Training the Self

How personal improvement is the new religion… and the old one too

What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.
It is always the same step, but you have to take it.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars (quoted in Rubin, 103)

Pilgrim’s Progress on Steroids

John Buchan wrote The Thirty Nine Steps and many other thrillers set in the era of the Great Game. They are classics of a kind, but very much of their time – xenophobic, colonialist and chauvinistic at their best. I was struck recently by an article claiming that Buchan’s writing exhibited a ‘Christian existentialism’. My understanding of this was that unlike the country house mysteries of Agatha Christie, there is no question of whodunit. Instead the hero of a Buchan novel knows very well that he is running for his life. The question is one of survival. Also, unlike the country house mystery, there is no cosy coterie of neighbours who are all potential suspects. Instead it’s almost always one or two plucky heroes alone against the perilous world. This is an individualist quest for salvation. I found it amusing to imagine the great chases through the Scottish Hills as a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress on steroids — and with much higher stakes.

You must change your life

I stood in a bookshop recently for considerably longer than planned, to skim through Peter Sloterdijk’s book You Must Change Your Life. Sloterdijk is a German TV presenter and philosopher who seems in recent years to have taken on the mantle of the greatest living prophet of European philosophy. He seems much more conservative, however, than that other chief contender for the title, Alain Badiou. He is also both a follower of and a challenger of Nietszche.
There is a great deal of interesting stuff in YMCYL, far more than could be accessed in a few minutes standing at a book shelf (see this review, for instance). But the basic idea is that Nietszche’s death of God was perceived as a tragedy, because of the realisation that there is now no-one to tell us how to live our lives. The only thing we have left is the obvious feeling that we could be doing it better, that improvement of the self is not entirely beyond our reach. Between Nietszche’s time and ours, says Sloterdijk, there has been a great proliferation of training regimes, schemes to help us to live better. We look to all sorts of teachers, trainers and gurus to learn the right techniques. He presents a brief typology of these in his book. In fact, he says, we are living in an era of ‘anthropotechnique’, in which we are encouraged to improve systematically.
Actually, though, he claims, we were always doing this. Religion never really existed. Religious leaders were always what we would now call ‘personal trainers’ and religions were never anything but misunderstood training regimes. Unlike Nietszche, Sloterdijk very much approves of Socrates and Jesus in this respect. Indeed the idea of religion as personal training regimen makes some sense. One thinks of the Rule of St Benedict, of the Ignatian Exercises, of the Methodist class. Certainly training the self has been an important strand of Christian piety.

Better than Before

There is a lot to like in Sloterdijk’s approach. Gretchen Rubin has recently published a book called Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives. After reading Sloterdijk it’s hard to avoid seeing such a title as the latest in a long line, not just of self-help books, but of spiritual exercises along the lines of Sloterdijk’s claims.

Where I would take issue with Sloterdijk, however, is with his belief that we are now secular and that our secularity can be projected backwards into the religious past to make sense of it. I don’t believe that religion never existed. Actually, I’d argue the opposite. It’s not that religion never existed. Rather it’s that secularism does not and will never exist. At least, to be less sweeping than Sloterdijk, religion never really seems to go away, does it? It just mutates into something less incredible, more acceptable and self-evidently true to the culture. For example, in John Buchan’s novels, secular heroes in pursuit of secular aims find themselves recapitulating the (existentialist) Christian quest. The age-weary theme of personal salvation mutates into the plot of a best-selling thriller. I do agree with Sloterdijk that these days, personal training, self help, is our common religion. And like all great religions, it only works when we see it as nothing more or less than practical common sense. Whereas Sloterdijk claims it was never religious, so religion can’t be on the return, I would claim it was always religious, so religion was never on the wane.

Permitted to be Mediocre

So why does this matter? If Sloterdijk is right about religion, that it has always been all about training, we should probably be satisfied with our lot. Membership at the local/global gym, lifehacking websites, books like Better than Before are the best we have any right to expect. After all, if God is dead, anything is permitted to be mediocre (to misquote Dostoevsky). This line of thought seems reminiscent of mid-Twentieth Century social democracy – the kind that was content to put up identical rows of cheap concrete tower blocks in place of the great buildings that both sides in the war had bombed – and without a hint of shame to call it progress, the very definition of the word modern. But if I am right, on the other hand, we should expect much more of our contemporary and emerging religion. The old religion included plenty to be critical of but at least it was impressive. If, now, training is all, we should set much higher standards for our present day training regimes. In place of the Ten Commandments, we have accepted seventeen rules for a flatter tummy. This is an aesthetic and moral capitulation. To give up St Peter’s Basilica and trade it in for a Fitness First gym on every corner doesn’t seem like a good deal to me. I’m not saying the Ten Commandments and St Peter’s are presently fit for purpose. I am saying that what has replaced them barely is. Ironically, then, it seems I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. When it comes to the religion of our time, I still believe we can, collectively, be better than before.

Note: I have been testing out Dave Winer’s new blogging platform, and making it an excuse to learn MarkDown. You can check out the result if you like.

Image credit: Illustration for Pilgrim’s Progress, Gertrude Hermes. CC Ross Griff

Data retention: an unworkable law devised in bad faith

Girl with a dead canary. Source: wikipediaYou should probably know, dear readers, that a journalist information warrant to secure data retention for this website does not exist and is not currently being applied for.

This statement may now render me liable to two years in an Australian prison.

Sorry to any regular readers who don’t like partisan rants. Leave the page now. Normal service will resume shortly. Maybe.

I’m cross because both main parties in the Australian Senate agreed to pass a very flawed bill on data retention. Here is just one of the many ridiculous and offensive clauses taken from the third reading of the bill, which was voted into law quite comfortably by people who should know better about technology and who have little regard for human rights. I am happy to  break this law flagrantly and will continue to do so until it is repealed. The statement at the start of this post might be breaking Section 182A of the new Act in two different ways. I encourage all Australians who care about privacy, government overreach or poor legislation to put the statement on their websites and emails, then turn themselves in to the police. Don’t worry if you don’t have a computer – to attract a two year jail sentence you can just speak the phrase into your phone.

182A  Disclosure/use offences: journalist information warrants

(1)  A person commits an offence if:

(a)  the person discloses or uses information; and

(b)  the information is about any of the following:

(i)  whether a journalist information warrant (other than such a warrant that relates only to section 178A) has been, or is being, requested or applied for;

(ii)  the making of such a warrant;

(iii)  the existence or non‑existence of such a warrant;

(iv)  the revocation of such a warrant.

Penalty:  Imprisonment for 2 years.

You can read more, and take part in the campaign to #stopdataretention.

Watch the deceptively softly-spoken Senator Scott Ludlam’s critique of the bill.

the Australian Government still can’t tell us how much it will cost; most importantly, they can’t tell us how they would protect the data which is now going to be something of a honey pot for people with malicious intent – and most importantly, they can’t tell us how trapping and storing the private information and the records of 23 million innocent people will make us safer or reduce the incidence of crime.

Finally, thank you to the 16 senators who voted against.




Coding is still not the new literacy


If coding isn’t the new literacy, what is?

According to Chris Granger, modeling is.

Modeling is creating a representation of a system (or process) that can be explored or used… To put it simply, the next great advance in human ability comes from being able to externalize the mental models we spend our entire lives creating.

Incidentally, this is corroborated by Douglas Rushkoff’s very brief history lesson, Social Control as a Function of Media, in which he predicts that the corporate controllers will only encourage  programming skills when the programs of the masses can already be assimilated.


The A=href test

How to spot a model that actually works

The feedback loop as a symbol for life in the 21st Century

self-organisation is a high-level property that emerges from the underlying network, not a feature of any of the individual components.

This has interesting consequences. Where any part of the mechanism is sensitive to the environment, the whole self-organising loop can be too.

Here’s an example from the Resilience Alliancethe adaptive cycle – that maps nicely onto the four cultures of cultural theory:

the adaptive cycle

See also: redundancy and resilience

Bias: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature

“Kahan’s argument about the woman who does not believe in global warming is a surprising and persuasive example of a general principle: if we want to understand others, we can always ask what is making their behaviour ‘rational’ from their point of view. If, on the other hand, we just assume they are irrational, no further conversation can take place.”

How to inspire people with prize money


Would you put in more effort if you thought you could win a large cash prize?

What about if that prize was broken up into a series of smaller prizes – how hard would you work then?

‘In praise of big prizes’ at the Freakonomics site, had some advice for a professor at the University of Texas who changed his practice of handing out cash prizes to students in favour of a more level system.

The author writes that actually,

“larger top prizes and a steeper prize gradient will elicit more effort than a flatter gradient, one with more prizes of smaller amounts (Lazear and Rosen, 1981).”

He suggests that a large amount of prize money is what motivates top sports people such as Tiger Woods, and that perhaps the professor could adapt and use this approach in an educational setting:

“he would get better written work if he went back to the old system, just as Tiger Woods is better motivated by a big winning prize for a whole tournament than he would be by small prizes for having the best score in a particular round.”

In a previous post on Fourcultures about Fatalist development aid I noted how schemes to randomly assign cash handouts to poor people seem to work quite well. According to the Economist, though, there are situations in which conditional handouts work better. In one example, would-be aid recipients were required to submit a business plan before going into the lottery.

Perhaps these schemes using contrived randomness, a Fatalist strategy, would be better if they used high value tournaments instead – a very Individualist strategy.

One small problem is that the prize money that seems to motivate Tiger Woods to get out of bed is slightly higher than that available in college classes or in development aid programmes.

First prize for the 2013 US Masters  tournament was $1,440,000. That’s quite a lot of money. Even the 50th placed golfer still won $20,160.

In contrast, the top University of Texas student paper won $1,500. In even starker contrast, Kenyan villagers identified by the charity Give Directly receive $200.

“We send each recipient household a total of $1,000 over one to two years, or $200 per household member for the average household. Our analysis suggests that this amount is fair, well-understood, and potentially transformative.”

When Individualism can provide a US Masters level of money to colleges and to poor villages in Africa, maybe then its policy prescriptions will be more credible.

See also: Fatalist development aid

[image credit: public domain, pixabay]