Friday, March 23, 2012

Reason Not the Need

This morning I was woken from a dream by this line, which an actress spoke to an actor in a film I was somehow involved in:

“I cannot roll the moon because your tongue speaks kindly of Egypt.”

They were the first words I spoke to my wife upon waking. She thought I had uttered a prophecy. My Jungian hat would interpret this missive from within thus: You cannot change human emotional desires and habits just by praising the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. In other words, words are not enough, even though the pen is still mightier than the sword, more than ever perhaps. No, words are not enough because there are too many of us spewing them out. More importantly still, we are obliged to put our money where our mouths are.

We know this, and I know this too; I quit my job to change my habits of consumption, feed the beast far less than before, and find more time to be more human and more of a father/husband to my family. Yet writing is what I do by habit, by ‘nature’, by desire. I love words. I suspect that of all non-human, non-organic ‘things’, I love words the most, am happiest in their presence. That says a lot about me.

But what use is my preference to you, to others? Deeper still, what use are questions on utility? As King Lear put it, “Reason not the need!”

My wife is likewise a lover of words. As I write these, she is in another room writing hers. My eldest daughter is becoming a writer, my youngest loves to draw and write stories. We are a wordy family. Yet we need to earn ‘real’ money to pay the bills. There is next to no money to be made from writing. Not only are writers a dime a dozen, readers are diminishing, and digital content wants to be free. Dear Reader, how much would you pay me to read this rambling? And what of books by unknown authors, not promoted by some slick publisher, available across the internet; how much would you pay to read one? Old news of course, as old as art itself, and I wouldn’t trouble you with any of this if it weren’t for other social phenomena pressing on us now, demanding change hardly any of us have the desire or courage to take on. We will not roll our moons for pretty words. We all still need the beast we feed, just as we are trying to diminish it, so we must, for some while yet, reason the need.

Digital content wants to be free. Machines, more and more, do the work humans used to have to do. Forward-looking thinkers say the future is for the imaginative, the creative, since this is where machines fail and humans shine, but digital content wants to be free. I do not see how this circle can be squared (unless we all go back to farming, but what a transition that would be!).

I believe a negative interest money coupled with guaranteed income is very necessary right now, since it would free us up to offer society what most inspires us. However, how many of us would then have the time to absorb the content of billions of humans creating to be noticed, to feel they are contributing, all needing feedback of some kind? If I spend half my time creating, maybe the other half could be used to absorb (and respond to!) the output of a handful of other people (or groups of people) at a time. My own wife does not have the time to read all that I write. In an important way, a future of billions of creative people is hard to envisage, economically speaking. Perhaps the human economy of the future will have little to nothing to do with any explicit reward which has any purchasing power. Must we learn, then, not to need each other, or to need each other more? I suspect a new hybrid of the two.

As work for a wage becomes obsolete, money becomes obsolete for the vast majority of human activity. Perhaps the very idea of contribution I have dwelled on for so long becomes moot. The challenge of the future may well be learning not to care about meaning, about contribution, about success, about value, at least not as ‘objectively’ measured by money or something money-like. Isn’t that what abundance would entail, in a world where human economic work is hardly necessary at all?

The job I gave up required of me an hour’s journey to a chair, in which I then sat for about nine hours, before being allowed to go home again. Every now and then there was something to do. My colleague and I had so automated our responsibilities, the only thing we had to do was turn up, a legal requirement, not a practical one. And I hated it. It made me feel guilty. I wasn’t needed, was earning money for something I saw as stupid and pointless; 19th century regulations for 21st century realities. The vast majority of the work done at my old place of work dealt with billing. Were the company to give away for free the energy it generates, they could shed over 80% of their staff. I imagine the same applies to most other companies. Imagine that. Imagine the mayhem of billions suddenly with nothing to do. We employ people because we dare not develop another method of getting money to them. When we make that cut, when we put our feet on a path which includes such things as guaranteed income, what a slippery slope it will be.

How useful are you? How useful am I? I have no idea; it is a childish and narcissistic question. Measuring value (reasoning the need) is money’s job, and though money does it terribly, at least it does it. Remove that now vital crutch, and we enter cultural territory we have no experience of whatsoever. Negative interest currency and guaranteed income are close enough to the moneyless future which seems so inevitable to me, to bring down on us the enormous challenges I’ve outlined here. And yet for unstoppable reasons, this is the path we must choose to tread (contradiction intended).

We cannot roll the moon, no matter how sweetly we describe our visions. Thank you, dream, for bringing that to my attention.


Debra said...

What does "roll the moon" mean ?
Maybe it doesn't mean anything...
I don't know, but it's true, I am still looking for it to mean something.
I think you are writing much better than before.
Your writing is more vital, and alive, and that means that you must be more alive.
Last night we translated Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V.
A choral speech has this line in it, quoted from memory :
"Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach".
Pretty neat, huh ?
Could you imagine English being so dense, so analytic, so.. German ?
I like English that way.
This week I decided to pick up trash around our local pond.
Because... I think trash is ugly. I hate the idea of the water birds building their nests with empty potato chip bags, and I think that soiling water is endgame for a faithless society. Three pretty good and powerful reasons.
I have decided freely to work... for free doing this, even though people are paid to do it.
Why ? Because the people paid to do it were not doing it particularly well.
And within two days of doing it myself, and chatting to the people paid to do the work in a non judgmental way, and sharing why I want to be doing this, I found an employee this morning meticulously picking up the trash around the pond...
Pretty neat, huh ?
In a society that idolizes work for filthy lucre, and filthy lucre for work, my behavior is totally incomprehensible, and some people think I am a loony, or an idiot for doing something that people are paid to be doing.
But that's ok.
I think that there is true aristocracy in my position..
Funnily enough, the paid employee thought that there was true aristocracy in my position, too, and that was what interested, and motivated him to do his paid work much more conscientiously.
I could tell from the conversation we had together this morning.

Debra said...

Toby, out in deep space the other night I had a sudden illumination...
The Lord's Prayer that I learned as a Protestant child had this phrase in it "and forgive us our DEBTS as we forgive our DEBTORS".
The alternate version is "trespasses" for "debts".
I wonder how we got the two versions.
As I just wrote elsewhere, we are currently witnessing what happens in a culture that doesn't manage to forgive debts...
You could learn economy from the Gospel.
It would be more.. PROFITABLE than learning it from the experts, in my opinion...

Toby said...

Great comments, Debbie.

I love the Shakespeare quote, and I love packed English too. Indeed, I tried to get there with "We Are Fungi" and other things I write, but I suspect very few people share our taste on this. I'm reluctant to post such things here for that reason.

They call what you are doing in the park 'bowing into service'. There is no higher calling. When we do it because we believe deeply both in our majesty and our nothingness, yes, then we are as kings and queens and fools too. What a mix. The hard part is needing money to live.

For a while, the penniless who are not insane or badly broken can be housed/fed/whatever by others. But in this system those others have to be earning filthy lucre. Bowing into service in today's climate of fear and bottomless cynicism is, therefore, both noble and foolish, but depends on the 'normal' ones to provide the safety net. And before we get to the stage where people in very large numbers want and know roughly how to build a new system from the ruins of this one, there is that odd tension that the sane are insane, and the insane (or unsane) normal, and all the antipathy that arises from that.

As to meaning, things mean what we think they mean. If rolling (changing its course, moving it with your hands, that sort of thing) the moon means nothing to you, it means nothing to you. But because it was my dream and I really enjoy making sense of these missives, I gave it a shot. No doubt others would see some other meaning.

Debra said...

Toby, you sound almost Shakespearean in your response...
We will get better, and be able to better mend our system when we mend our language and ourselves in/with it.
I made a quick comment on Russ's site, that his incredible naiveté about voluntary servitude really pulls all the teeth out of his analysis.
I definitely believe this.
The "broken" have responsibility for their brokenness.
When they take responsibility for their brokenness they will discover their incredible freedom at the same time.
Until then... they will remain slaves.
Slavery is above all, a state of mind...

Jason (ReportsFromEarth) said...


I think there may be quite a few people interested in what you have to say about the "beast". You also have a beautiful and unique way of writing about these issues.

I can see you write a regular column in a newspaper or magazine. Your specific challenge will be to find the right journal.

However, your topic involves criticising status quo and everyone making successful money "in" status quo will likely (have to) protect the system and not pay you to promote changing it. This is why investigative journalism has become nearly extinct. So you may have to look for a while. I will let you know if I come across something if you like.

A book is another option - perhaps self published... you could base it on your blog.

Those of us who refuse to feed the beast are automatically taken off the large income stream - regardless of our education.
Those who are happily feeding it are raking in the rewards - especially if they have brains and education that would - otherwise - allow them to fight the beast.

The beast has very effective ways to protect itself.

However, like you - and Eisenstein, said (I am para-phrasing:) "it will run out of food" and probably soon, as it has gotten too big.
I think we are already witnessing how it is getting weaker.

Jason (ReportsFromEarth) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debra said...

Jason, on a friend's Christian blog, I talked about idolatry of money as a subtle phenomenon, which I definitely believe it is.
When even the poor see paradise as making big bucks, and can only dream of making BIG BUCKS, then idolatry of money has prevailed.
I suspect there have always been people who have lived outside the.. limelight ?
Perhaps we should not even be.. PROMOTING what we are doing as a general "solution" for all of humanity ?
Perhaps the deep shit that we are in comes from promoting general solutions for ALL of humanity, when we need to accept that the rewards for living alternatively, and being satisfied with our lot are not rewards that can be measured with filthy lucre ?
What I like to call the realm of grace must always remain out of the limelight in order to remain.. GRACE.
Our mystical traditions know this, but Western Civilization has abandoned its mystical traditions.
Or perhaps... WE are not curious enough about them to do our individual WORK to be nourished by them, outside of the mainstream ?
If WE think that all there is to life is to do the nine to five gig, earn bucks, jack off over the Internet, and go to bed at night, well, we will suffer tremendous alienation, in my opinion.
We ARE suffering tremendous alienation right now, from my point of view.
Thank heavens, not all of us, though...

Tao Jonesing said...

Digital content wants to be free.

But it can't be. They won't let it be. Witness iTunes, iBooks, Kindle, Google Play Books. The digitization of content only changes the business model, not its monetization.

I know why the caged bit sings . . .

“I cannot roll the moon because your tongue speaks kindly of Egypt.”

We cannot roll the moon, no matter how sweetly we describe our visions. Thank you, dream, for bringing that to my attention.

You misinterpret your dream, which was about what you could do as an individual. There is no I in we.

For several years I have been developing a new business model for digital content that seeks to break the hold of traditional publishing companies. The model is necessarily cooperative.

Toby said...

Thank you, Jason, for your kind words.

I guess I simply have to second what Debbie said in response to you, that what she talks about and how it relates to work/value is at the heart of how we stop feeding the beast. I have to make money, yes, but I can't sell what I'm doing here. I can't even be sensational and go for the hits or visits! I am, in the time-honoured tradition, following the muse, even in my life, as far as practicalities allow. This presents challenges and conflicts, but I had not planned on leaving behind all challenges and conflicts.

Furthermore, what I am saying is echoes of and is being echoed by other thinkers and writers. We put out what we feel needs to be pondered and discussed, and leave the rest to destiny, as it were. That is, I am not unique, not by a long shot. Also, change at the depth and breadth that interests me cannot be forced, so, if the interest is there in what I and others write, then it is there, and the ideas will find fertile soil. If the interest is not there, then it falls on deaf ears. As to reaching as many people as possible because the message is so 'important', that really is up to fate. At least, that's how I choose to see it. To pursue this in any other way is to try to force my ideology on others.

At the 'commercial' level, we face the pragmatic challenge of furnishing all humans with sufficient purchasing power with which to lead a dignified life, dignified enough to be able to give to others around them of themselves and find community, at a time when it is clear that only creative/imaginative work is going to be left for humans to do. But will we be able to pay each other for this work, and if yes, in what quantities, and how? I can't answer that question, and I suspect it is a very tough one. We are confronted with unprecedented opportunities, with an unprecedented situation. Only fumbling forwards into the new will reveal those 'choices' we arrive at, achieve consensus on.

Toby said...

Hi Tao,

"But it can't be. They won't let it be. Witness iTunes, iBooks, Kindle, Google Play Books. The digitization of content only changes the business model, not its monetization."

I don't believe 'they' have that much control. This is very early days in the history of the Internet, and DRM will not be the final chapter in this. You yourself are developing your model, there are others emerging, (e-lancers looks interesting, and other work-based social networking sites are popping up). When we add the end of growth to that, ecological overload, peak oil, peak debt etc., it is clear the old guard, fight valiantly though they might, cannot prevail.

My post ponders what will happen to the transitional (everything is transitional) system which will include things like guaranteed income, a negative interest currency, alternative currencies, no income tax, and other profound changes, and as more automation is allowed to flourish because the need for full employment is gone, how sensible will money be then? Or how long will we still 'need' money in a waged-labour way? I don't know, but I'm beginning to think such an in between stage could be quite short.

As for misinterpreting my dream, I don't think so. The "we" you hint at is implicit in my interpretation. As I like to say, "I think, therefore we are." Descartes II, so to speak. ;-)

I'd be interested to hear about your cooperative model. Perhaps it is a little like Amazon's KDP system, where all participants share income generated by sales and borrows?

Toby said...

Again hi Tao,

digital content is mostly free already, like blogs, many newspapers, YouTube, Google, Stumbleupon, much software, Linux generally, books—the classics are free for Kindle owners, and Google books has many freely available books too—and much else besides, Google maps springs to mind, freecycle is the free exchange of physical goods, and on and on. Of course industry wants to reverse this trend, but how can it? Only a very low percentage 'successful' producers of digital content can earn good money. Waged-labour as a model for distributing money to potential customers (who must have purchasing power to be effective customers) no longer makes any sense, and digital content being cheaply reproducible and easy to make accessible is one of the most powerful reasons this is so. Automation is another, the end of the growth of consumerism is yet another.

Check out Wattpad and Harper Collins' Authonomy to get a taste of how much content there is out there looking for an attentive (or a paying) audience. As I suggest in my article, there's simply too much output to find a buying public. Money needs scarcity, and the scarcity has switched to the 'customer'. Paying people to 'enjoy' your output is absurd. And even a cooperative arrangement has to generate income collectively and then divide that income 'fairly'.

Anyway, enough from me.

Debra said...

You know, Toby, that I am a great (Jewish...) pessimist.
There has never been greater possibility for access to free stuff, but the payment for it is..
that the free stuff is pretty much content free.
We are mostly talking past each other.
This is very very logical, because the Internet is very linked to our Christian heritage and its cultivation of the hatred of the body.
We are not talking because we are not bodies over the Internet, which posits that talking can be reduced to pure, objective content, which it can't be.
Talking reduced to pure, objective content which then effaces itself..
Pretty much the endgame for the Jewish model.
The point where the process explodes, and we revv up to "find God" again...
I hope I'm wrong.

Tao Jonesing said...


A couple of things.

First, most of what is free on Kindle and Google Books are out of copyright material. Second, YouTube and Google are both part of Google, who sells the information it collects, i.e., the price for using those services is the user's loss of privacy (and for truly talented acts like Walk Off the Earth, slave labor).

I am sure I will find the time to give you a more complete narrative of my vision, but the best way to think of it is as a "private commons." The basic idea is to renew the "social contract" with an actual contract that distributes value to both the individual and the collective. Something like a content credit union (you are not just a customer, or a contributor, you're a member/owner).

Exponential-driven for profit businesses cannot compete against this kind of model. Of course, they can just cheat and get the state to pass a law that makes the private commons illegal, but that will be tough, so long as it is constructed properly. You can use the tools of the master to tear down the master's house.

Debra said...

I thought you would like to know that this morning, I chatted for about half and hour with a stranger in the park.
He asked me what I thought of the park and living next to it.
In the course of our discussion, I learned that he was an engineer working for the technology showcase that is turning Grenoble into Mr Hyde so fast it would make your head spin.
And I smiled, and told him that science, and the meaning we are giving it now are a big part of our problem right now..
And after listening to me, we found common ground, and he agreed.
When I told him that I was picking up the trash around the pond (I didn't even have to mention that I was doing it for free...) guess what word he picked to qualify my work ? actions ?
The word he spontaneously found was...
drum roll..
Pretty neat, right ?
I definitely understand the logic behind why he found THAT WORD to describe what I was doing.
Freud understood that there is no room for coincidence or chance in our symbolic systems.
Right on.

Malagodi said...

First to Debra and her question about the two different translations of 'sin' and 'debt'. Most obviously, since the 'debt' translation is from Matthew and the 'sin' translation is from Luke, we have two different documents translated differently into our English canon by King James' notorious commission. Oh well.

I read the Lamsa translation from the Aramaic which bypasses the whole Greek>Latin>European translation mess. I highly recommend it. George Lamsa, 19th century Aramaic scholar; this translation was his only work of a lifetime. For instance, the translation from the Aramaic of Mathew 6-12 reads 'forgive us our offences, as we have forgiven our offenders.' That makes a lot more sense in the context of the prayer as a whole.

Want another translation example? The word for rope and camel are nearly the same in Aramaic script(Aramaic was the common language of the time). So the expression "It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven" becomes "It is harder for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle." That makes a lot more sense.

Now a story for Toby. I once was having a conversation with Pauline Oliveros, one of the greatest composers of the later 20th century. When she was a young (lesbian) woman in Texas in the '50s, she knew she had to leave Texas to pursue her work as a composer, so with $15 and her accordion she set out for the unknown in California. I asked her "Pauline, you were just a teenager. How did you know that what you were doing was right; that you would be successful?" She replied "Well Steve, I think that sometimes you just have to do what you know is right, and sooner or later somebody will pay you for it."

Many years later I told her that I agreed with the first part, but not necessarily with the second. This was received with some laughter, as we both know many, many artists who never got paid for their work.

I have found myself suddenly thinking of something that I used to consider, many years ago, but had put away for some reason; why do artists do what they do? The answer, which is clear to anyone who has been around artists, is 'because they must'. The oyster produces the pearl through a process of gastric irritation, because it must.

But why 'must they'? My answer from long ago was that it was a fairly transparent attempt at immortality. Artists produce artifacts to create a social memory which points specifically to them. Another example would be the great iconographers, who may be socially anonymous, but who nevertheless were producing work that connected them with the heavenly hosts or the Pure Land and 'the afterlife'.

Perhaps now that I am old and childless (and without siblings) I see another dimension to it. All individual biological life forms produce approximate copies of them-selves through the system of replicating molecular code patterns which we now know as DNA. In this way the molecular pattern produces an immortality to through symbolism. The proteins are expressed as a living being. Under this scheme, the form survives, but the self does not.

And so with art. The artist creates a body of work that is symbolic of his or her life. By creating patterns - whether of words, or paint, or pixels, or gestures (dance & theater), these patterns activate responses in other neural systems that have enough in common to be recognized. Re-Cognized, or re-conceptualized, or re-born. In the case of humans, it is an attempt by the self to survive the temporary expression and dissolution of the individual human form. My opinion used to be that it was a futile attempt. Now I consider the self to be a particular set of perspectives, so perhaps it is not futile after all.

A less complicated and probably more realistic explanation is that like our chimpanzee ancestors, we are a species of chatters. We just never shut up because it's not in our nature.

Debra said...

Oh, Steven, thank you so much for that precious information that you stuck down here.
I will make several comments on your response, because I find it very interesting.
If you take the translation debate elsewhere, you will notice, as the rabbis end up noticing after a while, that there can never be ONE EXACT, EQUAL (numeric ??) translation of a text, in just the same way that there can not be ONE EXACT interpretation of a text.
If you spend time translating you will notice that translation IS a form of interpretation.
And... interpretation is a form of.. translation, too.
There is another translation of the Lord's prayer.
It is "forgive us our TRESPASSES".
Funny how that word has come to mean to transgress physical boundaries on the PROPERTY, or the land of another person.
On the camel and the rope, I think that the luminous icon is metaphor itself.
Why do we constantly insist that the world be reasonable, and ourselves, too ?
That life be probable ?
Life is not probable. It is passionate, baroque, and highly improbable.
We have become trapped in our insistance that the world make sense.
IT does not need to make sense at all.
And it does not require explanation either.
Finally, we are all artists.
Artists are creators...
Is the liberty we have, the liberty to accept to what great extent we are determined by our past history ?
Gotta seize liberty where it presents itself, once you start noticing to what extent your reactions are determined...

Toby said...

Hello all,

Tao, I look forward to a detailed exposition of your plan, but can't shake this sneaky suspicion that a future in which we pay each other to pay attention to each other's creative output is unlikely. That is to say, the pseudo-market interim period between the ruin of capitalism and that which succeeds it might well be very short lived. And I'm not sure about calling WOTE slave labourers, since they choose to do that art in that way. The support (hits and thumbs up) is reward, and that reward is not hidden from them by their 'masters' Google and YouTube, but made available to them by said masters.

Debbie, I agree; in the end we are all artists. The sense we make of the 'wild' reality we interpret is the art which others may or may not understand, either as intended by the artist, or in some other way. Yet 'sense' it is, and thus a product of Universe. And I'm happy to hear your conversation with the engineer was so fruitful. As for the content free Internet, I see that as a teething problem. We are kids semi-released from our shackles, gabbing (or chattering) on endlessly in ignorance of our ignorance, and of the paucity of our community bonds. I humbly include myself in that, but would rather no one agreed with me.

Stephen, yes indeed, success is not guaranteed, largely because defining what success is, is impossible, and also because inevitable success would remove risk; art without risk is an oxymoron without possible benefit. The broader point, the one I have been trying to eke out here, is not related to success per se. It is how it might be possible to have an entire economy of nothing but creatives.

I heard recently that a retired head of Germany's second largest bank (I forget the names of both person and bank) said in an interview we should be discussing whether or not the modern world needs banks at all. To me, this is tantamount to saying we don't need money any more. That's an ex-banker. That's a considerable thing to put out there, in, I believe, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a pro-finance newspaper.

So: we don't need nor are we made happy by endlessly growing consumerism; the market in this money system cannot be 'free,' so cannot produce meaningful profits which are actually socially beneficial; we can already automate almost all repetitive manual labour; we don't need banking and finance in their current form, if at all... What do these changes do to our cultural sense of reward and earning a living, and to our need for each other as humans, and to employment levels? You can't buy friendship, or genuine emotional support, or pay people to enjoy your creative output. When there's an over-abundance of supply and a scarcity of demand, what's left for the money-economy to do? Money's only needed to solve the problem of the opposite relationship. I don't have the answer, but I suspect—as you know—The Venus Project and The Zeitgeist Movement are closer to the potential long-term answers than anyone else.