Sometimes, it feels like my life hasn’t changed much in years, but looking back over the previous decade through a lens of considering how I’ve changed really highlights the progress I’ve made. My changes in intellectual positions during this period have mostly been motivated by direct experience & changes in circumstance (which has made certain ideas more accessible to me while the flaws in others have become more obvious), rather than mere argumentation, but that’s mostly because this decade happened to be when I first engaged in most of the things that constitute ‘the harsh realities of adult life’.
A brief timeline
In 2010, I had been in college already for three years (though, because I was still working through the ramifications of a magnificently flubbed first semester, I would remain in college for another four). I continued the kind of heavy book learning that one can do when one has no major responsibilities (reading thick books on unfamiliar subjects for the hell of it, and finishing them in a few days because there’s nothing better to do for hours at a time) for only another year, at which point I got my first job. In short order, I also got into my first serious adult relationship, lost my virginity, started disposing of all my new disposable income, and got the opportunity to work with one of my long-time idols. Then, in 2013, I lost my job & got it back six months later. In 2014, I rented a house with a friend & my girlfriend moved in, & later the mental state of my girlfriend deteriorated and I went deep into debt and deep into burn-out. I inherited a house, slowly dragged myself back out of debt, got another girlfriend in 2016 (for only six weeks), & a few years later got into debt again. In 2018 I self-published a book & in early 2019 I published a video game on Steam. Right now, my life seems to be evening off: my life hasn’t really had any major new components since 2017, & things seem to be getting better for me in an incremental way (although they are, and always have been, a long way from ideal or even palatable).
Intellectual and personality transitions
Working in my chosen industry disabused me of a lot of romantic notions about quality control that I had gotten from my education: actually-existing computer systems are, across the board, mostly piles of shit, and nobody is willing to budget much time to fixing them so long as they work well enough — in other words, well enough to avoid foreseeable catastrophes, though no effort is really made to guard against unforeseeable ones or to look very hard for potential catastrophe material.
Over time, I also got disabused of some notions about capitalist efficiency: while clearly legible waste will be optimized away (though only when doing so serves some internal PR goal), the least bit of plausible deniability will allow enormous waste of resources to go completely unquestioned — for years we spent more money licensing pieces of unreliable proprietary software to perform the equivalent of split-on-whitespace slowly than we did on the salaries of most employees, & for eight years of my employment I was never put on a project that wasn’t canceled before its initial deployment (in other words, from the perspective of the company’s bottom line, they essentially paid me a salary for eight years to do nothing).
Recognizing that capitalist efficiency was overblown in practice did not move me to the left as much as the direct experience of debt and indirect experience with the insurance, welfare, medical, and disability systems did. I was well aware that I was making multiple times what other people do, while working less hard than they were — and even despite this, a little bit of sloppy accounting (a few too many takeout meals in a month, having to replace a phone or an appliance) can still put me into a level of debt that’s hard to escape from. I’ve responded to that by living hyper-frugally, but hyper-frugality only saves me from big, unforced errors — it cannot save me from expenses like a broken car or a broken furnace or an ambulance ride to the emergency room. Meanwhile, I’ve seen systems intended to insulate vulnerable people from the harshness of the market repeatedly fail (paperwork errors causing disability payments to be a tiny fraction of minimum wage, for instance, or sudden medical insurance policy changes that hike up the price of necessary medication by a factor of 3), and I’ve had to try to take up the slack myself when these systems fail. I became unable to convince myself that all or most people who are impoverished have themselves to blame.
All these experiences made me very suspicious of neoliberal solutions. Markets have big, predictable biases. Government regulation & government incentive programs intended to manipulate those biases tend to create new biases that are on average no better for human beings than the previous version (though they are often not substantially worse — they just redirect endless cash from one set of robber barons to a different set of robber barons).
Being thrust into interaction with (and dependence upon) markets will, for the unlucky and open-minded, produce a state of transcendent existential nihilism akin to the sublime: I am living in the belly of a beast that is vast beyond my full comprehension, who cares little what I do but whose body presents a set of problems I must navigate to survive; the skills that allow me moment-to-moment survival (and indeed, any skills at all) will not protect me from the beast’s sudden mood swings or random whims, which will reliably maim me and which I have survived by luck alone.
This nihilism ended up being a good thing for me, psychologically.
When I could depend upon my parents for my continued survival, my biggest vulnerability was my ego. Throughout my childhood, and further into my adulthood than I would like to admit, I would boast, peacock, and belittle those around me whenever I felt unimportant. The reality of the economic pressures facing adults (and the need to carefully maintain the fragile emotional state of somebody on the verge of a much bigger & more violent breakdown than I would be capable of) made it crystal clear: nobody is important, and if I want to protect the things I care about, I will need to shamelessly prostrate myself sometimes to appease forces I find disgusting. For me, this realization is what characterizes “maturity”, and I have become less accepting of political projects centered around ‘tough love’ and more interested in projects aimed at making sure fewer people need to develop this traumatic form of “maturity”.
Working with my idol made me recognize in myself the dangers of parasocial relationships. Everybody you can see is struggling against the same forces you struggle against, making mistakes, full of blind spots in different places than yours. Visionaries in one area aren’t saints. My experience was good, & it was only dispiriting because I recognized that my idol was human and a product of his environment. I tried to help him achieve his dream (which to a first approximation was also my dream), and failed because that dream couldn’t pay my bills and the job that did wouldn’t leave me with the energy to bring dreams to completion.
My bad relationship proved to me that it’s better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship, and it demonstrated that being totally selfless is not sustainable in the presence of serious need. My good relationship showed me a less dramatic, more casual kind of easy love — a love that you feel at home in, and that you fall into like a pillow-filled hammock — and then showed me that even when a situation is good in the short term, it’s sometimes reasonable to cut it off early when it’s doomed to eventually fail. It took me a while to really understand and internalize that, as much as it hurt after six weeks of wonderful bonding, it was going to hurt a lot more after six months — and since I was not prepared for the responsibilities I’d be taking on by taking the relationship to its next stage, staying together indefinitely was never really an option. Both reinforced a sort of anti-romantic mindset I began to develop this decade toward romantic relationships: that all relationships have a material basis that must be sustainable, and a healthy relationship is one that (while it occasionally requires maintenance) is largely self-sustaining — a buffer from the part of the world that demands you always do more than yesterday for less return.
All of these experiences translated into an interest in politics and in group psychology. We live in a society that is profoundly dysfunctional. Building a less dysfunctional society is vital, if we want to see a world worth living in. Always having had an anti-authoritarian streak, I’ve identified as an anarchist for a long time, but it has been only during this decade that I’ve gotten serious about trying to understand what makes a social group healthy versus sick. I’ve spent a lot of time during the past five years trying to identify failure modes of society and write about them, just as I’ve spent a lot of time trying to identify the failure modes specific to those social assemblages built out of mixtures of computers and human beings. My attempts to synthesize this with an already-existing interest in magick have led to an interest specifically in myth and in the construction of new myths.