Friday, September 24, 2021

Play for Keeps, and Go Out with a Laugh

I have become of that awkward age when I simply can't remember where I put things, or how I did something the last time. It's not so awful, but there are new complications to basic life functions. Sometimes, when trying to game myself I really can't figure out any principle by which to do something such that I will more likely know what I did when trying to recover what I'd already done. 

It's easy, for instance, to always put keys in the same place. But it's less easy to establish an order of operation such that you can accurately guess how likely it is that you'll use the same reasoning the next time. 

I know my memory issues aren't all age-related, since my daughter has the same issues. I used to have to derive formulas and proofs during test-time in school, since there was no way I could memorize those things. I wanted to understand, in any case, and not to memorize.

What is age-related is that I can no longer power through the issues. I used to ace tests because I was pretty good at getting the principles involved in the proofs, just like I could power through whatever memory issues I might have had by a kind of reconstructive analysis. Not so much any more when there are just plain blanks in what I might have done.


But, you know, memory isn't what we think it is in the first place. I saw Mom yesterday, and she can't remember talking with my sisters via FaceTime, even though I know she did. She really can't remember much of anything, except that she still knows me and my daughter and my ex and she still acts and behaves as the same person. But she's not sharp the way that some people still are at her age.

Memory is not a storage and retrieval mechanism. Memory is delayed perception, triggered by the same associative principles which promote survival among environmental challenges. You see again that tiger when you confront a new one. You already know what to do. We mistakenly call this cognition. It's really just recognition.

The simple principles of Riccardo Manzotti's "Spread Mind" thesis really demystify the brain. The brain doesn't catalog some kind of internal model of the world. While a better analogy might be the digital "hashes" that computers use to identify photos, the computer will always make a lousy analog for the brain. The brain excites in communion with the world, but it is in the world of our experiences that the mind resides, and not inside our heads.

This is why, in essence, our destruction of the living environment must also destroy humanity. I do believe that life writ large won't and can't be destroyed. For the most part, that's because life persists in more places than here on earth. By living at the remove of cognition, we don't only overrun the earth, but we nix any possible communion with other life elsewhere in the cosmos. 

I hate to throw this out there, but psychedelics and other ways to quiet the cognition that we are so proud of, including - and I really hate to say this - what we call religion, illuminate the more productive means.

On a walk yesterday morning, before seeing Mom with my younger daughter and my ex, I took a long walk with my older daughter, the one with my memory style. 

As far as I was concerned, the value of the walk was to pick up a cup of what must be the best coffee in the world at Buffalo's Public Espresso + Coffee in the Lafayette Hotel. Then we walked to Canalside where it seemed that things were setting up for some sort of concert. 

I didn't think much about it, despite having noticed some caricature Chinesey blow up dolls. My daughter wondered if that was some kind of cultural appropriation. I thought not, since it seemed to have been placed by Chinese folks.

We found seats on the dock, below the boardwalk, and sipped our lovely coffees in the perfect weather. The days have been setting up for fall, and we watched kayaks, sailboats and pedal bars go by. Folks were getting ready for the Bills game. Which basically means drinking. It was really early.

Walking back toward the Canalside stage later, I wanted to walk the perimeter of the event just to get a sense of what was going on with what we found to be an Asian festival. I wanted to sense the tenor of the event, especially given how much China has been suffering in our stateside politics, given a certain amount of reflexive racism. 

Sure enough there was a table manned by the soon to be disbanded(politics!) Confucius Institute, where I might have worked. I knew that my good friend would have to be there, and he was. And then there was an alumnus from the school I headed, who might lay legitimate claim to having been the first non-Chinese to be admitted to legal practice in China. He chatted up my daughter after we both chatted with the faculty director of the Institute.

I'm always shy about speaking Chinese, unless I'm in China, probably mostly because I don't really want to be waylaid and detained by surprise and questions. So I didn't speak Chinese to the faculty director, but when he learned that my daughter is on the faculty of the law school, he wondered about her opinion about a new law that I had never heard of. It quickly developed that he and my daughter (along with myself) were on very different sides of a new law in New York to decrease prison populations by not sending people back to jail for technical and non-offensive violations of parole. 

He explained that as an economist, he believed that people are rational actors, and that punishment is necessary and important for keeping people in line. Of course I kept my sense of Chinese crime and punishment to the back of my mind when I pointed out what an outlier the US is in our treatment of the violators of our laws, and especially in our prison treatment of our underclasses.

So no, I don't think that the highest and best quality of humanity is our rationality. I think there are recently lots of economists who are ready to trash those modes of modelling our economy too. Mostly, I think, like animals everywhere, we play when we can - we enjoy ourselves - and when we're under duress we get serious. If acting rationally means to maximize our leisure, then sure, we're as rational as a racoon is when he sneaks up to the chunk of cheese on the picnic table when the rest of us are mesmerized by the campfire.

But the thing I want to know is why we are always so ready to reward the fellow who runs off with the ball when the rest of us are enjoying a game of soccer. You can't play the game without the common property. The rules, the lines, the goal posts, the shared understanding and all the equipment. That's also true in the game of life. 

The tragedy of our capitalist ways has indeed now become the tragedy of the enclosure of the commons. We give oil away for free to whoever makes the first claim on it. Air and water have seemed so ubiquitous and plentiful that we never even concerned ourselves that these were a commons that could be despoiled by people happy to lay claim to it for private propertied purposes. Their labor gave us something that we craved, and all was good for a very short while. 

Sure, enclosing the commons can also ensure that, as the masses grow, they won't destroy the commons in competition for its resources. But the more direct effect was to expropriate property for the exclusive use of landowners. 

We have yet to recognize that software code is also part of the commons, in the same way that language is. Sure, you might copyright language that is that unique to you. We tend to call such things ideas, or stories, or sometimes they even embody scientific discoveries. 

But why should Zuckerberg get to be a bejillionaire for "creating" some code that lots of other people were working on at the same time. Was he the creative, or just the ruthless capitalist? Should we really be rewarding people for being the first to find gold in them thar hills, whose gold belongs to all of us? Certainly over time, once ideas are out of the bag, they become part of the language. 

You can lay claim to gold for a while, by secrecy, but if you want to protect your claim you have to stake it. You have to publish your patent. That's the beginning of the way toward becoming part of the commons.

Really, what I'm asking is why white technically savvy coders - or managers of coders, more likely - get to own the lives of the gig workers who are exploited and sometimes tortured by their app infrastructures. These franchises shouldn't last forever. I don't know, maybe they don't in the sense that the code gets out.

But all the radical individualists who hew to the ideology of someone like Peter Thiel should be put in jail. In a gentle way, perhaps following on the Chinese model. Shock therapy for the illicitly wealthy.

When tech franchises do seem to last forever, it's likely because they become a de-facto monopoly by virtue of crowding everyone else out. There's only one New York. In the same way, there's only one social network, one search engine, plus a Democrat and Republican couple of nearly identical operating systems. 

These things all follow the Pareto principle, which demonstrates that ungoverned capital will be the death of us all. Ungoverned things fly apart.

Imagine a different world, where patent and copyright monopolies lasted a very short time, or no time at all. All the discoverer or creator might get would be name recognition. Shouldn't that be enough? 

Universal pirating of creative texts in China hardly leaves the authors either impoverished or not wanting to write anymore. The public pays the discoverer a finder's fee and then goes about making good use of the common property. The more readers the better for the author, and even the pirate presses have an interest in maintaining the fidelity of the text. 

If gig workers collectively owned the platform that allows them to scramble so hard - a kind of gaming that they're good at - then they could have a good life while actually doing what they're good at. Owning here just means controlling. Democracy. Ownership of your own life instead of being indentured to someone who thinks and believes he's smarter than you are, and therefore deserves to be rich off your back. 

I mean we have these deadly culture wars now between city and country, and they're all about the commons and about something that everyone calls freedom, but no one can agree on what freedom really means. Freedom from? Freedom to? 

Peter Thiel thinks that freedom means being able to exploit [Matrix] battery slaves with absolute abandon. Suburbanites think freedom means paying nothing for gasoline - sucking up our common and magical heritage in fossil fuels - to power their endless collection of plastic enshrouded power toys.

People in the country who are still embedded in living nature want nothing to do with gays and blacks in the city. That's even as those country folks still help each other out with whatever each other needs while worshipping an anthropomorphic godhead designed to encourage belief in a kind of eternal freedom of bliss.

Now we serious city-dwellers are the smart ones. We have the college diplomas, which certainly don't indicate anything about our minds being someone else province (do they?). We believe in government just like we believe in umpires and playing field grids and rules. 

Really, we all just like to play. We're all just animals, and all work and no play makes Jack a very dull child indeed. The thing that distinguishes humans most is that we laugh. "Lower" animals arguably cry, but I think that humans are the only species which laughs. Though our laughter isn't only in response to fun.

Now I have been told that I'm a killjoy. That I'm too serious. That I don't know how to have fun, since I worry about the world in earnest. I'm among that ever diminishing faction of humanity which worries about systems falling apart, a process which gets called by names like apocalypse and armageddon. But, you know, we've all gotta go sometime. Death is something we all have in common, and you can't take mine from me.

I would like to think that I'll go out like Zorba the Greek, wild with laughter as I hold  both sides of the window through which I'm about to defenestrate, in the spiritual sense of the term.

We have been cursed by our self-designation as homo sapiens, and so of course we think that we must think our way out of our disastrous future as we see it coming. Or maybe we're homo faber, the maker primate, and that's the root of all our trouble.

Animals make things. Animals are sentient, if not wise. Animals play. Sapience is hardly our defining priority, and by that argument we should call ourselves Homo Ludens, as Johan Huizinga once suggested. Not so distinguished from other species but by our laughter. The ludicrous part is the homo part, to think ourselves wise. 

But ludens is universal to all animal species. We should call ourselves Homo Ridet or something like that. The laughing primate which absurdly aspires to be sapient.

Some long long time ago, I purchased Huizinga's paperback called Homo Ludens. Now I find that the book was written in the midst of WWII, and published in English about the time that I was born. I've been conscious of the book on my roving shelves for a long time. It's in what might be my biggest category of shelved books; those that I want to read but never quite have the energy for. Real physical books and shelves are good for that. The ones languishing on my Kindle just virtually disappear. I'd thought it was written by Pico Iyer, who always sits by this books side. That memory deficit again!

In the war zone, WWII must have felt like what we mean by the end of the world. Or perhaps there was a vague sense of life surrounding the mayhem; before and after and on different continents. We now seem to mean something even more total than that. No after, nowhere else.

Play - according to Huizinga and according to me when I started to think about it and then opened the book on some sort of whim - is distinguished by having a field for play, rules, and a beginning and end. He includes sacred ritual among the things we play. In all cases, it is important to regard the play and its altered state as real, for the moment.

War was once more like play in that sense. It was accompanied by music, had rules, had uniforms and battlefields. Death was a part of the contest, just like it was in some of the sport of the ancient Olympics. You at least knew who your enemy was. Warriors wanted to identify themselves.

Now we kill more in earnest. The play has become grim. And we have been made to believe that freedom consists only in those rare moments when we're not compelled to work. But really freedom is only, and has ever been only, what is required for play. You can be compelled to work, or to fight, but you can't be made to play. We are simply mixed up about what warfare is, what work is, and what life is.

Endless war, like life defined as work by compulsion, is what defines what we seem to mean by Armageddon. If we were to play the game of life rather than to live it grimly, then apocalypse would be the end of the game, and certainly not the end of life.

We are clearly making a world of hurt for any future humans, but we will hardly destroy us all, nor certainly all of life. Along with the de-ritualization of warfare, has come the destruction of the play in ritual and worship. Indeed, I'd say that these two are the same thing. Where is the joy in God when the believers are all angry at those who won't play with them. 

In play - watch any child playing and you will see this - you have to believe in the play world that you inhabit, but you also have to know that it's play. You'll warn your parents not to wreck the illusion, and you might even be peeved if your play is spoiled, but you're hardly going to have a tantrum unless your play has become a compulsion, and no longer free and therefore no longer play.

At least some of the people participating in the capitol insurrection this year were having fun. They were playing at insurrection, just like their president was playing at being the president. Could that be the crux of the MAGA revolt? That the dweebs in charge are just too serious? 

Freedom means free to be an asshole, right? An asshole surrounded by your kind of asshole. I wonder if we could ever at least believe in that together? But the guy who runs off with the ball is not just an asshole, he's a royal asshole. Trump was a royal asshole wannabe.

I learn from Huizinga that the hallmark of play is that it can't be done to order. You may be coerced to work or to fight, but in order properly to play you must be free. Is that what we mean or ought to mean by freedom? Here in these United States? Where does our usage of the term come from anyhow? We're concerned about free speech, as though speech doesn't have consequence. How many of us now regard the COVID vaccine as though they were being played. They refuse to engage on the field. They are spoilsports.

Meanwhile, systems are already breaking down, and while some of us are partying like tomorrow will be the end of the world, some others are banging our heads against the wall trying to come up with something to do about it for the long run. And even though it's reportedly easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, the only thing that I can come up with is to end capitalism, and come up with a different way of getting along.

Funny, that different way might be more the way they live in the red counties of our starkly divided country. COVID is just part of the game, and we share our burdens. Will the Amish even notice the end of the world as we know it? They just seem way too serious. But I'll bet they're really not.

I vote for and with the cities, since it's just hard to imagine any other way to organize humans not to overrun the earth. But we'd have to draw some lines about when enough is enough, and that would destroy a lot of fun for a lot of people.

An exponentially progressive income and property tax would do it. But monopoly is a game and wouldn't that just take the wind out of the sails of all the playful wealth creators? 

Or how about after a certain scale, your taxes are voted on by the rest of us. Like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are plenty well-off, but they still seem to identify with the common (city) folk. But could we trust the electorate? Would Trump ever get voted off the island?

Wait, I might be rooting for that crazy Texas anti-abortion law to work. It would set a precedent for suing the rich for their expropriation of our commons. We'd just regularize the matter by way of taxes instead of exile. You sue your poor and dispossessed, and I'll sue the billionaires. Well, we should never have to sue Donald Trump since he should be in jail already. 

The ballots would be long, but not that long. There are only a few hyper-wealthy in each of our voting districts, and the national ballot would only be dealing with the wealthiest of the wealthy in a kind of logarithmic progression. Along with lawmakers we would be inviting the wealthy to campaign for our indulgence of their lifestyles. 

I'm guessing - or maybe I'm just hoping - that those rich from finance - from playing with money instead of doing productive things with it - would fare the worst. The makers and thinkers and sports players and creative types might do middling well. The ones with the lowest taxes (there has to be a legal basement beyond which too much is too much) might be the ones who demonstrably create the most jobs of a sort that people actually have fun doing.

Or course we would need a citizen app for all this. Which brings me back to the gig workers owning their own platform. I mean, why not? Right? Isn't that what democracy means?

OK, I admit that I like to work. I think most people like to work, especially if they have the privilege to do what they like, and especially if they can be their own bosses. So gig work isn't inherently bad. It's the ownership model that's bad.

Now I have to circle back to the trouble with money. At it's best money makes living into play. We're mostly not risking our lives battling beasts and heat and cold to stay alive. We're playing the game of life by using a medium for exchange. Well, it used to be a medium for exchange. Now the medium is the end in itself, and the best gamers get to dictate the rules for the rest of us.

That's why I call money a virus, and I mean you, digital currency. Your infection is far more dangerous than COVID-19. You infect our moral compass and pit each of us against the other. Who hasn't been gamed by health insurance? By a salesman? Life insurance used to be illegal as a kind of morbid gambling. 

If we don't figure out a way to inoculate ourselves against treating our customers as people we can use for our own ends, our game is going down, baby, down. 

It feels like money can buy you freedom, and in a way it can. But most of the people I know who have lots of money think only about money, and often seem to curate their lives as if they were living some kind of work of art. Isn't there something like terror behind that? That you might not be all that. That fun which can by played without limit might make it hard, actually, to have fun. Sour grapes, I'm certain. The rich don't exactly feel bad about their lives.

Love is also play until the consummation, according to Huizinga. So it isn't the screwing subjects which expresses the freedom of the hyper-rich (they all seem so addicted to that). It might be the flirtation, and that might be irresistible. I certainly wouldn't get anywhere by flirtatious flatter, so I guess that I can't know. There is also freedom in saying no, in the end, and in holding out for love that is reciprocated, which is how we've set up the game in the past. But I mean, thank goodness for all the liberated on Tinder. At least they're not leaving the franchise of free sex for the rich alone.

I still have a lot of trouble with the game the anti-vaxxers are playing with my life. But maybe I start to get it. They feel like the rules are stacked against them, and so why wouldn't the people in charge try to trick them into taking the pill, the shot, the indoctrination? Sometimes being a spoilsport is the only way to get attention. Maybe they actually do care less about dying than they do about their false (to me) sense of freedom. Taking a shot feels like getting handcuffed or something, even while taking a shot is what will set us all free (by my lights).

Hell, I may even end up going back to church if someone lets the joy back in and kicks the politics out. I don't even care that we've childishly anthropomorphized the godhead. I'm willing to play along because I know that what you religionists call God is real. I know we need the bounds of ritual and belief in the game. But it has to set us free when we're on the playing field, and not set us out and upon the infidel when we're not. 

It's by virtue of being a story that the story of Christ is real. I mean, I won't ever go so far as 'dominion over the earth' and that kind of bullshit, and I can't quite go along with the behaviors of our evangelicals and those darned taliban. But the story in its essence is beautiful and worth playing for keeps.

Meanwhile I hold this incredible reading machine in my hand most mornings, where for far less output than most poor people spend for cable TV, I can lose myself in good writing, be amazed, and then mostly forget all of it. I trust I've emerged transformed, but it could be that my compulsive reading across such an incredible variety of sources is just my way of playing computer games.

For the most part, I beat them all at their own game. I am, for sure, a writer in my own mind. I know all the answers. I just don't know either how to live them out or how to share them. But I did just find this fellow who goes by Yay! He seems to think the way that I do. Will I even remember him tomorrow? Well, that's why I continue to write. And here you thought I wrote for you, gentle reader.

Anyhow, in most ways the core of humanity is getting better. As my boss once remarked when we passed a blonde driving a Corvette and both turned our heads, "you ain't dead yet." We were playing.

I may be ashamed, and I may worship the god of irony, and I may be wrong on most accounts, but we ain't dead yet, and I shall maintain my perverse hope for the future of humanity.

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