24: Monasteries

I wrote about the crash of our social markets at the start of the pandemic. While much has been made of the recovery of our financial markets, considerably less public discourse has been allocated to discussing a recovery plan for knowledge.

Knowledge work regards us from high upon Maslow's hierarchy over the crook of its bespectacled nose; it's easy to miss right now, in light of more pressing basic needs (food, income, where to live, daily mood). But the volume and quality of our creative output has undeniably declined this year: a warning that, left unchecked, could lead to civilizational backslide.

There's a passage in the fictional The Memory Police, which I read this month (see “Links” below), where the narrator describes how she and her neighbors passed their days during an extended period of crisis:

A deep stillness was rapidly spreading over the island. The gap grew ever larger between the rates at which old things decayed and disappeared and new ones were created....the restaurants, movie theaters, and parks in town were deserted.

Among the new things to be created were small crops of daikon radishes, Chinese cabbages, and watercress that poked their way out of the earth, some sweaters and lap robes made by the ladies who worked at the knitting factory, and a supply of fuel that came by tanker truck from somewhere. Not much else.

It's not just the loss of creation, but also the insidious way in which that loss has been normalized, that I find so concerning. We’re making things, but the things we make don't further our collective knowledge and skills. We're merely treading water while our heads slowly sink beneath the surface, the hot sun winking out of sight.

There is something disturbing about the passivity and lack of introspection with which we've accepted this present state. The flippant "It's hard for me to think right now" remark has become as commonplace as the "I've been busy these days" of yore. It's understandably a coping mechanism in the short term, but long-term damaging for progress.

I was reminded of this passivity during the California fires that have swept—are sweeping—across the Bay Area these past few weeks, negatively impacting our air quality and forcing us to stay indoors. When the same thing happened in 2018, public reaction was completely different, in that, we actually had a reaction. This year, on top of everything else that's going on, it seems we’ve barely batted an eye.

My mom lived in Jakarta for much of my childhood, while I mostly grew up in Pennsylvania. 1998 was a tumultuous year for Indonesia, following the Asian financial crisis that impacted the entire region. In May of 1998, the long-reigning president Suharto resigned, and rioters took to the streets, targeting Chinese-Indonesians, an ethnic minority (like my mother), in particular.

Most of her peers had evacuated Jakarta at that point, but my mom, who worked in finance, stayed and worked. I had only a child's grasp of what was going on, but one image stuck in my head: as rioters took to the streets outside her apartment complex, my mom told us she was sleeping with a backpack of emergency supplies in case anything went wrong. As a kid, I was struck by the dissonance of what it must feel like to show up to work every day while also fearing for one's safety on such a basic level. It seemed absurd and incomprehensible. I thought about it last week while wearing an N95 mask indoors with stinging eyes while trying to meet a work deadline.

We're so obsessively focused on getting through a normal day-to-day that we can't even see how much we've lost. Even now, I'm typing this while trying to figure out which daybed to order for my living room and whether to enroll my new cat in kitten kindergarten. Kaczynski would call these "surrogate activities": hobbies that work toward artificial goals, but are ultimately unsatisfying.

In times of crisis, we imagine ourselves as heroes. In reality, the quotidian outpaces the sublime. When I arrived to Jakarta in June of 1998, a few weeks after the riots had died down, I was surprised by how “normal” a crisis could really seem. We've constructed fragile, tattered lean-to's of surrogate activities to distract ourselves from the raging destruction outside, but if we continue to stay here, there will be nothing left to come back to.

What would it look like to take the preservation of knowledge work more seriously? I think about the monasteries that survived through wars and social upheaval, or Rivendell in Lord of the Rings: the idea of physically removing oneself from the daily machinations of man in pursuit of long-term, clear-eyed thinking. Monasteries in Europe were safe havens for scholarship, preserving manuscripts and texts that were otherwise destroyed in the Middle Ages, which later helped give birth to the Renaissance.

I'm typically critical of the siren song of escapism as a lifestyle, and skeptical of attempts to build utopian kibbutzes, because I think social ecosystems flourish best when they're not in isolation. But in pandemic times, fears of waldenponding seem less applicable. It's not about building a new city or society, but a transient, protected retreat. (Think Recurse Center or Pacific Science Institute, not seasteading.) True to Maslow's hierarchy, it is harder to focus on scholarship while navigating a crisis. It seems valuable to shield these sorts of endeavors from an environment that's increasingly hostile to knowledge work.

P.S. I've been thinking about monasteries because—masochist that I am—I have a new research project I'd like to work on. I’m not able to retreat to a monastery in my current life situation, and I've never done research as a side project before, but I also feel a growing moral imperative to contribute to our crumbling knowledge repositories.


  • "Not voting as a form of protest": I wrote about voter abstention and why it should be considered a legitimate form of civic engagement. I didn't tweet this one out because I didn't really want to get into touchy territory with strangers, but I figured I'd share it here, where we have a bit more context for each other. (And of course, you're welcome to share it as well; it's not private, just nestled in a dark forest.)


Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • (from a convo) “Idea laundering” as a concept (like money laundering, but for ideas you don’t want to share under your own name). Could happen via anonymity, pseudonymity (alts), or (most interesting to me) funneling your ideas through other ppl

  • (from a convo) Online communities that are tied to a physical identity (ex. Nextdoor, alumni communities) function differently bc it’s harder to defect and leave. But they’re also not necessarily “high-context” communities in the sense of, say, a small town or meetup group. They’re sort in this in-between limbo space, where drama can be worse bc you intuitively assume shared values based on physical identity, but actually at a certain scale there isn’t that level of context at all. Kind of like the “jury duty” effect? You would expect that 12 randomly-selected San Francisco residents would be somewhat familiar to you in terms of identity/values, but actually they’re shockingly different from what one might’ve guessed

  • I think there’s a diff between “content moderation” and setting expectations for civil interactions, and the latter does, or at least can, fall in the purview of what a platform should be tasked with doing, bc it’s basically what any gov’t does as well (creates and enforces laws that foster a safe, civil society). If we focus on doing more of the expectation-setting stuff well, I wonder if that would help reduce the majority of what is actually concerning to ppl about "harmful" ideas (inciting violence, harassment, etc)

  • Thinking about how so many things from this time will be recorded bc live online events are much easier to record, so ppl do it without thinking / for the sake of it. Wonder if having so many of our activities recorded from this era, that otherwise wouldn’t have been, will have any long-term effects (good or bad)


  • The Memory Police (Yoko Ogawa): A novel about a woman living on an island where memories mysteriously disappear every day. New disappearances on the island are normalized, even as they became more extreme. I inhaled this book pretty quickly. It's hard to elaborate without revealing too much of the plot, but this book is sad and haunting and remarkably relevant, I think, to our day-to-day.

  • The Yellow Arrow (Victor Pelevin): I’ve been swallowing myself in Japanese fiction and Russian sci-fi right now (please send recs!). Japanese fiction transmits this empty sadness that I find strangely calming, while Russian sci-fi is like your friend at the bar that slaps you on the shoulder after a hard day and slides another shot your way. In The Yellow Arrow, society takes place on a train that's hurtling towards a ruined bridge. They've been there for so long that nobody ever asks why they're on the train anymore. This novella is a brooding, philosophical foil to The Memory Police, a single note drawn across the strings of a cello.(Somehow I can picture it being made into a Wes Anderson film…maybe it's the train thing).

  • "Co-buying property with friends” (Phil Levin): To paraphrase Phil: lots of people want to buy property with friends, but few people actually do. A detailed and practical guide to co-buying property; certainly the most comprehensive resource I've come across.

  • "The Last Message Sent on AIM" (Justin Tan): Short but sweet essay from a software engineer who sent the very last message on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) before it shut down at the end of 2017.

  • "Orthographic media" (Robin Sloan): Robin conceives of social media as orthographic, where all objects appear to be the same size, regardless of their distance from the camera. For example, on your Twitter feed, you’ll see mundane tweets presented at "full size" alongside more serious ones. I like thinking about this concept as a successor to context collapse. Cocoon, a v2 group chat app, has pointed out the design problem presented by the orthographic nature of messaging apps (e.g., seeing all your texts appear alongside your close friend and group chat discussions).

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