Hong Kong and the Deep Memetic Evolution of Protest

Hong Kong Waterfront

I don’t need to tell you that it’s a great time on the planet if you’re into upheaval. Yeah, it’s hard to tell what’s really going on — old news sources are not as reliable as they used to be, and the new ones were never very reliable to begin with. Before we get going on the main subject, I’ll give you a Jedi Master tip on how I read the news. 1. Read widely. 2. Never believe (at least a priori) the main premise of any article. 3. Store secondary information (it’s probably with far less bias than the primary point of the story) and use it to construct your own narratives as history rolls on. This is challenging — I used to have an extremely sharp memory (almost eidetic — I could play back whole vision sequences in my mind) but as I age, it DOES get harder. Still, the point is valid. Reading widely and storing secondary information will help you decide if you can trust any given journalist or source.

Lots of news out of Hong Kong is giving me renewed hope that the dystopian Authoritarian views propagated by so many science fiction authors are simply wrong. Empathetic development can, and does recede and build in the context of history. But barring large scale catastrophe, our species keeps evolving ever upward.

The short version — China imposed a new maxim regarding extradition of criminals from Hong Kong, which operates as part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under its own, more democratic system. For those that have forgotten, Hong Kong is also differentiated from mainland China through language (Hong Kong people speak Cantonese) as well as a separated colonial history. This backgrounder from the BBC is useful. Hong Kong also has a long history of protest, so suffice to say, they’re well-scaffolded as far as a separate Tribal identity in the context of Chinese politics.

In the last round of pro-democracy protests, in 2014, China came in, cracked down, arrested protestors as well as protest leadership. Though protestors managed to occupy major infrastructure in Hong Kong for over 79 days, in the end, holding ground became too costly, and China broke up the protests. Still, Hong Kong people were inventive, even then. The protests became known as the Umbrella Movement protests, as protesters would deploy yellow umbrellas to deflect the pepper spray doused on them by Chinese riot police.

For the current round, the Hong Kong protesters realized holding ground was too costly — besides not getting the job done. In this excellent piece by Anthony Dapiran, he profiles seven ways the protests changed from the 2014 events. These are:

  1. No more Occupying — “Be Water!” After the famous Bruce Lee quote, protestors would hold a given site only until Chinese officials would show up. Then they would uniformly flee to fight another day.
  2. Open Source Protests — Communication was organized on low-fi bulletin boards similar to Reddit. At a protest site, more senior individuals might have a megaphone. But for the most part, individuals were encouraged to have agency and act on their own, in the circumstance.
  3. Airdrop, the feature on the iPhone that allows point to point transfer of files and other information, was used en masse in the protests for coordination. Unlike posting instructions on a generic website, which can be subject to denial of service, Airdrop is truly distributed, and people would use it on subways to the protest to understand exactly what logistics would be.
  4. Supply lines and hand signals. From past experience with the protests in 2014, protesters learned exactly the kind of supplies would be needed at the front lines of conflict with the police. As such, they invented an elaborate set of hand signals that could be used to ripple backward to supplies in the rear of a crowd so they could be deployed quickly at the front.
Photo of sign by Anthony Dapiran

5, 6, and 7 — Neutralizing tear gas methodologies; avoiding a stampede; and crowdfunding advertisements around the world for the G20 summit were all techniques you can read about in Dapiran’s article. Of particular interest from an empathy perspective is ‘avoiding stampedes’ . Chinese ‘Raptor Battalions’ would often charge at crowds of protestors. Instead of responding by fleeing and potentially causing a devastating stampede, protestors would start chanting “One, Two, One, Two!” to stage an orderly retreat.

From an empathetic evolutionary perspective, all these change in tactics constitute a major evolution in protest dynamics. Moving communication in a noisy crowd to empathetic relays of signals, realizing that a failure of status-based assertion of holding ground was counter-productive toward the goal of system disruption, using low-tech, appropriate communication modes, instead of more complicated modalities – all of these are great examples of memetic empathetic evolution. The result was that the Hong Kong government, in synchrony with the Chinese government, had to suspend the extradition change.

What was also interesting, because of these Performance/Goal-based changes, more people of different abilities were able to plug into the protests. Old people could be part of the supply chains, holding up the rear, while the younger and more fleet of foot could be on the front lines. And with the disavowing holding ground — China would have no moral problem putting anyone in jail, so the standard principle of using civil disobedience to make your oppressor feel guilty because of moral violation just doesn’t work — working class people who simply could not afford to be sent to a Chinese prison camp could participate. As a result, protests numbered close to 1.7M people. Considering that Hong Kong has nominally 7M people, that means 1 in 3/4 people who lived in Hong Kong was involved. Amazing.

As my collaborator, Ryan and I have said before, we’re not going to be smart enough without the wisdom of an aware crowd. You can’t get a better example. Leveling up protest from a status-based hierarchy to a flowing, Reflective, Performance-based Community means that Authoritarianism, down at least 3 v-Meme steps, can at least be held to a stand-off, if not defeated.

Before I finish this, besides tagging the power of Empathetic Evolution yet again, there are two important things to ponder.

  1. Hong Kong is an evolved, creative society. I’ve been to Hong Kong once, for four days. It’s as modern a city as any I’ve ever been to, and I always found Hong Kong people to be nice and friendly. I had been expecting an overcrowded, colonial-themed backwater. Nothing could be further from reality. I’m glad I went. As such, they have access to their own independent creativity and agency. I’ve participated in organizing a large Civil Disobedience campaign, and I have to tell you, they’ve got me totally rethinking the tactics we used.
  2. What happens if you’re not as evolved as Hong Kong? Unfortunately, over 2000 miles away, in Xinjiang Province, we’re seeing the result. The Chinese government is rounding up Uyghurs, about 1M of them, and putting them in re-education camps. Yes, there are differences in outside scrutiny of this crime, and raw authoritarianism operates far more easily without global scrutiny. But the base fact is that a modern Authoritarian state is going to have a far easier time dealing on a primarily Tribal society. The Uyghurs simply don’t have the information processing in the value system to adapt quickly to the challenge posed by the Communists. If they survive, they will also evolve — long-term occupation has never worked very well, and spawns all sorts of long-term violence. But there’s also no question many more people will die, and the human misery will be multiplied.

The protests have been really forcing me to rethink some of my own old biases, and push my own evolution. I’ll keep writing — and thinking. There’s a whole Arab Spring tie-in (which was defeated) that I’ll have to do some more reading on. Stay tuned.

Why Must Academia Evolve?

My favorite Life in Hell cartoon – you can guess which Swami I am.
This hung on Wayne Miller’s and my graduate student office door back in 1984

For those that didn’t bother to read my ‘About’ page, I’ve been a professor at Washington State University for the last 31 years. I arrived in 1988, a young lad of 25, and came for the whitewater kayaking, and stayed. And stayed. And for those that think this piece is about WSU, you’re wrong. WSU certainly has influenced my worldview — it’s impossible not to be influenced by some place you’ve spent most of your life at. But I’ve traveled around the world, once even giving a speech to most of the Deans of China’s engineering colleges. I’ve talked from Budapest to Copenhagen, and even given talks in South Africa. I worked, at the behest of a large corporate software supplier, in organizing eco design and sustainability education across Europe. And I’ve traveled and presented in Latin America as well.

So it’s safe to say I’ve kinda seen it all, at least academically. Because I pretty much have.

Academia is not truly identical the world over. There are better and worse universities out there, doing what they do. From an engineering perspective, the very best? TU Delft, and the German ones. The worst are scattered across the globe, and their manifestation largely relies on how much money they have. I’ve been in labs at Egyptian universities that were supported by USAID that were awesome, next to classrooms with broken furniture and no windows. I’ll never forget the scene I witnessed of the departmental chair doling out semi-worthless Egyptian pounds as salary to his faculty. And yet I’m not sure he was any more corrupt than any of the more modern schemes I’ve seen.

But as crazy as it may seem, they all have the same social structure. And as such, they nominally behave the same way. Sure, the European universities elect their presidents and rectors, or whatever. And they ARE a little more progressive. But most of the lot functions exactly the same, the world over.

The spotlight has re-focused on corruption in academia because of the recently revealed scandal regarding billionaire pedophile Jeff Epstein giving cash to the MIT Media Lab. Specifically, Joi Ito, professor and director, started taking money from Epstein, partially on the advice of the former Media Lab’s director and co-founder, Nicholas Negroponte. And yeah, in case you’re wondering, Nick’s brother John was the one who gave us Iran-Contra, as well as the veritable collapse of Iraq. These folks get around. Considering the cast of characters, it’s easy to lapse into ‘blame the individual’, non-systemy-goodness thinking. The Negroponte boys — a pair of consiglieres if there ever were a pair.

Far better investigative reporters can highlight how everything went down. Various women in the Media Lab thought it was more than odd that Epstein was accompanied everywhere he went by a pair of super-models. One development associate ( for those not in the academy, that’s a fundraising solicitor) name of Signe Swensen, wondered and asked the entourage if they had been kidnapped and if she could help. I’m not surprised. Development folks often have the most developed empathy of most people inside a university, because they’re constantly reading cues from donors on whether they’ll give money. So good on her that she saw what looked like a distressed situation and attempted to help. And that empathy thing again — with what she knew about Epstein, her conscience couldn’t take it, and she finally resigned.

Ito himself waffled around about Epstein’s money. But once you mainline that hardcore crack — “repeat donor” money — it’s hard to say ‘no’ to it, regardless of who gives. Repeat donor money allows an institution to institutionalize, and that’s what the v-Memes want to do – self perpetuate. Even in my own paltry little program, I’m constantly looking for supporters that will do multi-year support of my Industrial Design Clinic. One industry in the bag, that keeps giving and giving, takes part of the workload off me and allows me to cultivate new experiences for more students.

But the real problem isn’t the people. The system attracts the kinds of people it needs. It fills in the blanks. Negroponte and Ito ended up in those positions because they could do the Performance-driven, Authoritarian high status, social structure shakedown racket better than anyone else. It’s not surprising that once they built the brand, they worked to rake in the cash. The system veritably demanded it. Like Dolly Parton once allegedly said, “if they weren’t natural, I woulda had ’em made.”

Let me pause for a minute and explain a little bit about what is actually happening in America’s university landscape. Universities, more than probably anyone else, have been affected by tax law and tax cuts for the rich. What that means is the rich have more money to do with what they want. And after you buy one or two or five yachts, well, you don’t get the Jones you used to get off the smell of salt water. People will take that extra cash and spend it aspirationally. What that means is that they’ll look over their heads, v-Meme/value set-wise, and give money. If you’re an Authoritarian, you want to give one level up to Legalistic/Absolutistic. If you’re Performance-driven, you’ll turn into a Communitarian. It’s the surest way of actually determining how empathetically evolved a person is — who do they give money to, and why.

And while you have to know the ‘why’, usually it’s pretty obvious. The most successful private universities were funded by the most wretched industrialists. They wanted the increase in status that would come from funding, or naming a university. My own alma mater, Duke University, was founded by tobacco money from James Buchanan Duke. Our sister university, Wake Forest, was started by Baptists, but moved and grew because of Reynolds tobacco money. Clerical organizations have started many a university — a parallel cross-value-set move, and also pragmatic. Preachers need to be trained. But other universities of more secular bent have prospered from the mostly Authoritarian v-Meme money beneath them. Look at the list the Rockefeller family has funded over the years.

(And if you’re wondering, yes, note that Bill Gates hasn’t started a university. As a Performance-driven Authoritarian, aside from a building here and there, Bill’s evolved a Communitarian foundation with global reach. You can run, but you can’t hide from the v-Memes.)

But back to the tax cuts. What the tax cuts did, besides depleting the Treasury, and causing all sorts of political Kabuki theatre around how money gets spent in this country, is give the rich people a whole lot more money. Some, like Charles and David Koch, took those dollars and built a conservative political machine that has effectively seized the majority of state legislatures in this country. They’ve sprinkled some garden-variety acceptable-cause donations (like MOMA) around as well. Jane Mayer profiles this in her book ‘Dark Money‘. (Long, but good, if you’re interested.)

But the natural tendency is to just assume that rich people are evil, and they’re going to do things like the Koch brothers. Here’s news — not all of them. A lot of them are deeply concerned about whether there’s going to be a world around or not. But they’re still subject to the same laws of v-Meme evolution as every human. Except they have a ton of money, and they’re looking for someplace to invest it. Many are authoritarians — you don’t get to be a billionaire without a little of that. So that’s constraining.

And where do you think they want to invest it? Why not in the equivalent of the stock market — America’s university system? If you’re gonna do that, wouldn’t you rather invest in Blue Chip stocks, like Stanford, Harvard, or Yale? Some of the rich come from these places, and have legacies. But there’s a whole class of people who have arisen as well with the rise of tech. Not all of them are white folks. Various ethnic minorities — Chinese, Indians, and so on — have all been very successful. They want to give aspirationally as well. They earned the money. And so they, too give — to places like Stanford and such.

The problem is that those same universities start echoing/parroting back to those same rich people the messages they want to hear. Once you get over a certain funding level, the In-group bubble extends around the university, or the university system, and it becomes an echo chamber for a given group of rich folks. Stanford serves Silicon Valley. The Ivies have fed our defective foreign policy mechanism in D.C. and Wall Street forever.

So, with university fundraising, and budgets in general, you’ve got a very mixed picture out there. On the one hand, you have rich folks of all stripes ploughing money into the Blue Chips, and those Blue Chips are looking for new things to do. But at the same time, you’re seeing a parallel de-funding of institutions that used to depend on tax dollars for revenue. Places like my university — WSU. When I was involved with university governance about 15 years ago, our state-funded share of the budget was around 23%. Now it’s down to 14%.

I don’t know the actual numbers associated with private universities. But I can look around the landscape and see what’s happening. The Blue Chips have tons of dough. They’re doing things like starting campuses in odd places — Northeastern, for example, has a Seattle campus on the shores of S. Lake Union. At WSU, we’re relying more and more on student tuition to pay for everything. So we increase enrollment, have bigger classes, and recruit more kids from China through a variety of programs. Oh yeah — and teach more classes with temporary/clinical/adjunct faculty members. They’re cheaper.

But fundamentally, we don’t change. Or rather, our social structure doesn’t change. We’re still an Authoritarian stack, modestly Legalistic at best. We have a Faculty Senate, for example. I couldn’t tell you what they’re up to. They’re mostly giving in to faculty’s inherent desire to pick policy nits, and it’s painful to watch. You’re not a Chaucer scholar your whole life if you don’t have at least a little OCD. And most every successful faculty member has a little of that in ’em.

That low empathy, Authoritarian stack still prevails, whether you’re at MIT, with their Performance-based v-Meme sidebars (MIT is famous for having professors start companies, for example) or at WSU, where we’re playing Johnny-Come-Lately with all things like that.

Since both are an Authoritarian/Legalistic stack, they still run off status. And what is status? Status is exactly what you think it is. It’s “who’s better”, arbitrarily decided. For universities, it’s a Cool Kids Competition. Status in universities, for the most part, is run via research rankings (whose Cool Kids are the smartest — we are universities after all!) But WHAT we do is almost never invented, nor entertained by profs. themselves. That would require individual agency. You’re supposed to get out and hustle bucks. Which means someone else has a major say in what you’re doing with your academic freedom. There are precious few faculty like me, kinda out doing what I want, especially in engineering and the sciences. Because that takes not just money. But free money, as in money you can direct.

On top of that, the need to hustle bucks, and not completely die of exhaustion, means you start feeding into the dynamic of the social structure. You specialize. You’re given a home department (I’m in Mechanical and Materials Engineering.) But anyone that knows anything about engineering knows that is about as broad a department as you could get. I happened to specialize in Design about 25 years ago, and education, which has quite a few different demands than ordinary analytical engineering.

And the arbiter of that aggregated coolness? The Big Picture ranking system that everyone cares about — the US News and World Report issue — is intractable, opaque bullshit. The damage done to the American university system by U.S. News and World Report and their infernal college issue is really incalculable. I wrote a newspaper column on the issue, riffing off Tim O’Reilly’s notion of what Skynet was — the AI app. that destroyed the world in the Schwarzenegger Terminator movies. US News and World Report IS Skynet for universities. Yet every university president knows exactly where she/he is in the rankings.

Back to ‘specialize’. You find one thing that you’re an expert in, and double down. Your community gets smaller. Hair on a frog’s back turns into hair on a flea’s back on the hair on a frog’s back. I’m being a little supercilious here, but you get the idea. You do this maybe because that’s where your interests lie. But you’re also doing it because it’s easier to get money. Funders get to know you as the ‘hair on xxx back’ guy. And you tune your request to be just a bit ahead of the curve. And before you know it, you’re validating my ‘meta-linear theory of knowledge aggregation.’ Breakthroughs aren’t going to happen. Hairs are gonna get smaller, on the backs of smaller and smaller critters.

This fine-scaling in sophistication happens naturally inside our social structure. Sophistication CAN require money (if you’re in engineering, you’ve got to have a bigger Scanning Electron Microscope, or better controllers, or something.) But if you’re in the Liberal Arts, it often doesn’t. Either you reduce your scale of analysis (to a subset of a neighborhood of San Francisco) or you get more pure. We’ve seen this happen with cultural studies. I am absolutely a supporter of things like intersectionality studies. But when do the boxes get so small that they don’t matter? When do you come up with methodologies dealing with individuals across larger cultural groups? It’s not in the v-Meme, so we don’t do that. It’s not in our value set. And it’s rare to even find people willing to admit this.

And what about paradigm-changing voices that are outside your main milieu? You shut them out. Like this blog. The last thing you want is some idiot nonlinear dynamicist/aerospace engineer talking about psychology or sociology. Who’s got time for his nonsense? When was the last time he did a neighborhood survey? Or crowded a bunch of Psychology 101 students in a lab for a weird experiment?

And now we start to understand the other huge problem with the social structure. How would the vast majority of individuals inside ever develop to the point where they might talk to a meta-nonlinear paradigm shifter like me? What do you do with a dude that’s decided he’s an expert in multiple fields? We better just ignore him. Let alone synergize with him. In fact, by even writing that, I’ve committed a grave, status-based sin. I’ve said my work is paradigm shifting. How dare I? So people like me (there aren’t many of us anyway) are just ignored.

And naturally, it all fits into the university landscape of 2019. The Blue Chips have a profound interest in controlling the debate in every field they decide to play. But they can’t be too far out there, because if they are, they can’t raise the money necessary, from the government funders as well as the private donors, to keep their expensive operations going. But they still have to establish themselves as the smartest kids on the block. They have to stay nominally fresh, with increasing amount of stuff fed to the popular media.

And the media feeds all of this. Journalists, who used to be grounded, working-class gumshoe equivalents, are now raised in the same kind of status-centered professional colleges. When you couple that narrowed worldview with the collapse of mainstream media funding, you get a cascade of collapse, as less-experienced journalists who know less and less of history, are looking for sources. And where would you rather find your source from? Harvard or Yale? Or some southern-state land grant? Personally, it all starts going Catch-22 on all of this. With the current corruption crisis at MIT, who would the press rather quote? A detailed systemic analysis by a systems prof. from a land grant university? Or someone (anyone!) from MIT? And no, I’m not butt-hurt. But it gets wild after a while.

That feedback loop makes the situation even worse, of course.

And what about the land-grant institutions? They’re still competing in the insane status game. But it’s a game they can’t really win. Government grants are flat, and those bureaucracies suffer regarding generating ideas for funding that any bureaucracy does. It’s all meta-linear Johnny-Come-Lately shit all over again. So they do what poor folks do — they buy a lottery ticket, in the guise of athletics, put their money on Red, and spin. Silly rabbit — the house always wins. Your number is NOT going to come in.

In the case of the poorer universities, not enough grant money to actually support research means tuition has to be used to shore up research infrastructure. Which means more kids in larger classes. Which creates more Authoritarian v-Memey badness, increasingly from First Generation minority students, who have been told the good life awaits them after they take out $100K of debt that they really don’t understand, and likely will struggle to pay back. Who have already been locked in a high school classroom for the last four years because we can’t pass gun control legislation. You get the idea.

But those students still have to be taught. So bring on the adjuncts/clinicals/etc. Who are far cheaper, and can be chronically overworked — which many are.

Now add in administrative bloat — more recruiting, more services for kids that are likely to fail out, and on and on — and you can see the flywheel spin up, making it even harder to change course.

But I go on. The reality is that both rich and poor schools are largely chasing the same thing — status. And neither of them is developing any empathy along the way. And once one starts any institution of size, that lack of empathy, especially when money is tight, which it ends up so inevitably, with bureaucracies expanding to their budget — it’s just a matter of who takes it in the shorts. Most of the time, in large universities, it’s the students. They’re at the bottom of the pyramid.

But in the Blue Chips, they’re still going to need more money to live their cash-inflated lifestyles, and attract the very smartest of the Cool Kids, that have the ability to toe that fine line between staying ahead of the advancing wave, while not shifting any paradigm that would upset the apple cart and be too far ahead of normative values. Look at the never-ending philosophical support provided by the Ivies for both Wall Street and Endless War. Someone’s got to write those screeds that justify that most recent tax cut, or advocate for bombing Syria one more time.

And that means you’ll take your money from whoever gives it. Jeffrey Epstein’s sins are modest, compared to Mohammed Bin Sultan’s. Hell, he can look out his palace window onto Chop Chop Square and watch a decapitation if he chooses.

Why should you, as an ordinary person, care about any of this? Universities have an enormous job to do that affects all of us — whether you’re a fan (or a professor at one) of the Blue Chips or not. Whether they should or not, people look to the entire university system to find answers for the future, and educate their children for a modern society — something we are increasingly failing to do.

While you might expect to hear some familiar-sounding argument about teaching vs. research, that’s really not it at all. You have to have profs. do research or their brains rapidly turn to mush. Teach a class three times in a row without new information, and bad stuff happens to you. I don’t know how the Calculus I instructors keep from going insane. (But who cares, right? They’re very likely adjuncts.)

It’s actually the quality of all of it that goes down without empathy. When you create a system that basically works on destroying agency of the people inside of it, and creating a sub-class of Ph.Ds that do the dirty work of education, then you actually create a system that doesn’t make the researchers flourish either. You need empathetic development in order to form interesting and positive collaborations with people from other disciplines. Plus, you need it in your own brain to reconceptualize old material in new ways that allow folding in of new information, and complexity. You actually screw the main focus of what you think you had — research productivity. It IS terrible when some sex-slave trader like Jeffrey Epstein gives someone blood money. The problem is that, in the overall scheme of things, it’s one of more modest.

And the things that build empathy — like connecting with external constituencies (it’s built my career) — are also what you need, especially in the applied sciences like engineering, to make sure you’re on the right track. You need to make sure you’re not repeating your standard memetic patterns ( like looking at everything where there’s a boss in the middle, and everyone hanging out on the nodes) are actually correct. When you don’t, you end up with crazy bullshit, like the One Laptop per Child project, courtesy of the MIT Media Lab, that spent a bazillion dollars and failed miserably. You can decipher the misery from the Wikipedia article here.

The short answer is we in the academy have to do some serious soul-searching regarding how we manage personal and relational development in the context of everything we do. We have to change our fundamental social structure. We’ve grown far too attached to our medieval feudalism, and it’s killing us. Empathy is the thread that runs through all of it – or rather a lack of it. More empathy would make people like Epstein reprehensible from the start. More empathy would increase synergistic research. More empathy would make it intolerable to have a slave class working to do most of our teaching and not being able to live anything resembling a normal life. These things are NOT bugs. They are FEATURES.

Why must academia evolve? Big change is coming. Hell, it’s happening in front of us, and it’s bigger than the chronic diversity wars going on on university campuses. Managing complexity with coherence always has to be our goal if we want to evolve. We better figure it out fast, though. The boat’s leaking faster than we can pump it out. I can smell the salt water, getting stronger. And it’s not because I’m rich, and have five yachts. It’s because the ship is sinking.

Wicked Problems — Understanding how the Amazon is Burning, and How to Save It

The same, connected jungle — the Pantanal, just south of the Amazon
Caiman attacking a herd of capybaras

One of the recent global crises in the news lately is the wildfires in the Amazon. CNN and other news outlets blew up with the story, with various headlines like “80% more fires this year than last!” and “the Amazon is the lungs of the planet!” The strongest signal message that came out of all of this in the U.S. was “ban Brazilian beef!”

OK. First off, I’m actual close friends with one of the founders of the Rainforest Action Network. I’ve supported stopping Amazon deforestation since forever. I’m a card-carrying forest activist that spent a good hunk of my 30s and 40s saving native forests in the U.S., and wrote a book on the experience mid-solution, before we actually won with the Clinton Roadless Initiative, called Wild to the Last.

And I’m all for saving the Amazon. But saving the Amazon is a sticky wicket. It’s not just a matter of insulting the current, awful President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, as European leaders have done. He IS awful — but any cursory history of problems in the Amazon threads back through the past three-four decades, or even longer. You want to see how much some governments want to destroy the Amazon? Read the history of the Belo Monte dam — a dam that for a good hunk of the year, won’t have enough water behind it to generate power — to realize that this problem is deep, systemic, and wicked.

The problem with the fires is that they are presented as unprecedented, and without parallel in the popular press. And getting the finger for the blame are the peasant farmers who practice slash-and-burn agricultural to clear fields for increased cattle production. Many people in the U.S., therefore, have called for a trade boycott of Brazilian beef.

But slash-and-burn peasants aren’t the only problem in the Amazon. Mining is huge, and builds roads that peasants follow to open up land. Without those roads (and there have been multiple controversies over various roads over the decades) there would be far less opportunity for slash-and-burn ag, as well as indigenous displacement and illegal logging.

But even worse is the growth of large-scale soybean cultivation across the combined Pantanal/Amazon ecosystem. For those that have never heard of the Pantanal, it is the largest wetland ecosystem in the world, and blends the watershed of the Paraná and Paraguay river with the Amazon river, only being separated from that watershed by a low divide. (The topography is a bit more complicated than what I’ve described here, but you hopefully get the idea.)

You can witness this for yourself. Go to Google Maps, and put in the term ‘Mato Grosso’ — the name for the state (along with the Mato Grosso do Sul) where part of the Pantanal is. Or Google ‘Xingu reserve’. Zoom in around the edges of the reserve and you’ll see clearly demarcated mega-farms.

We are offered the notion that the number of fires occurring in the Amazon are at unprecedented levels. It IS a problem!!! But I’ve also worked on fire science in an earlier life, and the way one determines the real extent of fires is by looking at acreage, which is only available after the season ends. Maybe it’s the worst in history. But maybe not.

And land conversion for soy farming has continued apace across these two critical ecosystems — both the Pantanal and Amazon — as long as I’ve followed the issue, which is about twenty years of awareness. Originally, the driver was Japanese agri-business finding appropriate soil amendments to Pantanal and north soils so they could grow soybeans. I can’t find any of that mentioned in the current news, but apparently much of the current soybean production is going to China for hog raising. Maybe. Everyone in that part of the world has soy as a core element in the diet, so I’m not sure I’m ready to believe that completely, though rising demand for meat certainly plays into the cause-and-effect.

So — there is a hue and cry from the various countries of the G-7 for trade embargoes of Brazil, if Bolsonaro doesn’t fix the problems with the Amazon fires. A paltry amount of money is offered up to fight said fires — $20M or something. To put this in perspective, $20M would be a modest size fire season in central Idaho. And I’ll bet you thought that central Idaho mostly has just potatoes. (It doesn’t — it’s the last big forested wilderness complex in the lower 48 of the U.S. See below.)

Upper Fish Creek in the Clearwater Country of central Idaho

And Brazilian beef imports into the United States make about .5% of the total supply. We just don’t buy much Brazilian beef, with Canada next door, and Australia behaving felicitously.

OK — it’s Wicked Problem time (with a few assumptions.) We believe the problem is the poor Brazilian vaqueiros (cowboys). But it’s at least a 50/50 split with people who a.) have a product that vegans don’t object to (soybeans) and larger PR firms can make money off of. We might be facing an enormous die-off of the forest (so say some scientists) because of the ‘unprecedented number of wildfires’ (remember that acreage comment) and that’s the end of the Lungs of the Earth. All this is compelling stuff.

So let’s do that trade boycott!

Except —

a.) The trade boycott likely will have unintended consequences. Brazil, rejected by the West, will turn to China and the rising Asian economies, who will demand even more soybeans and cattle. Thus making the problem even worse.

b.) The Amazon may or may not be the Lungs of the Earth. Most of the CO2 is absorbed in the ocean, and the Amazon works closer to a 50/50 balance (at night, trees let off CO2!) and the Amazon is equatorial. The Amazon may affect global weather (I’m more inclined to believe this than the CO2 argument.) But no one really knows.

c.) Amazon die-back? Maybe. But there is deep historical record that a good hunk before our current European era was settled by native civilizations that were not small, and rather extensive. A great book by Buddy Levy, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, describes the river at a landscape level. And there are a ton of people living down there — not in a jungle setting. After those people were removed, due to disease, etc. THEN it became the jungle that we know.

If there’s a lesson in all this regarding solving Wicked Problems, it’s this. If you want a real solution, at least to part of the system, you have to constrain the system boundary so that part of the system more resembles a closed system. And that constraint has to make some global sense.

All my friends who work on creating protected reserves will like this outcome, in this circumstance. The way to protect the Amazon/Pantanal system is to protect the landscape. There are, of course, many ways to do this. But it’s the only thing you can be assured will actually do some good — even in the hyper-connected, globalized world of today.

The rest of the actions start unrolling unintended consequences, that are largely driven by our own cultural/personal biases. No one’s mentioning soybeans, because the vegans aren’t going to like that. No one’s mentioning large plant agribusiness, because those guys have better press agents. And no one’s talking about the uncertainty in the impact of the fires, because that would (in their mind, and probably correctly) add to complacency.

What’s the point of all this? It’s not to do nothing. But we have to prioritize actions that assess across the total threats to a given system, and peel off actions with some hope of close-able boundaries. Being aware of how unaware we may actually be is not a bad place to start.

How to create emergent solutions for Wicked Problems is a WHOLE ‘other ball of wax. But that’s enough for today. And that chain of thought is an ongoing discussion.

Evolution’s Path – Greater Complexity and Coherence

Huangshan, Anhui Province

One of the most personally frustrating things I encounter when navigating the social sciences are the bedrock assumptions that so much of the various fields are built on. I’ve ranted already about one of my favorites — the notion that civilization and self-organization came from the fact that humans were always starving, and so they started growing crops. Such crazy BS. Dunno about you, but civilization (especially the first Authoritarian hierarchies) were far more coordinated affairs than most tribal societies. And no one gets along super-well when they’re hungry. The idea that base energetics limited how they function is unbelievable.

One of my other pet peeves of the deeper dysfunctional ones is that evolution is random, and has no preferred direction. “Fitness” rules all, and things just kinda kill each other until the strongest/most resilient/etc. wins out. So ridiculous. You can look around at any given time and see the evidence that this is nonsense. If you go down to my wood shop, which has evolved over the years, the variety, sophistication, and interconnected nature of my tools belie this myth.

But it’s bigger than my wood shop. It’s one of the most profound examples of the Value set/v-Memes talking — namely, the Authoritarian one. “Bigger and stronger”? Please. How much Authoritarian can you get? And even the worse message. Once someone trots out an example of how Bigger and Stronger failed, they’ll inevitably shake their fists in the air and say “You can’t make sense of where the world will go.” You can’t look around and synthesize a larger pattern, because you’re not an expert. And that arbitrary nature? You’ve got to be pretty clever if you’re even going to guess.

The deep secret of evolutionary environments can, however, be seen across nature, and once the understanding of spatial and temporal scale reinforcement, coupled with energetics is understood a little bit (these things are still challenging) you can start looking around for meta-patterns. Larger than metaphors, and potentially a little more dangerous, they are still there for the pickings.

In the case of evolution — my thesis that evolution tends toward both complexity and coherence is easily mapped from how ocean waves develop. Ocean waves start out as a stochastic (read random) pattern across the surface of water. But over time, there is a reinforcement pattern of certain wavelengths from boundary/environmental conditions that causes harmonic resonances, so that certain wavelengths build, and others dissipate. These dominant wavelength waves, created by that combination of wind and tide, will vary dependent on the energy pumped into them, as well as the contours of the ocean floor, and other factors. But without coherence – that lining up of the various factors, the stochastic nature starts a process of self-cancellation (random phases, signal processing folks!) that erases them. Sorta. The sea is never perfectly flat, and the interstices in between the waves fill in with a variety of smaller waves, that have some scaling processes that approach fractal nature. Hokusai so eloquently gave us the famous image, Great Wave off Kanagawa, to make the point in art.

Okinami (Great Offshore Wave) off Kanagawa

Evolution works in the same way. Large structures form, and grow, until the environment renders them unstable, and then complexity harnesses the remaining energy in a coherent fashion until the ecosystem is filled in.

This should not be surprising to anyone with an understanding of nonlinear dynamics. The idea that a disturbance (which usually accelerates evolution) occurs, of a meta-nonlinear nature occurs, and then fills in meta-linearly (or less accurately, incrementally, but you might get the idea a little easier) would surprise no one.

And coherence? Think about it — it’s a no-brainer. If things AREN’T coherent, then they dissipate through stochastic/random processes. It’s a necessary condition.

Why should we care? What’s the Deep OS takeaway? And what the hell does any of this have to do with empathy? Everything, of course.

As our global world continues to emerge and self-create — ain’t no one REALLY in charge, though we definitely can add inputs to affect the system — we are rapidly gaining in complexity. Tools like the Internet just accelerate the process. We can connect to people around the world, and people around the world can connect to each other. We don’t even have to be invited. One of the largest social networks in the world is China’s WeChat. If you don’t read Mandarin, well, you’re gonna miss a lot of the action.

But complexity cannot sustain itself without coherence. What’s happening in America right now, on a host of issues like gun control, are threatening the survival of the nation. Let alone the survival of our children.

And as Ryan and I discussed in this piece, if we want both complexity AND coherence, we’ve got two paths in front of us. The first, the low v-Meme solution, is homogeneity. Homogeneity will work for larger scalings of Authoritarian systems (look at China, for example) but will inevitably fall apart as more diverse information flows inundate a society (look at China and Hong Kong now!) But for diverse systems, with far greater opportunities for creativity, happiness and growth, we have to have empathy — the full stack, from Mirroring Behavior to Conscious and Rational Empathy. That’s why, as societal size has increased, we mostly see an upward bending of developed empathy, and empathetic evolution.

With evolution, it’s pretty clear — it’s onward and upward, toward complexity and coherence. Or toward a major disturbance that starts the process all over. The roadmap is there. The choice is ours.

Stopping Dystopia in its Tracks through Empathy

In the townships of Cape Town, ZA

A couple of (unfortunately) pathologically fascinating things have come flying through my Internet feed in the last few days. This piece is the press release from the MIT Media Lab about AttentivU glasses that use haptic (vibratory) or audio stimulus in case you start not paying attention in class. They’re wired into your brain (a little bit of exaggeration there, but not much) and also track your eye movements to see if you’re starting to daydream, instead of listening to the Grand Vizier preaching at you from the front of the classroom.

The second is a proposal in front of the Trump administration, that instead of banning assault rifles as a mode for stopping mass shootings, instead, the federal government would create a new agency, called HARPA (for Health Advanced Research Projects Agency, like DARPA) that would pursue intensive neural monitoring of citizens, monitored by AI, to determine WHEN one might go batshit crazy and shoot up a school. This article on Gizmodo is actually pretty good.

Never mind the feasibility. Of course, we’d perceive these things as extreme violations of personal privacy. And they’re shocking. And on and on.

But that’s not why you come to this blog. Here’s the juicy, Deep OS stuff that’s going on. As crazy as it may seem, it is a predictable devolution of emergent Authoritarian behavior.

Let’s put up the good old Evolution vs. Sophistication knowledge graph for a minute. (And here’s a background post.)

(In brief — evolution is directly related to increasing agency, empathy, and complexity — sophistication is smaller/larger/expanded scales of ‘complicatedness’)

Once we’re locked into a relationally disruptive, anti-empathetic brand of authoritarianism, which unfortunately, our current leadership represents, the natural progression of the social and knowledge structure folds down and down, horizontally, into smaller scales. We ain’t moving up in empathy, represented by the Y-axis of this graph.

And even though it involves extreme boundary violation (reading your brain to see what’s going on in your noggin, if you’re going to be violent, likely involves a literal physical violation to jack into your head) such concerns don’t bother the ones in charge much. Nor does the ‘false positive’ version of any technology (“We’ve got to do what it takes to keep our schools/public spaces safe, asides from banning assault rifles, of course!”) tend to bother them. If you’ve got something locked on your head, and you eat too much pizza and watch a Tarentino movie, who cares if you have a bad dream, and have to spend a week in an isolation facility because the SWAT team shows up at your door?

And here’s what’s really wild. The trauma inflicted by such misfirings also reinforces the Authoritarian value set. You’re gonna practice being passive. As well as giving up on green peppers and pepperoni on your pizza. And whatever you do, don’t watch The Minority Report. Or the Japanese anime thriller series, Psycho-pass. Philip K. Dick and the Japanese — true inspiration of the potential dystopian mind. Philip Dick was a Time Lord. (Holding that thought, he’s the one person I plan on having lunch with. Along with Matt Groening. I’ll buy. I think I’m kidding here, folks — but I’m not sure!)

Many people will cluck and say it can’t come to pass. My point with this piece is NOT that such things are conspiratorial, nor necessarily inevitable. The problem with them is that they are emergent. They are natural paths of growth of sophistication that occur inside the v-Meme/value set. It’s not just the current batch of bonkers-cowboys that think this kind of stuff is cool. And necessary. Remember, no gun control ALSO suits the v-Meme purposes. If you’re afraid to go out in public for fear of getting shot at a rock concert, that is also relationally disruptive, and community and empathy-destroying. The effects of that have already been seen in the high school construction business — where young, neuroplastic adolescents, instead of learning to care for each other, learn to stanch the blood flow of sucking chest wounds. This kind of stuff serves double-duty, value-set/v-Meme-wise. Not only are people frightened and retreat from social, empathetic connection. A certain subset will also be traumatized by all of it, creating a more reliably passive citizenry. It’s just wild how the old v-Meme propagation rolls. If this doesn’t make you a believer of value sets as emergent, self-organizing memetic structures, I don’t know what will.

What’s even more damning evidence of how all this stuff works, when empathy is absent, isn’t just the neuro-monitoring. It’s those doggone AttentivU glasses. Here’s the short version. Folks in the MIT Media Lab are famous, the world over. In context of resources, they have money to do whatever they want. Someone will pay for it — be it DARPA, a New England or Silicon Valley entrepreneur, or a sheik from the UAE. And certainly, it’s unfair to paint the entire enterprise with a broad brush. But when it came to making choices, the glasses seemed like a good idea to someone there. Instead of taking the money and ploughing it into empathetic alternatives, it just seemed like a good idea to shake students’ brains. The value set/v-Meme emergently reaffirmed their choices. Think about it — small scales (your head), paying attention to authority, who’s up there defining the class’s truth. Homework assignment from the blog for your true Empathetic Evolutionaries — map out how the value set is reinforced by this kind of crazy bullshit.

The deep point of this blog post isn’t just to shake you up. Take a deep breath. The actual deep point is to make you realize that people– a fair number, and well-resourced– are marching, unreflectively, in service of the secret background coding emergently. It just seems interesting to them. Because that’s the way the v-Memes roll.

What should be our shared passion and purpose? Making this kind of crazy bullshit UNTHINKABLE. How do we do this? Don’t go all Authoritarian v-Meme-y on me now. Don’t think solely in terms of bans, or laws, though for the short term, maybe. What we really have to do is evolve empathy, so people not only see through this, but it doesn’t occur to them to attack personal agency and privacy of individuals. And there’s the unspoken, or unrecognized metacognitive benefit. When those people are evolved, natural, harmonious solutions, from delivering care to the mentally ill, addressing deep adolescent isolation, creating engaged education environments, and the necessary scaffolding at the lower v-Memes to assure we have safe public spaces will ALSO naturally emerge. We tend to forget about this when railing on about the latest Authoritarian miscreancy. If we evolve, IT ALL EVOLVES.

Dystopias don’t have to occur if you develop people. In fact, they become laughable concepts that don’t map to reality at all. But that can only occur with the deep realization that we must evolve empathy across our society, following the road map laid out in this blog. There are a semi-infinite number of projects and options to get us where we need to go. All the answers are NOT here. But make no mistake about the direction, or meta-platform.

And for the chronic naysayers — yes, there is the possibility that despite our best wishes, that those empathetically evolved folks might unleash some unknown monster from the depths of our AI work. Yes. I get that. But I’ll take my chances with that as opposed to people directly working on the prospect.

Quickie Post – A Beautiful Memory, and well, Twitter

Buenos Aires, 2012, before the parade

I was thumbing through my photo collection last night when I came across this photo, taken (I believe) in October 2012. So many computer transfers have screwed up the dates on my photos, but I think that’s about right. There was a large parade in Buenos Aires, and the dancers and marchers had literally come from across Latin America. Folks from Bolivia, Peru, Chile — you name it. It was a mass of beautiful synchronized inclusive group activity, and everyone was having a good time, myself included. Heterogeneous age distribution, lots of connection, good food — the works. The US has so much to learn. We do public space interaction so poorly. Instead of carefree connection, we’ve got semi-automatic weapons. Sad!

I’ve been to 38+ countries (depending on how you count) and have fond memories of all of them. I’ll keep posting photos.

On to Twitter — short version, Twitter is one of the most fascinating research platforms out there. It will also make you totally crazy. You can reach all sorts of folks, but most people run their Twitter feed either as a member of the audience for entertainment, some kind of relay for views they like, or their own personal radio station. There’s a longer post on how Twitter is an amazing tool to understand people’s personal development.

So far, the only thread I’ve been involved with that a.) had numbers, and b.) involved consensus being reached (of the myriad issues facing the world,) was that every young man (no mention of women) should own a pig, raise it, kill it, and eat it as part of their personal development, or give up on bacon for the rest of their lives. Vegans and non-vegans seem to agree with this. I’m not quite sure that this is the bildung that my intellectual friends, Lene Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman had in mind. Plus, my read is that it would be very challenging to do in a 2nd floor walk-up in Manhattan. Or Stockholm. Note to readers — I was raised on a hobby farm, and have plenty of experience in this kind of lesson. I’m not so sold on it.

A small bright spot — I did find John Hagel’s work as an educational/change consultant for Deloitte on Twitter. John’s talk at the Singularity University confirmed my research techniques for divining techniques for high-performance organizations was/is fundamentally sound. The short answer? Teams of 5-15 members, with insights gained from Big Wave Surfers (in the ocean.) Not very far off from my own experience as an modestly-extreme kayaker myself, integrated into the Industrial Design Clinic. There is nothing like team-based extreme sports to teach the lessons of an evolved empathy. You have to read your friends and their situations quickly, and accurately, based on data, or someone could drown. That data-driven relational development translates well to signals and sensing in other environments. And as I’ve talked about before here, maybe all that hyper vigilance turned out to be beneficial after all.

John’s talk is here (he starts at 1:00) but this will likely vanish soon — in probably 3 days. There are a handful of practitioners on the leading edge who are convergent. I’m hoping to gather some of his more nuanced insights, as well as turn John to the Deep Code OS approach that I’ve developed, as his surface observations jibe very well with my own. What is nice is we do come at this from different spaces — John is corporate, mine is academic. He hasn’t answered my questions about his challenges yet, but I’m sure he’s had his share. At any rate, the video is worth the watch, if nothing else, for those that get this stuff to know the community is growing. Get it before it goes away.

By the way, I am working on a longer post about looking at organizational structures to solve problems sorted with a Cynefin filter. It’s a natural fit, with some unexpected insights. Stay tuned — it’s just a lot of work.

Quickie Post — Winning the Internet on the Electric Twitter Machine

My border collie, Mary, and my two boys, ca. 2002

Lately, I’ve been working on establishing a presence on Twitter. I had initially thought that Twitter, with its 240 character limit, was a toxic playground for trolls and collapsed Authoritarians, because of the inherent knowledge fragment nature of the medium.

I was wrong. Turns out Twitter is far more interesting than Facebook, that’s for sure. Facebook is the place where you get to find out what you’re friends have been holding back from their public personae. It’s like finding out that the quiet guy who never said anything, and you always thought well of, is actually a total asshole. Facebook is interesting in its own right, of course, but it has inherent problems. It’s a place where once you’re above some norm of decency (like realizing pederasty is abhorrent) people can find whatever set of norms they like in the broader world. And so become unencumbered from reality, or even the desired to maintain bonds within a physical community. And unfortunately, if you’re connected with them on Facebook, you’re likely connected with them in reality.

It’s not that the Electric Twitter Machine (term borrowed from one of my favorite political writers, Charles Pierce at Esquire) can’t turn into a hideous, dank swamp for all sorts of High Conflict Personalities. It can, of course. But it also offers a medium to walk along the edge of a very steep cliff, with a chain attached, and peer out either into the heavens, or the abyss. Think the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park, metaphorically speaking.

I’ve constrained myself to mostly professional discourse and had a fabulous time connecting with folks of like mind (like Conway’s Law author, Mel Conway), who want to make big-scale global change, as well as some truly funny one-liner writers. They’ve inspired me to start adding a little more humor in my feed. So far, this is my favorite existential quote, from Chief Chuck:

·Jul 30 As I watched the dog chasing his tail I thought “Dogs are easily amused”, then I realized I was watching the dog chasing his tail.

My recommendation is this: try it. Exercise self-control. And get back to me. It could be that 240 characters are perhaps the best way to build connections with people you’d otherwise have no access to yet invented. Everyone’s almost willing to give you 240 characters of time.