Alan Watts: Why Modern Civilization is a Vicious Circle

Alan Watts The Wisdom of Insecurity

“When we compare human with animal desire,” writes philosopher Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, “we find many extraordinary differences.” Watts offers an interesting perspective on an age-old argument — that our society has its priorities messed up, that we need to live in the moment.

The animal tends to eat with its stomach, and the man with his brain. When the animal’s stomach is full, he stops eating, but the man is never sure when to stop. When he has eaten as much as his belly can take, he still feels empty, he still feels an urge for further gratification. This is largely due to anxiety, to the knowledge that a constant supply of food is uncertain. Therefore eat as much as you can while you can. It is due, also, to the knowledge that, in an insecure world pleasure is uncertain. Therefore the immediate pleasure of eating must be exploited to the full, even though it does violence to the digestion.

Human desire tends to be insatiable. We are so anxious for pleasure that we can never get enough of it. We stimulate our sense organs until they become insensitive, so that if pleasure is to continue they must have stronger and stronger stimulants. In self-defence the body gets ill from the strain, but the body wants to go on and on. The brain is in pursuit of happiness, and because the brain is much more concerned about the future than the present it conceives happiness as the guarantee of an indefinitely long future of pleasures. Yet the brain also knows that it does not have an indefinitely long future, so that, to be happy, it must try to crowd all of the pleasures of paradise and eternity into the span of a few years.

This is why modern civilization is in almost every respect a vicious circle.

The root of this frustration is that we live for the future. Yet the future is never, as we move forward it becomes the present.

To pursue (the future) is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

Thus the “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse-providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions.

Watts argues that one of the ills of modern society is that we believe sleep to be a waste of time, that life is short. Interestingly, we’d rather watch TV and chase our fantasies than rest.

Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly, but, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.

Our quest for never-ending stimulation comes with a high cost. We become “incapable of real pleasure, insensitive to the most acute and subtle joys of life.” The more common the pleasure the less it interests us. We’d rather watch TV.

Watts tears into our wants and makes us question our desires.

Generally speaking, the civilized man does not know what he wants. He works for success, fame, a happy marriage, fun, to help other people, or to become a “real person.” But these are not real wants because they are not actual things. They are the by-products, the flavours and atmospheres of real things-shadows which have no existence apart from some substance. Money is the perfect symbol of all such desires, being a mere symbol of real wealth, and to make it one’s goal is the most blatant example of confusing measurements with reality.

Based on this we cannot, says Watts, call ourselves materialistic. We are in love with not things, but “measures, not solids but surfaces.”

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is one of those books that makes you question not only yourself but the fabric of civilization.

Two Forms of Human Motivation: Gain And Prevent Pain

Prevent Pain Task Examples

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain

Popular psychology leads us to believe that we can unpack motivation in two broad categories: to gain something or to prevent the loss of something. Each time we do something, from washing the dishes to spending money, it is for one of those reasons.

Steve McClatchy argues in his fascinating book Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example that this applies to business as well.

Ask yourself: Is the purpose of your weekly meeting to identify new target clients or figure out how to improve the process of taking new orders? Or do you use it to go over meeting protocols and talk about employee lateness or inventory status? Is it a Gain meeting that will move your business forward, or is it a Prevent Pain meeting that will simply keep you from falling behind?

These two factors push us to make decisions. While sometimes they act together there is always one in the lead role.

“Tasks that you are driven toward by Gain produce more significant positive results in your life and your business than tasks that you are driven toward by Prevent Pain.”



When we are doing something to gain, we are focusing on something we want – we are not worried about losing something. We are trying to make things better. On the other hand, when you do something to prevent pain, you’re doing something you have to do, like laundry. This is unfulfilling. We do it because we want clean clothes not because we intrinsically enjoy it.

Preventing pain tasks never go away. There is always something to do that doesn’t advance our life forward but only maintains where we are. While we cross these things off a list, they come back tomorrow and the next day. The more our days are filled with this checkboxing the more we feel run down. And if we don’t do it, someone will bring it to our attention — even if that someone is ourselves. McClatchy argues that these preventing pain tasks are “have to” tasks.

[L]et’s say someone is waiting for you to complete a task. If you don’t do it, the person waiting will eventually catch you at the elevator, call you on the phone, send you an e-mail, stop you in the hall, send a reminder in the mail, or come knocking on your door and say, “Hey, did you ever get a chance to…?” Whether it’s a manager, colleague, client, family member, neighbor, roommate, bill collector, or someone else, that person will want to know if you did what you were supposed to do. That is the nature of a “have to,” or Prevent Pain, task. The pain that you should have prevented will visit you eventually if you don’t complete it.

One of the best ways to distinguish under which category something falls is to ask yourself if you have to do it.

“There is no “have to” with a Gain task, because there are no consequences if you choose not to pursue Gain in your life.”



Paradoxically, the very things we don’t have to do are the very things that lead to positive results in life.

If you continue to do solely what is necessary to survive every day, all you will accomplish is preventing pain from coming your way. To move your life or your business forward from where it is today and to see an improvement, you must do something extraordinary— something that you didn’t have to do at all. You must pursue Gain.

There are three attributes to a gain task:
1. A gain task is never urgent;
2. You don’t have to complete a gain; and
3. You can’t delegate it to anyone else.

Burnout, McClatchy writes, is caused “when people feel that they have been working too hard for too long and have nothing to show for it.” That is, they are doing too much preventing pain and not enough gain.

Not understanding how this moves us to be out of balance, companies often resort to perks to promote efficiency. Rarely, however, is this new time used towards Gain-oriented tasks. Instead, we often find ourselves with more time to prevent pain.

Although many companies do their best by offering perks such as a flexible work schedule, child care, or financial services, these things can only help you manage life more efficiently. They can’t give your life direction, momentum, or balance.

The very efficiency of these perks only adds to the office culture, which has “become a race to complete our to-do list and meet expectations.” McClatchy argues that what’s lost in all of this is balance.

The idea of work-life balance is inherently combative. It suggests a discord between two vital parts of life: work being what we have to do, and life being what we want to do . It suggests that these are two opposing forces between which we must constantly make choices— and that when we choose to give time or thought to one, the other loses. This constant battle between work and personal pursuits puts one in a perpetual state of conflict; furthermore, it suggests that personal and professional goals are out of alignment or mutually exclusive and that achieving both is therefore unattainable.

The Japanese word for death by overwork is karoshi.



In response to the balance crisis McClatchy proposes gain.

Goals are the ticket out of any sense of depression. They improve and offset the losses or decay in our lives so we don’t end up in a rut. They alleviate that feeling that you have worked hard and accomplished nothing. When you are working toward Gain, you end the day feeling like you have made progress and are moving forward. And the momentum you’ve created makes you feel balanced and energized— like today is better than yesterday, like you are better than you were yesterday. It gives hope for the future. It lets us sleep at night knowing that because we are working hard, things are getting better all the time. That sounds like balance. That sounds like satisfaction and happiness to me.

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” — Fred Rogers



Modern prioritizing models fall into the urgency trap.

… [T]he letters A, B, and C have traditionally represented the urgency or the deadline that a task has. A task that’s due immediately or today is assigned an A. Tasks that are due soon get a B, and a C is due next week or maybe next month, something you eventually have to complete. So really, all you need to do to turn a C into an A using this approach is to procrastinate long enough. Don’t do it now; just wait.

[...]

This method of prioritizing makes a task’s life cycle look something like this:

That’s due in a month? Oh, that is so a C. I’ve got 30 days. I won’t forget; it’s important, but I have a whole month, so I’m not looking at that now …

That’s due next week, isn’t it? Okay, let’s make that a B. I’ll put that on my radar screen. I can’t let that fall through the cracks; it’s coming up next week. That’s huge. Okay, that’s a B, but I have other things, I have As to work on today, so that will have to wait …

That’s due today ?! What happened? Okay, that is my biggest A today! I need to drop everything else to get it done— this is a four-alarm fire! I need to finish this right now!

Every possible task, no matter how trivial could become an A in this approach. And when everything can be the top priority, we have trouble distinguishing between what is truly important and what isn’t.

Explaining why “prioritizing in relation to urgency doesn’t work,” McClatchy tells the following story:

Let’s say you have a Monday morning trash pickup in your neighborhood. On Sunday night, when you are very comfortable, relaxing at home with your family, is getting up to take out the trash an A, B, or C? For most people it’s a C. If you forget to do it before you go to bed, then it becomes a B on Monday morning. You still have a few hours before they come! What about when you hear the trash truck coming down the street? It’s A time now, baby! Urgency has forced you to run to the street, yelling after the truck with the trash collectors cheering you on to throw your bag into the back before the truck turns the corner. You made it! Woo-hoo! What an accomplishment. Didn’t it feel great? Congratulations, you have just taken out the trash. And according to that task’s deadline, you have just checked off an A on your list for today. You should feel good all day about that one. However, what did you really accomplish ? Not much; you really only took out the trash. And guess what? The bag inside is already filling up for next week.

“The things that will bring you the greatest results in your life don’t have a deadline.”



Another way to prioritize is to ask what results will this task produce in my life? Flip it around.

A, B, and C should represent the results that a task produces for you personally after you’ve completed it. So an A represents your Gain tasks, the most significant result-producing tasks that you will ever accomplish or experience in your life. They are based on results, not deadlines. When you look back on your life on your 100th birthday, you will remember your A tasks.

Both B and C are “have to,” or Prevent Pain, tasks that someone— or something—will bring to your attention if you don’t do them. Both can have urgency attached to them, but here’s the difference: someone, somewhere is keeping track of if and when you complete a B task. In other words, you not only have to complete a B, but you have to do it well or on time because it is being documented. For example, handing in your monthly report at work is a B; people will notice whether or not you did it on time. … In contrast, no one is keeping track of how well you complete a C task. Anyone who would keep track of how well you take out the trash or check your e-mail has too much time on his hands.

The old maxim that “whatever gets measured, gets done” has been attributed to many different authors and thinkers over the years. It essentially means that if you are in a management position and you want your employees to complete something, then you need to measure it, track it, require that it be done by a certain time, and then record performance surrounding it. In other words, if you communicate standards clearly, then they will be reached. This is true as long as what’s measured makes sense. But another maxim, which has been attributed to Albert Einstein, goes like this: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” This should speak to organizations as they determine what they need to measure and record and as they set metrics accordingly. However, as far as prioritizing is concerned, once the metric has been set, the task becomes a B for everyone who needs to follow it, because it is recorded and it affects performance ratings.

Balanced to do list

Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example goes on to break gain into creation versus consumption and offer insights into how we can reshape our decisions around how we manage our time.

Changing How We Think

Mind the Gap-compressed

What kind of thinking leads to better outcomes? That’s the question that Roger Martin addresses in his wonderful book Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers.

The world is awash in complexity. Nearly every decision we make is uncertain. There is no one way to look at uncertainty. There are as many ways of seeing, experiencing and representing problems as there are people. Each person, in turn, brings their own mental models.

Successful thinking integrates several radically different models while preserving the thinker’s ability to act decisively. The successful thinker is an integrator who can quickly and effectively abstract the best qualities of radically different ways of seeing and representing; in doing so, that person develops ‘a better lens’ on the bewildering phenomenon we call the ‘world.’

Integrators attempt to hold two, often contradictory, ways of seeing the world. Rather than fearing the ensuing tension they embrace it.

This is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.

But that view is not out of reach to the layperson. It’s also not new. Thomas C. Chamberlin, President of the University of Wisconsin from 1887 to 1892, proposed the idea of “multiple working hypotheses.” In an article published in Science, he wrote:

In following a single hypothesis, the mind is presumably led to a single explanatory conception. But an adequate explanation often involves the co-ordination of several agencies, which enter into the combined result in varying proportions. The true explanation is therefore necessarily complex. Such complex explanations of phenomena are specially encouraged by the method of multiple hypotheses, and constitute one of its chief merits.

Martin believes that “thinkers who exploit opposing ideas to construct a new solution enjoy a built-in advantage over thinkers who can consider only one model at a time.”

This is not either/or thinking, it’s using a broad-based education to push past the limits of binary thinking and into new ways of combining things. Another of Martin’s books, Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, defines integrative thinking as:

The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.

Martin argues that this type of thinking is both identifiable and learnable.

Thinking is Habitual

What we think is often made up of habits or, as Martin calls them, “repetitive and recurrent units of mental behaviour that occur on very short time scales.” Most of our mental models and internal stories work by matching patterns — they close off ideas as soon as one fits without attempting to falsify it. In an evolutionary context this makes a lot of sense. If you see a lion, you run. This is fairly closed. You don’t ask a lot of questions or attempt to discern if the lion is friendly or not. Our minds are optimized to think and act quickly. This is system one thinking at its evolutionary finest and it’s fairly inexpensive as far as mental habits go.

Think about how we respond when asked a question of the sort – why did you do X. Our inclination is to respond with a because answer, which rarely includes a cause. If you made a decision, you would offer a reason “this was the best decision given the information” and not “it caused me to avoid someone I’ve been trying to avoid.”

Habits are not all burdens. Often, as Martin points out, they “make thinking bearably simple” But we need a way to describe them if we are to understand them. In Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers, Martin writes:

Mental habits work in conjunction with one another to make up patterns of thinking, which are analogous to patterns of behaviour in that they are reliably reproducible and yield predictable results in similar circumstances. It is a commonplace that ‘marketing people’ and ‘engineering people’ process information in different ways. But in what ways are they different? and what difference do their differences make?

This is where the language of cognitive science comes in handy as a language for describing patterns of thought. Thus one finds that ‘marketing people’ pay attention to a lot of information – they are informationally broad in their thinking patterns. They are constantly foraging the world for new bits of information and comparing that new information with parts of their existing database – which they keep around in working memory – in order to arrive at action prescriptions or decision rules. But they spend less time than engineers thinking about each piece of information and about how the various pieces fit together. In other words, compared to engineers, marketers are logically shallower in their thinking approach.

By contrast, one finds that ‘engineering people’ are informationally narrower but logically deeper in their thinking styles. They seek out far less information than do their marketing counterparts; then, having gathered it, they strive for logical consistency among the various pieces of information they deem relevant. For instance, they look for ways in which what they believe connects to what they know. They look for the logical implications of what they already know or believe in order to decide what new beliefs to hold out for testing. They look for connections of the logical and causal type among facts and quasi-facts, rather than just associations and correlations.

Aware of this difference, we can ask: In what circumstances should logical depth dominate informational breadth and, vice versa? In what situations is more thinking better than more foraging or more asking, given that one can only think (or forage) more if one forages (or thinks) less?

The point is to get marketing people and engineering people to think together to create better thinkers. We want to combine the broad thinking the marketers bring to bear on the problem with the logical depth the engineers bring to come up with better solutions.

Mental Habits: A Deep(er) Dive

Martin defines a mental habit as “a pattern of thought that is so entrenched and feels so natural that it has become unconscious and therefore goes unnoticed.” Elaborating on this, he writes:

What we look for when looking for a mental habit is a consistently recurring way in which these explanations are produced, a guiding rule or principle that remains unchanged no matter what the specific explanation.

These thoughts are unconscious and feel natural.

Consider the ‘place responsibility for negative effects elsewhere’ habit.

You arrive late to a meeting. While the reasons vary from situation to situation, you likely never tell the truth but rather blame something else. Traffic was bad. My alarm clock didn’t go off. You almost never hear anyone say, ‘I was late because I forgot to check the room for the meeting.’

This, in Martin’s words, is the difference between responsible and defensive behaviours.

Systematically producing responsible (rather than defensible) causes for one’s behaviour – even when it would be easy to produce irresponsible ones – is likely to feel effortful and to require an exercise of the will.

Consider the mental habit of ‘certainty entails truth’, also known as over-influence from precision.

A CEO asks his CFO if he is sure about the data in the report. If the CFO responds with a no, the CEO thinks he is incompetent. Or maybe the CEO asks the lead on an important project what the odds are they can hit the deadline. The person responds with 80% and the CEO’s next question is “how can we hit 100%?”

As unconscious and intuitive habits, these are often hidden from us and often come from our desire to feel good. Over time, however, these habits become our reality. We believe in the validity of these explanations and this affects how we think about ourselves and the world around us, and how we approach problems. The words we speak become the way we think.

Eminem had it wrong when he said, “I am whatever you say I am.” He should have said, “I am whatever I say I am.”

Tinker With your Thinker

Designing and controlling our mental habits is possible because thinking, when done deliberately, is a sequence of words and sentences. The Panopticon Effect impacts how we design our minds.

Thinking – especially thinking in words and sentences – is a form of internal communication. In thinking, you-in-the-present communicates with you-in-the-future. But though thinking is a private and covert activity, it is influenced by external interactions – in particular, by how you communicate with others. Communicative patterns become mental habits. The implication is that counterproductive – closed, oblivious, disconnected, narrow, hermetic, rigid – ways of communicating are thereby internalized and become counterproductive ways of thinking.

The key to changing how we think, then, is to switch from intuitive to deliberate thought, observe our patterns of communication, and then change the way in which we communicate. As Heinz von Foerster put it, ‘If you want to think differently, first learn to act differently.’

Communicating differently with others and yourself is the key to changing your mind.

What does this look like in practice?

… how one thinks is an internalized version of how one communicates – indeed, it sheds light on how one communicates. The systematic placing of responsibility elsewhere for ills and mishaps is a locally effective social strategy – one that is often rewarded by nods of understanding and (potentially false, but who looks that closely?) expressions of sympathy. It also helps one avoid being placed on the spot by difficult ‘why?’ questions. It feels good to get understanding from others and to avoid such difficult moments. In time, this way of communicating becomes a script.

There is one problem: it is difficult to produce the message convincingly without at least half-believing it. Most humans are reasonably good at identifying liars and dissimulators, even if they are not professionally trained to do so. … But a solution is at hand: make a habit of the way you communicate part of the very fabric of thinking. ‘Place responsibility for ills elsewhere’ thus becomes a mental habit, not just a social and communicative habit.

In the end changing our patterns of thinking becomes about changing the language we use for internal and external communication. We need to move to ‘I was late for the meeting because I forgot to check the room number’ instead of ‘I was late because of something outside my control.’ By addressing problems honestly (especially when they are ambiguous) we change how we think.

Our ‘mind design principle’ for new and more successful mental habits is thus a simple one: because thinking is self-talk, talk and thought are linked. To change patterns of thinking, change patterns of talking.

Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers is a fascinating exploration of how we think and offers a new way to improve our ability to think.

(image source)

Harold Macmillan: The Fragility of Memory

Geoffrey Madan

Harold Macmillan beautifully describes the fragility of human memory in the foreword to Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks, an early 1980s commonplace book.

Those of us who have reached extreme old age become gradually reconciled to increasing infirmities, mental and physical. The body develops, with each passing year, fresh weaknesses. Our legs no longer carry us; eyesight begins to fail, and hearing becomes feebler. Even with the mind, the process of thought seems largely to decrease in its power and intensity; and if we are wise we come to accept these frailties and develop, like all invalids, our own particular skills in avoiding or minimizing them. But there is one aspect of the mind which seems to operate in a peculiar fashion. While memory becomes gradually weaker in respect of recent happenings and even of the leading events of middle age, yet it appears to become increasingly strong as regards the years of childhood and youth. It is as if the new entries played into an ageing computer become gradually less effective while the original stores remain as strong as ever.

This phenomenon has the result that as the memory of so many much more important matters begins to fade, those of many years ago become sharper than before. The recent writings on the tablets of the mind grow quickly weak as if made by a light brush or soft pencil. Those of the earliest years become more and more deeply etched. The pictures which they recall are as fresh as ever. Indeed they seem to strengthen with each passing year.

He goes on to offer insight on how people with special temperaments often fall through the cracks of history.

In every age there have been men whose memory will always be recorded for outstanding achievements in war, in art, in politics, or in literature. There will be other figures — more shadowy, more difficult to reconstruct, and yet as important in their contribution to the social and intellectual life of their time. Those who have not known them, or heard them speak, find it difficult to realize why the memory of such figures is cherished by their contemporaries.

Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks then serves two purposes. To his friends it makes it easy to recall his peculiarities. To others it gives us a glimpse into the commonplace book of an interesting bibliophile with a peculiar sense of humour.

Geoffrey Madan 2

John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books

“You know that I voluntarily communicated this method to you, as I have done to many others, to whom I believed it would not be unacceptable.” 

In 1685 English physician and philosopher John Locke published “Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils,” which explains his unique method of indexing his common-place book. Later translated from French into English as A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, with a preface by Monsieur Le Clerc, who augments and clarifies the work.

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Locke’s Method

Locke first began keeping common place books in 1652, his first year at Oxford. His system, as unique at the time as it is today, can be found on pages [vi] and [1] in A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (image below).

In his letter to Monfieur Toinard, which serves as the basis for A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, he explains the index, which contains a line for every letter of the alphabet and a subdivision along the lines of vowels:

I take a white paper book of what size I think fit, I divide the two first pages which face one another, by parallel lines, into five and twenty equal parts, with black lead; after that, I cut them perpendicular by other lines, which I draw from the top of the page to the bottom, as you may see (below) … Afterwards I mark with ink every fifth line of the twenty five that I just now spoke of. … I put at the beginning of every fifth space, or before the middle, one of the twenty letters which are defign’d for this use; and a little farther in every space one of the vowels in their natural order. This is the index or table of the whole volume, be it of what size forever.

John Locke
John Locke

Locke continues:

” If I would put anything in my Common-place Book, I find out a head to which I may refer it. Each head ought to be some important and essential word to the matter in hand; and in that word regard is to be had to the first letter, and the vowel that follows it; for upon these two letters depends the use of the index.

[...]

When I meet with any thing worth putting into my Common-Place-Book, I presently look for a proper Head. Suppose for Example, the Head were Epistola; I look in the Index the First Letter which the Vowel that follows, which in this Case E I. If there is found any Number in the Space marked E I, that shows me the space designed for Words which begin with E, and whose Vowel that immediately follows is I, I must refer to the word Epistola in the Page what I have to take notice of, I write the Head in pretty large Letters, so that the principal Word is found in the Margin, and I continue the Line in writing on what I have to remark. I constantly observe this Method, that nought but the Head appear in the Margin, and on and on without carrying the Line again into the Margin. When one has thus preserv’d the margin clear, the Heads, present themselves at First Sight.”

[...]

When the two pages designed for one class are full, I look forwards for the next backside of a leaf that is blank. … At the tip of this new backside of a leave, I set down the number of the page I filled last. By these numbers, which refer to one another, the first whereof is at the bottom of one page, and the second is at the beginning of another, one joins matter that is separated, as if there was nothing between them.

[...]
Every time I put a number at the bottom of a page, I put it also into the index; but when I put only a V, I make no addition to the index; the reason whereof is plain. If the head is a monosyllable, and begins with a vowel, that vowel is at the same time both the first letter of the word and the characteristic vowel. Therefore I write the word Ars in A a, and Os in O o.

People in the Renaissance broke texts into fragments and used these to assemble and connect. It was, perhaps, the original remix culture and ultimate foundation of creativity.

Locke also advises having several books, “one for each science upon which one makes collections, at least two for the heads, to which we may refer to all of our knowledge, viz. , moral philosophy and natural; and perhaps a third, which may be called the knowledge of signs, which relates to the use of words, and is much more extent than mere criticism.”

At the time Locke’s method offered a solution to one of the biggest problems of commonplace books: how many pages to assign in a blank notebook to a new subject. By means of an example, one of Newton’s notebooks, “Certain Philosophical Questions,” which he began at Cambridge in 1664, listed 37 heads with a rather unsuccessful guess at the number of pages each would require. Locke’s method required no pre-assigned pages, which made it more useful for both the diversity of information one kept and the size of the repository.

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Not all were fans of Locke’s Method

In a paper read before the Statistical Society at the close of the year 1840, and published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Henry John Porter, commented:

It is strange, indeed, that such a man as Locke, impressed with the value of method, should ever have adopted so imperfect and arbitrary a plan, or having once adopted it, that he should not have improved upon it’ for, surely, nothing can be more opposed to all method than the grouping of subjects together without any other bond of connection than an initial letter and a first vowel.

[...]

The object to Locke’s “Common-place book” is this,—that a number of totally different subjects are entered in the same page, or succession of pages, which subjects are held together by no other relation than that of an initial letter and first vowel. It is true, that so long as these entries are few in number, there is little loss of time in refereeing to them’ but if they become very numerous, many pages may be passed in review before the desired passage meets the eye. But even this inconvenience is not of sufficient moment to require the adoption of an improved method, where each of the several entries refers to a different subject. It is only from a great number of passages referring to the same topic as scattered through a succession of pages that the inconvenience of this plan is severely felt. It was this obvious inconvenience which induced me to adopt the improvement of devoting a separate page, or series of pages, to each separate subject. But even here I soon found the same objection to apply which lay against the common-place book of Locke. As long as the entries referring to any particular topic were few in number, my common-place book answered well-enough; but when the subject began to occupy many pages, I found that if I wanted to make use of it, to digest the materials which I had collected, to analyze them, or to write about them, I had to re-arrange the whole, and to place extracts or facts of my own observing which related to one part of my subject, or threw light upon any isolated question connected with it, by themselves, that by viewing them in connection I might better understand their bearing, and estimate their value. Thus the initial labour of inscribing the several extracts or facts in my common-place book had to be repeated with regard to all those parts of my subject to which I was induced to pay particular attention.

 

Locke’s method was used for at least one hundred years.

Paula Scher on Process versus Outcome

Paula Scher
Iconic typography designer Paula Scher discusses her creative process, including the famous Citi logo. Interestingly, the idea came to her in seconds and that presented a problem for the client. They wanted to buy a process not an outcome. Scher’s process is very much one of combinatory creativity, whereby she combines existing things in new ways.

A lot of clients like to buy process. It’s like they think they are not getting their money’s worth because I solved it too fast.

[...]

How can it be that you talk to someone and it’s done in a second? But it IS done in a second — it’s done in a second and 34 years. It’s done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head.

This reminds me of an old story with many variations. Here is one version.

A giant ship engine failed. The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure but how to fix the engine.

Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a young [boy]. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.

Two of the ship’s owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars.

“What?!” the owners exclaimed. “He hardly did anything!” So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemized bill.”

The man sent a bill that read:
Tapping with a hammer………………….. $ 2.00
Knowing where to tap…………………….. $ 9,998.00

*Effort is important, but knowing where to make an effort makes all the difference!*

This mini interview prompted me to order a copy of Scher’s Make It Bigger, which looks at graphic design from the vantage point of business.

(image source)

Daniel Kahneman Explains The Machinery of Thought

Daniel Kahneman

Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is the founding father of modern behavioral economics. His work has influenced how we see thinking, decisions, risk, and even happiness.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, his “intellectual memoir,” he shows us in his own words some of his enormous body of work.

Part of that body includes a description of the “machinery of … thought,” which divides the brain into two agents, called System 1 and System 2, which “respectively produce fast and slow thinking.” For our purposes these can also be thought of as intuitive and deliberate thought.

The Two Systems

Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking evoked by the picture of the angry woman and by the multiplication problem, and have offered many labels for them. I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

If asked to pick which thinker we are, we pick system 2. However, as Kahneman points out:

The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps . I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

System One
These vary by individual and are often “innate skills that we share with other animals.”

We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice. System 1 has learned associations between ideas (the capital of France?); it has also learned skills such as reading and understanding nuances of social situations. Some skills, such as finding strong chess moves, are acquired only by specialized experts. Others are widely shared. Detecting the similarity of a personality sketch to an occupational stereotype requires broad knowledge of the language and the culture, which most of us possess. The knowledge is stored in memory and accessed without intention and without effort.

System Two
This is when we do something that does not come naturally and requires some sort of continuous exertion.

In all these situations you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately.

Paying attention is not really the answer as that is mentally expensive and can make people “effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention.” This is the point of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla. Not only are we blind to what is plainly obvious when someone points it out but we fail to see that we are blind in the first place.

The Division of Labour

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine— usually.

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer, as probably happened to you when you encountered the multiplication problem 17 × 24. You can also feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you are surprised. System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains. In that world, lamps do not jump, cats do not bark, and gorillas do not cross basketball courts. The gorilla experiment demonstrates that some attention is needed for the surprising stimulus to be detected. Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will stare, and you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior—the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. System 2 is mobilized to increased effort when it detects an error about to be made. Remember a time when you almost blurted out an offensive remark and note how hard you worked to restore control. In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The division of labor between System 1 and System 2 is highly efficient: it minimizes effort and optimizes performance. The arrangement works well most of the time because System 1 is generally very good at what it does: its models of familiar situations are accurate, its short-term predictions are usually accurate as well, and its initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally appropriate. System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. As we shall see, it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.

[...]

Conflict between an automatic reaction and an intention to control it is common in our lives. We are all familiar with the experience of trying not to stare at the oddly dressed couple at the neighboring table in a restaurant. We also know what it is like to force our attention on a boring book, when we constantly find ourselves returning to the point at which the reading lost its meaning. Where winters are hard, many drivers have memories of their car skidding out of control on the ice and of the struggle to follow well-rehearsed instructions that negate what they would naturally do: “Steer into the skid, and whatever you do, do not touch the brakes!” And every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell. One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.

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The question that is most often asked about cognitive illusions is whether they can be overcome. The message of these examples is not encouraging. Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent. Biases cannot always be avoided, because System 2 may have no clue to the error. Even when cues to likely errors are available, errors can be prevented only by the enhanced monitoring and effortful activity of System 2. As a way to live your life, however, continuous vigilance is not necessarily good, and it is certainly impractical. Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions. The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.

Still Curious? Thinking, Fast and Slow is a tour-de-force when it comes to thinking.

(image source)

Michel Foucault on the Panopticon Effect

(The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. Bowring, vol. lV. 1843. 172– 3).
Plan of the Panopticon

In his study of the origins of the prison, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault explored the invention of the Panopticon, a way for a guard to see others without being seen himself.

Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery.

[...]

He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.

This permanent visibility became a way to exercise power and in so doing induce “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility.” Foucault writes:

Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow …

You need not force, only observe to “constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to clam, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to observation of the regulations.”

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

Eventually guards discovered that, after a period of consistent monitoring and prompt punishment against perpetrators, inmates began to regulate their own behaviour. They couldn’t see a guard and yet they were regulated by conscience itself. An external reality had thus become internalized and became habitual.

Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison is a fascinating study into the origins of the prison.