Of Jet Engines, Dune, and Psychopaths

A less complex time — Braden and Conor on the Meadow Creek Trail

One of the things I beat my drum on and on about is the idea that information rests in various, well-defined structures in our mind, and that the brain uses this canonical set for whatever comes its way. Virtually none of it involves the top-level information, at least structurally. And those structures come from deep-seated relational patterns that are defined in how we know each other. “As we relate, so we think” is the tagline of this blog.

What that means is that your brain may encode your understanding of a jet engine in much the same form as it encodes information on how you perceive an organization or movement like Black Lives Matter (BLM). This is deeply counterintuitive for people. We’re used to thinking that somehow our brains, when they were born, or through the process of a traditional education, had slots for the different types of information, and then some kind of environmental stimuli or degree program created the actual way we think. “Oh, you have a degree in engineering” is one that I hear quite often. “So therefore you must be big-picture rational.” If they only realized how many rational and irrational engineers I’ve known over the course of my life, they’d understand why that was a total crock.

It’s not that education doesn’t matter at all. It does, to some extent, give us fragmented tools that we can combine into narratives that may prove useful. But it’s really about personal development that gives us the ability to either be able to trans-paradigmatically associate different things we know. Construct similes. Or something like that.

Once you really cement the notion that relational patterns and their practice open the gateway to understanding complexity, you rapidly descend into a World of Pain when you’re listening to various stories, ostensibly written for one’s amusement. I recently listened to Frank Herbert’s masterpiece ‘Dune’ with my Audible account, and then, lo and behold, the movie came out six months ago. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it’s a classic intersection of competition between two royal houses, one virtuous, one not so much, over the control of the stuff/drug needed to dope up on to achieve interstellar travel. Getting dropped into the mix is a tribal society (the Fremen) who mostly stay on the run from the two houses. Yeah, the plot is more complicated, and I really did enjoy both the audio version and the movie.

But if you practice the principles laid out on this blog, the biggest question you’ve got to have is this:

“How did these nitwits build a spaceship in the first place?”

There is essentially no way that a monarchy as described by Herbert could do much of anything save build castles and stab each other in the back. We have our own histories to show that this is what monarchies do. And it’s even worse when you let 16 year olds run the show, which is inevitably where you trend to when you set up these types of BS genetic succession schemes. Barbara Tuchman’s exquisite book, A Distant Mirror, that profiles all the maundering of nobles that went on during the 14th century — even before nation-states were really a thing.

But ALL paradigmatic shifts require “out-of-the-box”, or better said, out of the knowledge hierarchy encoded by experts. This is the hard thing to accept. Whole societies didn’t even consider the wheel as a viable paradigm for transportation. The Incas sure didn’t have it. Nor the Aztecs, save on small toys. It just didn’t occur to them to combine such a device with a road network, which they did have.

But here’s the crux. If a concept, regardless of how complex/complicated it is, has persisted for a long enough time, people will fundamentally take the complexity contained in it for granted. The device will get integrated into use, with little or no regard to the complexity inherent in the object, that had to first be developed, a la Conway’s Law, by an organization embodying that complexity.

So, though it is highly unlikely, a society like the one portrayed in Dune could indeed exist, as long as it followed the social physics of the v-Meme that it primarily embodied, with technology inherited from quite a long time ago. That interstellar Spice drive could have been invented, through a combination of lots of different v-Meme organizations (you’ve got telepaths and all sorts of potentially magical, but also super-evolved modes — think of the Bene Gesserit) who just happen to exist in that point in time, in the universe of Dune’s DEEP past, with technology that seems complex to us, and is potentially impenetrable to those in their current space. But in the process of development, as well as the obvious devolutionary decline of government and people, that the system boundaries of that technology are so robust that it just doesn’t matter. Dune, in the present, means you take some drugs and fly to another planet. Easy peasy.

I think this must be what Elon Musk, intuitively, has in mind when he talks about windows for spacefaring civilizations. He rightly intuits that this may be the only time humans can really aspire to get off the planet, and I agree with him. There needs to be a happy intersection of many factors, including our own evolution from biological origins, to the necessary networked complexity to build a starship, as well as the resources to do so. And that includes energy.

Elon musing on the fate of life

Short version — it’s complex. It gets invented because mapping the complexity of the time and knowledge resources happens to coincide with the social evolution of the society and its people at a particular time in their development. Then 10,000 years pass, and we societally and empathetically devolve. But the tech. is so solid, with hard system boundaries, that it simply doesn’t require a more complex society to use it. It’s plug and play. And humans being humans, encode managing the boundary conditions for that technology without really knowing what the hell is inside.

This is the whole theme of the 1970 movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes – a nightmarish sci-fi flick (at least to a ten-year-old boy) in the Planet of the Apes series that results in the destruction of Earth. In the movie are a group of telekinetic mutant humans that surround the Omega weapon, a bomb that they don’t quite know is a bomb. They’re responsible for Integrated Bomb Management, or safekeeping, or something.

The mutants in front of the Omega Weapon

What’s wild about this paradigm is it’s actually memetically accurate. The mutants have no idea about the tech. inside the bomb that might destroy the world. They just know that it can. And true to memetic form, they’ve organized themselves into a rigid mutant priesthood/hierarchy, working on tweaking the boundary conditions to keep the bomb in tip-top shape. Which they do.

In hindsight, I’ve been to more than one oil refinery that essentially runs on this principle. Folks aren’t super dialed in on the exact chemical process inside the different processing columns and such. That was worked out in the relatively distant past. But they absolutely possess extremely sophisticated knowledge on moving around the various set points on the outside of the system to effect appropriate tweaks to product quality.

A more relevant example might be jet engine technology. IMHO, there is probably no better example of a technology hitting up against the edge of physics like a modern jet engine. These things operate at the edge of theoretical thermodynamic efficiency, and consist of over 25K individual manufactured parts. Yet these same engines, encapsulated inside the boundary of the engine nacelle and body, are used around the world in environments ranging from futuristic to primitive. China is busy developing passenger planes for the world market. Yet they simply can’t compete globally with Boeing or Airbus, because they have yet to develop a competitor to an engine like the Rolls Royce UltraFan engine, or one of the many GE models. They don’t have the empathetic social structure in their development environments to innovate such a device.

Yet here is the point. You can have all sorts of complex technology on the inside and absolutely need a super-complex and sophisticated organization to create it the first time. But as time goes on, the engine (or whatever) gets a boundary wrapped around the outside of it. Fuel and air goes in, and thrust goes out the back. And you have to make sure it’s nailed to the wing, or it will come flying off, big time. So the Chinese can build airliners, at least for their home market, and buy the engines from the outside. They won’t be as good as a Boeing or Airbus aircraft. But they still fly.

So the information structure for the engine, in the MEMETIC system, as they use it, is actually pretty simple. The compaction process works the same, as I’ve discussed in the past, as a definite integral, where you take this super-complex function and boil it down to a scalar — a single number. You can’t reconstruct all the complicated stuff inside the engine without an equivalent social network to tell you what goes where. But the average — the thrust going out the back is all you really need.

The more interesting, connected topic for all of this, especially in the context of Dune, is that you had a whole galaxy of planets and stars who went through a dramatic DEVOLUTIONARY process of governance, where instead of developing and evolving social systems that optimized personal agency, and distributed decision making, went backward. And as we’ve discussed before, devolutionary leadership must be relationally disruptive — breaking different levels of agency and relational classifications– in order to get things back to the age of kings and queens. Certainly, that type of leadership can be sophisticated. Dune does an exquisite job of telling a story of battling royal houses, and magical space witches, and their various machinations. But it cannot be evolutionary, save in a magical sense. Which is why the character of Paul Atreides exists. He is an interdimensional “chosen one” that can unite everyone above all the ridiculous nonsense these people, that actually have the ability to careen through space, perpetrate. In a physical sense, it’s impossible to imagine them fighting for anything real, other than chronic status assertion. Once you’re at that level of technological mastery, physical needs are just not relevant. Except maybe a swimming pool. But fight they do.

So now let’s bridge this into the world of ideas, memetically. In stagnant social systems, people will co-opt and potentially resurrect ideas, just like those jet engines with closed boundaries, or a starship’s Spice navigation system, that are so tried-and-true in both input, effect, and output, and use these for whatever relationally disruptive modalities they desire.

Your brain probably isn’t overfond of mapping a complicated theory of race relations with the same (or really, meta-same) complicatedness of a jet engine. But as you remove the various ground wires from either knowledge construction — in racism, it might be actually dealing with folks you interact with and their actual sorrows, or in the case of jet engines it might be knowing the exact composition of the titanium allow needed to make the rotor blades on the inside — the result is the same. You’ve got this piece of constructed knowledge, and it ends up as a tool you can use. You know the surface configuration, and roughly what it does. I guarantee you that you don’t think of the metallurgical content of a hammer head when you drive a nail to hang a picture on your wall.

And if you’re a psychopath, with relational disruption on your mind, you’re far more likely to attach to a tried-and-true powerful idea, or mental model, that has somehow gotten distorted through history, but has shown it has the power for emotional manipulation, than you are to explain a complex truth.

And here’s the thing. As history fades, and those with actual grounding experiences die off, if your society doesn’t do a good job of coding ambiguity and grounding in its primary cultural myths, then you lay yourself open to those extremely superficial interpretations. As long as air and fuel go in the front, and exhaust comes out of the back, it will be good enough for the relational disruptor’s goals.

You might look around at many of our political debates that seek to drive us apart and ask if the above analysis applies. I’d argue, of course, that it does. We use weaponized, simplified myths of diversity for whatever our egocentric desire du jour might be. With regards to race, I grew up in a segregated community with actual, intentional violence directed toward African-Americans. I still argue that racism is somewhat of a problem in this society. But it is not the same as the very real racism I grew up with. It is positively dwarfed by economic disparities in a privatized society that runs on money, and trauma if that money is not present. Black folks are poor, and that has profound consequences for attempting to lift people out of poverty, and crime.

One can easily generalize to all the various mental models used to drive us, as a society, apart. If there’s any consolation in understanding, well, this piece is it.

As we wrap up here, let me be explicit about the point made.

  1. It takes lots of time, experience, and folks arranged in the correct social system to generate for the first time all sorts of complex mental/tech models.
  2. The only difference between the larger meta-process required, between social system manifestations and physical manifestations, is that one is demonstrable in the social sphere, and one in the physical sphere. Both are products of social systems and their interactions.
  3. As time goes on, if there is no innovation, or information brought in from the outside to change their structure, the boundaries of either of these phenomena become “how” they are known.
  4. This process of boundary solidification allows them to be processed by people of lower development. You don’t have to know how to invent something in order to use it. You just have to be able to identify with its superficial function.
  5. Especially in the social sphere, the level of societal evolution can be quite low to allow an established mental model to be weaponized.
  6. This is highly likely in stagnant social systems, where experienced actors seeking power and control rise to the top, and become expert in pushing societal buttons with particular mental models.

We might think about all of these things and how they actually affect progress in our own evolution of our societies, and be aware of when we’re being played. Otherwise, we’ll be back on Dune, identifying with the House of Atreides, or the House of Harkonnen. Mores the pity.

6 thoughts on “Of Jet Engines, Dune, and Psychopaths

  1. Interesting. Two reflections:
    1. We teach analysis (over and over) in our education systems but we don’t teach synthesis, which is arguably increasingly important as societies approach high levels of uncertainty and complexity. How might widespread teaching of synthesis impact your findings?
    2. The mechanism you describe plays out also at apparently trivial levels. For instance in the 1980s I worked as a consultant to a bank when the last employee who knew how to calculate a particular kind of interest rates… retired. He had written the specifications for and tested the computer system that had taken over the calculation. Subsequent generations of bank computer systems have had to rely on case testing (does this produce the same result as the previous generation?). So each generation is in fact a de-generation.


    1. M — I’ve become convinced (mostly through observation of the design community) that you can teach synthesis, but it won’t fundamentally change (statistically) your operating v-Meme. That takes relational re/programming. COVID response has really daylighted how people deeply think. Standard education just doesn’t cut it. And the design community in SF is just as paranoid about COVID (Elite Risk Minimization) as any university faculty.

      Re: every generation is a de-generation. Well, sorta. That deep integration of information (and loss of detailed specificity) also lays down the bones of cultural advance. If a country/society does it right, you move things up incrementally, generation by generation, and build greater complexity on assumed information from past generations. E.G. we don’t draw-and-quarter on a regular basis.


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