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Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Diamond Age

I’ve just read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age for the second time. What a fantastic book. I liked it even more the second time.

The book is set 100 years in the future, when society is divided into various cultures, or phyles. Each individual can choose what phyle they belong to, and therefore what moral code they will be expected to adhere to. The dominant phyle is the Neo-Victorians (or ‘Vickys’) of New Atlantis, who are masters in engineering, and who follow the stiff moral code of the Victorians. There is also the phyle of the Celestial Kingdom, which more or less follows the moral code of Confucius. Then there are other, lesser, phyles: the Armenians, the Jesuits, the Senderos, the Drummers, the Ashantis, and so on. If you’re not a member of any phyle, you’re known as a thete.
A leading member of the Neo-Victorian phyle is Lord Alexander Finkle-McGraw. He is, in some ways, the founding father of the phyle. McGraw decided, at a young age, that what made some individuals and societies more moral and resilient was not their genetics or their physiology, but their culture: “some cultures thrived and expanded, while others failed”. Even successful cultures can ossify into rote-learning and conformism, Finkle-McGraw observes, and he wonders how to preserve his own Neo-Victorian culture in a state of vibrancy and resilience.
He contacts a junior member of his phyle, John Percival Hackworth, who is an up-and-coming nanotechnology and artificial intelligence programmer, and hires him to create an interactive book that will educate and cultivate his granddaughter. The book that Hackworth creates is called A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, and subtitled A Propaedeutic Enchiridion (or ‘a teaching handbook’). The book is a masterpiece, which guides a child through life, teaching them how to read, how to respond to threats, how to fight, how to comport oneself in society, what values one needs to thrive – all through stories and imagery that intelligently sense what stage the child’s development has reached and what the child should learn next. The book ‘bonds’ with the child, and adapts its lessons and stories to the child’s personality.
Hackworth decides to secretly create a copy of the book for his own daughter, but on the way to copy it, he is mugged, and the book ends up in the hands of a young thete called Nell, who lives in the badlands on the outskirts of Hong Kong. What follows is, in some ways, a wonderful variation of the old foundling stories of the 18th and 19th centuries, like Oliver Twist or Tom Jones, in which a young orphan from the fringes of society rises through luck or destiny to the top of society. In Nell’s case, her rise is, apparently, all down to the magical educative properties of the Primer.
Meanwhile, the Celestial Kingdom hears of the book, and a mandarin called Dr X forces Hackworth to make hundreds of thousands of copies of the Primer, which are used to bring up 300,000 young Chinese orphan girls. At the end of the book, these girls have formed a Maoist-type army, joined together by the Primer as Mao’s army was joined by the Little Red Book – except the girls’ army is led by wiser and more moral principles. The army ends up making Nell its queen and joining the New Atlantic phyle.
Now why this book interests me, aside from the fact that it’s a great read, is that I think it points the direction that books, and philosophy, could go.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I am quite into Stoicism, which I think is a value system or philosophy that is very good at making people more resilient, autonomous and virtuous. It is a powerful culture. This culture has spread across space, and across time, thanks to handbooks, like Epictetus’ Enchiridion. These handbooks downloaded the memes of Stoicism into the reader, and turned them into practices and behaviours.
Cut forward to the beginning of the 21st century, 2001, when I was suffering from depression and PTSD. The toxic ideas in my head were killing me, literally. I then came across an online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) course to overcome social anxiety, and a support group that was following the course. We downloaded the course’s handouts and its audio files, read them out, memorized them, practiced them. I even copied out the principles of the course and carried them around in a little green handbook, and listened to the audio files on a walk-man. This course saved my life. It helped me overcome my emotional problems, and move closer to flourishing. And I never met the therapist who made it (Dr Thomas Richards) or, I’m afraid to say, paid him. I just downloaded it from the net, and practiced it with some other people. Thanks, Dr Richards.
CBT, as readers of this blog will know, is based on the ideas or memes of Stoicism. It uses the Stoics’ cognitive theory of emotions, and it uses many Stoic therapeutic techniques – including the Enchiridion, or Handbook. So the Net enabled me to discover the memes of ancient philosophy, and these memes, downloaded into my organism, saved my life.
What we are now seeing begin to happen, is that self-help books are becoming more interactive. They are drawing on digital technology to make the reading experience more immersive and intelligent. The reader tries out exercises, games, listens to audio, watches video, and the book (or app) responds to them, and even monitors their progress, giving advice, suggesting interventions.
There is, of course, a big danger in this. Can computer programmes really ‘read’ a human and offer them life-changing advice? How can a computer programme know if a person is seeing a situation accurately, or imagining things? How can they know the appropriate response to an actual life situation? I remember using the app for a Deepak Chopra book, and the app had a tool which asked you questions about a life-goal of yours, and then told you if it was ‘authentic’ or ‘ego-driven’. This programme had no qualms about telling me one of my life-goals was ego-driven, based on five simplistic questions. How far is this from the technology of, say, a fortune cookie, or the old Zoltar the Fortune Teller fairground machines?
This is the danger of this sort of interactive ‘propaedeutic enchiridions’. Nonetheless, I think new smart books have huge potential for the transmission of memes. What I am trying to do with the book I am writing, is pass on the life-enhancing memes of ancient philosophy, through the new technology of the Digital Age. I want to create an interactive enchiridion – it will of course be primitive and underwhelming. But it will be a step. We know, or at least are beginning to discover, what memes and cultures help us thrive. The question now is how to communicate those memes and enable them to be downloaded and properly absorbed by the widest number of people.

Newsletter 28/1/2011

It’s been a week full of Happiness TM. On Oprah, Goldie Hawn has been telling America the secrets of happiness, from her new Oprah-funded documentary about Positive Psychology. The Guardian has been keeping us happy, particularly with some Headspace meditation podcasts. And on the BBC News, every morning this week, Action for Happiness, the UK movement set up by Lord Layard, Anthony Seldon and Geoff Mulgan, has been giving viewers advice on how to maximize their happiness. Generally useful techniques from Positive Psychology – keep a gratitude journal, do kind acts, meditate…

…although Lord Layard does tend to demand we all sign up to his utilitarian vision, in which Bentham replaces Jesus. It’s worth remembering that Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology, rejects utilitarianism in favour of a more Aristotelian vision of happiness (just like John Stuart Mill did). Seligman told me in an interview: ‘There’s too much emphasis on happiness, I think. I’m interested in the meaningful or virtuous life, what the Greeks called eudaimonia.”

But whose eudaimonia do you want – Aristotle’s or the Stoics’? Here’s a piece I did, looking at the competing ideas of eudaimonia in Aristotle and the Stoics, which suggests the best life might involve a combination of the two.

One of the problems you encounter, when governments back Positive Psychology programmes, is the issue: are liberal governments going beyond pluralism and advocating a form of spirituality? Does that infringe the First Amendment? This is one of the problems that the Martin Seligman-designed Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme is getting into. It tries to teach every US soldier emotional and spiritual fitness. It’s the ‘spiritual’ bit that has got some atheist soldiers worried, as you can read here.

Helping others and serving a higher purpose makes us happier, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. The greater your responsibility over others’ lives, the more your mistakes can cause suffering and lead to guilt and stress. Here’s evidence showing that surgeons suffer from higher than average thoughts of suicide.

But if the meaning of life isn’t ‘feeling good’, what is it? Nietzsche would probably say ‘power! domination! mastery!’ And babies might agree with him. Interesting evidence that babies understand power and social hierarchies after just a few months.

Here’s a startling discovery: 13% of psychologists say a patient has revealed they have murdered someone. Too much information dude!

If only they had learned to practice self-control. A major new study has just been published, called the Dunedin Study, which tracked 1,000 people from birth to the age of 32. It found that self-control was the best predictor of health, income and career success, as well as the stability of marriages. I’ll be writing more on self-control in the coming days.

Finally, as we approach the Oscars, here’s an interesting piece by Jonah Lehrer, who used to suffer from stuttering, on how the King’s Speech mis-characterizes the condition.

Next week I’ll share some highlights from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in San Antonio, where I am at the moment. Including an interview with the big chief of self-control theory, Roy Baumeister.

Thanks for reading,