Eclectic Spacewalk #4 - Non-Zero Sum

An essay on the importance of non-zero sum thinking during chaotic times

Read previous post #3 - Object-Oriented Ontology (25-30 minutes)

Listen to “Conversations” podcasts #1 & #2

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Table of Contents:

Non-Zero Sum—

  • Zero-Sum Thinking

  • Non-Zero Sum Thinking

  • Real Life Games

  1. Aliens have arrived!

  2. Prisoner’s Dilemma

  3. Economics & Goods/Services

  4. Don’t compete, but create!

  • Similarities far outweigh the differences

  • “The Non-Zero Sum Character” by Steven Pressfield

  • Text (3 books)

  • Audio (4 pieces of content)

  • Video (5 pieces of content)

What’s Next?

Reading Time: 25-30 minutes (Read sections you find intriguing, bookmark the media/links, and come back to anytime.)

Non-Zero Sum—

Abstract: In game theory, a Zero-Sum game is one where correlations are always inverse. So there is always a binary winner and loser. In a Non-Zero Sum game the correlations are joined. There can either be a Win/Win, or Lose/Lose. The outcomes are linked!

  • (Via:

Zero-Sum Thinking

Launching a moral & values revolution is not easy, but it must be done. We are in the grips of the leviathan that is modernity. A web of connections intersect at the crossroads of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, global warming, media’s acquiescence to playing fast and loose with the truth, your attention/data being sold to the highest bidder, and capitalism’s un-quenching thirst for infinite growth on a finite planet All while under the fallacy that everything is not heavily influenced by inequality between nation states & global citizens. 

As you may have seen, many countries in the world are going through tectonic cultural shifts of all types. Be it in the US of A where a literal clown reality star president takes our definition of a buffoon to new heights with trade war ping pong, decimation of any resemblance of climate or environmental agencies, tweeting a classified photo from a presidential briefing, replying to questions of rape with a denial of: “she’s not my type,” and many others that would fill this entire essay - so I will digress. Hong Kong is currently going through protests against the behemoth that is the Chinese state. India is doing shit in Kashmir again. Don’t get me started about the Russians messing around above the Arctic Circle. In Brazil, the Amazon is on fire with pro-big biz president Jai Bolsonaro making sure it continues, and Venezuelans continue to be in turmoil.

Why do I tell you all this?

Zero Sum Thinking

We as a global community of homo sapiens continue to wrestle with what author Robert Wright says is: “a growing lethality of hatred & a death spiral of negativity” and has led to a plague of zero-sum thinking. Wikipedia has so graciously let us in on some examples of zero-sum thinking below (pay close attention to number 3 when thinking about immigration, number 6 around thoughts about digital sharing, and number 7 on your personal ideological group biases.):

  1. When students in a classroom think they are being graded on a curve when in fact they are being graded based on predetermined standards.[1]

  2. In a negotiation when one negotiator thinks that they can only gain at the expense of the other party (i.e., that mutual gain is not possible).[5]

  3. In the context of social group competition, the belief that more resources for one group (e.g., immigrants) means less for others (e.g., non-immigrants).[6]

  4. In the context of romantic relationships, the idea that loving more than one person at a time means loving each one less.[7]

  5. Jack of all trades, master of none: the idea that having more skills means having less aptitude (also known as compensatory reasoning).[8]

  6. In the copyright infringement debate, the idea that every unauthorized duplication is a lost sale.[9][10][11]

  7. Group membership is sometimes treated as zero-sum, such that stronger membership in one group is seen as weaker membership in another.[12]

Non-Zero Sum Thinking

Robert Wright’s 2006 TED talk & book Non-Zero (links are below) dissect the above trends as growing significantly around the world - even back in 06’- and the need to recognize the important heuristic of “zon-zero summness.

If you read your ancient history, you will know that the time scale of our species evolution as hunter gatherers in small, close knit bands is extensively longer than “civilizations” (in any formal sense) have been around. Think of the enormous scale difference of hundreds of thousands of years (or millions if you want to consider “hominids” like Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, etc) to the couple of thousand years since the earliest cities. With cities, came the “new” view and improved moral stance of:

“All people everywhere are human beings and deserve to be treated like humans.”

Trade, commerce, the silk road, history, yada yada yada. There has always been some aspect of competition & cooperation trading places as which is more influential to each system. But overall, one could argue on the whole that our history is non-zero sum in terms of progress.

Less hatred and less bigotry are needed. Ultimately this need is grounded in cynicism of other people not doing what is best for the collective and solely for the individual. The problem or saving grace is you can never take the collective out of the individual, or the individual out of the collective. They are forever linked in their correlations.

This takes us back to zero-sum and non-zero sum with their connected correlations within game theory possibilities.

Two easy examples deal with pies and tennis. Say your mom (shout out to Rita), bakes a pie and only half of it is left. Your siblings, or friends, or whoever is over AND yourself want to eat a remaining portion of the pie. You are in a zero-sum game with that other person. The correlations are always inversed! If you have a piece, then the other person loses out on that matching specific amount of pie deliciousness. The same goes for you with their piece. There is a winner and a loser. There is only so much pie to go around!

Now to make this a non-zero sum game, mama Rita just needs to bake another pie! Then you & your guest can gorge on as much as you want. (The logic being that everyone eventually will throw in the towel after a certain amount of pie has been scoffed down. A limit if you will.) But remember it becomes a zero-sum game when you take the first piece out of the second pie. You will never look at sharable dessert the same ever again.

Another easy example of both a zero-sum and non-zero sum game is tennis. You and your opponent are in a zero-sum game. Someone will win, and someone will lose. But if you play doubles, then you and your partner are playing a non-zero sum game. Your correlations are joined! They are in the same boat as you (either for better or worse).

Other examples of non-zero-sum things: arms control negotiations, trading gossip, the relationship among genes on a genome, and such transactions as buying a car, and buying a book. I think you now should get the overall picture, but to recap:

Zero Sum Games - Correlations are always inverse. So always a winner and loser. 

Non-Zero Sum - Correlations are joined. Win/Win, or Lose/Lose.

Real Life Games


One of the most used and cliche tropes in science fiction and popular culture is to create an imaginary boogeyman that will destroy us all if we don’t work together. Be it an asteroid, aliens, or of course - aliens. Us humans are portrayed to rise to the challenge and change! Yay! But would that really happen?? Because REAL boogeymen are actually upon us RIGHT NOW like global warming, the refugee crisis, and all the stories I began this essay with. Sadly, we are hardly doing ANYTHING collectively about them.

My favorite science fiction film of late - Arrival - tries to answer by it’s conclusion the same overall question of: Could humanity finally work together in a more collective and fair to all way? It has become one of my favorites due to it’s way of telling an old story a novel way. At the climax of the movie, the audience sees that the characters are mostly dealing with miscommunications of meaning, the incredible web of language, and the need of a common “truth” that transcends time, culture, or indeed - language!

Caroline McEvoy explains how Arrival rejects hostility thinking (taken from Alexander Wendt’s essay “Anarchy is what States make it”) and how it is the choices we make that create international order. It is NOT an inevitable consequence! One might sometime by justified, but catastrophic consequences are just as easy to happen.

“At one point, Louise translates the aliens words as saying ‘offer weapon’. This drives several state leaders into a panic and they start preparing for war of the worlds. However, Louise and Ian point out that ‘weapon’ could mean ‘tool’. The aliens might be offering some sort of military assistance or even be asking for our help. Without further information, ‘weapon’ is threatening only if we interpret it as such and act on the assumption that they are hostile. Unfortunately, the outside world seems to do exactly this.”

We could learn from the film through a political lens due to there being reachable Win/Win scenarios, but currently it looks more Lose/Lose.

Politically, Arrival drives home the point that if we act like the world is a zero-sum game then that is all we will ever get to play because we aren’t open to the possibility that the actions of others could have positive intent. Sometimes the alien will be Predator and sometimes they will be Superman but we do ourselves a disservice if we assume they are either before learning to hear what they are actually saying. More often than not, we can reach a win-win and maybe gain a time-bending language as part of the bargain.” - Caroline McEvoy

Prison’s Dilemma -

You and a criminal accomplice are captured by the police. You both are now suspects in a murder, but the police do not have enough evidence to prove it in court. You and your partner are put in separate cells with no way to talk, so you can't collude or cooperate on an answer beforehand. Then both of you are offered to confess or remain silent to the crime.

Because each of you has two possible options, and thus strategies, there are four possible outcomes to the game via ThoughtCo.:

  1. “If both players confess, they each get sent to jail, but for fewer years than if one of the players got ratted out by the other. (Say 5 years.)

  2. If one player confesses and the other remains silent, the silent player gets punished severely (Say 10 years) while the player who confessed gets to go free.

  3. If both players remain silent, they each get a punishment that is less severe than if they both confess. (Say 1 year)

Is it better to cooperate or compete?

Ok dear reader, now exchange your criminal accomplice with someone you will never see ever again. Does that lower or raise your chances to compete/cooperate? How about if this is your cousin? How about your twin?

Does this influence who you compete with, and who you cooperate with?


The “Prisoners’ Dilemma” scenario is highly applicable to a number of fields including business, economics, and politics. illustrates the complex trade off between decisions beautifully:

“The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a reminder that cooperation is not always best.[ii]  Immediately cooperating can lead to consequences if the other party is only thinking about personal self-interest. For example, when it comes to salary negotiations, it is not always in a person’s best interest to take the first salary offered. Sometimes it is better to push for a higher salary, even though this might not work out. Another example would be pricing a product. Often it is better for businesses to compete with one another by lowering prices. Lowering prices can lead to higher profit margins than if a business cooperated and priced similarly to other businesses in the area.

On the other hand, The Prisoner’s Dilemma also illustrates that it isn’t always best to look out for one’s self-interest only. When businesses show mutual cooperation, it can lead to increased profit for both of them. Businesses sometimes form mutually beneficial strategic partnerships, such as when Starbucks coffee is sold in Barnes and Noble bookstores. Mutual cooperation is also an important strategy in politics. For example, mutual cooperation between countries may be risky and require compromise; however, it can also be a means of keeping peace and enhancing trade.[iii]”

Economics & Goods/Services -

Some like to call non-zero sum the end all be all due to it’s Win/Win possibility, but I stop short. Non-zero sum does NOT always mean win/win, and it is not intrinsically mean that “good” will prevail. This does not deny inequality, exploitation, or war in any way shape or form.

Let’s say you added up all the people, companies, and products that went into making your complex people moving machine (vehicle). It would be a net positive for all involved because of the added welfare not just in terms of money but in having a job, putting food on the table, creating meaning, etc.. Sure there may be some winner/losers in specific areas, but overall it is a non-zero sum game between you and all the people all over world who made your vehicle.

Manuel Ayau, in the below monograph, provides what might be “the most precise and compelling idea in the history of economic writing.” His main thesis being that trade and cooperation become mutually beneficial to all parties despite differences among them in terms of capacity and talent. Ayau details how the market economy leads to everyone becoming wealthier through cooperation. Comparative advantage is namely is the usual suspect.

Now there are plenty of fair criticisms & critiques of comparative advantage, but one cannot argue how that idea was the basis of international trade after World War I.

In a non-zero sum way, Ayau’s conclusion solidifies the idea of what one should consider when thinking about economics and exchange of goods and services.

“Free trade means the ability of producers to exchange their wares with anyone on the globe for other goods without some government standing in the way of some of those exchanges due to the country of origin of the goods involved. It requires no more laws or institutions than are necessary to provide standard protection of the property rights of all involved in the exchange. It is the application of laissez faire across international borders: nothing more, nothing less.”

If you look around, we clearly are not in the promise land of free trade, but at the very least the idea continues to win in the battles of BIG ideas."

“Multivolume documents paying lip service to free trade but forbidding transactions by parties whose competitive advantages are considered by some to be unfair are the antithesis of free trade no matter how many times the words free trade appear in their pages. That managed trade proponents hide the nature of their policy preferences under the cloak of free trade reveals their utter shamelessness. It also suggests that the free trade side is winning the battle of ideas.”

DON’T compete, but create!

Darius Foroux is a master in personal growth, especially with business types, and has some advice for them and for everyone in his post about creating and the Abundance mindset: “If you think that you have to compete for better jobs or more market share, you’re as wrong as I was.”

Competition says that if someone has a job, then that means you can’t have the same job. Same goes for a specific market share because that means you have to compete with other companies to “win” a piece of their share. Darius’s and almost everyone who went to business school’s entire education was based on competing with other businesses. Not to mention almost every business book out there also assumes business is competition.

Competition is like a mind demon that cannot be exorcised unless we radically change our way of thinking about the world. Darius explains how it is limited thinking.

They couldn’t be more wrong. When you assume that you have to compete with other businesses or people for money, jobs or attention, you’re engaged in limited thinking.

Instead, we must adopt an abundance mindset. Wallace D. Wattles, one of the first famed personal development authors, said it best:

“You get rid of the thought of competition. You are to create, not to compete for what is already created. You do not have to take anything away from any one.”

He goes on my saying that fear begets fear, and the need to create, create, create.

The biggest mistake that conventional business thinkers make, is that they believe supply is limited. But that’s not always the case. But even if it was the case, it’s harmful to adopt that mindset.

But that’s exactly the problem. Fear begets fear. When you’re afraid that you won’t be able to grow, what will happen? Exactly, you won’t grow!

There’s enough opportunity for everyone in the world. The problem is that most people don’t use the opportunities.

If you want to have a specific career, go out there and create it. The same is true for your business. And don’t focus on limited resources, naysayers, or any other reason you should not do it.

“Adopt an abundance mindset. Before you know it, you’ll have so much opportunity that you don’t know what to do with it… Create, Create, Create!” - Darius Foroux

Similarities far outweigh the differences.

Take any human on earth, and you have more in common with them than you might think. From your anatomical structure, basic psychology, social groups, and on and on. You may disagree with someone, and even have different lives. However, even the elements you have to deal with are more similar than different. From the seasons turning, to the felling of “butterflies in your stomach” with a significant other, to the feeling of loss. These are what we call universals. 

If you are still having trouble with pushing down your demonization of the other, and need a non-human answer. Then Nicholas Kristof’s example in his book Blueprint is a fantastic one.

Say you have two hills:

  • One is 300ft tall.

  • One is 900ft tall.

“Wow” the reader says, “one hill is 600 ft taller than the other one! Dare I say, the difference is quite large.” 

“Dear reader, You may not say!” I exclaim.

Everything is a matter of perspective!

What the reader did not know was that you were looking at these hills from the perspective of a nearby mountaintop 10,000ft up through some telescopic viewing apparatus. If you take your eye off the binoculars or telescope, then you see that those tiny hills next to each other are indeed very similar. This view transcends the hyper-localised individual & subjective erosion patterns of this hill or that hill, and sees the hills as a slight uniqueness to a much larger interconnected web of geological and planetary system forces. If you went into space and looked down on Earth, you would see that that 10,000ft mountain is again not so different from even Mt. Everest! (You would also experience “The Overview Effect” of course.)

It is counter-intuitive, but we have evolved these big prefrontal cortices to cut through this temporary speed bump in critical thinking. You are INDIVIDUALLY better off WHEN the COLLECTIVE is also doing better. We are already in a non-zero sum game people just dont know it yet. Our correlations are JOINED! We can either decide to actually start planning for a win-win. Or we can continue on our present course of what seems like the impending apocalypse of our time which points more towards a lose-lose nightmarish situation like in George Orwell’s final warning.

Do we want to be a checkpoint in the evolutionary chain of life (we ultimately will no matter what), or can we finally start to use our brains to our potential along with the design and use of ethical technology to help the most vulnerable among us?

The former is fine for the rugged individual and the callous soul of privileged indifference, but the latter is a much awe inspiring story of progress and ultimately better off for each person (even for those selfish rugged individuals).

“A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Major moral progress has to happen for Humanity to transcend our recent swing back to zero-sum thinking, and continue the progress of non-zero zum thinking. In Robin Wright’s view that is the only way. I tend to agree that “non-zero sumness” in more areas of life has to be central, along with a massive psychedelic renaissance among other things.

I and everyone on Earth need EACH of you readers, to take upon yourself to look at your moral compass, and push towards a win-win non-zero sum game.

The Non-Zero Sum Character

In closing, I would like to quote in full Steven Pressfield’s exquisite post “The Non-Zero-Sum Character.” (Also, if you haven’t read “The War of Art & Turning Pro” you are doing yourself a disservice as a human. Awaken the creative artist within you!)

“Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of real-life non-zero-sum characters.

Jesus of Nazareth

The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae

Joan of Arc

Abraham Lincoln

Mahatma Gandhi

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

John F. Kennedy

Malcolm X

Robert Kennedy

John Lennon

Yitzhak Rabin

And a few from fiction and motion pictures:



Atticus Finch

Huckleberry Finn

Celie in The Color Purple

Rick Blaine in Casablanca

Pike, Dutch, and the Gortch Brothers in The Wild Bunch

Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in Saving Private Ryan


Travis Bickle

Princess Leia

Luke Skywalker

If the Villain believes in a zero-sum world, the Hero believes in its opposite.

If the Villain believes in a universe of scarcity, the Hero believes, if not in a world of abundance, then at least in the possibility of such a world.

If the Villain believes in a reality dominated by fear, the Hero believes in one ruled by love.

The Villain is cynical. He or she believes that mankind is inherently evil. The Villain believes in “reality,” in a Hobbesian world of all-against-all.

The Villain is not necessarily “bad” or even “villainous.” In the villain’s eyes, he is the Good Guy. He is simply acting and making choices within a universe of monsters. He must therefore become, in the name of Good (or at least self-preservation or the preservation of those dear to him) a monster himself.

The zero-sum view of life is that of limited resources. Not enough to go around. If you and I want our share (or even simply enough to survive), we must take it from somebody else. However much of the pie we grab, that’s how much less remains for everyone else.

In the non-zero-sum world, on the other hand, resources are infinite. The love a mother gives to her child (and that the child returns) grows greater, the more each loves. There is and can never be a shortage of love.

Compassion is infinite.

Integrity is infinite.

Faith is infinite.

Zero-sum versus non-zero-sum. Which point of view do you believe?”


1) Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright

“The title of this book, Nonzero, refers to the concept of the "non-zero-sum," which comes from game theory. Looking at human history--and for that matter the whole history of life on earth--through the lenses of game theory can change your view of life. At least, that is a premise of this book. What exactly is meant by "change your view of life"?”

2) Not a Zero-Sum Game: The Paradox of Exchange by Manuel F. Ayau

“If this idea of what Mises called the Law of Association were better understood, many socialistic misconceptions about the market economy would fall by the wayside. Ayau explains it through simple diagrams and illustrations that will change the way you think. about issues of trade, equality, and social development.”

3) Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse

“An extraordinary book that will dramatically change the way you experience life.
Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life, the games we play in business and politics, in the bedroom and on the battlefield -- games with winners and losers, a beginning and an end. Infinite games are more mysterious -- and ultimately more rewarding. They are unscripted and unpredictable; they are the source of true freedom.
In this elegant and compelling work, James Carse explores what these games mean, and what they can mean to you. He offers stunning new insights into the nature of property and power, of culture and community, of sexuality and self-discovery, opening the door to a world of infinite delight and possibility.
"An extraordinary little book . . . a wise and intimate companion, an elegant reminder of the real."-- Brain/Mind Bulletin”


  1. Robert Wright - Nonzero Audiobook

  2. a16z Podcast: Beyond Zero Sum, Again

  3. RadioLab - What’s left when you are right?

  4. RadioLab - Tit for Tat


1) Robert Wright - The Logic of Non-Zero-Sum Progress

2) Kurzgesagt In a Nutshell - Egoistic Altruism

3) Simon Sinek - What Game Theory Teaches Us About War

4) The Prisoner’s Dilemma - This Place

5) Paramount Pictures - Arrival

What’s Next?

The next newsletter will be on: “Skin in the Game” principle championed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

If you enjoyed this post, please share to other potential eclectic spacewalkers, consider subscribing or gift a subscription, or connect with us on social media to continue the conversation! Also, I am an advocate of Bitcoin. My address is on my About.Me page if you are feeling extra curious.

Twitter: @ESpacewalk

Minds: @EclecticSpacewalk


Thank You for your time. Until the next post, Ad Astra!

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Eclectic Spacewalk #3 - Object Oriented Ontology

A New Theory of Everything, Philosophy is more like Art than Science, and The Third Table

Read previous post #2 - Systems Thinking (25-30 minutes)

Table of Contents:

Object Oriented Ontology—

  • Look around you. Are all the objects you see experiencing existence?

  • What is OOO?

    • A “Theory of Everything” will NOT be scientific but philosophic.

    • Ontology is a branch of Philosophy that deals with ultimate questions of what reality and real things are or ‘the study of being.” Flat Ontology - Everything exists equally and nothing has special status.

    • Knowledge is just duo-mining, but NOT “reality.”

    • Undermining an object is breaking it down into parts.

    • Overmining an object is describing it’s effects.

    • Real world implications in knowledge, aesthetics, and even politics!

    • OOO in summary

  • Text (5 books)

  • Audio (5 podcast episodes)

  • Video (3 quick hits & 5 lecture/talks)

What’s Next?

Reading Time: 25-30 minutes (Read sections you find intriguing, bookmark the media/links, and come back to anytime.)

Object Oriented Ontology—

Abstract: Object Oriented Ontology or “OOO” is a branch of philosophy, also associated with speculative realism, that puts “things” at the center of it’s study. In addition, it states that an object is not it’s broken down bits or the all of it’s effects, but instead just an object in itself.

By now, the reader is most likely confused and we haven’t even begun. The two thoughts that the majority of people, when reading the title of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology, would most likely be: a “new theory of everything” is a bold claim & WTF is Ontology?

Well dear reader, after reading this post you are hopefully going to see and think of our present reality a bit different moving forward. You, like me, and like most everyone else since the beginning of our shared species’ quest for knowledge, have unconsciously, and then consciously, thought about our reality through a pair of blinders. You have been hoodwinking yourself and didn’t even know it!

Let’s do a fun little experiment. Look up from this post and take a gander of your current surroundings. Here is mine:

Now, according to Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) every “object” you see and every object in my picture has, or could have, THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE OF EXISTENCE.

Going back to my picture...

What does my computer want? What about my plant? And the book that this post is based on? Can the sand in my (half)hourglass explicitly want anything that lies outside of our own human-centric definition of consciousness? The same question to my yerba mate?

This is a little easier to gulp down and digest when you view the question(s) through an animal and/or artificial life prism. The scientific breakthroughs of today have given us a much better understanding of animal’s minds and - in a different area - given us machines bordering on “intelligence.” This has put heavy pressure on continuing to see reality ONLY through human experience.

Right now I can feel the breath from all of the pfffffs of exhales from the reader about to throw in the white towel of defeat in continuing to read. Don’t distress, and continue on. This isn’t some esoteric discipline for a small subset of people & situations. This is literally a theory of everything, so by definition includes everyone.

One of OOO biggest proponents, Ian Bogost, has this to say about how the movement could benefit greatly from regular people:

“I’m of the general belief that academia has a responsibility to the public interest, but more than any other philosophical movement in recent memory, OOO stands to benefit from the deep engagement of ordinary people, since it returns the attention of philosophy to the real, everyday world.”

A New Theory of Reality?

You may of heard in the past few decades of an unification of all scientific thought into one theory. There have been many attempts like string theory - which has its own experimental issues that would give Karl Popper an aneurysm - and also the below “Quantum Field Theory.”

“This is the amplitude to undergo a transition from one configuration to another in the path-integral formalism of quantum mechanics, within the framework of quantum field theory, with field content and dynamics described by general relativity (for gravity) and the Standard Model of particle physics (for everything else). The notations in red are just meant to be suggestive, don’t take them too seriously…No experiment ever done here on Earth has contradicted this model.” - Physicist Sean Carrol

Most notably however, is that this is NOT a complete “theory of everything.” Quantum Field Theory doesn’t account for dark matter, and has not been fully connected to the force of gravity.

Critically, the above theory or “any scientific theory of everything” will never be enough due to it’s marriage with the “real.” In other words, a theory of everything WOULD INCLUDE imaginary things.

If you disagree, then please just think about how much influence imaginary things like - religious entities, companies like the Dutch East India Trading company to Manchester United Football Club, and “energy” from astrological events millions & millions of years away - have on our discourse.

Graham Harman states that the difference between a real horse, an imaginary horse, and a unicorn is esssentially FORM. Unfortunately, that form is always “dark” to us in a sense and we can never “know” the true form because by expressing it we really change it’s form. There is no free lunch in the universe…

“The difference between a horse, an imaginary house and a unicorn is not that the former “inheres” in matter and the latter two do not. Instead, the difference is that the real horse has a different form from the imaginary horse, and certainly a different one from the unicorn. One of the implications of this is that we cannot ‘extract’ a form from a thing and express this form in mathematical or other directly knowable terms; or rather, we can do this, but only by paying the price of changing the form into something else.”

Metaphor plays a huge role in these distinctions as well. Aaron Lewis recently wrote a great piece on how we are still led, at least partly, by the metaphorical: Metaphors we believe by: the pantheon of 2019

“The more I learn, the more I suspect that rationalists only managed to kill a very narrow and anthropomorphic conception of God. People who study complex systems started using new words to talk about god-like phenomena — metaphors that are more palatable to secular minds. I believe these new words can help scientifically-minded people better understand what it actually felt like to believe in God before science became a Thing. Let’s take a tour through the pantheon of 2019 and explore what these seven “gods” might teach us in our era of ecological crisis and post-truth confusion.”

WTF is Ontology?

Getting back to those initial thoughts when you read OOO, what does the last “O” stand for?

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence, and an ontology of oriented objects puts “things” at it’s center. A flat ontology is: Everything exists equally and nothing has special status. For example - My PS4 controller, limestone, parchment, the country of Uzbekistan, and silver back gorillas all are unique in a very technical, Heidegger “thing it itself” way.

Ian Bogost explains how this is different than the current & dominant way of thinking:

“In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.”

Knowledge, Effects, and the “Third Table”

Graham Harmon aptly calls the above scientific naturalism of bundling properties, undermining, and social relativism of their relations/effects on other things, overmining.

So, objects instead must be understood as real independent substances in their own right, with much larger & robust sensory qualities. Otherwise, objects lose their underlying identity as something real, and end up being mere appearances, analyzable in terms of something else which is more fundamental and real.

“Since knowledge cannot be metaphorical - for this is the realm of both aesthetics and phiosophia - it must be literal, which means that it must be a question of articulating the qualities or effects of an object in overmining/undermining fashion. And since knowledge cannot be ‘truth’, which would imply an impossible direct revelation of the world, it needs to have some sort of contact with reality, though not contact of a direct sort, which we have seen to be impossible. But unlike aesthetics, the point of knowledge is not to experience the unknowable uniqueness of a real object, but to attain some sort of partial grasp of the features of a sensual object that is already in our midst. This means that whereas aesthetics brought real objects into play, knowledge must somehow bring real qualities into the picture.”

Let’s do another quick thought experiment to get at the core of what an “object” is. Think back to the photo of my desk, or any table for that matter.

If you were to describe the table, you would inevitably have to use knowledge, which is really only two qualities: “what something is made of” (undermining or the first table) and “what it does” (overmining or the second table).

So what is left after you undermine/overmine a thing?

Graham Harman has another pithy response to this, “the third table.”

“An object is whatever cannot be reduced to either of the two basic knowledge: what something is made of, and what it does. Too many philosophers is the west have tried to claim that it is simply one of these, the other, or both. Another way of saying it is that OOO is strongly committed to an anti-realist view of objects, literalism being the notion that we can paraphrase an object, as if it were truly equivalent to a sum total of qualities or effects and nothing more.”

The Third Table is essentially describing the four possible combinations of “The Quadruple Object” as shown below. (Apologies for the semi-legible annotations.)


Well, for starters OOO has “rescued the non-relational core of every object, thus paving the way for an aesthetic conceptions of things.” In plain English that means that Aesthetics has become a first philosophy. Non literal access to an object is crucial in OOO. This has become an interesting new direction in the world of architecture.

Graham Harman says that if we were all Socratic, then we would recognize that idealism is poisonous and “reality” is the best antidote. No one knows the Truth!

“OOO, takes Socrates at his word. No one is actually in possession of knowledge or truth, which therefore cannot be our protection against the degeneration of politics or of anything else. As OOO sees it, the true danger to thought is not relativism but idealism, and hence the best remedy for what ails us is not the truth/knowledge pair but reality.”

But if we cannot possess knowledge or truth, then our models & theories about society & politics should have that understanding baked into them…Well they don’t do so now. Charlatans are abound everywhere, especially in politics, claiming to posess a truth that no one can know.

“There is no political knowledge. Political theory cannot be based on the claim to knowledge: whether it be the supposed knowledge of what the best polity is, or merely the cynical claim that it’s all just a struggle for power. Along with the need to recognize itself as non-knowledge, political theory must give a much larger role to non-human entities than has previously been the case.

Summary of Object Oriented Ontology

  1. All objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non human, natural, cultural, real or fictional.

  2. Objects are not identical with their properties, but have a tense relationship with those properties, and this very tension is responsible for all of the change that occurs in the world. 

  3. Objects come in just two kinds: real objects exist whether or not they currently affect anything else, while sensual objects exist only in relation to some real object.

  4. Real objects cannot relate to one another directly, but only indirectly, by means of a sensual object.

  5. The properties of objects also come in just two kinds: again, real and sensual.

  6. These two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities lead to four basic permutations, which OOO treats as the root of time and space, as well as two closely related terms known as essence or eidos.

  7. Finally, OOO holds that philosophy generally has a closer relationship with aesthetics than with mathematics or natural science.


1) Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything by Graham Harman

“We humans tend to believe that things are only real in as much as we perceive them, an idea reinforced by modern philosophy, which privileges us as special, radically different in kind from all other objects. But as Graham Harman, one of the theory's leading exponents, shows, Object-Oriented Ontology rejects the idea of human specialness: the world, he states, is clearly not the world as manifest to humans.”

Outline of OOO book:

“Chapter 1: Intro to notion of objects, only comes in two types: real & sensual, what OOO thinks is wrong with modern philosophy since Descartes and Kant. Kant is important ancestor of OOO.

Chapter 2: Explains why philosophy has less in common with science than is usually believed, and more common with the arts. Here we touch on the key cognitive role of metaphor, which the author claims is more important for philosophy than discursive propositional statements such as ‘the cat is on the mat,’ ‘gove is a yellow metal’ or ‘water boils at 100 degrees celsius’ which philosophers so often take as the model for their theories.”

Chapter 3: Discusses some of the implications for OOO in these fields. OOO agrees with Latour’s actor-theory network in politics, but not in matters of social theory. In social theory, OOO is more interested in the inner nature of things than in their actions, and contends that only a half-dozen or so important events befall an object before it reaches maturity, ripens, declines, and dies. In politics, OOO avoids the left/right polarization of political discourse since the French Revolution, focusing instead on difference between truth politics and power politics, both of them need replacement. It also adheres to discovery of actor-network theory that non-human entities play a crucial role in stabilizing the human polis.

Chapter 4: Author shows why the interaction between objects, which seems like the most obvious everyday thing in the word, is more paradoxical than it sounds. Incorrect assumptions on causality. Fourfold structure of objects, one of the methodological pillars of OOO. What is left of knowledge in the wake of OOO’s rejection of literalism and direct access to reality. Since Chapter 2, has already claimed that philosophy as more in common with the arts than the sciences, some might complain that OOO 'aestheticizes’ philosophy while leaving us skeptical as to the possibility of any actual knowledge. Yet we will see that OOO merely rejects the idea of knowledge as a direct presence of reality itself, and does not scorn knowledge per se.

Chapter 5: Author clarifies the nature of OOO further by distinguishing its treatment of objects from the views of perhaps the two most dominant french thinkers of the past half century: Derrida and Foucult, neither of them doing the degree of justice to objects that OOO itself demands.

Chapter 6: Discuses key authors that author has worked with: Ian Bogost, Levi R. Bryant, and Timothy Morton. Close proximity: Jane Bennett and Tristan Garcia. Architectural theorists: Mark Foster Gage, Erik Ghenoiu, David Ruy, and Tom Wiscombe.

Chapter 7: Concludes with a summary of some of the most important guiding maxims of the movement.”

2) Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence by Timothy Morton

“The logistics of agricultural society resulted in global warming and hardwired dangerous ideas about life-forms into the human mind. Dark ecology puts us in an uncanny position of radical self-knowledge, illuminating our place in the biosphere and our belonging to a species in a sense that is far less obvious than we like to think. Morton explores the logical foundations of the ecological crisis, which is suffused with the melancholy and negativity of coexistence yet evolving, as we explore its loop form, into something playful, anarchic, and comedic… Morton hopes to reestablish our ties to nonhuman beings and to help us rediscover the playfulness and joy that can brighten the dark, strange loop we traverse.”


3) Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost

“In Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Ian Bogost develops an object-oriented ontology that puts things at the center of being—a philosophy in which nothing exists any more or less than anything else, in which humans are elements but not the sole or even primary elements of philosophical interest. And unlike experimental phenomenology or the philosophy of technology, Bogost’s alien phenomenology takes for granted that all beings interact with and perceive one another. This experience, however, withdraws from human comprehension and becomes accessible only through a speculative philosophy based on metaphor.”


4) The Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant

“This ontology argues that being is composed entirely of objects, properties, and relations such that subjects themselves are a variant of objects. Drawing on the work of the systems theorists and cyberneticians, Bryant argues that objects are dynamic systems that relate to the world under conditions of operational closure. In this way, he is able to integrate the most vital discoveries of the anti-realists within a realist ontology that does justice to both the material and cultural.”


5) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett

“Bennett argues that political theory needs to do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in events. Toward that end, she theorizes a “vital materiality” that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman. Bennett explores how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency always emerges as the effect of ad hoc configurations of human and nonhuman forces. She suggests that recognizing that agency is distributed this way, and is not solely the province of humans, might spur the cultivation of a more responsible, ecologically sound politics: a politics less devoted to blaming and condemning individuals than to discerning the web of forces affecting situations and events.”



1) Object Oriented Ontology, Jane Bennett, & Vibrant Matter by Always Already Podcast

2) Graham Harmon by CENHS

3) On Metaphysics, Objects and Decent Politics with Graham Harman by Thales’ Well

4) Objecthood #1 by RADIO WEB MACBA

5) Graham Harman's Object Lesson by Cultural Technologies

Video:Quick Hits:

1) Graham Harman - Object Oriented Ontology By Ben The Benevolent

2) What is Object-Oriented Ontology? By Tadas Vinokur

3) Graham Harman on Objects By Philosophy Overdose


1) Graham Harman on Heidegger & the Arts (Object Oriented Philosophy) - Philosophy Overdose

2) Graham Harman: Objects and the Arts - ICA

3) The Aesthetics of Equality: Object Orientated Ontology and Social TheoryYaleUniversity

4) Graham Harman and Slavoj Zizek: talk and debate: On Object Oriented Ontology - Lagebesprechungen

5) Object-Oriented Philosophy by Denison University Events

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