As the pandemic grinds on, sometimes I feel the need to yank my gaze from all the anti-empathetic behavior (and knowledge creation) of the people that somehow believe if we punish people enough, all this will just go away. It won’t. But that’s for another time.
The pandemic does indeed keep me on Twitter, though. And at some level, in an odd way, because the pandemic is primarily an information war, it does make me up my game. Examples from all sorts of people — evolved, only sophisticated, and otherwise — keep me thinking about what is really going on. I’ve had a lot of fun with youngish mothers, some of whom really have got it going on. Here’s looking at you, Geneve! (@bergerbell)
One thing that is true is that once you have a LOT of people on the planet, the notion that you can manage with simplified knowledge structures is idiotic. As they say in the Spiral Dynamics community, there are too many life-conditions for simplistic ways of living. If you’re a Christian missionary sent to the Amazon, no matter how much you want to keep things simple, you have to adapt.
What that means is you either have to evolve your society with empathy, to get the needed complexity, or you have to engage in branching sophistication. Evolution and upward progression in complexity, my preferred mode, allows for increasing autonomy of individuals, responsibility for each other, and differentiable relationships. The great thing about evolution is that if you do it right, you drive even more evolution, on up the Spiral, that accommodates more people, and more creativity and innovation. Things don’t have to get better with evolution, but they often do — that was Clare Graves’ point.
But if you want evolution, you really have to get out and meet different folks, who are going to work your brain. At some level, you also have to approach them with a limited set of preconceptions on how they think, and what they’ll do. You have to trust in yourself as well, that you’ll be able to connect with them as a human being, and see where things go from there. Of course, all this builds your own self-awareness, and metacognition — knowing what you don’t know. But that exploratory sense also allows for a richer life, and worldview. Who knows what you’ll find out there?
Let’s pull up the old Knowledge Structure diagram as a refresher.
Additionally, evolution, through its more diverse set of canonical knowledge structures, opens up the path for new emergent paths. What that means is increasing radically the potential for new technologies. No better example of this exists than the last 25 years of human existence. Where was the Internet in 1997?
What happens when we stop that upward, evolutionary path? For a society to maintain its ability to support the same number of people, you still need something resembling the information density that you might obtain from a bunch of individuals (read as decentralized agents). But since those decentralized agents are either a.) societally constrained from going out and making new relationships, acting on their own behalf, or b.) incapable because they can’t go out and meet different people, because their own agency and empathy are poorly developed, society, somewhere has develop new templates imposed from the outside. While some of this might be good (who’s going to argue in this day and age against the need to fix racism?) once you’ve created any given rule set, you’ve opened up your society to manipulation by Authoritarians and Legalists who may not have society’s best interests at heart. And may indeed be psychopaths. Evolution is far harder to fake than Sophistication. And it shows.
Take, for example the largely academic fight over “appropriate pronouns.” Most professors and academic administrators proudly hang their pronouns on their e-mail signatures, even though there was never much, if any, ambiguity on what their gender was. Pronouns might have started out helpful. We do have some transgender folks, and I fully recognize the difficulty some of these folks have. Maybe some clarification was necessary. But at some level, there is also a ceding of one’s ability to make decisions and read people on their own. That empathetic work — donated now to the pronouns on an e-mail — exists no longer. And our relational brains are worse off for it.
Further, it gives a new cadre of pronoun specialists to tell us how we’re supposed to perceive different groups of people. Agency takes a dive. We begin the drift off into a senescent society. And of course, there is now an avenue for socially sophisticated risers to stake their claim on the notion of bona-fides for administration. Pronouns are big. They must be sensitive, empathetic people because they’ve latched on to the newest labeling scheme, which really didn’t come from the bottom. One more box-check along the route of administrative progression.
How does relational sophistication go wrong? As populations grow, you do need more boxes for more people — the need for new roles doesn’t quite go away. But self-definition isn’t part of that. The roles will be given by your betters. No better example of how the end game manifests than considering the arc of the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907) by the end of it all (and it did end) had something like 20 different classifications/castes of people for a population of 80M people. The Tang is generally considered the high point of the Chinese dynastic progression, with many inventions (the Tang invented the world’s first escapement clocks, and even structural building codes.) But inevitably, without evolution, stasis set in, generals fought, and the whole thing came crashing down.
Once you lock yourself into a position where individuals cannot meaningfully contribute heuristic insights from their perspective, one ends up in a fractalization cascade. What that means is there are a handful of relational patterns with the same meta-characteristics that fill out the hierarchy (and hierarchy it is). Short version — you’re not a “who”. You’re a “what”, with limited ability to pick exactly what that “what” is. It IS historic — look at many of our last names — my last name means “Doctor” in Farsi. But I’m still a “what.” Forces outside me define me.
In our own world, our own version of post-modernism ends in a similar fractal cascade, where, having supposedly deconstructed the power structure of the hierarchy, we get down to the individual getting to assign value of right and wrong, or more exactly, societal benefit. The problem with this is not that an individual shouldn’t be able to contribute in a larger sense to society. But without understanding how our perspective is inherently based on scaling in our brains — some of us really can only perceive any benefit or cost in the immediate sphere around us — those larger forces of culture around us don’t force any reckoning. Are we being selfish or generous? You decide.
Because regardless of either your level of awareness, or your actual expertise, you know best, Dunning-Kruger be damned. If we were actively evolving people so that those scales were expanding, we would create a larger cadre of people who actually DID know better. But we’re not doing that, and so, for the most part, we are simultaneously dismantling these larger codes, while being stuck in an egocentric trap of every human for themselves, where no one not only knows more, but the hierarchy is built on an arbitrary structure of belief and status. Say goodbye to the deeper guiding principles of a hierarchy of responsibility — not just to yourself, but to a broad spectrum of others, each needing an independent optimization algorithm.
If we view this through the lens of quantum mechanics, an individual ends up being represented by an independent electron observing itself. Werner Heisenberg himself noted that this didn’t end well. So just like the wave/particle duality of classical quantum physics, once we move out of deep mythic knowledge structures (like killing others) we get to judge whether we’re the good guys or the bad ones. Perspective then uniquely defines our actions. If, as Lene Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman so eloquently say, post-modernism is making no one happy, this is the mechanism. John Donne said “No man is an island.” We can update this notion to the end-all of the cascade of sophistication in our current knowledge structures as “no individual is an electron, because if they are, we end up in a cloud of our own self-imposition.” And what that means is our own knowledge ends up in a pretty arbitrary, statistical cloud. If you never know what to do, you’re not alone. It’s actually in the knowledge physics.
And it’s damn hard to recover from. Once there’s this infinite fragmentation, all generated by Legalistic/Authoritarian elites along the line of very limited consequentiality (remember we’re down in the Legalistic v-Meme, so all we get is “if this -> then that” ) it’s very hard to knit a coherent worldview back together. Post-modernism doesn’t naturally lead to some version of metamodernisn, with a restoration of hierarchy through the mode of ‘hierarchy of responsibility’. Rather, it becomes an arbitrary, pseudo-egalitarian smorgasbord where some animals are more equal than others. Today, you get to believe in the views of ancient mystics. Tomorrow, you can opt for Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. The problem with grounding your truth with only your beliefs is that it’s impossible to avoid reality drift. The Zen masters realized this explicitly. One of my favorite Zen stories from Paul Reps’ book —
The Stone Mind
Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.
While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”
One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”
“Your head must feel very heavy”, observed Hogen. “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”
The current COVID crisis is ripe for creating a very dark interregnum of social evolution through its very attack on empathy and empathetic development itself. Through broad scripts that mostly fall along the line of implicit Elite Risk Minimization, we are undermined in getting together, sorting out that the vast majority of us are pretty good folks, and seeing each others’ faces, which is hands down good for our own personal evolution and personal well-being. Being somewhat of an optimist, I thought the notion of the pandemic would help the Ds take out Trump, and then it would be back to battling the corporate forces threatening workers’ rights, the environment and so on.
I was obviously wrong. We’re much deeper in The Matrix than that. The Elites at the top really don’t need the majority of us for their own survival. And to the extent that we represent some minuscule, fractional risk to their health, they can’t see a reason to NOT wrap school kids in N95 masks. That’s so whack, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around. Have you ever seen a child wear an N95 mask all day? Anywhere? Talk about an anti-empathetic social experiment. Travel (especially international travel) is another pathway for empathetic development. Where’s that now? I thought I was going to be pretty much free by this summer to get back in the network with my colleagues overseas. Not so much — though there’s no question that Zoom and other conferencing services have helped.
And it never ends. We started out with COVID, and then got the Alpha, and the Delta variant. Now the World Health Organization wants to add constellation names once we run out of Greek Alphabet letters. This is exactly the kind of repetitive fractalization that comes from rigid hierarchies, and is a hallmark of increasing sophistication. And things aren’t going to change unless outside forces (that’s us) demand it — because their rigid hierarchies don’t recognize change. Until, of course, it all comes apart. At some level, knowing how their brains are wired makes me feel empathy for them. I’m sure if you asked any of them, they’d tell you they were responsible actors, gearing up for smaller and smaller scales in the only way they know how. After all, they’re just naming and creating necessary categories. But they’re stuck — and if you think they’re going to get society unstuck, I don’t know what to tell you.
Underlying all this is a core understanding of the intrinsic driver of Elite Needs. What the Elites do need is cheap labor. And empathetically detuning an entire population is one way of getting this. I’m convinced it’s emergent — I don’t think that the majority of rich folks are actively plotting on driving down wage rates. It’s just a function of system dynamics when you’re separated from people who are different from you — and it’s not just race. The long, emergent game is that you end up with a highly developed group of elites (think private schools, universities and such) who are long on sophistication and apparent empathy, but pretty short on actual connection. They don’t know what the consequences of their actions will be, because of that lack of timescale. And where would they be exposed? They only see the world through a preferential media feed, which is confirming what they thought along.
And over time, the working class starts to match, through neglect of development, what the rich believe them to be. How many times do we have to go back to Hillary Clinton and the concept of Deplorables to see this is happening? You can make people deplorable through neglecting things like wage gaps, decent working hours, and good schooling. So everything turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, complete with developmental (or lack of developmental) feedback loops. China once again serves as a great example. Over an arc of 2500 years, once they got to peak Authoritarian/Legalistic development, there was no need to lift the peasantry out of poverty. Well, until the Great Narcissist himself, Mao Tse-Tung, got in there. And then followed up with the Cultural Revolution. Is that what we want?
I still think there’s time to fix what ails us. But that’s not going to happen without confronting the problem, and dealing with issues in a forthright manner. Human connection is what creates our larger organism. And sophistication leaves that on the table as an optional component. Time to get smart. Or rather, connected.
I forgot to add this to the original post — one might fairly ask “why would information from an evolutionary pathway be “better” than information from a sophistication pathway? This has to do with the validity grounding process. If you are down there, generating viewpoints from a lower value Meme, where grounding experience doesn’t matter, you can basically make stuff up and assert it as true. Though there’s no question that independent experience can be distorted (there’s a whole, reasonable trauma literature on this) the more developed experiential perspective is far more likely to detect bullshit early on. Additionally, if one is actually heuristically adding one’s experience to the larger body of knowledge, there’s a whole brain full of sensory experience that adds reality to all of this on the individual basis. Smell, taste, hearing all combine to give a more accurate representation of a given experience, which then heightens the effect of validity grounding.
Contrast that with something simply made up. And remember that the next time you read a book. Check the author’s bona-fides.
For more on validity grounding, go here.