Zero Sum: Abundance, Sanity, and The Generative Force

There’s something that a lot of people in a certain corner of Twitter talk about a lot that I never really cared for- “abundance mindset.” This is right up there with the Law of Attraction in my book, as far as woo-woo nonsense is concerned. Mostly, though, I think people get attracted (forgive my pun) to these simple ideas when the truth is a little more complicated. With that being said, I’m going to attempt to make this as easy as possible- we’re going to talk about zero sum games, the effects that scarcity and abundance have on the mind, the nature of creativity and sanity, as well as something I call the Generative Force.

Let’s get it.

We’ll begin with scarcity, because this is where everyone starts. As infants, we’re completely dependent on our mothers for care- when our mother leaves, we cry, because we can’t tell if she’s going to come back. This can develop into abandonment issues and other serious problems if she actually doesn’t come back, or if we get neglected too long. However, I’m not going to get into the developmental psych stuff, my point in bringing that up is simply that we’re introduced to the idea of scarcity basically immediately.

We’re always afraid of not having enough, or of there not being enough.

Historically, there wasn’t enough. In most species, the children compete with each other for limited parental resources. Some even eat each other as sustenance, because there isn’t enough food or parental attention to go around.

Life is hard.

Our default mode is scarcity- this is why we’re always comparing ourselves to our neighbors, since in the past, if they did better than us, we were probably doing worse. At least, we look worse in comparison, and psychologically, that’s basically the same thing.

Humans, however, are the first creatures to ever develop a (relatively) continual source of surplus.

Imagine how much easier the lives of people became when large scale farming was adopted. Yeah, maybe not for the farmer himself. However, now you could stop roving around through the woods, wondering where your next meal was coming from. Now in comparison to that, imagine how much easier the lives of people became when grocery stores were invented. Or McDonalds- which, unpopular opinion, has done more to help the poor than any charity, ever.

Humans are distinct in the animal kingdom by virtue of their capacity for abstract thought, and from this capacity, we observe patterns and manipulate them. We invent, and innovate, and improve.

There are two really important things to understand here.

One, when you’re competing for a finite supply of resources, you’re participating in what is called a zero-sum game. This means that if there’s 100 bites of food available, every bite you take means one less for your neighbor. This is why we compete.

However, with invention and innovation, we actually increase the number of (let’s just keep the metaphor rolling) bites of food available- if you start farming, now there’s 1000, if you discover fertilizer, you get 2500, and so on. What this means is that after a certain point, we’re no longer constrained to a zero-sum game, since there is so much food available that lots of it goes to waste. There’s more than we could even eat if we all stuffed ourselves, all the time- and lots of people are trying to.

The second thing you have to understand is that our psychology has not caught up with the facts of abundance. If the entirety of biological history is one of zero-sum games, then you better be damn sure that your brain doesn’t even register the last 100 years of relative abundance. This is a small part of why people are so overweight- your brain is convinced that starvation is just around the corner, even though it’s very likely not.

Now, this isn’t just a food metaphor, it applies to money, too. This is something people really have trouble with, so I’ll try and be careful and brief here. In the past, there was a finite amount of either gold or jewels or spices, or whatever the currency of the day happened to be. This amount was only increased by mining or discovery of new sources, or perhaps by innovation in salt collection, you get the gist. The easiest way to get more was to raid people who had the thing you wanted- take that, Joneses.

Nowadays, however, it’s possible to create wealth that didn’t exist before. We’re no longer in a zero-sum environment- if I invent Facebook, there’s now something that didn’t exist before. I don’t have to steal 50% of MySpace’s company to do so (even if they do end up stealing their users- RIP Tom’s friends). There is more wealth in the world than there was 100 years ago.

The face of a broken man.

Now, remember the bit about psychology not keeping up with the times?

This is why so many people hate rich people- because the average person is stuck in the zero-sum scarcity mindset, they believe that the only way that other people succeed is by preventing them from succeeding. Aside from the fact that this is absolutely preposterous, it’s also pretty pathetic. The Google guys didn’t rob you to get rich, people voluntarily engaged with them because they provided a valuable service. This is basically the same thing as people who are giant losers and blame the “reptile people” or some other “global conspiracy” for their lack of success. No, asshat, you’re a loser because you smoke pot all day in a basement and don’t have a job, no one cares about you enough to actively suppress you. This is true of both sinister conspiracies and the notion that the rich are exploitative.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done a group project with people, but it’s a nightmare. The fact that people can even work together at all is continually astounding to me. The people who tend to buy into these conspiracies are almost always people that have no idea how to get a group to do anything, let alone know how to make a product that people want to buy. This is the same thing with a business- it’s hard to make something that people like, and people tend to like dumb stuff.

Creativity is hard. It’s a testament to how low the bar has fallen for modern art that there’s popular art at all- historically, if you’re making something new or innovative, no one understands it until after you’re dead, hence the starving artist. There seems to be something inherent to the nature of creativity that if you’re doing something truly original, you’re not going to be recognized by the vast majority of people. This is why pop music is mostly always dumb and the really great musicians are largely unheard of.

This shouldn’t be taken as an indicator that the universe is horrible and God hates us because he’s inflicted us with Justin Bieber (and a popular female rapper who shall not be given the dignity of being named) while Rush took decades to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and The Protomen languish unfairly in obscurity. (That being said, it’s not an uncompelling argument, at times.) No, I take a different angle.

I like to call the underlying thing that animates life the Generative Force. This is the thing that drives creative people to create, as well as what moves evolution. It’s what’s behind the tendency towards complexity and the Will to Order– some of us are compelled to create. I don’t write all the stuff on this site because I just like writing- I write because if I don’t, I don’t feel sane or complete. I have to produce something, I would be less of myself without it.

This is why starving artists exists- no one wants to starve and be unrecognized, but when you have something within you that has to be expressed, you will be willing to give up anything to do so.

It seems to be the case that the application of the Generative Force comes at a cost- the alchemical concept of equivalent exchange(for something to be gained, something of equal value must be lost). Now I’m not a huge subscriber to that notion, and the whole idea of human creativity is such that we actually get a lot more out of stuff because of increases of efficiency.

However, it does seem that it applies somehow in the actual process of creating. The price of seeing the future is to be isolated from everyone in the present (refer to the myth of Cassandra)- to birth tomorrow, you have to give up your attachments to today.

Why is this? I’ve spent a long time thinking about it, and I have an idea.

I’ve touched on my dual conception of sanity before in Memetic Contagion, but I’m going to hit it from a different angle here. For a refresher, there is objective sanity, which is being in agreement with reality (ie, you can’t argue with gravity existing [go jump off a cliff and prove gravity wrong, see who wins]), and social sanity, which is agreement with “most people.”

I hear a lot of people say stuff like “oh, well, everyone can’t be wrong,” and let me tell you, yeah, they definitely can. Consider the fact that for most of history, people thought the earth was flat.

Yep, everyone was wrong about that.

Let’s imagine that we have a scale from 100 to 0, where 100 is perfect agreement with objective sanity, and 0 is absolute, objective insanity (meaning complete disagreement with the fundamental laws of the world [hardcore schizophrenia, or some dissociative, delusional state]).

Now, throw a bell graph over this axis, with the bell graph representing a normal distribution of people. Most people will be in a state of relatively average agreement with social reality, but social sanity isn’t always in alignment with objective sanity. For example, there are a lot of Scientologists, but they’re all insane, in the sense that they believe in Scientology.

100 is on the left and 0 on the right here.

Most people get their worldview from others rather than from direct observation of reality. This is probably how things are supposed to work, because society would fall apart if every single person in the world was constantly questioning the nature of reality. However, it does introduce a problem- in one of the other Memetics articles, I introduced the idea of lossy information transfer. This means that, like a game of Telephone, I cannot teach you everything I know perfectly.

As a result, the bell graph of social sanity moves closer to 0 as time goes on. Traditions get misunderstood, flexible systems become dogmatic, and myths become facts that are above suspicion. That being said, despite this, we’re much more sane now than we were a thousand years ago, right?

This is the action of the Generative Force.

The creative individual is one who can operate outside of the bell graph that is social sanity and enter into the creative realm. This comes at a cost, though.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said (and I think I’ve quoted before on this site)-

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Remember how I said that most people don’t believe that everyone can be wrong at once? This means that most people will call you crazy if you point that out. Social sanity has no inherent correlation to objective sanity, even if they overlap.

There’s a very old myth I’ve touched on here before called the myth of the wounded healer- this is an archetypal story that is most often associated with shamanic traditions. Generally, the people who were trained to be shamans were those who had encountered some near death experience, illness, or other sickness, and survived it miraculously. This signified the notion that because they “healed themself,” they were given divine authority to heal others in the tribe.

Let’s unpack that- in modern times, if you were really going to understand the nature of the world, first you’d have to get immersed in it. If the world is sick, you have to get sick. When you “take on the sins of the world,” if you will, you are given the opportunity to develop a firsthand understanding of how the ailment operates. If you could then “heal yourself,” you would be qualified to heal others. However, as I have said before- if a person is attached to something, an attack on that thing will be treated as a physical threat to their person.

Interestingly enough, when you get sick, most of the time you only feel ill because of your immune response, rather than the illness itself. In the same way, the medicine can look a whole lot like poison, especially if it’s your way of life that’s killing you. There are plenty of examples of this in our culture that are pretty obvious, so I don’t think I have to go into detail with them.

Where does this leave the creator?

As far as social sanity is concerned, anything new is (basically by definition) insane. Most people cannot understand things that are too advanced (refer to the Pencil metaphor in The Candlemaker’s Fallacy)- imagine shining a flashlight at a caveman, or explaining the blockchain to your grandparents. It’s just not going to work. The creator is much like the shaman- they take on the sickness of the culture and venture beyond the barrier of social sanity, out into the unsane world of chaos. From there, they give up their attachments to the falsehoods of society, and, ideally, come back with something to push society back towards the 100 side of the graph.

Or they go insane and die, or get murdered by the crowd. That happens a lot, too.

So what does this all have to do with the zero-sum-scarcity stuff? If we’re going to convince the people of the world that we’re not in this kill-or-be-killed competitive environment, we’re going to have to show them that their current mindset is wrong. That means destroying their attachments, and that means becoming a perceived threat. Now, as I’ve said before, I have no intention of being martyred, and if you do, go right ahead and do so. Instead, I think we have to work indirectly and develop technologies that allow people to realize this for themselves.

Even the most powerful king in the 1500s couldn’t have used his power to educate as many people as the printing press did. Even the speediest telegrams in the world couldn’t enable the kind of speed of communication that the internet has.

But we’re still teaching people the same way we were in the late 1800s.

We have almost all the resources in the world available in at an almost negligible cost- online, in digital form. I don’t care how many teachers you train, you’ll never have the reach that a good self-educational tool like Wikipedia does. We can’t just say to people, “hey, have an abundance mindset,” we need to show them that there’s a world of opportunity that emerges from this new technological world. You can learn basically anything online- why isn’t everyone doing so already?

We’re attached to the old ways- we believe the old model is the only way to learn, we believe there’s a finite amount of information and resources in the world, and it’s for this reason that the educational system will fail. I don’t care how much you increase the cost of tuition, it’s not going to keep the value of a degree in a world where anyone can learn what you got at Harvard faster and better online. Above all else, technology equalizes.

We owe a great debt to the creatives among us who venture into the unsane and bring us closer to a world where we can be equals- in rights, in education, and in our belief that we all have the capacity to change the world. This is no zero sum game- you have just as much to contribute as anyone else, just as soon as you cast off your attachment to the bitterness of the world we have and begin to pursue the beautiful world that we will create- together as individuals.

Originally Published as:
No items found.