When You Destroy the Tools of Creativity

Kyla Scanlon is, in her own words, an educator, creator and author, and in my words she is one of the most interesting fresh voices in finance today. Please take a look at kyla’s Newsletter on Substack, because it’s really good, and @kylascan is an instafollow on Twitter (or whatever you want to call that platform). You can contact Kyla directly via email at [email protected].

As with all of our guest contributors, Kyla’s post may not represent the views of Epsilon Theory or Second Foundation Partners, and should not be construed as advice to purchase or sell any security.

Oh, Apple

Apple released an ad to highlight their new iPad Pro with the M4 chip. That’s fine. Great, even. New technology is phenomenal! But what Apple also did in this ad was use a hydraulic press to crush musical instruments. It was meant to show how skinny-coded their new iPad is, but if anything, it just felt sad. Like oh gosh, they just crushed creativity? Culture? Of course, if their goal was to get people talking, they achieved that.

It was an accidental metaphor[1] that hit a little bit too close to home (as Leiris wrote, it’s hard to know where metaphor begins and where it ends). A absolute smushing of things that people love to make another little screen that we stare into. People are comparing it to Apple’s 1984 advert, where the opposite happened – a hammer breaks a TV, turning the world into color, in this ad, the color is stamped out by industrial machinery. Ben Mullin:

In “1984,” a dissident throws a hammer through a TV screen, symbolizing humanity’s power to conquer technology. In this ad, a hydraulic press crushes beloved cultural artifacts, symbolizing technology’s power to conquer humanity.

Oh, Apple. We are in an age of tremendous uncertainty. Trust has evaporated, something I wrote about in my last newsletter. But agency, the individual expression of trust, has declined too – and it’s because of things like this accidentally completely horrific Apple ad. 

Agency as a Function of Trust

There are all sorts of studies talking about how people don’t trust anything anymore. We don’t trust the government, the media, Wall Street, the President, the military, or each other. And of course, one could point a finger to bipartisanship and polarization, city design and car culture, rage bait and algorithmic incentives as reasons for the decline in trust.

But trust is very big. It happens on a large scale, a somewhat liquid expression of the confidence that people have in institutions, systems, other people. Trust is everything – it’s the foundation for public health, voter turnout, policy preferences, etc. But because we’ve evolved into this strange low-trust high-stakes no-action society, we’ve lost an element of agency, or the individual expression of trust.  

Agency is sort of an ephemeral term, one that could fit perhaps uncomfortably well in a conversation at Burning Man. It wades a little bit into the free will debate and determinism and the idea that maybe everything is random anyway and we just fit our internal models to the world around us. But for these purposes, agency, or how people feel about their ability to make decisions, is an expression of trust in the world around them.

And to be fair, we seem to have an element of agency. There are studies showing that people feel fine about their personal financial situation but completely terrible about the national financial situation and showing that people love their congressman but hate Congress (Fenno’s paradox). A perfect petri dish of individual expectations and national outcomes.

And we’ve seen an interesting amount of what seems to be the expression of agency with the rise of things like ‘quiet quitting’ or ‘the Great Resignation’ (which to be fair, could be more an expression of economic strength than individual freedom).

Types of Agency

But there are two types of agency[2] – an external locus of control and an internal locus of control – life happens to me (external) versus I happen to life (internal). We clearly have both. For example, people are likely to attribute wage increases to themselves (internal) but price inflation to policy (external) as Stefanie Stantcheva of Harvard has documented.

But, at large, we increasingly have an external locus of control that absolves us of responsibility in decision-making around our life. 

  • In her book iGen, Jean Twenge documents the shift of the youth over the past 60ish years to a more external locus of control.
  • In her 2004 paper, she talks about the alienation model, how the rise of individualistic values increase egoist tendencies, or blaming bad stuff on other people and crediting good things to yourself.
  • There are all sorts of negative consequences to this, like higher rates of depression and anxiety.

Everyone wants a God, and because of that, everyone needs a devil. The devil has come in the form of skepticism, the form of distrust, the immediate outrage at anything not immediately familiar. And God is nowhere to be found. 

There are the very clear visible culprits to an external locus of control, like structural affordability problems and actual institutional failure, but there are also deep undercurrents of a lack of agency. My theory is that in order to even begin thinking about rebuilding trust, we have to start by rebuilding agency.  In order to rebuild it, we have to figure out how it happened.

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  1. Avatar for drrms drrms says:

    Thanks for the note and for the many great observations and pointers.

    I loved the Merton quote and I think that it brings up the heart of the matter regarding agency:

    Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives … They wear our their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experience or write somebody else’s poems.

    One way or another, agency is inextricably intertwined with God - i.e., that there is something within each of us that is utterly unique and omnipresent. How do we develop a relationship with that?!

    You mentioned the “bifurcated economy” but I think the deeper underlying issue is our bifurcated consciousness that imagines that there are “things out there that we can manipulate and control” and that places subjectivity as inherently inferior to objectivity. We actually believe today that our own subjectivity is a hallucination.

    Attention … ah, yes … raw attention - without classification, without judgement, with wonder. We need more of that. That is the source of Connection.

    Lately I’ve been aware of how driving in my car is such a disconnected experience. I regularly drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and so get to watch all the beautiful nature go whizzing by my window. It’s not exactly the same thing as walking amidst it.

    Localism involves all the senses. It involves time and energy. A friend from church asked if I could bring my tractor over and grade his driveway. It will take half a day or more of my time and will bring me no obvious economic benefits. I will do it.

    Here’s a nice reminder from Prince to not be fooled by the internet

  2. Yes, yes.

    Here’s one poet’s attempt to explain it to me.

    Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
    When the soul lies down in that grass,
    the world is too full to talk about.
    Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.
    -Rumi - 13th century Persian poet.

    And when I try to articulate that connection, words completely fail me.

    I believe it was Marshall McLuhan who pointed out the meaning of Rumpelstiltskin, was that when you put a name on something, the magic, the wonder disappears.

  3. This. This times 100.
    In the last couple weeks I’ve helped build a wheelchair ramp and just finished weatherproofing a mobile home roof for Habitat clients. There is a gift to yourself, something that absolutely transcends satisfaction, that comes from doing something positive and unrequited. (The church source code is probably Ecclesiastes 11:1,2 and Matthew 6:3, so there’s that. :wink:)

    Thanks for the Prince link too, btw.

  4. I am grateful for this thoughtfully written piece of art.

    A few things came to mind, one of them an “old story” imbued with Truth (I am surprised how difficult it is for me to write that word - how programmed I have become) and prompted by Kyla’s comments about attention. “For where your treasure is, their your heart will be also”. It is also True in the physical world; I have reclaimed my adolescent hobby of riding dirt bikes. The bike and I go WHERE I AM LOOKING. almost effortlessly and without conscious “doing” when I focus on where I want to go.

    Which leads me to the other thing that came to mind, a simple question that is enormously difficult to answer. “What do I really, really want?”. Answering this question has, for me, opened a clearing for agency in my own life.

  5. Avatar for drrms drrms says:

    This is something that has really started to finally dawn on me too Ed. There is a gift to oneself just in being productive for the sake of another living being - be it a plant, animal or person.

    True! It’s almost like we can create our own future. Maybe we’re all kind of terrified of the creative power we have within us?

    Thanks gents!

  6. Avatar for Caspa Caspa says:

    The implication is that doing these tasks we “don’t enjoy doing” for others is nevertheless rewarding. Where did the idea come from that work isn’t fun? Is that just another narrative? Maybe from the European Middle Ages, when the nobility set the narratives, and doing nothing useful was a sign of nobility?

    I like work. I do it for me. All kinds of work. The fact that someone else benefits is a bonus.

  7. I followed the link to the Defector article about actress Sydney Sweeney, among many other great links (thanks!). Here’s a contrasting view: Why Creatives Will Win by Thinking Small - by Ted Gioia

    TV streaming definitely tossed a monkey wrench in to the benefit of actor residuals. Ted Gioia’s ideas probably help musicians more than actors - but then then Ms. Sweeney’s side hustles (ads, Instagram feeds) are part of what Gioia defines as gaining control the distribution of her creative output.

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