I love wandering around cities. Especially cities I haven’t been to before. There's always weird people to look at, interesting architecture, and parks to enjoy. Recently I visited Washington DC. This is one of my favorite cities to walk around; beautiful buildings, monuments, riverside parks and museums everywhere.
But this last visit, within five minutes of leaving my hotel to wander around the city, I felt a strange foreboding. An underlying anxiety bubbling up that I couldn’t put my finger on. In his novel, “The World According to Garp”, John Irving describes this feeling as the Undertoad. It’s a hidden, internal force that pulls you where you don’t want to go.
Just like a strong undertow in the Ocean.
Once I realized that it was in fact the Undertoad slapping me in the middle of K Street, I recognized the type of force clearly: the force of expectation.
We expect to be fulfilled by the next thing we do; oftentimes, we vaguely even know what that is.
I didn’t have any particular plans on this walk, so my expectations had nothing to latch on to. A lot of my friends (and myself included) go around cities with specific plans in mind: a bar to visit, a restaurant to eat at, a museum to visit.
Without plans, life centers around consumption.
Philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm warned about issues around consumption and their impact not only individually, but on society at large, in his book Art of Loving. Written in 1956, he was a fervent opponent of authoritarianism, but also produced scathing critiques of the effects of capitalism on society.
“Man’s happiness today consists in “having fun.” Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and “taking in” commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies—all are consumed, swallowed. The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones—and the eternally disappointed ones.”
Buying stuff, paying for experiences, finding sites to consume. This is so common. If you’re not consuming, or planning to consume, you might find, like I did, this strange feeling of anxiety, uncertainty, arise.
Fromm believes that we fall into this trap of chasing happiness through consumption; we subconsciously feel that we must maximize “benefit”, or our “personal profit” in every action we take. Thus, the uneasiness we feel with no plans to consume. Where’s the “profit” in wandering with only one’s self as company with no expectations?
Fromm recognized that our culture had become downstream of economics. In other words, we behave in ways that mirror the mechanics of capitalism. He saw this happening 65 years ago, but we still see his prescient idea everywhere today: every new building looks the same (ugly) for the sake of efficiency, liberal arts education is thought of as a “bad deal”, and everything has become financialized, from GIFs to Pokemon cards.
These cultural norms have slowly degraded our underlying social technologies. You can think of social technologies as a society’s operating system of norms, values and expectations. Samo Burja has written about how these social technologies began their decline post-Industrialization. He agrees with Fromm on the self-defeating culture created by a focus on consumption above all else:
“The strange spiritual practices, scientific exploration of human psychology, and at times outright ideological cults of the founding cohort gave way to a more shallow type of knowledge. This was a knowledge of levers and buttons, rather than the first principles which built those levers and buttons.”
In other words, we stopped rewarding and striving to be virtuous, bold leaders with valuable intangible qualities and started focusing on process and efficiency. We lost critical knowledge throughout this process that we’re just starting to wrap our heads around (as an example, we wouldn’t be able to coordinate and succeed at an ambitious project like the Apollo program today, although Operation Warp Speed could get us back on track).
This affects each of us individually in subtle yet profound ways. Fromm argues that the anxiety, the “Undertoad” I felt on my walk that day, can be traced back to our defective social technology rendering us separated from each other, transformed into commodities. He writes:
“Just as modern mass production requires the standardization of commodities, so the social process requires standardization of man.”
This social process has degraded our critical social technologies that have enabled civilization to progress to the point it has: first principles thinking, idolization of virtuous and creative innovators (rather than celebrities and hollow politicians), and a premium on relationships.
This degradation of our social technologies has contributed to the rise of atomization, complacency, and pervasive lack of commitment across Western societies. Burja argues that whatever solution we find to reboot our outdated social technologies will be “very different than anything we’ve seen before.”
To be clear: this is not a call to kill capitalism. As Mike Solana : put it recently:
“We need more than capitalism, which is really just the economic word for freedom. To break the Soviet Union America needed family, God, aspirational technology (the moon was more than rocketry, it was a direction), and a kind of philosophical love of our own country. Almost all of these narratives are broken right now.”
But I’m hopeful about our ability to revive our shared stories.
New Web3 and crypto technologies are creating massive shifts in how people view the world and their own contributions to it (a lot more on this in following essays). In a recent newsletter, entrepreneur Paul Millerd writes that
“we are starting to see the beginning of better options in the digital creator world, online communities, online learning, and within tech more broadly. Optimism is trading at an incredible premium and any company, country, city, or individual that can communicate a persuasive version of it will reap the rewards.”
Incredible optimism coupled with radically new technologies that inherently function around communities may help to create the never before seen social technologies Burja alludes to in order to pull ourselves into a healthier culture, away from the constant pull of consumption.
In the meantime, the next time I’m out walking with no agenda, just knowing that the hidden, dark desire for “fun” living hidden in my mind makes it easier to fight and push away the Undertoad.
I promise there won't be any spam. You'll get sporadic and infrequent emails. But when you finally do, I personally guarantee it'll be worth it.