Preface: Because this is such a hot-button issue, I want to start this piece with a disclaimer. Regardless of the nuance I will exhibit in this piece, the whole idea of bringing any gun — and especially a long gun — to a protest is wrong. Ask any LEO how they react when they know a long gun (regardless of semi-auto or auto characteristics) is in play in any situation. I’ve had the privilege over my career of teaching numerous Special Forces/Special Operations returning students over the years, and they will gladly tell you how the scale evolves when any real weapon (and a long gun is a real weapon) is involved in a situation. ‘Nuf said.
Kyle Rittenhouse, the then- 17 year old (he’s now 18) charged with a variety of murder and attempted charges in the Kenosha riots surrounding the protests regarding the shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of police officers in Kenosha, WI. The actual call was for dealing with a domestic violence incident where Jacob Blake had already been forbidden to be present with a restraining order. I highly recommend reading the various accounts of violence against African-American men that have been the nexus of the Black Lives Matters protests. Why? Because the hindsight reality was that there were a range of conditions, from total innocence of the victims (like George Floyd) to far more nuanced, high-conflict cases where alternately the system either worked, or failed.
That’s not the point of this piece.
The question confronting us is the deeper “why” of why Kyle Rittenhouse showed up at the Kenosha protests in the first place.
Once again, I’m not interested in arguing white supremacy, misguided youth, or any of the other standard reasons given for why a 17 year old showed up, crossing state lines or not, with a long gun in what was obviously going to be a chaotic, crazy situation. The reason that such an argument is uninteresting to me is that implies a 17 year old is somehow conscious and deliberate. And any adult working with a cohort of 17 year olds knows how utterly ridiculous such a statement is. There are rare exceptions of 17-year-olds having the ability to conceptualize abstraction of an unfamiliar situation in a way that might map to reality. But almost always, for a 17 year old, they would have had to directly experience a given event in order to engage in that level of projection. I found no documentation that Rittenhouse had attended prior riots, so it’s very likely he was a “one and done” candidate.
And as a “one and done” actor, there is also very likely he had no prior validity grounding experience of being in a circumstance of a riot armed with any weapon. I’ve been in numbers of demonstrations myself, and if you’ve done any protesting, either things are relatively homogeneous, or they’re fractious. And that fractiousness can turn into chaos literally in seconds. One minute, people are chanting some pithy saying about their issue. The next, someone’s swinging a board at your head, and everything around you is literally going to hell. You can find your own riot videos to watch, but it’s the canonical pattern.
The one truly fascinating thing about Kyle Rittenhouse’s experience was that it didn’t take very long for the real High Conflict actors to zoom in on Rittenhouse and his gun. Rittenhouse didn’t shoot any POCs — but he did shoot three white guys, and killed two. One is particularly notable — Joseph Rosenbaum was an obvious psychopath. Convicted of multiple child rape incidents at 17, that’s classic psychopath territory. If you think that dude was a committed race activist, well, you can think what you want. Like moths to a flame, High Conflict individuals are going to find these types of scenarios because it’s what they do. And yeah, they’re engaged in their own dissociated reality. But they also have no constraint in using real violence — which grounds the larger situation, intentionally or not.
I’ve also discussed the idea of “kayfabe” — the pre-planning of pro wrestling events, which so accurately describes our current state of politics. For a real take-down of kayfabe, this piece is amazing. The riots around Jacob Blake, a far more guilty perp. than George Floyd, basically changed nothing — if there was any social reform that flowed from any of it, its effects were only indirect, through election/loss of office of various politicians.
But kayfabe does something — it creates venues for self-constructed Live Action Role Playing Games, otherwise known as LARPs. Most people have no idea what a LARP is — but the movement has quite a few participants. Most are either war-gamers, or the Society for Creative Anachronism folks. And these people are serious — Tony Horwitz’s book, Confederates in the Attic, which looks at the Civil War re-enactor community, still holds up over 20 years after it was published.
I don’t have a problem with actual LARPing communities. You get done with your jousting festival, hop in your Dodge Neon, and stop off at the 7/11 for a Slushie for the road. People need hobbies, and I’m all down for people building stuff with their hands (uniforms included) and sharing information with other passionate re-enactors. In fact, as long as you don’t depart too far from the script, I’d argue it’s exactly an empathy-building exercise. You gain agency through creating stuff, learn a ton of information about a historical era, and go visit other actual humans and, well, hang out and eat hot dogs. Or whatever. We need more of that.
The problem is that with the increasing fragmentation we’re seeing in our communities, the LARP concept is being recreated — on the Internet, especially, but more importantly, in people’s head. The most consequential ungrounded LARP event in recent history had to be the Jan. 6 riots, that I wrote about here. But unlike a constant community of re-enactors getting together, and engaging in relatively innocuous fun, with that grounding Slushie reality transition at the 7/11, we had people fueling their own fantasies across the Internet, some hopping private planes, and flying out for “Insurrection Lite”. No one could seriously consider what happened on Jan. 6 an authentic coup — yet the other side of the LARP community, the various ungrounded forces on the Left with little experience in the real violence of an actual military coup, grabbed on to the symbolic nature and ran with it in their own histrionic fashion.
This is not to say that Donald Trump, engaged in his own perilous, delusional form of the LARP in his head, did not want to SEE a coup that might restore him to power. Far from it. But narcissist psychopaths gonna narcissistic psychopath. Like it or not, he is one guy. When the Joint Chiefs line up against those kinds of shenanigans, you know there is no real coup threat.
LARPing tendencies, at least the destructive ones, are characterized by empathy bubbles. People get on the Internet, with little experience, and start positive feedback loops that create these extreme positions. People construct ungrounded constructions having little to do with actual reality — mostly because there are no shared experiences in the Real World that serve as a grounding touchstone. You want a real revolution? You can set yourself up for nonsense by staying in a four star hotel before you go riot in the Capitol. Or you can spend a night sleeping on the cold, wet ground cradling your AR-15. One of these two experiences will teach you how difficult a revolution might be a priori. And one most definitely won’t.
The problem with LARP thinking is that the bubble effects not only happen on Left and Right. It creates movements like ‘defund the police’. Our middle-class bubbles are easy to maintain. My Safeway store, with all of its complicated supply-chain dynamics, make it easy to pontificate on the whole ‘burn it all down’ mindset. Fetching a pint of Ben and Jerry’s can always be executed after you post something on Twitter.
But it doesn’t give anyone any insight on this tremendously complicated and complex society. Nor does it develop any metacognition on how little any of us knows when it comes to appreciating how we are continually well-fed during what has been almost 2 years of the largest ostensible global crisis the world has seen since the World Wars. It is both a testament to the miracle of modern society, as well as the damning indictment that our leadership has playing a LARP around the issue of COVID at our expense. There are no bodies in the street, and even after two years of pandemic, a literal smattering of hospital overruns.
And yet, instead of using the voluminous data regarding COVID on our actual social/physical systems, we are bombarded with news of the ongoing LARP. Last week it was supply chain collapse. This week it is the omicron variant. The reason it continues is because as we continue along our merry way, we lose more and more of our ability to even see complexity in our society. And that manifests itself with a profound loss of empathy — who can believe that anywhere, we are masking kids?
Recovery is possible. I feel fortunate to have lived such a rich, though often extremely unpleasant, experience-filled life. If there’s a moment that’s called back to me, it’s when I was working as a process control engineer at J&L Steel, in Cleveland, OH back in 1982. I had grown up in southern Ohio, as backward a backwater part of this country that exists. Whenever any union went on strike, there were always two things — people vandalizing rail cars and pushing them destructively off the tracks, and then, of course, burning police cars.
But Cleveland was far different. When the union voted to go on strike (it was averted) as a young member of the management, who was contractually obligated to cross the picket line, I went up to the old union guys who ran the equipment at the mill. I was 20 years old, and nervous — were they planning on wrecking anything? Taking a wrench to the exquisitely tuned hot mill I had worked on for three months? Were they going to beat me up if I crossed the picket line? Would they listen to me after the strike was over?
All of them, mostly old hillbillies from West Virginia, who had fled the coal mine violence in the mid ’50s, back-slapped me, and said “Shoot, kid, we’re not playing some fucked up LARP. We go on strike for higher wages — but we want that mill here when we get back. Why would we ever be so stupid and destroy the thing we all need to make money? And the two weeks the strike might last is just enough time for you to get those computers all tuned up and running.”
Of course, they had no idea what a LARP was. But they knew what reality was. It’s past time for all of us to look at where we’ve LARPed up, and open the door to larger grounding reality and validity. And we might just find that we’re sharing the same real estate with folks who might have some interest in persistence of at least some of our current systems. That is NOT an argument for no change. I’ve worked on system change my whole life. But the level of ignorance of reality is higher than any time since I’ve been alive.
And that’s the problem with not understanding the difference between reality and a LARP. The feedback loop is going to be harsh. And our lack of awareness will make not one whit of difference.
I honestly had hoped that talking about masks would be passé by this point in this increasingly contrived pandemic. But that is not to be. And as such, it behooves to understand the DeepOS of circulating knowledge, as well as what the fact that the subject has not been put to bed tells us about ourselves.
First off, every living creature on the planet, dependent on where they sit on the larger tangled tree of evolution, has a respiratory system. That respiratory system for all the latecomers to the game, fish, reptiles, mammals and so forth, is an amazing result of evolution. They are all fractalized and optimized for transport of oxygen into some version of a circulatory system that then powers the rest of the organism. Because about 500 million years of evolution has gone into the process (I’m starting with fish) all these systems are robust, or that species wouldn’t be there. They all live in some level of symbiosis with viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, as part of the larger holobiont/ecosystem they occupy.
One thing that I’ve noticed is there are very few direct speciated competitors in any ecosystem. Yes, there is overlap — the lines are never neatly drawn. But whenever there is a direct conflict, natural selection weeds out one or the other. I’d argue that this also extends to the internal systems inside animals.
Respiratory systems are included in this — there is some balance that exists between even what we consider pathogens and hosts. If not, one would go extinct. It’s the fundamental system dynamic. That means respiratory systems also exist in this balance. Of course, this is not a topic explored much, even recently. But consider the attention paid to gut bacteria, and our discovery that if we don’t have enough, then we not only do not flourish — we can die. The respiratory system remains (at least in the context of my admitted ignorance) as an undiscovered country in the holobiontic universe.
One thing that biologists have given us is a pretty good taxonomic map of respiratory systems. Below is a yanked Wikipedia picture on gill structure of fish. Each one of the gills is also heavily fractalized — basically every respiratory structure is, designed at some level to optimize space filling with some device to pull oxygen out of the surrounding medium (water, air) . That naturally leads to fractals. Trees do it as well. There is always some balancing act between robustness, fragility, and efficiency. It’s complicated, because it’s had 500 million years to evolve.
You can look at these as complicated pictures. But if you’re on this blog, then you understand these structures as well as complex, coupled informational systems. These systems have transitioned through the Permian Extinction, through the Mesozoic, and into the Cenozoic. They’ve seen shit hit the fan so many times, while they can be destroyed, they’ve woven a tight line and come out on top.
Understanding everything about gills as well, from a knowledge construction paradigm, requires teams of experts, observers and physicists. And even then, there’s still a ton of stuff we don’t really understand. There are known unknowns here, as well as unknown unknowns. To fully grok even the relatively simple system of fish gills (relatively!) takes a lifetime or more.
So if we have to designate a knowledge structure that describes something like fish gills and its function of respiration, we’re going to need one up into Yellow, and Turquoise — fractalized, global holistic. Once again — understanding even the ins and outs that we have access to requires a lifetime of work. There is no end to it. Here’s the Knowledge Structure slide.
Here’s the important point for this piece. Once you realize that in order to produce a fish gill, you need the highest level of knowledge structure, scaffolded from extremely long time scales (evolutionary robustness) to extremely short time scales (molecular and atomic interactions that drive the thermodynamics of energy production in the animal) you basically have to sit back and gasp at your own ignorance of these things. If you don’t stretch your brain out to consider these obviously long time scales, as well as the large spatial scales required to make this thing work (fish don’t just sit in one place all day, and when you consider anadromous fish, like salmon, well…) you can’t really come up with a holistic portrait of fish respiration.
Here’s the point.
Short -> Long Temporal Scales are required to understand this.
Short -> Long Spatial Scales are required to understand this — both in the context of the physics of the gills, as well as the development of the person working to understand them.
OK — let’s transition. Everything that’s true about fish gills is doubly true about human respiration systems. They are also fractalized, robust systems, evolved over millions of years, with integrated contingencies, for multiple environments. Yep, they can and do break, but they are optimized for all sorts of different circumstances — including many we do not know, nor understand.
Same principle — they are the instantiation of integrated knowledge construction, from Short -> Long Spatial Scales, and Short -> Long Temporal Scales. They evolved in the context of both viral and bacterial infections, good air, bad air, and lots of stuff in between.
Now, let’s look at masks — especially the ones used by most folks for COVID. Here’s a picture.
I don’t want to belabor the whole mask construction thing. To me, it’s boring. The short version is that it’s a square of some fabric, with a couple of loops on the side, that hangs on your face, and if you don’t have it exactly right, it has big gaps on the side where your breath can easily pass out, and in. Surgical masks are at best a couple hundred years old, and even their basic structure was really only optimized to keep a doctor from spitting in a patient. And it’s designed to last (without refreshing its structure, which it cannot do) for 30 minutes- 1 hour max. The fact that people are using them for longer than that is really a damning indictment of how little folks know about what they’re doing.
Here’s the point — the complexity of the knowledge structure of a mask is basically an augmented fragment. It’s a piece of cloth, with some attachment mechanism. The complexity of the knowledge structure of your respiratory system, on the other hand, is deeply integrated into all facets of your being — physiological, psycho-social, physical, on and on, in ways we can’t even comprehend yet.
A mask is a piece of cloth the powers-that-be want you to strap onto your face ad infinitum.
For a short term application (this is where knowledge structure and information integration do matter) a mask might be beneficial. Even in the presence of deeply unnatural aerosols (think spraying rattle-can paint) it might be useful to wear a mask for the 20 minutes. Yeah, sure, you’re going to suck in some propellant and acetone, but you might limit your dose to where you don’t pass out, and only kill off some brain cells. So the idea that masks are utterly useless isn’t valid. For short duration, small spatial scale situations, they may be just the ticket for a bump in protection.
But the idea that somehow these things are going to surpass, from an evolutionary information perspective, any developed respiratory system, is positively insane. Knowledge fragment or complex, fractalized, multiple-system optimized knowledge structure, with integrated information over eons? C’mon.
Now that we understand what our two options in the Knowledge Structure space, we can now have a window into understanding why personal development matters in receptivity for grokking the relative complexity of the two solutions.
I’ve written a long piece on the psycho-social dynamics of masks here. Let’s just talk about the relative informatics of masks vs. respiratory protective systems in lungs.
If someone tells you, who is an authority figure, for a given circumstance, you need to wrap your face with a mask, odds are you’ll do. Especially if it’s short duration (for the other engineers out there, think about going into a clean room for the first time) you’ll put it on, along with those white booties and a gown, and do what needs to be done. 30 minutes later, you’re out on the street, breathing again. Any disruption of that larger integrated function your respiratory system had going with the environment really isn’t noticeable.
This is easy, from an informatics perspective, on the brain. Here’s the Authority-Driven/Legalistic knowledge structure.
“Put on a mask to go into the clean room. Throw it inthe garbage in the airlock on the way out.”
The clean room is a specific environment. Your boss tells you to do it. It’s part of the rule set. You function totally on belief, and it’s not complicated.. It’s a fucking mask, after all. And everything lines up. It’s all in the limbic/automatic part of your brain. Perfect memetic alignment. Easy peasy.
And so masks have also been sold to us as an appropriate intervention for COVID. We’re down in limbic/automatic thinking, someone of authority comes along and says “put this on and you’ll be safe” — it’s incredibly compelling, as we’ve seen. No one’s thinking — they’re mirroring, meaning they’re down at the bottom of the Empathy Pyramid — and hey, “two more weeks” coupled with shared purpose (flatten the curve or some other nonsense!)
The problem discussed in this piece is it’s also a psychological hack that degrades the knowledge structures we’re used to operating under in modern society. And worse — it keeps you in an arrested state of fear. Take it off, you could get COVID. And so on.
As opposed to trusting your incredibly beautiful, complex, fractalized, self-healing structure for respiration. Of course, this is also compounded by people who have sought to maintain that authority over you through constant messaging that if you don’t follow their agency/empathy-destroying externalized advice, you’re going to die. Think about how much talk of building immunity to protect yourself from COVID that has gone on, outside getting the vaccines. Basically NONE. And yes — the whole notion of other things interfering with appropriate immune system function of the lungs, like metabolic syndrome and its most obvious symptom of obesity, is never discussed except in passing when discussing statistics.
But here’s the memetic, time-scale thing. Over time, people start aggregating larger amounts of data on their circumstance. They start noting the incongruities in their circumstance with the simplification provided by masks. They also start seeing other manifestations of events (think the RSV epidemic earlier this year) as well as overloaded emergency rooms with OTHER respiratory viruses, as their own knowledge structure starts evolving and filling in the metacognitive holes. They note the depression that comes from not seeing faces. All of the above.
I could go on. But here’s the big takeaway. And yeah — masks suck and are stupid, once you make some idiot policy that institutionalizes them.
But people’s brains are going to be receptive to different levels of complexity dependent on personal and cultural evolution. Masks have persisted because, for all the wrong reasons, they are low information/low complexity knowledge structures. And we don’t have near enough development to appreciate or discuss the amazing holobiontic system our natural respiration is.
And that’s an education/empathy challenge.
Takeaway — From a structural memetics perspective, it’s beyond stupid to believe that a square of cloth could buffer a human effectively through the myriad circumstances of human existence more effectively than our own respiratory system, encoded with over 500 million years of evolutionary integration into our own bodies, and the surrounding environment. It requires a willful ignorance, as well as other potential motivations. Structural memetics serve as a way to look at this from a knowledge construction viewpoint, and also show how affinities in social structure create beliefs in such tomfoolery.
One of the most difficult, but necessary things to write about during this whole COVID fiasco is “where are we going? And why are we in this hand basket?” Why is this challenging? It requires, first off, a belief in societal evolution, and devolution, and an appreciation that we are actually going somewhere — somewhere knowable.
And whether you’re suffering or not, it’s tough to argue that in the last millennium, things have gotten better and better for the human species. There’s some crazy multiplier of us, population-wise- more than there was 1000 years ago (2500x or so) and our lives are longer, cleaner, and potentially happier.
Let’s reframe this from an information perspective. Whenever you have 7 billion or so people on the planet, or 100 million people in a given country/nation state, you need a certain information quantity, as well as an information density of how interactions will go so that people don’t, well, kill each other. How you get and distribute that information will determine the characteristics of your society — whether you’re run by some Old God in the back of everyone’s head, or the extent that one manages to develop independent agency of people in that society, built on some level of decentralized decision making.
One with a more distributed decisionmaking structure will be far more robust, agile and able to optimize resources locally, than one that is centrally controlled. History has shown this over and over — not just a dismissal of the need for laws and such — but when it comes to overall performance and robustness, you can’t beat distributed, independent-minded systems programmed to coordinate with each other. As far as a technological example, consider the Internet. Where can you go in the world with the expectation that the Internet won’t work? And this is exactly because it is a decentralized, distributed system. All your messages don’t just run through a big box at the center of the world.
But decentralized, distributed, relatively autonomous systems aren’t the only way that things have shaken out with high populations of humans. Nations at various apogees have a tendency to lock in behavior that works, with little mind toward how the future might play out. A great example of this ‘locking in’ phenomenon might be to look at the Song Dynasty in China, established in 960 CE. The Song dynasty was known for many single improvements — the magnetic compass being one. But more importantly, it also saw the proliferation of Confucianism, and the attached civil service exams, which then led to an Authority-driven system (the emperor was still a de facto god) buttressed by Legalistic methodologies for extremely modest class mobility, encapsulated in an increasingly rigid caste structure.
The Song dynasty collapsed in the face of the Mongol invasion, another memetic triumph — Genghis Khan was a Performance-based leader and allotted top positions in his government based on merit — but as outsiders, they could not have the cultural persistence that the mainline Han Chinese population had. And so things went back to lower empathy, Legalistic “normal” after their collapse. The Song folks had left their mark. Legalistic thinking allows for diversity through proliferation of categories — we’re certainly seeing that today in the various “woke” movements. But they don’t move empathy forward, which inherently allows for agency and folks determining how they are supposed to think of the people they interact with.
But anyone says they don’t work at all – you’d be wrong. China shows that it can work, even if you convert a huge proportion of your people into “one step up” from total slaves. It’s obviously far easier to make endless categorization work in societies with one overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group — I’ve seen estimates of racial homogeneity in China at 90%+. The problem is that when you program your people’s brains through a seeming infinity of titles, you basically kill breakthrough innovation. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” becomes the hallmark. And then you’ve also created a fragile society.
And when you base it on kings and queens, and dynasties, you’re really screwed. Genes go sideways. There’s such a popular affectation in modern culture with this whole thing, it really makes my head reel. I just watched the Dune movie on HBO, and it’s reasonably fun. But one of the thought exercises I go through is, knowing what I know about evolution and devolution of societies, could such a planetary rigid hierarchy even exist? The answer — maybe thousands of years into the future, AFTER space flight had been invented, and perfected to the level where it was just a no-brainer. No society such as portrayed could ever actually INVENT space travel. But maybe, after aggregation and integration of knowledge over millennia (for example, you don’t know the metals inside your car’s engine, now, do you?) you could see deterioration of the empathetic human condition back to something like Dune.
It’s just not very likely.
So what happens when we lock in rigid hierarchies, with lots of categories and titles? You give the Sophistication folks a big leg up. You actually need them at the start, to compartmentalize and such. But if you lock all this stuff in, you freeze your society in time. Well, until the next big disturbance comes along, and you kick everyone back down into the Survival v-Meme. And they you reap the chaos from information corruption (it actually takes lots of folks to keep track of all those pronouns!) you’ve sown.
There are shorter timescales that are dominant, that might favor one group or another (including oppressed minorities) and there can be a case made for facilitation of such groups. But long-term, if you base your entire society on this kind of thinking, you’re screwed. Rigid hierarchies fundamentally live through the suppression of independent thought. And that makes people depressed, which opens them up to capture by more memetically evolved forces than themselves. There is no better example than Britain and China during the Opium Wars. The Chinese had, with only a few hiccups, developed a society based on a 1000 year stasis. And so it was trivial for the British to come in and give everyone drugs. Fragmented, authoritarian societies have bet everything on over-rewarding people’s dopamine loops. So it’s easy enough to step into that egocentric, hormonal cycle and give them a replacement that REALLY puts them to sleep.
This brings me to the term in the title of the piece. Such social systems have an incredibly stable Societal Attractor — in this case, some stable, generated culture based on Externally Defined, low empathy relationships. I was asked this question by one of the most insightful young philosophers out there — Daniel Goetz, whom I’ve written about here, along with his partner-in-crime, Emil Ejner Fries. “Why is Authoritarianism so stable?” The answer is actually a relatively simple tautology — when nothing changes, then nothing changes. Or rather, nothing good changes. You still see entropic deterioration – the universe is still the universe. And after long periods of prosperity (as we have in the U.S.) a consolidation of information on the good life, and that gets further and further captured in a list of superficial outcomes. A house, two cars, a dog, and so on.
But the world doesn’t stop changing. Such Societal Attractors are built on filling in the bottom of the v-Meme stack — Survival, Tribal/Deep Origination myths, Authority, and a Legal system. But because the models of how the society supposedly works DON’T change, though, they open themselves up to manipulation by the empathy-disordered. Game-playing becomes more important than actual outcomes. And since everyone has accepted, at some level, that the game is “fair” (since it’s always been that way) the winners are the deserved winners, and the losers are, well, the losers. There’s no metacognitive stretch in any of this (“what if we gave the losers a different hand of cards?”) because stasis — in this case, the Rigid Hierarchy Societal Attractor, is the goal. And over time, even if you start out at the more egalitarian, higher evolved attractor, phase transitions are still possible down to lower states.
Where does that term Societal Attractor come from? The deep explanation is from Nonlinear Systems Theory. Our brains are far more naturally wired to think in terms of Linear System theory — we have a society, and it has morphed and changed incrementally for as long as we have been humans. But here’s the Linear Systems theory punchline (which is wrong) — there’s just one society, and give or take, one particular way to live as humans. Anyone that knows much about history (and has grokked it) realizes this is total bullshit. There are lots of different ways that humans have adapted to different life conditions on the planet. It’s a function of the fact that our brains are programmed with software, as opposed to hardware. And that software is largely a function of how we interact as humans. That should be a no-brainer, but, well, if you look at the anthropological or sociological literature, it’s rarely discussed outside the messy concept of culture.
What this has to do with Societal Attractors is that there is a series of Separate, large scale patterns that create nested, potential societies. These societies have stable patterns as we move up in evolutionary complexity. Spiral Dynamics (the original version) does a great job of describing this, and I’ve written a bunch of about this in various locations on this blog, so I’m not going to write about it here.
But here’s the big point for this piece. Societal Attractors instantiate and capture a certain amount of information, of given sophistication, at any given time. These societies and their structures are more or less stable/persistent based on how rapidly changing world conditions are around them, and what their underlying information dynamics are that allow for adaptation and change. Lower v-Meme societies work on the “Keep it Simple, Stupid” principle. You don’t need to do much people/personal agency development in order to have a small one. But if your population grows, you do need a class of people to continuously generate larger and larger fixed schemas as your population changes and diversifies. That’s the centralized Societal Attractor for you.
Or you could develop people to think for themselves (think distributed decentralized systems) and then let them figure it out as they go along. It really boils down to two larger meta-strategies, if we are aware of the system dynamics (that whole self-awareness thing that lets us move up into Second Tier thinking…)
Do we create a system that tells people what the right thing to do is?
2. Do we create a system that develops people so they can figure out what the right thing to do on their own?
And these two meta-types of Societal Attractors are what are confronting us in the COVID/Post-COVID world today.
With respect to COVID, there really was only one country that bet, more or less, on #2. That was Sweden — they made some mistakes re: care homes up front, that their leadership (Anders Tegnell) owned up to. But otherwise, they counted on their own people (and for good reason) to figure out what the right thing to do was, and educated toward that end. Sweden is likely done with COVID as anything other than an endemic disease, and as of this writing, the other Scandinavian nations have all followed suit, even down to air travel — no more idiotic masking on planes.
But while they were pursuing their high agency, independently generated relational strategy, they were excoriated by the press corps around the world. I’ve written about this here — the mainstream press corps does nothing except serve as a loudspeaker for the Authoritarians in the world, regardless of stripe — so it should come as no surprise that they did what they did. That’s what memetic warfare looks like, and it should come as no surprise that the primary mouthpiece would be the voice from The Top.
It should also come as no surprise, from a memetic conflict point of view, that such a press corps would constantly attack the unofficial news, and social media, with everything from the ostensible disinformation spread on all the things the Authorities would like to hold onto, as well as other false flag operations, like social media is destroying teen girls. This is NOT to say that there aren’t some elements of truth to both of these positions. But the constant drumbeat on the most extreme examples — well, that’s the way psychopathic memetic war operates. And the Societal Attractor for the Authority-driven world is still very powerful, and very much in control.
Societal Attractors are also heavily dependent on energetics of the system in play. Lower v-Meme attractors require less energy to run than higher empathy v-Meme attractors. They sit in the larger dimensional phase space in some potential well of attraction, and to greater or lesser extent, societies bounce around inside that given well. What that means is that an Authoritarian system can deviate from some perfect orbit. Different perturbations come in from the outside, as well as individuals generating ideas inside a given system and the level of Authority ebbs and flows.
I’ve written about this earlier with China — if you want to have a long-term stable Authoritarian system, you must indeed be rigid. But if you’re too rigid, then if something that is expected in the master-slave relationship is disturbed, you risk peasant revolt. Empathy is basically like a free energy principle inside any stable well, and lets things bounce around a bit. When China realized that people might actually organize around, for example, environmental pollution as a driving concern, they established GONGOs (Government-Organized NGOs) that destabilized protest movements, and drove people back into the mainline authoritarian participatory camp.
What does this mean in the context of Western (modestly) participatory democracies, in the time of COVID? For the last 50 years, we’ve been seeing disequilibrium in the energetic portion (think wage gap) of the societal attractor phase space. What this means is that we’ve had systems that have provided some modest agency in the context of a raft of institutions providing various governmental support services. But in order to operate in such a space, you have to have TIME and ENERGY to be a citizen. And as declining wages/energetic failure has increased, that destabilizes the potential well that a more egalitarian system sits in. That societal attractor moves closer to a cusp/bifurcation point.
And where does that take us energetically, from that point in our little societal attractor phase space? Authoritarianism. It literally is all downhill from there.
There’s no question that there are a variety of factors in play here, especially once we open up from a more closed, nation-state system to a global economy. Take the U.S. for example. We’ve coasted on immigrant labor from the south, having Latin-Americans pick our vegetables and raise our food, living often in wretched conditions and doing backbreaking labor so we don’t have to. What that enabled was a pseudo-democracy, similar to ancient Athens, where there were citizens, as well as slaves. At some level, we’ve also done this in H1-B visa-land. Instead of working to fix our own pipeline into tech through renovation of our own educational systems, we’ve turned to immigration to solve that problem. And yes — it’s not black-and-white. We’ve once again, gotten the better part of the deal.
But sooner or later, this kind of shit catches up with you. The downslide in living circumstances hits the mainstream. That causes economic dislocation, of course. But it also fuels personal depression — which is then attenuated through substances like Oxycontin. And you start that slide toward that lower energy societal attractor. This recent documentary on Netflix, American Factory, about the resurrection of a glass manufacturing factory outside of Dayton Ohio, really highlights this reality. The message the documentarians attempted to deliver is scrambled bullshit. But the deep truth is that former American workers, not used to being slaves, were really in the squeezer by the Chinese ownership to accept a far more slave-like existence, or else face external shame for not being hard-working.
And it’s not like the U.S. is the worst, by a long shot. That modern master/slave Societal Attractor is in high relief in countries like the United Arab Emirates, which is literally a slave society. Importing their slaves from places like Bangladesh, and the lesser servants from expedited boarding gates in the Manila airport, these people have their master/slave attractor game down.
The real peril in the modern world is that such societies will lock in educational and developmental differentials that may be almost impossible to dismantle once the flywheel of such attractor effects gets going. Already, during COVID times, poor kids didn’t get to go to schools, while the upper-middle class pulled their kids out of hamstrung public schools, and sent them to unmasked, far-more-favorable to empathetic development schools. There are the fundamentals of school time lost that will affect poor children. But even worse is the likely damage done by isolation to psyches and overall health. Obesity is up. Depression is up. And all these drive migration out of a more egalitarian state, with shared benefits and responsibilities. Because now the poor will DESERVE their maltreatment.
How has majoritarian COVID policy worked in all of this? Through the chronic drumbeat of relational disruption, it has hampered our global society’s ability to recenter itself. I think it’s useful to consider Michael Lind’s work on the Double Horseshoe model in the context.
The managerial elite has been affected the least of all. From private jet travel, to Gavin Newsom and his French Laundry dinner dates, life has pretty much gone on as normal. Their kids attend private institutions, and the help wears viral-ineffectual, but status-important masks in all interactions. The professional bourgeoisie has won in spades, accruing new titles along the way (pajama class, laptop class.) The small business bourgeoisie has taken it in the shorts — the tons of small businesses that used to provide both food and entertainment are kept alive only through government programs, and many have gone bankrupt.
And then there is the working class. The hub city working class needn’t look far to see that they better fall in line with whatever the various institutional edicts are. And the Heartland working class and the underclass have turned to drugs, suicide, or acceptance that their fate will be as slaves. No capture on chains required.
How exactly that happened is instructive. At the beginning of the COVID crisis, I do believe that most of the individuals involved in commenting and societal decisions did so in good faith. I certainly did, unaware of my own historical ignorance of public health. So I did contribute as well to the fear, and driving down of the society to that lower Societal Attractor. But I changed my mind relatively quickly. As I can now see, my conversion came too late to make an immediate difference. Those in control had already recruited enough of the low empathy institutional class, as well as the various and sundry sufferers of supplementary pathologies, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, to create the Survival v-Meme based models of control to use by the Authorities. A disordered low- and anti-empathetic Praetorian Guard formed around these issues that still remains today. Survival thinking is key to not just inflicting trauma and compliance on the target. It is also important for inducing both neural plasticity, and its incumbent amnesia and reordering necessary for that profound shift from a more egalitarian society to the master/slave Societal Attractor.
It is important to realize that we were on the cusp of all this Societal Attractor shifting before COVID started. The idea that the lower classes should deal with an increasingly negative reality, while the upper classes ate cake, really goes back to Bill Clinton and welfare reform — which was really a shift in response to the lack of labor in the slave economy. But it carried through in both Republican and Democratic regimes — pointless wars to dispatch our young people off to, to protect interests of the entrenched. And Obama, aside from some health care reform, did little to prevent it.
Just look at COVID policies and their relationally disruptive outcomes.
Mask wearing — an inability to read faces and normally interact with others.
Social distancing — the idea that interaction with others, especially unknown others, was hazardous to your health.
Closing of social hubs for indeterminate amounts of time — gyms, outdoor venues and bars, restaurants.
Identification of lower-class workers through indeterminate masking protocols.
Vaccination conformance or fire policies.
What’s the point in understanding the current situation in terms of Societal Attractors? The biggest is to advance the idea that we get the society we deserve when we create incentives for dysfunction relational dynamics. Once a society does this, disruptive behavior becomes part of the attractor dynamics — and emergent — no need to create a new police force (though that has also occurred) to cause your society to come apart.
The other mostly undiscussed dynamic created is that it literally makes your population crazy. Or rather, creates the mental state necessary for larger psychosocial homeostasis. I’ve talked about this here. And once you’ve undermined that, you actually make it frighteningly difficult for a society to recover. Other, as yet unanticipated pathologies pop up, bringing a positive feedback loop to forcing a more permanent version of the master/slave Societal Attractor.
I wish I had a more hopeful note to end on — maybe it’s this. We CAN understand this social phenomenon. But we really have to realize that we’re in The Matrix. And The Matrix has principles that drives emergence, whether we believe it or not.
And the only way out, long-term, is to build empathy. In everyone.
PS — I did the best I could here, but I do acknowledge that some knowledge of complex systems would sure help out. Hot take if you’re in the field: societies sit in stable wells of attraction, and can be incredibly persistent in the face of perturbation. Lower v-Meme societies sit in deeper, more accessible wells of attraction than higher v-Meme, more complex systems. We are at the cusp of a phase transition that we have been proceeding toward for quite a while — from a more egalitarian to a master/slave society. COVID is not the only cause of this, but is driving the change, and the change has been championed by the institutionalists.
As the world gets more and more complex, as well as more fast-paced, one of the challenges I’ve been working on is how to get people to slow down enough to link with their conscious minds to comprehend, or at a minimum, recognize the crazy world we live in. I realize my ability to get people to consider more nuanced positions is hamstrung by what I’ve decided to call disqualifying narratives — concepts, once broached, that if they go against someone’s tribal position, immediately cause people to shut down and not listen. Somehow, there’s some limbic switch in the brain that wakes one of the Old Gods that govern our unconscious behavior, and that’s the end of that conversation.
A great example of a disqualifying narrative might be the Qanon-adopted pizza parlor story, known as Pizzagate. Supposedly, liberal pedophiles were holding children in the basement of a Comet pizza. I really don’t want to recount this — you can go to the Wikipedia page if you’re interested in the gory details. The problem with the Pizzagate story was that it masked the more real, yet more nuanced Jeffrey Epstein story, which contains at least some of the elements (no pizza parlor, but a private island, big-shot Democratic politicians, and under the age-of-consent girls. If you were going to talk about this, you’d be instantly dismissed — a perfect example of a disqualifying narrative.
Both Left and Right sides of the political spectrum have their own disqualifying narratives, though, to be honest, the Left is charging ahead with far more lately than the Right’s. I’m not going to dwell on any one in particular, because if I do so, if you’re reading this blog for the first time, that will strike you as a disqualifying narrative!
The person that woke me up to my own penchant for disqualifying narratives was a former Congressman (as she liked to be referred) from northern Idaho — Helen Chenoweth. Chenoweth was an interesting partisan, to say the least, and was a member of a charismatic church known for laughing for an hour as part of Sunday services. She also had a predilection for young men, and toward the end of her term of government service, it seemed obvious when I met her, she had been sedated, and was obviously on something like Valium. Her tagline (the disqualifying narrative) was “black helicopters” — that turned into the word trigger of all of us forest activists to laughter.
Yet Chenoweth turned out to be remarkably prescient about the potential for overreach of our current security state. She predicted the overreach of the TSA, for example, and her dark view of freedom’s restrictions have largely come true in our current pandemic state. I don’t really want to eulogize her — she was something else. But I did learn that it was good to listen to the other side’s fears. Because, sooner or later, their fears might become your own.
The current challenge in disqualifying narratives that I’ve been thinking about is the present scandal involving Tony Fauci, and the funding of gain-of-function research on Sars-COV-2 at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. I’m going to write a longer piece on this, but the short version is that one of the primary suspects, Peter Daszak, of the company, Ecohealth Alliance, received money from the NIH to do research on gain of function on the very spike proteins on the virus that we are now dealing with. Further, it gets worse — Daszak asked for money to inoculate wild bats with the virus to see their persistent in the wild.
The problem with this narrative is, as you can probably guess, that it turns into a disqualifying narrative on the Left very quickly. It’s far easier to believe that somehow, peasants in wet markets in China, noshing on endangered pangolins, or even bats themselves, cross-contaminated humans with COVID, and that’s the story. But the evidence that is coming in is that is NOT what happened, at all. Last year, even considering the “lab leak” theory was enough to get you laughed out of reasonable Lefty company’s house. This year, because of the information overload on the COVID pandemic, it STILL IS. Even though there have been Senate hearings, where Rand Paul pulled documents that showed Fauci funded the work, and Fauci continues to deny, and of course we have the problem of a disqualifying narrative has the Left rooting for Fauci, and denying Senator Paul’s legitimate line of inquiry.
The problem with limbic switching and disqualifying narratives is that they become powerful tools in the hands of psychopaths who are alternately running the show, or are Flying Monkeys of more powerful psychopaths. At this point in history, it’s easy to sort the lab leak hypothesis into a disqualifying narrative — if you believe it, you must not be a credible actor or know much about COVID politics. But by anyone’s standards, there’s a growing body of evidence that the lab leak hypothesis is more than just that — it’s probably what happened. And Fauci has a long history of being an intensely political animal. In this case, he has his literal hide to lose.
Not surprisingly, empathy is a solution to disqualifying narratives. Certainly, one can’t expect to sit through everyone’s chemtrails lecture. But moving the sidebars out a little from one’s own tribal view is going to be required if we can even hope to navigate an increasingly complex future.
One of the things that I’ve decided to push back against, hard, during this pandemic has been child masking. It’s obviously, fundamentally abusive, there’s extremely poor scientific/evidentiary reason for any of it, and the arguments surrounding that evidence are so solipsistic and one-sided, the mind reels. And the long-term consequences, especially for kids under the age of 10, are developmentally terrifying. The only criterion for whether we should mask children, or so we’re told, is if it stops COVID spread. If it does, no matter how weak the evidence, we should do it.
The reality is that even if that was an acceptable goal, the evidence is against it. If you need to dig into that, this paper by Steve Templeton, should convince you otherwise. Steve has done a tremendous public service through his careful sifting of the scholarly evidence on the actual case for various NPIs, and Ian at his Substack blog, has shown that these interventions don’t work at all on the population level. Both have been invaluable in gathering the formal case for what I had already observed a year ago regarding the various NPIs — they don’t really work, even in the lab, and they certainly don’t dent the real numbers.
But that’s not the real case I want to talk about today. What I do want to discuss (and just so you know, there’s a longer piece in my head on what I call ‘societal attractors’) is why the attack architects of the other side are so emergently dedicated to trumpeting failed interventions. I don’t think anyone should give the vast majority any credit for thinking through any of their positions, other than acting out of confirmation bias of their own collapsed egocentric fears. But that drives emergent behavior that creates a societal attractor defined by the level of connection required for that same collapsed egocentricism.
Short form of THAT social network — eh, not much. And certainly not one that nourishes the spirit. As I’ve said before, the most strident of the “NPIs work!” bunch are really just broadcasting their belief in the relational dynamic that no one should possess independent agency themselves, and we all live to be defined by those others around us, but mostly by our ‘betters’. Never a mention of any ability for personal definition or corporal integrity. This bunch never talks about boosting your own immune response that doesn’t involve injection. But I digress.
One thing that I’ve found in life, and especially during this pandemic, is that the dynamics of abusive relationships are extremely poorly understood. When one sees a woman, or man in a battering relationship, the immediate societal reaction is “how can she/he stay?” in such a relationship. But that leaves the core dynamic un-deciphered. The correct question is actually “how can he/she leave?” Abusers set up powerful dynamics, often enforced by societies, that keep people in such relationships. People intrinsically know, on a Survival v-Meme level, that being isolated is the key to death. It’s the lone individual that the lions kill.
Another analogy I like to use to describe abusive relationships is our relationship to water. If we are traveling in a healthy group, others in that group supply our water, and we supply water to them. If that group is relatively supportive, then the water supplied is clean, and pure, and allows us all the appropriate conditions we need to live. No human can live without water for long, and if you’re in a desert, you really need it. Big time. Inside your head, you know if you have no water, you will die.
Abusive relationships leverage this dynamic. But instead of healthy pure water supplied by your traveling companion, if they are abusive, it’s dirty water. Or toxic water. Or drugged water. You would like to leave, and at some level, you know you’re going to have to sooner or later. But the option of setting out cross the desert without any water? Daunting. And almost certain death, lions notwithstanding.
And so you travel with your abuser, getting sicker, and sicker all the time. Or perhaps, more drugged, lost in a haze of believing that you’ll not make it, and the person doling out the abuse is somehow your personal savior. Some people stay in abusive relationships their whole life, even though it’s obvious they’re under some kind of spell. There’s so many fairy tales about this kind of thing (think Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White, for example) — folks have known about this since forever.
It’s not the sum total reason that everyone supports the various NPIs in general, but in particular, wearing masks. I know lots of people embedded in that social circle that might have been receptive to hearing different evidence. But the reality is now that the psychopaths have grabbed the ground wires of those communities, and it will be difficult, if not impossible to reach them. In my case, I’ve pretty much stopped on any personal level, and will only fight publicly, for kids, on this issue.
The challenge we face in this fight, though, is realizing the thing that the abusers will not give in on, because it is the memetic drug in the water that allows continual degradation of the collective conscience. In our current circumstance, what’s digging the kimchee hole deeper is threefold — first is social isolation, second are masks, and lastly, is our dietary imbalance (primarily sugar) that we simply cannot come to terms with, even though we are surrounded by the dis-health of our fellow community members on a daily basis. All these warp the collective consciousness through an intrinsic interaction with our stress hormone, cortisol, that further impairs our ability to consciously think, and move out of fright, to some transcendental realization of what’s actually killing us.
It’s not hard to characterize the abuse relationship if we breathe deeply. If, for example, we don’t comply with a various host of measures, some more reasonable than others, not only will we lose our jobs, but we will be cast out into the wilderness with no water. And it’s not solely a matter of personal character. Even people whom I’ve formerly admired for principled stands, like George Takei, have been subsumed into this vortex. It is absolutely within the abuse dynamic to threaten, or take away someone’s livelihood, if they disagree with you. Somehow we’ve lost this perspective (I thought it really got rolling during the Trump years, especially on the Left) but we’ll never regain a civil society without recognizing it for what it is.
No one in the current pandemic characterizes the abuser’s dynamic more than NIAID Director, Tony Fauci. It’s exhausting to go back through all his mispronouncements, but the latest that just happened yesterday, was him telling, even with all the various vaccinations, and NPIs, that people should not count on seeing their families for Christmas. Anyone working with abuse victims knows that one of the primary things abusers do is separate people from potential support networks, and sending everyone to the large-scale Zoom call in the name of saving their lives is just about as abusive as you can get.
Fortunately, lots of people will ignore this kind of nonsense. The ones with the healthiest families, who haven’t bought into the abuse bullshit, are far more likely to just ignore it. That doesn’t mean, perhaps, that such healthy families won’t find ways to protect fragile elders. Of course they will. But overall, they won’t fall for the relational fragmentation that our National Evil Elf is promoting.
The problem is that some will. And so, as a result of traveling with either him, or folks who listen to him, they will get weaker. Through a lack of connection, they will become more stressed. Their own personal, sustaining relationships will become more fragile. They will become more inured to evidence that they are in an abusive relationship, in this case, with a member of a distant government that cares not a bit about their long-term well-being. And true to most abusive relationships, the people involved will argue for the abuse. That’s the scary thing.
To get out of the kimchee hole, we have to start realizing the dynamics that got us there in the first place. We have to rediscover social connection, and give a huge red flag to those that want us to eliminate true human relations, which involve faces, hugs and smiles. It’s one thing to give these things up for two weeks, or a month. But we’ve been in this thing now going on two years. We have to realize we’re being abused, and first recover out wits enough to think out meaningful strategies that will lead us out of the wilderness.
The stakes have never been higher. The companion piece I’m writing in my head (give me a couple more bike rides to get it all down, folks) is that sadly, there is a social structure that is stable and resistant to promoting human happiness that can await us. We need look only to a long view of Chinese history for how this can happen. China stayed trapped in an increasingly complicated, dynastic pattern for close to 2000 years. That social structure, that relied solely on external relational definition, mired China in stasis for innovation and advancement of human rights for literally a hundred generations. Needham’s Dilemma, that poses this question, only scratches the surface.
And we are here, at the cusp of this. The first step forward out of any abusive relationship is to realize that you’re in one. It’s not “how can you stay?” It’s “I’m going to find a way to leave.” If you don’t believe you are, here’s hoping that this piece is a small beam of light into the path forward.
One of the most positively insane things that has been happening, in the background of the larger COVID pandemic, is the extreme set of restrictions being adopted by the most elite universities in the United States, regarding COVID. The restrictions at universities like Stanford, Harvard, Brown and MIT would make one’s head reel. The whole gamut of interventions, regardless of efficacy (because there are none that are meaningfully efficacious and beneficial for the age cohort of most college students — ages 18-26) are always applied. And when a new one pops up, it is resoundingly trumpeted and enacted. These range from the more reasonable (100% vaccination requirements) to the totally bonkers (Harvard wants students to not gather in more than groups of three, and replace their masks in between bites of a sandwich.) Deans of Medicine, like Ashish Jha of Brown, are some of the worst, smugly and resolutely saying every ridiculous NPI that he can dream up, must be held in place.
These types of policies and pronouncements make no sense from any physical perspective. This excellent op-ed by one of the rational champions of our current debate, Vinay Prasad, at UC-San Francisco, makes this point at this link. Vinay’s still in the Matrix, though, talking about the need for Random Control Trials of policies I’m sure he knows bend physical reality to the breaking point. Word, Vinay — when the gods want to punish you, they grant you your wishes. Do you really want to pull apart hundreds of BS RCTs on COVID for the rest of the pandemic?
But he does do a little poking at the lattice of the Matrix in this comment at the end:
“A final point worth considering is why colleges impose these rules. While widespread testing can be beneficial for understanding the prevalence of a disease, these policies aren’t based in compelling evidence and seem more targeted at another goal. Such policies are unlikely to please most students, but much more likely to appeal to the sensibilities of their parents. The most parsimonious explanation then is that elite schools cater to elite parents, and they are engaging in these policies to give parents the comfort that their child is safe — while no one on earth knows if the policies help, and more importantly, if they are worth the price of life interrupted.”
It’s a start, and it’s close enough, I’d give him half a cigar.
What we’re really looking at here is the end game of Elite Risk Minimization — the idea that the elites would make the rest of us jump through whatever hoops to minimize whatever minuscule risk they might have of actually catching and dying of COVID. Prasad is right — you better believe that parents are calling the Duke University President’s office with their “concerns”. Except it’s likely not the parents of the poor kid that won the academic lottery and got a scholarship. When I was at Duke, the granddaughter of Enzo Ferrari was also there. And yeah, she drove a sky blue 308 GTS, if memory serves. Those people are now demanding protection from the rest of the students. It’s an Elite Risk Minimization fractal cascade — the end game of the Legalistic/Absolutistic status-chasing v-Meme. If you’ve always wondered if these same contemporary elites would engage in the Hunger Games with each other, well, look no further.
It’s made worse by scholars at those self-same universities screaming for “lock-em-up” policies. People like Gavin Yamey, Professor of Global Health, have been the worst of the hysterics in the whole COVID college kid game. Any Emir that might send his kid to Duke need only log onto Twitter to find the ostensibly pre-eminent scholars at that same university demanding social isolation of the student body. And when not only your kid comes with a full-ride tuition, but the prospect of the endowment of a series of full professorships, you better believe that when the Emir calls, that President is going to do something. S/He’s not feeling the pain of the rest of the student bodies in his or her care.
Meanwhile, Presidents out here in land-grant land are stuck with an entirely different dilemma. Because of their problems with the academic version of Skynet — the US News and World Report College Ranking edition — they’re slavishly forced, kinda like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, to follow whatever the elite institutions are doing. Except now, they’re looking at a real Survival v-Meme situation. The commonly held belief, even inside WSU’s modestly covered Ivy walls, is that students are also terrified of catching COVID. But I have it from pretty sage authority — my own students — that they’re not. In fact, most feel tremendously cheated, and are extremely angry about even the restrictions that are currently imposed in state universities in Blue States. Everyone just assumes that the students are stupid and don’t understand the actual risk of COVID, a profoundly age-stratified virus. But they do — and many have told me that if they lock us down again, they’re going to walk.
Personally, I doubt many students in my class would actually do that — my Industrial Design Clinic is, after all, full of graduating seniors. And most of them are deep in debt, and then to not receive their degree in a professional field that requires a credential would be beyond ridiculous. But in the world of a declining benefit/cost ratio, with our numbers already tight, I’m guessing our own university president isn’t that stupid. He knows that it will start shaving enrollment, with the effect of sending students back to community college to watch Cougar Football on TV.
And we already have physical attendance dampers already in play. Being in a Deep Blue state, we already have crazy bullshit, like masks at football games, to contend with. Fun fact — unenforceable, as much for the fact that folks are eating, as well as they can’t round up enough Labor Ready folks at Home Depot for temporary security guards. The wage rate for such work is $14/hr., or something. Telling a college student drunk on Everclear and grape juice to put their mask back on, outside, potentially in the rain? Fuggedaboutit.
But students WILL put up with the constant boundary violation of PCR tests at places like MIT. They want that Gold Star for the good life. So they’ll shut up and go along. But they’re young people, too. We need them to have good brains — after all, they’re going to likely be the next bunch of elites running the show, considering how social mobility has essentially collapsed in the US. The real problem is never discussed in most of the media — that we’re taking what is one of the most profound social experiences any person will have in their life and turning it to shit.
And that has a larger consequence for all these young folks than just memories. Social connection wires the brain, and if you don’t believe that, I have no idea why you’re on this blog. What we’re really doing, by chasing the eradication of a respiratory virus already likely endemic, is we are making a whole group of young people, already tormented with the social fragmentation of education under the pall of school shootings, and whatnot, and making them fundamentally less well-wired for dealing with complexity. It’s never been solely about the degree at any university. It’s the social milieu that makes up for our often slipshod pedagogy, and packed classrooms. Their relationships they develop with each other are the real things that train young minds.
What, at some level, is equally amazing, is that none of these elite universities, many with impressive-on-paper medical schools and schools of public health, are not reflecting on the fact that history will not treat their rebarbative ignorance and refusal to update their understandings kindly. All of this profoundly draws into question their fundamental competence. And don’t get me started on their humility. It is true that COVID has been a sticky wicket since the beginning, and you can page back through my own writings to see both my successes, as well as failures in logic. And since it has to be said — none of that has to do with my formal academic training — not “staying in my lane.” But you’d hear nothing but hubris from the loudest voices, some of who must know that they’re wrong. At this point in the pandemic, it’s simply impossible not to.
As I wrap this up, I think I need to point out again that bucking compliance is not about how college kids will act in this scenario. Certainly not about the students at land-grant institutions. All my students, and yours truly as well, lined up to get our vaccinations, most of us before our recent governor’s mandate. At WSU, we are approaching 100% compliance with our vaccine mandate in the student population — or so my own inside sources tell me. So don’t give me this bunk about how college students can’t follow reasonable orders, or are fundamentally anti-authoritarian.
But if anyone thinks there are no downstream consequences of this profound demonstration of a lack of empathy, for what is truly Elite Risk Minimization, you are dreaming. The college students of today are the decision makers of tomorrow, and their memories will be long. They will remember how most of this was done in their name, but not for their benefit. And that will not make them feel kindly toward those of us that are old.
And I want someone to give a shit about how I feel when I’m forced to don my own lobster spit bib.
One of the main things that’s caused me to take an activist position on COVID interventions — in fact, the main thing — has been the societal interventions imposed population-wide on children and young adults. I have been passionately committed to the well-being and evolution of young adults my entire working life, and also am dedicated to understanding how to raise children in these difficult, fast-changing times.
A little over a year ago, when vaccines seemed close, and information was starting to leak out that we might be able to vaccinate adults safely, but kids’ fates and health were going to be up in the air, I predicted that we would have a societal donnybrook on whether, and when to vaccinate children. It was going to be a tough trade-off. While old folks were easy — the vast majority of deaths from COVID (don’t want to argue about with/of COVID coding here!) were in people over 50. A novel vaccine may have risks, but the risk from COVID was high enough it was a relatively easy bar to meet.
Not so with children and COVID. Any vaccine would have to get over a VERY HIGH BAR of safety. While kids may get COVID, they get a cold. COVID deaths are less than flu deaths in young people, which in and of themselves, are extremely rare. Here’s the current COVID death distribution in the USA, from the website Statista.
That means any convincing case of vaccine efficiency would be a.) hard to generate, because numbers of seriously affected young people would be so low as to be likely unrepresented in a clinical trial, and b.) any trial with an experimental vaccine would have to be so large that it might also cause great harm.
OK. That’s the “science” case. The rational case — the argument I assumed we were going to have, whether getting the vaccine in any measurable way affected COVID outcomes, without causing harms on the order of magnitude as COVID itself, would not be easy. There would be a gray area. But that would be the question.
Boy, was I wrong.
As we now know, that hasn’t turned out to be the debate in the least! Yes, it DOES get brought up. But it’s not the way the public understands COVID for kids at all. Instead, what happened in the absence of the vaccine, once our focus had been sufficiently sated with vaxxing adults, it turned to the fact that kids were NOT vaxxed, and were going to be dirty little super-spreaders. As a society (especially in the US) we went back to dichotomous binning — vaccinated good, unvaccinated bad. And kids, already bit players in the overall American narrative, were literally going to take it in the shorts. Once the Eye of Sauron had been taken off adults, it turned to kids. And then held them hostage through the issue of school re-openings, and protocols for that, which mostly included masking and isolating kids.
OK — masks don’t work. I’ve covered that extensively. But masks, to young kids (I’d argue a majority) aren’t neutral. They are literally a torture. Wrapping young faces in masks (which don’t work) is only “shallow rationality” (implying a cause and effect) in the world that masks might actually work. Some kids can tolerate them — all children go through a phase where they want to be considered good members of the tribe, and fidelity to rule-following is one way of expressing that. And kids are not immune from the social informational environment. Many college students have not been informed that COVID is likely little threat to them (though, quite frankly, my engineering students are well-informed) so it’s no surprise that some grade school kids stepped up to be masked.
And don’t even get me started on masking special needs kids. It’s beyond terrible, and deeply sadistic.
But the problem got worse much more quickly. “Shallow rationality” indicated that there was a hostage situation now in play. Mask kids, and invasively test kids, or they don’t get to go back to school. They’re stuck at home, in online environments, with teachers on iPads. Determined parents might keep a child glued to a screen for four or five hours a day, especially if there were only 1 or 2 kids. But for those with more, or other duties, well, kiss learning goodbye. At least from the screen.
Now that a hostage situation had been created, it should serve as no surprise that a certain subset of narcissists and various flavors of the empathy-disordered showed up. We now had a couple of psychopathic tropes in play, especially with respect to masks that I’ve written about here. The whole “your mask protects me, while my mask protects you” schtick quickly became a control routine for the collapsed egocentrics to bully folks through moralizing. And now, instead of “if you don’t isolate grandma, you’re going to kill grandma,” you had the ever-so-elegant argument “your child, if you don’t do what I tell you to do, is not only NOT going to get educated, but is also going to kill grandma.” Never mind that grandma had very likely already been vaccinated, and well, masks don’t work anyway.
It’s important not to get carried away with specific content when considering psychopathic manipulation. Specific content is only created to be resonant in enacting strategies of power and control. Never say never, but for a true narcissistic fabulist, it doesn’t have to be true at all. There’s no better example than these two clips from ‘The Dark Knight’ — where the Joker talks about how he got his scars. I’ve written about this here, but these two clips so nail the narcissistic control dynamic, they’re worth reposting. I’ve cut and paste them below.
The Joker: You wanna know how I got these scars? My father, was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and says, “Why so serious?” Comes at me with the knife. “WHY SO SERIOUS?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face.” And…
When the audience first sees this scene, their thoughts immediately jump to empathetic connection. We are poised to think “Wow — I totally understand the Joker. His dad, tortured and killed his mother with a knife. That kind of trauma would turn ANYONE into a psychopathic killer. ” The Joker is leading us, with our own mental models of how someone might become a killer, not only to empathetically connect with him, but to sympathize with him. Here’s the scene:
Not only can we understand the Joker, but we relate to his experience. We engage in rational and emotional empathy!
But then, a short while later in the movie, we have this scene:
The Joker: Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em?
[He grabs Rachel’s head and positions the knife by her mouth]
The Joker: Come here. Hey! Look at me. So I had a wife. She was beautiful, like you. Who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don’t care about the scars. So… I stick a razor in my mouth and do this…
[the Joker mimics slicing his mouth open with his tongue]
The Joker: …to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I’m always smiling!
Worse, the next folks, essentially allies to show up are what are called in the “Psychopathic Narcissist” literature, Flying Monkeys, after the assistants of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz series written by L. Frank Baum. Notably, those Winged Monkeys are essentially neutral actors, doing terrible things in the name of others. Scientists in this pandemic have been especially useful Flying Monkeys — asking questions like “do babies need to see mothers’ faces in order to not delay development?” There’s a dark historic underbelly to psychological science that has served the needs of narcissists in all this. The heavy burden of proof in a healthy society would be on anyone saying “children do not need to see the faces of caregivers” to somehow demonstrate that thesis was remotely supportable, without experiments of great cruelty.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to examine ethics in animal research. But suffice it to say, empathy considerations, even in the most benign circumstances, are really not the point. Status-seeking through assertion of relative “rightness” is the game in play. And a whole host of scientists and psychologists are more than happy to step up and roll the dice on some other sentient being’s misery in order to burnish their own reputation.
The problem with the current situation is that it is a multi-dimensional hack of the Matrix. The argument, which should have been “how do we protect children and make sure they get to go back to school” instead shifted to “how can we maximize Elite Risk Minimization, through exploitation of a relatively non-affected population.” We had data from other countries, that showed there was essentially no threat to spread from school kids. But if you’re just attempting to add that .001% of protection to elites, AND you essentially have an innumerate population on which to play that game (we’ve seen that one in spades) well, the game is afoot. And that game is what I call Narcissistic Inversion — subpopulations of a given country with collapsing development, down to collapsed egocentricism and survival-level fears — turn to their children to demand they sacrifice for irrational adult fears. The parent/child relationship is inverted on a massive scale. Children are now responsible for adults.
It was more than problematic almost immediately. Mixed into this already toxic gaslighting cocktail was a long, societal-wide debate on vaccines in general. The press and large social media companies had taken the convenient position that the debate on kids’ vaccines were somehow related to the long-standing argument about childhood disease vaccinations. And with a population already fundamentally unable to process risk/reward arguments, this came down in the middle of everything like Thor’s Hammer.
I have stories from friends — not just off Twitter — of parents alternatively telling me “my kids just want to go to school, and if wearing a facemask is what they have to do, they’re happy to do it.” Another parent of a woman I deeply admire told me her seven-year-old was begging to be given a vaccine. These are all normal folks I’ve known and been friends with for a long time.
And what that tells me is that what we are dealing with is not so easily isolated to an individual. This problem of narcissistic inversion, where now children are in charge of protecting the health of parents and their grandparents, is a society-wide memetic abuse tactic. In any large-scale societal trauma, it would be considered incumbent on the parents to buffer the children from the stress and trauma of the given situation. But because of the toxic environment, functionally unmoored from statistical reality (there will always be children with severe respiratory disorders, and of course that is sad) children are now in charge of parents and their emotional states. The parent/child relationship has been inverted, if not consistently on an individual basis, certainly on a larger statistical one.
What’s even worse is the media environment that now attacks healthy parents, who might be attempting to protect their own children, in giving in to the argument of masking or taking an untried vaccine, or be essentially banned from social intercourse. Kids pick up on that stuff — and so if you don’t go along with the narcissistic inversion script, it’s because you, as a parent, are fundamentally an immoral person.
The problem with all of this is that it means that the results of this narcissistic inversion, while being borne by children now, will profoundly affect the shape of our society to come. Children who have to raise their parents (and in the interest of full disclosure, I was one) have been subjected to complex traumatic stress disorder. Downstream, that means there will be further, deep crises with attachment, dissociation, and stress.
The sign of a successful family, community or nation is its ability to both reproduce a culture with a set of healthy values, as well as further evolve its members’ ability to manage complexity as the world continues to evolve. We have had lots of challenges in our society along these lines. But a continued period of narcissistic inversion may mean development of one of the largest critical flaws of all — our children, because of their experience and exhaustion with their own parents, may not want to have children at all. As we wrestle masks onto three-year-olds that would not need it, even if masks worked, and deprive them of the developmental signaling because of the arguments of erudite, yet low-empathy professional idiots and poseurs with their own set of issues, we might pause, band together and end this crazy bullshit.
From an empathetic scaling perspective, narcissistic inversion implies a collapse of time to a single second, centered on the pathological individual and the fears that exist in their own head. And that will not bode well for any long-time societal trajectory.
There is a large and rich literature on this phenomenon in the family systems literature — you can search under ‘parentification’. I’m far from the first person to notice the phenomenon.
When nations proceed along paths that subvert the basic notions of attachment, so ably described by researchers like one of my heroes, John Bowlby, they may achieve some extra outcome for a while. But fundamentally, deciding not to raise children with healthy attachment inevitably ends in catastrophe. I write about Athens and Sparta in this piece on that very ruinous outcome.
Just so folks understand, I can’t believe I have to write the piece I’m going to write down. You’d think that there would be some cogent narrative regarding COVID, that the epidemiological community would settle on, and the press would forward. But unfortunately, we’ve inherited communities whose social structures are far more damaged than we care to admit — rigid hierarchies, ruled by people with OCD, and psychopaths — that basically are possessed only with dichotomous thinking modes. And that means we’re either ON or OFF with COVID. And in that context, the only messages during ON times are that everyone is going to die, or at least Grandma is going to die.
It’s utterly absurd.
So, in the interest of curing this toxic ignorance, I’m going to write down my take on any virus. Let’s get going.
The Three Stagesof Any Viral Epidemic
Any pandemic can be roughly broken up into three stages. These are:
Containment — where the virus is either fenced into a particular geographic area, or alternately fenced out.
Mitigation — where spread across a given landscape can be constrained or delayed with some set of human actions.
Endemic — the virus is functionally everywhere, and while some spread actions may or may not affect who get the disease, it’s largely futile to worry about who’s going to infect who, barring the usual concerns of sanitation of keeping people from coughing on each other (viral dose concerns.)
Containment of a virus is the first part of any pandemic. We jumped this shark in the US likely back in late January 2020, or earlier. Wuhan practiced a provincial lockdown that worked only moderately well (they DID end up shipping enough people around the world to infect everyone else!)
Containment is largely a function of the boundary being considered, as well as the structure of the interface (the permeability of the boundary.) Obviously, if you’re an island nation like New Zealand, you are far more likely to have a longer period of containment/exclusion of a given virus than if you have a situation like New York City, with multiple airports, lax virus security (especially at the beginning of the pandemic) and an attached super-spreader network like the New York subway system. The problem with containment is that it is absolutely inevitable that it WILL end, because living creatures serve as viral reservoirs, and no testing can find a given virus once it is dormant inside a human system.
We can see great examples of failures of containment down through history, with past pandemics like the Black Plague, and the smallpox epidemics that devastated the Americas during the Columbian Exchange. Looking at the situation with a very neutral eye, we might conclude that total social isolation is the only thing that will keep a sufficiently infectious agent out of a population over historic time. And once that collapses, because there is no built-up immunity from exposure, bad things are going to happen.
Containment phases also imply NO exposure to the virus. When that ends (the virus, somehow, gets through) the results aren’t pretty. In COVID, we’ve seen the higher Case Fatality Rates in institutional settings, since no virus was allowed to circulate until it came knocking on the door. People’s immune systems were completely unprepared, and those have been the places with the highest fatality rates.
Mitigation is the phase where potential social actions can be taken to limit the spread of a given virus, before it is established in the myriad biological reservoirs available to it that help it on the path to becoming endemic.
Mitigation is largely a function of network topology of (in our case) a nation. A country like the United States, with its hyper-connected road and other transport systems, is essentially going to have an impossible time during any mitigation phase. Since between any two points on the map in the U.S. contain multiple pathways, each with some assigned time due to population health, various Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions of various efficacies, and especially in the U.S., passage through different climatic zones, what you do on one path only delays the inevitable.
Countries with more simplified topologies, like Canada (essentially a straight line, once the border was shut off) are likely to see more limited success in some kind of mitigation efforts. But of course, these will fail as well. It’s also poorly studied whether mitigation helps or hinders long-term Population Fatality Rates (PFR). An argument might be made that slowing circulation of the virus might help build up human immune systems through low exposure (breaking down containment, essentially, more slowly) or help other systems like hospitals prepare for endemic levels of exposure. At the same time, all mitigation efforts always come at a price of other social goods, like businesses, health, including mental health, and a host of other factors poorly considered.
Understanding mitigation also requires some understanding of viral dose, as well as how this indexes to viral exposure. Maybe I just didn’t get the memo, but this has been one of the most under-studied part of COVID. Feel free to correct me in the comments, and I will add those insights.
After a minimum of one seasonal cycle, and potentially two, it should be assumed that mitigation efforts are ineffective and should be discontinued. In the U.S. , a hyperconnected topology with two seasons under our belt, it is a fair assessment that COVID is everywhere and mitigation no longer works. Don’t believe? Look at the US case map on Google. Or look at this blog post by Ian on Substack. Comparing various areas with mitigation (like masks, which are worthless anyway, but still) next to those without, and seeing identical results, can mean two things. First is that the mitigation measure is weak, and cannot positively affect the numbers of cases/deaths. Or — it can mean that the virus is so well-established with viral reservoirs that we’ve transitioned out of that stage.
When a virus is endemic, it means that spread is no longer an issue because the virus is literally everywhere. Recently, we’ve seen research on COVID in deer. COVID has also been found in dogs, according to the CDC. I do know from personal experience that airlines won’t let you fly your dog in cargo because of fear of COVID exposure to their employees. Because all of this is just crazy-making, you can indeed fly your small dog under the seat in a compartment. In order to keep this a friendly piece, I really have to hold my fire in discussing the CDC. If you’re an absolute germophobe, you should realize that your cat or dog that is likely the only thing keeping you modestly sane in this pandemic is likely also harboring COVID.
Seasonality drives all respiratory viruses. That means, once a virus is established and endemic, the only thing that can protect you is your own immune system. Wearing a mask isn’t going to help (not that they work anyway) and if anything, likely forces re-dosing of your respiratory system. We exhale freely for a reason, folks, and the “experts” that seem to trumpet these kinds of measures don’t realize is that wrapping your face in a piece of cloth is not the way the system has evolved to work.
One thing I do know — we likely won’t see a movement to exterminate our pets. I wonder about how far all this will go, but I think that Fido and Fi-fi are probably safe. People may refuse to accept endemicity as an actual thing for people, and wrap those of lesser social status (including children!) in useless masks. But they will not tolerate anything severe for pets. How do I know this? There are two things I’ve written about that have generated the most controversy in my ridiculous, semi-pro career as an op-ed writer. One is masks, during COVID. The other? Killing off feral cat colonies. Lordy.
There is a lot of research out there on viral reservoirs. I Googled up this piece in about 5 seconds on RSV. Note date. This is not a new insight. It’s actually an interesting blurb, and I recommend reading it. Basically one can draw from the conclusions that in a modern world, it is functionally impossible to maintain containment over time. Just so you realize, with both the Black Plague, as well as the 1918 Flu, it was ALSO impossible. Once a disease has some combo of factors that increase its virality past a critical level (and hopefully we can agree that COVID is such a disease) everyone’s gonna get it. Anyone with a kid in daycare has experienced this phenomenon.
Virus can hide at undetectable levels in all sorts of living creatures. So China, New Zealand or Australia really don’t look that smart now, do they? They’re just people that jumped off a building and declared they were flying. And we all know what happens next. At the same time, competing for ignorance are people saying “well, I wore a mask this year and didn’t catch a cold.” No one really knows about endemic spread, and sure, contact with other humans may have something to do with viral dosing. But folks — it’s an undiscovered country out there. Or rather, it’s a discovered country out there — by the virus. Demand the right studies. And I’m guessing that the results, in the end, won’t involve our latest version of a St. Christopher medal.
What we are really witnessing is the same old viral phenomenon we’ve experienced as humans (regardless whether it was invented in a lab– that’s an issue but not relevant here) over literally millions of years. But what is new is the memetics. Now we have institutions stuck primarily back in the containment/exclusion – mitigation phase, who have taken unchangeable stances because of their addiction to status. Or you could just say ‘fame’.
These two pieces are here, and really, they’re far more insightful than this one. Once again, I can’t believe this isn’t in a basic epidemiology textbook. But here we are.
Let’s start with a time stamp for this post. This post is being written at the time of maximum gaslighting of authorities regarding COVID-19. I say this because we’ve already passed through a couple of waves in different seasons, around the world. We have reasonably reliable statistics on Population Fatality Rates, and we’re even into variants and mutations, which, other than contagion, pretty much act like the original model. That doesn’t mean things can’t change, of course. But it’s far down the road that would have appropriately justified using the Precautionary Principle back at the beginning of all of this. We have plenty of data on COVID.
We also should realize that in much of the world, they are starting to come out of the Authority-driven Memetic response of the various Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs). Sweden, the most modest of all the Western countries, is now a basically Zero Covid state. Great Britain lifted all its NPIs on July 17, “Freedom Day”, and instead of seeing a surge of cases, saw a dramatic drop. I could go on.
But what is happening in the U.S.? Here we’re fighting in all of the Blue States (with skirmishes in the Red States) over masking kids 12 and under who cannot yet be given a vaccine. And it’s not like a vaccine is particularly needed. Kids 12 and under have a death rate from COVID something less than half of influenza, and that rate is already extremely low — something in the range of 1 in 1 or 2M, with 50% of those deaths with sad, extreme comorbidities, such as stomach feeding tubes. One of the things that might help kids, even if catching COVID is a real thing, would be increased ventilation in schools. Yet the debate rages on surrounding masks, which have little to do with physical reality, but much to do, as I have written here (do read this one!) with memetic reality. The goal of the media is almost always to support authority. And it has managed to do that through essentially an 18 month diet, once unleashed, of constant fear.
Needless to say, living in your limbic brain is not good for complex, nuanced thought. Yet here we are.
Why? What happens when a system is apparently stuck in Survival v-Meme hysteria, but in any measurable reality, is not? Real/valid Survival v-Meme hysteria would have to be fueled by bodies in the street, a collapse of the food and water supply, or other such icks. Of course, none if this is actually happening. Even the vaunted “hospital overflow” problem — the original reason given for large-scale NPIs, has turned out to be a bust, over and over. You can read this post for some insight there. As well as for how to actually find things like real hospital and ICU vacancy numbers. Always go to the source. It’s good for your sanity.
Where we are actually stuck in, both physically and memetically, is in Elite Risk Minimization (ERM.) And what is that? ERM is the social dynamic that takes place once a society functionally loses its desire for agency of the majority of its citizens. The information stream the society works on is so gummed up both by fear and polarization, the only thing that matters in the larger, magnified mindset is the preservation of elites. Because of things like the societal polarization I discuss in this post (worth a read — it’s a breakthrough post) everything informationally in aggregate literally whirls in craziness, and even basic facts become contested.
I did a quick “person on the street” interview of a few people (I walk around and ask folks about really basic facts re: COVID) how COVID spreads. These are educated people, so don’t go there. All of them said “respiratory droplets” — which are really not the problem. The real problem with COVID is that it is an aerosol, and can hang, especially in interior spaces, for an indeterminate time. Yet even saying this to you, dear reader, might come as a surprise, and maybe a pushback. This is just a simple fact of the pandemic.
But if you view the statement of this fact that might not support your model of the situation as some attempt to “count coup” on your understanding, instead of discussing in the same matter-of-fact context of the weather, it becomes impossible to find common ground across opposing camps. And COVID’s death rate is basically so low — worst case scenario, looking at larger societal morbidity rates at twice the annual toll from respiratory viruses — you can’t validity ground this yourself because, crazily enough, 628K + people in a society of 330M means not enough people have died. You might have had an elderly, infirm or obese friend die during the pandemic (I had two) but the reality is there is no way for your mind to create a coherent pattern of those deaths on your own. In fact, you’ve likely not known enough people that had COVID and recovered to establish a pattern from that! And for the record, I’ve likely had COVID myself, it wasn’t fun, and in NO WAY am I saying COVID doesn’t exist.
But your brain and sensemaking needs both examples, and others inside your social network that you trust, to develop a larger shared understanding. If that doesn’t happen, well, you’re left with the “experts”. Your fragmented sense of knowing, already exacerbated by fear from media streams, just can’t validity ground this experiment on your own. And then when you add a lack of socialization, mask wearing, and other anti-social effects (like depression) into the mix, society is serving up a Perfect Storm of paralysis in knowing. Which is, needless to say, anti-empathetic and anti-agency.
So you’re left with the v-Memes of your elites, who, through outsize energetics (money) and other markers of status sit astride the various rigid hierarchies that run our world. And their level of kindness and mercy is directly indexed to the cultural sidebars enforced inside those elite communities, and their level of practiced empathy.
As we’ve seen, with the endless supply of videos on both Left and Right of the political spectrum, it ain’t great. Elites partying while the server-folk serve them canapés are easily found on Twitter. Gavin Newsom goes to the French Laundry. On and on. They’re inside their own little community of other rich folks (and this extends to private schools, and childrearing pods) while the rest of us suffer through mask-wearing, or school closures, because our mask wearing protects you, and your mask-wearing protects me — one of the most clever psychopathic tropes yet invented, considering how masks fundamentally don’t work.
Back up a bit. While it’s fair to say that they don’t work to prevent the spread of COVID. But they DO work — to truncate human interaction, and maintain homeostasis inside the social system. Because they’re wrapped around your face maps to the level of social scales that we believe we CAN control in this pandemic — which is barely about 1mm off your body. This limbic scaling (immediate control of your physical boundaries) fits nicely in the larger model.
Since the elites do have the time to know all the various stuff I’ve mapped on this blog (that absolutely doesn’t mean that they do, of course), but perhaps you don’t, you’d think “hey, why aren’t more of them being good humans and pushing back on this claptrap?” As with all things informatics in an unconscious/subconscious social structure, the answer is in the information flow. Or rather, in the lack of information flow. Our elites have been isolated from the population for a long time. They quite literally don’t feel your pain, because there would be almost no way they would be connected to you. Their kid is in private school. Their house is in the gated community. Service people show up and deliver packages to one’s door, and in this day and age, that even includes food behind pizza and Chinese take-out.
It didn’t use to always be that way. Two of my favorite books by James Howard Kunstler are the story of built architecture in the US titled The Geography of Nowhere and the companion volume, Home from Nowhere. The killer point that has influenced my thinking tremendously — we used to be more understanding of poor people’s lives because they lived with us as the help. We saw the challenges they faced raising their kids, making ends meet, and such because they were in our lives. Not badged in some kind of strange uniform, descending on our mini-mansion to clean the pool or mow the lawn. I myself experienced this. Growing up as a child of a doctor, and living on a hobby farm, we had alternately an African-American cleaning lady that raised me, as well as a lawn man whom I would assist with various chores. I’d bring him water when he was hot, and though he was quite reticent, we would talk. I still can remember both their names (Jeannette and Marvin) — so it was not just a passing incident.
When you are not connected to people, you can generate whatever bullshit you want to justify your own self-interest. One can find whatever flavor of, alternately, oppression or opportunity online to rationalize your mental model. That is much harder to do when the person who is working for you is present in front of you. And over time, it’s just accepted that this is “the way things are.” Which then reinforces the homeostasis of a rigid hierarchy.
What’s really crazy is that this kind of disconnection in our society, since we’ve generated income gaps (and therefore social connection gaps as well) is not only limited to rich/poor. A book now a bit dated (the income gaps are even more extreme!) titled Richistan: A Journey through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich chronicles this among the various strata of the New Rich. This might sound like a non-issue, but this is not true. One of the things that has grounded this country forever in how we treat people across the strata of our society is how our Establishment functions — rich people who care about the fate of the entire nation. With the incredible shift in fortunes from the influence of Old Money to New Money, we also lose continuity in information flow in our Burgher/Baron class. This is no call to some return to a hidebound elite. But it is worth understanding that not all people who are rich are necessarily evil. They are, however, harnessed to an increasingly sequestered, and curated information stream that is further removed from reality. And this lack of validity grounding increases more egocentricism of perspective. And hence, more ERM.
The problem with ERM is that it is a natural outgrowth of limbic fears inside the closed system that the elites inhabit. We talk about understanding risk estimation, but if you’re rich, and there’s only one or two things that can potentially get you, or your kids, you’ll pay extra (a whole lot more extra) to not have to worry about it. Especially if someone else is doing the suffering. Cut seroprevalence of COVID by having everyone (but you) wear masks? Why not? There are a whole litany of excuses one can drum up from masking, including the most insane I’ve been told — masks don’t interfere with breathing. Obviously, masks interfere with breathing. I know because I run the experiment on myself when I have to wear one. I’m doing fine, and then there’s kind of a respiratory debt built up, and I have to pull the thing off my face. Yet I am told over and over again about some ridiculous study about CO2 (I actually dug it up and read it once) that I don’t even have the agency to decide if I’m being suffocated — and if I am, it’s all in my head. That’s some crazy ass gaslighting shit. As a 58 year old man, I am not allowed to even comment. That’s how powerful ERM is.
The other thing that is so fascinating about ERM is that the measures forced on the population are essentially NEVER pro-social nor salutary. Improved ventilation, without a doubt, in interior spaces, can drop COVID dosage, and potentially prevent infection. We’ve seen over and over that places like ships, prisons, and other confined spaces turn into COVID hotspots (this is actually a complicated issue and I should write a post on it). Yet the measures enforced are inherently anti-social, like masking, where the main empathy organ of the human brain has an interface, as well as social distancing. Those little six-foot markers popped right up, far quicker than any other NPI, and even in spite of China being trumpeted as the leader in COVID-Zero talk. It was trivially easy to get on the Internet and see that the Chinese were not standing 6′ apart in line, and in fact, some of the restriction was potentially due to an error in translation. That didn’t make the nightly news, now, did it?
Yet inside the context of rigid hierarchy and its associated v-Meme, all of the masking and social distancing profoundly reinforces the social physics, and the homeostasis of the social topology. You mask, and you get depressed. It’s harder to connect to other folks. Overall, as with all Authoritarian systems, the key markers work toward suppression of energetics of people lower down in the social strata. Lock people up, deny them hugs, don’t let them see others’ faces. Yep — that’ll feed that depression. It’s also why one must be careful about declaring explicit evil in those mandating these things. These are emergent phenomena that come out of a social system proposing a given intervention. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.
ERM doesn’t just work on physical COVID risk. I had the realization just two days ago that since we’re so far down this particular rabbit hole, it wasn’t just some micro-adjustment of actually catching the bug that was really at stake. Elite Risk Management also means you want to maintain homeostasis inside the reputational algorithms of the social network that’s creating these various ineffective NPIs. If you’ve been for masks all along, you can’t stop now. And the while the reality is that around the world, kids have been going to school without masks, and no non-salutary effects, now that the spotlight has shifted to the places where the issue of ‘return to school’ for kids come up, you simply also have to be FOR masks there as well. To not be for masks on kids, especially in the masks/vaccinated tradeoff world, would mean that the authorities were wrong. And that’s not what authorities do.
Connected action is also off the table, especially as this whole thing progresses. The mRNA vaccines are also experiencing breakthrough infections among some parties. Even though overall mortality from COVID is knocked way down through vaccination (it’s well-established that the vaccine prevents severe COVID infection) ERM has to rear its ugly head once again. That means masks and vaccines — and boosters when they come along. There will be no end to this, because there can’t be. An end would mean an end to homeostasis of the coercive social system. And we simply can’t have that. Everything is working according to plan. The only real problem is that the plan is emergent, and can’t be seen nor surfaced for conscious debate (well, except on this blog). Short take — things will only get crazier. Because signs of status are always, in the long run, fundamentally arbitrary. And usually for show. Ask your neighborhood peacock if you have any questions. If it works, evolutionarily, we run with it.
If there is a bright spot in all of this, one of the beautiful things about operating in the limbic zone is that since it is fundamentally what we call a “state matching” situation (you’re either happy/sad, angry/scared, no shades of gray) flips will come suddenly. It’s rational debate and shared knowledge that create smooth on- and off-ramps of culture and policy. None of that is promised with this latest round. No figure of authority is speaking, well, authoritatively on the fact that COVID will become endemic. Until we put a stop to this, we’ll always hear about the Sturgis super-spreader (non) event. See how quickly this year’s already been forgotten? And don’t worry about any nuanced story. Just like John Wayne said “never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness,” our authoritarian cowboys ain’t gonna say they’re sorry. It’s just not in the social physics.
So how will all this end? It’s a good question, and I can think of two immediate pathways. The first is noncompliance from enough of the worker-bee class. In my own School, we’re looking at retirement from two key machinists who simply don’t want to take the vaccine. Both are old enough to retire. Teachers are not coming back who don’t want to get vaccinated. And even in the health care system, we’re seeing lots of reports of various health care workers (who are already in short supply) refusing to get vaccinated, and promising to quit. Not good. Noncompliance is an established way that Authoritarian systems collapse, and the signs are popping up.
The other is riots in the streets. I don’t think we’re there yet, though it sure is starting to look like that the good folks of Australia, with their prominent Zero-COVID efforts are getting there. Smart governments know when the people have just had enough of the craziness and pull back. That might be happening over there. But it might not. I’ll be watching.
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.