This publication can be found online at http://awareness.media.mit.edu/pub/bens-journal.
Ben’s Journal
Some brief reflections on what I do to relax these evenings.
Ben Berman
It’s really easy to point at Headspace and say, “Isn’t it ironic that I’m staring at another screen in order to meditate?”
I get most of my meditation (and procrastination) done through screens. I like Civilization V and Counter-Strike, Starcraft, Binding of Isaac, maybe staring at a few pages of NYTimes and New Yorker. These are soothing experiences to me. There’s a zen to playing with other people and against other people in a virtual world. I would describe it more like playing in a string quartet than a private stroll outside in nature. A different kind of peacefulness, even if it involves literally raising your blood cortisol and shooting virtual guns.
Does sitting in bed thinking count as a form of meditation? I don’t know yet if I have the patience to formally sit and work through a convention—if I did, I should probably practice violin, bike outside or do 6.046 assignments, or any number of practice-based alternative-frame-of-mind disciplines. But I can definitely experience a non-depressive form of not-getting-up. Lying in bed in the morning and not getting up sounds experientially similar to some ideas about motivation Joscha was talking about. The bed is just the equivalent of this Buddhist monastery; it is genuinely a sanctuary in a Western world.
Joscha also makes this point about “vegetating” as being a rational behavior which I find fascinating. For starters, we live in a rich Western world where we can satisfy our most basic urges very cheaply and very quickly. But I find myself most unhappy not when I’m failing to satisfy an urge; I find myself most unhappy when I work for other people and never get anything back in return. I try to not work for other people. Burn out is the only form of vegetating I’ve experience and which I’ve seen in real life. You may experience it exclusively, like me, when you work for other people and receive nothing anywhere near commensurate in return/ We should be celebrating the fact that Buddhist monks never get screwed and don’t have bosses.

February 29th, 2016

This weekend I just finished a shoot for a Disney pilot I’m developing with my brother. The story follows a teenage girl’s first day in an elite virtual high school. [The pilot was ultimately completed for a May 5th delivery. We’re we have submitted for Disney’s review and we’re awaiting the reply. Watch the pilot here https://goo.gl/2gAkiK]
There wasn’t time for meditation. Was I stressed out on set? Probably, though not as much as my brother, the director. It would seem that the filmmaking system selects for personalities who can tolerate stresses, or select for stressful people whose stress results in good work. Though I’m not going to apologize for alcohol or drug-driven self destruction so many artists engage: usually self destruction does not produce great art.
In the midst of a shoot, where more than anything execution matters, a calm personality doesn’t make an extra 30 minutes appear for more shots. But it does keep everyone’s energy up, from director to crewmember, making everything better across the board.
I sit in front of a computer all day, so even the smallest amount of physical activity can be sensory in a way that Qi Gong felt. I’m not convinced yet that the particular motions matter all that much. The other defining feature of the practice, being in the room with other people, didn’t feel all that special either. More distracting than anything else. Qi Gong, I think, is not a practice for me. Biking seems to be more satisfying, and as it warms up I’m sure I’ll get to more of that.
My roommates also packed the house today; our landlord sold it and we had to move out. I want to share in class the unusual experience I had with my landlord, who unloaded a great deal of rage on me for negotiating a lease-ending buyout. He called me a “lawyer,” which was the closest thing to an actual anti-semitic slur I had experienced in my life (because you know, I’m not a lawyer. What is he trying to say then?) In this experience, a peacefulness came over me and I was not going to argue with him. The discipline was something I felt I had when I was younger–I don’t want to stand up for myself, but to move on. It was definitely a moment where I felt practice and personality leads to more peaceful, happier outcomes than responding automatically to coarse words and anger. [In class, I believe Joi called me an “old soul” for feeling like I was more mature when I was younger rather than I was older.]

March 7th, 2016

I want to share in class my experience with advertising as something I notice everywhere. Conventional display advertising is well understood and I’m not going to repeat its offenses here.
Instead, I’m talking about design purposefully understated that nonetheless sticks out as something branded or advertising. IKEA furniture is a massive offender: it’s iconically simple and it’s constantly reminding you it’s everywhere, in everyone’s house and office. Muji can get applauded for its “this will do” mentality, but it’s still distractingly iconic. There are $400 blu dot coat hangers in at least a few labs in the office. Furniture is a common offender of a disingenuous understatement, and it’s everywhere in this lab. These are things that pretend to not want to be noticed, but do a very good job of doing it in a very commercial way.
For these reasons, I’d argue that the most successful minimalist design is also the most cynically commercial and self-undermining. Nothing for commercial mass production is genuinely made to be unnoticed.

March 14th, 2016

We had a joke framework of self-awareness at Scopely, the game studio where we worked. We were surrounded by people who passed our grueling interview process who nonetheless were shockingly incompetent, so we wanted to explain this phenomenon. Self-awareness of one’s incompetence figured prominently.
Suppose the interactions between interviewers and interviewees at tech startups resembles a Darwinian process: what would evolve? There are people who Don’t Know, then people who are Hacks, and finally people who Know.
If you Don’t Know, you’re dangerously incompetent and don’t know it. Or you’re the beneficiary of something totally orthogonal to your skills (e.g., nepotistic hires). This might be a recruiting coordinator who consistently botches scheduling, but because the pay is so good, candidates put up with the screw ups. You’re someone’s significant other so you aren’t getting fired anyway. Self-awareness for this person only leads to misery.
There are people who Know. This is someone who understands the “hashtag scam,” the underlying complexity of the system they claim to have mastered. They are self aware in the fullest sense. This is the CEO who Knows that unprofitable user acquisition is the most rational thing to do, because he lives in a Darwinian ecosystem where the fastest growth, not the most money, matters. This is the PI who Knows you can recruit very talented students by promising them full independence, and effectively taking it away with too much work. It’s self-awareness that you are a fundamentally harmful predator in the ecosystem, and that there’s nothing you can do.
Most importantly, there are Hacks. They are on the precipice of self-awareness, and they’re the most common organism in this ecosystem. It is about thinking you Know, when you really Don’t Know. A hack is the PI whose specialty is ethnomusicology but then decides he wants to biologically engineer a musical organism, and says to himself, “Well, I’m not a biologist, but I Know enough biology for my purposes.” Or, “I know as little biology as all these other people, but I’m special, I’m not going to fail as spectacularly as everyone else with as little knowledge as I have. I’m going to Hack the system.” A hack has self-awareness that is fundamentally wrong.
Are we all hacks? What about the Media Lab? I stop myself from ever saying, “I know enough.” I stopped my peer in the lab from being too aggressive with a biology project, explaining to him this hierarchy, convincing him that he can’t just Hack being unknowledgeable. There’s no such thing as “knowing enough.”
Only Hacks say “I know enough.” You’re not special! That’s what self-awareness earns you.
It’s just that interviewing systems select for Hacks. They like people who present knowing enough information, who think they can Hack the system. Tech startup-esque interviewing systems are constantly looking for the person you can pay $48,000 a year with the productivity of someone who should be paid $500,000 a year, which is obviously preposterous. At Workpop, where I could look at thousands of recruiting accounts for business in LA, underpayment for huge talent was the modus operandi of every hiring manager. It’s stupid.
More self-awareness could make more people who Know, or at least Know Their Limitations, but Darwinian forces won’t let that happen easily.

March 28th, 2016

I’d like to respond to a theme arising in class about introversion and introspection of our personalities. My experience is colored in a very specific way as someone who has never seen a therapist (though once Errol Morris, my boss, told me I should really go see one).
Personality isn’t going to make you a great scientist or artist. A personality doesn’t cook food, read a book, earn a living, invent something, create a great work of art, lead people, etc.
But most of the time I’m hearing people reflect on being introverted. This feeling gets in the way of falling in love, having exciting conversations, collaborating with other people in the lab, making people smile and cry. I get why personality with respect to relationships is so important.
First, is personality really that important for romance or friendship? I just don’t think it is. I’ve only been asked by dating websites and girlfriends (never for a job) about my Myers-Briggs personality type. I respond, “I am the right answer.” It never matters.
I’m not saying Myers-Briggs is a fundamentally superstitious test. Lots of other people do. Christian Rudder in his OkCupid data analytics book Dataclysm does, and he points out that beauty and race predicts the results of online dating (and to some extent job hunting!) significantly more than personality does. And before invoking some dichotomy of great looks versus great personality, I’d argue that most celebrities are assholes even though people think they’re attracted (romantically or otherwise) to their charisma. The people we think of as the most charismatic, like celebrities and significant others, are probably just really good at executing being nice and interesting, a thing that might be practicable/learnable just like cooking food, solving math problems, reading, writing and meditation.
What about personality with respect to productivity? Errol called me lazy and flakey, but he wasn’t trying to say something about my personality. He was using personality as a way to communicate a different complaint, that I didn’t finish a project on time. Personality is a way to characterize something concrete in a way that seems more empathetic, sensitive, or well personal. It’s indirect, but nonetheless effective at getting people to change something concrete. It’s not a real observation.
There’s sincerely nothing wrong with being introverted. There’s just something wrong with not cooperating with work peers, or miscommunicating or undercommunicating problems with projects, etc. You don’t need to be empathetic to notify your peers of a serious problem with a project: you have to write e-mail. You don’t have to be “honest” in the sense of personality; you have to comprehensive and accurate when you report something going wrong.
Introversion might be great for productivity! Who knows. Not talking about problems or cooperating obviously isn’t great for productivity, and that’s orthogonal to personality.

March 31st, 2016

Talking about money as a motivator clearly struck a nerve with the class. Ironically, the only place in my entire life experience I’ve seen people literally count stacks of money is in buddhist temples in Lhasa (see http://goo.gl/INARFE). I don’t think there exists a simple dichotomy between money and other kinds of motivators (though I don’t think anyone does, unless you’re a diehard libertarian or anarchist maybe).
A lot has been said on the subject so I’ll avoid making any “original research” here. I especially like Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy in how it addresses what money really means and how creating markets for things changes what we do. Its points won’t be repeated, but shortly it argues that sometimes, introducing a market into something that was previously exchanged by haves and have-nots for free increases inequality, even when it makes us better off in an economically positivist way. Sandel anticipated the politicization of income equality without saying it. His notions of economically positive versus socially imbalancing explain well why we as a society use money as our main motivator, even if we know how harmful it can be.
Money makes lives better, just not always the lives that are worst off. Although again ironically, the greatest beneficiaries of free trade, where money has genuinely made the lives of the worst off better, live in places where buddhism and asceticism were born. Sure, American (and rich world) income inequality has risen, but global income inequality has declined (e.g. http://goo.gl/n4IKBI). I’m not sure how our most radical, legitimate political voices can reconcile declining global inequality with arguments against free trade. It’s an opinion that lacks compassion. Money can be a good motivator sometimes.

April 11th, 2016

I returned from a trip in the Galapagos with a refreshed mind. It is a very serene place, a sort of “meditation” where we all stare silently at wildlife for an hour and admire it. I came with my girlfriend and mom, so it’s not like there weren’t distractions. The landscape just silences.
[Tenzin later discussed in class that it’s easy to meditate in serene places, it’s hard to meditate in the midst of stress when you most need it. I totally agree. But I feel like these serene places are a destination for groups of people who will all want to experience awareness together. They can be a good way to introduce meditation to others, since pretty much everyone is guaranteed to at least feel relaxed.]

April 14th, 2016

Members week a second time around was considerably less stressful, and I’d like to reflect on which practices made it easier.
First, I have settled on a practice that really lets me clear my mind: standing around under a hot shower. The shower is one of the few places that are completely private. I don’t have a waterproof iPhone case, so I really truly cannot be reached in there. I’ve consistently had my best thinking in the shower, and making a long stand a formal practice definitely resets me in a way I felt with the few times I meditated successfully. [When I shared this with the class in May, I got some interesting feedback I didn’t have here: that the sound and sensory experience is itself very calming, and that everyone can do it.]
Unlike the first Members Week, I tried to help people as little as possible. It helped my health and, in hindsight, did not harm anyone’s projects. It’s clear to me now that most everyone at the Media Lab is capable of executing on deadlines. They just have different ways of expressing distress, and one of those ways is asking for large amounts of technical help from others. To reiterate an earlier point about personality, there’s nothing wrong with people’s personalities: they are just miscommunicating the problem by asking for help, accepting it, or making unreasonable expectations from others far outside their project.
Am I unempathetic? Maybe, I don’t know. Again, I don’t know how much it matters. No one will remember who helped whom months from now. [Nobody remembered, at least in Playful Systems.]

April 20th, 2016

MIT’s Sandbox program, where it awards $25,000 for compelling ideas to graduate students and undergrads in the name of entrepreneurial development, gave us feedback from reviewers on a draft of our proposals. I met with one of those giving feedback, a game developer here in Boston, who reviewed my game proposal (linked here https://goo.gl/0lTgo3). I’ve been told repeatedly to embrace this feedback, so I came tired and exhausted, all ears open wide.
We meet outside in the hallway. Eitan, the developer, has briefly read the proposal, but we’re standing around without a computer to view things on.
Eitan: You don’t need money for art. You shouldn’t be spending any money on art, it’s a huge money hole! Ben: Well, I’m not spending that much of the budget on art. But I thought it would really help me raise more money later, from things like Kickstarter. I’ve learned from the last Kickstarter I had–[cut off] Eitan: [Voice raises] You should be working on making the game as much as possible. Showing gameplay. Ben: I have gameplay, would you like to see it? Eitan: I don’t need to see it.
At this point, I realize this guy is a bit of an asshole. I mean, why are you giving me an opinion about something you literally haven’t and don’t want to see?
Maybe he’s right about art though, regardless of his personality. So I decide to test how far he’ll take this opinion. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, would he change what he says?
Ben: Okay, well, I guess why I’m so interested in art is, I have [this famous actor] who has looked at the game and agreed to be part of it, but he specifically said that he wants to see something pretty before he makes any decisions. Eitan: You have someone from [famous TV show] talking to you? Ben: Yes. [In reality, no, not about this project specifically.] Eitan: I think when he says he wants something pretty, he doesn’t actually want to see something pretty. He wants to see gameplay, you should make something that wows him.
My interpretation here is that he’s convinced that this advice against art is so right most of the time that even if something transformative for my project depends on the art, he still wouldn’t advise to make the art. He might be right, but it discredits him as a useful source of advice.
If I wanted a canned opinion that doesn’t respond to the specific details at hand, I’d read a blog.
Self-awareness I think involves a lot of realizing when you’re an asshole. After this conversation, I never want to criticize something I haven’t personally seen ever again. Not even for joking or trolling. It’s just the right thing to do.

April 26th, 2016

Jon Bobrow, the second year in our group, invited me and Mike to participate in a workshop to develop games for his Automatiles, electronic hexagonal Game of Life bricks he made as his Media Lab thesis. He complimented our work as “seeing you and Mike work together,” which I especially appreciated because I rarely get to collaborate on design work and rarely see it make something bigger as a sum of its parts.
Sleeping has taken a backseat to work lately. Three projects, all in VFX, mean basically nonstop rote work. Frustratingly, I didn’t come to the lab to do VFX work, although that’s all anyone actually wants from me.
Too many people rescue too many bad ideas with videos.
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Joichi Ito 4/6/2016
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Private. Collaborators only.
Selection made on Version 1
Does sitting in bed thinking count as a form of meditation? I don’t know yet if I have the patience to formally sit and work through a convention—if I did, I should probably practice violin, bike outside or do 6.046 assignments, or any number of practice-based alternative-frame-of-mind disciplines. But I can definitely experience a non-depressive form of not-getting-up. Lying in bed in the morning and not getting up sounds experientially similar to some ideas about motivation Joscha was talking about. The bed is just the equivalent of this Buddhist monastery; it is genuinely a sanctuary in a Western world.
Does sitting in bed thinking count as a form of meditation?
It’s not really meditation if you’re “thinking” for some value of “thinking”. You can definitely meditate in bed, but you need to be attentively “not thinking.” You can focus on breathing or something else. Thinking or being in “flow” is different from meditation, but you can meditate walking, standing, laying in bed. It’s a bit hard for me to do it in bed unless it’s the morning because I often fall asleep.