Sometimes, Twitter provides. I had a bit of fun with a couple of youngish Austrians, reminiscing about times in Vienna and the Austrian countryside. And Matt Pirkowski, another public intellectual and complex systems thinker, turned me on to the concept of The Great Filter.
What is the Great Filter? From the Wikipedia article, it’s a concept proposed by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University. (For all the academics out there, I’m sourcing info from the Wikipedia article — fair warning. This is a blog!) The Great Filter attempts to explain why we’ve witnessed no definitive extraterrestrial sightings.
That statement is actually an extremely complex one to unpack. And the former head of Harvard Astronomy, Avi Loeb, as I wrote about in this piece, would strongly disagree. Avi thinks that we haven’t been looking very hard, and he’s probably right. There’s a crazy romp through the memetics of why we wouldn’t necessarily even be able to have contact with aliens, even if they showed up with the answers to our problems. The memetic differences between underdeveloped us and them would likely be so great we wouldn’t get anything they’re trying to tell us.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Great Filter, defined as the obstacle for developing interstellar life is actually correct. For every stage of the nine progressions, there are challenges — some greater than others. Here’s the nine:
- The right star system (including organics and potentially habitable planets)
- Reproductive molecules (e.g. RNA)
- Simple (prokaryotic) single-cell life
- Complex (eukaryotic) single-cell life
- Sexual reproduction
- Multi-cell life
- Tool-using animals with intelligence
- A civilization advancing toward the potential for a colonization explosion (where we are now)
- Colonization explosion
What concerns us in this piece is the transition from 8 -> 9. Can we get there? And if we don’t, what happens?
I wrote about what we need to actually generate starships in this piece, titled “Stephen Hawking and Not Getting Eaten by Aliens”. The main takeaway of that piece is that we can’t get there physically without realizing the importance of most of life in the biosphere. Everything is connected, to greater or lesser extent, in what Lynn Margulis called a “holobiont“. This concept is so important, friend and collaborator Ugo Bardi, a physical chemist at University of Florence and I are working on writing a book on it.
The raw fact that everything is connected is undeniable. It smacks us in the face every day. But the deeper problem with us understanding this (or at least a critical number of us) is in the memetics. We have to have enough people thinking along the lines of meaningfully connecting penguins in the Antarctic with condos in S. Florida. And it’s not just knowing whether they are connected or not. It’s whether we should meaningfully care, and how ignorant we are. That’s far more complex than screaming from the rooftops at the public as a biodiversity advocate for saving all the penguins, or a real estate developer arguing for building more condos because of “the market.”
And the problems don’t end there — in fact, they’re just getting started. Those interconnected thinkers have to be understood, or at least mirrored by enough folks to start the meaningful memetic down-migration of smaller, less-connected pieces of information for broader dissemination. And the public then has to exist inside a culture that reinforces values at least marginally friendly to the idea that “All Holobionts are Important.” Or else you end up not just with incomprehension, but tribal warfare as various status-based leaders use and manipulate those knowledge fragments for their own end. In case you’re looking for an example of this, look at how people manipulate even something as simple and noble as The Golden Rule. ‘Nuf said.
What’s the big transition between #8 and #9 that seems to be the sticker. My friends, Daniel Görtz and Emil Ejner Friis, under the pen name Hanzi Freinacht, describe this elegantly in their books “The Listening Society” and “Nordic Ideology“. That is the transformation of masses, to individual identity, to the context of individual identity in the sense of also a group. They call this the “Dividual”, and if you’re interested in a deep understanding of these things, I can’t recommend their books highly enough.
From an empathy perspective, that thing of going from the idea of masses/elites, to individuals, to even further, individuals as part of the larger, active, agency-empowered collective, is really what I write about on this blog. The short version of this is that the transition from “individual” to “individual as a more deterministic, and self-actualized member of a group” is hard. Really hard. Our hardwired brain really isn’t set up for it (short version, we like mirroring and copying), which means it totally has to be loaded into the software of our neural system.
But if we don’t do it, we really can’t understand, or create the world holobiont that we need to get through The Great Filter. You have to have enough decentralized sensing and actuating in order to create the social structure that can grok the holobiont. And it’s more than that. There’s one hundred steps in between the penguin and the South Beach condo. It is simply not realistic for any one person to understand the decisions and trade-offs in a causal chain that links aggregate survival of either. But if enough people, are aware enough, with a global perspective, and a commitment to appropriate information detection, transmittal, and action, and are also humble enough to work in the context of what I’ve called a Hierarchy of Responsibility, as opposed to the Hierarchy of Status — taking on burdens because, well, we know better, and not because we’ll be immediately rewarded, then we just might pull it off.
We might get through the Great Filter. Because if we’re not there, we can’t evolve the social structures to develop the spaceships that might get us off this planet without destroying it. Because, as crazy as it may seem, those two outcomes — both preservation of the Earth holobiont, and creation of the tech. that would enable large-scale colonization — are absolutely linked in memetic structure. And though I realize I’m one of the only people writing this kind of stuff, I’ll tell you — the memetics don’t lie.
What the real transition is called between #8 and #9 is a term also coined by my friend, Ugo. He calls it a ‘Seneca Cliff’, and he’s got a whole blog, called The Seneca Effect devoted to it. If we don’t figure it out, we die.
What’s fantastically interesting about it is that while it deeply concerns humans (we’ll go extinct, potentially with life on Earth if we don’t figure it out) it’s not so much a function of our humanity. It’s a natural outgrowth of crowding without the requisite information coordination and appropriate development of complexity. We’re basically everywhere on the planet, and running into each other. Even in the Arctic, the Russians and us are arguing over drilling for oil and shipping across ice-free zones that have only recently been created with Anthropogenic Global Warming.
And our efforts to the end of world collaboration have been only limited successes, with a fair amount of abject failures. Talking about how the UN is a mess, or even the WHO, is outside the scope of this blog post. The reality is, though, that any large central authority is very unlikely to pull off the changes we need. It’s centralized, and as such, the memetics just don’t line up. Any world hierarchy is inevitably, no matter how benevolent, going to generalize, and end up being controlled by high status, egocentric people. Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates anyone? In our current system, regardless of discipline, the elites in those disciplines live in bubbles, and no matter what kind of rational argument is made, it simply can’t penetrate. Uh, don’t ask me how I know. The laws of social physics apply to Yours Truly as well.
And that leads to a perennial lack of validity grounding. No one knows what’s real anymore.
And that leads us back to The Great Filter. That doesn’t mean that there is no race of extraterrestrials out there who hasn’t passed through the eye of that particular needle. But there are laws of information physics that must be followed. Because they’re the LAW.
Will we make it? I can more tell people how we won’t make it if we don’t change certain things. Of course, preserving the physical holobiont of the Earth is vitally important. It’s a rear-guard action to say we should save forests, grasslands, oceans and their critters. Especially while we figure the rest of it out.
But even that won’t be enough if we don’t truly turn to developing our young people — and more than anything we need not only a focus on healthy early development, but a focus on young people in the 18-25 years of age cohort. I’ve been watching my students (and of course this is part of my contribution to the global information flow) and am just appalled at the way we’ve treated this age cohort during the pandemic. Only six months ago, we were condemning them as super-spreaders and such. But from where I sat, I saw broad compliance with the ersatz public health safety measures we elders put on them.
What’s broken it for me lately, as one example, is understanding how we’re running tests on them in their university classes. Various “services” for exam proctoring require loading of malware on their computer for tracking their browser history. And some even require a second camera to “watch” them to make sure they don’t take their eyes off the screen. I don’t doubt that some young people will cheat on tests. But every measure we take should be weighed against a larger set of outcomes. And one of the most important is how we develop the brains of the people who will be responsible for the future. We already have massive surveillance in the U.S. How is personalizing that going to create the decision making brains we are going to need in the future? To call it Orwellian is a crazy understatement.
We need to start drawing those lines between development of all, survival of our Earth holobiont, and what we do short-term for whatever an end. Because there is a price that will be paid — potentially sooner rather than later.
It’s all connected. And dunno about you, but I sure don’t want our species, or our Earth holobiont, to get filtered out.