The Illusion of Retirement

Builds Upon: The Bicycle and the Chasm

Retirement is a way of postponing life until it’s nearly passed us by.
Someday, we tell ourselves, we’ll get around to living as a free people rather than slaves.

Retirement is an excuse to justify spending all our time laboring away through our most valuable years trying to please an impersonal mass society. In return we get left with the dregs of our waning time and vitality when we are no longer sufficiently useful.
We never ask: if our time and energy is no longer useful to an employer, how useful is it even to us? What were we doing when we were sitting on our best temporal real estate?

It’s something we work towards because it seems worthy to everyone around us. To not work towards it invites social censure.

We fool ourselves into thinking that we can spend decades laboring away and then one day walk away and behave like none of it ever happened. We don’t realize that those decades leave their imprint.
Without bosses to tell us what to do, we will do nothing.
A real self takes a lifetime of personal work to develop. A lifetime spent doing the work of others leaves us atrophied and weaker than a child, devoid of self-motivation, imagination, and direction.
Consider a familiar pattern for those who retire in our own time:
They quickly lose all purpose without a social role to give them identity, disappear into a lonely house, and then die within two years once their already weak will to live has dissipated.
We’re fooling ourselves if we think a life of hard purposeless labor leads anywhere else.

As children someone eventually had to tell us that we will all eventually die. But as adults a belief in retirement gives a false feeling of distance from our deaths. So long as we march towards a distant, illusory paradise, we can let the present day get away from us and tell ourselves we’re headed for someplace greater and more golden in the long run.

We forget that for every moment we live, the probability of us being alive for another moment decreases. It is a mistake to place too generous of a sacrifice on the altar of tomorrow.
Not only might our bodies or minds be destroyed across all those years. A life’s savings can evaporate in an instant.

If offered thirty years of life in freedom, we would opt instead for a centuries’ long life of constant servitude.

Yet in thirty years, the free person infinitely outlives the slave.

Our time alive is but a number. Our perception of time is our true span of existence.
Has not an ancient person who looks back on life as a tarnished collection of repetitious events lived but the span of an infant?
Has not an infant who lives a single day in exploration and wonder lived forever?

Ironically, giving in to our cowardice and craving for life yields death.
Only when we face death and have a relationship with death in our every day lives is our time alive prolonged.

Truly, how old is a retiring worker who only ever had two weeks vacation per year? Still in their late teens?


The Social Cost of Pop Music

Builds Upon: The Pitfalls of Micro-specialization in Mass Societies

In the earlier half of the 20th century there were men such as Bela Bartok and Allen Lomax who traveled around the world recording folk songs using early recording technology. No fools, they saw that folk music was rapidly disappearing under the influence of industrialization. Men like them stored away thousands of these folk songs before they disappeared forever.

I’ve listened to a very few of their recordings and they sounded nothing like music as we now know it. There was something very ordinary and everyday about it. There was no obsession with perfect pitch, no reading music off of a sheet, no horrible sense of pressure in front of a mass audience.
Whether from Appalachia or Algeria, the music was spontaneous, natural, and leisurely. No thousands of hours of deliberate isolated practice had gone into a single song. Instead, each song had been practiced thousands of times in the normal course of events.
The singers of the songs were clearly not professionals. Their voices had not been painstakingly polished in a sound studio. Through the scratchiness of the phonograph I could hear every unmasked vocal imperfection.
Some of these singers were hard for me to sit and listen to. It seemed many of them might have been elders without heirs. Their voices were often creaky, sad, and tired.

It later occurred to me:
If many of these people attempted to sing their songs in a modern day home or public place, they might very well be attacked and ridiculed. If they kept it up for long, they might even have the cops called on them.

Modern mass societies have just a few professional singers who take care of all the singing. These pros are the most naturally talented people to begin with and their entire profession and way of life is to sing.

They sing until they’re sick and tired of singing while many a person on the street hasn’t truly sung a song in years. They’re milked for profit until empty of passion while the commoners beneath their feet burst with the need to know their feelings.
What once was everyone’s pleasure now pleasures no one.

A Dark University

Builds Upon: Knowledge Monopolies: The University

Colleges are relied upon not because of their excellence, but because they guarantee a minimum level of incompetence.
All one would need to do better would be a minimal organization with the purpose of giving exactly enough guidance and no more. This minimal organization would be a system that could merely allow self study while offering internships and savvy advice. Thus one could study on their own with some protection from the classic pitfalls of working without feedback and a community.
Some basic traits of such a system?

No tuition. It’s hard to focus on the journey when the slightest delay or misstep can cost thousands of dollars.
Why/how would anyone help educate anyone else for free? For a dark state, it is an excellent opportunity to bring people under its influence.

No groveling for letter grades. For all this contrived urgency causes one to scramble for quick results. In a rush, one forgets: there is no knowledge in isolation, mere regurgitation has little relation to true understanding. A dark student is able to spend all their study time actually practicing instead of keeping a professor happy. They won’t develop the negative psychological associations a stressed out conventional student has with the material. Spending more time actually using the material or thinking of uses for it will come naturally.

No getting stuck in a single excruciating course that goes at its own pace.
An enlightened system must cater to the wandering nature of human curiosity and be indulgent of tangential learning: The present ‘results oriented’ system forgets: if there are many tangents from many sources, they eventually converge into a greater whole. Certainly, not all tangents end up converging. Not all inquiries are equally materially productive. But one curious person who studies without paying someone to coerce them is going to retain more knowledge and be much more likely to incorporate it as a daily part of their lives.

No micro-managing people. If people are curious they will come. If people give it a chance and aren’t so curious, they may very well become curious. Instead of using millions of dollars to manage tens of thousands of people on a massive campus, let them manage themselves.

No graduation. One need never stop their inquiries. The moment they’re knowledgeable enough to achieve their initial goals passes without ceremony.

Especially for beginners, a professor can be overkill. Someone with advanced knowledge in a subject is often unsuited to teaching down to neophytes. Cranky, unsympathetic, unenthusiastic professors who would rather be doing research are an essential part of the college introductory course experience. Why? Who needs to pay thousands of dollars for this? The meanest of amateurs is perhaps more qualified to introduce a subject than a professor.
Surely some professors might prefer the dark university if they spent time only with advanced students and were encouraged to focus on research and funding.

Or… forget professors. Rely on a network of professionals who actually work in their fields to give apprentice style training to dark students. Skip academia. Skip theory. At least until one has a foundation in the subject.
After all, why on earth should one begin with theory? What good can it do to read a treatise on sight before developing eyes?
Everything that a student is forced to study, that the student will never use, is forgotten. Therefore: why teach it in the first place?

One way we know whether a school has succeeded or failed is by watching how people behave after they’re done with school. The hallmark of our present way: one takes courses for as long as they have to get a piece of paper and no more. Once freed from this ordeal, they need never choose to pursue knowledge again. For learning was their trial by fire, not their lifestyle.

Knowledge Monopolies: the University

Builds Upon: Introverts Vs. Extroverts: Learning

To get highly paid skilled work, one generally requires a college degree. Without that big stamp of approval it would be hard to ever get to a real interview let alone get hired.

Clearly, businesses are confident that on average, college graduates will be more profitable than people who have learned skills through other means.
To be accredited, colleges must be relatively uniform in the knowledge they teach and the order in which they teach it. Therefore there is a measure of predictability.
When running a business, it would seem even a mediocre known is a better choice than an unknown who could be better or worse.
After all, unknowns are just what stops projects and production lines. Unknowns are scary if you’re a planner.

A degree has major advantages for an employer:
– The employer already knows exactly what the applicant should know.

– Better still, the employer knows the student has spent years successfully following the instructions of their professor bosses. The applicant is highly likely to sufficiently subservient, malleable, and disciplined in the workplace.

-A graduate sunk deep in debt is sure to be a loyal worker in their first job. Exorbitant college tuitions effectively funnel college trained people into the workplace. In exchange for knowledge, the student loses any freedom they might have over how to use that knowledge. Nearly a sort of Faustian bargain! The necessity of paying off schooling seriously compromises the employee’s ability to walk away from the job or demand better conditions. When an employee cannot walk away, the employer calls all the shots.

This is a pretty convenient setup for employers but what does it mean for everyone who needs one of those degrees?
It means that one must deal with the knowledge monopoly that we call ‘college.’ Only when the college hands out that piece of paper can we be socially recognized as possessors of a certain kind of knowledge.
A monopoly, of course, means that the provider of a good or service can do pretty much what they like.

So it goes with colleges and universities. Such is the demand for degrees that they can charge tens of thousands of dollars for their services and everyone just has to put up with it. They can pile extra fees on top of an already massive tuition: parking permits, activity fees, graduation fees, lab fees, mandatory meal/housing plans, overpriced, unnecessary text books …
The college has every incentive to add extra course requirements to a major and subdivide the core requirements into as many classes as they can.

Then, they can contrive to make each class far more difficult and time consuming than it needs to be so no one notices how much the material’s been watered down. All they have to do is teach a few actual concepts, then have a test worth a third of the grade that drills the students on how well they’ve memorized even nonsensical theoretical applications of the material. The high stress tests and assignments are a bulking agent.
Any person who ever ran a restaurant must know that no customer ever feels they’re getting small portions if you fill them up with complimentary rolls and include french fries/baked potato/pasta/rice/beans with the actual dish. All of these are starches that a restaurant can charge dollars for even though they cost mere pennies to purchase and prepare. Put a little cheese/meat/sauce/other relatively expensive ingredient on top and the customer never notices that 80% of the meal is starch. Colleges make ample use of this same principle.

On a campus, one has to go out of their way to submit paperwork to school bureaucrats by arbitrary, contrived deadlines. One has to bow and scrape to the whims of professors and their assistants to get favorable letters. One has to live as a delinquent teenager beyond the teenage years.
The universities do this because they know they can get away with it.
Attending college is basically paying an employer a very nice salary for the privilege of working a full time job.

All that money really purchases is letter grades and credits. Courses can usually be audited for free. Several of the most famous universities now put their courses online for free. All those thousands of dollars and thousands of hours scraping for letter grades in a grotesque continuation of high school yield only social recognition.
Real knowledge and competence may or may not exist alongside the rubber stamp of approval. After all, gaming the letter system produces greater rewards than actually learning things. To some extent, college, even if sub-optimal continues as a matter of social habit:

-College tuition does not just purchase social recognition upon graduation. It also purchases the social license to focus one’s time entirely on studying. Can one imagine devoting oneself completely to a subject outside of a university? All one’s family and friends would ask: “Why aren’t you working? What are you doing with your time?” Soon comes the ultimatum: “We’re not supporting you if you don’t get a job.” One’s devoted full time studies are then effectively over.
In order to study a subject full time, someone needs the official-looking fancy campus, the mystique of cap and gown, the socially recognized credits. Suddenly it’s accepted without question that one is devoting hours to studies that could instead be devoted to the workplace. Only the university can provide this official license to study.

-Chances are people in a position to hire have a college degree. They will only accept people with college degrees because the people who first hired them would only accept people with college degrees.
All around the world human groups have rites of passage people must go through in order to become members. Workers in skilled industries “make their bones” by getting the degree. This sort of social custom facilitates social cohesion by ensuring that each member has a certain common base experience. People don’t usually think this out. It comes by habit, by instinct. Demanding degrees is a self-perpetuating tribal initiation custom, very like painful tattoos or ritual disfigurement.

At the very heart of the system resides a key assumption: Even as adults, we all lack the initiative to learn things without some coercive element, some contrived sense of urgency to spur us on. At the heart of things, is a sort of personal humiliation. In order to get that degree you tacitly admit that you’re too weak and incompetent to learn properly unless you pay them to keep you busy and babysit you.

Objective Cheapness

Builds Upon: Supermarkets: The Illusion of Overchoice

When we say something is ‘cheap’ or ‘expensive,’ we usually mean by relative terms. A car is cheap if it’s cheap relative to other cars. Any item we purchase tends to be cheap or expensive relative to our personal income.
Yet there is no good way to measure the value of one’s purchases without an objective barometer.

Consider the candy bars sold at a grocery store checkout lane. Susceptible shoppers think “99 cents! That’s just pocket change. It’s cheap and I want a snack right now.”
Yet how does that ‘cheap’ candy bar measure up against actual food commodities?

Imagine going to the meat department at your local grocery store and seeing a snicker section in between the pork and the beef. How much per pound would a big lump of snicker bar cost? If we consider that it’s 99 cents just for a few ounces of snicker, it might very well be more expensive then beef brisket or even a mid-level steak.
Who would buy snicker at this imaginary deli? Probably no one. Candy is an inferior food that commands a premium price. Placed in this context, it’s obviously a colossal ripoff.

Yet most people haven’t equipped themselves with a way of measuring the true cheapness of an item. Change the packaging around a bit, use some psychological tricks and most people fall for it.

The impulse candy bar is just about the most minor of possible examples. Without an objective measure of cheapness, the consumer is the perpetual victim of the same few mind games every time they make a purchase. Over a lifetime, they waste countless thousands of dollars, especially when making critical decisions about schooling, housing, and transportation.

To assess anything properly we need a fundamental, essential expense by which all other expenses can be measured.
For me, all things are cheap or expensive in comparison to the most basic foodstuffs that keep people alive.
Things are objectively cheap or expensive as they compare to a pound of potatoes, rice, pasta, or flour.
Truly, not too many things we buy really are cheap.

Once we have a means of measuring, it becomes clear that many things that seemed affordable are in fact fantastically expensive.
This doesn’t mean we should live an ascetic lifestyle. But it does mean that we will have a true appreciation and appraisal of our wealth before we decide to sacrifice it in exchange for a good or service. It is a way of ceasing to judge value according to the reckoning of the mass society. It is a way to judge instead by the absolute value of a good or service.

What Pets Tell Us

Builds Upon: Misery Enablers

I remember listening to a woman at a social event talk about how she spent a thousand dollars on a surgical procedure for her dog.
This woman was not rich. She was a teacher living in an apartment. She had made a very substantial sacrifice to keep her pet alive.
Later, I wondered: Would she be willing to give me, a human stranger, a thousand dollars if I were in trouble? I doubted it.

The truth is that pets for many of us are far dearer than people. This truth tells us very important things about our culture and society.

In most societies there is hardly even a word for ‘pet.’ The concept barely exists. For most Spanish speakers, ‘mascota’ is about as close as it gets.
For most people on earth, the idea of spending resources on an animal that provides only company is ludicrous. Their lives are already filled with a family, a clan, and a community. Most people on earth have very limited resources. They live in crowded houses and would never think of going out of their way to acquire an extra non-human mouth to feed. Even more extravagant would be the cost of vet appointments, vaccinations, neutering, and especially surgeries. All a complete absurdity.

In what kind of society then do animals become more important than people? What kind of culture takes pride in sentimental attachment over bonds of loyalty?

I can well understand deep attachment to an animal. When I had no one I could really talk to through four years of high school, I had a dog. I’m not sure I would have survived without this dog. He without a doubt meant more to me than the surrounding humanity I had failed to bond with. Every night he slept on my feet when I would otherwise have been completely alone.
I understood intellectually that the dog would be considered a parasite from a biological point of view. I thought of any number of creatures that insinuate their way into ant nests, termite mounds, beehives… and cleverly impost as a member.
I even called my dog, “little parasite” as a term of endearment.
Now that my dog has passed away, I like to visit his grave site out in a patch of sighing sagebrush whenever I visit my parents’ house.

I have no plans to ever replace my dog at any point in my life.

I’ve come to understand that abundant pets are a symptom of social disease. A result of division and loneliness. Pets are compensation for feelings of alienation and fear.
They are an easy shortcut to acceptance and adoration from another being when we cannot get enough from people.
In wealthy, dying societies with few or no children, pets become child substitutes. Indeed, some of the dogs women love most have flat faces, large eyes, are completely helpless, cry a lot, and weigh 7-8 pounds.

Pets are substitutes for human relationships that we lack. For if we were truly socially fulfilled the very idea of a pet would never occur to us.

The Laziness of Hard Work

An industrialized nation tends to idolize hard work for its own sake. Such is the inevitable result of man becoming machine. It doesn’t matter what end one works toward. One is respectable so long as one works most all of the time. Anything less can be grounds for social ostracism. Rest and relaxation belongs to those who are old and tired, when life has already passed us by. We sleep when we’re dead.

The fact is, hard workers don’t really work. They’re essentially lazy. They seek an easy state of oblivion, just like any alcoholic. Being overwhelmed all the time is a mere contrivance that conveniently absolves them of responsibility over themselves.

The weakest of people often do best under repression and pressure that would cause a more grounded person to snap. A lazy spirited person
craves another power to provide the structure they won’t provide for themselves.
Those who lack driving purpose and will are those most willing to be subsumed into endless purposeless activity.

The test of a real worker: If no one is there to tell them what to do, do they still work? Do they know what work should be done? Are they capable of great effort without ultimatums and deadlines to drive them on? Or is there a yawning emptiness and lack of direction in the absence of coercion and instruction?

Though lazy, the hard workers are not harmless. They lack the ability to question a corrupt orthodoxy even as their accepted order crumbles all around them. Their pointless strivings are like a relentless, merciless metronome, setting the pace by which all others must live.