An Economy of Astonishment

Octopus Vulgaris via New York Public Library

Earlier this year Wired founder Kevin Kelly shared 103 bits of advice in a post on the occasion of his 70th birthday. It was a very popular post.

It was so popular that it’s been updated with the news that the list is to become a book, one that will include selections from a previous list of 68 bits (shared on the occasion of his 68th birthday), and some new bits written especially for the print edition. The original 103 bits in the more recent post (and the 68 bits in the earlier one) have been reduced to a half-dozen teasers, bringing to mind something about a horse and a barn door, but I’m sure there are reasons.1

“These are not laws,” he wrote. “They’re like hats. If one doesn’t fit, try another.”

I like lists; I enjoyed these. Here’s one bit I tried that fit especially well: “The chief prevention against getting old is to remain astonished.”

Setting aside the quibble that the only reliable prevention against getting old is to die young, I am inspired by the idea of astonishment.

Astonishment is cousin to surprise, only more so. Here’s an example: I was surprised when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president in 2016. I was astonished when he was elected. I remain astonished that people would consider voting for him again.

So, no moss on me, I guess.

But here’s the thing: it takes effort to maintain a capacity for astonishment. It takes effort to hold sufficient space for it, to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know even when we’re pretty sure we do and that no one would ever… oh, look, they just did.

Holding space takes energy. It also leaves us vulnerable. And if we’re (unpleasantly) surprised one too many times, who can blame us for deciding it’s just easier/safer/saner to withdraw from the whole exercise. Let ourselves become a little more jaded. A little less willing to be surprised by anything, let alone astonished.

A little old.

I don’t know about you, but my own energy is in short supply these days. I never had COVID, so it’s not Long Covid. Maybe it’s Long Capitalism. Why not? The professional managerial class that pulls the economic levers is all about mitigating surprise, flattening out experience in the name of efficiency. Not for nothing those quarterly reports and projections.

Which is to say, if we wish to remain astonished and open to the world, we might benefit from a certain disengagement with the all-consuming casino economy.

There are other economies, of course. Economies of place, of mutual aid, of extended families and families of choice, of community support and radical inclusion. Gift economies, cooperative economies. They’re all around us. We’re in them now, we just have a hard time seeing them. The glare from the casino overwhelms, flattens, distracts, enervates.

And after it rains, there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack

Paul Simon, “My Little Town”

We might want to start looking for those other economies, consider that it’s okay to grow old in one or more of them. And also, you know, fuck the casino. At the risk of mixing metaphors, nothing says we have to go down with this ship.

What astonishes you these days?

Personally, I am astonished by sea life. Ponder these prints. Tell me you don’t feel the same.

1You can still find the complete lists on other sites. Here is the list of 68. Here is the 103.


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