Half a generation ago, The Matrix (a movie that seems campy today) updated one of the oldest philosophical allegories for the digital age. The Garden of Eden and Plato's Cave gave way to the red pill/blue pill metaphor for a consciousness-awakening moment. In the real world though, there are no blue pills. We do not possess an un-knowing technology that allows us to return to a lost state of innocence. There is, however, something much better we can call a grey pill. While both the meatspace world and online world can provoke red pill moments, only the Internet can reliably supply grey pills. Here's a quick introduction to grey pills in general, and the Internet as one big grey pill (or more precisely, a self-medication pharmacy of grey pills of all sizes).
Lightbulbs in the Middle. Illustration by Grace Witherell.
1/ Have you ever noticed that converting your traditional script-driven friends, even young digitally savvy ones, to new economy values, is very hard?
2/ It can be really hard to convince even an 18-year old smartphone-dwelling smart kid to critically question the credentialist script of degrees, bullshit jobs, and mortgages.
3/ There is a reason for this. New economy values embodied by online culture constitute a grey pill: something that chips away at big and easy answers with a thousand little "yes, but..." questions.
4/ In the real world there are only red pills that awaken your consciousness and grey pills that muddy it, once awakened.
5/ There are no blue pills that allow you to return to the false sense of security provided by a more innocent stage of intellectual development.
6/ A red pill is a dose of information that awakens you to the existence of a world beyond the one you are unconsciously immersed in, like a fish being taken out of water.
7/ Red-pill moments sensitize you to the previously invisible boundaries and structural lies of the world you knew, and make you alive to astounding possibilities beyond it.
8/ They also gain you membership into a community of those who have been awakened by the same red-pill, and recognize each other through various shibboleths.
9/ Red-pill moments are not necessarily moments of mystical enlightenment. They simply reveal to you the finite game-like nature of a specific world.
10/ The meatspace world is great at generating red-pill moments. Every powerful book and every soul-stirring religious sermon contains one.
11/ The online world too, is great at generating red pill moments. Some readers have called my Gervais Principle series a red pill for corporate life.
12/ The problem with red pills is that you can get stuck in a false consciousness created through affiliation with fellow possessors of "secret" (but really just closed off from critical questioning) knowledge.
13/ This is in some ways worse than being unawakened. You convince yourself that you know "the truth" rather than merely being awakened to a few confining lies.
14/ There is, however, a way forward: immersing yourself in a vast sea of information. This chips away at your treasured certainties, one small belief at a time.
15/ This is grey pilling: relearning the value of questioning and doubt once you've been seduced by answers and certainties; leaving comforting "secret" societies for continued growth.
16/ The meatspace world is TERRIBLE at grey-pilling the red-pilled. Because it does not contain information abundance.
17/ Unlike the fragile and leaky filter bubbles of the online world, the filter bubbles of the geographic world are solidly built out of information scarcity.
18/ On the Internet though, despite the loud and strident presence of a long tail of terminally clueless red-pilled subcultures, there is hope for the majority.
19/ A great example is the grey-pilling of Megan Phelps-Roper, a devout member of the Westboro Baptist church, on Twitter.
20/ Often, the story is more complex, instead of being grey-pilled, people may thrash around, flitting from one red-pill subculture to another
21/ This is like a fish on land thrashing from one puddle to another. Fortunately, unlike fish, we can learn a new way of cognitive "breathing" by being grey-pilled.
22/ Ultimately, addiction to red pills is a case of abdication of the responsibility to stay intellectually alive, constantly questioning, learning and growing.
23/ Red pill addicts tend to be hedgehogs who latch on to one Big Idea after another, and being disappointed each time to find that each new world is contained within its own invisible limits and consensual lies.
24/ Not all possess the capacity for being grey-pilled, and fewer still desire it. There is no satisfying Aha! moment of arrival to a new consciousness and a dramatically changed life.
25/ In the view from below in the spiral diagram I've sketched, what Scott Alexander calls the "grey tribe" in this great post can seem ennervated, exhausted, unchanging and passionless. A post-everything blahness.
26/ But this is deceptive. It is only the early stages of being grey-pilled that are marked by cynicism, depression, apparent constant "greyness" and establishmentarian incrementalism.
27/ Once you're done mourning the death of your simpler past selves and regain an appetite for life, you experience an almost imperceptibly slow, but steadily compounding, takeoff into an intellectually alive life.
28/ Your life gets recentered around generative curiosity and openness to experience, you resist the temptation of limiting patterns of affiliation.
29/ In such a state -- ideal for immersion into online streams -- there is no pre-judgment of information as trivial or deep, true or false.
30/ Instead, you learn to learn and grow from every encounter with novelty, be it a new cat picture, a new red-pill philosophy book at the center of yet another online subculture, or a non sequitur new factoid.
31/ Instead of looking for one "big" life changing dose of profundity that you hope will be the last, you learn to craft your own path, out of changes big and small,
32/ You embrace the idea that idea is not to "win" by red pill, but to continue playing by grey pill.
33/ To extend our grand mixed metaphor, to become grey-pilled is to become your own compounding (pun intended) pharmacist, fishing for your own grey growth pills out of the chemical information soup of the Internet.
34/ You might even say, "give a person a red pill, and they will grow for a day, teach a person to grey-pill themselves, and they'll grow for for a lifetime." (this mixed metaphor is now criminally fishy)
35/ Both the Season 1 essays of Breaking Smart, and this newsletter are meant to help you get, and stay, grey-pilled on your own.
36/ On my main blog, ribbonfarm, this is what I call the skill of refactoring perceptions. It's my personal mode of continuously grey-pilling myself. Your path may be different.
37/ While I still enjoy producing and consuming entertaining red pills, I treat them as I do superhero movies: fun escapist productions to enjoy for a while, in the company of not-too-earnest friends.
38/ It is tough to choose the path of increasing complexity, messiness and moral, emotional and epistemological ambiguity. But ultimately that's what it means to choose life over limiting and deeply true-seeming simulations of it.
39/ And to return to the opening point, don't despair if people you care about don't seem to "get" it instantly.
40/ Questioning certainties is a natural behavior. Just keep encouraging them as they do it to themselves. It's a journey, not an event.
41/ I will resist the urge to symbolically extend this newsletter to 42 points. So long for now, and enjoy your grey-pill fishing!
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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr
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