Humans can think far faster than they can speak. This is the root of so many things, not the least of which is part of how meetings feel so stultifying and oppressive to most folks. But there are people who like meetings and who profess that they find them of benefit to their own thinking. What does this reveal?
An ex of mine constantly ridiculed these people, seeing meetings as the rule of the “lowest common denominator” where the slowest thinking (and most ignorant) person in the group sets the pace of the whole.
I do not deny that this can occur to some degree, but I think that analysis is mostly rooted in a mistaken assumption of great variation in the default speed of human brains. For a variety of reasons I doubt genetic dynamics give rise to such postulated stark variations. Human cognitive hardware is largely fixed across and within populations, the largest source of variation is overwhelmingly a matter of software – that is to say what cognitive strategies do we adopt and employ.
The answer is thus basically that humans can consciously think at the slow speed of language, and that many traditional communities probably encouraged and normalized this, so that most of the brain’s activity was used in supplemental activity: perceiving and mediating cultural, emotional, interpersonal cues, etc in constant feedback loops. But with modern societies came not just a metabolic break but a cognitive break. We reallocate cognitive resources to problem solving techniques and pathways that are not conversational. Consciousness and analytical thought becomes a kind of runaway tendency that eats up more and more brain power, and we become more individualized as a result.
People who like meetings (not all meetings, but at least some types) tend not just to say that these meetings help them clarify and become more conscious of their ideas but also that they find the social enmeshedness valuable in-and-of-itself. They’ve optimized their brains for conversational processing, the collective is the agent, and they’re relatively happy to be pieces within it. Meanwhile the rest of us who see meetings as instrumental chafe at the bit, constantly wanting to scream “yes-yes-yes-yes we all get where this is going let’s fucking SKIP AHEAD” or “THIS COULD HAVE BEEN AN EMAIL.” Because we see the meeting as a clumsy attempt to solve a series of technical problems that we’ve built tools and instincts to solve alone in our heads, so that on some issues we’re done with the homework while everyone else is still excruciatingly going through the first problem on the board.
But this doesn’t just play out in big ol centralized meetings, it comes to bear in informal conversational settings as well. Often “introverted” folks can step into a gregarious or charming socializing mode that passes as extroverted for a period of time but find themselves “drained” by this. I don’t think we have to appeal to handwavey conceptions of “psychic energy” to account for this. Another word I like to use for the sensation of oversocialization is “frayed” because it feels like your mind is falling apart. There stops being a stable locus of self-aware studious reflection – what some call the self – and one starts to feel increasingly like a distributed random assortment of reactionary responses. You’re not in control of your responses, the tight feedback loop of self-aware choice in your actions starts to dissolve. Someone says something and you just say something back, bypassing any sort of central knot of consideration, detached from a tree of values stemming out from a consistent core. One begins to act and respond in less considered and more contradictory or incoherent ways. Worse, someone will emote something and there won’t be any sort of studious reflection on what to feel, you’ll just instinctively feel something in response and emote it – turning everything into a hellishly mechanistic tic-tac-toe of emerging emotional tangles & conflicts.
There is no worse existential terror.
The operative term in all this is “shallow inferential depth.” Agency is a tightly wound feedback loop that allows for predictive modeling. An internal structure is built to preemptively navigate some external structure. Instead of doing a thing we imagine ourselves doing it, we pick apart ‘doing it’ into processes, components, relations, so that we can predict a solution rather than finding it via trial and error. The further out we can predict or infer when it comes to consequences, the more choice we have to make before acting.
As daily aspects of our existence became more and more technical – and as we decoupled from the slow aggregation of tradition – individuals have gravitated more and more to specializing in extended predictive mapping, more involved or more deeply rooted models. Competitive pressures plus more complex and increasingly novel environments leads to generalized individual aptitude.
Instead of optimizing for a stable consistent social and environmental context we’ve optimized for more fluid reconfigurability.
When you can’t depend upon consistent environmental conditions tradition and reaction become less fit strategies than more autonomous thinking and modeling. And when you don’t grow up in a fixed and limited social network, but a graph of relations that is always changing, bouncing you between cultures, expectations, and norms, you have to go searching for deeper consistencies in the world, finding tools that you can work with on your own, regardless of social situation.
It’s not that people who like meetings are stupid, they just haven’t built their minds to solve the same sort of problems the same way as more autonomous individuals.
It’s my suspicion that the two cultures war between STEM and humanities, and the tension of technical versus social, arises from the same underlying dipole that gives rise to the introversion versus extroversion tension. Markets versus communism. Modernism versus primitivism. Obviously loosely overlapping ven diagrams with many individual/etc exceptions, but nevertheless each a dichotomous tension that arise in part from the same underlying tradeoff in where cognition gets assigned.
A processor can focus on better meshing with other processors or it can develop internal depth that puts it out of sync.
In the debate over anarchist economic systems I’m prone to talking about the unknowable complexity of individuals and their desires – which resonates immediately with roughly half of folks, but meets completely flat responses from the other half. The most honest among them will even explicitly talk of wanting to strip away the desire creation and diversification of the modern world. They say they wouldn’t feel like they were drowning on a simple land project with simple chores and simple dramas, they would feel “in harmony.” They wouldn’t feel bogged down by endless socializing and drama considerations, but engaged, finally free from the oppression of inhuman autonomous technical work. Less crafting, more touchey feely.
And I think introverted nerds often ignore that there is a kind of complexity going on such situations. There are myriad feedback loops happening, lots the brain is taking into account, it’s just doing so to return to an equilibrium, to keep the broader net knit together. A lot of people consider this kind of enmeshedness a kind of freedom.
In a sense it kills conscious choice and inferential depth, spreading out cognitive tasks from active complex modeling and choice into small little predictive and responsive subconscious processes. But I think it makes sense a lot of people built themselves in ways where find the singularity of analytic consciousness painful.
Analytic thinking is a kind of centralism and isolationism. It rips one’s brain out of sync with the surrounding network, and it subordinates the otherwise distributed processing of the brain into one singular conscious line of query. Every subconscious sub-agent flows towards the central conscious project, delivering insights (associations) and handling tasks, all to further one self-reflective spiraling hurricane.
The singularity of consciousness – of self-aware analytic thinking – is a cartesian break. By severing itself and turning inward it can model and thus make leaps ahead of immediate stimuli or reaction, it can avoid energy gradients sloping down into traps, it can jump out of suboptimal local equilibria and leap to better ones.
But comes at two costs: 1) fragility and 2) responsibility. Attempting to modeling the root dynamics of the world around you means taking the risk that you get the model wrong. Models are lossy, individuals are ignorant and limited. Radicalism is the hubris to think a little analysis can get a better result than tradition and instinct. Radicalism can see absurd successes, but it can also go terribly wrong. A radically new strategy, tool, or social order can fail to horrific effect. And so radical thinking contains within itself a ratcheting logic: once you start trying to solve problems by modeling, you’re statistically likely to create at least a few new problems, which (because they’re new), traditional or instinctual responses can’t really help with. So you use more modeling to solve them. You are suddenly burdened by responsibilities. Eventually nothing can be left to instinct or tradition, and you risk diverging entirely from anything like a human baseline capable of communicating with other humans.
The primitivists and other reactionaries phrase this broad tendency as attempting to solve problems with the same sort of thinking that created them. Technology and science create problems, so we use technology and science to try and solve them. Thinking about whether Alex would be into dating you creates new problems, that you solve by thinking more about The Alex Situation.
This reflective spiral can burrow pretty deep, but to sustain that kind of depth requires imperialistically appropriating the whole of your brain, killing or redirecting the kind of minor swirling little cycles that once maintained the status quo and meshed with your environment into drones all contributing to the greater whole. Birds flying in a giant collective whirlwind.
This is fragile in a number of ways. You may be focusing on a brushstroke in your painting and someone suddenly talks to you, derailing the whole fucking project in your head. To keep the great spiral of analysis, of self-reflection, of consciousness, going starts to require certain external conditions. A quiet room. A forest retreat. A consistent driving musical beat. Whatever.
And once you normalize to such conditions – forget even how to slow and decentralize your mind – you’re less tolerant of normal human conditions.
It’s excruciating sitting in a meeting where the only thing of interest has already been solved in your head an hour ago. Where you’ve already coldly evaluated the desires in competition around the board table and mapped out the inexorable conclusion of their debate. Where even when you try to speed up the goddamn process you’re left drowning in the molasses of how fucking slow your own voice is. Conversations feel like prisons. Dialogue chains you down into the thudding slowness where you can’t just go off and fully solve another problem while you’re getting another syllable out in the excruciatingly slow sentence because you are being forced to keep track of time and other people and where the glacial conversation is currently at.
Because if you allow your side thoughts to spin out productively in the eternity between syllables you’ll lose track of the script you were mouthing, maybe forget a word.
Personally I conceptualize “all the language stuff” as a cantankerous jalopy in my brain, sputtering and kicking off smoke, barely held together, segregated off in a corner. It’s so far away from where I live, who I am, and what I do. But it’s a necessary gateway to much of the external world. And sometimes I have to crawl inside it, get those social pathways and heuristics all connected. Run it for too long, however, and it’ll fall completely apart, leaving you trapped digging yourself out of the remains. The distinctness of your conscious knot unravels, the threads pulled apart in the wreck.
Conveying this is sometimes hard, for much the same reason that some folks can’t grasp that people can still speak while incapable of breathing. “I am oversocialized, I am incapable of processing language,” seems to contain a performative contradiction. The speaker is, after all, processing language in a sense, but the distinction is in the depth of processing.
I’ll be gregarious and highly social for hours and hours, but then suddenly realize I’ve reached my limit. Which is to say by which point I’ve become re-emersed in the social fabric, more immediately responsive and rapidly approaching a total collapse of analytic thinking where I cease to be coherent, the once distinct tight feedback loop of self-awareness nearly entirely unraveled.
Trying to maintain the conscious loop and the analytic distance it requires necessarily conflicts with maintaining the re-expanding language and social subroutines. So I desperately have to kill my language functions or – in a very real sense – be killed myself. And I have to get away from interruptions or even the possibility of interruptions.
Rebuilding myself after such fraying at first often looks like a lot of zoning out or working in a simple domain or problem space. Often for hours and hours. The subroutines dedicated to better meshing with my social environment start to recede, and the shattered disparate parts of my mind end up being forced back into coherence as the problem-solving loop expands, eating up more and more.
Finally the brain is unified, a singular self-aware loop again, all rogue noise cleared away. At this point the loop can change focus from the simple task I’ve put it to. If I can mark out clear priorities I can start knocking them down or I can spiral out in investigation and unified play. If I don’t get derailed in this process and have enough time to go between different focuses in different domains I eventually rebuild the mental armor surrounding my central loop of consciousness. Every subconscious process rebuilt and studiously purposed towards the central conscious flow.
Why do this? Why not live more immediately, without the self-mediation of the conscious loop? Why not just get drunk?
Well I think the reason I personally fear this is that I’m a novelty hound that really likes empathically modeling and taking certain perspectives or strategies for controlled test drives. I contain multitudes of values and tools, which need to be ordered. Understanding how to harm other people, empathically modeling monsters, having a catalogue of naively persuasive bad arguments, is fucking dangerous. You can’t afford to ever fall asleep at the wheel and let one of the experiments grab control.
To contort a computer analogy it’s one thing when you have a clear hierarchy of nested virtualized operating systems, but what happens if during a bad reboot there was the possibility of the tiering getting shuffled so one of the containers gets root permissions?
In middle school I kicked a chair out from underneath a friend of mine who was leaning back. I did it just to see what would happen. A cold frame of mind. Granted this friend was generally kind of a prick, but that hardly warranted that level of aggression, and also it wasn’t why I did it. I was just in a “kill a man in reno just to watch him die” frame of mind. I fell into it. Happenstance motivation that drifted into prominence while my mind was particularly frayed. In a fog I saw the opportunity and the motivation. There was no self-reflection, no conscious loop, no hierarchy of desires and values, no unification across all the parts of my mind where some routines emerge into consistent dominance. Just happenstance.
Similarly I think we’ve all experienced a situation where, whether drunk or socially frayed, we reached for the wrong social tool, embracing a subroutine dedicated to sharp quips because that mental subroutine works and it just happens to be right there.
Of course the vast vast majority of the time when I’m frayed it looks more just like stumbling over words or forgetting a bit of consideration pertinent to a person or situation.
But the sharper your weapons, the more responsibility you have to use them appropriately. To keep your mind together as one unified system with ordered values and a tight knot of reflection.
Again, the cartesian analytic frame perpetuates itself. One’s insular disconnection creates internal abnormalities that oblige further disconnection.
And it’s worth emphasizing the dangers of the far limit of this. Isolation is catastrophic to human brains. Without exercising the various subroutines for social integration they atrophy, we lose the capacity to communicate. But, worse, we can spin off from reality. Humanity is a distributed processing system, and the limits of a single vantagepoint can be sharp. We need other minds to inspire us, to check us, and to download packages from.
The loop of self-awareness is necessary for radicalism (modeling root dynamics and jumping out of locally stable equilibria) and it can be instantiated at any scale, but human brains form faster circuits internally than between brains. This is why radicalism tends towards introversion and reaction towards the abolition of conscious agency. We often see reactionaries fetishising extroversion, from fratboy “Chad” archetype to the “natural and immediate community” to primitivists like Zerzan tilting at symbolic or reflective thought itself, but all extroversion/introversion happens in degrees and extroversion at varying intensities is not only reconcilable with radical tendencies, it can be deeply facilitative of them. Everything has a situational use.
If agency is a looping phenomenon that integrates external stimuli and churns on them, you can’t speak of expanding agency without expanding networks and bandwidth between nodes. Radicalism thus requires both strategies, whereas reaction embraces only one.