The Rise of the Machines

Recently I’ve had a Kafka story stuck in my head. Not the one that everybody knows – the Metamorphosis – even though that it is, in a sense, highly relevant to our current predicament.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an unvaccinated, right-wing conspiracy theorist.

No, the Kafka story that I’ve had in mind is the one that I’ve always found the most memorable of his works: In the Penal Colony (spoiler alert: I’m going to give away the end of the story here so stop reading now if you don’t want to know).

Published in 1919, In the Penal Colony is located on a subtropical island in the colonial period. There is a garrison on the island and the protagonist of the story, a traveller from the mother country, gets roped into witnessing the punishment of a native which is to take place on a giant mechanical contraption that is maintained by the army officer who is the antagonist of the story. The machine is designed to kill its subject in a lengthy and highly technical manner. The officer is extremely proud of the complex and intricate technology of which he is the expert but the traveller finds the whole thing horrendous. There’s a lot of different themes going on in the story but the one which the one which has been on my mind lately is the technological angle. Here is a machine transported from the European culture to a place where it doesn’t belong. The officer believes in the machine as an end in itself. He has lost sight of the fact that the machine should just be the means to the end of justice. At the end to the story, the officer is killed by the machine in a semi-voluntary fashion. He would rather die than admit fault with his contraption. Technically, the story is a tragedy although, in the way that is usual for Kafka, it feels more like a horror.

Western society has been obsessed with machines for a number of centuries. Our modern world runs on machines. The machines are not just the obvious ones made out of nuts and bolts. A bureaucracy is a machine. It runs on rules. Kafka was one of the first to see that a purely “rational” organisation that runs on rules can produce horrific outcomes. The Terminator movies are about a robot becoming more like a human. But Kafka’s stories are about humans behaving like robots and the consequences that follow. That’s a far more horrific proposition.

Back in early April of 2020, I received a pamphlet from my local council in the letterbox. It had information about “covid-19”. It was stated on the pamphlet that the information was from the WHO. Somebody, probably the administrative assistant at the council, had been given the job of taking the information from the WHO and putting it on council stationery. Was the council responsible for the veracity of that information, I wondered? Do they have trained virologists or medical experts checking its accuracy? The answer, of course, is no. The information would have been passed verbatim down through the bureaucratic machine that ran through the state government, back through the federal government and all the way back to the WHO. The system, the machine, had already been set up to run in just such a scenario. All the WHO had to do was kick it into gear. There are legal agreements between governments and the WHO.  Bureaucrats are given jobs to liaise with the WHO and other bureaucrats ensure that the communication was passed along the line until eventually it reached my local council and then my letterbox; a big bureaucratic machine that spans the western nations and much of the rest of the world too.

I know how big bureaucratic machines work first hand and I have experienced the Kafkaesque nightmare that can happen when people just follow rules. I’ve seen the gentle and then not-so-gentle pressure exerted on those who question the rules. It’s especially a problem for newcomers who haven’t yet been conditioned not to use that part of the mind that is so active in young children; the part that likes to ask “why?” Fortunately for bureaucracies, the education system has normally weeded out those who like to ask why by the time they begin work. Young children go in one end of the system asking why? all the time and come out the other end never asking why? That’s a shame for them but not for the bureaucracies who need people to be efficient cogs in the machine.

Modern society is built on science and science is all about asking questions. Yet we have a society that actively discourages people from asking questions.

You’re not a doctor. Trust the experts.

People seem to think of science itself like some machine; a machine which spits out “truth” the same way another machine might pour a coffee or vacuum the carpet. In the horrific corona quarantine hotels here in Australia there were robots patrolling the corridors with little cameras attached to them in case any of the inmates got it into their head to break the rules. Meanwhile, the Premier of Victoria at one point said he had a supercomputer running the numbers and used that to justify his lockdown measures. All of this is laughable to those of us who work in science and technology but clearly a majority of the population believes it. We love our machines the way the officer in the Kafka story loved his machine. But with any machine the question has to be asked: are you controlling the machine or is the machine in controlling you? In Kafka’s story the answer was the latter and I fear that’s true of us too.

Systems and Freedom

In last week’s post I talked about the difference between positive and negative freedoms, how this maps onto the left/right distinction in politics and how that distinction explains the difference in attitudes to the corona measures between Australia and the US. There is another aspect to the difference that I think explains a lot of the current political and cultural malaise that the West finds itself in. Recall that negative freedom is freedom from interference, especially by the state. Negative freedoms are simple. They are simple to encode in law and anybody can understand when they have been violated (although it’s not necessarily simple to achieve redress when they have been violated). From a political point of view, it’s also easy to know when a movement to attain negative freedom has been achieved. Three important historical examples are the civil rights movement, the suffragettes and the equal pay laws. All three were about equality before the law or, to say it another way, the granting of negative freedom to a part of the public that didn’t have it beforehand. Because negative freedom is a binary, a political movement to attain negative freedoms has a fixed goal and it is plain to see when that goal has been attained. In short, negative freedoms have an inherent objectivity. One can disagree about the application of them but not whether the law states that people have them.

The same is not true of positive freedoms. Positive freedoms are inherently more subjective. This makes it harder to get agreement on whether positive freedom exists and to what extent it exists. A useful way to draw this distinction is to compare the equal pay laws to the modern equivalent of the “gender pay gap”. The equal pay law states simply that a man and a woman must be paid the same amount for the same job. In any specific example, it’s easy to tell whether this was done. You just check the pay slips of the people involved. But the gender pay gap is different as it deals with populations of people and averages. The gender pay gap says that women earn less than men on average. As anybody who’s done Statistics 101 would know, an average calculation hides as much as it shows. To properly understand an average you first need to know whether we are talking about the mean or the median. You need to know the standard deviation around the average and you need to know whether outlier values are skewing the average. It may be, for example, that 99.95% of men and woman earn the “same pay” but a small minority of bazillionaires, who just happen to be men, throw out the calculations. Until you know that, any method to address the imbalance risks being misguided.

That’s just the start of the difficulties, however. The hidden assumption in the gender pay gap issue is that women have less positive freedom than men because they get paid less on average. Is that true? The average pay figure is the result of countless personal choices made by real people in the economy. The economy is a system so complex that an entire profession dedicated to studying it still can’t make accurate predictions about how it will behave. To paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, the purpose of economics is to make astrology look good. A person’s gross earnings are the result of all kinds of individual decisions including which field to go into, how hard they work at their job, whether they know the market value of their work and how to negotiate for their salary etc etc. Without in-depth analysis, you can’t draw any firm conclusions about why one person gets paid less than another. We can, of course, make some hypotheses. When it comes to the differences between the genders, it seems highly likely that time taken off from work to raise children is going to be the main variable that accounts for why women earn less on average. One might argue that woman are choosing to take that time off work because they value raising children more than working. A counter argument could be that woman only do that because child care is too expensive and it doesn’t make financial sense to do so. Either is plausible. We’d need more research to find out for sure and we’d probably find that both of these things are true. Some women would raise their children themselves no matter how cheap childcare was and some women would prefer to work. These kinds of issues are intrinsic to systems and, by extension, to debates about positive freedoms. The only way to understand a system is to turn it around and look at it from multiple perspectives. As positive freedom is almost always about systems, it follows that issues around positive freedom require such analysis. Simply reducing a whole system down to a single calculation is naïve at best.

Of course, issues like the gender pay gap get forced onto the procrustean bed of politics where catchy slogans and simplistic solutions are all that can fit into the limited bandwidth of public discourse. No doubt the limitations of political debate do play a role in the oversimplification of complex issues but the problem is deeper than that. I have spoken a number of times about systems in other blog posts with particular reference to the systems thinking and cybernetics movements of the 20th century. The fact is that humans are really bad at understanding systems and even worse at building them. The systems that we rely on in day-to-day life were not designed and then implemented by wise philosopher kings. Rather, they are the results of centuries or even millennia of trial and error. Look at the history of any successful company (a company is also a system) and it’s almost guaranteed that the company also went through a period of experimentation in its early days. The founders thought they had a great idea in market A but accidentally stumbled onto a goldmine in market B. I have worked in building IT systems from scratch for more than a decade now. I can say from experience that most people have no idea what they are doing and most things that get produced are of no value. This isn’t an indictment of the people involved. Building systems is hard. The failures are also not necessarily a problem if you assume that each project is itself just an experiment which you can learn from. The problem is that learning very rarely does take place. Rather, corporations and government shovel money into various projects and hope that something good results. Politicians and upper managers in corporations are expert at taking credit for things that look to be working and backing away from things that are visibly failing. The organisational structures of bureaucracy and the public service are set up to ensure that nobody must take responsibility. Most projects are structured in such a way that nobody knows how to understand the outcome because there are no criteria to do so. I’ve been in some funny meetings where the question of “defining success” was talked about and nobody knew or wanted to know how to define it. If you define success, then you also define failure and that is what everybody is trying to avoid more than anything. Accordingly, in large corporations and political parties, trying to determine whether a change to a system produced any tangible benefit is nigh on impossible. Systems are already hard enough to understand but when you add in human psychological and political considerations the task becomes insurmountable.

Which brings us back to positive freedoms which inevitably require changes to systems. Even assuming you have a grasp on an issue in a multi-dimensional manner, you are altering a system and so you need to know whether your changes had a benefit and what, if any, unforeseen side effects were caused by the change. The testing of the system is often as much work as the changes to the system itself. One of the key insights of the systems thinking pioneers was that natural, inherently complex systems cannot be understood by reductionist science. Rather, they can only be understood by applying multiple perspectives in a heuristic fashion. Heuristics are fallible, incomplete but useful ways to view a system. The problem from both a scientific and political point of view is who gets to decide which heuristics really are valuable and which are not? If you aim to consciously change a system and then measure the results, you can apply your own heuristics to gauge the effect or you can open channels for feedback. The former option risks missing important types of data about the system and the latter usually sees you receiving a barrage of unintelligible information; noise. At this point we get into the problems of information and testability which are a big driver of why we don’t test the changes made to systems. Testing costs time and resources. The choice to only measure one or two things is a psychological, economic and political one. All these drivers lead to oversimplification and, therefore, misunderstanding of the system. A political movement to enhance positive freedom faces all these challenges in amplified form because politics is as much about being seen to do something good as actually doing something good. Furthermore, changes to systems often have side effects and the side effects might just be voters who resent the fact that they have been disadvantaged by a change. What this boils down to is that the work required to enhance positive freedom is far more complex than the work required to enhance negative freedom and the results of such work are going to be far more ambiguous, which is itself a political problem.

The way to approach systems is to construct cross functional teams, start small, make iterative changes and ensure you set up feedback loops with the real world. You need to set aside time and resources to learn. This means you will need periods of evaluating what has been done rather than doing more. You need to be prepared to admit failure but also able to change tack if an opportunity arises that was not foreseen at the beginning. These are all things that corporations and governments are incapable of doing. The feedback loops they adhere to are the long and imprecise ones of opinion polls, elections, profit and loss reports and annual general meetings. Governments get thrown out of office and companies declare bankruptcy while the systemic effects of decisions made along the way are never known. In the domain of politics, movements to enhance positive freedom mostly fail or at least aren’t seen to be successes. This in itself causes frustration especially given our culture’s innate desire to “progress”. That frustration itself builds pressure to do more. Accordingly, positive freedom has morphed into authoritarianism as the bureaucracy does the only thing it knows how which is to force changes onto the world rather than set up a symbiotic relationship where learning and adaptation is possible. In recent decades, we have run into the problems of systems and we still don’t have the culture or the organisational structures in places to deal with systems properly. Who would increase positive freedom must first learn how to work with systems.

Addendum: Just came across this fascinating post on the supply chain problems in the US. It’s indicative of where we are as a society that a real systemic problem, which I would have thought is an existential threat if allowed to continue, goes unsolved while the news is full of faux-moral issues.

American Freedom vs Australian Freedom

In recent months a number of high-profile Republicans and right-leaning media in the US have been using the ongoing corona repression in Australia to try to advance their domestic political agenda. The trend hit an interesting inflection point last week when Texas Senator Ted Cruz picked up on an announcement by the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory that certain workers needed to get vaccinated or they would be forbidden from working. Such a scheme had already been rolled out in other states of Australia. The reason behind it was that a national committee had made a decision that 80% of adults in Australia had to be vaccinated before the state governments would relinquish their iron grip on life in this country and we could open borders and return to some kind of normality. That agreement was made back in the middle of the year when it was still possible to pretend that the vaccines might end things. The problem was that there was no way Australia was going to get to an 80% vax rate voluntarily and so state governments had to turn to coercion. In the Northern Territory, for logistical and cultural reasons, I suspect there was going to be extra difficulty in achieving the 80% number and so the leaders saw fit to go beyond the coercion of threatening to destroy people’s livelihoods and added fines to the mix. As a publicity stunt, it worked a treat and even became global news, hence the Ted Cruz tweet. The Chief Minister of NT, no doubt delighted to have received his fifteen minutes of international fame, decided to answer Ted Cruz’s tweet by pointing out how nobody had died of covid in NT while some tens of thousands had died in Cruz’s home state of Texas. I have noted in past posts on corona that pride goeth before a fall. I would not be surprised to see the Chief Minister eating his words once the borders of the Northern Territory open. However, there was another aspect of the exchange that was interesting; the age-old issue of freedom. Cruz chastised Australia for not standing up for freedom but he was implying a specific type of freedom, the one that is dominant in the US but not in Australia. This difference existed prior to corona but has now been thrown into sharp relief and it’s worth exploring that difference in more detail.

The first thing that needs to be said is that Australia is not what most Americans think it is. Ted Cruz said in his tweet that we are the “Texas of the Pacific” and are known for our “rugged independence”. As I pointed out in an earlier post, this is simply not true. It is nothing more than a stereotype that Americans have of Australians; the Crocodile Dundee trope. It was no coincidence that at the recent AUKUS announcement there was a big picture of Crocodile Dundee sitting behind Joe Biden. That’s still what Americans think of when they think of Australia. This caricature is popular in America not because it represents Australia but because it represents America. The lone rider, the rugged individualist is an American myth. The closest we have in Australia is Ned Kelly. It’s true that Ned Kelly was a rugged individualist. It’s also true that we hanged him. You can see why that story wouldn’t resonate in America. Australia is culturally more collectivist than the US and this collectivism places us politically far to the left of America. We’re more California than California. As the subject of “freedom” is one of the main differences between right and left in political theory, it’s no surprise that Australia has a different default position on freedom than the US. Australia’s covid response is what it is because our notion of freedom is different from Ted Cruz’s.

A useful way to understand this difference is the one outlined by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin: negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom is the one Americans believe in. It is hard-coded into US history and culture. It is freedom from external interference especially interference by government. This is the kind of freedom most often associated with libertarianism, liberalism or the right of politics. Positive freedom is more complicated but can be thought of as freedom to do something. It’s the freedom to become your best self. Positive freedom has both a more psychological and social dimension. It’s not enough just to be left alone to do what you want. Positive freedom is about having the means to achieve something worthwhile. The person left alone to drink themselves to death in a gutter has negative freedom but an advocate for positive freedom would say it would be better if somebody intervened and put that person on the right track. That works ok in extreme cases like alcoholism but can be taken too far. One of the problems the Marxists always had was that there was a group of proles who just couldn’t be made to see the “truth”. This gave rise to the phrase “false consciousness”; the consciousness of a person who cannot see what is right for them and therefore needs to be taught. This in turn gave rise to the phrase re-education at which point positive freedom crossed the line into positive authoritarianism.

Using these broad concepts of positive and negative freedom, we can say that Americans’ default version of freedom is negative freedom and Australians’ default version of freedom is positive freedom. The difference here is really quite stark. Bernie Sanders, for example, would be considered a right wing politician in Australia. Thus, in some sense, corona is forcing Americans to see Australia for what it really is; not filtered through the lens of some Hollywood movie. It’s no surprise that Republicans would have a particular problem with this because corona represents a big shift to the left in US society. The vaccine mandates are run under the banner of positive freedom and supported most enthusiastically by the left. The problem for Republicans is that the corona event is as much caused by the faults of negative freedom as positive. It was the laissez faire policies of the Republicans in the 1980s among other things which have led to the current situation. To understand why, we need to take one example of positive freedom which is the protection of the commons the flip side of which is the well-known concept the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals pursue their own self interest in a way that negatively impacts the collective. One example could be somebody starting a business selling fish. Without any restriction on their activity, they might fish a particular species of fish to extinction or exhaust a local fishing ground. That person has made short term profit from the fish but in doing so destroyed the underlying source of wealth meaning that other members of the community present and future have no access to it. Even the most hardened advocate for negative freedom would allow that the individual’s freedom should be curtailed in such an example. The commons need to be protected; a job usually, but not necessarily, given over to government.

Modern American society is, in my opinion, rife with examples of the commons not being protected. One of the ways this manifests is in the presence of various economic rackets of which big pharma is a prime example. Other examples are the higher education racket which is tied in with the student loan racket. Big Tech is increasingly a racket too. Rackets are what happens when the free market (a commons) is not protected and monopolistic players are allowed to obtain enormous power which they then use to serve their own interests and not the interests of society in general. Such rackets are everywhere in modern US society and it is the outsized influence of Big Pharma which has led directly to the corona event. That would normally be a problem of what you might call excessive negative freedom but, interestingly, corona represents a peculiar combined form of the worst elements of negative and positive freedom which has become dominant in the US in the last couple of decades. In the economic sphere, corporations are given the negative freedom to do as they please by lobbying the government for legislation that benefits themselves at the expense of the general good. Meanwhile, those same corporations, in league with the media and the universities, run a version of ideological warfare under the guise of positive freedom. The vaccine mandates are the most extreme form of this dynamic we have seen so far. They are so extreme because they don’t even deliver the ostensible positive freedom benefit of protection from disease while the suppression of alternative therapeutics can only be explained by the entrenched graft in the medical industry. No surprise, of course, that this should happen during the Trump presidency. Whatever else you can say about Trump, his platform was squarely aimed at combating this status quo dynamic. Thus, he was as much a threat to the Republican party as the Democrat. He took aim at both the excessive negative economic freedom given to corporations as well as the ostensible positive freedom pursued by the elite institutions.

Meanwhile, Australia has experienced the same lurch to the left of all western nations during corona. The problem is, we were already so far left that this lurch has landed us smack bang in the middle of good old-fashioned authoritarianism with the crushing of dissent, conformity and group think that this always entails. This tendency is always there wherever there is a bias for positive freedom and has always been a problem in Australian culture. The reason that Australians have not pushed back to the authoritarianism is partly because we believe in positive freedom by default. To the average person, corona represents a straightforward extension of positive freedom with the vaccines protecting the commons. It’s also true that the positive freedom bias has worked for Australia for some time. Australian society is far more stable than American society. There is far less poverty, less inequality and less crime. There is also far less political corruption. The blatant hypocrisy which is par for the course in American politics doesn’t exist here and thus, while Australians pretend to be cynical about politics, we have a trust in government that Americans simply don’t have. That trust may be about to be severely tested. Corona has revealed the weakness of the positive freedom bias. It turns out that you can protect the commons so much that you destroy the commons. Our response to corona has done enormous damage, most of which is not yet visible. The question is what happens when it becomes visible. Already, we are trying to act like the whole thing is a big success. This self-congratulatory tendency is also very strong in our culture. David Horne criticised it directly in his book The Lucky Country. Unless things get really bad, I expect that politicians will do whatever it takes to protect that idea. If so, we would chalk it up to the success of positive freedom. The commons were protected, lives were saved. That’s exactly what the Chief Minister of NT said in his response to Ted Cruz. We’re not like you, he said to Cruz. He’s right about that.

L-mode and R-mode case study

I’ve been thinking more about the interaction between L-mode and R-mode as discussed in last week’s blog post and it occurred to me that another hobby of mine provides a useful case study in the subject. That hobby is powerlifting, a sport that consists in the three lifts of the squat, the bench press and the deadlift (as opposed to the clean and jerk and snatch of Olympic weightlifting). I stumbled into powerlifting a few years ago after never having so much as set foot in a gym in my adult life. After a period of experimentation and self-learning, a powerlifting coach, seeing my awful technique one day, introduced himself and invited me along for a free evaluation session at the club where he coached. I went along for the session and then joined the club at which point my real powerlifting journey began.

The training strategy used in beginner and intermediate powerlifting is called the linear progression. The coach will establish your starting strength and fix a baseline weight. From that starting point, you begin a program where a fixed weight increment is added to the bar each week. For example, you might start the bench press at 60kg. Week 2 will raise that to 62.5kg, week 3 to 65kg and so on. Although there are all kinds of variation in beginner programs, they all follow this underlying principle. Note that this methodology is straight out of the left brain: linear, analytic, sequential and time-bound. The system works because the body adapts to the stress of lifting by over-compensating. If you get your diet right and load up on carbs and protein, the body will use that surplus to add more muscle, bone mass and ligament mass. With that extra capability, you are ready to lift the heavier weight the following week and the cycle repeats where the body adds even more mass which is then put into action the week after. The rate of adaptation is not equal among the different bodily components. Adding muscle is relatively easy and cost-free for the body and so this happens the quickest. It is more costly to add bone and ligament density and these adaptations take longer. While these changes are taking place, it’s common for the trainee to feel “pain” as the body is essentially re-architecting itself. The lifter must learn to differentiate between pain which denotes a genuine injury and pain that is just a signal of adaptation in progress.

This brings us to the subjective, right-brained part of powerlifting. Weightlifting is probably one of the more purely “objective” sports in the sense that you are dealing entirely with the laws of physics when lifting a bar. There is no opponent to psych-out, no teammates to help out and no referee who will make a stupid decision that costs you the game. There’s just you, the bar and the laws of physics. A lifter’s technique can be evaluated according to these laws. The bar path on the squat and the deadlift must be vertical. Any deviation from this is sub-optimal. You may still make the lift but you will have used more energy than was necessary and this will become a limiting factor over time. A similar but slightly more complicated geometrical equation holds for the bench press. That’s all well and good, but the lifter cannot watch themselves while lifting. They cannot form an objective impression. Thus, there needs to be a “translation” of the objective criteria into subjective heuristics in order to get the lifter to do what is necessary to achieve the optimal position. For example, one of my problems when squatting early on was that I would fall forward out of the bottom of the movement resulting in a bar path that was not vertical. As a beginner, I wasn’t subjectively aware of the problem because my mind was overloaded with stimuli including the nervousness and fear that comes from having a subjectively huge weight strapped to my back. This is where the coach is necessary. The coach’s job is to give you a cue which will address the problem. An example could be “chest up!” to get somebody like me to not fall forward. Other options include “look up” or “eyes forward” or “stand up straight”. One of the jobs of the coach is to find the right phrase which will resonate with the student and get them to do what is necessary. Sometimes the phrases can be very strange. At a powerlifting competition once, I saw a coach cue his student with the phrase “shoulders in your back pocket”. This is objectively nonsense but what he was trying to get the student to do was to pull their shoulders back; an important element in the deadlift. Such metaphorical expressions are R-mode or right-brained focused and, in fact, the act of lifting is all R-mode. Just like with other R-mode activities like drawing or playing music, it is possible to get into “the zone” doing powerlifting when things are going well. I have never heard a coach say “keep the bar path vertical” which is the objective truth of what needs to happen.  The reason is because, from an R-mode perspective, the lifter has no idea what vertical is. You can feel it as a result of a well-executed lift but the process of lifting or in “imagining” the lift before you start, such objective, L-mode statements are not useful and are probably counter-productive just like it’s counter-productive in drawing to bring L-mode concepts to the task. This is another small piece of evidence, I think, that lends weight to the L-mode/R-mode distinction.

In powerlifting, there is also a strong propensity for L-mode to unduly influence R-mode. This manifests in a variety of ways that all tie back to the L-mode linear program that the weightlifter is undertaking. For a beginning lifter, each week is a personal best weight as they add a fixed weight to the bar which is a weight they have never lifted before. Assuming they have a coach to ensure their technique is not developing in an incorrect way and they are eating appropriately, the first few months of lifting are fairly effortless although there can be some growing pains during this period as the body undergoes significant change. It’s as you move from this beginner’s period into the intermediate level that L-mode starts playing tricks primarily because you now have just enough experience to start to generate expectations based on L-mode thought patterns. As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One example from my intermediate period was when I accidentally put 20kg more on the bar than I was supposed to be lifting that day after getting distracted while loading the bar. I squatted the weight and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until I finished the sets and went to unload the bar that I realised I had 20kg more than I should have according to my program. This was quite a surprise. You would think that you would notice such a large difference in weight but I hadn’t. What had happened was that I was living in L-mode and L-mode said that the weight I was lifting was well within my capacity (which is true at the start of a cycle where you start with low weights and build up to heavier ones). Thus, I lifted it as if it was that lower weight. The subjective experience of the lifting, the R-mode, followed along with what L-mode told it. This is the same dynamic I mentioned last week in relation to the audio engineering where I “heard” what the L-Mode told me to hear. L-Mode sets up expectations based on a “logical” extrapolation. The expectation was “this weight is well within your capability” and that was what I was primed to experience.

A similar thing happens with weightlifting in relation to your subjective feeling going into a training session. For example, you might be feeling drained after a hard day at work or you might be feeling energised at something that happened right before the training session. As a beginner-intermediate lifter, your L-Mode extrapolates these subjective states into an expectation. If you are tired going into a session, you expect that you won’t lift very well. The opposite if you are energetic. One of the things you learn in weightlifting is that these expectations are irrelevant. I have gone into sessions feeling great only to lift poorly. I have gone into sessions feeling like I was coming down with a flu only to have a great session (and then feel in full health afterwards). After more experience, what you learn is that the start of a session is the time you have to dial in your technique. It is your technique that determines how well you are lifting and nothing else. Once you have enough experience, you can subjectively tell when your technique is slipping and get it back on track early in the session. That will determine how well the session goes. Emotional states are unimportant. Or, rather, you have to make them unimportant. You must learn to control your emotions and not let them distract you. You show up and do the work irrespective of how you are feeling. Note this does not include situations where you really are sick but the mind can play tricks on you there too. As you start to get into really heavy weights, it’s amazing how you can start to feel “sick” all of a sudden but that’s just your animal instincts trying to remove you from an unpleasant situation. It’s a variation on the flight response. Another thing you must learn to work through as a lifter.

From this I think we can extrapolate a model of learning. L-mode sets an expectation of a result and, unless R-mode’s subjective experience of the result diverges significantly from that expectation, no information of difference is recorded by the mind. In other words, you don’t even realise what happened just as I didn’t realise I had an extra 20kg on the bar when I was squatting that day. For the beginner and early intermediate practitioner, the mind is also full of other stimuli which raise the noise floor and make difference harder to perceive. You must learn to exclude such irrelevant stimuli. It’s also the case that R-mode gradually gains a firmer grasp of what we might call “the ideal” as you gain experience. This ideal is not an L-mode derived logical expectation but a subjective experience. In weightlifting, you can “feel” how well you are lifting and understand what is wrong from experience without L-mode analysis needing to happen. In German, this is called fingerspitzengefühl; a tacit understanding that is holistic and subjective.  Thus, the master has achieved an appreciation which is entirely R-mode.

L-mode and R-Mode

Recently I was given the excellent book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. It’s a book about learning to draw but, as the title suggests, the author takes an approach based on applied psychology/neurology. This is not a mere affectation on her part. Rather, it seems Edwards was teaching drawing for decades, discovered what worked and then realised that what worked had a basis in psychology. She introduces research from neurology about the functional differences between the two hemispheres of the brain and then frames the drawing exercises around that research. According to Edwards, the motor skills needed for drawing are not the main game, contrary to what most drawing instruction suggests. Rather, you have to learn to “see” and that “seeing” is carried out by the right side of the brain. Those who try to draw from the left brain are drawing “symbolically”. They translate what they see through the left side of the brain which is where language processing occurs. Thus, rather than draw the vase in front of them, they think to themselves that is a vase and draw from the idea in their mind. The results are not good and the person usually concludes that they are unable to draw and they give up. I’m skeptical of the neurological basis for all this; sounds very left-brain to me. But I think this distinction is true phenomenologically and it also maps on to what we know about how language works. I have mentioned before in this blog that I wrote an honours thesis in cognitive linguistics which deals a lot with the schematic nature of language and cognition. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but “childish” drawings are schematic and this lends weight to Edwards’ idea that learning to draw is learning not to draw the schematic representations in your mind but what is visible to your eye.

Edwards calls these differences R-mode and L-mode corresponding the right and left brain respectively. L-mode is verbal, analytic, sequential, linear, objective and time-bound. It is about intellect, logic and computation. R-mode involves intuition and leaps of insight. It is subjective, relational and holistic. When you are ‘in’ R-mode, you have a feeling of timelessness and immersion in the moment. According to Edwards, a major problem that students of hers have is that they are stuck almost permanently in L-mode. When trying to draw, they are not really seeing the thing they are drawing but are intermediating through language and logic (components of L-mode). Thus, they might try to render a cube reasoning that all the sides must be the same length. But this is not how the eye perceives a cube and thus the drawing will be wrong. What they must do instead is learn to see the angles and relations of the cube. That is what needs to be taught and learned. It’s because L-mode is so strong in our culture that Edwards spends the first half of her book trying to get the student to use R-mode instead. She has several exercises intended to make the student distinguish between the two. I seemed to be cured of this problem as I didn’t have any difficulty getting into R-mode but the exercises reminded of a time when I had to learn the distinction the hard way. I’ve told this story once before on this blog, but I’ll re-tell it here as I think it perfectly describes what happens when L-mode dominates over R-mode.

Some time ago I decided to teach myself audio engineering. I had been a musician for a number of years and learning the basics of sound mixing seemed like a good practice tool as well as a way to record ideas for songs. The technology to record audio had also become incredibly cheap and it was possible to do home recording to a technically high standard. The technical means to do audio recording are now not much more expensive than the technical means to do drawing. But, just like drawing is all about seeing, audio engineering is all about hearing and that is not a technical problem but a perceptual one. To put it in Edwards’ language, it’s about learning to use R-mode. But I didn’t know that at the time. My early mixes sounded dreadful. Although I knew at some level that this was a problem with the fact that I wasn’t listening properly, I still went looking for technical solutions. I employed an L-mode way of addressing what was an R-mode problem. I jumped online and started searching for solutions to make my mix sound better. One of the ideas that came up was compression. Compression was the difference between a professional sounding mix and an amateur one. That’s what the internet said. This statement has some level of truth. Compression is essential to a good mix and many of the sounds we hear in professional recordings are created by a compressor. But the key task for the sound engineer is to learn to hear what the compressor can do. That was what I had not yet achieved and it was part of the reason my mixes sounded so bad. The internet didn’t tell me that, though. The internet told me to try this compressor or that compressor. And that’s what I did. I downloaded the compressor that somebody said would fix all of my problems, eagerly loaded it into the track I was working on and switched it on. Instantly my mix came to life. The highs were high, the lows were deep and mellifluous, the vocals rang out like a choir of angels. I sat back to take it all in and then figured I should check the settings on the compressor so I could remember them for future reference. I looked down at the computer and realised that the compressor was not even switched on. I had clicked the wrong button. I switched it on for real and the mix went “meh”.

Obviously I’m exaggerating the story for effect but I really did perceive the mix to have changed at the time and when I learned that the compressor wasn’t switched on I was genuinely shocked at how easily I had fooled myself. We all tell ourselves stories about the world that turn out not to be true, but on this occasion my base perception was wrong and no amount of excuses or post hoc rationalisations could have shown otherwise. As I was reading Edwards’ book, I realised she was explaining why that had happened. L-mode really can interfere and override our perceptions. If it can do that with seeing and hearing, it can certainly do it with more complex phenomena like, oh, I don’t know, pandemics. On the other hand, what Edwards says is true about R-mode is definitely correct. As I became proficient at audio engineering, I would regularly achieve the state of immersion and timelessness that Edwards associates with R-mode. It’s a state of deep focus where one loses all sense of time. It’s sometimes referred to as being “in the zone”. I experienced that feeling again when working through some of the exercises in Edwards book this time in relation to drawing. Phenomenologically, I think the L-mode/R-mode distinction is very useful to highlight the artistic mindset but also more general cultural traits. The reason Edwards needed to write such a book is because we live in a culture that has become massively imbalanced in favour of L-mode. All of our education system, which now lasts about sixteen years for the average person is about the manipulation of symbols without any corresponding real world experience. It’s like talking about how a compressor works without ever hearing how it affects a mix or hypothesising how a line on a page represents an object without ever drawing an object.

Using the L-mode/R-mode distinction, I can now see that this what Gregory Bateson was getting at in his excellent book Mind and Nature which was all about parts and wholes, relations, hierarchical structures, synthesis and other R-mode concepts. It’s also what underlay Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language, or Ivan Illich’s critiques of our education system. In fact, many of the important critiques of our society and culture from the 20th century were really pointing out this imbalance. Western culture systematically excludes R-mode from consideration. We consider any intuition to be superstition. We dismiss subjectivity as “anecdotal evidence”. We know how to break things down through analysis but we’ve forgotten how to build things up through synthesis which is why we can’t create things of beauty anymore. Most importantly, I think, we are drowning in symbols (L-mode) without the subsequent perception of reality (R-mode) that would ground those symbols. As Edwards notes, her students struggle even to hold their attention on an object so they can draw it. They fall back to symbolic representations. Such people find it easier to think “that is a vase” and draw a schematic version than to actually look at the vase and really see it in order to draw it. This change seems to happen about the time of adolescence when the symbol-manipulating faculty develops to a high level. It’s at exactly that time we subject teenagers to an education system that does nothing to develop their R-mode but makes them work through exercises based entirely on L-mode. The grading system of exams is also pure L-mode. All this education was originally intended to train people to serve in the bureaucracy which is, of course, just a symbol-manipulating organisational structure. That training is relevant to bureaucrats. It is, however, entirely irrelevant to any occupation outside of an office. The increase in higher education in the last few decades has, thus, swung the existing cultural imbalance in western society even further to the left (interestingly, this statement also works in a strictly political sense too).

How do we address this imbalance? Teach people how to draw, paint, play music, mix audio, sew, knit or any other handicraft or art. Learn any skill in an empirical fashion with only minimal book learning. Disconnect from exposure to symbol manipulation. Learn how to trust intuition, guessing and leaps of faith. Take naps. Fritter away time on “useless” activities. Sit around and do nothing. If you need an excuse to do these things, just say you’re developing the right side of your brain. Or better still, tell your left brain to STFU.