NEETs are our Fremen

06 Mar 2021

‘NEET’ stands for Not in Education, Employment, or Training. The use of the word was popularized in the 2000s to address the rising numbers of (predominantly) young men who were electing to stay with their parents or friends or other family without going to school or work. Often, these young men engaged in gaming, or watching anime, or whatever other geeky hobbies were available. Regardless, they are characterized by being very online. That is, their home- their home culture, is the internet. In Asia, this was often termed ‘Internet addiction’.

We do what we do partially because of where we get our validation and status from. These things help give us a feeling of inclusion, of being a part of something greater, of having a purpose or function that is bigger than ourselves. In the last century or so, we have increasingly received our purpose from careers- from markers of being a good worker in a capitalist society. Where before you might have received your purpose by being a part of your family, by being a part of the church that you were in, by worshipping the god you worship, or simply living on the land that you live on. The rise of the nation state, after all, happened in the last five hundred years, when all these functions sort of collapsed- because I’m telling you that nationalism has effectively collapsed in the last twenty years, though, this is the beginning, and it is a silent and quiet collapse- silent and quiet in that if you look around you, there are still nation states. And they still control things, or at least appear to. Anyway, after this change, people began to look for meaning not from their people, not from their gods, but from their careers- from what kind of car they drove, from, what kind of house they were in, from where they went on holiday when their companies allowed them to go on holiday. So this is where most people in materially rich places get their sense of purpose, at the moment.

NEETs present us with a different way. The rise of the Internet allowed many people, including myself, to find a world with completely different status systems or seemingly completely different status systems. You may not be in your everyday life, a respectable member of society having no job, but you probably have a job in the games you play or in the gaming clans that you are a part of, or the niche nerd community that you might be a part of online.

You could be a well-known artist on some forum. A well-known leader in another game. A trusted advisor in some chatroom. An appreciated member of an obscure mailing list. And all these things would serve to give some meaning to your life that you would not be getting from the people around you. Your everyday life as a NEET, if you are a NEET, is one of living in a desert. You have resources, that is, true physical resources, but your status- your social resources- are scarce. And those from outside of the desert do not know how you find water and food in this place. They do not know how you find your status, they do not know how you find your meaning. But the very fact that you have not committed suicide yet is proof that you are getting something somewhere. And this produces a lot of confusion for people who aren’t NEETs. In what world would someone willingly choose to go jobless or without going to school, when everyone else around them says that is the only way to live? And there is no large-scale society (perhaps the only society left to us) today where this stands. If NEETs were transported back into another time and another place, say the 18th century, they would not necessarily be NEETs because they would be surrounded by people who would not give them the space to even imagine a world where they did not devote their lives to their families and to their religions, or to fortune herself. NEETs get their sense of meaning, their sense of purpose from worlds that are created online. In the 17th century, and the 18th century, and leading up to now- I’m sure this has always been the case, if you read Augustine or Livy, you will see a similar pattern- there are cohorts of people that formed together that then go on to change the world. Where this happens is different at different times. If you go far back enough, a lot of these are groups of young men who were warriors formed by conflict between territories. At a later time, it might be a philosophy school. At another, it might be a front on some war. Later on, much later, in the modern era, we have salons and coffee houses, companies such as Bell Labs, the former guests of the Hanoi Hilton, the Paypal Mafia. But you also started to see this on the internet. Groups of people from various areas on the internet, staying together past whatever purpose they might have gathered for. I, for example, have a group of people that I stay in contact with who we came together as a gaming clan. And a lot of us now don’t really game that much. But we stay in touch. And there are exchanges made. There are social networks that are deepened because of these relationships. And in the long-term wealth is about the wealth of your social network.

So you have these communities with their alternate status systems. Instead of a career or what kind of car you drive, you might get status for how fast it might take you to figure out someone’s real name. You might get status for having played a particular game and been engaged in a sort of political process within that game some years ago. You might get status for thinking a certain way. In fact, this is probably how you most often get status in communities like this online. It’s not how you look physically necessarily, though, these things tend to collapse over time. It’s not how you do in terms of the modern monetary system or anything like that, it’s, it’s how you think, because that is what comes out in text over time. And that is what comes out in your behavior over time. Even if no one has your real name, or your face attached to your behavior, they will learn your behavior well enough that many people can spot their friends online, in totally different contexts. Just from the way they speak, in sentences.

So let’s talk about Ibn Khaldun, the writer of the Muqaddimah, the father of political science. He wrote about the Berbers and the Bedouins of the desert- he called them savages- and the interplay between these savages and the people of the caliphate. The Muslim empire, essentially, that he was a part of. And he noticed that there was a pattern. One, that the people who live out in the desert tended to be able to deal with hardship much more easily. Two, they were not very amenable to learning how to read or write, or anything like that. And this was actually an advantage to them. Because when the state wanted to domesticate an area, when it wanted to tax an area, when it wanted to control an area- it benefited from people who could read and write, because one of the ways that you take over is by changing the way that people think. And to do that, these desert peoples often produced many noble houses. The first in the line of the noble house would often come from the desert- would be a desert savage. And this made for a strong founder. Because they were used to the hardship, they used their resources well to establish a strong, noble house. Now, the second generation then builds on this and becomes a stronger house. But by the fourth generation or so, there was a sort of decadence that happened, where the descendants would lose their strength- they would come to rely on all the material wealth that their ancestors made and left them. And they would forget the desert ways. And because they forgot their desert ways, they would forget how to be strong, and instead, would favor markers of status and class in such a way that was disconnected from the ultimate source of that status, which was competence in surviving in a harsh environment. This pattern is not just in the Berbers that Ibn Khaldun observed. Peter Turchin, the historian and statistician who came up with a way of looking at history with data also points to a similar cycle. In a lot of steppe cultures, the steppe culture would conquer a sedentary agricultural area. And once that happens, the thing that made it easy for those steppe cultures to conquer, the thing that made it easy for the Tartars, the Turks, the Mongols, or the Mughals to conquer the people that they conquered, was that hardship, that scarcity that they learned to live with. But once they conquered them, they would often take on the ways and the culture of the people they conquered (something a conqueror of India, Babur, complains about in his autobiography- he felt that even though he was the one who did the conquering, in the end his people were conquered culturally by those he conquered). And this would essentially weaken them over time, even as they got richer. Later, TE Lawrence, who was assigned to assist the Bedouins in their revolution against the Ottomans to aid the British effort in World War I, remarked on a similar pattern. The Sheiks he described were selected not by birth, but by their individual strength of personality- by their deeds in raids (as the tribes were continuously raiding each other) and by how well they took care of their men. This made the Bedouin very difficult to control in the way a typical Army is controlled, but because they knew the desert, and because they were fighting for themselves (to contrast with the Ottoman military, who were mostly just punching in as a job), they were able to topple the Ottomans.

In the mid 20th century, the science fiction writer, Frank Herbert, released Dune, a science fiction novel and a series of novels that has kind of paralleled the popularity of Tolkien or CS Lewis in some ways, except in the area of science fiction. Though it never got quite as strong a following as either of those, it does have a very strong following, especially for the first few books. And it’s been witnessing a sort of resurgence in some circles. And I think that’s actually because Frank Herbert includes a lot of these patterns that we see in history in his writing- to include the pattern of noble houses and desert peoples. You see, Dune is set on the planet Arrakis. And this planet Arrakis is a desert planet. There is an intergalactic Empire, a spacefaring Empire, that mines something called The Spice. And this Spice is a substance that deeply changes the people who imbibe it. There are pilots, a group or a guild of pilots that do all the flying in space for this empire. And the only way they can fly is with the help of this Spice, because it changes something about the way they think. Something about the way they perceive time. And so within the Byzantine politics of this empire, a noble family is sent to Dune to govern it. These are the Atreides family. They come from a lush forest, a paradise of a planet. And so it’s a very stark change for the family. Well, Leto Atreides the Duke, the would be governor of Arrakis, is something of a typical noble hero leader. His consort, Lady Jessica, turns out to be a part of the Bene Gesserit. In this universe, Bene Gesserit are a secret, semi-religious order. Like if the Jesuit were women in space and were also a little like the Jedi. They manipulate many things that happen in the galaxy. They’re all extremely well trained in various forms of manipulation, as well as ways of seeing the world. And among the things they do is that they plant stories in various cultures, stories that they can then take and use later. And this is going to become important in Dune, because they plan a story of a messiah among the Fremen. The Fremen in Dune, in Arrakis, are the local people of the desert. They live in spice, the substance that changes their perception and turn their eyes blue- Fremen eyes. And they share a lot in common with the Bedouin or desert savages. Except of course, it’s science fiction, and it’s space. So they’re dealing with these special suits that allow them to recycle all the water that they use. And they use other space scifi things. Kind of like what you would see in Star Wars or Star Trek and so on. But the point is that these are the people of this desert planet, that the space Empire does not really understand. They don’t really know how many of them are there are, they don’t really know much about their culture. They just govern over them. And these people kind of just tell the Empire what it wants to hear, but don’t really share much of themselves with the Empire, or all the knowledge that they know. Because the bureaucrats who are sent by the Empire kind of have their story of how the world is and that’s what they’re looking for, so they don’t see what’s under their noses. You might see parallels in rural peasant populations everywhere, and how they deal with centrally controlled states.

The Fremen, meanwhile, know that to give an empire too much information is to let it have control over you. So they just show them what they want to see. So in Dune, Leto Atreides, the archetypical noble leader, is betrayed. Much like in Game of Thrones, by a jealous, power-poor monarch. In this case, the backstabbing weapon is the Harkonnens, which is a house that has a culture of extreme greed and jealousy and clutching to own things. Whereas Atreides as a leader knows that you have to care for the people that you lead for them to serve you well, the Harkonnens lead by fear. But they are well-poised to take over the planet through their machinations, which they do. And in the process, they kill the Duke. But the Duke has a son, Paul Atreides. And of course, he has his consort, who is the Lady Jessica, the Bene Gesserit. So you have the situation. And the teenage son and his mother run into the desert. And there they meet the Fremen, the desert peoples. And they realize that because of the harsh environment, these Fremen, all of them, kind of act like a military unit, which is to say, they have a lot of trust amongst themselves. And they move in a way that would make sense if you are moving as a military unit. Quiet, well-oiled. And his mother insinuates that he is their Messiah. And remember that the Bene Gesserit plant these mythologies all over the place.

So Paul, takes on this role as a sort of messiah of the Fremen, these people of the desert. And because they are used to scarcity, because they’re used to following a completely different value system and status system than the Empire, they win. And Paul takes over Arrakis. From that base, he becomes the Emperor and his son will turn into something else. But that’s another story. The point is, NEETS are our Fremen. NEETs live in a sort of status desert. They are used to getting meaning and purpose, from very unusual places, from places that others don’t know how to get them. You know, for a lot of people, if you don’t have a career, if you don’t have a house, you are lost. The NEETs in your life, if you look around, you might notice have found ways to survive without using a career as a symbol, without needing the same accolades or certifications to go on with their lives. And at the moment, they are constantly insulted for this. And a lot of them believe these insults. That they do indeed need careers and whatnot, but they keep on doing something else, either due to stupidity or laziness, whatever explanation they may have. However, the fact is, they have found another way to survive. And this is incredibly valuable. Because if you have a system where every part all has the same behaviors, then when it has a weakness, it’s hard for anyone to come out of this weakness. As a good example, most people work the forty hour work week, even though it makes no sense as far as what we know about how learning works, and what we know about how work works. If you’re in an intellectual job, for instance, you can probably only get at most, oh, four hours, four ‘good’ hours a day. And a lot of times, it’s not about the same hours every day, it’s, you might go hard for two weeks, and then kind of lay low for another three weeks or a month or whatever, and then have another cycle where you go hard for another two weeks. And that’s much closer to how you might have lived as a forger, how your ancestors might have lived as foragers. You’re not constantly working at a set time. That is far downstream of farming. And farming is relatively new. So to escape that, to be allowed to think for yourself, you need to find a way outside of that incentive system. Because famously, if you are paid not to believe in something, you will not be able to believe in it. If you are paid to believe in something, you will have no choice but to believe it. If you’re a lawyer, you’re going to need to believe, on some level, in the supremacy of the law. It’s very hard to do otherwise. If you are being paid to give up ownership of the things you create, and of your time and of your thoughts, then you will not be able to see that it is possible to live in another way. You will think that you must go, you know, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt, just to live in the world, when in actuality, you could have probably done just fine living on very little. And so this is how you might have a culture of people who have a lot of material wealth, but they are thinking like a slave class, a class that does not have ownership over their own minds. See in the past, it was land- you might have worked the land that belonged to someone else. And because of that, everything you did, eventually added up to someone else’s shit.

Which is fine, as long as whoever’s leading you cares about you, in the same way that Leto Atreides, the Duke in Dune, cares for his people. But that’s actually very hard to do, it’s very hard to provide that kind of leadership. And we lack that kind of leadership. Which means that most of the time, when you work for someone else, when you work the land for someone else, they’re not going to use the fruits of your labor as well as you would if that was your own land. So similarly, what we are paid for now is to work our minds for someone else. And because of that, we aren’t allowed to use the full extent of our minds, because it belongs to someone else. Your time belongs to someone else, your thoughts belong to someone else, so your mind belongs to someone else. Now, what NEETs have found is how to avoid that. How to live for themselves. They are attacked for this everyday. They are shamed for this everyday. In the same way that in the story in Dune, the Fremen are thought of as backwards people, scurrying around in the desert, we think of NEETS as a backward people who scurry around in dark basements playing video games. When in fact, video games teach you how to generalize intelligence. Most people don’t realize this, except when they are having moral panics about video games and violence. Talking about how video games lead to school shootings and other crimes. But video games teach general intelligence. They give you an environment with certain amounts of constraints. And unlike school, there’s not just one way to do things. Typically, there are many ways to do things. This teaches general intelligence, and oppositional general intelligence. When you are in a conflict with someone else, when you are in a player versus player game with someone else, you are learning how to fight. Now, people don’t realize this, because we don’t have many places left where we are allowed to fight in the way that two puppies might fight. You know, you see puppies, they’re always kind of fighting- play fighting. In the same way, games are play fighting. But you don’t realize this, because you’re doing it in a non-embodied way. So it’s being simulated in your mind, you’re seeing it on a screen. And you think that “Oh, it’s it’s stupid to think that this would have anything to do with anything outside of the game”. But I can tell you that the lessons that you learn in such a game will transfer just fine, to grappling, to combat sports, to small unit tactics. And that you can use all the same things to win at life.

So we’re sitting on this goldmine, in the same way that Arrakis was sitting on a spicemine of Fremen- the ultimate value of Arrakis wasn’t really in The Spice. The Spice was a key part of it, but the real bounty of Arrakis was in the people- in the Fremen, the desert peoples. So NEETs are our Fremen, because we are sitting on this vast, underused general intelligence. And just like the Bene Gessert who planted prophecies that could be used, we have prophecies planted in our NEETs. And we call these prophecies Dragonball Z. We call these prophecies The Avengers. We call these prophecies Mass Effect. All these narratives are just lying there waiting to be used. Because every NEET is walking around with these stories in their head. And if you provide them with actions, with choices in life that mimic the stories, that allow them to perform these stories, then you are going to bring them out into the rest of the world and the rest of the world will not know what hit them, just as Dune had its Fremen jihad.