“The arc of digital culture bends toward exhaustion” — L.M. Sacasas
As some of you know I have been on a sabbatical — a word derived from the word sabbath, meaning to rest — since November 2021 (potentially coming to a temporary or near end, mind you). By sabbatical I mean I quit my job and moved to Spain without a finite end date set in stone. I had been planning and saving for this time off for the last four years whilst I obtained my professional qualifications and worked as a lawyer in Ireland. I recognise what an extremely privileged position I am in, having the financial resources and life circumstances to be able to carve out this period for myself. Having had time to reflect, I thought now would be a good time to articulate some thoughts and observations I’ve had about the role of work and how our value as human beings is framed in modern society.
Firstly, I have been blown away by the volume and authenticity of positive support I have received from friends and family. Many speak of admiration and respect at my apparent courage, which I’m obviously bashful about. Inevitably though, some people ask “so when are you going to get a job again?”. The intention behind the question is almost always benign, but the underlying conditioning requires examination. Whilst there may be an element of psychological transference, it speaks to a much broader conditioning around the role of work and our value as individuals in society.
The dominant techno-social configuration of modern society demands that human beings operate at a scale and pace that is not conducive to their well-being — let alone rest, rightly understood — but by now most of us have been born into this state of affairs and take it more or less for granted. — L.M. Sacasas
From the moment we enter the education system at an early age we commence a very well defined path with periodic timelines and pre-ordained achievements. Given that the methodology of this system was formulated during The Industrial Revolution, there is a strong implicit emphasis on concepts like hierarchy, obedience, repetition, time deadlines, homogeneity (for example, in uniform clothing), and so on. The outliers, anomalies, jesters, left-field thinkers, dreamers, skeptics, those with so-called ADHD etc are generally ostracised and left behind because they are not efficient and cannot be optimised within the confines of this linear system.
This rather nefarious demonisation of such individuals leads to a self-reinforcing feedback loop observed by all participants; that the definition of a good student is one who is obedient to the rules of the game and edicts from their superiors, memorises rather than acquires knowledge, and learns how to play the system — in the form of exams — rather than teaching young people how to navigate life beyond its arbitrary rules.
The ideal worker, after all, is a robot. A robot never tires, never needs rest, requires only the most basic of maintenance. When or if it collapses, it is readily replicated and replaced. The more capable you are of working without rest of any form the more valuable you become within the marketplace. We don’t turn off so much as go into “sleep mode”: ready, like the machines we’ve forced our bodies to approximate, to be turned back on again. — Anne Helen Peterson
From here some of us are privileged enough to attend university, where the focus is on obtaining a degree and skills that will provide us with a competitive advantage as we commodify and objectify ourselves in the job market. This is where our primary purpose as economic actors comes to the fore. As our collective appreciation for things like spirituality, religion (as a series of maxims and blueprint for living, rather than the modern dogmatic political doctrine version), myth, archetypes, art, leisure etc gradually atrophy they are replaced by consumerism, materialism, zero-sum games, social media fame and influence, pathological individualism eventually manifesting as narcissism. As a result, our fundamental value as human beings has morphed into something we are not. What is your value add to your nation’s GDP, bro? Yet the divinity and love within each individual cannot be monetized.
“I’m not asking for sympathy: again, even able to go on vacation, what a marvel, what a privilege! I am asking for us to think about the ways in which we’ve arranged life in a way that is intolerant, even actively hostile, to taking leave of everyday responsibilities — for whatever reason, for however long. I’m talking about vacation and rest, but I’m also talking about leave for sickness and disability and caregiving. There is just so little give in the system”. — Anne Helen Peterson
This might sound like elitist first-world problems. But they are not. Innovation in our society has been stagnating since the 1970’s. We aren’t producing the same volume of independent thinkers that transcend ideological lines, and the cultivation of highly gifted children is being defunded and phased out. The rates of burnout and work-related mental health issues are skyrocketing. Young people are apeing into NFTs and crypto with a “fuck it” attitude because their prospects of owning their own home are vastly inferior to those their parents faced.
The loss of ancient wisdom is embodied in the widely held mindset that only more scientific understanding and better technology can solve the very problems caused by science and technology. There is a distinct lack of via negativa, little to no understanding of iatarogenics, and a dismissal of timeless heuristics. Each generation believes that they are facing novel and unprecedented problems: the particulars may have changed, the underlying behavioural and psychological principles have not.
And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.”
On a personal note, the transition from thinking in 6-minute time increments (billable life) to not having a plan each day broken day hour by hour is a surprisingly difficult thing to (un)learn. Paradoxically, I have come to appreciate that creativity and innovation can only flow from this empty space. The increasing extinction of boredom as a concept in our society may partially explain the decrease in innovation and new ideas. I feel very alive facing each day on its own merits. Of course there is enormous utility in routines and habits — I am moving towards re-establishing routine, structure, and purpose into my life again — but they change our relationship with time, accelerating this relative concept. Periodic bouts of unstructured living can act as an antidote to this phenomenon.
“We need research on the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative, and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats.” — Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
This time of relative disconnection has allowed me to observe the pervasive influence of technology in our lives. Increasingly, my formulation of what constitutes a good and happy life consists of things someone might call a ‘simple life’: enriching relationships, lots of time outdoors, a daily practice to reconnect with the Self, exercise, good food, absence of stress. Less being more. What might be thought of as addition by subtraction.
“I believe that the present crisis of our major institutions ought to be welcomed as a crisis of revolutionary liberation” — Ivan Illich
On the intellectual front, and as many of you probably already know, for the last couple of years I have been unable to avoid the rabbit hole(s) that is web3/crypto, admittedly two very broad terms. This may appear to go against what I just said about the pervasive influence of technology — and I certainly attempt to steelman the dystopian arguments against these technological developments — but I have come to believe that we live in a society where the appearance of virtue actually increasingly holds more social status than the implementation of virtue. Web3 appears to me to shake the existing power structures by actually redistributing and democratizing power and wealth.
I remain an eternal optimistic, but that is not to say I envision linear growth and ‘progress’. I have lost trust in many of our institutions. That is why I am fully ‘in’ on technologies and social movements that are decentralised, disintermediated, open source, permissionless, censorship-resistant, and more inclusionary (thanks to pseudonymity and a lack of geographical barriers to participation, web3/crypto is the purest form of meritocracy in history IMO). But I digress.
To conclude on a more positive note, this time off has allowed me to re-embody my “errant pilgrim” self. A self-proclaimed Odyssean adventure. I love making new friends and hearing people’s life stories. It sounds cliché but I genuinely get a buzz off an ever changing horizon and continually trying out new things. Yes, the curious cat can get burned but the battle scars make for good stories. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m not scared by the uncertainty. In fact, I’m invigorated by it. I have derived an enormous amount of confidence from taking this leap of faith.
This essay isn’t a call to mirror my actions. But it is to say, you ought to give yourself permission to follow your own path and take bold chances where your intuition tells you to do so. There’s also no merit in trying to be a contrarian if you disposition favours stability and certainty. There is no right or wrong path, only varying degrees of compatibility based upon your unique set of circumstances and characteristics. The essence of this essay is to say that you have a right to pursue self-directed work that is valuable and meaningful, regardless of what society expects of you.
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” — George Bernard Shaw