In the glorious year of 2015, I write to you as a fellow traveler a bit scarred by modernity. We were all raised in a strange time in history and to some extent it has touched us all. It has affected some of us more than others, but we are all children of Massachusetts. This post is a confluence of thoughts: how we deal with the external world AND writing a sort of summary of some of the ideas from the book Anathem. Now more than ever it seemed appropriate to share both Neal Stephenson’s fantastical conception of a scientific monasticism and my own suggestions what is to be done in the real world in the near term.
I recently finished reading Anathem and I wish to illustrate some aspects of the world which present interesting ideas that might be fruitful for the Anti-versity. While not all the ideas in the book may be valuable, it is such a detailed work (the plot starts around page 300) that describing how the “maths” (monasteries) are imagined, I believe, is worthwhile. The first concept which comes from the book is segregating the convent into groups devoted to various degrees of service. The book was inspired by the millennium clock and so everything within the convent is organized around different periods. There are a set of doors the only open every day, every year, every ten years, every hundred years and every thousand years. Different orders of people are arranged by these events. Someone could dedicate themselves to be in convent for one year ( oner ), ten years (tenner), a hundred years (hundreder) or a thousand (thousander). The time people actual stay within the convent may vary since one can join an order at any time. One could theoretically join the Tenner Order a year before the ten year gate opened. Of course this would require more than a year of service within the oner order. The gates opening signify how long a Fra will be secluded from the outside world not necessarily how long they stay in the convent. Most of the people within the tenner stay in the convent their entire lives, choosing to renew their stay every ten years. A dedicated and industrious tenner can advance to the order of the Hundreders. Thousanders must be either born within the convent or delivered with their umbilical cord still attached. This means that most thousanders have no contact with the outsider world within their lives. At most thousanders have one week in their lives to experience the outside world. They will have some contact with the rest of the math but this will be severely curtailed and controlled. The one year order is akin to a university where outsiders can stay for usually one to five one year stints and study. This time is regarded as valuable to the outside world: something equivalent to a college degree. Since the orders are not supposed to interact, oners are taught exclusively by fras of the one year order. Basically anyone who wishes to teach newcomers or outsiders is excluded from not only any responsibility but interacting with the rest of the order. By dividing the orders by years of service promised (or how long between exposures to the outside world) the convents can easily essay how dedicated or pure the Fra is. You say you’re really, really holy? Prove it not only with your knowledge and intellect but by promising not to see the outside world for what will likely be your entire natural life. Personally I think the base ten system of separating orders doesn’t align well with human life. I think a 12, 60 and 120 year periods would work better and align more properly with the human lifespan. If needed a 1200 year order could be added.
If we truly take our own work seriously, we should seriously consider the effects long term exposure to Massachusetts is having on our mental health. If you ever needed a test of sincerity try ten years abstinence from modernity. Now to be fair there isn’t some monastery we can all retreat to and Escape from LA MA. The infrastructure just isn’t there yet. To be honest if we built such infrastructure right now, it would either be carpet bombed into rubble or a group of highly trained Section 8 Nigerian paratroopers would decide to take up residence in the adjoining lot. What we can do is celebrate and acknowledge those who can refrain from engaging in the present and who can focus on the past. The first brick laid may be a ways away, but it is indeed time to forge the bonds and knowledge that will be the foundations of future institutions.
Similarly we should be able to offer useful services to those who might not want to dedicate their lives to being edgy but need a crash course: a crash course being a few years of study and reading. The anti-versity might not be built yet but we should be adjusting our lives to retreat from modernity. A few souls should be left behind to engage with those needed a structured environment to learn in. We should be careful though, as engaging with outsiders often have detrimental effect on the teacher. Not only do outsiders, by their very numbers, have more status and resources to offer, but every moment spent building bridges to the outside world is a moment not spent building something in your territory and increases exposure to the modern world. Despite any natural tendencies, we should convey status to those who are best at engaging and building within our community not without. After all, the draw of a university is what it has to offer not who goes there. A huge student body is not a resource but merely a measure of popularity. We should let the strength of our ideas and institutions speak for themselves, and leave the popular engagement to those who are furthest from our inner sanctums. It is no secret among us that walled gardens not only keep the rabble out, but increase the value of the property. If our movement hasn’t attracted enough talent yet, we need to focus on building a garden so important and awe-inspiring that true talent cannot afford to ignore it.
Another aspect of the separation from the outside in Anathem, is that outside events are not allowed to be studied in the traditional sense. Any study must be founded in long term thinking. As such only oners are allowed to read the news and only every ten years. This allows them to gauge whether something is still important or a passing trend. Every ten years they compile an anthology of events that from the last ten years and only the ones that still seem important after ten years. Again the separation of the more dedicated from outside influence is maintained. The tenners may write a history of the period but they will be working off the compilations of the oners not the direct bull written by journalists. History is allowed to be studied and written about but not by consuming the raw unfiltered propaganda.
While I would love to simply create a sudo-monastic order centered on research that is, at the moment, a distant pipe dream. What we can learn from the thought experiment of Anathem is that little good can come from interacting with the outside world. It takes quite a lot of effort to create a worldview which is separate from modern consensus. I’m sure any census of our fellow travelers would show that it took an average of years to journey from a standard bi-partisan view of the world to our current vague consensus. How much easier would it be to have been raised in something approximating a Moldbugian world view? Maintaining and building on a divergent world-view is only made harder by engaging with the world view to which it is diametrically opposed.
Imagine withdrawing from the Cathedral for a decade. Not physically of course but mentally and spiritually. One still goes to work every day, engages with friends, and takes care of family but disengages from the news, popular culture (not all culture mind you) and current events. How much better of an understanding could one gain by only fully engaging with writings of the past, especially the distant past, or theory? Certainly there is a need for an occasional summary of what happened for the purposes of history. However I suggest that those who engage with the present take a step back. Is what you are reading going to be important in 10 years? 20 years? If you were to write a history book about the last decade would this event make it in, would that event even be a footnote? Would it make it into a history of the 21st century? Certainly details matter, but constantly engaging them without context or perspective simply pulls one further back into insanity. If we consider the modern world to be crazy, then why spend time in the asylum? I truly encourage as many people as possible to build in person relationships in which one can share in sanity. Humans are social creatures and constantly walking against the flow of the masses creates a mental drain. Secluding oneself from the rest of the world can only carry us so far. Having a 2nd, 3rd or 4th person etc. who can validate and co-exist within your worldview is an experience which the majority of humanity desperately needs. The more sane people you can surround yourself with the more time you can spend away from the modern world.
In Anathem each order has its own study program so moving from a one year to a ten year order would be akin to going to graduate school. Though there is no necessary graduation among orders. A tenner doesn’t automatically graduate to a hundred year, they are usually offered an opportunity to join a work or research group within the convent ( within the ten year order). This opportunity is only presented once they have learned enough moving from fid ( learner) to a fra (full researcher). Joining a group has its own learning curve. The working groups within the convent vary between cooking, astronomy, mathematics, security, inquisition etc. Not all work is done within these groups and fras are often assigned menial duties outside of these orders to help around the convent. In addition each fra is expected to adopt an avoutation something they dedicate themselves to as a sort of independent project. This ranges from bee keeping, managing a vineyard, to geology or theoretical mathematics. Generally those in the convent who aren’t being intellectually productive can fall back and become facilities people if they wish to stay. There is an entire order of people whose job it is to interact with the outside world: the Ita. They run the technology in the convent and trade goods for supplies. They handle all interactions, transactions, and studies which relate to or deal with the outside world. They run any machinery or technology which cannot be run, repaired or created within the convent. They basically function as engineers for all practical technology which cannot be fabricated within the convents.
In summary it pays to have a focus. Your focus should take time, and it may take a while to catch up with a group, especially if they have been working on a problem for a while. Draw from others experience as much as possible and don’t try and reinvent the wheel. One’s status and responsibility should be directly proportional to their demonstrated abilities and loyalty. Years of dedication are a decent approximation for dedication, though how you spend your years is also telling. Your focus should not necessarily be the only way you contribute and not everyone is going to be a word wizard, there will always be plenty of ways to contribute while maintaining a connection within the community. Lastly there is always a need to engage with the more practical aspects of world. This need not be something that everyone knows, and engaging with practical technology will always require a bit more exposure to heresy. Specialization of a few dedicated workers can limit contamination of a community while keeping everything running.
The maths also have archetypes which are used to describe how the convent is viewed over time from archetypes akin to the spacy professor all the way to the scheming illuminati types. Knowing these archetypes can help those separated from the outside world for a while quickly ascertain their standing in the outside world. It can also help determine whether the locals are more likely to leave a fruit basket or an IED on the front door. For long standing institution, perceptions can obviously change even in a lifetime.
It seems that in our modern world, the time is fast approaching when the IED may be more likely. Certainly the chances of the fruit basket flew out the window in the 20th century. When? I can’t say, but it is clear that the time for “tolerance” is long gone. Many, including myself, will note tolerance is but an illusionary ploy for safe passage through your fields just before the enemy puts them to torch. However it does matter whether the current period is one of passage or one of torching. In the long run “tolerance” may have the same effect as the IED, but we must live our lives one day at a time.
If one has paid attention recently then one will have witnessed a mass switch in ideology and orientation. People weakly pulled into the Cathedral’s orbit have quickly come crashing back into ideological conformity. What we have seen is another mass extinction event. Certain types of dissent have gone from near threatened to extinct in the wild. A few zoos have generously taken in the outcasts but increasingly people are losing interest in visiting due to an explosion of more exotic fauna in urban environments. These fauna have celebrated the decades of hard work by evangelist promoters by hosting various victory parades. After all the art of sales is to make people desire what they never knew they wanted. What better way to sell your ideology than bring a mob to convince people to help join the majority consensus and protect the oppressed from the powerless minority. Everybody’s a hero when nothing is on the line. Precisely when they thought the mob was on their side did the dissenters defect to the winning side. Despite the vibrancy and peacocking of the ruling class I have a sneaking suspicion that today’s ideology is reaching an evolutionary bottleneck event not a Cambrian explosion.
So what are we, fellow traveler, to the modern world? A quick google search of the term “Moldbug” nets: Mouth Breathing Machiavellis, Technocrats, Geeks for Monarchy, and Natural Order Conservatives, I actually kind of like the sound of the last one. Now these are of course the more erudite slurs that will be slung against us. If you consider being a journalist to be a qualification for being erudite, *cough* contradiction *cough*. To the unwashed masses we will be mostly known as racists, bigots, and Nazis with the occasionally confused and ironic (from our perspective, I’m sure the name is sincere) RethugliKKKans thrown in. Of course “reactionary” is a meaningless term to a nation whose sense of history gets hazy before the year 2000 and becomes non-existent before WWII. To most people we are harmless simply because we are so out there. If the average brahmin has nightmares about another Bush in the White House, they may laugh at the thought that Moldbug would run America. “If you’re taking flak you’re over the target zone.” Where’s the flak? The immediate danger is not from the outsider painting us as an evil eccentric Technocrat, but if we get lumped together with the average bigot. As the anarcho-tyranny accelerates, the lives of the unreformed conservative a few steps too far behind the Overton Window will increasingly begin to look bleak. Now as principled dissenters we recognize that apologizing for our views will get us nowhere. In fact anything less than enthusiastically running towards the leading edge of the Overton Window will get us in trouble. So getting lumped with the other Kulaks is pretty much inevitable. Of course the magnitude of our heresy will certainly tend to unleash immoderate reactions, but again this is due to our superficial ideological resemblance to the Brahmin stereotype of the common bigot not the nature of our thoughts. It would be helpful to draw from history how people views of outgroups effect their responses. I suppose another run through the annals of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Cathar Revolutionaries is in order. It pays to know whether one looks like a Jew in 1930’s Germany. You’d best be one step ahead of the Kristallnacht. Whether we like it or not our fates at the moment are tied to status and treatment of the common unreformed casual heretic. This is not to say that the Cathedral may turn its eye upon us one day, but I wouldn’t count on it.
In summary while it would be ideal to study actual existing and historical monastic organizations, I hope my humble suggestions can inspire others to take a step back. There is only so much we can do, but there are still a lot of gains left to on the table. The insane asylum is only going to get crazier. There are no psychiatrists waiting in the wings to save us. So buckle down, circle round and start building ‘cause now as good a time as ever. We may wish we had started yesterday, but today is all we got.