Hands down, my favorite recent podcast has to be Fall of Civilizations, put together by Paul M. M. Cooper. The episodes don’t come out that often (seems like he got rolling, but it turned into a twice-yearly deal) but they are just amazing. It’s almost like each one is a little book, or novella. And Paul has one of the dulcet, melancholy voices that’s perfectly evocative for his subject matter. I’ve listened to almost all of them, and each one is deeply insightful, and goes far to synthesize with the status quo on why things in a given empire fell apart.
Which is why the subject matter is so relevant today. In the U.S., we seem to be seized up with the idea that somehow our problems, as well as our opposition, are unique, or at least some incarnation of the devil. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are largely in the throes of a large scale revolution in human social dynamics, caused by the shift of timescales brought on by the Internet. As I discussed in this piece, what is truly new is the downshift of geography and proximity as the primary informational organizational principle in our society, due to the Internet. And the primary problems we face are NOT what the mainstream media would tell you — mis- and disinformation. So much of their critique is the fact that the reins of social control are slipping from their hands. The old playbook just doesn’t work.
And then there is the fact that the press is also memetically limited in how they tell their stories. Most of the current MSM seems to be innumerate as well — so the tools, agency and insight necessary to tell stories about how populations are moving around are beyond them. That’s why we get a story about one individual in a nation of 330 million people that’s supposed to move us to tears, as well as reinforce whatever the dominant narrative is. It happens on the Left and Right — and nothing could be more iconic than the ‘Q’ narrative. Most people, if confronted, would have no idea what the actual story is around ‘Q’ — and certainly it hasn’t changed anything by a microscopic fraction of actual politics. Yet extremes on both the Right and the Left are invested in the very idea, even though it’s far from representative of anything resembling a coherent social movement. And so it is amplified, by both supporters and detractors, mostly to show the other side is awful. I’ve written about this extensively here.
A nation that occupies so much of its collective mind with wild stories and superstition is not demonstrating memetically robust behavior, needless to say. And one of the worst exemplars, especially during the COVID pandemic, has been the behavior of our university system, who have elevated large groups of experts that mostly bully, but also manifest social phobia on a large scale about a virus that really certainly doesn’t affect their main demographic — students — at all, and really isn’t a big threat to its workforce either. It is true we have older faculty members, but if we would follow the script of the Great Barrington Declaration, we could manage that as well. Focus resources on the vulnerable. Sigh…
But the screaming and caterwauling across the academy does not bode well for long-term support by the public of the larger academic enterprise. You’d literally have to live under a rock to miss the direction of most of the dialogue, on sites like Twitter and elsewhere. Those in the laptop/ZOOM class intend to stay home and not do their jobs in person as long as they possibly can, while supported by “essential workers” who bring them food and goods from literally across the planet. Master/slave model, anyone?
And they’ll call those of us speaking out against the madness that’s driving this — the application of the various Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) all sorts of names, while denying the actual population’s needs, and conducting experiments that show the false efficacy of empathy disrupting interventions like masks. This goes as far as large ensembles of experiments on animal models like Syrian Golden Hamsters as proof that masks work. Even though they don’t. Clever minds (and academics are clever) can always pull something out of their hip pocket to justify their beliefs.
But it doesn’t stop what Scott Galloway, marketing prof. at NYU has called the “fist of stone coming for academia’s glass chin.” That punch will land.
That’s why it’s useful to consider things like Fall of Civilizations and the historical lessons of what happens when that fist does land.
And for that we might consider what happened in an empire I certainly did not know about — the Songhai Empire. The Songhai occupied a large part of West Africa, including the Niger River and environs, from about 1430-1592. The Wikipedia entry is not nearly as interesting nor detail-filled as Paul’s work, and I highly recommend the podcast. The major cities of the Songhai were the trading center of Gao, as well as the intellectual center of Timbuktu, known for its historic libraries full of African history. Timbuktu was a city of scholars, in many ways iconic and ahead of its time.
But when the empire came apart, and degenerated into smaller city-states, because of the development of the African/American slave trade, the locals rounded up the scholars and sold them into slavery. Cooper particularly notes this, without much reason. But I suspect (and this is my bias) it happened because the scholars were supported by the empire, and had alternately, as with the COVID majority crowd, sided with the elites in generating bullshit philosophy that did not help the people. And so when their time came — when the larger imperial mantle had vanished — the common folks knew what to do with those self-ordained elites. Off on a slave ship to a sugar plantation in the West Indies they went. You don’t sell into slavery people that are out there, helping everyone.
But there’s another part to the story — an earlier chapter involving one of the Emperors of the Songhai, Sunni Ali. Sunni Ali has a decidedly mixed picture in the history of the Songhai, alternately being praised by some as the greatest emperor (this is in the historical record) and founder of the empire, as well as being a cruel psychopath that really had it in for the scholarly community, which was centered around the city and libraries of Timbuktu. Sunni Ali invaded Timbuktu something like five times. The first time, Cooper details, and basically told all the scholars to leave the town by the following day, or he would put all the remainders to the sword. So most of the scholars packed their books and treasures, and hightailed it out of there. The thing about messing with scholars is we really can’t know the extent of Sunni Ali’s cruelty, because when you mess with people writing history, you’re not going to end up with a good look.
But there are still implications to read in between the lines. Let’s say Sunni Ali was indeed a psychopath. From other writing I’ve done on this blog, the percentage of psychopaths increase dramatically with a trauma-soaked society. Somehow, Sunni Ali got into his head, messed up though it may have been, that the scholars were the source of the problem. And once again, it’s a sign that walling yourself in your library, and likely producing philosophy that makes your patrons happy, is not the way to create reverence for your chosen passion. It becomes a numbers game about who’s going to knock on your door when the training wheels come off.
Modern scholars might reflect on their behavior during COVID, screaming for increased restrictions, for situations that never materialized, yet ended up projections of their own social phobias, and destroyed almost a whole arm of the economy. My advice has been simple — admit you’re wrong, and let’s get society going again. But that’s only recently being heeded, and the academic community is still largely on the wrong side of the science, and history on all of this.
Sword to the throat, or fist of stone to the glass chin, there’s a reason we have buried in our academic culture that commitment, in the face of adversity, to the real truth, as well as the public good. It’s a survival mechanism. And the fact that we have largely failed in that public mission with COVID does not bode well. I’d like to think there’s still time to get on the right side of both truth and history. But that time is running out — and just because academia controls the press now doesn’t mean people have no way of knowing their real, lived truth.
As I type this post, one of the momentous events of the COVID years is underway. It is hard to know the exact number, but over 70,000 trucks from across Canada are either driving to Ottawa, or already there, in protest of the endless mandates destroying people’s lives by the various federal and provincial agencies regarding management of the COVID pandemic.
It is a protest, and there are quite a few videos of people cheering the truckers on as they drive Trans-Canada 1 and other routes into the capital city. But it is not just a protest. It is what we used to call in the old-growth wars, an “action”. And actions were not just meant to create media. Actions have actual consequences in the Real World. In the case of the truckers, it’s shutting off literal lifelines of food and necessary goods into people’s households across Canada. That’s an action.
Most people live in peaceful oblivion of the complexity and synchronization of supply chains that make life in our modern societies possible. And even though “supply chain” is the new buzzword, most institutionalized workers (academics and government) have absolutely no clue about how anything ends up on their doorstep.
Interestingly enough, I have extensive experience with the sufferings of people who have to worry about supply chains, as well as trucks. I’ve had at least a ten year old relationship with PACCAR, through my graduates, who have sponsored numerous successful projects in the Industrial Design Clinic. One of the services I offer when people sponsor my students’ work is a form of corporate psychotherapy. When I call, I get a rundown on whatever the crisis du jour is. Trust that I know the background details of every crisis Boeing has had in the last 20 years. Mum’s the word, though.
The trucking protest (as someone who has planned protests) is particularly interesting, in that it’s not just a protest. It’s a civil action, and it’s made possible by something that was far less common even 30 years ago. Large semi trucks almost all have sleepers, which are self-contained units that sit behind the cab, and are often directly connected to the cockpit of the truck. They’re a little tight, but you can live in them — which means you can go to the bathroom. This is critical. So when the truckers say they intend to stay as long as it takes to get restrictions repealed and back to normal, it’s not an idle threat.
On top of that, there is simply no way for government to clear trucks out of a space, like they might automobiles or protestors. And even if they could, they’d have to recruit wrecker drivers, who very likely don’t share the same affinity the government might wish for. I can’t imagine that they’d find too many willing hands.
What does it mean for the pajama class, as well as the appalling leadership of Canada, to operate in such an air of oblivion to this reality? An example is in order. Over Christmas, I visited my sons in Reno, NV for two weeks. During that time, a record-setting blizzard settled in on Donner Pass, the primary path over the Sierras on I-80. Reno is an island city on the other side, and basically all food for Reno comes in by truck from northern California. In four days, virtually all the perishables (vegetables and meat) were gone. You were only going to make it by eating Oreo cookies (there was still a fair amount of processed food garbage.) But it wouldn’t take more than a couple of days for that to be gone as well.
That means, quite literally, that people will run out of food — not just in Ottawa, but across Canada. It is the apex of Elite Risk Minimization to ignore the truckers’ righteous demands.
The fact that the people of Canada (or the US) might only dimly understand the role of trucking in our modern economy really doesn’t matter. A large-scale truckers’ strike like this serves as a profound moment of grounding validity, where people living in their own, incorrect version of reality are about to find out that regardless of their belief that the world needs to be organized around the notion of COVID prevention (a canard I’ve written about before, in various forms) are now facing collapse. Isolated systems, like our own governments, can delude themselves that they really understand societal risks, while refusing to realize that their actions are driven by their own inability to face their own cowardice about their own deaths, all they want. But as the bubble floats away from the absolute truth — in this case, that we have a complex system of supplying goods and services necessary for survival, and there are people vital to that system that you’ve elected to punish — once you get too far, you will see grounding failure and arcing between the bubble and reality.
This is where Canada is today.
I’ve been particularly moved by some of the videos I’ve seen on Twitter (and it’s tough to move me — trust me.) Truckers very peaceably laying down the law on the loss of jobs through enforced government mandates, about the risks of their profession, and how they worked through the beginnings of COVID when we really didn’t know if COVID was deadly across all age cohorts. At the same time, some of them brought up the dismissal of unvaccinated health care workers, who faced the same challenges, and now are facing dismissal as well. It is beyond ungrateful. It is a societal crime. And especially in the light of what vaccines can, and cannot do. We are now down to the only real benefit of vaccines is reducing severity of infection, with little effect on spread in populations.
I’ve also been fascinated throughout the pandemic by the mismatch of government response to the stated cultural values of a given country. Countries whose v-Meme sets align with the citizenry have seen little overt conflict over measures. This includes those more evolved Communitarian v-Meme countries, like Sweden and Denmark, as well as in darker venues like narcissistic Authoritarian v-Meme China, where people really are OK with welding their neighbors into their apartments.
The more interesting cases have been surprises. I couldn’t believe that Canada would continue their measures as long as they had. I’ve spent serious time in Canada, and it really is true that Canadians are more friendly and helpful than their southern neighbors. So I guess it should come as no surprise that the truckers would show up and do what they’re doing, and be supported. Canadian’s baseline Communitarianism has programmed a code of egalitarian treatment and action into their DeepOS Meme-NA.
Another pathologically fascinating aspect of this strike is how it’s showing, once again, how broken our own media systems in the U.S. are. I’m writing this on Sunday, Jan. 30 in the morning. Trudeau has been evacuated out of Ottawa (probably on a helicopter) to a “safe space” in the US. This is what fallen dictators do when they lose their country. He’s issued no public response as of 10:30 AM PST. But the only place I can really learn anything is on Twitter. This profound flex of blue-collar public power isn’t covered on MSNBC or CNN (and no, I’m not going to exhaustively scan all the liberal outlets — you can do that if you’re bored.) But even Fox News has weak coverage. Make no mistake — this is a Western civilization-changing moment. And as this piece summarizes, regardless of the outlet, the popular press is locked into courting authority — be it Left or Right. About ten years ago, I started seeing the disparagement of the concept of “populism” — which used to be promoted as a prosocial value in the media. That is obviously no longer true.
It’s also memetically fascinating that Trudeau has whispered nary a world (at least I can’t find anything) about this crisis in his own country. Trudeau is the son of the Canadian icon Pierre Trudeau, and is an extreme example of dynastic authority- and popularity-driven politics as one can find. As we are busy learning the the U.S., dynastic politics do not serve modern societies well at all, especially large complex ones, Trudeau is behaving in the current circumstance like any deposed king. He obviously does not have the strength of character to admit that he was wrong, nor wade into the crowd of truckers outside the Canadian Parliament and make peace. Instead, we are likely to see a long, drawn-out crisis on the scale of food depletion (the truckers have said they’re ready to stay for over two weeks, and trust me, that’s more than enough time to empty stores.) The fact that a leader would put the entire well-being of his country at risk over COVID policy is emblematic of his lack of integrity, as well as the compactness of the bubble of his public health policy advisors. As I write this, I am literally gasping.
Mark my words — this is a civilization-changing moment. It’s not time to pop popcorn, or any such icks. It is time to watch. And you better believe that all the other petty tyrants that lead the Free World are watching as well. As goes Trudeau and Canada, go their own necks. That’s grounding validity for you. It pushes those collective government brains down into maximum neuroplasticity that we find in Survival v-Meme situations. My guess is that there will be strong provincial pressure from the individual ministers to walk this one back. But it is simply impossible to know what exactly is happening real-time because of the corruption of the news media.
But needless to say, my prayers and hopes are with the truckers.
Though there are times I question my time spent on Twitter (the pandemic exacerbates this because of a lack of social connection, so the opportunity cost of time spent is low, and that’s not a good thing) I’ve also connected with some truly exceptional individuals.
One of these is K.C. Holliday — a yoga master (I’ve projected the role of instructor on her, but I am not sure this is true!) who posts some of the most insightful memetic Tweets on Twitter. Billing herself as an ex-historian, and a movement specialist, K.C.’s insights cut like a knife through the bullshit associated with the COVID meta-crisis. If you’re on Twitter, you should follow her. Her Twitter handle is: @KC__Holliday.
Just a couple of days ago, K.C. accurately summed up the economic restrictions that are being waged on select businesses as a war on the “Experience” economy. I kinda knew that, but this framing is powerful, and memetic. If you just want material things, they map into the low v-Meme space associated with the institutional class, that has basically begged for extended COVID restrictions. Dubbed the ‘pajama class’ in the semi-popular media, it’s easy to get what you want. A big brown truck will essentially bring it to you.
But if you want and need human connection — characteristic of the higher, more empathetically demanding v-Memes, that require some version of developed empathy — then things like gyms, restaurants, travel and other venues are what help you find meaning in life. And these are the places that are taking the biggest economic hit.
As I’ve talked before about masks, this is really a memetic war going on in the world right now. I’ve shilled Michael Lind’s work before (still love it) but this conflict is really a no holds barred cage match between externally defined relational modes, and independently generated friendships. The externally defined folks have really held the power-high ground, if not the moral one. And the measures they desire to propagate are fundamentally relationally destructive, and even if applied unevenly, help their memetic cause of social relational breakdown. The independently defined folks are finding their footing — but they’ve mostly been stuck on the top level of the societal debate, arguing with the psychopaths on the other side, instead of dismissing their concerns outright, and moving on to the real destruction of empathy. I will say this is changing, but it’s been a long time coming — at least in changing the messaging. I do think a lot of folks on the side of social evolution realized it early on, but were simply too nice to call out the relational disruptors. It’s Go Time, Team Reality. Hit ’em where they hurt. None of this at this point in history is normal.
I’ve said masks will be the last thing the institutional class will give up, precisely because they deliver the emergent, insidious destructive force that helps their side of the memetic war. And that group will use the threat of death, from COVID, or against their enemies (of which I am one) of social isolation in their home communities for those that speak out. This is more powerful than one might realize. I highly recommend reading this Wikipedia post about Coventry, England. There are historic precedents here.
What’s fascinating are the pivots the externally defined relational folks have been making recently. It makes me predict that child masking and isolation will also be one of the last things to go. At least in the short term, the externally defined relationship groups are losing the battle against restaurants, though they are holding the line with crazy masking in gyms, in various states, as well as making travel such a hassle that folks will be resistant to going.
I don’t believe any of this is conscious — I really do believe that most of this is emergent behavior. But the damage to children will be real. It will make some hunk of them fearful of social interaction in the future, and certainly delay the majority from appropriate social maturity right now. The fact that there are state governments going along with it, and not banning masks on kids in schools, is truly wild, considering the evidence from across the world that this intervention is profoundly unnecessary.
K.C. keeps calling it out incisively and boldly in her Twitter feed, along with the occasional post of some wild series of yoga poses. I find that also interesting in that what’s she’s demonstrating is also a high level of mind/body integration, which is also a characteristic of a high developed empathy personality.
So, keep it up, K.C. You, and your intellectual clarity are an inspiration. Once more into the breach, dear friend, once more…
As Yogi Berra said so succinctly, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
For those interested in understanding how important experience is in education and agency/empathy development, there is this longish piece I’ve written on this here. It’s one of my better ones, and built on my experience in the Design Clinic.
This piece was solid reasoning for the time – about asymptomatic spread. But no one really investigated rates of asymptomatic -> asymptomatic, so we were left only with the fear component. And we still have poor estimates of natural immunity. I’d give this, in hindsight, a C+.
This piece looks at rate dynamics of COVID vs. other viruses, and how COVID got the jump on the health care profession. History will likely show this piece as insightful for the containment stage of the pandemic (when it was written) but not good enough when COVID became widespread, and people started building immunity toward it without illness. B+
No apologies – good for the point in time it was written, but obviously incredibly wrong for the current level of knowledge. As hard as it may be to believe, we were struggling to get anyone to wear a mask that wasn’t of Asian descent. D+ for ignoring past research.
Still relevant and solid. But here’s the other point – hospitals didn’t fail. Some level of supply and demand, even in our messed up health care system, worked to create the right amount of capacity. B+
Deep-rooted value memes will dictate how societies react in crisis. This piece is not nearly as hard on China and its chronic gaslighting of everyone else as it should be, but considering when it was written, it shows the power of understanding societal values as coordination mechanisms. A-
Written at the beginning of interest in psychedelics as treatment for trauma. My thinking has evolved on this a bit – I can now see some mechanisms where psychedelics might really help reset folks who are messed up. But this piece is still solid.
This is a good one – showing how validity grounding, relational structures, and appropriate scaffolding of concepts and theories all matter in actually figuring out whether two data sets are connected. This piece was the start of a lot of my thinking on closed and open systems.
Understanding exactly why Malcolm Gladwell says 10K hours to mastery, and what knowledge structure it applies to is what this post is about. As well as attempting to re-explain all my other knowledge structure work, and why most larger hunks of knowledge can be reconstructed from a basis set of structures.
Attempting to understand and contextualize the numerous environmental crises happening in the Amazon and adjacent river systems, and figuring out who exactly is really causing the damage. A blend of dissection, as well as my own observations from visiting Brazil.
An intro to my empathetic leadership book, and a takedown of appealing, yet fundamentally authority-based thinking in the social sciences. If more social scientists read this post, and actually understood the implications (that most stuff in the social sciences is essentially made up and primed for confirmation bias) we might be able to fix that 50% irreproducibility rate in their journal articles.
In case anyone wants to hold up China as leading the way to a more empathetic world – well, read this post. And how things like the 36 Strategems are fundamentally antithetical to a just, complex world.
I realized that I was actually forgetting I had written on a lot of subjects in the past year, and have created this page as a compendium of those posts — as well as a descriptor of what you might find if you read them.
One of the craziest pieces of media I’ve read lately was posted only a couple of days ago, in the very political and left-leaning website Politico. Titled Biden’s Twitter doc army turns on him, it goes on to describe the influence and potential conflict between the Biden administration and various members of the epi-Twitterati. What exactly this conflict is is hard to determine. Every single one of them is essentially a ZeroCOVID advocate. Most are full-on nutters. And some, like Peter Hotez and Leana Wen, are openly pathological.
The piece attempts to paint the administration voices as more reasonable, and the epi-Twitter voices as more strident, and that is likely the case. The list of actors are people who have, one way or another, called for censorship of voices not repeating the ZeroCOVID message, as well as either “soft-glove” laundry listing endless NPIs and vaccine/booster campaigns (Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University medical school) or calling directly for banishment/punishment/containment of people not following their advice (Leana Wen, CNN commentator.) Every single one of them is anti-democratic and mandate oriented. Not a single one of them has even posed a meaningful off-ramp for ending the pandemic, nor will they in the near future, until they sense their vampiric influence is on the wane.
At the same time I was reading this article, I was also listening to selected episodes of Paul M.M. Cooper’s Fall of Civilizations podcast. In his series, he marches down through history, across the globe, and through the ages of civilizational collapse. I’ve been interested in the Inca and Aztecs, so I listened to those episodes first. They are striking in their similarities about what causes societies to disintegrate. The Incas were fraught with fratricidal conflict for control, that spun out of failed inheritances and gave the pathological a leg up in achieving short-term consolidation, but long-term collapse when external forcing (in this case, the Spanish conquistadors) showed up with their better weapons and their own monomaniacal drives.
But once again, the Aztec story rang most true, at least from a pandemic perspective. The Aztec elite, headed by Moctezuma, had relied on their priest caste to inform them of the nature of the external threat, as well as what future actions should be taken. Cooper dispels many of the old myths of the Conquista regarding the Aztecs assuming that Cortes was held as some kind of deity. In fact, Cooper encyclopedicly documents that this was not the case — that Moctezuma had spies and runners observing Cortes, who would paint pictures of the Spanish ships and bring them back to Tenochtitlan. His priests simply could not make sense of any of it, because, of course, they had filled their own heads with distorted battle aims. The Aztecs so dominated the regional tribal battle space that they had moved away from killing neighboring tribes, and merely capturing them so they could be sacrificed on their pyramids. And I wrote in this last piece, they induced mass trauma in their own citizenry, keeping them in a state of both limbic fear and ecstasy, through daily human sacrifice on the pyramids to their Hummingbird War God, Huitzilopochtli.
The differences between Biden’s epi-Twitterati, and the Aztec high priests are vanishingly few. Both cadres sit in denial of obvious physical reality — the Aztecs, that the sun would rise whether they would kill anyone or not. They had an elaborate belief structure behind all of this — that a piece of everyone’s heart came from the sun god, and by returning that piece, lodged in the heart, back into the ether, the sun would continue to rise. Biden’s own chosen high priests sit with fragmented evidence of their non-pharmaceutical interventions in much the same way. Abundant evidence in the physical universe exists that masks don’t work, that models are obviously wrong, and that social distancing matters not a whit — look at the endless numbers of packed football games played that demonstrate no difference in pandemic behavior. Yet this group of frauds still chant the same songs, still hold up the same incantations and models, and insist that the crowds, and their leader, self-flagellate in their honor.
It all works, just like it worked for the Aztec priests, until the scaffolding all this nonsense is built on comes undone. For Moctezuma and his cadre, it was the arrival of Cortes. For us, it is the erosion of robustness of modern systems that keep the grocery stores full of food, and water and electricity arrive at the houses, or at least at the houses of the elites. And just like the Aztec priests could count on the hundreds of thousands of peasants and slaves to provide their every need, today’s priests, wearing their very non-ceremonial pajamas, can count on magical Visa cards, Amazon delivery, and Door Dash to bring to their door the literal riches of the modern world.
Such environments and the calls for censorship, inherently create a memetic narrowing of information flow. If you are locked in your house with your computer and your models, and the drivers of the vehicles bringing you your food present themselves masked, and with neatly wrapped packages, it’s easy to rationalize that you are championing the greater good. These magical spells, uh, computer models are really what is needed to keep the empire together, no? And if you are preserving the old in your society, in denial of death, and even go to the extreme of insinuating that people never should die, then you indeed are a holy man, or woman.
And how could you not convince yourself you are on a holy mission? If you are a high priest, you get to scream your beliefs from the pinnacle of the Pyramid of CNN, or next to St. Joy Ann Reid or Ellen — as exalted a position as exists in our modern society. The bullshit forms a self-reinforcing, narcissistic loop, which in turn creates in the high priests their own version of delirium. You don’t see the family restaurant down in the strip mall shut down, nor note the extra, older private vehicles now being used to deliver packages to you. That would be, shall we say, inconvenient.
You’re fundamentally ungrounded. I’ve talked about how ungrounded systems, which turn into what we call in system parlance, “floating ground”, suffer reality drift in this piece. It’s five years old, but still correct. If your distance from reality is too far, your civilization collapses. And as I mentioned above, there are a ton of examples of exactly that in the podcast referenced above.
Whole nations can become ungrounded — much to their citizens’ detriment. China was the one that foisted this lockdown garbage on all of us, through a dedicated gaslighting propaganda campaign, that featured video clips of people collapsing in the street from COVID, foggers in Tyvek suits, and apocryphal physician victims like Li Wenliang. It’s highly likely that Li Wenliang never even existed — his death was announced by a Beijing youth group known for fanatical devotion to the CCP, in the context of a group of pneumonia deaths in the Wuhan area — 29 in a population of 6 million. Yet he lives on with his own Wikipedia page. He is very likely not real. But he certainly is, in the minds of millions.
But by engaging in the campaign to foist shutdown of Western economies through extreme COVID countermeasures, including welding people into their apartments, the same memetic narrowing of information foisted on Western democracies has now infected the Chinese mainland.
Of course, ZeroCOVID is simply impossible in China, even with their rigid authoritarianism. And the end result is China, in order to save mianzi (面子), is now committed in their own country to a series of continuing lockdowns, as a promise to their citizenry, for containing an RNA virus that simply morphs into other forms as the calendar rolls along.
The idea that such measures might work in China (and ostensibly did work in Wuhan), while not working in modified form anywhere else, is farcical. My own father-in-law, who is Taiwanese and works in China, was trapped in quarantine in an apartment complex of 100K individuals for 2 weeks because of potential exposure during a visit to Guangzhou for a minor eye surgery. For those unfamiliar with Chinese geography, Guangzhou is a long way from Wuhan. Shanghai Disneyland shut all its visitors inside its gate and literally tested everyone when a COVID case was found.
And it just gets more socially disruptive. To even get into the country requires a quarantine of 2-3 weeks (it seems to change, and I’m not going to keep track of it). That is a powerful disincentive for many of the U.S. high tech firms, already tired of dealing with Chinese IP theft, for re-shoring their facilities, if not in the US, around other countries in the Pacific Rim, like Malaysia and Singapore. Chinese people have the expectation that the propaganda is true — that getting COVID is lethal, and that it is the government’s job to protect you against it. Most people misunderstand authoritarian societies, thinking somehow that it means the government ends up with no obligation to its citizenry. So, like it or not, because the CCP gaslit the world, they’ve now made their bed in a policy that denies physical possibility.
The idea that now, the Chinese government, because they are authoritarian, can do what they want is simply not true. Authoritarian societies, both explicitly, and inherently destroy agency in their populations. When you infantilize people, even to the point of expecting them to be slaves, their expectations may shrink. But they also harden in their victimhood. And it’s not pretty when the propaganda turns out to be wrong. Memetic narrowing also drives stepping backward in social evolution. And people go tribal very quickly, with the same incumbent lack of fear of violence or loss of life.
The result of this nonsense is countries like China (and likely Taiwan, and NZ and Australia) are locked in endless cycles of social disruption. China, through its actions, may have buried its culpability in the likely bioweapon lab leak that led to the pandemic. But memetic narrowing, and the simplistic narrative creation that is driven by constricting information supply, will come back to bite you — especially when entire societies, with literally billions of people are in play.
What has saved us now, and will save us if we manage to contain the authoritarian forces bellowing for censorship, is social media. All these alternate, and in the end, validated truths originated and were broadcast with social media. Are there problems with social media? Of course. But the example of China above is that once memetic narrowing takes hold, and even worse, whole societies accept what is a collapse of the truth, the fact that the sun demands human sacrifice in order to come up in the morning becomes the least of your problems. You devolve your population to the meta-structure of information in your broadcast bullshit. Differing views, even if they’re wrong, demand your society’s brain to work to reconcile them. And that’s almost always a good thing. Censorship immediately imposes a loss of information on a society that required those differing views to run itself, with a given population and sophistication. Killing that doesn’t work.
So here we are. From COVID origination, to lockdown, mask and vaccine efficiency, the only reason we have any hope of knowing the truth is social media. Remember that the next time someone demands social media be shut down. It’s not exposure to information that’s the problem. It’s the exact opposite.
I’ve been pondering quite a bit lately how most of the scientific literature has turned into hot garbage in the last 2 years, driven by COVID panic. Early on, especially in the mask debate, which was pretty much decreed to NOT work before the pandemic, there were all of the sudden a couple of key papers, as well as supporting papers posing mostly as literature review, aggregators, etc. that came out declaring “masks work!”
Early on, I found myself shaking my head, not so much in negative disbelief. More like I had a gnat in my ear — something was just kind of wrong with all of this. The first tip-off inevitably was the long list of authors attached to the various papers. Anyone that knows anything about academic collaborations knows that they take basically forever to establish, and then once on the move, an equivalent amount of forever to coordinate research, write the paper(s), do the back-and-forth of argumentation (people outside the academy simply have no idea how academics can pick nits to establish status over each other. You have to attend your share of faculty meetings to really get this) and then actually send the paper to the review process.
Papers like this one in the Lancet (an ostensibly ‘distinguished’ journal) are great exemplars of the utter nonsense that dominated early publication, and remains to this day. The authors declare no competing interest, but if anyone believes that scientists in Hong Kong are going to publish anything that goes against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) narrative need to have their head examined. These people got out early in front of the media wave (this paper was published in May 2020) and it’s far from the only paper claiming territory. Even looking at the author list for this bogus modeling paper causes anyone inside the academic sausage-making machine to blanch. How would such scientists on the list even find each other? And yes — I pulled the bios from the list — most are in AI/ML.
That stack of crazy led to even bigger stacks of crazy, including some extremely famous crazy like this paper, which purposed to aggregate all the bullshit being produced in the academic sausage factory. The author list for this paper is even MORE extreme in range than the various purely Hong Kong papers, primarily indicating that production of mask supporting literature is a bigger, and arguably a memetic problem keyed to how various academic brains work, than anything having to do with reality. Even the National Academy of Sciences got roped into this one. And yes — there are more arguably irrelevant Hong Kong-based authors on this paper. You can be sure they’re not going to sign on to anything contradicting the eminence-uber-alles views of the CCP. The mind reels. This paper, just according to The Google, has already been cited 264 times (and likely is still going up.) Once again, for those of us familiar with academic systems, both the coordination, and the number of citations post-publication, are utterly insane for something like masking, which prima facie really doesn’t have much hope of working.
I would also note that if you read the list, most importantly, the scientists on this list, producing most of this bullshit, have gone on to be key commentators on COVID, exclusively on the side of socially destructive, agency-destroying NPIs, often surfing the front of the wave of popular opinion, because it’s so obvious, from a grounding validity perspective, that the NPIs don’t work. And as far as long-term integrity, I’ve heard no apologies from this crowd, other than more doubling down on the nonsense that is basically destroying people’s lives around the world, while having no effect on COVID whatsoever. Virus gonna virus.
What’s going on?
One of the things that I started doing myself (here is a confession of sins) was subscribe to MedPage Today — a news aggregator for the medical community, that while not exclusively covering COVID, has probably devoted about 80% of its coverage to blurbs regarding COVID research and status checking around the world. It’s been very convenient — there it is with my morning coffee — to read up on whatever the latest COVID research is. MedPage Today does not screen itself to be boring, and often will reproduce histrionic pronouncements from the various researchers. It also will announce pre-prints not yet finished with review, which is interesting for a scientific publication. I am not one of those scientists that will totally die on that hill of peer review — it has its own unique set of problems on how papers are adjudicated, as well as with work that has any cross-disciplinary boundary implications. But it’s the best we’ve got now, and those hordes of graduate students diligently poring through papers assigned by them from their advisors do add some value.
What I do know about MedPage Today is that it allows release of information into the meme sphere far more quickly than anytime in the past — likely by two, or potentially three orders of magnitude. Historically, when I published my own fundamental work at the beginning of my career, on chaos theory and fractals, getting a paper through to publication was truly a herculean task. Review took at least six months, and by the time you got the draftsperson to do the figures, edited the text, resolved all comments, you were lucky to get your paper published in less than two years.
And after you published your precious gem — well then people (and other graduate students) had to find it in the library stacks, read it, and potentially incorporate the findings in their own work. It was ALL SLOW.
What’s the implication of slow? Though not guaranteed, there was a far greater potential of statistical independence in the conclusion. And even if it built on prior work, the timescales were such that the potential for confirmation bias stacking were greatly minimized. The information system simply didn’t allow it. Yes, we had various rock stars and such, but you had to go to that key conference, and argue with a bunch of other academics. The time scales were long, and the work benefited.
None of this is true anymore. Pre-printed work is sensationalized, and researchers in the various fields can curate results quickly that fuel their own confirmation bias. This turns the work far from any independence of thought, or search for nuance, and allows geometric/Pareto stacking of results — not unlike what we’ve seen in politics! Worse, it draws people inside the COVID research bubble who are hunting for status. One can almost generalize this as a social/collective assault on reason along the lines of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. If you get your work tied in quickly into a simpler, less complex knowledge structure, it’s far more likely you’ll win both the Researcher Internet, as well as the Public Relations machine. Your simpler explanations are more viral, and memetically replicate far more rapidly than more nuanced versions. But they’ll come out of the social network limbic centers, and not surprisingly drive more fear and rancor on a hot-button issue like COVID, than reality.
I wrote about this around a year ago in this piece on the triumvirate of Drs. Bhattacharya, Kulldorff, and Gupta. These three august scientists, the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, got double-bushwhacked by both their professional communities, as well as the Medium paper propagated by Tomas Pueyo and his “hammer and dance” nonsense. The mismatch in timescales created deep memetic conflicts I talk about here. Why do the memetics matter? Because once these deep currents are tapped, you don’t need to get on the phone and organize. The behavior of dichotomous limbic attack, attack, and attack becomes emergent. Nuance and multiple solution thinking get lost. And the press, already aligned with limbic response and spreading terror, having long ago lost their cultural mission of speaking truth to power, lined up behind the confirmation bias crowd. Dr. Kulldorff, a preeminent Harvard faculty member, was even banned from Twitter for going against the limbic crowd.
What’s the upshot of all of this? Short timescales in information systems like MedPage Today lead to Pareto cascades, statistical dependence and confirmation bias in work, and poorly thought-out belief systems that cater to the needs of those in power. Displacing those long slow days in the library, Internet search allows researchers almost instantaneous access to confirmation-bias-accelerating work. And the various citation indices create even more Pareto amplification. Inevitably, the entire system is biased toward producing statistically dependent, shoddy work. And it has.
At some level, other scientists are recognizing the problem. But it’s incorrectly framed, and is very likely to make things worse. More data mining, which will likely make researcher bias worse, not better. People stuck in status-driven systems are far more likely to use these tools to create even more elite opinion — even if it’s wrong.
This is not a simple problem. But grandma had the best advice in all of this — don’t be jumping’ to conclusions, son. That’s what gets you into trouble.
Preface: Because this is such a hot-button issue, I want to start this piece with a disclaimer. Regardless of the nuance I will exhibit in this piece, the whole idea of bringing any gun — and especially a long gun — to a protest is wrong. Ask any LEO how they react when they know a long gun (regardless of semi-auto or auto characteristics) is in play in any situation. I’ve had the privilege over my career of teaching numerous Special Forces/Special Operations returning students over the years, and they will gladly tell you how the scale evolves when any real weapon (and a long gun is a real weapon) is involved in a situation. ‘Nuf said.
Kyle Rittenhouse, the then- 17 year old (he’s now 18) charged with a variety of murder and attempted charges in the Kenosha riots surrounding the protests regarding the shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of police officers in Kenosha, WI. The actual call was for dealing with a domestic violence incident where Jacob Blake had already been forbidden to be present with a restraining order. I highly recommend reading the various accounts of violence against African-American men that have been the nexus of the Black Lives Matters protests. Why? Because the hindsight reality was that there were a range of conditions, from total innocence of the victims (like George Floyd) to far more nuanced, high-conflict cases where alternately the system either worked, or failed.
That’s not the point of this piece.
The question confronting us is the deeper “why” of why Kyle Rittenhouse showed up at the Kenosha protests in the first place.
Once again, I’m not interested in arguing white supremacy, misguided youth, or any of the other standard reasons given for why a 17 year old showed up, crossing state lines or not, with a long gun in what was obviously going to be a chaotic, crazy situation. The reason that such an argument is uninteresting to me is that implies a 17 year old is somehow conscious and deliberate. And any adult working with a cohort of 17 year olds knows how utterly ridiculous such a statement is. There are rare exceptions of 17-year-olds having the ability to conceptualize abstraction of an unfamiliar situation in a way that might map to reality. But almost always, for a 17 year old, they would have had to directly experience a given event in order to engage in that level of projection. I found no documentation that Rittenhouse had attended prior riots, so it’s very likely he was a “one and done” candidate.
And as a “one and done” actor, he also likely had no prior validity grounding experience of being in a circumstance of a riot, armed with any weapon. I’ve been in numbers of demonstrations myself, and if you’ve done any protesting, either things are relatively homogeneous, or they’re fractious. And that fractiousness can turn into chaos literally in seconds. One minute, people are chanting some pithy saying about their issue. The next, someone’s swinging a board at your head, and everything around you is literally going to hell. You can find your own riot videos to watch, but it’s the canonical pattern.
The one truly fascinating thing about Kyle Rittenhouse’s experience was that it didn’t take very long for the real High Conflict actors to zoom in on Rittenhouse and his gun. Rittenhouse didn’t shoot any POCs — but he did shoot three white guys, and killed two. One is particularly notable — Joseph Rosenbaum was an obvious psychopath. Convicted of multiple child rape incidents at 17, that’s classic psychopath territory. If you think that dude was a committed race activist, well, you can think what you want. Like moths to a flame, High Conflict individuals are going to find these types of scenarios because it’s what they do. And yeah, they’re engaged in their own dissociated reality. But they also have no constraint in using real violence — which grounds the larger situation, intentionally or not.
I’ve also discussed the idea of “kayfabe” — the pre-planning of pro wrestling events, which so accurately describes our current state of politics. For a real take-down of kayfabe, this piece is amazing. The riots around Jacob Blake, a far more guilty perp. than George Floyd, basically changed nothing — if there was any social reform that flowed from any of it, its effects were only indirect, through election/loss of office of various politicians.
But kayfabe does something — it creates venues for self-constructed Live Action Role Playing Games, otherwise known as LARPs. Most people have no idea what a LARP is — but the movement has quite a few participants. Most are either war-gamers, or the Society for Creative Anachronism folks. And these people are serious — Tony Horwitz’s book, Confederates in the Attic, which looks at the Civil War re-enactor community, still holds up over 20 years after it was published.
I don’t have a problem with actual LARPing communities. You get done with your jousting festival, hop in your Dodge Neon, and stop off at the 7/11 for a Slushie for the road. People need hobbies, and I’m all down for people building stuff with their hands (uniforms included) and sharing information with other passionate re-enactors. In fact, as long as you don’t depart too far from the script, I’d argue it’s exactly an empathy-building exercise. You gain agency through creating stuff, learn a ton of information about a historical era, and go visit other actual humans and, well, hang out and eat hot dogs. Or whatever. We need more of that.
The problem is that with the increasing fragmentation we’re seeing in our communities, the LARP concept is being recreated — on the Internet, especially, but more importantly, in people’s head. The most consequential ungrounded LARP event in recent history had to be the Jan. 6 riots, that I wrote about here. But unlike a constant community of re-enactors getting together, and engaging in relatively innocuous fun, with that grounding Slushie reality transition at the 7/11, we had people fueling their own fantasies across the Internet, some hopping private planes, and flying out for “Insurrection Lite”. No one could seriously consider what happened on Jan. 6 an authentic coup — yet the other side of the LARP community, the various ungrounded forces on the Left with little experience in the real violence of an actual military coup, grabbed on to the symbolic nature and ran with it in their own histrionic fashion.
This is not to say that Donald Trump, engaged in his own perilous, delusional form of the LARP in his head, did not want to SEE a coup that might restore him to power. Far from it. But narcissist psychopaths gonna narcissistic psychopath. Like it or not, he is one guy. When the Joint Chiefs line up against those kinds of shenanigans, you know there is no real coup threat.
LARPing tendencies, at least the destructive ones, are characterized by empathy bubbles. People get on the Internet, with little experience, and start positive feedback loops that create these extreme positions. People construct ungrounded constructions having little to do with actual reality — mostly because there are no shared experiences in the Real World that serve as a grounding touchstone. You want a real revolution? You can set yourself up for nonsense by staying in a four star hotel before you go riot in the Capitol. Or you can spend a night sleeping on the cold, wet ground cradling your AR-15. One of these two experiences will teach you how difficult a revolution might be a priori. And one most definitely won’t.
The problem with LARP thinking is that the bubble effects not only happen on Left and Right. It creates movements like ‘defund the police’. Our middle-class bubbles are easy to maintain. My Safeway store, with all of its complicated supply-chain dynamics, make it easy to pontificate on the whole ‘burn it all down’ mindset. Fetching a pint of Ben and Jerry’s can always be executed after you post something on Twitter.
But it doesn’t give anyone any insight on this tremendously complicated and complex society. Nor does it develop any metacognition on how little any of us knows when it comes to appreciating how we are continually well-fed during what has been almost 2 years of the largest ostensible global crisis the world has seen since the World Wars. It is both a testament to the miracle of modern society, as well as the damning indictment that our leadership has playing a LARP around the issue of COVID at our expense. There are no bodies in the street, and even after two years of pandemic, a literal smattering of hospital overruns.
And yet, instead of using the voluminous data regarding COVID on our actual social/physical systems, we are bombarded with news of the ongoing LARP. Last week it was supply chain collapse. This week it is the omicron variant. The reason it continues is because as we continue along our merry way, we lose more and more of our ability to even see complexity in our society. And that manifests itself with a profound loss of empathy — who can believe that anywhere, we are masking kids?
Recovery is possible. I feel fortunate to have lived such a rich, though often extremely unpleasant, experience-filled life. If there’s a moment that’s called back to me, it’s when I was working as a process control engineer at J&L Steel, in Cleveland, OH back in 1982. I had grown up in southern Ohio, as backward a backwater part of this country that exists. Whenever any union went on strike, there were always two things — people vandalizing rail cars and pushing them destructively off the tracks, and then, of course, burning police cars.
But Cleveland was far different. When the union voted to go on strike (it was averted) as a young member of the management, who was contractually obligated to cross the picket line, I went up to the old union guys who ran the equipment at the mill. I was 20 years old, and nervous — were they planning on wrecking anything? Taking a wrench to the exquisitely tuned hot mill I had worked on for three months? Were they going to beat me up if I crossed the picket line? Would they listen to me after the strike was over?
All of them, mostly old hillbillies from West Virginia, who had fled the coal mine violence in the mid ’50s, back-slapped me, and said “Shoot, kid, we’re not playing some fucked up LARP. We go on strike for higher wages — but we want that mill here when we get back. Why would we ever be so stupid and destroy the thing we all need to make money? And the two weeks the strike might last is just enough time for you to get those computers all tuned up and running.”
Of course, they had no idea what a LARP was. But they knew what reality was. It’s past time for all of us to look at where we’ve LARPed up, and open the door to larger grounding reality and validity. And we might just find that we’re sharing the same real estate with folks who might have some interest in persistence of at least some of our current systems. That is NOT an argument for no change. I’ve worked on system change my whole life. But the level of ignorance of reality is higher than any time since I’ve been alive.
And that’s the problem with not understanding the difference between reality and a LARP. The feedback loop is going to be harsh. And our lack of awareness will make not one whit of difference.
I honestly had hoped that talking about masks would be passé by this point in this increasingly contrived pandemic. But that is not to be. And as such, it behooves to understand the DeepOS of circulating knowledge, as well as what the fact that the subject has not been put to bed tells us about ourselves.
First off, every living creature on the planet, dependent on where they sit on the larger tangled tree of evolution, has a respiratory system. That respiratory system for all the latecomers to the game, fish, reptiles, mammals and so forth, is an amazing result of evolution. They are all fractalized and optimized for transport of oxygen into some version of a circulatory system that then powers the rest of the organism. Because about 500 million years of evolution has gone into the process (I’m starting with fish) all these systems are robust, or that species wouldn’t be there. They all live in some level of symbiosis with viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, as part of the larger holobiont/ecosystem they occupy.
One thing that I’ve noticed is there are very few direct speciated competitors in any ecosystem. Yes, there is overlap — the lines are never neatly drawn. But whenever there is a direct conflict, natural selection weeds out one or the other. I’d argue that this also extends to the internal systems inside animals.
Respiratory systems are included in this — there is some balance that exists between even what we consider pathogens and hosts. If not, one would go extinct. It’s the fundamental system dynamic. That means respiratory systems also exist in this balance. Of course, this is not a topic explored much, even recently. But consider the attention paid to gut bacteria, and our discovery that if we don’t have enough, then we not only do not flourish — we can die. The respiratory system remains (at least in the context of my admitted ignorance) as an undiscovered country in the holobiontic universe.
One thing that biologists have given us is a pretty good taxonomic map of respiratory systems. Below is a yanked Wikipedia picture on gill structure of fish. Each one of the gills is also heavily fractalized — basically every respiratory structure is, designed at some level to optimize space filling with some device to pull oxygen out of the surrounding medium (water, air) . That naturally leads to fractals. Trees do it as well. There is always some balancing act between robustness, fragility, and efficiency. It’s complicated, because it’s had 500 million years to evolve.
You can look at these as complicated pictures. But if you’re on this blog, then you understand these structures as well as complex, coupled informational systems. These systems have transitioned through the Permian Extinction, through the Mesozoic, and into the Cenozoic. They’ve seen shit hit the fan so many times, while they can be destroyed, they’ve woven a tight line and come out on top.
Understanding everything about gills as well, from a knowledge construction paradigm, requires teams of experts, observers and physicists. And even then, there’s still a ton of stuff we don’t really understand. There are known unknowns here, as well as unknown unknowns. To fully grok even the relatively simple system of fish gills (relatively!) takes a lifetime or more.
So if we have to designate a knowledge structure that describes something like fish gills and its function of respiration, we’re going to need one up into Yellow, and Turquoise — fractalized, global holistic. Once again — understanding even the ins and outs that we have access to requires a lifetime of work. There is no end to it. Here’s the Knowledge Structure slide.
Here’s the important point for this piece. Once you realize that in order to produce a fish gill, you need the highest level of knowledge structure, scaffolded from extremely long time scales (evolutionary robustness) to extremely short time scales (molecular and atomic interactions that drive the thermodynamics of energy production in the animal) you basically have to sit back and gasp at your own ignorance of these things. If you don’t stretch your brain out to consider these obviously long time scales, as well as the large spatial scales required to make this thing work (fish don’t just sit in one place all day, and when you consider anadromous fish, like salmon, well…) you can’t really come up with a holistic portrait of fish respiration.
Here’s the point.
Short -> Long Temporal Scales are required to understand this.
Short -> Long Spatial Scales are required to understand this — both in the context of the physics of the gills, as well as the development of the person working to understand them.
OK — let’s transition. Everything that’s true about fish gills is doubly true about human respiration systems. They are also fractalized, robust systems, evolved over millions of years, with integrated contingencies, for multiple environments. Yep, they can and do break, but they are optimized for all sorts of different circumstances — including many we do not know, nor understand.
Same principle — they are the instantiation of integrated knowledge construction, from Short -> Long Spatial Scales, and Short -> Long Temporal Scales. They evolved in the context of both viral and bacterial infections, good air, bad air, and lots of stuff in between.
Now, let’s look at masks — especially the ones used by most folks for COVID. Here’s a picture.
I don’t want to belabor the whole mask construction thing. To me, it’s boring. The short version is that it’s a square of some fabric, with a couple of loops on the side, that hangs on your face, and if you don’t have it exactly right, it has big gaps on the side where your breath can easily pass out, and in. Surgical masks are at best a couple hundred years old, and even their basic structure was really only optimized to keep a doctor from spitting in a patient. And it’s designed to last (without refreshing its structure, which it cannot do) for 30 minutes- 1 hour max. The fact that people are using them for longer than that is really a damning indictment of how little folks know about what they’re doing.
Here’s the point — the complexity of the knowledge structure of a mask is basically an augmented fragment. It’s a piece of cloth, with some attachment mechanism. The complexity of the knowledge structure of your respiratory system, on the other hand, is deeply integrated into all facets of your being — physiological, psycho-social, physical, on and on, in ways we can’t even comprehend yet.
A mask is a piece of cloth the powers-that-be want you to strap onto your face ad infinitum.
For a short term application (this is where knowledge structure and information integration do matter) a mask might be beneficial. Even in the presence of deeply unnatural aerosols (think spraying rattle-can paint) it might be useful to wear a mask for the 20 minutes. Yeah, sure, you’re going to suck in some propellant and acetone, but you might limit your dose to where you don’t pass out, and only kill off some brain cells. So the idea that masks are utterly useless isn’t valid. For short duration, small spatial scale situations, they may be just the ticket for a bump in protection.
But the idea that somehow these things are going to surpass, from an evolutionary information perspective, any developed respiratory system, is positively insane. Knowledge fragment or complex, fractalized, multiple-system optimized knowledge structure, with integrated information over eons? C’mon.
Now that we understand what our two options in the Knowledge Structure space, we can now have a window into understanding why personal development matters in receptivity for grokking the relative complexity of the two solutions.
I’ve written a long piece on the psycho-social dynamics of masks here. Let’s just talk about the relative informatics of masks vs. respiratory protective systems in lungs.
If someone tells you, who is an authority figure, for a given circumstance, you need to wrap your face with a mask, odds are you’ll do. Especially if it’s short duration (for the other engineers out there, think about going into a clean room for the first time) you’ll put it on, along with those white booties and a gown, and do what needs to be done. 30 minutes later, you’re out on the street, breathing again. Any disruption of that larger integrated function your respiratory system had going with the environment really isn’t noticeable.
This is easy, from an informatics perspective, on the brain. Here’s the Authority-Driven/Legalistic knowledge structure.
“Put on a mask to go into the clean room. Throw it inthe garbage in the airlock on the way out.”
The clean room is a specific environment. Your boss tells you to do it. It’s part of the rule set. You function totally on belief, and it’s not complicated.. It’s a fucking mask, after all. And everything lines up. It’s all in the limbic/automatic part of your brain. Perfect memetic alignment. Easy peasy.
And so masks have also been sold to us as an appropriate intervention for COVID. We’re down in limbic/automatic thinking, someone of authority comes along and says “put this on and you’ll be safe” — it’s incredibly compelling, as we’ve seen. No one’s thinking — they’re mirroring, meaning they’re down at the bottom of the Empathy Pyramid — and hey, “two more weeks” coupled with shared purpose (flatten the curve or some other nonsense!)
The problem discussed in this piece is it’s also a psychological hack that degrades the knowledge structures we’re used to operating under in modern society. And worse — it keeps you in an arrested state of fear. Take it off, you could get COVID. And so on.
As opposed to trusting your incredibly beautiful, complex, fractalized, self-healing structure for respiration. Of course, this is also compounded by people who have sought to maintain that authority over you through constant messaging that if you don’t follow their agency/empathy-destroying externalized advice, you’re going to die. Think about how much talk of building immunity to protect yourself from COVID that has gone on, outside getting the vaccines. Basically NONE. And yes — the whole notion of other things interfering with appropriate immune system function of the lungs, like metabolic syndrome and its most obvious symptom of obesity, is never discussed except in passing when discussing statistics.
But here’s the memetic, time-scale thing. Over time, people start aggregating larger amounts of data on their circumstance. They start noting the incongruities in their circumstance with the simplification provided by masks. They also start seeing other manifestations of events (think the RSV epidemic earlier this year) as well as overloaded emergency rooms with OTHER respiratory viruses, as their own knowledge structure starts evolving and filling in the metacognitive holes. They note the depression that comes from not seeing faces. All of the above.
I could go on. But here’s the big takeaway. And yeah — masks suck and are stupid, once you make some idiot policy that institutionalizes them.
But people’s brains are going to be receptive to different levels of complexity dependent on personal and cultural evolution. Masks have persisted because, for all the wrong reasons, they are low information/low complexity knowledge structures. And we don’t have near enough development to appreciate or discuss the amazing holobiontic system our natural respiration is.
And that’s an education/empathy challenge.
Takeaway — From a structural memetics perspective, it’s beyond stupid to believe that a square of cloth could buffer a human effectively through the myriad circumstances of human existence more effectively than our own respiratory system, encoded with over 500 million years of evolutionary integration into our own bodies, and the surrounding environment. It requires a willful ignorance, as well as other potential motivations. Structural memetics serve as a way to look at this from a knowledge construction viewpoint, and also show how affinities in social structure create beliefs in such tomfoolery.
One of the most difficult, but necessary things to write about during this whole COVID fiasco is “where are we going? And why are we in this hand basket?” Why is this challenging? It requires, first off, a belief in societal evolution, and devolution, and an appreciation that we are actually going somewhere — somewhere knowable.
And whether you’re suffering or not, it’s tough to argue that in the last millennium, things have gotten better and better for the human species. There’s some crazy multiplier of us, population-wise- more than there was 1000 years ago (2500x or so) and our lives are longer, cleaner, and potentially happier.
Let’s reframe this from an information perspective. Whenever you have 7 billion or so people on the planet, or 100 million people in a given country/nation state, you need a certain information quantity, as well as an information density of how interactions will go so that people don’t, well, kill each other. How you get and distribute that information will determine the characteristics of your society — whether you’re run by some Old God in the back of everyone’s head, or the extent that one manages to develop independent agency of people in that society, built on some level of decentralized decision making.
One with a more distributed decisionmaking structure will be far more robust, agile and able to optimize resources locally, than one that is centrally controlled. History has shown this over and over — not just a dismissal of the need for laws and such — but when it comes to overall performance and robustness, you can’t beat distributed, independent-minded systems programmed to coordinate with each other. As far as a technological example, consider the Internet. Where can you go in the world with the expectation that the Internet won’t work? And this is exactly because it is a decentralized, distributed system. All your messages don’t just run through a big box at the center of the world.
But decentralized, distributed, relatively autonomous systems aren’t the only way that things have shaken out with high populations of humans. Nations at various apogees have a tendency to lock in behavior that works, with little mind toward how the future might play out. A great example of this ‘locking in’ phenomenon might be to look at the Song Dynasty in China, established in 960 CE. The Song dynasty was known for many single improvements — the magnetic compass being one. But more importantly, it also saw the proliferation of Confucianism, and the attached civil service exams, which then led to an Authority-driven system (the emperor was still a de facto god) buttressed by Legalistic methodologies for extremely modest class mobility, encapsulated in an increasingly rigid caste structure.
The Song dynasty collapsed in the face of the Mongol invasion, another memetic triumph — Genghis Khan was a Performance-based leader and allotted top positions in his government based on merit — but as outsiders, they could not have the cultural persistence that the mainline Han Chinese population had. And so things went back to lower empathy, Legalistic “normal” after their collapse. The Song folks had left their mark. Legalistic thinking allows for diversity through proliferation of categories — we’re certainly seeing that today in the various “woke” movements. But they don’t move empathy forward, which inherently allows for agency and folks determining how they are supposed to think of the people they interact with.
But anyone says they don’t work at all – you’d be wrong. China shows that it can work, even if you convert a huge proportion of your people into “one step up” from total slaves. It’s obviously far easier to make endless categorization work in societies with one overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group — I’ve seen estimates of racial homogeneity in China at 90%+. The problem is that when you program your people’s brains through a seeming infinity of titles, you basically kill breakthrough innovation. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” becomes the hallmark. And then you’ve also created a fragile society.
And when you base it on kings and queens, and dynasties, you’re really screwed. Genes go sideways. There’s such a popular affectation in modern culture with this whole thing, it really makes my head reel. I just watched the Dune movie on HBO, and it’s reasonably fun. But one of the thought exercises I go through is, knowing what I know about evolution and devolution of societies, could such a planetary rigid hierarchy even exist? The answer — maybe thousands of years into the future, AFTER space flight had been invented, and perfected to the level where it was just a no-brainer. No society such as portrayed could ever actually INVENT space travel. But maybe, after aggregation and integration of knowledge over millennia (for example, you don’t know the metals inside your car’s engine, now, do you?) you could see deterioration of the empathetic human condition back to something like Dune.
It’s just not very likely.
So what happens when we lock in rigid hierarchies, with lots of categories and titles? You give the Sophistication folks a big leg up. You actually need them at the start, to compartmentalize and such. But if you lock all this stuff in, you freeze your society in time. Well, until the next big disturbance comes along, and you kick everyone back down into the Survival v-Meme. And they you reap the chaos from information corruption (it actually takes lots of folks to keep track of all those pronouns!) you’ve sown.
There are shorter timescales that are dominant, that might favor one group or another (including oppressed minorities) and there can be a case made for facilitation of such groups. But long-term, if you base your entire society on this kind of thinking, you’re screwed. Rigid hierarchies fundamentally live through the suppression of independent thought. And that makes people depressed, which opens them up to capture by more memetically evolved forces than themselves. There is no better example than Britain and China during the Opium Wars. The Chinese had, with only a few hiccups, developed a society based on a 1000 year stasis. And so it was trivial for the British to come in and give everyone drugs. Fragmented, authoritarian societies have bet everything on over-rewarding people’s dopamine loops. So it’s easy enough to step into that egocentric, hormonal cycle and give them a replacement that REALLY puts them to sleep.
This brings me to the term in the title of the piece. Such social systems have an incredibly stable Societal Attractor — in this case, some stable, generated culture based on Externally Defined, low empathy relationships. I was asked this question by one of the most insightful young philosophers out there — Daniel Goetz, whom I’ve written about here, along with his partner-in-crime, Emil Ejner Fries. “Why is Authoritarianism so stable?” The answer is actually a relatively simple tautology — when nothing changes, then nothing changes. Or rather, nothing good changes. You still see entropic deterioration – the universe is still the universe. And after long periods of prosperity (as we have in the U.S.) a consolidation of information on the good life, and that gets further and further captured in a list of superficial outcomes. A house, two cars, a dog, and so on.
But the world doesn’t stop changing. Such Societal Attractors are built on filling in the bottom of the v-Meme stack — Survival, Tribal/Deep Origination myths, Authority, and a Legal system. But because the models of how the society supposedly works DON’T change, though, they open themselves up to manipulation by the empathy-disordered. Game-playing becomes more important than actual outcomes. And since everyone has accepted, at some level, that the game is “fair” (since it’s always been that way) the winners are the deserved winners, and the losers are, well, the losers. There’s no metacognitive stretch in any of this (“what if we gave the losers a different hand of cards?”) because stasis — in this case, the Rigid Hierarchy Societal Attractor, is the goal. And over time, even if you start out at the more egalitarian, higher evolved attractor, phase transitions are still possible down to lower states.
Where does that term Societal Attractor come from? The deep explanation is from Nonlinear Systems Theory. Our brains are far more naturally wired to think in terms of Linear System theory — we have a society, and it has morphed and changed incrementally for as long as we have been humans. But here’s the Linear Systems theory punchline (which is wrong) — there’s just one society, and give or take, one particular way to live as humans. Anyone that knows much about history (and has grokked it) realizes this is total bullshit. There are lots of different ways that humans have adapted to different life conditions on the planet. It’s a function of the fact that our brains are programmed with software, as opposed to hardware. And that software is largely a function of how we interact as humans. That should be a no-brainer, but, well, if you look at the anthropological or sociological literature, it’s rarely discussed outside the messy concept of culture.
What this has to do with Societal Attractors is that there is a series of Separate, large scale patterns that create nested, potential societies. These societies have stable patterns as we move up in evolutionary complexity. Spiral Dynamics (the original version) does a great job of describing this, and I’ve written a bunch of about this in various locations on this blog, so I’m not going to write about it here.
But here’s the big point for this piece. Societal Attractors instantiate and capture a certain amount of information, of given sophistication, at any given time. These societies and their structures are more or less stable/persistent based on how rapidly changing world conditions are around them, and what their underlying information dynamics are that allow for adaptation and change. Lower v-Meme societies work on the “Keep it Simple, Stupid” principle. You don’t need to do much people/personal agency development in order to have a small one. But if your population grows, you do need a class of people to continuously generate larger and larger fixed schemas as your population changes and diversifies. That’s the centralized Societal Attractor for you.
Or you could develop people to think for themselves (think distributed decentralized systems) and then let them figure it out as they go along. It really boils down to two larger meta-strategies, if we are aware of the system dynamics (that whole self-awareness thing that lets us move up into Second Tier thinking…)
Do we create a system that tells people what the right thing to do is?
2. Do we create a system that develops people so they can figure out what the right thing to do on their own?
And these two meta-types of Societal Attractors are what are confronting us in the COVID/Post-COVID world today.
With respect to COVID, there really was only one country that bet, more or less, on #2. That was Sweden — they made some mistakes re: care homes up front, that their leadership (Anders Tegnell) owned up to. But otherwise, they counted on their own people (and for good reason) to figure out what the right thing to do was, and educated toward that end. Sweden is likely done with COVID as anything other than an endemic disease, and as of this writing, the other Scandinavian nations have all followed suit, even down to air travel — no more idiotic masking on planes.
But while they were pursuing their high agency, independently generated relational strategy, they were excoriated by the press corps around the world. I’ve written about this here — the mainstream press corps does nothing except serve as a loudspeaker for the Authoritarians in the world, regardless of stripe — so it should come as no surprise that they did what they did. That’s what memetic warfare looks like, and it should come as no surprise that the primary mouthpiece would be the voice from The Top.
It should also come as no surprise, from a memetic conflict point of view, that such a press corps would constantly attack the unofficial news, and social media, with everything from the ostensible disinformation spread on all the things the Authorities would like to hold onto, as well as other false flag operations, like social media is destroying teen girls. This is NOT to say that there aren’t some elements of truth to both of these positions. But the constant drumbeat on the most extreme examples — well, that’s the way psychopathic memetic war operates. And the Societal Attractor for the Authority-driven world is still very powerful, and very much in control.
Societal Attractors are also heavily dependent on energetics of the system in play. Lower v-Meme attractors require less energy to run than higher empathy v-Meme attractors. They sit in the larger dimensional phase space in some potential well of attraction, and to greater or lesser extent, societies bounce around inside that given well. What that means is that an Authoritarian system can deviate from some perfect orbit. Different perturbations come in from the outside, as well as individuals generating ideas inside a given system and the level of Authority ebbs and flows.
I’ve written about this earlier with China — if you want to have a long-term stable Authoritarian system, you must indeed be rigid. But if you’re too rigid, then if something that is expected in the master-slave relationship is disturbed, you risk peasant revolt. Empathy is basically like a free energy principle inside any stable well, and lets things bounce around a bit. When China realized that people might actually organize around, for example, environmental pollution as a driving concern, they established GONGOs (Government-Organized NGOs) that destabilized protest movements, and drove people back into the mainline authoritarian participatory camp.
What does this mean in the context of Western (modestly) participatory democracies, in the time of COVID? For the last 50 years, we’ve been seeing disequilibrium in the energetic portion (think wage gap) of the societal attractor phase space. What this means is that we’ve had systems that have provided some modest agency in the context of a raft of institutions providing various governmental support services. But in order to operate in such a space, you have to have TIME and ENERGY to be a citizen. And as declining wages/energetic failure has increased, that destabilizes the potential well that a more egalitarian system sits in. That societal attractor moves closer to a cusp/bifurcation point.
And where does that take us energetically, from that point in our little societal attractor phase space? Authoritarianism. It literally is all downhill from there.
There’s no question that there are a variety of factors in play here, especially once we open up from a more closed, nation-state system to a global economy. Take the U.S. for example. We’ve coasted on immigrant labor from the south, having Latin-Americans pick our vegetables and raise our food, living often in wretched conditions and doing backbreaking labor so we don’t have to. What that enabled was a pseudo-democracy, similar to ancient Athens, where there were citizens, as well as slaves. At some level, we’ve also done this in H1-B visa-land. Instead of working to fix our own pipeline into tech through renovation of our own educational systems, we’ve turned to immigration to solve that problem. And yes — it’s not black-and-white. We’ve once again, gotten the better part of the deal.
But sooner or later, this kind of shit catches up with you. The downslide in living circumstances hits the mainstream. That causes economic dislocation, of course. But it also fuels personal depression — which is then attenuated through substances like Oxycontin. And you start that slide toward that lower energy societal attractor. This recent documentary on Netflix, American Factory, about the resurrection of a glass manufacturing factory outside of Dayton Ohio, really highlights this reality. The message the documentarians attempted to deliver is scrambled bullshit. But the deep truth is that former American workers, not used to being slaves, were really in the squeezer by the Chinese ownership to accept a far more slave-like existence, or else face external shame for not being hard-working.
And it’s not like the U.S. is the worst, by a long shot. That modern master/slave Societal Attractor is in high relief in countries like the United Arab Emirates, which is literally a slave society. Importing their slaves from places like Bangladesh, and the lesser servants from expedited boarding gates in the Manila airport, these people have their master/slave attractor game down.
The real peril in the modern world is that such societies will lock in educational and developmental differentials that may be almost impossible to dismantle once the flywheel of such attractor effects gets going. Already, during COVID times, poor kids didn’t get to go to schools, while the upper-middle class pulled their kids out of hamstrung public schools, and sent them to unmasked, far-more-favorable to empathetic development schools. There are the fundamentals of school time lost that will affect poor children. But even worse is the likely damage done by isolation to psyches and overall health. Obesity is up. Depression is up. And all these drive migration out of a more egalitarian state, with shared benefits and responsibilities. Because now the poor will DESERVE their maltreatment.
How has majoritarian COVID policy worked in all of this? Through the chronic drumbeat of relational disruption, it has hampered our global society’s ability to recenter itself. I think it’s useful to consider Michael Lind’s work on the Double Horseshoe model in the context.
The managerial elite has been affected the least of all. From private jet travel, to Gavin Newsom and his French Laundry dinner dates, life has pretty much gone on as normal. Their kids attend private institutions, and the help wears viral-ineffectual, but status-important masks in all interactions. The professional bourgeoisie has won in spades, accruing new titles along the way (pajama class, laptop class.) The small business bourgeoisie has taken it in the shorts — the tons of small businesses that used to provide both food and entertainment are kept alive only through government programs, and many have gone bankrupt.
And then there is the working class. The hub city working class needn’t look far to see that they better fall in line with whatever the various institutional edicts are. And the Heartland working class and the underclass have turned to drugs, suicide, or acceptance that their fate will be as slaves. No capture on chains required.
How exactly that happened is instructive. At the beginning of the COVID crisis, I do believe that most of the individuals involved in commenting and societal decisions did so in good faith. I certainly did, unaware of my own historical ignorance of public health. So I did contribute as well to the fear, and driving down of the society to that lower Societal Attractor. But I changed my mind relatively quickly. As I can now see, my conversion came too late to make an immediate difference. Those in control had already recruited enough of the low empathy institutional class, as well as the various and sundry sufferers of supplementary pathologies, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, to create the Survival v-Meme based models of control to use by the Authorities. A disordered low- and anti-empathetic Praetorian Guard formed around these issues that still remains today. Survival thinking is key to not just inflicting trauma and compliance on the target. It is also important for inducing both neural plasticity, and its incumbent amnesia and reordering necessary for that profound shift from a more egalitarian society to the master/slave Societal Attractor.
It is important to realize that we were on the cusp of all this Societal Attractor shifting before COVID started. The idea that the lower classes should deal with an increasingly negative reality, while the upper classes ate cake, really goes back to Bill Clinton and welfare reform — which was really a shift in response to the lack of labor in the slave economy. But it carried through in both Republican and Democratic regimes — pointless wars to dispatch our young people off to, to protect interests of the entrenched. And Obama, aside from some health care reform, did little to prevent it.
Just look at COVID policies and their relationally disruptive outcomes.
Mask wearing — an inability to read faces and normally interact with others.
Social distancing — the idea that interaction with others, especially unknown others, was hazardous to your health.
Closing of social hubs for indeterminate amounts of time — gyms, outdoor venues and bars, restaurants.
Identification of lower-class workers through indeterminate masking protocols.
Vaccination conformance or fire policies.
What’s the point in understanding the current situation in terms of Societal Attractors? The biggest is to advance the idea that we get the society we deserve when we create incentives for dysfunction relational dynamics. Once a society does this, disruptive behavior becomes part of the attractor dynamics — and emergent — no need to create a new police force (though that has also occurred) to cause your society to come apart.
The other mostly undiscussed dynamic created is that it literally makes your population crazy. Or rather, creates the mental state necessary for larger psychosocial homeostasis. I’ve talked about this here. And once you’ve undermined that, you actually make it frighteningly difficult for a society to recover. Other, as yet unanticipated pathologies pop up, bringing a positive feedback loop to forcing a more permanent version of the master/slave Societal Attractor.
I wish I had a more hopeful note to end on — maybe it’s this. We CAN understand this social phenomenon. But we really have to realize that we’re in The Matrix. And The Matrix has principles that drives emergence, whether we believe it or not.
And the only way out, long-term, is to build empathy. In everyone.
PS — I did the best I could here, but I do acknowledge that some knowledge of complex systems would sure help out. Hot take if you’re in the field: societies sit in stable wells of attraction, and can be incredibly persistent in the face of perturbation. Lower v-Meme societies sit in deeper, more accessible wells of attraction than higher v-Meme, more complex systems. We are at the cusp of a phase transition that we have been proceeding toward for quite a while — from a more egalitarian to a master/slave society. COVID is not the only cause of this, but is driving the change, and the change has been championed by the institutionalists.