Hi, Jim. Could you elaborate further on the "inverted empathy"? I came across your model before by chance, and in the process of looking up when empaths clash, I came across this again and believe this occurred. And could possibly be occurring in another respect? Not sure. Specifically, if you have anything on healing from an act of inverted empathy it is appreciated. Or something that you might find helpful.Thank you so much for any insights or thoughts you might have.
I’ve been pondering your email for a while and I will try to respond with something approaching intelligent.
My starting place for that article is my experience with meditation and an understanding that empathy is an essential part of human nature. There are many views on this. In my study of Buddhism, I find it called Buddha Nature which they believe everyone has. From an evolutionary perspective, it is caused by the fact that humans have survived not because of our individual physical power, but the power we have when we work together in social groups. Empathy is required for survival and empathy is part of the mind. It also occurs in animals in different and similar ways.
Empathy becomes inverted and used to justify anger and aggression when a person is afraid. Empathy is fundamentally frightening. It makes us aware of the existence and experience of other people. Our world is full of humans now so our awareness of the existence of the experience of others is heightened. People can torment themselves with models (see my post on models) of people they create that mimic the fear of the person modeling them.
A person might think, “just like me, that other person wants to be safe.” For one who might have caused harm, or been part of a group of people who have caused harm to another person or group it turns to fear because of the empathic modeling of the other and recognizing that they might be angry or fearful of the opposing group. Empathy and fear becomes hatred and anger in what I’ve labeled “inverted empathy.”
How can we heal this? I haven’t thought much about that. Perhaps I should have. I would recommend using pure empathy and listening to counteract the empathy that becomes fear. I think it’s also important to recognize that when we react to a person, we generally react to the model of the person we’ve created, not the real person we see and hear in front of us. Our models are flawed. The cure for that is listening without modeling which takes practice. The root of that practice is mindfulness.
When we quiet the mind, we start to become aware of the modeling process and recognize the flaws that are inherent in that process. Modeling other people is empathic and built on an ability to know and belong but it is always just a model, not reality. That sort of empathy is not pure and referred often in American Buddhism as ‘Idiot Compassion.’ Pure empathy and compassion are based on emptiness which is the recognition that the models we create to navigate our way through the world are like vapor. They arise and dissipate. They have no inherent existence. They fail, and we rebuild them based on our experience. They can never be real and yet, they are all we have.
When I meet someone and listen to them while being aware of the empty nature of my models, I can start to really hear that other person. Their models of reality, their models of me, and the churning nature of existence enters my awareness and my fear lessens. As my fear dissolves, my anger and hatred has no footing. My models of that person and groups of people become less solid and real. This, in my opinion, is the way to heal inverted empathy.
I hope that helps.
... to be continued, I hope.
SHOW LINK - join in at 5pm EDT Saturday, April 25. (I do a sound test 5 mins early) https://youtu.be/I8D6al5TnyI
I will be doing my 6th Solo In Isolation show from my sofa live on YouTube this Saturday at 5pm EDT. You can send requests to @jiminfantino on twitter or to me on facebook https://facebook.com/jinfantino/
Because this is a live show, I will archive each show after 1 week of playing them.
Subscribe to the Jim's Big Ego YouTube Channel to get more information: https://www.youtube.com/user/jimsbigego
25% of all tips from Ko-fi and Venmo will go to the Passim Emergency Artist Releaf Fund https://passim.org/pearfund/
The shows run about an hour and I plan to have an after-party again on Zoom. I will post the link at the end of the show.
I also want to mention that I'm a co-ordinator for Jim Rosen's online Zoom based meditation group. We meet Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10am EDT. Jim Rosen has been my meditation instructor for over a decade. He is very down to earth and personable. I help out by managing the member flow in the group. This is a great way to help you with the stress of these uncertain times. Go to https://jimrosen.com/meditate to sign up.
Stay healthy, Stay well, stay sane.
SHOW LINK - join in at 5pm EST Saturday, April 18. (I test a little 5 mins early) https://youtu.be/Jp1tD8rPx3A
I will be doing my 5th Solo In Isolation show from my sofa live on YouTube this Saturday at 5pm EST. You can send requests to @jiminfantino on twitter or to me on facebook https://facebook.com/jinfantino/
Subscribe to the Jim's Big Ego YouTube Channel to get more information: https://www.youtube.com/user/jimsbigego
25% of all tips from Ko-fi and Venmo will go to the Passim Emergency Artist Releaf Fund https://passim.org/pearfund/
The shows run about an hour and I plan to have an after-party again on Zoom. I will post the link at the end of the show.
I hope this finds you well and healthy as we persist!
Thank you to E.G. Stone for putting this great anthology together. I was honored to be considered as a contributor to this timely book. It's available now on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.
This was a delight. Thank you, E.G. Stone.
I've been doing remote shows on YouTube Live each Saturday while we are all on lockdown. They are fun. They will be on the Jim's Big Ego YouTube channel if you want to subscribe. Next week's show is at https://youtu.be/RcY4lC0WgXg
I've been playing lots of really old songs (deep cuts is a good term) on these by request. You can request songs on twitter or facebook and I will play them if I can. The shows run about an hour and I plan to have an after party this time on Zoom.
This is why it's so hard to be a speculative fiction writer. Some things surprise you. The arrival of this technology is not completely surprising because it still has a long way to go before it's like the thexting in The Wakeful Wanderer's Guide but it has a timely start, a bit like the mention of SumoTech in an early chapter of the book.
The embed code from mashable is a little destructive here so here is an image and a link to the article.
I love the name.
I love these homes! I want one! They are small, tornado resistant, printed and beautiful. Not good for hoarding lots of stuff assuredly. A home of the new future.
Thank you to Dar Williams for this link.
I imagined windows on the side originally, but realized later that the interconnected didn't need them. In book two I describe a city made of these sorts of structures. Working hard on that novel now. Follow my progress on Wattpad and support my work on Patreon.
Preview of a chapter from book2 in the Wakeful Wanderer Series now available online as an audio chapter
Thank you so much to Sarah Lipton for her reading of this chapter and to Lee Purcell for publishing it.
There is one spoiler in this chapter which is an origin story about a very minor character in Book 1. The spoiler is about a more major character, but I don't think (I hope) it doesn't give away anything terrible. Enjoy!
I've been putting off writing about this for decades.
In 1986 and 1987 I helped to run a discussion group at Haverford College called A Dialog About Men. Part of our mission was to try to get to the root of male sexual violence through exploring the conditions in ourselves that may or may not exist in all men. It was awkward and fascinating. We started as an open group, but most of the people who showed up were women. The men clammed up. Then we made it a men-only group. That did not go over well, but we stuck with it because the point was to provide a space for men to feel free to open up. In that cocoon, the men started talking. Someone took notes, but I can't remember who now. I'm not sure they would be informative. The conversations were difficult and eye-opening. For some things, you just have to be there.
We did stuff around campus like an event called Walk A Mile in Your Sister's Shoes, which did not involve footwear. Rather it encouraged all men on campus to ask for a woman escort when walking around campus after dark. We were trying to build awareness of the sense of danger that was invisible to men but we were told was a nightly reality for women, even in our Arboretum Utopia of a campus.
We got a lot of pushback from both men and women. The men generally laughed at us and implied that our livers were not unlike the lily. Women accused us of acting sensitive in order to get laid.
We talked a lot about a particular type of male rage that rises up out of fear. We got pretty deep into some uncomfortable feelings and saw the hazards that occur within us around consent and the lack thereof. We were all pretty civilized young men, but we could feel that we had the kernel of something potentially violent within us and that violence could be triggered by the need to protect a very tender, vulnerable wound which we could not quite identify. We did not assume that only men have this particular vulnerability. We only knew that there was a primal need within us to protect this wound and a will to lash out when this one place in our psyche was threatened. Luckily, our will to not lash out was stronger than our will to lash out, which is why we can continue to exist in society.
The Fisher King
One of my professors, V.Y Mudimbe, sat in on or heard about some of these conversations and recommended I read about the origins of the Fisher King story. In that fable, which became the seed of the Arthurian Legends, a young boy goes fishing and gets a wound. That wound eventually makes him a man. It's really ancient and vague, but at least we were not the first guys to talk about these ideas.
We did not solve any major problems in our brief gatherings, but it started me thinking about what it means to be male or at least to identify as male. So, of course, being male, I formed a theory.
By theory, I mean a model. With me, it's all models. I wrote a bit about models in a previous blog and you can read that to understand what I mean by it. Models are not science, but science employs models. It has roots in philosphy. In short, identifying a model is becoming aware of an internal habit of thought that determines our behavior. We model people, places, things, and ourselves in order to interact with what appears to be a world. The world is also a model.
Here's my model of the nature of maleness:
A man is not-mom.
The easy line to draw is to the counter-Freudian model of Womb Envy originally posited by the psychologist Karen Horney back in the early 1900s. She asserted that men were envious of women's reproductive organs, rather than women being envious of men's. It's a cool idea, and anything that takes Freud down a peg is worthy, but that's not it. Ask any guy, and he will tell you, he enjoys having a penis.
If maleness was all about physiology, the issue would be simpler. The problem with being male is that we are external to the cycle of life. We are the branches of the tree, and women are the trunk. That is not a problem that can be solved. Women have an unbroken physical connection to the first woman. They can choose to continue that connection to future girls who can continue it on and on so long as there are people. Men have that connection too, but only backward through time, and only through mom. Men are not mom. We are out on a limb.
Boys understand this really early on via differentiation. All children can identify the mother as soon as they can differentiate between people. They know mom's face. They know mom's body and they want to be close to it. In the first year, if mom is present, babies want to be with mom. At some point between 2 and 5, it invariably comes up that a toddler is either like mom or not like mom. As recent studies have shown, this is not determined by one's chromosomes, but by a narrative communicated by the parents.
"Can I nurse the baby?" "Yes, someday."
"Can I nurse the baby?" "No, you are a boy."
- or some variation thereof. All of this sounds like I'm talking about womb-envy still, and that makes sense only with regards the toddlers sense of gender differentiation, but for them, reproductive organs are not the main thing. They are trying to figure out their significance. At that age, mom is a monolith. Mom is self-evidently significant. A toddler determines their significance by their relative similarity to mom.
Dad is also significant, but not in so obvious a way. His significance is complex. Toddlers often know that dad has something to do with their birth, but understandably, it's a bit vague. They form a narrative in which mom is the creator and dad is the helper. It's is important to note here, that this will occur regardless of whether the primary caregiver is male or female. The question is "how did I get here?" and the answer is mom.
Differentiation & significance
So far, I am speaking of male/female cis-gender parenting. Non-binary parenting and same cis-gender parenting is something someone might address here, but I don't have any personal experience with it, and so, I think it would be wrong for me to form a model that includes those types of families. My only assumption is that some narrative is formed for and with toddlers in those families that answers the question of birth origin and begins the process of gender differentiation.
So when a boy toddler determines that they are not-mom, they have to begin the process of asserting their significance. They do not know that they will have to continue this process for the rest of their lives. At this point, the womb-envy, if it could ever be called such, ends. A not-mom toddler turns from the process of life creation, from which they are blocked, to one of life helping or optimally, life-saving. They choose their toys and role models.
- and maybe Doctors
There is a picture of me when my brother was born. I was wearing a fireman's helmet. I wore it constantly at that time, I am told. I was almost 3. My mother was bringing about a new life, and I was asserting my significance. That is maleness.
Girls play with these toys too. There is no reason to think that girls will not want to assert their significance outside knowing their being as like-mom. This model does not limit choices or limit roles. This model points to the importance of existential significance. It is about our relationship to the tree of life. Girls have a place in the continuity, boys have a place outside of that continuity. This is existential because it cannot be corrected. The only factor is whether and when we as toddlers understand this relationship.
Patriarchy & nature/nurture
Most, if not all modern cultures value maleness over non-maleness. There are many many reinforcements of male models of significance over all non-male models. That awareness comes later though after the awareness of like-mom or not-mom takes place. I assert that cultural and religious modes of signifying male importance are in response to the original awareness of the existential relationship to the continuum of life creation. They are a reaction to the fact. That which men cannot supersede, we try to control and subvert to regain the significance we feel we lack. That subversion is always incomplete and so it continues indefinitely. Some may be generated by inverted-empathy but the root cause is insecurity. This reaction is violent and oppressive to all human beings, but especially to women, non-cis-gendered people, and non-heterosexual males.
I am not trying to conjure up sympathy for men here. Men get plenty of sympathy. As much as we might want to fix this model so that men are less fundamentally insecure in their significance, it would be a fool's errand to try. Men are a fact. We exist, and we are primordially messed up, not only by our parents but by the fact of what we are. We are fundamentally expendable in a way women are not. This is a fact of nature, not nurture. Men will continue to try to correct their original flaw in positive ways as well as negative. Someday, perhaps men and women will find a way to create life outside of nature. Will that be corrective? One would have to ask the product of that endeavor. For now, we exist within the natural cycle of creation and death, half of us as part of the continuity and half of us at a solitary terminus of it.
Some reactions I've had to this model:
- Moms are not always wonderful examples of nurturing. Some are dreadful parents.
- This reduces women's significance solely to their reproductive organs.
- Men have an important role in the creation of life.
- Women have to struggle to assert their significance far more than men do.
These reactions are why I have waited so long to write about this. I want to address them one at a time.
Regarding objection number 1: This model applies regardless of whether the mother was a drug addict, or absent, or even alive. Observing my children, my own childhood and my friend's children have reinforced the notion that the reality of the mother is not the important factor in this model but the child's perception of what "mother" is. Gender differentiation begins early and is comparative. The question of origin is an unavoidable element in this differentiation and is viscerally tied to smell and touch. The absence of a mother does not preclude the question but may delay it. The concept of life giver might be mythological for a time, but role-playing regarding birth and nurturing begins early. Some children will be drawn to it because they feel included in it, and some will shun it because they do not. That is where the battle for primal significance starts.
Regarding objection number 2: This model does not depict a process that continues throughout life, but happens early on and is reacted to over and over. To employ this model in such a way as to assert that women who choose to have children or not have children are better or worse would be perverse and misconstrued. We get a sense we are like-mom or not-mom early and what we do afterward is purely up to us. There is no imperative implied in that knowledge. Using this as a way to get to a model of half-baked social Darwinism is idiotic.
Regarding objection number 3: This is only true from a standpoint of intellectual understanding of the biological creation of life. Men's contribution to the process is essential (for now) and ensures diversification. However, this is not evident at the time of differentiation. Our physical closeness to our origins is undeniable, and that origin is mom. Beyond that, the connection of father to child has always been an open question. Some of the most brutal sexual restrictions are those that ensure the male bloodline. The convention of surnames (SirNames) reinforces the male connection to his offspring, but until recently, those connections could not be contested. A man can go through life never knowing about the existence of his offspring. A woman cannot. She must be present at the birth. He can be absent.
Regarding objection number 4: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. That is ultimately what this is about. Why do we live in a culture that so denigrates mothers and praises fathers? Why have men so violently asserted control over the bodies, lives, and thoughts of women? I believe it begins with men's awareness of the need to continually assert their significance, not only in general but in relation to the women around them.
Out on a limb
So, there it is. I have decided to jot this all down so that it may not be lost and so that it may be helpful. I don't think that men can work to be better members of society merely by being nice. We must feel that original wound and live with it. We need to know when it takes hold and takes charge. Recent examples of "toxic" male rage such as the childish complaints of not being granted sexual contact, brutal subjugation of women, the ignorant rise of men's rights groups, or frustrated reactions to women taking leadership positions spring from the terror that as men, we will become fully insignificant. Like all fear, this arises not from our intelligence, but from a place of pain and insecurity. To react intelligently to the fear of being not-mom is our reality if we want to be anything like civilized and significant members of the human race.
My comments are indented
First, I want to know more about First Nation - can you point me to some information?
I brought it up because the most interesting chapters in the book I recommended by Colin Woodward on the Eleven Nations of North America pretty much begins and ends with them. The original settlers in Quebec had the fairest system of integrating Native Americans. The final chapter in his book talks about First Nation being the best hope for the future.
I also thought that you book could deal with that very strange boundary of USA and Canada in New England. I learned a ton from the Woodward book. The only American writer who really dealt with this boundary is—of all people—David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest. Funny how neglected that Maine border is.
Second, I think I've confused you on one point - Xombie is a derogatory term used by the Traditionalists or Luddites or Neo-Feudalists or Raiders to describe the Interconnected. The Interconnected are the Xombies - but they don't call themselves that.
Yes you did. My mistake. So who does Zeke and the people who do not thext represent? The Traditionalists? My bad on that confusion. Just so you know, I’ve been such a Luddite in my adult life that some friends still can’t believe I’m on FB. So I am extremely sympathetic to arguments that are anti-technology.
In Brave New World that is a top-down governmental totalitarian Utopia as I remember it. This was due to the time where science fiction writers were constantly writing about hegemonies.
Were they? Or is it just that certain books that addressed the positives and negatives of a particular hegemony were able to transcend the genre sci-fi and get accepted in the literary canon? While I am not a huge fan of either book (1984 or Brave New World), they do kind of exemplify the rules one naturally encounters in writing about a future society or hegemony. That is: is this a Utopia or Dystopia or are first impressions deceiving? And yes, thy are top-down hegemonies because it is hard to imagine otherwise. In fact, a lot of sci-fi just evades the question. Look at the Federation in Star Trek. We are all just to assume they are a benevolent force.
The Interconnected don't quite fit that model. It's based on the hippie vision of the Internet pioneers. There is an idealism behind it, and it happens when everyone has become sick of the money game.
This I completely get. And it is the crux of my criticism. I feel that the Interconnected are indeed your idealistic vision of the Internet pioneers, and—thus—I don’t think you’ve yet addressed adequately that many won’t consider this vision an ideal. Steve Jobs may be an ideal to Americans, but then look at a factory in China that makes Apple parts. Google might say “Do no evil,” but then an Android pretty much invades my privacy daily.
So, what I’m saying is that if this is a “hippy vision” in which you believe, you should subject it to more scrutiny to better justify it (so that a reader doesn’t just accept it on faith). And I think the scrutiny begins with merit. Steve Jobs has lots of merit. Do factory workers jumping off roofs in China affect that merit? Ditto for Zuckerberg.
Like in the 60s, a portion of society decides that the "system" is a sham. They go off and try to make communities that are apart from the "system." Naturally, in the 60s, it didn't work.
Got that. And I agree that this is central to your book. But, thus far, you present the Interconnected as a society that does work. I don’t think any society works for all its members. And power corrupts. I go back to the Pigs Walking On Two Leg example in Animal Farm. Communism seemed like an ideal system, until it became necessary to mete out reward for an elite government/ruling class that involved favors akin to money.
In my novel, the "system" is more or less dead when people abandon it, so it more or less does.
True enough, but another system has to replace it, and that system will have some flaws. I don’t want to accept any replacement system on faith alone.
So, no, there is no central authority. It's a game, like money that rules the Interconnected - also the idea of Panopticon: if the prisoners watch each other, you get order, without guards - which was an idealized plan of Jeremy Benthem. Privacy is given up, but it's given up to everyone. There is no single person to profit off of it, because there is no way to profit - EXCEPT and this is a big except, those who might leverage it to gain more Merit by seeming to be more generous than they are. Again - Maxtor touches on this - or rather hints.
OK but I still need more on the Merit scale and how it works. Just like a social scientist has to define scales he uses to measure people. I think the formation of the scale and the actual rules of the scale is a stand-alone book or long Wakeful Wanderer excerpt chapter. How did the Merit Scale come to be? What are its weaknesses? A member of a tribe might get Merit for the number of scalps he brings home? Is that Merit? I’m—once again—obsessed with whaling. I reread Moby Dick every few years and, with it, the book Heart of the Sea. Is a brutal hunter/factory society like whaling capable of merit? It’s brutal and exploitative. But there certainly was a merit system within the Pequod or any whaling ship. The best hunters had the most regard. Yet no money for years on end.
But the roots of Merit are also very old. It's tribal. A tribe has figures that are regarded as heroes and it has nothing to do with their wealth. People live well or not so well based on their value to the tribe.
I’m thinking of “Things Fall Apart” which is tough on Colonialism, but also points out that the culture of the narrator killed twins based on superstition.
It's not a centralized system so much as a system of reputation. If you found a way to get more food to the tribe you move up. The speed of communication has made possible larger groups of humans into much larger tribes - think of culture and information bubbles. That is getting faster and stronger, and as I see it in this fictional work, it usurps everything.
I get this. I just can’t help seeing a person who gets more food to the tribe as fucking someone—excuse the French—in order to do it. Let’s look at a quick political analogy: The Clinton Foundation. As we all know this charity takes a lot of heat, but is consistently rated one of the top charities. Now they take a lot of heat for either accepting or giving to countries like Saudi Arabia. Point is that access to the poor or the female poor in an exploitative nation or culture often has to be purchased. This makes a charity at least appear corrupt to certain purist critics. How would the Merit meter apply here? Does a charity have merit for possibly bribing the government to help the poor? What happens to merit when someone or an organization does something perceived as bad for a good end?
I just think that the world is too subtle to say that positive influence is completely separate from negative ones. I’d like you to explore that nuance in your Merit system, because what I get thus far is the “money is bad argument.” And, while I’m apt to agree to a point, that argument needs more of a defense in future chapters.
This is excerpted. David's comments are indented.
I cannot tell whether you are describing a utopia or dystopia (though the tension or differences between the Interconnected and Xombies are a major theme). Perhaps you are evading that specific question and only giving hints in order to let the reader decide for him or herself, which is probably exactly what you intended. Scenes where you present technological and cultural conflict are among the best. Perhaps the most enjoyable scene for me was when Marto was in the café that forbid thexting and had a conversation with the owner (Zeke?). That gave me a glimpse into the differing arguments on decisions to thext or not to thext. It seems to be that Marto and the Interconnected represent the utopia or force of good (at least from the author’s perspective), but I am not sure I can buy that based on what I, the reader, is able to discern and surmise as to who the Interconnected are; I found myself less interested in the Interconnected and wanting more information on the outlier tribes (presumably exploited because the post-apocalyptic world must have limited resources and the interconnected appear to flourish without economic hardship).
First, I am fascinated by the idea of the Interconnected, but I am not the cheerleader that Marto is. I understand it may seem that I am describing a Utopia, and in a climate-changed world, the technologies that provide food, good health and stability and relative (but not modern) comfort to them may seem that way. I don't think there is much of a way around this. I just want you to know I'm aware.
Perhaps there is not a way around it. However, by introducing a high tech. theme like thexting, you force a reader to assume that the surviving culture is very high-tech. This is no regression back to a world of small farms and communities (barter system), but a culture reliant on technology and—this is the most important to an economics minded reader—a culture with high tech. products that need to be produced somewhere (assuming Malaysia, China and Vietnam for now). I have a hard time reconciling that inferred production need with the Merit meter. To me, Merit meter replaces money, but this type of Merit is just as suspect. I see Dirty Merit as being no different from Dirty Money. You will have to eventually convince me of otherwise. . .and that the human networking and administrative capacity necessary could exist on pure Merit.
I don't know if maybe the novel wasn't as clear as it could have been about production, but yes, the Interconnected are high-tech, and no, the technology is not manufactured in Vietnam. Labor and the cost of labor is not a factor for the Interconnected. In general, the technology is manufactured by tiny robots. The homes are built by robots, the vertical and horizontal farms are built and tended by robots, and of course, the robots are built by robots. These robots can be monitored and controlled - though they are autonomous, by the same brain-implanted technology that makes thexting possible. I don't go too into detail (though I do mention it) because as automated elements become more commonplace, they also become invisible to people. I had a revelation when I was in the elevator and Zoë asked me: "dad, is the elevator a robot?" I had to think about it for a long while before I responded "yes." Elevators used to be controlled by people. Now they are robotic, but we don't see them that way - their robotness is invisible. That is how I see manufacturing evolving everywhere. So my assumption in the novel is that high tech and everything else will be manufactured locally, not only because of robotic evolution but because of infrastructure destruction.
The first thing to go after an environmentally caused economic collapse is roads. Roads need constant work. They crumble as the vegetation and harsh weather take their toll. As the weather becomes more hostile, giant centralized stores like Walmarts and Targets fail because the roads and bridges give out, the trucks can't get through, and the buildings themselves deteriorate or get hit by tornadoes. Without a strong economy, government and infrastructure plan, they crumble. In the past, when this would happen, people would starve, but in my novel, some of them adapt. That's why among the Interconnected, everything is made locally. It's also why certain commodities like coffee or mangos are so rare.
Regarding Dark Merit, I have actually been trying to work out how that would work. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it could only be made possible by a system of fake ratings or a cabal of ratings circles that vote people up who don't contribute. The XNA nature of the wetware that is in people's heads is a bit like blockchain on steroids, so there is a ledger, but as Maxtor says it's become so complex that no one can monitor it. This may come up in book 2 - I am actually planning on exploring it - and Maxtor hints at it in book 1 but it's not right to say that it is as obvious as the Dark Money we have now. Merit is purely about accountability and lack of privacy and personal ownership.
A brief outline of what Merit is in my novel:
A simplistic way to imagine it would be to picture a web store like Amazon running purely on ratings and reviews and no money. Everyone has an account on Amazon and everything that gets made is listed there. Not only products but all services are there. Instead of paying for something, the person who makes a thing or offers a service lists it as an offer. They then get to choose to offer it to you based on your ratings alone. If your ratings are higher, the ratings they get back in return are higher as a function of the rating you give for the service or item received. This is what is referred to as "giving Up" rather than "giving Down" in the novel. People who are a "five star" (using the Amazon model) are going to be offered more stuff than people who are a "three star." This is why it's called Merit. Within this system, people who are a 5 are more valuable to society than a 3, because presumably, they are more generous and productive. They make and offer more stuff that is more popular than the 3s and they are rewarded with more access to food, homes, services, etc. This is where the inequality occurs but it is also where the gaming and competition in the system abides. The people in Glenville are all 2s and 3s and so they live in relative poverty of access compared to the 4s and 5s in Reverside, Cos, Sherwood, and The Middle. If your whole community is made of 2s, you can survive, but not in the relative luxury as one made of 4s.
That brings us to ownership vs. access. Among the Interconnected, ownership is seen as a very low merit habit. They call it hoarding. Just because you have been gifted something, doesn't mean you have to hang onto it. Naturally, if you are gifted a sandwich, you will eat it and it will be gone but if you are gifted access to a beautiful home, it's yours to use, but not keep or trade. There is no trade. That home, if you are not using it, would be available for gifting, and if you hoard it, you are seen as less generous and therefore your Merit would drop. It would be better to gift it and take another home that is offered. That way, your Merit rises, and you have more access. What about "my stuff?" you might ask, and I would say, it's all information. Physical things are just inconvenient burdens to the Interconnected. I think you can see some of this behavior among Millenials today.
Merit is its own legal system. It combines law with a sort of propertyless commerce. It may not be just, but it works. Anti-social behavior is low Merit behavior. That is decided by how popular your activities are. If you can find a way to steal things or hurt people and remain popular, then you can skirt the system and be a high Merited sociopath. I'm not saying that's impossible, but it would take some higher level of genius to pull it off out in the open. Again - we may see some of that in book 2.