The Knot

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In the form of Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari has actually written a long essay that builds to a single thesis. He believes that the last good chunk of human history, since the enlightenment, since religion began to lose its grip on the world, has been governed by humanistic values– the idea that each of us has a sovereign inner voice.

This is the basis for democracy, for art, for the way each of us lives our individual lives. We gather information, but at the end of the day each of us must listen to that inner voice and choose what we’re going to do.

Harari’s devastating thesis is that with the dawn of AI, and with the development of algorithms that siphon all of our life-data into decision-making protocols, eventually, these algorithms will begin to know us better than we know ourselves. Eventually, for example, an algorithm will have a better idea of whether your long-term relationship with a particular person will have a good chance of success and happiness than you will. Under these circumstances, he argues, it will be foolish not to listen to the algorithms, because they’ll be able to guide us toward healthier, happier, more fulfilled, more productive lives than we could achieve on our own.

But this development will create a seismic change in the human experience, of similar gravity to the change precipitated by the decline of religion. The “inner voice,” the holy grail of modern humanistic, democratic, and creative culture, will lose its place of primacy.

I obviously think way too much about this stuff.

After all, it’s clear that this hasn’t happened yet. Whether or not it will in the future, machine-learning algorithms are still far too clumsy to guide our lives, our wills, our day-to-day experiences. They’re starting to help us in small ways– by telling us how much to exercise, or where to drive– but they cannot yet effectively tell us who to love or what to do with our lives.

We still have to figure that out ourselves.

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My crisis of inner faith, my lack of ability to listen to my own inner voice, has a long history. When I was very young, my family was religious. This was fine for me at first. I especially loved losing myself in the exultant haze of evangelical worship– I sang, danced, clapped, and reached out to God along with the rest of the rejoicing congregation. I even spoke in tongues.

This is difficult for those who have never experienced it to understand. They wonder why I would have done such outlandish things. But from an inner, emotional perspective, these behaviors seemed completely natural to me, even crucial. I felt a geyser of joy in my heart when I leapt up and down for God with the rest of the congregation. I felt a desperate urgency and total bliss in being connected to the One whom I thought had created the universe.

I don’t believe in that God or in Christianity anymore. Was I wrong to trust myself?

During my growing-up, especially when I started to go through puberty, believing in Christianity got harder and harder for me. I wanted very badly to experience a wide variety of sexual things that my faith deemed off-limits. Even thinking about these things was problematic and taboo. On top of the sex stuff, I was curious about the way the world worked. I was also deeply in love with fantasy literature, with the idea of magic, with science and the future, and with extreme and sensuous forms of spirituality. All dangerous turf, according to fundamentalist Christianity.

Eventually, the tension between these two poles became too great. My developing personality was growing sharp edges and bulging bones that couldn’t be contained by Christian ideology any longer. I was asking questions that bewildered the clergy at my church. Something had to give.

I left, of course. I never looked back.

But during this whole process, I was told over and over again that my inner voice was sinful. That these growing parts of me were wrong. That I was leaving God behind, and that my life would be ruined as a result.

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In school, I didn’t fare much better. I was told to do my math homework, and I didn’t do it; I either forgot or I procrastinated. I read adult books like Jurassic Park under my desk in my third grade class, and was scolded and told to pay attention to the spelling lesson, where we were reviewing the difference between “there” and “their” and “they’re.”

When I was in high school, I wanted to spend time drawing or making music more than I wanted to do my classwork. I barely paid attention in English classes and got all A’s. I barely paid attention in math classes and nearly flunked them. I was told repeatedly that I had to stop screwing around; that i had to pay more attention to my schoolwork.

Music in particular was a problem. I had no formal training, and was teaching myself to play guitar and piano by ear. When offered formal classes, I demonstrated no interest. I was much more interested in teaching myself to mess around with electronic music composition in programs like Reason.

I was told that I needed to focus, that I needed to get good grades so I could get into a good school, and that I needed a backup plan– I couldn’t rely on being an artist or a musician to make money. These were hobbies, and I needed to find a vocation. I was told I could always teach, if I pursued literature or English. I was good at books. I decided to do as I was advised.

Fast forward to the end of college, in 2011. The economic crisis has just happened. It’s become clear to me that graduate school in the humanities is basically a giant scam. I’m also not prepared to get any kind of lucrative job with my degrees in communications and comparative literature. I’m graduating from Cal State Long Beach, not a particularly impressive school, because of my relatively poor performance in high school.

I’d done some awesome creative projects during college, but they’d never had my full, undivided attention. I had tried to split the difference between following my heart and following everyone else’s advice, and I’d basically wound up nowhere. I hadn’t taken my own passions seriously, nor had I really taken school seriously.

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An ongoing and searing source of resentment, though, was the fact that along the way, I never received any particularly good advice about what I should do. My college professors appreciated my intellect, and basically behaved as though everything would work out fine. Same with my advisors. Just like my teachers and my endless string of counselors in elementary school and middle school, where I’d been labeled “gifted” and simultaneously had been medicated for ADD.

I had reached the real world, and I longed for answers, for mentorship, for guidance, but nobody really seemed to be able to provide these things. Nobody really seemed to have any idea what was going on.

I dove further into my interests. Since I cared about pop culture, I did an internship at an entertainment PR company. Since I cared about branding, I got a job (that I was woefully underprepared for) at a branding consultancy. Since I cared about magic, art, and the creation of culture, I started a dialog and eventual collaboration with a groundbreaking creative consultancy.

Somewhere along the way I expected to “make it”; to be taken under the wing of an entity with money and resources so that my talent could be properly developed and so that I could find a place in the world and a way to support myself. This never happened. Everyone seemed to agree that I have an enormous amount of potential, but nobody could really tell me what to do.

You’re probably reading between the lines already. I was looking everywhere but inward for the answer. How can someone else tell you what to do with your life? Obviously, they can’t.

At the same time, it’s also clear to me that my entire generation has been lost on a broken landscape. Some of us have found our way through, but being adults doesn’t look anything like we were told it was going to look.

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During this whole process, as a lot of you know, I was writing constantly on Facebook– especially during the lowest times, when I was living at home with my folks (who tirelessly supported me), working out every day like a monk, and searching for a way to fill my time between fruitless job applications with meaning. I wrote to understand myself, and to talk about the world, and to talk to you all. And eventually, I also wrote to “promote my brand”– to create some kind of platform from which I could argue a certain kind of creative expertise. If I got enough followers, enough attention, maybe I could make a job out of this.

During this process, Facebook took over my life. I was checking it constantly, I was addicted to getting notifications. The breaking point came when I would find myself scrolling and I wouldn’t even remember having taken out my phone.

During my quest to understand what had happened to me, I got increasingly disillusioned with online interaction. This is a story that will be familiar to many people: I started to feel like every time I posted on or interacted with Facebook and Instagram, I was doing free labor for multinational corporations. And once I started to understand how illusory Facebook connections can really be in terms of things like lead conversion, it started to feel like the entire thing was pointless. And who wants to think of their friends as leads anyway?

I started to become obsessed with in-person interactions, with intimacy, with things that felt much deeper and richer than social media. So, as many of you know, I shut the whole thing down. I established a mailing list, and I went into hiding. I tried to work out a new way to be in the world, a way that felt solid and real to me. It’s an ongoing project.

This, however, sets up a conundrum for the creative person. In the modern world, you can’t really be a successful creator of media without an online presence– that’s what everyone says, anyway. And my entire work history, my entire life, has been, in various ways, about the creation of media.

The words of Netflix’s CEO keep echoing through my head: “our biggest competitor is sleep.” The world of media is aggressively, invasively trying to capture and exploit your attention, your time, one of the few resources you can never get back.

Does the world need more media? How can I justify willfully contributing to that? At this point, isn’t it the same as dumping garbage in public?

These seemed like unanswerable questions to me, and they really tripped me up during my effort to find work in branding or copywriting or content production, the kinds of areas where I’m most qualified. Suddenly, I’m in a position where my entire work history is pointed toward something that I find immoral.

One of my most valued mentors asked me, while I was coming to grips with all this, whether I really wanted success in the marketing or branding world to be my final destination– whether that was the room I wanted to be sitting in, when all was said and done. I had looked at branding as sort of the ultimate hybrid artform. But when I thought about it, I had to tell her no. Those aren’t the people I want to be around. I want to be around artists, thinkers in technology and biology and economics, people who made things. People who had real ideas.

I thought I could get there by proving my worth as a branding person. But proving your worth as a branding person just gets you jobs in branding. It, by itself, was not going to get me where I wanted to be. It, by itself, was not somehow going to answer the question of what I should be doing with my life.

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During my struggles with these things, about a year ago, I got a job coordinating wheelchairs at Los Angeles International Airport in order to make ends meet. It may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s physically strenuous manual labor. I work a night shift, and I often get off between 1am and 3am. I have to repeatedly solve totally impossible problems that involve real people with zero time to think. But even more significantly, I get to help people every day that have marginal mobility. I get to interact with all kinds of human beings.

After doing this, it’s hard for me to see the global marketing community as anything other than predatory. These people often can’t even walk, or they’ve lost limbs to IEDs, or they’re traveling to the Philippines to visit their family the single time they get to each year with nine suitcases, but I’m concerned about optimizing the feed coming through their phones so that they’ll pay more attention to them and click on the right things and buy stuff to make someone money. It’s difficult to convince myself that it adds up.

As that quest to create grand marketing narratives has lost meaning, other things in my life have gained meaning. I’ve had some very emotional experiences around animals, plants, and biodiversity. I’ve come to feel that my relationship with my family is very important. And I’ve become very dedicated to building an amazing life with my partner. We’ve moved into a beautiful home together in Culver City, and I care very much about making this into the perfect place to share our lives, interests, and passions with one another and with those we care about.

Along with these shifting interests, I’ve started to care more about conservation and about the kind of world we’re building. So on top of my concerns about invasive marketing, it’s started to feel like the decision to make anything at all has to be very carefully considered. It feels like most creative production is either a waste of people’s time and attention or a waste of resources. It started to feel like the most radical thing I could do was keep silent and remain still.

I’m not quite ready to become a monk, though. And my lack of creative production has made me feel depressed, impotent, and like I’ve given up some of my most vital energies out of fear. But I know that so many companies are salivating for me to create and consume, to participate in the cycle. It starts to feel like anything we make is sucked up into a machine larger than us that is predatory. It’s not about our communities and friends anymore. It’s about shareholder value. It’s about something else. My inner longing for significance and a productive life becomes another piston in the capitalist mechanism. Once again, I’ve arrived at a place where trusting my heart, my longings, my desires, feels complicated and problematic. 

And if we believe Yuval Noah Harari, soon my desires won’t matter all that much anyway. Really, I should just let this whole system of markets and algorithms and dopamine triggers take over because eventually, it will be smarter than me. It will be the new sovereign will.

Here we are, once again, at the idea of trusting myself. Does trusting myself mean just creating uncritically? Or does it mean running as fast as I can in the other direction and becoming a hermit in the woods? What exactly does it mean?

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I’m slowly working that out. I know, really, that I can’t just create uncritically– the other problem with all this, the problem I haven’t even mentioned yet, is that I feel like art has betrayed me many times over. That may be the real core issue– that I don’t feel I can trust my inspiration because I don’t feel it’s led me anywhere good.

In college and after, I was involved in lots of creative projects– many of you know about these– that were intentionally provocative or edgy. It wasn’t just about getting attention, though. It was a more visceral feeling than that. Because of the history of self-doubt and false starts I’ve already detailed, and because of my own on-fire nature, I had so much rage. So much energy I needed to get out, and so much frustration with all the social rules I’d followed that I felt hemmed in that energy. Many of the adults in my life had been so flatly wrong about so many things that I felt I needed to reach out and destroy or disrupt every edifice of culture I could. When I felt resistance, I just pushed harder.

As you can imagine, I was oversimplifying things. I was creating an enemy where none existed. We’re all just people, and we’re all in this together. But while I was convinced of the import of my behavior, I caused a lot of hurt, to other people, and to myself.

While I was thrashing around, dealing with all of this, over the years, I searched for and connected with various mentors. Some took me in and taught me, only to promptly wash their hands of me when my path diverged from theirs. Some were reluctant mentors, work bosses who saw something in me but had no real time or resources or will to devote to helping me find my way. Some stuck with me as friends for years, as much as they could. And some mentors have worked with me, steadfast through all my vacillations, to this very day. But from each and every one of them, I think I wanted something they couldn’t give me: an answer to why all this was happening to me. A guaranteed life path. An absolute truth. The job, the vocation, that would make it all come together, make it all okay.

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I wanted someone to erase what I saw as a fundamental betrayal, but the first betrayal, the original betrayal, had been by God. God betrayed me, exactly as he betrays all of us. That’s the fundamental human condition. Nobody has the power to erase that.

All these bold moves, shown to be mistakes. All these mentors, Gods, and parents, shown to be betrayers. All these desires for artmaking, shown to be mere algorithm food for the big machine. All this love of culture and fashion and travel and human experience, shown to be planet-damning consumption. This is the picture I had painted for myself. This is the thing that got balled up inside me, all together, which made me feel like it was futile to do anything, create anything, become anything. This, I have taken to referring to as The Knot.

I crafted it well. There’s no escape.

The thing is, I don’t know that life turns out exactly how we plan for any of us. The fact that I’m currently working a manual labor job at the airport may or may not be anybody’s fault (mine, if anyone’s), but I’m certainly not the only person working there who imagines they might be doing something else.

I made a sort of fundamental rich-whiny-kid attribution error. When I experienced this rage and pain at the split, the gap, in my life, I directed that rage out at people. I wanted to grab someone by the collar and demand that they explain the situation to me, and I think this energy could be felt in so many of my interactions. They had all said what they said when I was young with confidence, or what I perceived as confidence. I thought they all knew, and I felt rage when I found out they didn’t. But the older I get, the more I realize we’re all just trying to know small things, one small thing at a time. They were telling me the small things they thought they’d figured out. And there were some lifesaving morsels in there. And they gave me those gifts out of love.

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Nobody has the answer. Nobody has a map of the big plan on their wall. Nobody can fix the fundamental problem. We can only walk the road, together.

I have started to see this, finally. I have slowly and painfully started to open my eyes and see that we’re all dealing with this same question in various ways. We’re all struggling together. It is heartbreaking but it is also such a call to action. I can see the same desires, fears, pains, and hopes in the faces of the people around me, couched in their own stories. I see that sometimes I can help, just a little bit.

And I can see that if I grab somebody by the collar and shake them, they’re just going to repeat my same question back to me. Why? Why? Why?

We’re here. That is enough.

When I think about this, The Knot starts to loosen. I can start to see the individual strands of pain, that turn into a sort of pleasure as they relax. Not the pleasure of finding the ultimate solution, but the pleasure of finally and truly working on the real problem.

When I was very young, I indulged in a different sort of creativity. I drew a lot; I made up imaginary worlds. This art wasn’t focused toward an audience– maybe I liked showing my drawings to people, but I did them for myself. It wasn’t focused on money– maybe I imagined that someday I could have a career in art or video games, but I wanted that because I loved what I was doing and wanted to keep doing it.

Instead of being concerned about any of these things, I spent hours and hours alone in my room, drawing. I drew characters, I drew maps, I drew mysterious artifacts and weapons, I drew stories and mythologies and scenes of violence and romance. I imagined all the significant things I thought I might experience during my life, blown into a bright magnitude of form.

I told stories the same way I had heard stories– stories about heroism, stories about relationships, stories about the great unknown. I made creatures and experiences beyond the normal realms of life for myself, because I was an explorer. I did not demand answers. I did not want an algorithm to deliver the complete and optimal way to live my life. That felt like religion, and I wanted no part of it. I ran from answers. I was in love with the question.

I am still in love with the question. If I was not I would not still be here, because now I know there is nothing else. It’s a single, beautiful question. We help each other to look it in the face, and we answer it together.