Waking to Enchantment

Building meaning in the face of a cosmology episode.

Garden at Vaucresson Edouard Vuillard. 1920

Thirteen firefighters died in Mann Gulch as they fought a wildfire. It would be the deadliest incident in the history of wild-land firefighting. The firefighters faced difficult circumstances: challenging terrain, and shifting winds. But in the report on the incident, organizational theorist, Karl Weick, describes how it was not these circumstances that caused this tragedy. The firefighters lost their lives due to a crisis in cosmology.

A cosmology episode occurs when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together.

The firefighters found the fire was rolling in from the direction opposite of what they predicted. This alone should not have been deadly, but the event was so surprising, it resulted in a breakdown of sense-making, communication, and decision making. Life-saving protocols were forgotten, as the men ran for their lives.

"Re-enchantment" is the word Jonathan Pageau uses to describe the feeling that the logic of the world is collapsing. As an iconographer Pageau works to depict the order of things. And this makes him particularly in tune to its collapse. In a networked, secular society, Pageau warns, enchantment is inevitable.

His prediction seems vindicated. In the past few months, I’ve seen the trends on Tik Tok become increasingly fantastic. People post fairy sightings—insisting they are real. Complex interactions emerge between accounts roleplaying as fairies and fairy catchers. Giants are seen on mountaintops. Malignant spirts haunt baseball players. These videos are interesting in their own right as examples of what happens when network effect collides with childhood imagination. But I think these also point to a more profound shift that is already underway.

It seems as though everywhere, across platforms, we have awoken to a world shared with strange beings, unexpected sightings and novel, intelligent forms. Even in the workplace, everything is speaking and bursting with newfound being. My colleagues ask chat GPT for help writing documentation. AI is streamlining tasks and reducing both the time and the human effort needed. The actions of AI agents send ripples through the market. A mistake by Google's new AI tool called Bard during its unveiling caused the company's stock to plummet by 10%.

At the same time, bizarre scandals are unfolding, as subconscious desires are made manifest. AI porn pulls fantasies from the hidden corners of the mind into shared reality resulting in real human consequences.

As we stumble into an AI enabled world, strange things are happening in the world of ecology, and bio-ethics. I first encountered this shift in the book "How Forests Think" by Eduardo Kohn. This book introduced the concept of "bio-semiotics'' which asks us to consider the far reaching chains of communication across ecosystems, and invites a broader definition of consciousness and agency.

Shortly after this book came out, New Zealand vested one of its rivers with legal personhood. This gave the ecosystem a status similar to a corporation. Since this development, there has been a surge in interest in establishing the rights of ecosystems, using the framework of corporate personhood.

The same cybernetic trajectory binds the ecological, the technical, the AI workplace, and TikTok monsters. This connection can be seen in the early dreams of web3 thinkers. One vision put forward by Trent McConaght took on the name nature 2.0. In this piece, he describes a broad vision of self-owning, economic ecosystems, exchanging value across immutable ledgers; humans and other agents, including plants and animals, would be able to trade value through the use of custodial crypto wallets.

This vision of the biosemiotic financial ecosystem is most vividly captured by Terra0's work. In one experimental proposal, they explore the possibility of a self-sovereign forest expanding its borders through selective sale of lumber.

An enchanted world is very much here, and it is becoming increasingly entangled in our lives through the mediation of digital systems, finding legal and financial footholds in our shared world. This opens vast, uncharted possibilities, and with that exposes us to existential risk.

What are these different voices the world is filled with? Which of them are worth listening to? How do we figure out which should be prioritized? Where do I fit into this picture? What is my role and what is the narrative that captures my relationship to the cosmos?

As with the Mann Gulch Fire, when people lose their cosmic bearing, it sets the stage for crisis. If the stories we use to run our lives suddenly fail to describe the world we encounter, it becomes difficult to make decisions, understand and coordinate with other people, and ultimately can transform situations which otherwise could be traversed, into potentially insurmountable, and existential challenges.

This feeling of inevitable and unconquerable disaster matches the theory fiction of this moment. I think to Nick Land's time traveling capitalist intelligence: the cosmos literally being unraveled into a mechanic force beyond our control.

Perhaps more familiar is the driving climate narrative, which takes on a Lovecraftian aspect. Climate change conjures a sense of cosmic horror: a challenge which is deadly due to its sheer, incomprehensible size. People find themselves alone, fighting against an unstoppable, dark noospher by trying to make the right purchases in the grocery store.

The survivors of the Mann Gulch fire stuck together and maintained a shared operational story. This was a story that both accurately assessed the deadly variables of the fire, but was flexible enough to contain their salvation. As enchantment unfolds all around, I have found the narratives which guide my life becoming simplified. And the order of the universe has developed a clear center. My life revolves around God, the woman I love, and a conviction that another way of working is possible.

This order has changed my life. It has affirmed the connection I hold to the small rural town I live in. It has deepened my bonds to the food systems I inhabit. It has pushed me to work parties, to timber framing classes. It has taught me how to trim the hooves of sheep, and care for poultry. It has made me realize that the most important thing I can do is buy a house and start a family.

At the same time, I’m taking on a new role as founding product designer of a startup (currently in stealth mode) which will connect people to more meaningful work (with the help of AI). As enchantment unfolds, my goal is not to push it away, but to recast it in meaningful ways. I'm gripped by DAOs, halocracies, platform coops, and other horizontal platforms as vessels to steward stories. I’m consumed by the thought that of the many DAOs being launched now, one or two may become vessels of meaning that will last the next ten thousand years. To this end, I’ve been writing about how if DAOs are to succeed as the future of work it will be through the stewardship of lore.

Waking to enchantment means bridging the gap between these two worlds. It means being grounded in family, food and community, so that I may step into the uncharted world of a networked future, ringing with new voices. Waking to enchantment means having faith. It means trusting in the meaning of shared stories, holding wisdom, and recasting it where necessary to meet the world we have arrived in.

Waking to enchantment means sharing dinner with my partner Eileen and my friend Andy, discussing our families, the futures of social media, Urbit, Andy’s new flock of sheep, and what it means to settle after travel. We eat shepherd's pie and jam cookies and drink raw milk. Miraculously we have found each other in this small town, held between the sea and the mountains. Miraculously we hold compatible cosmologies. Miraculously we are each building a small piece of a future centered on family, food, regeneration, and faith. Against the odds, we have settled here, and in our conversations, have begun building an invisible church in the wilds of an enchanted world.

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