In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a hallucinating idiot. -- Marshall McLuhan
Four years ago, Dylan Walker and I were googling podcasting gear and practicing interviewing each other in his parents’ house. Rebel Wisdom was the coolest podcast for nerds in town, providing that much more depth than Joe Rogan (Future Thinkers and Emerge were also interesting - what happened to them?
). Strange conversations were happening in public on the internet, and it felt like something was happening. I was one year out of university, with 6 months experience in a startup, a mental breakdown, and an intuition about podcasts under my belt. I was working in a bar, withdrawing from my stoner friends, the seeds of Technosocial growing in my mind.
Clearly, things are still in motion. This field report summarizes some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I hope it will be of interest, assistance, or curiosity to others creating on this frontier.Early days.
In the early days of Technosocial, I was operating on a hunch, derived more or less from Intellectual Dark Web conversations on Joe Rogan, Jordan Hall’s descriptions of how society was transforming, and Marshall McLuhan’s writings on media. Something was happening with these podcasts and YouTube channels. People were connecting and having those lovely “long form” discussions (cliché, yes) about taboo topics: sex, religion, drugs, the insanity of wokeism. I figured if I started emailing people and inviting them to recorded conversations, I might be able to get into the party. I was right.
It turns out the backstage area of the internet is conspicuously open. Most people with public voices have email addresses or social media profiles that can be found without too much strain. A bit of curiosity, charm, and presumptuousness goes a long way. Sure, the mainstream and the mega-elite are nigh on unreachable, but the cultural underground is suddenly McLuhan’s global village. And connections flower. “You should speak to this person” leads to some very quick and unexpected friendships and alliances.
At the same time, a widening gulf was opening between people who get their culture online, and those who get it from TV and the old media. In the early days, it seemed like the only cultural reference point for “normies” was “online alt-right cult”. These days, it’s more relaxed, as more and more people have shifted online and realized what a wild west internet culture is. Still, conversations move fast in new media, and if you’re not part of them, you have a lot of catching up to do, and a lot of TV-era cholesterol to clean out.
The flipside of this is that meeting people in real life who share the same internet culture is usually a joy. There is the inevitable five minutes of awkwardness, as you both adjust to the fact that the familiar talking head has a body and a height,
often quite unlike what you expected. But then it’s mind-fucking pleasure. You will probably scare everybody else in the café or restaurant, though.
One last reflection on the early days is the short life span of everything. This is a topic that will return throughout this report. Here, it’s just worth mentioning that the initial podcasts and voices that kicked off the cultural movement quickly became boring. It may be that you have two options: you stay with the curiosity, the experiments, and have no idea where you will end up; or you try to achieve a particular political or social goal, and end up having the same conversations over and over again. I started to feel the latter, both in my own interviews, and in those I was listening to: there is only so much “Hi Dave, what’s going wrong and what should we do about it?
” you can take. The former is more freaky, but uncomfortable for those who want to save the world.The Men’s Movement
Fast forward a bit. A pandemic happened. The Stoa was founded. The writers added Cadell Last to the cast for Season 3 in a stroke of scripting genius. I was hanging out with the European tantric and men’s work communities. This led to my first experience of the online world coming into physical space in an explosive way: a European men’s gathering. There is much to be said about men’s work, which I will not say here. If it calls to you, explore it.
My interest in this report is in what can be learned from these experiments in online communities. The core group we were part of maintained an absurdly creative network, fronted by an unlikely pair: a flamboyant Zoroastrian ex-popstar, queer icon, and guru of sex, drugs, and psychoanalysis, and a rock-solid Orthodox Christian, champion of discipline, structure, purpose, and masculine virtue. Yet precisely this strange alchemical pairing attracted a mixture of experimental weirdos and strong, no-bullshit “do-ers”.
A major outcrop of this mixing pot was the Maniphesto Media Academy
, started by me, Andrew Sweeny, and Eskil Avelon. This was an online education project inspired by the work of Zak Stein and Ivan Illich, intending to teach a group of men the philosophy ideas we had been hacking through the last few years. Andrew and I are both dreamers, and Eskil helped nail us to the ground, build an operating process that worked, and sail our ship without crashing it.
Unfortunately, we still crashed. The details can be left to those who were there, but it is important to note that the group struggled with the same battles over sex, drugs and religion that define and divide politics en masse.
The old occult maxim “as above, so below” comes to mind here; the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. The outcome was that much of our camp broke off and began to explore alternative online and in person hangouts.
To my mind, a useful outcome of this clash was the framing of men’s work in terms of three realms (credit to Alexender Bard):Realm 1: The realm of bootcamps, personal development, and fixing your shit. Often needs a dogma (do X and expect Y results).
Realm 2: The realm of debate, dialogue and learning. Multiple dogmas in clash, contradiction, and hopefully mutual growth.
Realm 3: The realm of tantra. Sex, drugs, psychoanalysis. No dogma.
While this framework was developed to make sense of the men’s work dilemma, it provides a helpful way for thinking about cultural activities more generally, as well as the types of cultural conflict that arise. (Daniel Dick pointed out that it maps well onto the Buddhist hinayana, mahayana and vajrayana - enlightenment for me, enlightenment for everyone, and enlightenment for everyone, quickly.
A point of pitfall for many projects, including projects led by people who might be reading this, is to be naive or unreflective about sex, drugs, conflict, and the types of moral and religious values around them. Especially
in groups trying to work with the foundations of human beings and human culture, envisioning better futures and more flourishing ways of living. In fact, I’m quite shocked and stunned that so many “meta” and “spiritual” conversations don’t go anywhere near this stuff.
Having been through the storm, it looks like many more shipwrecks are just waiting to happen. It could also be that the unconscious assumptions of North American-British-Scandinavian tolerant neopuritanism-plus-a-bit-of-polyamory are functioning well enough to hold these things together (for now).
Lots of “mainstream” projects (ie. most workplaces) get away without these reflections precisely because the assumptions and dogmas about sex, violence and drugs are so strong that they’ve become invisible. Don’t get high on the job, or you will be fired. Don’t fuck your colleagues on the job, or you will be fired (increasingly flirting is tabooed too - there’s your neopuritanism). Don’t argue about religions or say anyone’s values are stupid, or you’ll be sent to HR. Etc. etc. Similar reflections can of course be applied to family life.
Groups experimenting with sex, drugs, conflict and new values cannot expect to fall back on simple behavioral dogmas. This is what makes these groups fun and able to think and express novelty - but also makes them intensely volatile.
Anyhow, in retrospect, one of the big tragedies about our
split was that highly open, creative people like me, Andrew and those who joined our Academy, lost contact with many of the conscientious and disciplined characters who could help us build things. The alliance of priests and warriors, or artists and managers (as it plays out variously in history) seems an important one. When there is capital involved, these alliances and relationships can be established all the more easily and fruitfully for those involved. On the digital frontier at the moment, most of the artists and creatives I know are struggling to feed and house themselves, let alone create structure and teams around them, unless they happen to also have computing skills, or made it big already. There are few, if any, intermediate organizations existing to grow grassroots voices into cultural forces. The small labels and festival circuits have not been established.
Undoubtedly, there is some that we can learn from our cousins in the entrepreneurial sigma-grindset griftosphere. However, I find the brutal technocapitalist atomization and “personality-as-a-startup-company” toolkit antithetical to the spirit of art, past a certain point (maybe it’s just because I’m an old technosocialist). There is a wide gulf between being an abyssal Nietzschean singularity, on the one hand, and a neurotic sleep-stats-and-calendar optimizer, on the other. At any rate, I suspect that this is a problem that needs solving if our aim is to scale up and offer more than a quirky alternative to Netflix.
A last learning, which echoes the one mentioned early, was again to be reminded of the short lifespan of things on the internet. In the space of 12 months, we thought up a project, launched it, built a community, and separated painfully from the main colony. This rapid “cell division”, as it often occurs to me to think of it, may be a feature, not a bug, of networks in creativity, and needs to be planned for and steered carefully.Parallax Sangha
Parallax Sangha got going in the autumn after leaving Maniphesto. It was the same core group, plus a host of new intakes. Technically, it didn’t last very long (about 5 months) before it separated, but there was a lot
to learn from in that time. It was a great experiment and revealed some of the deep challenges of digital group dynamics.
We brought in new blood, which was exciting, and likely confusing for many of said newcomers. It was never clear exactly who was in the old cohort and who was new. In reflection, I understand why schools, guilds, companies and cults of all sorts find ways to mark degrees of seniority. If you don’t have an explicit hierarchy, you end up with an implicit one anyway, which is murky and messy, especially when things get tense. Marking off grad students from undergrads, or adepts from neophytes, helps everyone to understand who is who and how they know each other; it also makes it more obvious who to speak to for help, and how progression within the community works. The craft of building clear and meaningful hierarchies and passages of progression and initiation is one I certainly intend to spend more time studying.
Similarly, introductory and initiatory programs into groups are worth considering. One of the consistent pieces of feedback from the older cohort was that they felt the first year curriculum gave them a solid grounding navigating the network environment (it combined McLuhanite media theory, classes on education, Girardian mimetic theory, sexual difference and tantra, amongst other topics). With year two, Andrew and I launched into teaching esoterica and the occult, without the introductory program, which might have been valuable to repeat for the new intake. When digital culture moves so fast, and theoretical foundations are quickly taken for granted, it is probably worth regularly revisiting the ideas that were popular a year or two ago, revamping them, and making sure everyone is up to date.
Another messy but highly instructive dynamic in the Parallax Sangha emerged around digital and in person meetings. The community began to establish a meaningful physical presence, with several members meeting regularly, planning, partying, and even moving in together. However, not all members were able to attend the physical meetings. The core of the community remained online, but a simultaneous momentum began to pick up amongst members who were meeting semi-regularly in physical space. I was stood in the middle, able to feel both, and it was painful, because the two seemed often to be pulling and envisioning futures in different directions.
Filip Lundstrom, one of the old cohort, pointed out that this situation could be thought of in terms of Hegel’s triad “Abstraction, Negation, Concretion”. (Filip has published a recent article on network theory in Cadell Last’s Nietzsche anthology, coauthored with David Hogburg). Put simply, an idea is abstract, until humans go through the messy labour of trying to bring it into reality. Along the way, it has to confront all its internal (and often invisible) contradictions, a process of negation, until what remains is the concrete manifestation of the idea. This concretion often ends up looking quite different to how things were originally and abstractly conceived.
Parallax Sangha went through its own messy Abstraction-Negation-Concretion process, and now we are looking at the pieces and trying to figure out exactly what the concretion is and means. However, more interesting
is the way this process happened across the digital-physical divide. At the physical meetups, the abstract ideas and inspirations of the community were tested in flesh and blood. However, in the online sphere the project remained more abstract, mediated by cyberspace. As a result, concrete communities formed underneath a digital abstraction.
This was exposed painfully when we ran into new conflicts. Again, I will leave the details to those who were there, but the result was that the group(s) decided to split again. Aside from human, all too human clashes, there is something about network culture that is important to learn here. Groups are easily formed, and can meet and go through intense cultural experiences in short spaces of time without core members present. This can pull people in different directions very quickly. People here are smart, fast, and hungry
, and want shit to happen. Ultimately the conclusion might be an obvious one, though it should be stated clearly: despite the convenience of Zoom, there is no substitute for getting important people together in physical space.
A final important lesson from Parallax Sangha relates to a piece of advice that Bard gave Andrew and me. The gist of his point was “be very clear on what is sacred and what is profane, and don’t confuse the two, or try to do them at the same time. Profane activities are those which are done commercially, and demand a price. Sacred activities are those which are not mediated by markets and trade. Are you a business, or are you a monastery?”.
The intention of the Sangha was to be more monasterial, although it asked for a monthly contribution from attendees, and was aiming to reach a certain income per month. In the end, for many, it wasn’t clear what it was. People commented that they felt they either should be paying nothing, or paying a lot more; the monthly, “voluntary” contribution was confusing. Certainly, “spiritual” or monasterial communities do often ask for stipends and contributions to cover costs and meaningful time invested. Furthermore, the sacred vs. profane divide regarding money risks turning money into a dirty thing, a dualism that resurfaces in ugly ways throughout history (stereotypes of Jews, or hatred of prostitutes, comes to mind). We found it a tricky thing get right.
It seems to me going forwards that it is important to be very clear what is “business activity” and what isn’t. Business requires centralized planning and coordination, and promises a standard of service and quality in exchange for a fee. Non-business activity can be more experimental and fluid, because it doesn’t set up the same promises and expectations. We tried to build a community that was experimental and fluid, and asked for a stipend to be part of it. It didn’t provide enough income to remain stable. The outcome has been the separation into: the Parallax Academy, where Andrew Sweeney, Tom Amarque, and others will continue to collaborate and build; The Technosocial Institute, which I will be developing; and an as yet nameless community of salons and experiments, building up projects including a planned Borderland camp.
Clearly, “profane” and “sacred” activity can take place under one roof - consider a bar, or a coffee shop, hosting important salons and performances while charging money for tickets and drinks. I don’t think we found the right balance with Parallax Sangha. And so, as previously, the cell splits, and new life emerges.Conclusion.
Going forwards, the questions of concretion and money are foremost in my mind. Taking the abstract ideas that have been explored and discussed via podcasts and internet forums for the past few years, and turning them into concrete entities, institutions, and art, will be fun as hell, and messy. If the past offers any clues as to the future, there will be more splits, more clashes, and more unpredictability.
In this field report, I have attempted to lay out the key lessons I have learned in previous years on the frontline. I have done this partly for my own sake, and partly for those who are considering or who are already building their own visions of the digital frontier. If there is a next step, it seems obvious to me that we (or I) need to get smarter about building structures and capital, and to think strategically about using them to create events, platforms, publications and performances that concretely embody our culture.
Expect more blogs and podcasts to follow from The Technosocial Institute soon. And if you’re a creator seeking guidance or professional looking to collaborate, check out our site