Empathetic Ladders and What People Can Understand — Matching Knowledge Structures for Messaging (Part I)


Rainier Rapids, Main Salmon River, Idaho

Empathetic ladders are fun to find — enlightened leadership has been using them since the beginning of time.  I’m sure, if we could find some sequence of caveman paintings on the wall in some cave somewhere and looked with that in mind, we could find an empathetic ladder with lots of wooly mammoths and dudes with spears running around, painted by the local mensch attempting to get his or her tribe to up their game.

At the same time, any person who’s trying to grow has been stuck in a meeting with a leader who insists that everyone has a chance for ‘input’, while doing a seemingly endless round-robin around the room, with the same people saying nothing, and the same people doing some weird humble-brag about their area of interest.  Communitarian on the surface, but eh — not so much.  Really just the same authoritarian assertion of status.

And after a while, you might find yourself, with certain empathetic ladders, picking them apart.  What do they really mean, after all?  Your own level of sophistication will start to pick apart these kinds of things.  And I think there’s few people that really like those pithy sayings on the bottom of motivational posters.  In fact, I’m sure most of you have seen these anti-motivational posters, with the same beautiful picture, but tagged with an ironic punchline, like this one:


Since I’m writing this blog with the intent of turning it into a book, there’s also a natural tendency to want to list quick ‘how-tos’ Internet-able memes.  These would inevitably be used to torture workers in as-yet inconceivable ways by the percentage of psychopaths who buy business books.

At the same time, there ought to be a way to discern between sound-bites of pithy wisdom, and things that can revolutionize cultures and societies.  That’s where understanding what knowledge structures are used by the evolving v-Memes come into play.  One of the next big concepts in this blog is the idea that social structures create design structures — Conway’s Law.  And the breakthrough concept that comes out of that is that in between social structure and design structure is knowledge structure.  I have named this principle The Intermediate Corollary. And it starts the process of unlocking the idea that social/relational structure, all dependent on empathetic level, creates different ways of thinking for people in those social  structures.  


I’ve found that this concept is very difficult for people to grasp.  There’s a part of our fundamental humanity that wants to believe that even though there may be different cultures, or surface level structures, that all humans process information the same — same organic matter in between the ears, after all.

But that’s a pretty hardware-oriented view of the brain.  Every day, we are reminded that we don’t all think the same.  This worldview discounts the role of software in the brain — that programming the brain is not just assembling surface level knowledge.  As we move through life, our brains actually function differently.  And the strand that runs through all of that is empathetic development, and the social structures we operate in.

Takeaways:  Conway’s Law says that social structure produces design structure.  In order to produce a design, though, we first have to produce the knowledge.  That concept — The Intermediate Corollary — directly implies that different social structures will produce different knowledge structures — and that means that different people in different social structures will fundamentally think differently.

All this links back to empathetic ladders.  The next thing I’ll discuss is how we can identify the knowledge structure of our empathetic ladders, so we can get down to real ‘guiding principle’ evolution, instead of just one more annoying motivational poster.

7 thoughts on “Empathetic Ladders and What People Can Understand — Matching Knowledge Structures for Messaging (Part I)

  1. My miniscule formal academic background was or is in theoretical biology, physics and cultural evolutionary theory (to the extent i have a formal one. I don’t even have a CV (or a current one) or a valid ID –just an out of date one. Perhaps i’m sort of like that Assistant Professor in Canada I read about somewhere on this blog who didn’t do what it took to become full professor–too much beurocracy, My out of date ID so far is good enough.)

    Alot of engineering language is a different dialect from what i studied, but with many similarities (eg the Shannon entropy of information theory vs Boltzmann entropy of physics (and biology) , the Bellman equation of optimal control theory vs the fokker planck-equation of biology, physics and social sciences—i view control and information theory as more conceptually affiliated with engineering and human designed systems. ) So the dialect on this blog is sometimes hard to follow.

    But this post is much less so—- I almost totally agree that ‘how we socially interact creates the knowledge structures which create our designs’.. (I looked up Conway’s law on wikipedia–i had heard of that law but didnt know what it was—, and the references in the wikipedia article on ‘duality and mirroring’, and also Conway’s web site. There are all these laws–‘Moore’s law’, Ashby’s law of requisite variety, etc. At first I thought this was a law by John Conway who I think created ‘the game of life’ using cellular automota. )

    In social terms, one could say simply by watching who talks to who in a social group you can sort of tell what the group will design or come up with. I can sort of tell if I go to some event with a set of speakers what will be said just by seeing who the speakers are. Similarily I sometimes can guess what a paper will say by reading its title and then looking at its list of references—those are the people the author of the paper communicated with (even if only in print.)

    I would add 3 things. First I would add other versions of Conway’s law, or similar ideas about duality. Math analogies might be the mathematician Marc Kac’s concept or question ‘can you hear the shape of a drum?’ and the duality between a graph (set of points and lines) and a map. In social terms one can mention M McLuhan’s concept ‘the medium is the message’, and one from literature :’men only see what they look at, and they only look at what they already have in mind’.

    Second, as noted (perhaps in your 2015 paper ‘Undertstanding the NSF TUEE Report’ on your website ) groups (eg people who determine engineering curricula) make boundaries , and only communicate with those inside the boundary—experts—so they live in a kind of ‘filter bubble’. Then Conway’s law follows. ‘What goes (or is) in comes out’. (Just hope its not GIGO).

    Third, I would add a ‘caution’. Biologists use a term ‘convergent evolution’. Sometimes two very different species will through evolution arrive at very similar ‘solutions’ or ‘designs’ although their basic architecture is quite different. They can become so similar that biologists sometimes assume they are closely related species or even subspecies, but later find on analyses they took very different pathways to the same place.
    This is known in math, of course. Two quite different equations can sometimes generate the same pattern , or as you mentioned in an example one can use one computer to generate the same output as a combination of many.

    So the link between ‘form and function’ (Cnway’s law again, in my naive view) is not hardfast. (Ths is also known from brain damaged people—sometimes their brain can be rewired a different way, and they can regain alot of if not all lost functions. )

    I can relate to that description of meetings with leaders which are ‘democratic and communitarian’.
    I’ve been to many of those.

    They vary—in some meetings it seems during the ’round robin’ when everyone gets a chance to speak their turn, some times it appears that some people must be ghosts only visible to me (including me) because they always get passed over. The leader goes around the circle asking for comments, but skips some people.
    This is similar at times to waiting in a checkout line, and you are next, but someone goes in front of you and if you say something they say ‘oh, sorry, i didn’t see you’.

    Other times everyone does get a chance to speak, but it follows Pareto’s or the 80/20 rule—if you have a 1 hour meeting, 2 people each get to talk 15 minutes, and the other 8 people each get less than 4 minutes to talk. Sometimes this is justified on basis that only some people have something worthwhile to say (probably true) but other times its basically censorship —some views are unwelcome.

    (I would add from an ’emergent’ point of view that even if people are very similar , in a group they can become different—‘via symmetry breaking’. If its cold like tonite and you build a fire to stay warm, and have a large group, only some people can be very close to the warm fire. So some will say ‘we’re all warm’, while others will say ‘we’re freezing’. If alot of people are walking a narrow trail, some will be in the front and others in the back, for another example. In my area baby ducks follow there parents in creeks in a straight line—a few times i’ve seen the ones at the end of the line sometimes get eaten by snapping turtles or other predators.

    Ishi (my nickname, after a famous californian indigenous person).


    1. Hi Ishi — I DO know who Ishi is! Keep reading and thinking. Conway’s Law is inherently statistical — there is no way currently to map the effects of random inspiration, and deal with that in the context of creativity. But probabilistically, it turns out to be a great guideline for understanding how most people will think, most of the time. Also, the fact of the matter is that Conway’s Law inherently works both spatially and temporally, and that temporal compaction is very hard to understand, as social structures incorporate knowledge from the past, that was inherently created from different social structures.

      I’m listening to ‘The Tangled Tree’ by David Quammen right now. Lots of good insights on how information can, over time, be incorporated and transmitted. Turns out all the little critters are good analogues for information transfer. Plus, the book is elegantly written!


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