World After Capital: Psychological Freedom (Intro)


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NOTE: This is part of a series of excerpts from my book World After Capital. Today’s post introduces the concept of psychological freedom, which is crucial for living in a world that is information super saturated.

Psychological Freedom

Imagine you live in a society that has achieved economic freedom and informational freedom. Would you make good use of those freedoms? Or would your existing beliefs, fears, and emotional reactions hold you back from engaging in the Knowledge Loop? Or worse yet, would you have all your attention sucked into systems designed to capture it for their own benefit?

Would you feel free to pursue your interests for their own sake, or would your Industrial Age beliefs keep you trapped in the Job Loop? Would you have a strong sense of purpose, or would you feel adrift without a traditional job, without a boss telling you what to do, without a career path? Would you value experiences over property? Would you avidly seek out new knowledge, or would you simply confirm what you and those around you already believe? Or worse would you get upset by views that disagree with yours and shout at people online? Would you feel free to create, or would you hold yourself back, fearing that you’re not “a creative person”? Would you share your knowledge freely with others, or would you refrain from doing so out of concern over embarrassment or harassment? Would you recognize when your attention is being manipulated for the benefit of others?

The two previous sections on economic and informational freedom dealt with changes that require collective action, such as changes in government regulation. This section on psychological freedom instead addresses individual action, in the form of self-regulation. We must free ourselves from our evolutionary maladaptation to a world awash in information and from our deeply engrained Industrial Age beliefs. Each and everyone of us can start on that path today by developing some form of mindfulness practice. Such a practice is essential to freely directing our attention in the Knowledge Age.

A good starting point is to acknowledge the profound psychological dimension of the transition out of the Industrial Age. Social and economic disruption makes life more stressful; many people are more afraid than ever of losing their jobs, and we’re generally unsettled by what we perceive to be the heightened pace of change and the build-up of political and social tensions around the world. To make matters worse, we have yet to learn how to live in healthy ways with our new technology instead of obsessively checking our smart phones during meetings, while driving, before going to sleep. All of this is taking an immense psychological toll, as evidenced by recent increases in sleep disorders, suicide rates, drug overdose deaths, and antisocial activities such as bullying.

But then we need to go beyond that general insight and look at our own mind. Only we can know exactly what goes on in our head (at least so far) and even that requires practice because our brains are easily highjacked by emotions. Can we fundamentally change our mindsets and emotional attachments? Can we overcome the fears and anxieties that might prevent us from gaining, creating, and sharing knowledge? Can we put down our phones when they are designed to keep drawing us in with notifications? It seems a monumental task, but humankind is uniquely adaptable. We have in fact navigated two prior transitions that also required dramatic psychological change, first from the Forager Age to the Agrarian Age and then to the Industrial Age.

We now understand scientifically why humans can adapt so well. As neuroscientists have discovered, our brains remain quite plastic even as we age, and what we think and how we think can be changed. In fact, we ourselves can change it quite deliberately—not just with pharmaceuticals, but using techniques such as meditation, breathing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [117]. The brain consists of both lower-order systems that produce instincts and emotions and higher order systems that allow for rational thought. Techniques such as conscious breathing offer us a way to use our higher-order awareness and reasoning to shape our reaction to lower-order emotions, preventing them from taking control of us. Recently a Stanford study found the neural pathway by which slowing down our breathing lets us calm down our mid [NEED CITATION].

Modern scientific knowledge thus confirms what has been known to varying degrees since ancient times. In the Western tradition the Stoic Philosophers developed practices of thought to temper the effect of emotions. In the Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, meditation and breathing serve the role of achieving a similar detachment. Both history and science thus point us in the direction of psychological freedom. We will now examine in more detail what we need to free ourselves from, so that we can direct our attention to the Knowledge Loop.