Insights on Knowledge Structures, Malcolm Gladwell, and 10K hours

From the Sept. 20 Climate Strike, Moscow, ID

For those that totally get the idea of Knowledge Structures that I’ve written about here, this post might seem a bit redundant. But I find that this deep nugget of meta-systematic understanding is one of the most elusive things I write about. Which is saying something. So — let’s go at this from a couple of different angles, and hopefully we’ll all be wise after the event.

To start: we, as ALL species, have a brain and nervous system that controls our activities. Not one creature on this planet that moves does it without some combination of neurons, arranged in myriad ways, that lets it do what it does. This true for jellyfish, squid, octopi, ground squirrels, crows and humans.

We all have a brain.

Depending on the species, and the requirements that really split into two camps — evolutionary success as an individual, and evolutionary success as a collective (there is NO species that survives solely by parthenogenesis!) our brains wire themselves through EVOLUTIONARY ADAPTATION. This evolutionary adaptation, especially in group organization, functions on principles of convergent evolution. No matter what brain you start with, when it comes to group organizational dynamics, the requirements are the same.

AND dependent on the species, that brain is split up into two meta-parts — hardware and firmware (which is easily studied) and software (not so easily studied.) Animals like fish are pretty much all hardware and firmware — they swim in schools, and if you’re something like an angelfish, you have a couple of tricks to avoid getting eaten by bigger fish.

The more complex behaviors you have access to, the more software matters. Dogs have far more software than yellow jackets. Or mice. My dog can recognize when we’re going over to a particular friend’s house by the fact I’m carrying a bottle of wine, and he likes that friend. He immediately goes to the door. When he sees me dress in my bike clothes, he gets up on the couch. He knows he’s not going anywhere.

That’s SOFTWARE. He did not inherit that ability from his parents. Or his genes. He inherited the SUBSTRATE, of course. But his complexity of thought evolved through his relationship with me. And the other friend — who he honestly likes.

We have preconceptualized ideas of hardware in the brain. Lots of brains have been taken out of lots of skulls, and weighed, and dissected and whatnot. fMRI techniques also tell us quite a bit about how those parts are wired together. Scientists can run experiments over and over, creating reliability of information on the hardware. We still don’t know everything about the hardware. But we’ve made a ton of progress. Empirical research can tell us much that we need to know.

But when it comes to software, we’ve started with some extremely bad paradigms. Those paradigms made sense, before we evolved our own software for understanding our own software!

The worst paradigm we have for meta-understanding is CULTURE. CULTURE is, by definition, characterizable to everyone in a large, connected-somehow group. There is no ‘independent specificity’ in the cultural paradigm. If you are in a culture, you do certain things — even if you don’t! You alternately eat pork/don’t eat pork, wrap things around your head/don’t wrap things around your head, and on and on. Many of things that we do in the context of culture come from ‘somewhere’. But the problem with ‘somewhere’ is that no one’s quite sure where it is. I’ve said previously on this blog that culture is the result of arbitrary mores mixed with Survival v-Meme information, specific to past trauma a group has experienced. Culture can work for or against long-term survival of a group. There is no way of telling a priori.

But one thing is for sure — most culture (with the exception of epigenetic bias) is in the software. We didn’t inherit a predilection to worship cats, for example (toxoplasmosis notwithstanding! 🙂 yet, we, as humans, have had subgroups that for a time, worshiped cats.

We also have other ways of characterizing brain software. One of our favorites (which is just impossible to bust!) is professional discipline. As an engineer, sometimes when people read my stuff, the first thing out of their mouth is “Oh — you’re an engineer. That’s why you thought of all this stuff.” If they only could see my colleague’s faces when I start talking about this stuff…

OK — here’s the moment of realization.

If you look out at the vast array of computer software out there, you might see a piece of accounting software. You might see a computer drafting package. You might see a video game like Civilization. You might see a piece of software that enables you to lay out a quilt. There are literally a BAZILLION different types of software out there.

But you’d have to be a fool to assume that how the software is structured in each of these applications is fundamentally, irrevocably different. You’d assume (correctly) that there were some set of reproducible, underlying patterns that the surface-level application would sit on. And if you were a software coder, you would learn these core patterns, and implement them REGARDLESS of what the surface-level application was. You’d work with a domain expert to assemble the code. You’d use things like linked lists, matrices, etc. to get the result you wanted.

OK. Here’s the punchline. HUMANS DO EXACTLY THE SAME THING IN THEIR BRAINS. With reproducible patterns — what we call a basis set. This basis set is given by our Knowledge Structures. Depending on how evolved the person is, they use that basis set of knowledge structures to lay their SPECIFIC knowledge on top of.

And where do these very SPECIFIC structures come from? Because we are a collective animal, they come from the different relational modes we use with each other. We reserve the deep patterns of our relationships, which serve as a master template, as templates for other knowledge.

Canonical Knowledge Structures

Why do we do this? Now we get Malcolm Gladwell to enter, stage left. This is what we practice. For what it’s worth, I’m not a believer in the 10K hours rule he has that says dictates mastery. But if you understand 10K hours as about five-ten years, it IS interesting how we move up developmentally to the higher stages (after that, all bets are off!) in about 10 year increments. SUPER-rough. But still interesting. We practice relating all the time. We use our full stack of neural function to do it. We even have a background processor that sorts everything for coherence (read up on the Default Mode Network here) focusing on social working memory or autobiographical tasks (same cite).

OK, pause. Take a deep breath. We spend TONS of time relating to other people, and reviewing how we relate to other people. We BURN these meta-patterns into our brains. So, it should come as no surprise that those things we practice far more than 10K hours, serve as the template for how we pick up other knowledge. Those are the fundamental knowledge structures that we plug the specifics into. We may become a computer aided drafting expert, but it should come as no surprise that if we’re organized as a rule-based hierarchy that dictates treatment of the different levels, we look for rules that govern HOW we execute our craft. The specific knowledge fragments (like CTRL-F moving the model out) end up as ritualized routines that our brains are used to practicing.

It also should come as no surprise that if we don’t practice changing our minds, we would lose that ability. And how do we do that? By being receptive to others’ moods, and thoughts. EMPATHY.

And how, you might ask, can we make that practice meaningful? Through self- separation — realizing that if your partner is having a bad day, it’s not YOUR bad day. That critical objectification and attention to the data stream from your partner is EXACTLY the same practice as being aware of confirmation bias in other areas of thought.


OK, now get ready to take a BIG LEAP!

While individual species may have unique problems (a snake might have to figure out how to swallow an egg, for example) when it comes to species that function as a collective, the problems of inter-agent coordination are THE SAME. The problems frame out as the species gets higher density and greater numbers, in more varied environments and so on. But they are the same meta-problems. Ensuring individual survival, fairness in large groups, who leads the way — all these value sets are shared in coordinated groups. So — by function of convergent evolution, sentience MUST be the same. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems — bandwidth, processor speed, efficiency, all the things we see when wiring up different computers together — all matter. But the larger patterns remain the same.

And IF those larger patterns of social coordination remain the same, then the same KNOWLEDGE STRUCTURE TOOLKIT also remains the same! Of course, the individual answers will vary, dependent on, and limited by the individual characteristics of the animal (or human!) A snake may swallow an egg differently than an MBA account might swallow an egg. Individual characteristics will matter. But the same problems of inter-agent exchange will remain the same, depending on what the collective is attempting to do.


Now get ready to take another BIG LEAP. We can now see that, while an individual may have a bazillion arbitrary ways to peel an egg themselves (or swallow it!) when it comes to coordinating sharing the egg, there is a profound subset of classifiable actions. And these all map to the canonical knowledge structure set. Survival? Swallow the whole thing instantly! Performance/Goal? What’s the right way to get the most done?

One can also see that without more complex, empathy-driven social structures, the level of complex knowledge is also PROFOUNDLY limited. In academia, if you’re stuck in a status-based social structure, if someone tells you that you’re wrong, you SIMPLY CAN’T HEAR IT. At least immediately. Or — you have to follow an externally imposed rule set that says how you’re supposed to buffer that kind of input. (We call that ‘collegiality’, which kind of works.)

What you CAN’T do (or hopefully, reluctantly do) is forfeit status, admit you’re wrong, and incorporate a new understanding into your own. UNLESS — it’s a Survival level crisis. The world isn’t flat, and the Earth isn’t in the center of the solar system, and if you persist, you’ll be driven out of the academy at a tribal level.

So empathy rewards complexity, and couples it both inside a social structure, as well as the concomitant knowledge structure. You might discover complex thoughts ginned up by others, but it’s going to be very difficult for you to generate your own if you don’t have a little empathy inside your own head.

These things are intrinsically coupled.

So — the quick takeaway? Knowledge structures are the deep meta-patterns that all our surface-level knowledge comes from. The structure arises from how we relate socially, which is what we practice for thousands of hours, and then transfer those burned-in brain patterns. And the complexity of those knowledge structures comes from empathy in the social structure, which, when evolved, grants us agency to think our own thoughts, as well as fluxes our brains with a data stream of input from others.

AND because the problems of inter-agent coordination in a group, are the same for birds, as well as humans, yet dependent on the core processing capacity of our different, respective brains, our ability to execute coordinated behavior is directly dependent on that hardware/software combo every animal has.

AND since most of what humans do is in the software, it becomes VITALLY important to develop that software. And if we want that software to handle complexity — we have to develop empathy and agency (self-empathy). It is inescapable.

As we relate, so we think (think/thank Malcolm Gladwell for that, if you must!)

We will not be smart enough without the wisdom of an aware crowd. Tip of the hat to Ryan M. for that encapsulation!

Postscript — while Gladwell and others’ 10K hrs. estimation actually rocks it for the knowledge structures for all the lower v-Memes up to Legalistic/absolutistic (think of a mastered tennis stroke as an algorithm executed endlessly by someone working on mastery of a movement) a new book out, David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World explains mastery of scaffolded heuristics — the next KS up the ladder above algorithmic thought, just above the Trust Boundary.

I did write Epstein, hoping to help him see the larger pattern. He did not write back. I did have a great exchange with one of the people in his book, though — so I’m going to always bet on empathy as the long-term path, regardless of the frustration associated with connection.

The Nordic Secret — Book Review

Beautiful, genius-level insight — from The Nordic Secret

From the Eskaret powerhouse, Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Björkman come an awesome new contribution to the meta modern literature — The Nordic Secret A European Story of Truth and Beauty. Similar to Nordic Ideology, it is a comprehensive tome on its subject matter — how the feudal monarchies of the Nordic countries managed to evolve out of the state everyone else was wallowing around in the 16th and 17th century, and make progress toward a modern state.

The answer to all this is bildung – a philosophy of elevated education that included character building as part of personal development. The book combines both a deep historical perspective with the personal development philosophy of Robert Kegan’s stage theories to explain where we’re at, and where we need to go. Kegan’s stage theories, like many others, like Piaget, Kohlberg, and others are deeply insightful and useful, as I’ve said in the past — even if many people don’t follow the exact path of these theories. (The Deep OS reason, for those into the deeper concepts in this blog, is meta-linear progression emerges from academic social structures, which typically don’t handle meta-nonlinear development, or punctuated anything… but I digress.) This stuff is useful, and Andersen and Björkman have done a great job of not just showing HOW it is useful, but compiling an extraordinary set of diagrams that folks can use to spread the word. Here’s hoping they make these figures available for Creative Commons usage on a website somewhere!

For those that love philosophy and the personal development literature, Parts I and II are great primers on everyone from Kant to Kegan, laid out in a historical perspective. Also, importantly, Lene and Tomas show the overlap between the German philosophy of bildung — the prevailing philosophy at the time — and our current understanding from developmental philosophy. Here is a list from the book to ground yourself in bildung:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Enculturation
  • Education
  • Allgemeinbildung (general knowledge about the world)
  • Search for purpose
  • Lore & heritage
  • Poetry & aesthetics
  • Religion & spirituality
  • Connection with nature
  • Says something about who you are.

Parts III and IV are a deep dive into the history, not just of Scandinavian bildung, but German bildung as well. And at the end, both Lene and Tomas do an excellent job of analyzing what exactly went wrong with German bildung that gave the world Hitler. The short version? German bildung was focused only on the elites. And similar to my criticism of Nordic Ideology, they leave out the larger ideas of empathy as major drivers in their work. You educate the elites so that they are better, it’s never too far from the sophisticated intellectual mind that everyone else doesn’t deserve to live. That’s what profound In-group/Out-group separation will do for you. You have to consider the connected (or not!) system as a society builds transferable values.

One other point — bildung didn’t take off until the elites in the Scandinavian societies got behind it. If anything, this is a beacon of reckoning for our own elites. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has said he can’t think of anything to spend all Amazon’s money on other than Moonbase Alpha. Here’s a message to Bezos — the folks you need to create any sustainable version of Moonbase Alpha have to be created first with bildung. The crazy debates in Silicon Valley show this better than anything.

One thing the authors point out is how a healthy nationalism (as opposed to the toxic version we’re seeing in far too many places in the world) is part of the elevated process of getting people to look beyond nationalism. This is a concept that deserves a better discussion on the Left of our current political spectrum. My opinion is that this is where a confluence of falling living standards and toxic rhetoric once again drives anti-empathetic dynamics, and gives psychopaths the upper hand. Fix the first, the second becomes far less attractive. The pie is big enough to share with those that appear different.

Lene and Tomas do not let themselves off the hook with the ‘how to’ section, and I thoroughly enjoyed the last part of the book. But once again, similar to Hanzi and Nordic Ideology, they somewhat magically assume the availability of high development people to be placed where they are needed. An example of this might be their recommendation for recruiting teachers from Kegan Level 5 individuals (self-transforming) to teach at lower levels. This might be possible in the Scandinavian milieu. But I have a hard time even understanding how to get started with the U.S. education system. That’s not to say we shouldn’t listen to Lene and Tomas. They’re right. But every time there’s a desired status, we need to also have a concomitant discussion on path dynamics, as well as how to shorten the time for the various stages along the path.

It also might have been nice to see an example of an implemented bildung curriculum, maybe in an appendix. But I think it’s also fair to say no book can be everything. And this book does enough, by far.

In conclusion, I unreservedly recommend reading this book. It is readable, accessible and (at least for me) extremely enjoyable. The authors write with a wry sense of humor, and little sturm und drang. Having read some of Kegan’s work, I’d argue it’s a better place to learn about Kegan than from the original source!

The real challenge, though, is going to be getting this book shared with friends, so we finally have some base of discussion on how to change our school systems and the world.

The Nordic Ideology — Book Review

The Buddha, dressed in rash guard, contemplating Nordic Ideology
Kelly Creek, Clearwater Country, Idaho

I’ve been meaning to review Nordic Ideology for some time now. Written by Hanzi Freinacht, a made-up character, in a villa in Switzerland, it’s an awesome compilation of theoretical and actionable (well, sort of) metamodernism. The actual authors are two young men, both of whom I consider spiritual traveling partners, Daniel Görtz, and Emil Ejner Friis, and one whom I’ve met and hung out with — Daniel.

And what exactly is it? It’s an awesome compilation of theoretical and actionable (well, sort of) metamodernism.

What is metamodernism? It’s an intended evolution of post-modernism, where instead of breaking down everyone into smaller and smaller intersectional boxes, each with their own truth, it allows for those different diverse perspectives, while attempting to get people to synthesize and integrate those views to create a society that shares a common vision.

And though Daniel and I may disagree exactly on what I’ll say next — that metamodernism is actually a societal level evolution of empathetic development — I’d also argue that we agree on much. And that is written in this awesome book.

First off, the book itself is a comprehensive attempt to create cross-societal coherence on how to create a world where not only can we all get along, but we all can flourish. Hanzi does this by providing a platform for taking apart all the negative arguments against the notion a better world is possible. He starts off with a definitional chapter, which he gets very close to the true mathematical spirit of attractors. This is not a small feat — philosophers and pundits are fond of pulling terms from a variety of literatures — especially math and science — and using them incorrectly. Hanzi gets a ‘A’ for his execution. He then leads into a comprehensive discussion of societal Games — how different advocates for different worldviews argue that they alone are the keepers to pure human nature (which is usually negative.) He disrupts those arguments by discussing Game Change evolution — how to make things more fair, and inclusive. He does a great job in wrapping up Part One by explicitly discussing norms as the primary mode of moving a society forward. This section on cultural evolution is a must-read for any social architect.

Part Two is Hanzi’s attempt at actually defining what that better society might look like. He proposes a six-point interactive view of politics — the Politics of Democratization, Theory, Empiricity, Emancipation, Existence and Gemeinschaft. One can see the joint minds of Friis and Goetz at work here, in the way they have labored under the shared aegis of Hanzi to really beat the incoherence out of their system. If the shared Hanzi misses one thing, though, it’s my own work on how knowledge is created on actually making their utopian improvement project work. It’s my biggest criticism of the work, but their views are not unexpected, considering where Hanzi is at in his combined life. They argue for Ministries dedicated to each of the Politics, with a mission to move things forward. But how exactly to create these benevolent bureaucracies is something that even in the best circumstances in the world, we’ve not done such a great job at. Hanzi is a fan of personal development, but at times misses that creation paths for the institutions he desires may not lead them to the place he wants them to go – precisely because the people involved won’t be evolved enough. Understanding how empathetic development drives emergent behavior would go a long way here.

The book itself builds on Hanzi’s earlier book — The Listening Society — and having read both through twice, I highly recommend both. If you’re immersed in this hopey-changey-systemy stuff like I am, you can jump to Nordic Ideology. If not, you’re going to have to go back to The Listening Society and bone up on what a ‘dividual’ is (hint — very close to how I talk about external definition and independent agency development) as well as some of the other verbiage.

For a book like this, I found The Nordic Ideology from a readability perspective as positively delightful. For as complex as this book is, while I did need quiet to read it (I read it literally in the middle of the wilderness, and earned my ‘read’ by carrying the damn thing 28 miles on my back!) it is really something else. I’m too old to achieve this level of true proficiency in both of their non-native language. But I can admire it.

So, great job, lads/Hanzi! I’m looking forward to the discussion around the next book. Once more into the breach!

Hong Kong and the Deep Memetic Evolution of Protest

Hong Kong Waterfront

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Must Academia Evolve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upper Fish Creek in the Clearwater Country of central Idaho

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

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

So let’s do that trade boycott!

Except —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution’s Path – Greater Complexity and Coherence

Huangshan, Anhui Province

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

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

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

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

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

Okinami (Great Offshore Wave) off Kanagawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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