Insights

Return to insights

The Attention Span. "Three Steps to Freedom."

Everything I ever write is based on respecting the unique value of your attention. If you want to focus on any single dynamic right now, I’d recommend this one.


“Three Steps to Freedom.”

[11 minute read]

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

- “Verbal” Kint, The Usual Suspects.

Source: Getty Images.

The defining trend of the smartphone era is everything being rapidly dragged further and further away from physical reality. Abstraction simply means “to pull away from,” and it is the primary source of a staggering amount of suffering.

Here are some insightful and controversial people who have recently helped me understand how to fight it.

Anonymous writer “N.S. Lyons” believes that we are right in the middle of a sustained conflict between the real world and the virtual world. In markets, politics, economics, and culture. It is the dominant story of our times. Lyons recently laid out the case in a dense and deeply weird essay called “The Reality War.” Essentially, humans throughout history have repeatedly sought to distance themselves from the grubby reality of mortality by retreating into their heads. Lyons quotes a damning passage from Christopher Lasch’s book The Revolt of the Elites:

“The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life… Their only relation to productive labor is that of consumers. They have no experience of making anything substantial or enduring. They live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality - “hyperreality,” as it’s been called - as distinguished from the palatable, immediate, physical reality inhabited by ordinary men and women…..
…..Control has become their obsession. In their drive to insulate themselves against risk and contingency – against the unpredictable hazards that afflict human life – the thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.”

It will scarcely surprise you to learn that this resonates precisely with Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s scientific diagnosis of modern society as becoming literally schizophrenic or autistic. Many schizophrenics come to prefer mental abstractions to real life. But, trust me on this one, getting lost in abstract thoughts is literally hellish. Some schizophrenics describe a disembodied, lifeless, virtualized existence where time passes like Groundhog Day.

So much of the Western world has now become a taxidermist’s dream of dead representations of living things. What percentage of our daily attention is now spent focused on a digital abstraction? Social media, streaming video, games, e-mail, chat applications. You can be a god-king of a lifeless metaverse. Or you can upload your consciousness into the cloud and “live” forever.

Meanwhile, our “brain” has neglected our “body.” Our preoccupation with virtual worlds has led to a structural underinvestment in physical energy, food, and industrial infrastructure. The reversal of this trend is a colossal opportunity. For example, Cornerstone Macro’s Nancy Lazar believes the return of capital to Middle America is “perhaps the biggest investment theme to unfold since the EM boom that started in the 1990s.”

The obvious irony is that I’ve spent the last year exploring the early emergence of a phase change back from a left to right hemispheric existence. And yet I didn’t fully anticipate reality biting back in quite the way it has recently. I think this is probably because I am a member of the thinking classes myself.

This really scares me.

The Devil’s Drift.

Author Napoleon Hill is famous for writing “Think and Grow Rich.” But he also wrote a much lesser-known book called “Outwitting the Devil.” Despite being written in 1938, it wasn’t published until 2011 because it was considered too controversial. It’s a really quite unsettling book.

Hill’s belief is that “the devil’s” primary purpose is to make us “drift.” He fills our head with opinions that aren’t our own and distracts us from following our own interests. If the purpose of life is to follow our bliss toward our own unique unfolding, the devil thwarts us by simply wasting our time. Time and attention are the only two things we have. So the devil takes them both by distracting us with unreal things that don’t matter. Hill died in 1970, so I honestly can’t imagine what he would have made of social media and the Internet.

But this isn’t yet another article about spending less time on your phone. You’ve probably read fifty of those. And, as someone profoundly addicted to Twitter, that would be especially hypocritical. This is about something quite a lot darker.

The really, really scary part.

I recently learned about the terrifying concept of an “egregore” from B.J. Campbell. An egregore is an entity summoned by naïve humans that then takes on a life of its own and starts controlling them. It typically does not end well. In our digital world, these are abstract opinions and conspiracy theories that compete to go viral using humans as their hosts.

“These entities are the egregores – bundles of evolving behavioral indoctrinations summoned like demons by a mindless cellphone zombie mob to rule that mob and dictate their actions.”

We go from having our own ideas, to those ideas themselves taking control of us. By increasingly outsourcing our sense of morality to our phones, we allow social media to direct our sense of outrage. So even worse than drifting, the “egregore” actually uses us all to do their bidding by making us spread emotional opinions that are not entirely our own. And their only desire is to grow more widespread and powerful.

Over the last two years we’ve witnessed plenty of examples of online egregores bursting into physical reality in unexpected ways. Rebel Wisdom’s Ali Beiner has called this “the age of breach.” As screen time exploded during the pandemic, we saw a corresponding rise in digitally-driven social movements. An extremely relevant, if less sinister, recent example in markets is the meme stock phenomenon. Online communities spontaneously coordinated to influence asset prices, with real-world consequences. In fact, a defining trend of last year, especially in crypto, was the strength of online communities translating into asset price spikes.

To summarize, at their absolute worst, abstract ideas:

It doesn’t matter if this is all just an extended metaphor: if the devil did exist, he’d surely use this weapon to win without us even noticing.

Three steps to freedom.

What’s a practical approach to addressing this existential threat? As always, the right place to start is with individual awareness. You see the egregore clearly, dissolve its abstractions and then realign yourself around what’s truly real.

  1. See clearly. If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, seeing the devil clearly is a very good start. Treating our new digital world as if it holds the potential to be truly malevolent is a surprisingly helpful mindset. Is the egregore’s social media algorithm taking you down a dark road or are you following your own unique interests?

    This is also the vast benefit of McGilchrist’s work; understanding how our left-hemisphere wants to manipulate the world. It’s why I’ve written so much recently about how to address the neurological imbalance. One helpful signal is that anger is lateralized in the left hemisphere. If a topic makes you angry, it might be a sign it’s triggering your ego.

  2. Think clearly. Hill says the antidote to drifting is “accurate thought.” How do you know what opinions are actually your own? What is confirmed by your experience in the real world? For example, I was chatting to my wife the other night about events in Ukraine and I realized a good 80% of what I said was uncritically lifted from things I’d read online. And I had absolutely no idea if they were true.

    One tool comes via a provocative, pseudonymous writer called Jed McKenna, introduced to me by my friend Jim O’Shaughnessy. Jed claims to be enlightened, but also happens to have some pretty interesting and profound insights. He recommends what he calls “spiritual autolysis.” Autolysis means self-digestion, which is an indicator of how unpleasant this exercise can be. The truth burns off dead wood, and most of us have accumulated a lot of dead wood. These are the layers of inherited ideas and abstract opinions that risk our possession by an egregore.

    Autolysis is taking a pen and paper and writing down what you think you know to be definitely true. For something so simple, it’s a remarkably clarifying exercise. When I did it myself, I realized I had to lean on direct personal experience, love for my family and the relatively few recurrent wisdom patterns my work has revealed me. It was a short list. [Honestly, I recommend you do it right after reading this!].

  3. Feel clearly. For the last few years I’ve been exploring greater embodiment and emotional granularity. Philip Shepherd’s interview with Tim McKee was one of the best things I read last year. Shepherd’s book Radical Wholeness is a specific response to this entire head-centric problem. Lest this topic sounds too touchy-feely, he repeatedly cites evidence that embodiment correlates with better trading performance. As well as my own findings that it improves mental and physical health.

    Shepherd’s “elevator shaft” exercise is an intended antidote to abstract head-thinking. You can try it online in five minutes. Essentially you focus on moving your center of consciousness down your body. As a head-thinker I find it very challenging!

Shepherd coincidentally reinforces everything I’ve been exploring for years. He distinguishes between the “tyrant” who stands apart, abstracted and controlling and the “hero” who willingly surrenders to the whole.

The long-odds bet I’m making is that this shift in consciousness also manifests across culture, business strategy and real-world investment over the next decade.


Related Reading.

  • Read. Ukraine, China, and the Western Soul. Alexander Beiner interviews N.S. Lyons. (27 minute read)
  • Why read. A timely introduction to two thinkers I enjoy a lot. Although anonymous takes on geopolitics are doubly risky, there are a lot of great frameworks here rather than just predictions. Lyons' physicals vs. virtuals distinction fits the signs that the West is increasingly realigning along educational lines.
  • Ultimately reunification, and the end to this particular class war, will require some form of re-democratization, in the sense of breaking managerial technocracy’s oligarchic hold over societies. And currently we’re moving in the opposite direction.
  • Frankly I suspect the only sure way might be through some crisis so significant that it would slam the virtuals back into reality as their lifestyles and luxury beliefs became unsustainable. Perhaps this war in Europe could move us in that direction, if the economic or military fallout is bad enough. But it’s by no means guaranteed that even that would be sufficient at this point.

Have a great weekend!

Tom

Sign up for updates