embrace. We’ll follow him into that discussion next time.

[1] For a detailed (1,000 pages total) history of this economic growth from general nastiness to the standard of living we enjoy now, I’ll refer you again to two books I plugged a couple weeks ago:  Americana:  A 400 Year History Of American Capitalism and The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

[2] See here and here for a sampling of updates/opinions providing a current assessment of Fukuyama’s 1989 article.

[3]  World Health Organization, Health for the World’s Adolescents, June 2014. See this executive summary.

[4] This Tech Bubble is Different, Bloomberg Businessweek, April 14, 2011