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time and the self

Hey there.

I seem to have been caught up in some kind of time vortex recently — the days have been passing me by and, before I know it, the week has disappeared. I would like to blame it on still living in a semi-Covid world (restrictions are gradually being lifted but we're still not back to normal) but know that's likely not the case. It's more of a personal thing. I have felt busy and overloaded, even though that doesn't really match reality, with little motivation to knuckle down and get things done.

This edition of the muse-letter should really have been sent last week but the Friday arrived and I hadn't even thought about it, let alone gotten something typed up.

It's also been having an impact on finishing the book. I'm now pretty happy with the basic editing for grammar, structure etc. but have been struggling to get to grips with the extra things I want to add to flesh out a few of the later chapters. It's like there's some kind of psychological block: the main draft is done and it's as though that should be it, it's been written, end of story! I know I need to resolve this but am fighting myself over it and I don't know why.

I'm going to be busy next week but maybe I'll have some downtime in the evenings to focus.

Anyway, cracking on...

I didn't get to attend the recent pop-up meeting about the future of webmentions, but the discussion got me thinking. Over the years, my main criticism of the IndieWeb has been its complexity, how difficult it can be for "the rest of us" to implement.

Take WordPress for example. It has a nice plugin that handles both sending and receiving webmentions but, if you're going to do things properly, you also need the Semantic Linkbacks plugin to better present them. This means messing about with your theme which a lot of people won't or can't do. If you are not using WordPress then it becomes even trickier — yes, partial solutions exist for other platforms but often you are left needing to roll your own.

The problem is, I can't really classify myself as "the rest of us" any longer. My code may be inelegant and there are huge gaps in my knowledge, but, I have managed to build my own blogging system. That really isn't something that most people would do or even consider. However, I still rely on third-party libraries so am in somewhat of a halfway house, somewhere between a layperson and a developer — although I'd still contest I'm much closer to the former.

But how to reconcile this?

I'll continue to stand up for the layperson and for improving simplicity, but, to some, it might seem a bit hypocritical seeing as I am no longer at that level. Still, regardless of skills or designation, there is always something to be said for making things easier, making the adoption of standards and technologies less demanding.

Anyway, the meeting's goal was investigating how to "get more people hosting their own webmention sending, receiving, and validating?" Looking through the notes, it doesn't seem as though too much was achieved and re-emphasises the issue: things are too hard for many to implement. Why do so many people use webmention.io to receive mentions rather than going the self-hosted route? Because webmention.io handles it for you — you still need to muck around with displaying them (often using a script such as this) but a lot of the heavy lifting is handled.

This is still only half the battle because you then have to implement something to send mentions automatically. Working with PHP I'm lucky that my needs are already catered for thanks to those third-party libraries mentioned above — without them, I would likely have also resorted to webmention.io and tried to cobble something together to send my own.

I don't know how successful I would have been and that's the annoying part — I know enough to implement the work of others but nowhere near enough to succeed should that work not exist.

Still, as Mrs D wrote of the IndieWeb:

"The technology is fascinating, but if you’re focused on the technology, you’re missing the point."

Reading

I'm still working my way through The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman — my reading has also been suffering — and am almost halfway through. Burkeman takes a contrary position to the cult of positive thinking, the idea is that telling yourself everything is going to be great sets you up for a larger fall when it isn't. It's self-defeating.

One interesting area he explores is whether the self actually exists. What if we are just a collection of thoughts and reactions and there is not an actual self sitting behind the thoughts. It's quite a mind-fuck and goes against everything we tend to assume in our post-Descartes world — "I think, therefore I am." Descartes argues, even if everything around us is a deception and our senses do not report reality, that our experience of our world, true or not, is real. Our perceptions and thoughts are ours and we can be certain that we exist because of them. Others, however, have gone on to say that just because thinking is occurring it doesn't mean that it is being done by any given 'I'.

Burkeman quotes the philosopher David Hume:

"For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception."

Having no self intrigues me while also being a bit scary. Who am I if 'I' doesn't really exist? In my book, I write about how the self is always changing according to experience and circumstance but maybe it goes deeper, maybe it only appears that the self changes because there isn't one. What if we are just a procession of perceptions and experiences and this is all that is changing?

I wonder about the role of memory in all of this. Is it the memory of our perceptions and experiences that makes us an individual? Rather than thought, is memory the thing that helps to define the self? While the self is constantly changing based on the events in our lives, our memory of them is the thing that holds us together, maintains a sense of consistency throughout our lives. The knowledge that all these things have happened to us is, in my opinion, what truly makes us who we are. Still, memory is fallible. Does that mean we are not exactly who we think we are or are false memories just as valid as true ones if we believe them? We've cycled back to Descartes.

I love the way books like this get you thinking about so much more than their immediate premise.

And that's it...

By the next letter, I hope to be closer to finishing the book and, at that stage, if you would like an advance epub copy just let me know. I would welcome the extras pairs of eyes and opinions. I'm not completely decided on exactly how it will be distributed although I'll likely add it to the Kindle store. I'd also like at least one paper copy just for my own benefit but it would be nice to be able to offer it in print for anyone who prefers physical books to ebooks.

That's all to come.

Until next time, take care.
Colin.


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Colin Walker
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