The Enlightened Caveman


Jack White, the Rat Race, and the Rejection of Easy

Last night, I watched the recent documentary called, It Might Get Loud, which revolves around a meeting of three electric guitar virtuosos, each from a different generation.  The elder statesman is none other than Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.  The mature, but still in his prime, slot is held by U2’s The Edge, and the younger generation is represented by one of my absolute favorite musicians, Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and Dead Weather).  It’s a terrific film from a lot of different perspectives, but the ethic espoused by Jack White really hit on something I’ve been dwelling on for quite some time.  Right at the beginning, he comes out with this…

Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Opportunity doesn’t do anything for creativity.  Yeah, it makes it easier, and you can get home sooner.  But it doesn’t make you a more creative person.

White expands on this idea again and again by talking about his need to struggle as a musician.  He purposefully strips things down to make it harder to create something emotionally meaningful.  He uses guitars that are cheap and won’t stay in tune.  He arranges the instruments on stage in a way that is inconvenient, so even the act of getting to the organ after playing the guitar is difficult.  The idea is that pushing through the hardship is what leads to creativity and emotional truth.  When it’s too easy, finding truth and beauty is too hard.  It seems paradoxical, but I think Jack White is on to something that can be generalized way beyond creating art.

The processes for obtaining the things we want and need are so streamlined these days that I wonder if we aren’t slowly optimizing all of the beauty and joy out of our lives.  Before I go any further, let me just say that my focus here is not on technology as an evil; this is not a Luddite’s lament.  What I want to talk about is what we’re using all of this technology for.  I think I know.

We want everything to be easy.  But why?  In theory, when something is easy, it takes less time to accomplish.  Okay, so we want more time.  I’m onboard with that.  But for what?  So we can work more? Come again?

It sounds crazy, but I’ve been noodling on this for a long time, and that’s the best I can come up with. It seems that those who are the best at optimizing every little thing in their lives also tend to be the people who work the most.  At least that’s the world I live in.  So the next question is why work so much?  I’m assuming that work for work’s sake isn’t the goal.  So what is?

This is where the caveman thing comes into play.  If we’re not paying attention, we simply fall into the norms of our social group.  We adopt the goals of those we interact with the most.  At my stage in life, my social surroundings are other thirty-somethings (some with kids, some not), all focused on achievement.  It’s trite to say they’re after the brass ring, but it’s not far off.  Bust your ass now so you can get the promotion, which requires you to bust your ass even more to get the next promotion. The distant hope is that the brass ring brings a level of happiness and contentment – and ease – that makes it all worthwhile.

And what of technology?  Well technology makes it possible to dispense with the mundane so you can focus on work.  Why go to the store twice a week when you can go to Costco once a month?  Why visit the local library when the Internet is a click away?  Why call when you can text?  You get the idea.

But what if all of this ease, which just gives us more time to pursue the goals most present in our social groups, is eroding the possibility of finding real satisfaction in life.  After all, it’s called the rat race because it is an endless, pointless pursuit – a constant footrace on a wheel that never stops turning.  With every perceived success, we take on another goal, which invariably takes up more of our time.  How do we get off?  For this, we go back to Jack White.

What happens when we try to reject easy?  What happens when we purposefully place the coffee maker in the laundry room?  I’ll admit, I’m not good at this.  There’s an old saying, “Leave it to the lazy man to find the easiest way.”  That’s me.  But it’s acute laziness, not chronic laziness that afflicts people like me.  I want this or that little task to be easy because I want to devote my efforts to “bigger” things that really matter to me.  But maybe that’s the problem.

What if this quest to optimize all of the little things is causing me to completely lose sight of the good economist’s favorite axiom – life is about tradeoffs?  More and more, I’m finding that what’s really happening is that we’ve collectively bought into this idea that we can have it all.  By optimizing here, I can have something else there.  In the end, when I would previously have had to choose between two wants, I now can have both.  Is this good for me?  Jack White would say no, and I’m really beginning to think he’s right.

This is an illusion, this notion that we can have it all.  By buying songs one at a time, I’m missing the songs on records that I’d love ten times more than the hits.  Tradeoffs never go away; we just lose the ability to spot what we’re giving up.

So is that it?  Reject easy?  Manufacture hardship?  There are consequences, though.  Putting aside the obvious changes in terms of “productivity” that come with rejecting easy, what about the social implications?  What about that nagging feeling that we’re not keeping up?  It’s genetic, ya know, so it will reveal itself one way or another.

Honestly, I don’t know how do this.  I just have a feeling that it is the right thing to do.  I’m going to start by picking one easy thing every day and doing it the hard way.  Who knows.  Maybe in a week I’ll realize that this is the dumbest idea I’ve had in a while.  But I want to try.  It just feels wrong to race to the table at every meal so I can be spoon-fed a huge helping of easy.  What am I giving up?  I need to find out.

I’ll keep you posted.



Notes from Intellectuals and Society

In case the radio thing isn’t your bag, here are my takeaways from Thomas Sowell’s latest (and perhaps most important) book – Intellectuals and Society.  Most is paraphrasing what I took to be important points from the book, but some of my own interpretations are mixed in, as well.

1.  Intellectuals are defined by Sowell as people who make their living off ideas.  So this would be someone like a historian or sociologist, not a brain surgeon or engineer.  This is key because the circumstances associated with being supported monetarily by the production of abstractions lead directly to many of the problems that are discussed in this book.

2.  Intellectuals generally have very little likelihood of achieving mass acclaim by succeeding at their chosen area of expertise.  For example, it is unlikely that a historian who is an expert on the Civil War will ever be famous for that expertise.  Yes, he or she may be well-known among Civil War buffs, but that’s about it.

3.  There are normally no external criteria for determining the success or failure of an intellectual’s ideas.  Whereas an engineer who builds a bridge has objective external evidence of success or failure – the bridge stands safely for an extended period of time – intellectuals need nothing more than the approval of other intellectuals to succeed.  For example, one intellectual is granted tenure by a group of other intellectuals.

4.  Intellectuals find themselves in an emotionally unsettling place after they “arrive” in intellectual circles.  Far from being the smartest person around – as most no doubt are as they are growing up – being a tenured PhD in a sea of other tenured PhDs leaves little room for distinction.  In other words, the status engine that was stoked all through life is suddenly sputtering and choking.  (This is my addition – connecting the book to the Enlightened Caveman concept.)

5.  To assuage this emotionally unsettled feeling, many intellectuals venture thoughts and opinions in areas for which they have no expertise.  For example, Naom Chomsky, the esteemed linguist, fancies himself a political affairs and history expert, so he holds forth ad nauseum about politics and foreign policy.  Truthfully, he has no more expertise in these topics than the typical above-average college-educated person.

6.  The reason an intellectual ventures beyond his or her expertise is due to perceived status.  (Again, my interpretation.)  That is, many, if not most, intellectuals think themselves cognitively superior to the masses – mainly because they have been treated as such for most of their lives.   They “get it,” while the rest of us do not.

7.  When intellectuals venture beyond their expertise, they almost always do so in an iconoclastic way.  In other words, they say the opposite of what most people believe.  (Yet again, I’m extending Sowell’s thesis based upon my own observations in the context of the Enlightened Caveman concept.)  This only makes sense because an intellectual holding forth about something everyone already believes would have little, if any chance, of getting mass attention.

8.  Mass attention, by the way, is always available to intellectuals who stray beyond their expertise to alert the masses of how wrong they are about this and that.  This is because of what Sowell calls The Intelligencia – “…individuals would include those teachers, journalists, social activists, political aides, judges’ clerks, and others who base their beliefs or actions on the ideas of intellectuals.”  The Intelligencia loves intellectuals because, by peddling their ideas, the halo of superiority of rubs off on them.  They, too, can think themselves cognitively more advanced than the average rural dolt, since they can both recognize “the truth” when they see it and they have the job of delivering that truth as far and wide as possible.  This, incidentally, stokes their status engines, which is why the distribution of nonsense is so pervasive.

9.  By being insulated from reality, intellectuals are free to see the world as they would like it to be (versus as it really is).  They, therefore, reject the constrained vision, which suggests that man is deeply flawed by nature, and that no institution or understanding is going to change that.  Instead, they prefer to see mankind as unconstrained – that is, humans are perfectible if only the broken institutions and culture surrounding them are fixed.  This unconstrained vision underlies the ideas that emerge when most intellectuals stray beyond their areas of expertise.  (Examples – capitalism is bad, poverty is responsible for crime, etc.)

10.  Sowell distinguishes between what he calls special knowledge and mundane knowledge.  Special knowledge is what intellectuals have – it is very narrow in scope, but deep and comprehensive in understanding.  Mundane knowledge, however, is very wide in scope and often is very simple.  Intellectuals naturally think of special knowledge (which they alone have) as far more important than mundane knowledge, which is distributed haphazardly among the masses.  In other words, knowing about the mating habits of the Kalahari in Africa is much more important than knowing how to frame a house.

11.  This disregard for the critical importance of mundane knowledge in the day to day affairs of most people leads intellectuals to conclude that their special knowledge (confined as it may be to a particular area of expertise) gives them the right, nay, obligation to direct the social and economic affairs of society.

12.  Intellectuals, therefore, frequently weigh in on matters for which they have very little knowledge, no stake, and no consequences for being wrong.  For example, rent control.  Intellectuals assert that rent should be affordable to poor people, so rent prices should be controlled.  However, they know nothing about the role of the price of rent in conveying the realities of real estate scarcity in a particular area.  They have no stake in the property they seek to control – that is, they lose nothing by not being able to charge enough for rent to cover the mortgage.  And there are no consequences if the objective – providing affordable rent to poor people – is not achieved.

13.  In fact, success for an intellectual pursuing a policy is the enactment of that policy, not the results of the policy.  Intellectuals do not go back to see if the policy and/or program they advocated actually led to what they wanted to happen.  And if the results of those policies turn out to be the opposite of what they asserted, they will either attack the person bringing the results as biased with an axe to grind, or they will suggest that the policy was not executed properly.  In no case will they admit that either the vision – affordable housing for all poor people – was flawed (i.e. not possible) or the means by which they chose to achieve it – rent control – was intractable.  Again, there are no consequences for being wrong when you’re an intellectual.

14.  Intellectuals, though they claim to be the purveyors of reason and intellect, rarely engage in logical, dispassionate discussions with people who disagree with their assertions.  This, in my opinion, is directly tied to their perceived status.  How dare we, the inferior masses, question them?  Instead, they resort to personal attacks as to the moral (or rather, immoral) driver behind the criticism.  If you’re against rent control, they accuse you of wanting poor people to freeze to death.  They rarely, if ever, actually discuss the pros and cons of whether rent control actually helps poor people.  (Here’s a hint – it doesn’t.)

15.  In summary, in conjunction with a willing Intelligencia, intellectuals are ruining our Republic at a breakneck pace.  No doubt, they occasionally help push us forward when the grip on the status quo has long since been unnecessary (i.e. legalizing gay marriage).  However, on the whole, the damage they do far outweighs the good.

16.  To counter this, we need only return to reliance on the principles of logic in our public discourse.  Obviously, we need intellectuals in society, but we need them to stick to what they know, and we need a society that knows when they venture too far afield.  For example, if a person offers an assertion, he or she must be willing to be met with a counter-assertion and must be willing to defend the first assertion on logical grounds, if possible.  When this does not happen – because the critic is attacked or there are no logical grounds – we must reject immediately the original assertion.  Next, we must cease conferring credibility on experts in one field when they hold forth in another for which they have no expertise at all.  And when the media is a party to this intellectual shell game, we need only change the channel or stop reading.

I think that’s a little more organized version of what I took away from Sowell’s book.  (More organized than the hour-long radio rant.)  As I said, it’s an important book, and nothing would please me more than the general recognition of the doom that is being brought upon our society by these alphabet soup children who know nothing of reality and who are clamoring to be important at any cost.



Enlightened Caveman Radio – Maiden Voyage

Okay.  This site has languished for far too long. It’s time to get back to it.  But since I’m way short on time these days, I’ve decided to try my hand at something new.  Thanks to Al Gore and other inventors of the Internet, I can now host my own call-in radio show online.  So this Wednesday, Feb 3rd, I’ll be hosting the first one – the Maiden Voyage – at 11pm EST.  (That’s to accommodate as many time zones as possible, so forget about the Leno/Conan crap and come on.)

I’ve been noodling on exactly what to do with this concept.  I could just ramble for an hour on various topics, taking calls and having public discussions, but that seems a little narcissistic.  If possible, I’d like to add value for a listener/participant beyond just hearing my point of view on a variety of topics.  So, the plan is to cover a book in every show.  In some cases, they’ll be current books that have come out recently.  Other times, I’ll pull in some of what I consider to be classics.  In all cases, I’ll be connecting the book to the Enlightened Caveman concept where applicable.

The upcoming show will be about Thomas Sowell’s latest book – Intellectuals and Society.  I’ve read a lot of his work, and this one seems like a culmination of some of his best ideas.  In short, this book rocks, and I think it’s really important that as many people as possible absorb what it’s saying.  If you’ve read it, great.  Show up and we’ll discuss it.  If you haven’t, no worries.  I’ll give you enough of a flavor for the book that you can either decide you know enough, that you could care less, or that you have to pick it up right away.  Regardless, the discussion will center around the ideas in that book, and you’ll have the chance to call in and voice your thoughts on the matter.  (And don’t let the title spook you – this isn’t meant to be a high-brow, brainiac kind of discussion.  Quite the contrary, as you can see, if you check out the Amazon page.)

To be honest, I have no idea what to expect here.  I have no problem holding forth (i.e. bullshitting) at length on a wide range of topics, and I love a spirited discussion.  But it’s the logistics of managing calls coming in and all of that at the same time that has me a little nervous.  Nevertheless, I want to do this, so nerves be damned.

Here’s how it’ll work…

I have a show page on BlogTalkRadio.com – (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/caveman11).  When it’s showtime, just head to that page and click the “Click to Listen” link.  That’s it.  The audio will come on and you’re rolling.  There will be call-in number there, which you can use to get on the air with me.  (Of course, I’ll have to figure out how to screen callers, etc., so no promises I can get more than a few people on.)  There’s also a phone number you can call if you want to listen on your phone.  That’s pretty cool.  But wait!  There’s more.  If you miss the live show, you can download an MP3 of the show from my BTR page, or you can actually subscribe to the podcast of it in iTunes.  In a word – BADASS!

So come on Wednesday night.  Let’s tawk.



I’m Feeling Your Pain – An Intro to Concurrence
January 26, 2005, 4:31 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Philosophy | Tags: ,

Original Post (with comments)
Perhaps the most regularly recurring theme in this blog is the interplay between the quest for status and the human tendency to cooperate (both genetically driven) and our modern environment in leading to the behaviors we engage in and witness every day. That humans learned to cooperate is taken as a bit of an axiom in the study of hominid history, but something has been nagging at me for a while, and I’m just now getting to the point where I can articulate what I’ve come up with.

What if there is a genetically driven motivation that is larger than reciprocal altruism? I think there is. What if reciprocal altruism is just one manifestation (albeit a very critical one) of a heretofore elusive, but grand aspect of human nature? I think it is. This aspect of human nature is what I’ll call the need for concurrence.

Concurrence, in its most grand form, is perfect empathy. It is being able to mentally and emotionally relate to another person in a very deep way. It’s feeling someone else’s pain. It’s a profound connection between two people. Suppose the adaptation that Mother Nature found was an inherent desire to concur with other humans, and a consequence to getting to this deep emotional connection was the emergence of informal rules regarding favors done and favors owed. And lots more…but let’s back up for a moment.

In evolution, it’s always interesting to ponder the intermediates. In this case, we can imagine hominids like Australopithecus, who were not known for being big cooperators, and Homo sapiens, and we can wonder how natural selection bridged the gap. Did this human species of hominid just suddenly start cooperating, or did something happen before that? If I’m right about concurrence, then something did.
If we know that hominids who banded together to share resources and divide up duties fared better than hominids who did not, is it not reasonable to wonder what kind of primary emotion would produce that tendency for groups to come together? (When I talk about primary emotions, I’m talking about the ones you read about in books by Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux, the basic emotional programs, like fear and the quest for status, that underlie our more complex emotions, like anger and jealousy.)

From what I’ve read, the answer would be the emotional tendency to cooperate. But I have a hard time imagining how that would work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – there’s a lot I can’t imagine. However, I do not have a hard time imagining the emergence of a genetically-driven emotional drive to connect with another human. The cooperation part would simply be the fortuitous result, the one that natural selection seized upon, resulting in the reign of the human animal on earth.

So let’s suppose, just for fun, that I’m right, that there is an inherent human need for concurrence. Just think of how much it explains. Reciprocal altruism is only the tip of the iceberg. Concurrence could explain all sorts of social phenomena like, for example, that elated feeling at a rock concert when the whole place is glued to the same moment.

If the need for concurrence is a primary emotion, then it, like the others, is executed in different ways in different situations. In one-on-one situations, it can be seen as the pursuit of the direct emotional connection. In crowds, it can be seen as swimming in the same direction as the school, so to speak. Who can deny the visceral good feeling that comes from being in a crowd where everyone is focused on the same wonderful thing? If concurrence is real, then it explains that feeling – we’re pulled toward situations like that and we feel immense gratification when we encounter one. I know many people, and I am one of them, who appreciate big events (concerts, sporting events, etc.) for this reason every bit as much as for the name on the ticket. To be part of a happening, where everyone, for a short period of time, is concurring. To be part of a shared experience where a mass of individuals has been transformed into a collective entity, one that shows no signs of dissension in the ranks. This is human stuff. We are but moths to the flame.

But, as this blog vigilantly asserts, our primary emotions were not designed for this modern world. This means that, like status, concurrence has its downsides. Consider two teenage girls who are best friends. The desire, no, the need, for concurrence overrides the truth in many situations. If both girls are a bit heavy and are insecure about it, they can achieve deep concurrence by propping each other up with compliments to the contrary. Even though they know that the answer to, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” is, “No, your large ass makes you look fat,” they respond with, “No! They’re like totally cute.” The point is that, just as the quest for status often causes us to cut high-status people slack while we criticize low-status people, concurrence can distort truth when it is ill-advised in social situations. And on a larger scale, on the crowd scale, it can cause us to buy into fanatical causes.

For those for whom one-on-one interpersonal concurrence is hard to find, causes can act as a good surrogate. The feeling of swimming in the same direction of the school is like a hundred small-scale concurrences adding up to the effect of a deep one-on-one concurrence. (See Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer.) The need for this distributed emotional connection, which, in this case, is the need to belong, trumps all else, logic and rationality included.

I’m just getting my arms around this idea and where I can take it, so I’ll stop here and come back with more as it develops. But I can’t help think that this will be the topic of my next book. The applications of this concept are mind boggling. And even if it isn’t true, even if the whole thing is nonsense, it’ll be a great exercise to find that out. Thoughts?