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Stranglehold of forms and formats

Stranglehold of forms and formats

Bruce Lee was a philosopher, among other things. One quote that is widely circulated online is:

Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own. —Bruce Lee

It's a good quote, but it's incomplete. You see, the original aphorism version in his book, Striking Thoughts, is:

“Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.” —Bruce Lee, Striking Thoughts

It is emblematic of today's culture that the "Research your own experience;" part was dropped.

The idea of resisting formality and "systematization" is one of Bruce Lee's main themes, along with radical self-realization and flexibility of thought ("Be like water").

That is what I want to talk about today: how the gradual formalization and automation of online expression is strangling humanity. This is not an exaggeration.

The poison of transactionality

When you log on any social media platform, what do you see?

You see posts created for engagement. The longer a platform has been in existence, the worse this problem is.

Social media platforms become formulaic over time. When a platform is new, there are no established ways to communicate, only some loosely restricted formats: 1 photo + caption, 4 sec video, 140 characters. It's wild west.

The "First Settlers" on these platforms come up with ways of using the formats to express themselves in a novel way. And that's where the stranglehold begins, because others start to copy them soon. They use the same words, with one or two changes. The re-post the same meme, with no changes at all. They follow the TikTok "trend" without adding anything, just because it's popular. This is the formalization and automation of human thought.

Now, imitation is a key part of human nature. That's not the issue. The issue is the transactionality and lack of imagination that these copycat accounts represent and inspire, which end up stunting genuine self-expression.

But before I continue let's make two things clear:

  1. Copying and forms are excellent learning tools.
  2. There are ways to copy well.

The martial art forms

In any martial art, there are forms. I've studied taekwon-do for 9 years, and I've gone through its various forms thousands of times. They involve a precise coordination of movements, and each new form you learn has some new elements that require development of new abilities and skills. It's a great system for learning the foundational techniques.

Then, when you are sparring, you learn to modify the techniques to be at your disposal in a real scenario. You learn the timing, the estimation of distance, how one movement flows from another naturally...

You learn the forms, but in a competition setting, when two people fight, you largely abandon them. Each movement is tailored to that specific moment. Each fight is not something that can be re-created because there are a myriad of variations within it.

In short, each fight is different. Each fight is a unique dance of two individuals expressing their will and skill .

But, I hear you say, how is that relevant to self-expression on the Internet?

Bear with me.

Numbers to leave numbers, form to leave form

Martial artist and chess champion Josh Waitzkin wrote.

“In both my chess and martial arts lives, there is a method of study that has been critical to my growth. I sometimes refer to it as the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill.”
—Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Waitzkin is a master of generalizing an approach to effective learning. Copying to learn is a valid learning strategy for most endeavors. Martial arts, chess, painting, copywriting. Painters often start out by trying to copy the old masters. Copywriters often start by rewriting the copy written by past salesmen.

And therein lies the issue. A lot of people don't "leave form." They copy so clearly that you can see it from a mile off. Instead of the forms being a mere stage of development, they become the destination.

But why is that such a bad thing? Well, let's get idealistic.

It erodes the common good that is social media feed. Every day, people open these apps out of habit, seeking something interesting. And what do they see? The same forms and formulas repeated with slightly different words. The initial novelty fades fast, and once you see the same tweet for the tenth time, what will you feel? Inspiration? Motivation? Insight? Probably not. The transactionally of influencers will be laid bare, and the only influence they'll have is making you annoyed.

Once more, I need to stop myself from ranting more, and return to the second point mentioned above.

The good kind of copying

If we return to the quote, the good kind of copying could be described by the "add what is specifically your own" part.

The good sort of copying is taking form (template, trend, meme), and a new dimension of meaning to it: translating it to another field, adding nuance, making it better. You could argue that the whole phenomenon of a human culture is built by this kind of remixing of ideas. That's all good.

With that said, we return to your regular programming....

What's not good is copying verbatim, changing a word here, a word there, and posting it. Or taking a video and simply reposting it without adding anything at all. You might see this as a minor issue, it's not.

This is the kind of slow asphyxiation of humanity that this essay is about.

You see, we can sense the intent behind a communication quite well, on an instinctual level. We sense if the person is genuine, or if their words are colored by the ugly undertones of transactionality.

This transactionality is everywhere. People using templates, putting in minimal effort, hacking the numbers any way they can. They don't care about the words, they don't care about the people they claim to serve, they don't care about not polluting the common good that is the social media feed. They care only about the numbers. They become "dead behind the eyes" as my friend Craig would say.

We sense this kind of transactionality and we know it's false, on some level of consciousness. This is only made worse by the fact that the platforms boost this stuff because originality or genuine intent is not what the algorithms are designed to detect or weigh. And so, transparent transactionality with no soul becomes popular.

This goes against any notion of generosity. The underlying assumption behind generosity is that you give without expecting to receive. Many claim we live in the world of "abundance," and yet their behavior is profoundly transactional. They act from the beginning with the reward in mind.

Not only does this lead to more transactional behavior because "everyone else is doing it" but it also leads to a profound sameness of thinking.

Let's examine this through the lens of metaphor.

The IKEA of thought

Imagine that everyone would only use IKEA furniture. Every apartment would look the same, like from an extremely dreary version of a Wes Anderson movie. Furthermore, every house would look the same. I cycled past a row of such houses a few times, and let me tell you, it's depressing. There are no differences, no personality, no individuality.

Imagine the whole world living in the same type of house, with the same furniture, and the same bookshelf.

What a horrible world that would be.

This metaphor is one of taking existing forms and formulas, and copying them ad infinitum. And that's exactly what's happening online at scale, only it's slightly less apparent. The same type of content begins to appear, again and again.

I listened to a conversation between Internet creators a while back, and one remarked that he used a tweet template and it "did well" numbers wise, but he didn't feel good about it. Yet, he still tweeted it. I have nothing against him as a person, but this kind of action is the antithesis of genuine action in service of others. That's the creeping poison I'm describing.

Then the people who come to those platforms for the first time adopt those formats without thinking about it too hard. "It works." That's how individuality is shredded by the machine called social media. Instead of using what works as an example, internalizing the principles behind it, and then making something of your own that utilizes those, we just copy and paste. No skill is honed, no individuality expressed. Just Machiavellian transactionality in the open, where anyone with eyes sees it for what it is.

Research your own experience first

And now we return to the original quote:

“Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.” —Bruce Lee, Striking Thoughts

"Research your own experience" is the most important part. Without it, any notion of self-expression dies, and the whole world becomes a copycat conveyor belt. Humanity is lost because technology made it easy to give it up. That's why I don't like the crypto idea of a "trustless" ecosystem. Now, the banking system is hardly the most human system in existence, but the crypto future is even less human. Technology replacing every vestige of human contact. But I digress.

At this point, it's about time I put on my glass-half-full glasses to not leave you dispirited.

What does "researching our experience" mean?

It's a process that is quite natural. As we go about our lives, things happen. To those of us with a reflective nature, we ponder those things. We go on a walk and think. We jot down notes. We talk ideas through with others. We digest those ideas deeply and actually understand their meaning, not just the words. Then, we unhurriedly come to our own conclusions. And that's when we begin to feel the compulsion to express those ideas in any form we're familiar with: text, audio, video, conversation...

This sort of genuine self-expression that is the antithesis of the transactional copying. We cultivate a deep conviction in certain ideas and communicate them with sincerity. This is how we form our character, and how we create lasting relationships. While being genuine is harder than copying others in some regard, it's much more meaningful.

And now we return to the topic of forms and formats online. The genuine and generous people on social media often define their own forms and formats, for they are looking for the best way to express their ideas. Yes, they operate within the context of each platform, but they bend those to express themselves as earnestly as possible. The metrics are an afterthought, the intent is the key thing. Those are the posts that attracted us to those services in the first place, besides cat videos.

This is how we create the Internet that is truly inspiring, not #motivational. The more people act frankly on the Internet and seek to actually help, the better. Each of those people is a flame of hope, fighting the stranglehold of metric optimisation and Machiavellian transactionality.

So that is my message to you. Don't skip the first step. Research your own experience. Be generous and genuine in your expression, so that it actually is an expression of your honest self, and not a re-hashed soulless cash grab.

“Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.”

I have copied this quote several times by now. However, I believe I’ve done my research and added what is essentially my own too.