Housekeeping on the Reader’s Guide

Chiricahua NM, Arizona, March 2019

I’ve done a major overhaul on the Reader’s Guide, and unearthed many posts that were buried deep in the blog. There’s a lot of material here — and a lot that I thought was actually pretty good but had totally forgotten about.

I’m also working on some re-hashes of old posts to make them more read-able. I’ll likely do this over the next three months. So don’t all of the sudden expect the Squirrels in my head to vanish overnight.

I’ve also abandoned the idea that I’m going to actually rate and rank all the posts for readability. I may take this up in the future, but for the present, it’s not going to happen.

I did unearth a couple of posts I wrote a while back on Big Data that some of my collaborators might read. Here they are:

How Does Big Data Fit into the Scheme of Empathetic Evolution? Part 1

How Does Big Data Fit into the Scheme of Empathetic Evolution? Part 2

OK — onward!


What is Structural Memetics? And Why Does it Matter?


Below Kanab Creek, Grand Canyon, 2003

A quick editorial note — lately, I’ve been referring to my work as ‘structural memetics’ — with the intent of expanding a concept of knowledge generation with memes along the same line as genetics — laying out general principles to follow about how humans generate knowledge.  Much of this material has already been created on this blog, but I wanted to consolidate and summarize it in one place.

Bored, and seeking the never-ending references, I Googled up Melvin Conway, whose famous law serves as the backbone for most of my developed insights.  Turns out he’s still alive — and on Twitter.  So.. I tweeted back at him.  And he responded, saying he’d take a look at my work.  

Short version of a longer story — I hurried up with this post so he wouldn’t have to dig.  I think it’s pretty complete.  So, Mel — this one’s for you.  Thanks for the origination thought.  There’s a lot here.  Check out the Topics Grouping/Readers Guide for the full extent of all of this. But these are the bones.


What is Structural Memetics?  And Why Does it Matter?

As a scholar, I’ve spent my life studying things.  Directly or indirectly, my profession (and the need to be a better teacher and designer – I’m a design engineering prof.) has fed my interest in reading all sorts of different types of information, or rather, knowledge.  Internet resources like Wikipedia have made it possible as well for anyone to peruse any subject area.  I love Wikipedia.  Nowhere else on the Internet can you move so quickly between connected subject areas – or areas you might think are connected – with just a click.

But one of the interesting things I’ve noticed as I’ve gone about my escapades on Wikipedia, following philosophers, fighter aircraft, and military campaigns across the Asian steppes, is that there is precious little discussion on knowledge, or rather, the structure of knowledge, in any or all of it.  There are isolated blips of understanding – things like Bloom’s Taxonomy are often used, for example, in educational work.  People will allude to culture, literature, art, math or science.

It all sounds good enough – we’ve been raised to think in those terms, they satisfy, so we move on. But science, or culture, is a pretty big thing.  None of it tells you how or whether you should believe it to be true.  No one would argue that knowledge is created by groups of humans, though usually one gets the credit.  But largely, most knowledge has no origin story that we’re aware of.  We’re told someone is supposed to believe something because of ‘science’.  Let’s stop a moment – I am a scientist, and I support the scientific method (whatever that is) in the face of a backdrop of blind faith. But with replicability crises happening across many different scientific enterprises – I’ve been immersed in the nutrition research lately, since I lost a lot of weight and been attempting to figure out how I got fat in the first place – it’s time to take a pause and realize that we have a very poor understanding of what knowledge is in the first place.  Or what level of truth it actually represents.

People have more recently attempted to think of knowledge in terms of ‘memes’ – small fragments of information, typically with viral characteristics.  There’s a relatively short, unhappy literature associated with the concept.  Richard Dawkins is noted for coining the term, mapping it as an analog to a gene. And then he started using it to condemn religion for infectious, unaware acceptance of a veritable litany of concepts. The book Virus of the Mind, written by Richard Brodie, the inventor of Microsoft Word, and world champion poker player, maps the idea of memetics to ideas as infections.  The idea of thoughts “going viral” has entered the vernacular of everyone with access to the Internet.

Not a very prosocial, nor hopeful understanding of how we think.  Big thoughts get sidelined as anti-memetic and outside any understandable brain coding. Instead, the focus is on the pernicious exploitation of our lack of awareness.  And if you ask most people what a meme is, they’ll likely tell you it’s a picture of Kermit the Frog, or a velociraptor, dressed up as a Philosoraptor, puzzling over life’s larger questions in some pithy text written on top of their face.  Even one of the founders of meme-ology (for lack of a better term) Susan Blackmore, settled on defining a meme in the smallest unit of replicable information.  If you were really mapping understanding to genes, why wouldn’t you want to understand the deeper patterns present in human, or generalized sentience?  It’s more than a metaphor — information is information is information.  There has to be larger patterns.

There have been exceptions to the ‘meme as a smallest unit of information’ club.  Don Beck, of Spiral Dynamics fame, created the term ‘v-Meme’ to characterize value sets associated with different levels of societal development, which in turn map to social structures.  But outside of this, work on memetics has essentially vanished. We’re left with Kermit the Frog, longing for a beer in the rain.

Why would such a promising idea – the idea that knowledge has replicable structure, with affinities vanish so quickly?  The real problem is that we have no generalizable notion of how knowledge is created in the first place. The deeper reason below that level is what I’d characterize as a patently false belief — that we implicitly believe that knowledge is created by experts, and enshrined by culture – two things that we have little or no ability to challenge.  And, for some reason, if the experts – people like Dawkins, and Blackmore, and a couple of others – say it’s game over, then we believe them.  Give Don Beck credit – he knew better.

But there are problems when stringing more complex thoughts together.  Namely, replicability problems, especially when all humans are considered to have the same neural hardware.  We have convenient distinctions for how humans know.  Most of these are involved with our educational system, granting degrees, and culture – all things outside an individual’s independent assessment.  Others teach you – you don’t get to make decisions on truth yourself.  Life experience, and the assimilation and synthesis of that experience into usable knowledge is only grudgingly accepted.

Enter Conway’s Law

 One of the largest breakthrough thoughts on how humans construct knowledge came from a software pioneers – Melvin Conway.  Conway is the inventor of many different types of software innovations, but his law is the thing relevant here.  That is:

“organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”

What Conway stated was that design of a system (he was thinking about software) would map to the social system that created it.  This idea has been empirically validated for software in a number of studies. But what is a design except an observable realization of knowledge?  That led me to the notion of what I named the Intermediate Corollary.

Social Structure <=> Knowledge Structure <=> Design Structure

This fundamental principle opens up the door to a larger understanding of how we produce knowledge.  And, as we’ll see, when combined with two things – Don Beck’s set of social structures, along with a deeper understanding of how people communicate, and importantly connect inside those knowledge structures – the synergy creates a new field that directly addresses the holes in memetics.  We can now understand how knowledge itself is structured, in a transcultural fashion.

Let’s fill out the first category – Social Structure – first.  Beck’s and Graves’ work on a generalized theory of human development, called Spiral Dynamics, outlined a set of eight social structures, relating to societal evolution, that are what we call a canonical set.  A canonical set in this context is a set of social structures, each unique, with increasing complexity.  Each of these individual social structures corresponds to what Beck originally called a value set.  These value sets would cover the social dynamics inside a given social structure.  For example, in an Authoritarian value set, the primary values in the value set would promote power and control.  Status inside the pyramid would be the foremost driver of behaviors, and what the individuals in the stack would believe would directly be controlled by the individual above them in the pyramid.  Legalistic hierarchies would, for example, be an evolution of an Authoritarian power structure, where rules would apply to individuals across the social system.  The rules would vary dependent on rank or level, but the overall effect would be to remove the arbitrary nature of judgment of the individual that was above another in the hierarchical stack.  Beck’s social structures are given by the diagram below.



One interesting point that needs to be made is to understand that for a given social structure, at a certain stage of evolution, lower value set social structures can be incorporated in a larger structure.  A Tribe can have Survival bands affiliated inside it.  An Authority-driven empire can be made up of tribes.  And so on.

From Conway’s Law comes Knowledge Structures – “As we relate, so we think.”

Once we have a generic set of social structures, and understand the value sets inherent in creating these, we can map these to known knowledge structures humans historically have used.  These are characterized by the dominant relational modes in each social structure, that sets the stage for the type of knowledge each must have mastery of to execute social function.  As with the above social structures, as knowledge structures build, they incorporate lower level structures into higher level structures.

These are:

  • Survival Band -> fragmented knowledge pieces, both temporally and spatially ephemeral.
  • Tribal Order -> long-term origination myths that create shared identity.
  • Authoritarian/Exploitative Empire -> knowledge fragments, whose truth is established by the authority of the person above another in the pyramid.
  • Hierarchical Authority Structure/Legalistic Hierarchy -> rules and algorithms, coupled with the ability to feed information into rules and obtained transformed values.
  • Strategic Enterprise/Performance-Goal-Based Organizations -> heuristics, incorporating lower-level knowledge structures, that rely on the independent decision-making ability of individuals (agency) to create coordination to reach goals.
  • Communitarian/Social Network/People Driven Systems -> multiple, combined heuristics from different data sources, blended to recognize appropriate differences, along with maintaining larger system coherence.
  • Systemic Flow/Process Oriented Second Tier Systems -> the first of what are known as ‘Second Tier’ systems, consisting of a larger leap of self-awareness, knowledge structures at this level and above consist of pruned heuristics, sculpted for balance of larger combined goals, with an awareness of individual bias in desired outcomes.
  • Holistic Organism/Global Holistic Social Structures ->larger complex systems of combined heuristics, integrated with the surrounding ecosystem, giving rise to emergent, complex, and likely fractal knowledge systems.


The Role of Empathy in Social Structures, Leading to Synergy in Knowledge Structures

The role of evolving empathy is poorly understood in the dynamics of societal evolution, and as a consequence, its effects on complexity of knowledge.  In fact, the very existence, outside this blog and a handful of other like-minded souls, seems to be ignored or discounted entirely.

Why this is so is likely due to the fact that the organizations we have tasked with creating greater understanding – our modern academic systems – are organized largely around low-empathy, authority-driven hierarchies.  In an authority-driven hierarchy, it really doesn’t matter much who you are, or what you contribute.  What matters is what you are, or rather your position in the hierarchical stack. You will be treated as your function demands you be treated, with little accommodation on how you might feel about that treatment.  And these systems, by their very nature, create highly fragmented, disconnected understandings of most phenomena.  The emphasis is typically on smaller and smaller fragmented units – be it units of matter, or subdivisions of ethnic classes.

Connection to your emotions, or your thoughts themselves is irrelevant.  The dark insight that comes from this is that academics studying empathy are about the same as colorblind people studying color. They just can’t see what the big deal is – especially the connecting, synergizing nature of this deeply sentient phenomenon.

There are signs that the neuroscience is slowly waking up to this fact.  In Prof. Matt Lieberman’s book, Social,(Lieberman is a professor of social neuroscience at UCLA) he says “In essence, our brains are built to think about the social world and our place in it.” This means that empathy, or more exactly, the level of development of empathy as the primary connecting function of our brains, actually creates the social structures, which are realizations of patterns of different level of human connection.  As well as how we think about everything else.  Our social relations, structured by our empathetic development, lay down the core memetic patterns in our brains, which then happen to get used for how we think about everything else.

As we move up the social structures, necessarily we also have to move up the empathy scale.  Frans de Waal, the famous primate behavioralist, has split empathy up into levels, bottom to top, that map onto the three primary areas of the brain – the basal ganglia/automatic function part, the limbic/emotional part, and the prefrontal cortex/thinking and detailed processing part.  Using simple language, that means empathy contains physiological, emotional, and cognitive functions.  And similar (or rather, self-similar) to social structures, as well as knowledge structures, these empathetic functions incorporate lower level functions into higher level ones.

These empathetic functions also, to the degree they are developed, also calibrate time scales and spatial scales inside the brain. Automatic, physiological responses of empathy, like direct mirroring, are instantaneous. Emotional empathy and connecting to others’ joys and sorrows takes a little longer, and finally developed cognitive empathy allows more complex processing of consequences, as well as dramatically increased time and spatial scales.

These map into knowledge structures, with little overlap.  Most importantly, when it comes to structural memetics, empathy is the primary factor in how fragmented, as well as coherent and synergistic, the knowledge produced by a given social structure is.  The greater the empathy any given set of individuals possess, the more opportunity and dynamic to mix the individual knowledge of two people attempting to come to an agreement.

Practicing empathy is also dictated by a given social structure. If you’re the boss in an Authoritarian system, reading someone’s face as a data stream doesn’t mean much unless you’re trying to figure out if they’re going to kill you, and they damn well better do what you tell them anyway.  But for a Communitarian, you’re likely attempting to achieve group harmony amongst a diverse range of individuals.  You’d better pay attention to all those different facial gestures.  So just as personal empathetic development matters, so also does the social structure that a pair of individuals are plopped into.  You can take two highly evolved individuals and place them in a low empathy social structure, and while they’ll likely do better than people who haven’t climbed the ladder, the odds are that they may never even meet each other — because that’s just the way the social system works!

These two empathetic factors – personal development, as well as social structure — bleed over into the knowledge structures, making them more and more data- and independent circumstance-dependent as one moves up the ladder.  At the Survival level, your data structures are where the watering hole is, or who brought donuts to the office.  Mirroring behaviors of your co-workers as they drool might be all you need to know you want some of that sugary goodness.  But higher level knowledge structures require more practice of empathy, and its twin, self-empathy.  How can you choose paths in a given design heuristic if you don’t believe that an individual has a right to choose?

All this leads to a master diagram, which knits together the basic principles of structural memetics.  Here it is below:

Empathy Neural Fcn SD Slide

and then the final step, mapping the Value Set levels to Knowledge Structures, is below.Knowledge Structures Mapping.jpg


 Social structures and personal development of empathy essentially create the brain that is receptive to more complex knowledge structures. This allows us to move our understanding of memes solely out of the world of Kermit the Frog longing for a cold one, and into an understanding of how communities of people can transmit complex knowledge from one person to another relatively quickly.  There is no cultural hook required.  Donald Trump and Kim Jung Oon merely have to be participating in a duplicate version of the same social structure to “grok” the other’s understandings.  Because just like genes, memes can lock in complex sequences.

 This leads us to the beginnings of a new field – structural memetics.  And while there is much room for development, the beginnings are here.  Because as we relate, so we think. And that means, with a combination of insights from Conway’s Law, social neuroscience, and Spiral Dynamics, we can directly lift the structural memetic patterns of knowledge from the social structures and networks sitting in front of us.  No microscope required.

Closing the Doors on Disruptive Innovation and Bacterial Parthenogenesis

Chiricahua Range

In the Sky Island Ranges of Southern Arizona, Chiricahua NM, March 2019

I’ve mentioned in past posts I’ve been listening to (and finished) David Quammen’s book, The Tangled Treea book about the discovery of Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT).  It’s about how bacteria throughout the natural world swap genetic sequences, as well as actual parts, such as tails, as they travel their own road of independent evolution.

Quammen focuses solely on bacteria or bacteria-like single-celled organisms, as well as the personal relationships between the scientists who found out that evolution wasn’t just a branching tree.  There was some of that — generational heredity, where traits were passed down from father bacteria to son bacteria, that lent itself well, through various mutational assays, to answering the super-big questions about how long life on Earth has really been hanging around.  The generational transfer stuff is what you learn in high school biology regarding genetic inheritance.  No big news there.

But there were also groups of scientists, whose names I can’t remember — I’m an Audible fan, and I listen to these  books while I exercise, AND I haven’t bought a hard-copy yet — who figured out that there was a lot of other crazy-ass stuff going on with modern day bacteria.  Most important was that bacteria, or some combo of prokaryotes and eukaryotes ( words included so those inclined can Google and learn more on their own!) would do things like capture pieces of genetic material, or more defined structures like mitochondria, those energetic generation devices, and incorporate them into bacterial cell structures.  News flash — mitochondria did not evolve, Darwinistically, solely from one generation to another.  They were captured, or invaded and assimilated inside the cell walls of other unicellular companions. Because of that type of phenomena, we have the complex multicellular organisms of today, as well as a more enlightened, nonlinear perspective on how it occurs.

HGT naturally scaled to the complex interplay humans are now just starting to discover in our own bodily systems, like our gut microbiome.  A very popular item to discuss, it turns out that the health of our gut microbiome can be linked to every part of our health — both physical and mental — but at some level also exists separately from us.  Lest ye blanch at the idea that it’s bacteria in your gut that’s either helping you be happy or depressed, do remember that the vagus nerve, which is core to your empathetic nervous system, is anchored in your gut.  It would not surprise me in the least (note — the following comment is speculation!) to find that the roots of the opioid epidemic is anchored, or at least grossly facilitated by the poor diets of Appalachia.  Think of it this way — you wreck your gut microbiome eating trash, you can’t connect to other people, your serotonin (the We chemicals in your system) go to shit, and you’re that much more easily hooked on things like Oxycontin because your life is oppressive anyway.  And now you can’t connect, so you’re looking for chemicals to ease your pain.  Maybe chicken soup really is for the soul.  Maybe.

From a long-term evolutionary perspective, being an assemblage of loosely coupled systems make sense.  You get an intestinal bug?  You core-dump that system in various unpleasant and no-need-for-detailed-descriptive ways, and reboot.  If we were deeply coupled together, you would die.  But because we’re this loosely coupled system, we just run to the bathroom for a couple of days, lose a little weight, and you’re back in business.  See below for a quick chuckle from The Devil Wears Prada.  After my dietary episode, I can SO relate.


As I’ve mentioned before, scientific breakthroughs in the book mirror the relational evolution we see in the main characters that Quammen describes.  No surprise there to readers of this blog.  When people break with the scientific hierarchy, or form genuine friendships, new, interesting things happen.  It’s not that they abandon all elements of the scientific method — far from it.  It’s just that when the characters act in ways that aren’t particularly coded with the larger community, interesting breakthroughs happen.  Quammen does a little classic scientific writing romanticism attempting to show the multi-dimensional side of some of his key actors.  I’ll forgive him for it, and maybe it is even true.  But just FYI — most of us are boring.

A fun project I keep attempting to foist off on my graduate student is actually mapping all this out.  I’m still waiting for him to bite!

Bacteria are super-duper for understanding information transfer modes, because no one’s going to sit around arguing much about bacterial free will, or whether bacteria have a mind or not.  And you’re not going to get much push-back from any of our more ethically evolved friends if you kill a bunch of them.  And culture — well those discussions are limited to what kind of agar you have in your petri dish.

So it’s fair to say that bacteria operate in both meta-linear and meta-nonlinear information transfer modes.  Meta-linear, where classic Darwinian vertical inheritance is in play, involves small, mutational changes over time, maybe with some classic linear aggregation, of different things adding together.  And of course this maps to a tree, and those studying such phenomena are represented by a classic hierarchy of biology professor, with grad students in a lab, diligently blurting out their Ph.D. advisor’s full title with every question.

And meta-nonlinear?  Well, that’s the wild stuff that is truly disruptive and unpredictable, and has the poor Ph.D. student wondering if they’re going to ever finish their dissertation.  Her observations upset the dominant mode of understanding in the social hierarchy, and cause the professor to criticize her theoretically-slipshod contamination of the culturing material.  That is, until the ramifications of that different experiment is truly grasped.  And as a result, the field changes direction, starting the process of incremental refinement and meta-linear behavior all over.

Or not.  At least if the field can’t assimilate the new change, or denies its existence.  And that’s when things get interesting by becoming less interesting.  Sooner or later, a field with no nonlinear disruption dies, at least from a research perspective.  The ideas all become well-worn, and the only acceptable advances (or journal publications) must kowtow to old masters.  Recombination of accepted authority turns into the only acceptable form of discourse.  I’m on a couple of philosophy list serves, and I’d characterize most of what goes on there as meta-linear discourse.  Which too often ends up in what I’d call a Jungian/Kantian reproductive organ measurement competition.

At some level, the idea of a meta-linear or meta-nonlinear system has analogs to thermodynamic concepts as well — that of a closed or open system.  Closed systems inevitably have to yield to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which basically says you lose energy to heat whether you like it or not, and then that fritters away until everything is cold.  Open systems have the sun’s (or some other energy source) beaming into it, thus keeping things going longer.

But I prefer the meta-linear and meta-nonlinear paradigms better.  Why?  Because they directly map to how new ideas are created.  Meta-linear systems are inevitably doomed, no matter how expansive they are.  Even the largest hierarchies (read empires) fall, and we can certainly see this happening with U.S. politics today.  When we only can elect a President out of a certain number of ruling families or billionaires (or both!) we’re screwed.  The whole loop of elite universities, feeding the same type of information into the same people and the same structures, don’t bode well for long-term anything.  Deep State anyone?  Or rather, more accurately, Deep v-Meme State?  Anyone that doubts THAT exists can pick up and read the magazine/journal Foreign Affairs.

Which brings us back to bacterial parthenogenesis.  In The Tangled Tree, somewhere in there, was some mention of how if you have a bacteria that is solely making more of itself just by staying single, entropy catches up with the genetic code and that bacteria goes extinct.  There’s a timeline, and you can calculate it.

As such, bacteria that practice things like microbiological conjugation — the mixing of genetic material of the same species — are much more likely to last longer than bacteria that, well, just go solo.  And those that really mix it up, grabbing various appendages and cilia out of thin air, or rather, thin agar, are the ones that, if they make it, go on to bigger and better things.  Like trilobites.  Or dinosaurs.  Or us.

But these are meta-nonlinear processes.  And here’s the deep rub, and takeaway from an information perspective.  These things come from an individual, usually meeting a functional need.  What that means from a knowledge structure perspective is that we’re talking scaffolded heuristic or higher.  And heuristics, by their very nature, with their emphasis on individual agency, and personal observation are at odds with our current generators of meaning — academic institutions.

Academic institutions, deeply entrenched in a combo of reliability of information, which inevitably demands squaring with historic facts and traditional algorithms that reproduce the same surface-level answer, are at a distinct disadvantage with ingratiating new concepts into their methodologies.  You can’t do that because no one else has done that.  And if you want to do it that way, it’s because we’re going to transfer our own egocentric v-Meme motives over to you, because for the most part, we can’t reach higher.  Just trying to make a name for yourself, eh?  We’ll see about that.

The short-answer outcome, though, is simple.  You can’t publish anything that really shifts the paradigm, because you can’t cite enough stuff in the established literature.  And because you can’t publish something that’s not supported by the established literature, you can’t, well, establish a literature that you can cite to get more of your stuff out.  The result?  Academic parthenogenesis.  Or that Catch-22.  The best there is.

I’m not quite so sure that all of this was as high-stakes as it is now, when the world is so functionally desperate for new paradigms, AND things are changing so rapidly.  But the answer is still empathy — in particular, the data-driven variety.  We need to consider things on that case-by-case basis, which comes with all the diversity present in the universe.  And yeah — it’s helped with scaffolding from all those lower v-Meme knowledge structures, like algorithms, established data, and such.  But in the end, we have to look at things from a case-by-case basis, and relate that to the larger reality around us — grounding validity — instead of ‘well does this agree with everything that’s gone on before?’  And that, for those that aren’t readers of this blog, and might miss the point, gets developed through data-driven empathetic interaction with others.

Healthy mechanisms for nonlinear disruption, or meta-nonlinear knowledge generation, are where our society is really missing the boat.  Because if you can’t figure out how to get new ideas into your information flow, then sooner or later, you’ll end up with someone with psychopathic tendencies that are more than happy to manipulate your old, no-longer-valid truths against you to gain power and control.  Nothing lasts forever.  And there is more than one path to generating entropy and disorder in systems.  It doesn’t have to be a gradual process. But the result is the same — and a whole lot more risky.



What is a V-Meme? And Why does it Matter?

Braden in Cave.jpg

Braden, West Papua, Indonesia, off the island of Misool, paddling through an enormous cave, December 2018

A year ago, my chief collaborator, Ryan Martens, and I started work on a book called Empathetic Leadership.  We produced a first complete increment or, as we tech people are fond of saying, a Minimal Viable Product.  Based on feedback from that effort, we sharpened our pencil and wrote these two pieces to help correct some of our ills and direct the refactoring of those 185 pages. These two pieces represent our best effort to simplify, generalize and make more approachable our work.

We believe this book will focus on the rising generation of leaders who need to apply these tools quickly and not learn from trial and error.  Whether they are building new products, new policy, new legislation or new organizations they need to better leverage empathy in their approach and core values.  We hope you like these two posts and we would appreciate your comments on either of them directly or on this post, you could provide more general feedback on our target audience, approach, and meta-message.  This is the second post, and centered around the question we are asked more than any other:  “What is a v-Meme?”

Thank you for your attention and consideration,

Chuck and Ryan

What’s a v-Meme?  And Why does it Matter?

Ever wonder why Donald Trump gets along so well with Kim Jong Oon?  Or Vladimir Putin? You’ll get a good dose of insight if you just listen to your grandmother. She’ll likely tell you the old adage,

“Birds of a feather flock together.”

If we take Grandma’s insight and apply it to brains, we might come up a corollary.  

“Their brains are wired the same way.”  

Yep.  Trump’s, Kim’s, and Putin’s brains are wired in the same way.  Not on a superficial level — on a deep level, with the same needs for power, control, and public demonstration of the first two.  The outside circumstances might be different, but their brains light up in all the same ways, whether it’s Kim cutting a political opponent in half with an anti-aircraft gun, Trump shutting down the government, or Putin arresting Pussy Riot.  They’re getting off on the same brain juice.

Here’s the thing.  Not everyone’s brain is wired the same.  And how a person’s brain is wired will determine so many things, including how that person fits inside a given organization, as well as one thing vital for success in the world of the future — how they handle complexity.

Can we understand this matching brain wiring on a more scientific, reproducible level?  Brains are both complex – intertwined with many synergies; complicated – consisting of ever finer scales.  But they can be understood with simpler models.

Brain Wiring 101

One of the first was Paul Maclean’s triune brain.  Elaborated on by many researchers, including Daniel Siegel, the famous trauma psychiatrist at UCLA, it splits the brain into three interconnected parts.  These three parts – the basal ganglia/brainstem, the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex, all give rise to the three big divisions in human behavior. These are automatic function, our emotional center, and our conscious mind.  

Humans are not islands.  New research documented in the book, ‘Social’, by Prof. Matt Lieberman at UCLA, has shown that how we connect is the primary driver of how we think.  And so, not surprisingly, empathy — the primary function in our ability to connect — also maps to the three brain regions. These connection functions work on the same timescales as the three parts of the brain – instantaneous (I yawn, you yawn,) fast (you feel, I feel,) and slow (I anticipate from reading and processing your cues, as well as other models I’ve built of your behavior through observation.)

How we empathize and connect is how we build the larger social structures that run the different variations of human societies and cultures. These behaviors can be grouped in clusters called value-, or v-Memes for short, that are intrinsically dependent on the level of that development of connection.

What is a Meme?

But what exactly is a meme?  It’s more complex than some photo of Kermit the Frog, making a pithy comment about wanting a beer, on a Facebook page.  A meme is a piece of information that replicates, seemingly independent from an individual, across human communities and social networks. It works like a gene.  But instead of hardware, it’s software — a fundamental building block of information that expresses itself in an aspect of culture and behavior. However, unlike genes, whose structure and content can now be understood through the DNA and RNA chemical chains when it comes to memes, we’re just getting started.  Our work has shown, though, that memes have structure. And those pieces of replicable information are based on a set of master memes, called v-Memes.

So what are v-Memes?  The term, invented by Clare Graves, Don Beck, and Chris Cowan, associates behavioral groups of memes, for a given stage of development of both a society and an individual.   That software runs the show regarding the way we perceive and respond to our world. V-Memes are self-similar, meaning societies and individuals will possess similar information, with similar structure, albeit on different temporal and spatial scales, just as branches high up on a tree resemble tree trunks — just at a different scale.  

How does this work in reality?  An individual who is concerned about applying rules will be most comfortable in a society with rules.  An individual interested in control will be happiest in a society where one person and their viewpoint runs the show.  Someone interested in achievement will be very interested in setting up performance goals to be met.

The reverse is also true.  Hang around in an authoritarian power structure long enough, it will turn you into an authoritarian.  Inhabit a government bureaucracy for a while, and you’ll be spouting rules and regulations when you can’t get the job done.  It’s a two-way street.

There are six total v-Memes in all, listed below, oscillating back between the individual “I” and the group “We” and two in what is known as the Second Tier – which is really a fancy word for being self-aware enough to reflect on your own behavior and consciously choose what you want to do.  Graves and Beck arranged them in a line and called them developmental stages. This general Theory of Everything is called Spiral Dynamics, as the overall structure is not a circle, but a Spiral, open at the top for stages (and v-Memes) as yet undiscovered. According to them, an individual or a society must pass through one before ascending to another.

Graves’  basic v-Memes are:

Survival: Characterized by immediate concerns, and changeable circumstances.

Tribal: Group culture, shared origination myths.

Authoritarian:  Power structures, egocentric behavior, and control.

Legalistic/Absolutistic: Emergence of rules and laws that apply to everyone in a structured hierarchy.

Performance/Goal-Oriented: Focusing on results, with less focus on status, and using agency to set one’s individual course.

Communitarian: Societies concerned about individuals

And then, we’ll list one Second Tier mode:

Global Systemic: Being able to take the six prior v-Memes, and use them as appropriate to accomplish one’s personally determined ends.

But it doesn’t take a whole lot of reflection to realize that Graves’ v-Memes, grouped solely on surface-level behavioral analysis, leave much to be desired.  Someone could be concerned with human well-being because that was a rule they were taught to follow in church. Would that make them a communitarian, or a legalist?  Someone interested in control that was clearly Authoritarian might seize on a rule to gain control and exploit someone else’s development in order to bring everything into their wheelhouse.  The same with reaching a goal, in order to achieve a status in a hierarchy. And so on.

One of the big problems with the v-Meme stack was solved by the original researchers.  They asserted that once you developed to a given level, you had access to all the previous stages you had passed through. A Communitarian could, at times, be a Legalist. A Legalist could join a Tribe (think about that the next time you’re sitting next to a lawyer with her face painted with team colors at a football game!)  This process of nesting is key for understanding how humans act in more complex ways.

But there still remains the original contradictions.  These do not go away as long as one only focuses on surface-level behavior.  

Reformulating v-Memes with Empathy as a Guiding Principle

But what Graves missed was the role of empathy inside those social structures.  Once you understand the connection between empathy and v-Memes, it forces rethinking of what we call the deep code creating the original six groups.  What is the underlying OS that we can’t see, that’s allowing execution of the app?  Similar to the way we understand gravity as a guiding principle all over the Earth — you don’t go jumping off buildings in the Southern Hemisphere hoping gravity is going to pull up — there turns out to be one enormous guiding principle that governs how information is constructed.

That dynamic is empathy.  The three stages of empathy map well, in different relative levels,  to the six v-Meme levels, from a quick response in Survival settings to reading individuals and their backgrounds in a more Communitarian setting.  In between, we have the gradations of the three primary types setting up the social structures we talked about before, in an emergent, or intrinsic fashion.  If you’ve evolved to the point where you’re mostly data-driven, you get to the point where you move past just feeling empathy, and into thinking empathy. And you’re going to want to have a conversation with someone who works on your level.  If you’re a control-oriented boss, you might care how your people feel – don’t want them sneaking up on you and sabotaging your plans – but you’re likely not to care much how they think, or what their individual circumstance is. All this is embedded in the type of empathy you exhibit, as well as whether, in your social structure, your communication is either one- or two-way (simplex or duplex.)  Authority-driven chain-of-commands, for example, tend not to be two-way streets. Communitarians honestly want to know how your day is going. They want details.

By considering empathy, we’ve stepped away from looking at particular topical positions on a given issue as a way of understanding how people have their brain wired.  Instead, it comes down to the balance of the Big Three brain parts, and their empathetic function, as a good indicator. Issues don’t matter. But timescales, spatial scales, and appropriateness of reactions matter a ton.

So when we say that it’s not a surprise that Trump and Kim Jong Oon like each other, we can predict this based on them sharing the same v-Meme, which, as we’ve stated before,is independent of specific, topical information.  Trump and Kim are both supremely self-centered and status-driven.  They are both leaders of their respective countries, and in their minds, have no need to seek the truth from others. They believe they are the authority on all things.  They make the truth.

When they meet, there is little surprise engendered in the other how they’re going to respond.  Both are down in the short time-scale world of mirroring behavior, and maybe a little emotional empathy. When Kim says he’s got a nuke, Trump counters immediately with the notion that he’s got a bigger one.  For Kim, or Trump, when either one says something to the other, they likely shrug their shoulders and say “well, that’s what I would say. And since I’m so awesome, I just get this guy.”  That’s why Trump can call Kim his friend.  And exactly why someone like Trump doesn’t like Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. A far more evolved and sophisticated thinker, he never really knows what she’s going to come up with.  Even, and especially given, the same set of inputs.

The implications build from here.  If v-Memes, and social structure are actually a reflection of brain wiring, containing both the sequencing of firing (and the amount) between the different sections of the brain, we start gaining an appreciation that the core dynamic is actually empathy.

Conway’s Law

Then other conclusions start falling out.  If we add a principle from the software development community called Conway’s Law, other important patterns start emerging.  Conway’s Law says:

The design of a system will map to the social structure of the company that built the design

If one is building airplanes, what that means is that the wing person needs to talk to the fuselage person if they ever want to merge the wing onto the body of the plane.  And if that’s going to be successful, what that means is that both the wing person, as well as the fuselage person, have to a.) understand each other well enough to get the main design goals (aerodynamic profile, structural integrity, for example) of the other party, and b.) be able to give a little and form win-win solutions that keep the plane from breaking apart in the sky.

If we are going to have merged design solutions, the parties on either side of the table have to connect with the parties on the other side of the table. In other words, they have to have empathy for each other.  They have to combine and synergize their knowledge so that a new, better solution becomes emergent.

Now we start pulling our logical fishing line in.  In order to have empathy, one has to have a social structure that will create it.  And in the case of the wing and the fuselage, both people have to have the same goal – an airplane that flies and doesn’t fall out of the sky.  And since they’re likely the only experts at this, they have to have agency– the ability to act for their interest, in a combined mode toward a goal.  

But in order to have agency, one also has to have an organization, with an appropriate social structure (per the org. Chart, the wing person has to be able to actually talk to the fuselage person)  that creates it. And the combination of the wing and fuselage is going to create a knowledge structure that has a particular form, supported by all the scaffolding from rules and algorithms, authority-driven knowledge, tribal knowledge, and so on, that is incorporated.

Empathy in the Individual = Complexity in the Problems They can Handle

All that is well and good.  But if your engineers aren’t evolved enough to the point where you can handle both the technical challenge of managing the merger, as well as the social knowledge to communicate and merge ideas, the plane isn’t going to get off the ground. It’s not just the specific knowledge. It’s the ability to arrange the pieces, carry the responsibility for getting it right, believing in your knowledge and knowing what you know, as well as what you don’t know.

They are directly interconnected.  That’s why v-Memes, that representation of both empathy and social structure, dictate the complexity of the knowledge that the people inside that organization, or society, can hold.  We literally can’t maintain a complex society, without more complex social structures and v-Memes.  And we can’t have those without empathy, because we won’t have a critical mass of people who can think at the level of complexity required.  They are all intertwined together.

There are more, equally important conclusions that can be drawn.  In a given society, there will be those raised with empathy, in classrooms where connection and teamwork are emphasized, and modes like active learning and shared experience are the norm.  There will also be those crowded into more standard, authority-driven classrooms. Who is going to emerge with the ability to fit in the slots for the jobs the future will provide? What will happen to the v-Meme have-nots?  How will they perceive their interests?

And who will represent the have-nots in a way that guards their stake in the future? Those raised with little agency, and taught only to follow orders, are also to likely have poor consequential thinking.  In a democracy, the potentials for co-option by a raw authoritarian will also grow. And lest one think that this is a plea for elitism, it’s actually not. Even if a large sector of society is empathetically favored, they’re still likely to live inside their own circle, buffered by income differentials, as well as fundamentally different modes of living.  That is already happening.

The list of miseries goes on.  Whose jobs are most likely to be replaced by robots?  Ones where human agency matters, or ones where it does not?

And here’s the real kicker. What does it say about the empathy level of a society for leaders who are willing to leave a huge chunk of the population behind?  And, by extension, what does it say about that leadership cohort’s decision-making ability, their understanding of complex issues, as well as their ability to synergize solutions using all available data?  There will always be a spread of abilities and personalities in any society. But any society expecting to move forward into the future has to adopt a strategy that the leaders themselves must be evolved. As well as having a core belief that no one is left behind.  

Let’s understand this model in the context of our contemporary United States of America.  Right now, we’re experiencing an increasing Authoritarian drift, on both the Right and the Left.  The primary circumstance driving this? Over-work, poor health, and the increasing income gap. People are increasingly sorted into silos.  Connection and empathy, as well as our ability to develop this, are inherently shortchanged. Connecting to people takes time and energy. And Americans increasingly don’t have it.  

Consider the current battle over building an extension of the wall (a low v-Meme solution as any) to solve the problem of illegal immigration.  President Trump is declaring a national emergency over this, inviting a conflict between branches of government, with the intent of demonstrating supremacy over the others. That’s as authoritarian as it gets.  

But how did Trump get there in the first place? When one considers this is terms of our democratic ideals, this all seems upside down.  Why would a country elect someone like Trump? And yes — we understand the vagaries of the Electoral College and the actual mechanisms that elected him.  But a better question would be how such an individual collect 46% of the vote in the first place? What does that say about both the choices offered, as well as the evolution of the voting populace?  What does that say about Birds of a Feather? And our nation’s brain wiring? The point is Trump is a symptom of a lack of empathy, and worse, a lack of development of empathy in the American v-Meme that is a long time in coming.  And it doesn’t bode well for our population navigating an increasingly complex global landscape.

Understanding the ‘Why’ of the Empathy Development Pathway

If we’re going to climb out of this hole, our survival demands that we prioritize empathy and connection to evolve us up the v-Meme ladder.  The problems we face now are called wicked problems, meaning they have multiple modes of interconnection that defy easy fixes.  Push on one side of the problem, another unexpected consequence pops out far from the original fix that was well-intended.  Only people who are connected to each other, with profound, reliable channels of knowledge can share inputs on what they’re doing to create change.  And as important, those people will naturally be tuned to receive feedback from others, perhaps far away, that affect the solutions proposed.

Take a problem like global warming.  Global warming is a problem that must be tackled on a number of scales — local, regional and national.  Any one law passed at the federal level, outside generalized targets (outlaw production of CO2 anyone?) is going to prove impossible to implement.  And the chaos generated could potentially delay solving the problem, with all the negative consequences that will come with upside-down temperatures and rising seas.  

That means we need an emergent social network, with people who are focused on solving the problem on a number of scales.  Some folks have to be interested in implementing roof-top solar panels in Georgia, while others are going to come up with other methods for producing wind energy.  Others have to be interested in a national, or at a minimum, regional smart grid. There will be trade-offs and implications that have to be actively discussed and shared, agreed upon, and synergized.  That will require profound, developed empathy.

The fact that the problem — global warming — is a wicked problem is no reason that we can’t attempt to fix it, or we shouldn’t try.  But we need to go into the circumstance with our eyes wide open, looking for shared understanding and connection.

Here’s the takeaway. Our ability to handle complexity will directly index to our level of developed empathy.  And by examining the v-Memes actively at play, we can gain a window into whether we’re capable of dealing with enough complex knowledge to make optimal decisions, especially in a time of extreme societal challenge.  With 7 billion people on the planet, there really is only one real survival strategy – understanding how we are connected, and developing our ability to be more connected. That’s why v-Memes matter.

Let’s wrap this up with a definition, and some specific actions and benefits for you:

V-Memes are groups of critical behaviors and knowledge that form the map and perspectives that individuals and societies use to see the world around them. Their structure and complexity will be dependent on the level of development of empathy of individuals in that society.  A v-Meme will dictate how a society conducts itself, as well as how it approaches a given challenge. The higher the v-Meme, the greater the complexity and timescale of the approach.

As Einstein pointed out, the level of thinking that created the problem will not allow us to solve the problem.  To solve the problems created in the 20th century, we are going to need work at a higher V-meme level, as a society, than we did when we created the problems in the first place.  Whether we evolve  following the Europeans into social democracy or simply correct free-market issues like the growing gap between middle and upper class and CO2 pollution, these alone will not be enough — but they will be  a start.

But this will only  happen in the US if we understand how to communicate to three main levels of v-memes currently running our thinking in the US (Authoritarian, Legalistic, and Performance.) For all us, this means working to expand our current level of empathy, or as we sometimes call it, your empathy bubble; in time and space. This is most easily done by broadening the types of people you communicate and actually connect with.  If you don’t practice, conflict between the v-Memes is the natural consequence.

This means listening and understanding their positions and working to identify their dominant v-meme.  Once you understand that v-meme, it is easier to notice that these people relate differently because their brains are wired differently.

For the most part, people with different v-Memes are not inherently the problem. The real problem is the lack of understanding and empathy. Once you speak to them in solutions they can understand, you can work towards shared understanding and forward progress.  The dominant v-meme of the 20th century for the US was a performance-centric and an “I” centric approach. It is no longer enough. We are going to need to work as a collective in the 21st century to keep the planet habitable for us and all our children. Unlike the 20th century’s social inequity practices of redlining, or the environmental degradation of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, we cannot leave a group of people, or the environment behind this time!  

For more on this topic, please read our previous post on: Creating a We for an Evolving World — A Journey to an Empathetic, Sustainable Society.



Creating a We for an Evolving World – Empathetic Leadership Book – Refactor – and the First of Two Introductory Posts

Panda Moment

Tomolol Village, West Papua, Indonesia, Dec. 2018 — Braden Pezeshki photo

A year ago, my chief collaborator, Ryan Martens, and I started work on a book called Empathetic Leadership.  We produced a first complete increment or, as we tech people are fond of saying, a Minimal Viable Product.  Based on feedback from that effort, we sharpened our pencil and wrote these two pieces to help correct some of our ills and direct the refactoring of those 185 pages. These two pieces represent our best effort to simplify, generalize and make more approachable our work.

We believe this book will focus on the rising generation of leaders who need to apply these tools quickly and not learn from trial and error.  Whether they are building new products, new policy, new legislation or new organizations they need to better leverage empathy in their approach and core values.  We hope you like these two posts and we would appreciate your comments on either of them directly or on this post, you could provide more general feedback on our target audience, approach, and meta-message.

Thank you for your attention and consideration,

Chuck and Ryan
Creating a We for an Evolving World — A Journey to an Empathetic, Sustainable Society

It is clear that in the United States, the social contract is running out.  The world has changed enough that the notion of: “You work hard and you will get ahead” is failing many people in the US. Our life expectancy goes down, our income inequality is going up, and the middle-class is declining in living standard far from the upper-class.  America is breaking into the haves – the 1%ers; and the have-nots, which comprise the 99% of others. Since most are in the 99% group, they are feeling the force of stagnated wages for 30 years, largely due to globalization driving wage competition and the ability of 1% to invest cheaply  in the market gains. It has created the “Winner Take All” world for the super elite, and that is as clear a problem as global warming.

We must come to terms that we are at an inflection point.  Many people point to a coming 4th Industrial Revolution, brought on by clean energy, autonomous electric vehicles and the Internet of Things.  All these technologies will dramatically change the infrastructure of the future. The good news is that this revolution is coming at the right time to address global and societal crises created by the exploitation of the last industrial revolution and its lack of empathy for its externalities.

This brings us back to the broken social contract. As the world becomes more connected, more real-time, more complex, the social contract for America needs to evolve to support a society that recognizes that we are all in this together.  The 1% or any one individual cannot beat the climate crisis alone. That social contract needs to recognize we are connected to the health of the planet, as well as ourselves and each other.

Needless to say, this contract needs to be more “We” focused than “I” focused.  But it cannot get there by neglecting the diversity inherent in the “I”. To that end, there is a fundamental need to understand an open, inclusive, and diverse definition of “We.”  It would be easy to adopt a definition of “We” that acknowledges all of us in classes and forgets to connect us to the Earth , ourselves or others as individuals outside our In-group, or inevitable organizational context. But if this is all we’ve got, this easily accessed, ancient definition drove wars, genocide and our current global problems.  Past performance may not necessarily predict future results. But, as Santayana said so eloquently, those that cannot learn from the past are destined to relive it. We are ready for a more inclusive definition of we, this go around.

The problem is that there are many voices out there, working to get us to accept that more homogenized “We”.  Nativist and cultural supremacists lead this charge, as it did earlier in history. It is an externally defined, and imposed “We”.  But such a view has deep costs. It is a frozen view of society. Roles, rewards, and responsibilities are pre-defined, the agency in people is minimized, and empathy is limited.  It is not a society that will be resilient in the face of change. And change is coming fast.

There is another way. Not all of the externally defined “We” is inherently bad.  We aren’t arguing to do away with table manners, holding your fork the right way, wearing underwear, or the Golden Rule.  No need to ban Flag Day. But If we take the benefit derived from a “We” created on the outside, and add to that a focus on personal development and empathy, we can combine it with a “We” that will naturally emerge through self-organization around our own independent selves, seeking connection to others.  We open ourselves up to other’s perspectives, and ideas — and most importantly, the addition of other people to our social sensor network. This new information flow, made possible by developed empathy, creates the vibrancy of community. Just in the same way love, and choice in partners create the genetic diversity necessary to keep the species from decaying.

Our survival as a species absolutely depends on it.  Why? Simply put, we will not be smart enough without the wisdom of an aware crowd. People raised in societies where “who they are” is defined from the outside will not develop the inherent intellectual and emotional intelligence to handle the increasing complexity of a global, technological society.  It’s true — we’re in an “all hands on deck” situation. But we will be far better off if those hands are people capable of their own observations, awareness of their own biases, nuance and possessing a capability for multi-solution thinking. A handful of experts (or Marvel super-heroes!) is not going to save the planet.  We need as many people as possible, acting in good faith, involved. And they can only be evolved through the development of the full stack of empathy.

What is a full stack of empathy?  We’re used to associating empathy solely with emotions – really sympathy for an individual or a cause, followed by some pro-social act. Empathy is much more than that.  It ranges from mirroring behavior, where if I yawn, you yawn, up through the familiar emotional connection understanding, and more complex theories of mind – with a whole range of timescales, and spatial scales involved with human experience.

Additionally, it’s becoming clear that empathy wires the brain for other problems involving complexity. The neuroscience research, notably Dr. Matt Lieberman’s research in the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UCLA,  is confirming the worldview both authors espouse – “as we relate, so we think.” When we practice relationships where empathy matters, this involves reading others emotions and faces. Honest, empathetic exchange involves responding to each other’s thoughts, as well as honestly, and rationally connecting.

This important pattern of taking in multiple streams of data from an individual creates the template for solving more complex problems. By practicing empathy, we become more data-driven, and more expansively rational in our own practice.  We consider broader spheres of responsibility, and different, diverse, and divergent sources of information, as well as people. That practice, in turn, also develops people who create complex technology, with surprising synergies. These will be the people capable of, in concert with social evolution, solving the complex, “wicked” problems threatening the survival of the species.

When that larger picture of inclusion emerges, conflict is minimized and a more harmonious — or really, coherent — society is created.  

Empathy and its development are far larger than the politics of Right and Left.  Consider Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind.  In it, he makes the case that the Right is actually the party of We and the common good, while the Left, with its Identity politics, is the party of I and individualism. He talks about his own personal transformation toward understanding commonly accepted ‘We’ cultures, by discussing his own experiences in India.  

“My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and dissonance. I  dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen, not speaking to me the whole evening. I was told to be stricter with my servants, and to stop thanking them for serving me…”

“It only took a few weeks for my dissonance to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal human capacity for empathy kicked in.  I liked these people… Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and identifying the women, children and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society…  In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, protecting subordinates, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties were more important.”

“I could see beauty in a moral code that emphasizes duty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires.  I could still see its ugly side: I could see that power sometimes leads to pomposity and abuse. And I could see that subordinates – particularly women – were often blocked from doing what they wanted to do by the whims of their elders (male and female)… I had a place to stand, and from the vantage point of the ethic of community, the ethic of autonomy now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused.”

Haidt is at some level a persuasive writer. But what he’s really arguing for is for everyone to know their place. And stay in it.  The notion of defining “self” independently, outside of the social system, is either severely constrained, or simply not allowed. Agency and self-empathy, which are critical for the development of larger modes of person-to-person empathy, are absent.  

For the people at the top, the deal seems like a pretty good one. The problem is that with only slight modification, Haidt’s model could also be used to justify antebellum slavery in the United States.

What about the mainstream Left? The Left, with most of its philosophical engine devoted to capital ‘I’ Identity politics, is also not up to the task.  Why? They’re not so big on individual agency either. The “We” that the Left pushes is not really a ‘We’ – rather, it’s a hyper-fragmented ‘I’. There are lots of categories, perhaps with greater cultural or gender sensitivity, decided by your betters.  You may get to decide what pronouns describe yourself. But you’re still going to get put in a box.

If the Left doesn’t understand the argument made above, the Right will win this latest round of what it means to be a We in our country. Why? Because the vision the Right is pushing is simple. In a noisy, confusing and chaotic world, simple will win out. As an example of complexity, how many people really like the current code of political correctness?

How do we climb out of this narrow, small box? By creating environments that emphasize in people the development of both responsible agency, and connection to others. Our current culture must be the parent to what people and the planet need next. There are signs of rising consciousness that we detect — starting points along that journey, like the Green New Deal. We have to accept that such efforts will be imperfect to start. We must view them as the evolutionary experiments they are.

As important as initiatives like the Green New Deal are — the “what” progressives are attempting to accomplish — what we also need is a deeper understanding of the “why” of the social currents that brought us here in the first place. Until we grasp the actual social physics that run societies, and development pathways of the people that inhabit them, we’re far too likely to continue making the same mistakes over again when we’re forced to actually implement action plans for our larger platforms. We desperately need new maps — or more importantly, an understanding of how people generate their own maps in the first place.

Such deep insights would show how values change over time. We could understand what forces are in play, as societies evolve along the journey. And importantly, it would show the deeper values we need to emphasize — like care for others, as well as opportunities for individuals to form larger shared identities through participatory politics. It would inform the development of both education and experiences that could pop the insulating bubbles far too many people live in today.

The challenge with that type of understanding is that it is deeply systemic in viewpoint. And systemic understandings do not set so easily on most people’s minds.  We are used to discussing anecdotes — with empathy, it is usually considering interactions between two people. But that larger systemic understanding of empathy is required to show how empathy works across organizations, societies, and social networks, as a larger organizing force. Most of our work is dedicated to that different perspective.  It creates a tool for viewing the past, as well as glimpsing, though sometimes through a glass darkly, our potential futures.

An analog of this larger project of defining social physics might be understanding how NASA has managed to send spaceships to Jupiter and beyond, with incredible success.  NASA couldn’t fly to Jupiter and measure all the various forces at play in pursuing a planetary fly-by. But, with careful work, they could discern the guiding principles at work.  Partially through theoretical mathematics, partially through careful observation, and empirical measurement of the world around Jupiter, mapped to analogs here on Earth, NASA created an accurate mental model that allowed the creation of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.  The testament to that approach is that over 40 years later, Voyager 1 not only flew by Jupiter, Saturn and Titan. It still flies, contributing scientific insights to us back on Earth.

Such a system, and the understandings of social physics is not hypothetical.  It is challenging and non-trivial. It is based on a principle from the software community, called Conway’s Law, that maps social systems to design and knowledge creation.  It moves past looking at relationships between two people, into a deeply systemic perspective.  Explaining the relationships between canonical social systems, empathy, and emergent knowledge structures is beyond the scope of this piece.  But if you want to understand this, read the masthead posts — and drop us a line.  We’re always happy to connect.

How does one get started in the journey toward higher empathy?  Here are some vectors we’ve found to be useful. They start with the personal and evolve toward the systemic. Both matter.

  1. Develop the ability to truly listen to people.  There are many books out there on empathic, or active listening. Repeating what’s said to you is a great start.  Making sure you actually heard the words coming out of someone’s mouth, and matching the context by reading their facial expressions opens up another huge information pathway.  If you’re in a business setting, bring your customer into the room with you during some appropriate point in the decision-making process. Evaluate your performance. How do you change the direction you take after listening to her?
  2. Review a person’s opinion through contemplation after an exchange. Reflect on how your biases and beliefs potentially alter the message in a person’s words, and the context they’re placing. After listening, can you model their perspective enough to predict the direction of their next commentary?
  3. Understand empathy as more than a one-off, one-size-fits-all interaction.  Every time you talk or communicate with someone, connect with someone, you’re connecting on multiple levels — some more emphasized than others.  The first challenge in empathy is to understand yourself and how you actually relate to others. This is why contemplative practices work to have you observe how thoughts come in and leave your mind.
  4. Observe and generalize the empathetic interactions you have within the context of the larger social system your organization possesses.  Do you only talk to people whose path is declared on your org. chart? Is it taboo to go outside those lines and talk around authority? Are things fine as long as you reach across to people at your same level?  Can you characterize how you perceive flexing you relational muscles in the context of you picking who you want to talk to? Can you observe how these interactions create the shape of your deliverables or work products?  How do these interactions influence your design process or approach?

As we relate, so we think.  We’ve found in our work that this core principle holds through observation, testing, and experimentation.  But developing larger empathy, as well as the broader systemic implications of the human, or really sentient condition, must be a shared journey.  We also need fellow travelers and coaches. We fully realize that the solutions that will be generated, once we embrace empathy, will be emergent — which means we can’t know the specifics at the beginning.  Though the end game and solution may elude us at the start, we have to trust in connection. It is our only hope.


Quickie Super-Geek Post — Why Different Relationships have Meta-linear or Meta-nonlinear characteristics, and how we can always learn a little from single-celled organisms

tiki alcatraz photo

On Tiki Alcatraz — with Mr. Exon and Braden.  December 2018

I’ve been having some interesting thoughts and wanted to make sure I wrote them down before my brain core-dumped them, or the hyper-drive shifted into high gear and I left them back in another quadrant of the space in between my ears.

I’m on a list serve about meta-modernism, and have been conversing with numerous people on that list serve about various issues surrounding Hanzi Freinacht’s book, The Listening Society. The people on the list-serve typically are more classically trained academics, with all that entails about reliability vs. validity, and of course know far more about historical philosophy than I do.  What does that mean?  They do better when it comes to building references to past work, but have difficulties with larger systemic paradigms, like mine.  A mechanical engineering prof is no authority on philosophy, needless to say.

That doesn’t mean, though, that their sense making sensors interpret the universe necessarily in the wrong way, or in a way on a surface level different from mine.  I’ve been decoding their posts for the last year, and learned a lot.  But it does mean that they’re much more likely to argue a position from historical precedent than bottom-up, generative systems thinking.  The way I view this is, well, we use the tools we have.  As a nonlinear physicist, I’m more likely to argue from the social physics.  As philosophers, they’re more likely to argue from past literature.

I had an interesting thought about how externally defined social networks (think Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme structures, which inevitably tend toward hierarchies,) exhibit meta-linear dynamics, whereas the minute you let people get out and form their own relationships, all sorts of crazy stuff (which lends itself well to creativity) starts happening, including cognitive leaps, discontinuous growth, and generalized emergence.

How so?  If you’re in a hierarchy, and you’re supposed to talk to just the people in your organization, you’re only likely to move up one click in level at any given time.  If your hierarchy’s levels are hooked to scale, either temporal or spatial, then the next level up usually corresponds to one click up in duration (you’re supposed to worry about quarterly performance instead of just serving up a latte) or spatial scale (you’re responsible for your workstation, but one level up, you’re responsible for your cubicle farm.)  Knowledge then also is linearly inherited from above, and your experience doesn’t matter much.  All this works to suppress any large changes, because the best you’re going to do is iterate on your immediately available space.  Or time.  And if you’re programmed to the max in your position, you likely don’t have any energy to think about how you’re going to change anything.  So now we’ve completed our thermodynamic argument against change — time, space, and energetics are constrained.  Change just isn’t in the cards.  Or rather, radical change.  You’re indexed to your own, closed system.

If one wanted to reflect on this in a larger way, one can also see that Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection maps well to this meta-linear paradigm.  Things change slowly, if at all, unless an external event radically rearranges an ecosystem niche.  And we don’t really even talk about that, because within the hierarchy of our little bounded system, everything kinda knows its place.  Sort of like watching The Lion King except the animals eat each other.

Contrast that to independently generated relationships.  Independently generated relationships are highly variable, and contingent on experiences a person has — some positive, and some negative.  Maybe you went on a trip overseas to Japan, and really took to Shinto temple architecture.  Upon returning home, you fell in love with a Japanese exchange student, because of your fascination.  All the sudden, a whole bunch of different deep cultural knowledge starts getting dumped into both your v-Meme-NA, as well as your other, more specific fragmented knowledge.  Maybe you start liking Japanese rice porridge.  Or something.  It’s unpredictable, and since the knowledge space is not constrained by the rigid boundary of an already-established hierarchy, change comes in unpredictable ways.  You’re quite literally opening yourself up — which is what travel writers have been saying, and now you have a knowledge system boundary understanding of it.

What’s interesting is this corresponds well to how the various organisms manage their relationships — and nothing is more clear than understanding how single-celled organisms do this between each other.  To get a comprehensive picture of all this, I highly recommend reading David Quammen’s The Tangled Treea super-well-researched and comprehensive discipline-biography (I just made up that term) of Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT).  In this book, you get to learn how bacteria and all the different single-celled organisms (Can’t remember all the names, but prokaryotes and eukaryotes come to mind) swapped stuff as needed.  Mitochondria started outside our cells, and were captured, or infiltrated, and created the far more complex single-celled organisms we see today.  No one was waiting for long-term evolution to adapt.  They grabbed the partner DNA that worked at the time, and went with it.  Not taking the chance was going to mean death anyway.

And some of it was seemingly random, or based on geographic (literally) migrations.  Just like you, those Shinto temples, and your new Japanese domestic partner.  Those ideas got inserted inside your brain in ways that were highly nonlinear — and that level of diversity gave you a far different perspective than you would have had had you stayed inside your immediate community/cultural box.

It’s the system boundary thing that really matters here.  Inside a system with a rigid boundary, like all hierarchies, you’re pretty constrained informationally.  But when that boundary becomes permeable, all sorts of stuff can, and does happen.

What’s more interesting is what happens if you either keep, or don’t keep those rigid system boundaries, to the overall health and life of your system.  If those boundaries are rigid, and the amount of information influx is small, at some level you might have information stability.  But inevitably, over time, entropy is going to catch up with you, especially as you nail down smaller and smaller scales of behavior.  Think of rituals.  First you start with a Christmas tree with grandma’s star.  The next thing you know, certain ornaments that you’ve had forever start owning their own place.  And before you know it, you’re one broken globe away from ruining your Christmas tree feng shui.

Interestingly enough, this seems to be what happens to businesses as well.  In Geoffrey West’s book, Scale, where West, as the former director of the Santa Fe Institute, exhaustively chases an understanding of growth, mapping this to sub-linear and super-linear behavior, showed that businesses tend to die after 40 years, whereas cities keep on no matter what happens.  Why?  Once everyone in a business knows their place, and their place becomes synonymous with who they are, it just gets much harder to mix new information in.  And then that social structure rigidity likely translates to product rigidity.  And so on.  How many Blackberrys do you see in use nowadays?

This also maps well to Roger Martin’s The Design of Business Magic=>Heuristic=>Algorithmic funnel concept.


In the end you lose your diversity, and resiliency to external conditions, entropy catches up, conditions change and you can’t sense them, and you go out of business.  Interestingly enough, it also shows how psychopaths can capture your business and start creating that entropy.  They take your definition of self, and use it against you.  If you’re already locked into rigidity, such actors hasten your collapse.  As crazy as it may seem, it’s almost like the universe is working to recycle your organization.

One can also see how opening oneself up too much also can create chaos — too much information flow, and before you know it, you start undermining your deeper identity that may have served to protect you from already extant, learned threats in your environment.

What’s the right balance?  Not so easy to say.  But if we understand the social physics, and the acceptance that there has to be some nonlinear flux in order to not get sick and die, then we’re on the right track.  Sometimes you just have to capture a few mitochondria.  We can all learn a little from the dynamics of our micro-biome.


Memes are Persistent — Covington Catholic High vs. the Hebrew Israelites

Misool Rain

Braden and me, in the West Papuan rain, December 2018

The most recent inflammatory dust-up that hit the media is video of the clash between a Covington Catholic High youth wearing a Donald Trump MAGA hat, and a Native American elder on the Washington Mall.  Apparently, the students associated with the young man were participating in a March for Life rally, when they ran into a group of Black Hebrew Israelites.  A Native American elder, who was attending his own rally on Indian rights, attempted to make peace, which ended in a stare-down between one of the students, a teenage male, wearing said MAGA hat, and the Elder.

OK — first off, on a personal note, regardless of the cause, if my Mama saw me acting like that young man, she would have grabbed my ear and hauled me off the scene.  My mom was far from perfect, but she didn’t like assholery, and that’s superficially what’s on display here.  The look on the young man’s face does not help his case, whatever level one wants to operate on.

So don’t interpret any analysis as some apologia for any of the bad actors.  But if we can’t understand these things at a deeper level, we’re not going to get to any point where we can forge a trans-cultural code of behavior that will keep us from killing each other.

What was interesting to me was the fact that Covington Catholic’s team is the Colonels (a picture of their mascot is below) and for those with any background, it’s pretty much a Confederate soldier, sanitized from the Confederate gray colorcovington catholic mascot

for modern times.  They certainly didn’t make it Union Blue.  If one believes the Twitter feed, Covington has had problems with racism and bullying in the past, and so all of us this really isn’t that surprising.

I’ll be willing to bet that the students had little or no conscious knowledge of a grounded understanding of any of this.  But just like genes, which often are repeated, embedded and not superficially expressed, so are memes, waiting for the opportunity.  And that brain programming finds another set of external symbols that line up with deep, hidden understandings.

So it should come as no surprise that the group, when coming into contact with the Black Hebrew Israelites, who espouse a philosophy very close to White Identity Christianity (they are also the only children of the lost tribe of Judah) would have a dust-up.  Deep racial coding on the sides of both groups, and even surfaced tribal identities (remember — these people are all claiming to be the Lost Tribe of Israel) are going to be low empathy. Into that mess walks Omaha elder Nathan Phillips — a member of a recognized Native American tribe, working at least a little on Second Tier v-Meme principles of peace and understanding.  Ugh.  And he’s a Vietnam vet, and likely a trauma survivor himself.

What this all demonstrates is that memes run deep, and often go underground.  And they don’t just fade away, even if the parties involved don’t know the deep history.  There’s much to think about here, if we ever get around to actually building a better world.  Like William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  

I happen to think Faulkner would have loved memetics.

Do read the background Wikipedia posts.

P.S.  I’m writing this on Martin Luther King Day, 2019.  Talk about someone who understood empathy, on all levels.  He was the Man.