It’s that time of the year again, where I’m having annual existensial crisis. My favourite way to stop myself from spiraling into despair is to browse the orange site. That day, I found a link to Nikita Voloboev’s personal wiki. I don’t remember the exact link anymore, I think it was some kind of article about configuring macOS. That wiki is massive, I quickly got into the rabbit hole, specifically the psychology section.

I’m not done reading everything there, but there is one piece I really liked, “The Melancholy of Subculture Society” by Gwern Branwen.

That essay hits me close to home. Maybe it’s just my brain pattern matching with what is being described there. But the phenomenon mentioned there eerily match my personal experiences. And here I am, trying to write my story and the dilemma that comes with the choices.

Rationalizing My Choice

The point the critic wants to make is that life is short and a zero-sum game. You lose a third of the day to sleep, another third to making a living, and now you’ve little left. To be really productive, you can’t divide your energies across multiple cultures—you can’t be truly successful in mainstream culture, and at the same time be able to devote enough effort in the field of, say, mechanical models⁠, to be called an Otaking⁠. A straddler takes onto his head the overhead of learning and participating in both, and receives no benefits (he will suffer socially in the esteem of the ‘normals’, and will be able to achieve little in his ‘hobby’ due to lack of time and a desire to not go overboard).⁠⁠

The otaku & hikikomori recognizes this dilemma and he chooses—to reject normal life! He rejects life in the larger culture for his subculture⁠⁠. It’s a simple matter of comparative advantage⁠; it’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond than in a large one.⁠⁠

Gwern Branwen, The Melancholy of Subculture Society

Time is arguably one of the most important resources a person can have. And it’s finite (until someone proves time travel or immortality is feasible). So, if a person decides to dedicate their time into something they like instead of what is mainstream, that is a rational choice.

At the same time, this is a lonely and cold path. Depending on what the person liked, it might be a real niche. Finding communities of same minded people to share findings will be a challenge. Picking a larger subculture that comprises their niche would be an option. At the end of the day, that subculture wouldn’t exactly fit the niche. Creating more fragmentations within.

Maybe it’s fine to accept that as the universal truth? Maybe it’s fine to be part of a subculture that have a member size of one? Maybe it’s fine to be thrown out like a piece of gear that does not fit anywhere in the mainstream clockwork?

Opting out from the mainstream should be a choice consciously made, not forced into making.

Ant Looking at the World

The national identity fragments under the assault of burgeoning subcultures. At last, the critic beholds the natural endpoint of this process: the long nightmare of nationalism falls like a weight from the minds of the living, as the nation becomes some lines on a map, some laws you follow. No one particularly cares. The geek thinks, ‘Meh: here, Canada, London, Japan, Singapore—as long as FedEx can reach me and there’s a good Internet connection, what’s the difference?’ (Nor are the technically-inclined alone in this.⁠⁠)

You can test this yourself. Tell yourself —‘The country I live in now is the best country in the world for people like me; I would be terribly unhappy if I was exiled.’ If your mental reply goes something like, ‘Why, what’s so special about the USA? It’s not particularly economically or politically free, it’s not the only civilized English-speaking country, it’s not the wealthiest⁠⁠…’, then you are headed down the path of opting out.

Gwern Branwen, The Melancholy of Subculture Society

I can’t help but to say yes and yes here. During the time of peace, it’s really hard to fight for your own country. Especially not when your own countrymen judges yourself based of your grandparents origin. Oh come on, we’re both evolved from the same single-celled organism eons ago, why can’t we get along? Without the force and will to unite people into a single nation, it’s normal for people to flock into their own interests. Opting out from the national culture.

The natural reaction from the ruling party of the culture would of course be negative. As a country could not stand by itself. It needs it’s people to to keep the culture alive.

This is such a weird world. You’re born into a group of peoples. You’re taught the history and culture of your group. Now you are expected to fight for that culture for your whole life?

NO! I would argue the rational action is to live and see the world with your own eyes. After that, if you decide to be part of your original culture, that is fine. Or maybe no, you might find a subculture out there that you find worth living for, that is also fine. Being forced into living a culture because the people around you did so is not fine at all. (Realistically, this free choice is hard to execute for various reason.)

Coping Mechanism

Leaving a culture, and joining a subculture, is a way for the monkey mind to cope with the modern world.

Gwern Branwen, The Melancholy of Subculture Society

I totally agree with this section where being part of a subculture is a way to free yourself from the bigger culture. Not to the point it become escapism. But to be a healthy person, not under any pressure to be the very best while sacrificing everything.

A natural thing that would happen just like how: a father want to be best dad in the family, he doesn’t care about being the best dad in the solar system; a kid want to be the fastest kid in the class, that kid wouldn’t care about being the fastest person in the continent.

Congratulations! You Have Won The Knowledge

This is the curse of knowledge: those who know, do not do—and those who do not know, do.

Gwern Branwen, The Melancholy of Subculture Society

The curse of knowledge, that is probably my favourite quote from the essay. Calling it a curse is really clever. Some times it’s painful, holding a knowledge, you agonize over telling the truth to the other person. You can lessen your pain by sharing the burden of knowledge, at the cost of hurting others.

Subculture for Life

If someone really prefers their subculture, which gives them mental ease and physical health, then what right do the rest have to interfere and drag them into the main culture? Large homogeneous cultures are accomplished only with great effort, and much bloodshed of body and mind. Their benefits are unclear, and the justifications transparently self-serving. Perhaps we should accept gracefully the inevitable sundering of ‘national’ cultures, and learn to operate within a truly multicultural world. Each of us with a niche of our own, on respectful (if uncomprehending) terms with all the other subcultures.

Gwern Branwen, The Melancholy of Subculture Society

As the subcultures are formed as a resting place and coping mechanism, people with the same subculture will naturally flock together after some time. Are the bigger cultures destinied to be broken into pieces? And small subcultures will eventually grow into mainstream culture? Will this cycle repeats just like how history is believed to repeats itself?

Maybe at the end, the disappearance of subcultures doesn’t matter. People lived their lives, believing in their choices. Good or bad, matter not. Who am I to judge them?

Omake - Behind the Text

The melancholy essay written by Gwern don’t have the answer I’m looking for in my life. It’s not scientifically proven or peer reviewed by experts. Yet, it helped me for accepting myself, “I made my own choice to be in this subculture, I reject normal live!” Here I am, continuing my journey on understanding myself and shaping my own subculture.

Someone mentioned this essay is hard to read and grok because it’s like a puzzle made by stream of consciousness1. And I think it’s amazing, being able to write your consciousness into an actual writings. I know I have thoughts for each sections of the essay, but it was really hard to pour these thoughts into writings.

Post 8 of #100DaysToOffload.