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Saturday, September 16, 2000

Club 23

"Sincerity is the key to success. Once you can fake that, you've got it made."

I am a terrible magician because I want to share all my secrets. My greatest joy comes from seeing and making new things, and part of that means giving everyone around me as many tools as I possibly can. In the end, I achieve my goals in one sense, in seeing and participating in great progress, but I undermine myself at the same time in subtler and insidious ways. When you lift someone up onto your shoulders, they can't help but to look down on you. And when you show them your tricks, they can't help but to be less impressed by the results. My first focus in writing is to present my ideas as obviously as possible, and thus my greatest success is when someone goes from not believing or understanding to saying "that's obvious!". It's a dubious success.

The opposite approach is to be the magician, to study the audience and learn how to conjure up in them the results you want, where no move is made at face value, where the relationship is more teacher/student (or salesman/mark) than teacher/teacher. Ideas are expressed opaquely, like a Microsoft user interface, so that people are impressed by their apparent difficulty, and can feel clever as they decipher its pieces. In the extreme case, criticisms and complements are portioned out by prescription, where the goal is not to cure or improve but to addict.

Pulled tight between these two attractors is Club 23. I will be curious to see which way it goes.

This tug-of-war is often confused with the question of superiority and differentiation. Generally, openness and honesty are tied to a relatively homogeneous view of humanity, whereas the magician's approach (which one might better call the Phd or academic approach--the "clique") is associated with differentiation and superiority. One look at the Phd industry illustrates most aspects of this very clearly.

It is a false pairing that forces a decision between two bad options: To be a clique, or to view society as homogenous?

The obvious truth, of course, is that people are different, and along any given axis you'll most likely find groups of people who are different in the same way. Value, being a subjective thing, can be measured from any direction, and hence "superiority" is merely an expression of personal taste. I can safely consider myself superior to the rest of the world in many ways without having a superiority complex--because I am equally aware of the ways I am inferior from other people's tastes and contexts. Society is not homogeneous, and there will always be people who deeply and irreparably grate against my own goals and values.

But recognizing this inhomogeneity does not force me to be the magician, to segregate myself more than I inherently am. Richard Feynman is a good example of someone who bridged this gap: You do not have to learn my private language in order to hear what I have to say. The key, perhaps, is simply to have the confidence to show people the obviousness of what you are doing, and to recognize and acknowledge the subjectivity of your own values. But recognizing subjectivity is quite the opposite of denying that fundamentally different contexts exist.

Create your clubs, your research groups, your conferences and pow-wows, concentrate and amplify your greatest values, in support of your ultimate goals. Just don't let segregation itself become the goal, nor your participation in it your measure of value, and beware the false security of acceptance and comradery, as these traits meant to support our broader goals can become attractors themselves, pulling us into a never-ending orbit of long-term complacency.

Which brings me to another concern about Club 23, a concern carried over from it's neo-Objectivist origins: The "all talk, no action" attractor. But the degree of participation there is very subjective on the definition of "action", of course, so perhaps it is unfair to call my red flags anything other than personal taste conflicts. I am, nonetheless, warily reminded of the reciprocal back-patting of a multi-level personal-growth seminar, where all this energy is directed toward success for success's sake--in the end just a giant ball of cotton candy consisting of a spoonful of sugar and some artificial coloring.

I guess my trepidations make me a model member. To reverse a Woody Allen quote: "Club 23: The club that will have no member who would want to be a member."

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com