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

Braden in Cave.jpg

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

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

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

Thank you for your attention and consideration,

Chuck and Ryan

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

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

“Birds of a feather flock together.”

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

“Their brains are wired the same way.”  

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

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

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

Brain Wiring 101

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

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

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

What is a Meme?

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

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

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

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

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

Graves’  basic v-Memes are:

Survival: Characterized by immediate concerns, and changeable circumstances.

Tribal: Group culture, shared origination myths.

Authoritarian:  Power structures, egocentric behavior, and control.

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

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

Communitarian: Societies concerned about individuals

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

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

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

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

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

Reformulating v-Memes with Empathy as a Guiding Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conway’s Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the ‘Why’ of the Empathy Development Pathway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Panda Moment

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

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

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

Thank you for your attention and consideration,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

tiki alcatraz photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Misool Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I happen to think Faulkner would have loved memetics.

Do read the background Wikipedia posts.

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


Tales from the South Pacific — Empathy and Integration Lessons from West Papua, Indonesia

Sorong Sunset.jpg

View from the final meal restaurant, Sorong, Indonesia, December 2018

My son, Braden (age 20) and I have been traveling for the last three weeks — literally to the ends of the Earth.  We visited West Papua, Indonesia, and the island of Misool, for a sea kayaking ‘vacation’ (I use that word pretty loosely!)  While it wasn’t particularly relaxing, or a vacation, without going into a lot of negative detail, both Braden and I learned tons.  In our little group, we call this kind of a trip a ‘Monkey Stomp’. I’ll let your conjecture run wild on what that means.  🙂

Misool Rain

Father and Son, in the tropical rain. Ain’t we a pair.

This part of the world is covered with small, limestone islands, eroded at the base like ice cubes that have had hot water poured on them.  What that means is the ground itself, in many places, is covered by super-sharp rocks that, while beautiful, are more than happy to cut deep to the bone.  Just add protruding, embedded sea shells.  It makes for a tremendous landscape, but not necessarily one so great for human habitation.

Braden Sea Kayak Inverted Island

Crazy limestone karst geology, and Braden in a sea kayak.  Clothing courtesy of Northwest River Supplies

As such, it’s most populated (and thinly at that) by temporary fishing encampments, and small villages.  The people, all some mix of Papuan and the crazy-quilt Indonesian genetic stock, are all essentially modern tribal v-Meme, working mostly in a gift economy, with strong family ties.  Villages are headed up by an ‘elected’ official, a kepala desa, who really functions more as a ‘Big Man’ (a la Jared Diamond’s analysis) than someone who uses coercive force or hard authority to accomplish their will.  While living standards have improved — two big signs were the prevalence of bottled water, and of course, the virtually ubiquitous cell phone — time scales still slip, and time is much more locked to the natural environment than in anything resembling modern society.

During the course of the trip, we visited a series of human settlements. We started at Sorong, which is really a small city, and resembles more the ramshackle, sprawling towns in the Caribbean I’ve been to (Puerto Limon in Costa Rica came to mind immediately) than any ordered establishment. StreetsofSorong

The streets of Sorong, outside the central market.  That’s a mosque at the end of the street.

From there, it was a literal 150 mile ferry ride across to Misool, the Muslim town of Yalu (sp?), which was the real jumping-off point for a 30 km boat ride to a small island homestay.  During the rest of the trip, we visited a Muslim village, a Christian village, and a corporate pearl farm.  All three offered insights on how social organization manifests itself with both time scales and spatial scales.

As you read through the rest of this, it’s pretty important to not moralize, especially about the influence of religion – go full post-modern!  The way the people lived — their deep v-Meme — was a click up from full-on tribal.  As such, everywhere we went, we were the out-group and an oddity.  Six tourists, two white guides, and two Indonesian guides comprised the group.  Because of our Indonesian guides, who were great, we had the opportunity to ask questions and carry on with the locals — something I always like to do!  We could also ground ourselves and really validate our observations.  The other thing, not surprisingly considering the dominance of the gift economy in many aspects of life, is that the locals really had very little interest in making money off of us.  In all places, they were really just happy to see us.  We were space aliens, and entertaining ones at that.

Josh Cell Phone (1)

Josh getting his picture taken. That’s her cell phone.

Many of the people, and a good hunk of the women seemed to take a particular fascination with me.  My son attributes this to the fact that I am literally massive to them (I was twice many of the folks’ size) and I know how to use facial gestures to connect (hey — gotta practice what you preach!)  Not meaning to go full guru on you, but it never hurts to beam love at all the people you meet when you’re traveling.  It really makes a difference.  And it’s just not that hard.

Panda Moment

These women from the Christian village Tomolol came running out with flowers and wanted us to take a picture of them and their baby.

One thing that was painfully obvious was the blight of garbage that all these villages were dealing with. Chief among these were bottles from bottled water, and some soft drinks, though because of the advancements in modern packaging, processed food producers have found ways to package small, sugar-laden snacks in $.10 packages, that are eaten, and then immediately discarded.

Snack Kiosk

A Muslim-run kiosk at the edge of the Christian village.  There are virtually no tensions between the different religions in Indonesia that we saw or read about.

The effects of cultural sidebars on trash disposal were immediately obvious.  In the Muslim and full-on tribal encampments, trash was literally everywhere, and there was little effort to even deal with human feces.  One dive site we visited, which had the most amazing below-water coral field I had ever seen, also had evidence of slicks of human waste.

Fishing Encampment

View from above — this fishing encampment is in existence for only six months of the year, next to one of the most amazing reefs you’ll ever see.

One step up was the Christian village.  Obviously visited in the past by missionaries (we didn’t find out which denomination) the spatial scales of responsibility had obviously been expanded to people’s front yards.

White Jesus

White Jesus was about 20′ tall.  Braden and I had a politically incorrect laugh at all of it.

Cooking was still pretty primitive, and locals burned wood collected from the forest.

Wood gathering

West Papuan woman hauling firewood

But where there was distance between them and their extended family units, there was garbage.  Here’s a shot of a bunch of cake boxes discarded in a ravine next to a street of houses, neatly lined with nice yards.

Village Donut Boxes

Finally, the most socially ordered place we visited was the corporate platform that supported the pearl farm.  We visited them after one of our party got stung by jellyfish.  Braden and I put on our Action Hero costumes, and pulled one of our guides out of the water screaming.  Kudos to her — as a professional sea kayaker, she was still plenty tough, and after we loaded her in her boat, we chased her the five km. to the pearl farm platform, where the people on the platform offered aid, as well as food, to us.

Pearl Platform Sandy Jellyfish

Sandy in hot water — the best immediate cure for jellyfish stings

I’ve been fortunate to have been raised in a kinda-Muslim household (my father was from Iran) and I immediately trotted off to the small kiosk on the platform to buy cigarettes, candy, and cookies, which we promptly distributed to our hosts.  Never underestimate the power of the appropriate rituals.

Pearl Platform Hejib shot

Braden going full tribal, holding a kid while smoking a cigarette while the woman in a hejib took his picture.

Simultaneously, they were serving us tea, coffee, and finally a bowl of soup as we played with the children, and I chatted up the men running the platform with the appropriate amount of humor.

Pearl Platform fine china

Why not use the fine china when visitors show up?

Pearl Platform Muslim Women

The local women repairing baskets and checking out the biggest thing to happen in those parts in a while.

It rained that crazy tropical rain while our guide recovered. And then we were back on the water.

Pearl Platform Rain (1)


One of the most (pathologically) interesting aspects of the trip, as I mentioned before, was the prevalence of bottled water and incumbent trash associated with it.  Since this blog is supposed to be about design thinking, at least occasionally, I was forced to ponder many efforts ongoing at various universities, involving students, fixated on building water purification systems for remote villages such as this one.  These activities have been literally going on forever, and almost always revolve around things like sand filters, or lately, sipping straws or other such devices for water purification.

It’s not like these things aren’t well-meaning — they certainly are — but one can see the effect of rising incomes in places like this really changing the dynamic of water acquisition and use across this landscape.  The minute you bump up living standards, the first things people gravitate to are clean water, cell phones, and sugary snacks. When it comes to clean water, they’re down.  But the idea of centralized water distribution is so far out of both their abilities, and their v-Meme stack on how to fix their problems, they can’t even conceive of it.  If they were really going to have a networked water system, the first thing they’d have to have would be a hierarchical community structure — which, of course, they don’t have.

So, they buy bottled water.  And because their scales of responsibility are temporally short, and spatially small, there is no facility for trash collection, nor any larger sense of cleanliness in the ocean environment.  Pollution is normalized as well, as most of the huts are built over the water, and people defecate in a hole that the tide then cleans. The end result is that one ends up with tons of plastic.  Everywhere.

I came away from the trip with a strong sense of urgency around a need for trash incineration in remote communities.  The optimal kind of solution would use trash to produce electricity (a potentially straightforward transaction that might work), which many of these communities also don’t have. Once again, think of the social structure necessary to run a grid, especially one that could stand up to that tropical rain.  Whatever waste-to-power solution developed has to be at the right scale, and likely won’t involve long-range power transmission.  Distributed generation is going to have to be prioritized.  And it’s going to have to be simple.

My views on design validity — there is nothing like a site visit and customer interviews to make you understand exactly what people are living through if you’re going to design a solution for them — were profoundly reinforced.  While designing a straw that they’re always supposed to use to suck water out of the mud might appeal to a Western designer, it’s not going to appeal to the mother of a young infant in one of those villages, who would rather just grab a bottle she can afford, is packaged in clear packaging, and give it to her child.  The fact that this behavior creates another problem — waste disposal — is not going to matter to that mother, and her immediate concern over her family’s health.

It also takes a lot of education to appreciate the effect of bacterial infection as well.  The school in the Christian village had a large poster hanging outside exhorting all attendees to wash their hands.

Hand Wash Sign

I’ve seen this also in rural China.  A deeper understanding of the effects of microbes is a higher v-Meme phenomenon.  And given a confusing information field, once again, the mother is going to go for the clear packaged water.

Over and over, in a variety of situations, the way the people lived in the villages were the direct result of their own unique ‘sense making’ exercise.  That sense making was dependent on the various scales of awareness that they had, linked to their tribal v-Meme development, as well as their ability to integrate this with the cultural sidebars they were also given.

And things aren’t all bad.  A great example of that was the relative safety we all felt against theft while visiting the various settlements.  Everyone familiar with Muslim culture knows that stealing is prohibited (and no — they don’t chop hands off in Indonesia) but the effect is that as a traveler, while I wouldn’t go so far as just leaving temptation out, relative to other Developing Country venues I’ve been in, I never thought someone wanted to grab my money belt.  Most of the villages were Muslim, all had mosques, and there were calls to prayer the typical three-five times/day.  Cultural influences filled in the holes for larger awareness and longer time scales missing from the more short-term rationality displayed in the context of village life.

We also didn’t get sick, and anyone also familiar with Muslim culture knows that there is an emphasis on personal hygiene.  Bottled water available also came from the ubiquitous five gallon jugs that adorn our office water coolers.

Travel does cure ignorance.  It also shows the value of walking into situations with few, if any preconceptions.  Braden and I were there for a vacation.  We didn’t know what to expect. The fact that it turned into a larger, expansive awareness exercise, considering all the things that happened, will benefit both of us in the future.  And I know I’ll start a waste incineration project with my students in the spring.

But maybe, next time, I’m just going to go someplace closer and sit on the beach.  Maybe!

A big shout-out to Northwest River Supplies in Moscow, ID for providing gear and clothing for our trip.  Thanks, gang!



Quickie Post — On the (Kinda) Lighter Side — Nina Hartley and Free Speech

Monastiraki locals - Greece

Locals at the Monastiraki Metro Station, Athens, Greece, 2018

For those that have been wondering what I’ve been up to writing-wise, I’ve been finishing the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) on the leadership book my co-conspirator, Ryan Martens and I have been writing.  It’s getting more readable, but it’s still interesting to write a book on leadership that says you have to develop your people, but at the same time realize as the author that how you develop people is intrinsically tied to how developed you are as a leader!  It turns into an Escher-esque strange loop for sure!

And, on the lighter side, I happened across this article about Nina Hartley, noted porn star, and now free speech activist, who had been invited to the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse, by the Chancellor, Joe Gow.  Apparently, he hadn’t briefed the President of the University of Wisconsin system, Ray Cross, about Hartley’s appearance and the use of university funds for her speaking fee.  For those of us that hire speakers, uh, Hartley’s $5K fee seems rather, uh, modest.  Pun intended.

It’s all profiled in this link in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and while it’s really not a funny topic, any time there’s a porn star involved, I still have to laugh.  Is it really a conflict of morals?  Cross maintains that it is so.  In a letter obtained by the local paper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“Apart from my personal underlying moral concerns, I am deeply disappointed by your decision to actively recruit, advocate for, and pay for a porn star to come to the UW-La Crosse campus to lecture students about sex and the adult entertainment industry,” wrote Cross in a letter obtained by the Journal Sentinel. 

Or could it be something else?  Hartley sheds some light with her opinion below:

“”As an advocate for sexual liberation, I’ve long been cast as either a threat or a menace,” she wrote, “and I posit Chancellor Gow was pressured into his decisions by those uncomfortable with my message and how my expertise was acquired.”

If one looks at the closing phrase in Hartley’s analysis, methinks there might just be an insight into how modern academia views experiential education!  v-Meme conflict indeed!

Understanding Long-Scale (Geologic Time) Evolution of Empathy

Aegean Sea Harbor

Nea Artaki, on the island of Evia, Greece  October 2018

I’ve been having discussion with folks about empathy, and why I’ve chosen the model I have to pin my work on.  Obviously, my understanding has increased as I’ve read more, and thought more about this, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on how things have transpired.

First off, as with most of my work, I strive for a functional/constructivist/evolutionary perspective.  What does that mean?

  1.  I read a ton of other people’s work.  Folks have been pondering a lot of these questions for a long time, and it surely helps to understand others’ thoughts.
  2. When reading, I look for work that tells me something about the base biological function of connection, and then theorizes from there.  I love Stephen Porges (the Polyvagal Theory) Franz de Waal (The Age of Empathy) Daniel Siegel (the Neurobiology of We) and attempt to make myself aware of other great researchers and thinkers who also tie their work to biology (Carl Rogers, Anthony Damasio, V.S. Ramachandran.)
  3. That said, I don’t ‘tow the party line’ about anything.  These people are all awesome, but at some level they also are somewhat unaware that the knowledge they generate is intrinsically tied to the social structure they come from.  They lack that key insight, which (I think) would cause them to publish larger systemic interpretations like I do.  I’d love to get them in a room and have a freewheeling discussion.
  4. I take my knowledge of system construction (I’m a design prof in engineering), how a given function has to work, and what might be an evolutionary design path would have to be if I had sensors, and processors in more of a mechatronic perspective, as well as an Minimum Viable Product (MVP) perspective, and think about how these things progress over time.  This is, as far as I can tell, a completely foreign mode for really thinking about this stuff in the empathy researcher community, who are largely tied to empiricism, observations and experiments because of their own academic practice.
  5. The short version is that I am constantly asking two questions:  “How would that work,” and “How would I evolve a product that would do that?”  These turn out to be powerful questions that really cut through the bullshit.

So we know that we have the Empathy Pyramid below, and, as sentient (or semi-sentient) beings, which really includes almost all multicellular living creatures, intra-organism communication matters.  Even if it’s only for reproductive purposes, animals have to do some coordination.  I’m not going to pick nits at the bottom of the scale (how sentient ARE sponges?) but if you want to argue at the dinner table, have at it!  I’d actually love to listen!

OK — here’s the pyramid for your reference.

Empathy-Social Behavior Pyramid English

If one were evolving an empathetic system, the first sensor level one has is ON/OFF. As I’ve said earlier, this likely first showed up in a pronounced form in the Silurian Period, which was where bony fishes showed up.  Heck, it may have even happened in the Cambrian (500 million years ago!) with trilobites.  Maybe I’m just being vertebrate-ist!  But we do know that bony fishes swam in schools, and one can start to produce that layer of mirroring empathy with an on/off sensor.  If the fish in front of you can be seen by you, that little sensor goes off, and you head toward it.  Couple that with a couple of food sensors, and you now have a collective organism that can move in concert.

Short version — one now has the beginnings/evolutionary seeds/MVP of mirroring empathy.  Evolution and natural selection can now take off and make this more sophisticated.  The basic action is laid in.

Next up is what I call State Behavior.  If you have a sensor that first can determine ON/OFF, the next natural progression is to fine-tune that sensor’s ability to distinguish between a statistically accurate reading (in hypothesis testing, we call this a ‘correct detection’) vs. one where the sensor goes off, but no little fishy is swimming in front of you.  (In the world of hypothesis testing, we call this a ‘false alarm’.)  There is a balance between these two, where you hone your threshold.  Modern radar systems do this — this is called a Classic Detection Problem, and the curve that characterizes our little fishy’s detector is called an ROC curve.  For those with engineering interest, you can look all this up!  Believe it or not, it all started with a Presbyterian minister back in the 18th Century called Thomas Bayes, though I’d be remiss to not point you to the work of Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener.

An interesting turn now takes place on the evolutionary path.  Better discrimination hones first those beginning seeds of mirroring behavior.  On/Off gets better and better.  At the same time, in order to determine a better On/Off, we also have to evolve a better signal estimator.  Now emergence starts playing a role.  That On/Off detector leads to a better estimator, and that estimator starts to evolutionarily seek advantage of its own.  Fish that feel compelled to stay in a school have an evolutionary advantage over fish that do not feel compelled.  The level of compulsion also likely leads to tightness in formation, or even looseness, as there is now a dynamic balance between size of the fish, and tightness of the school.  We start to see the advantage to different states- like anger, fear, passivity, and so on.

This was made possible by first solving (with evolution) the beginnings of collective movement.  But as with all acts of emergent sentience, it ends up having purposes beyond the original evolutionary adaptation.  The evolutionary winners find new uses for their new hardware/software combo.  The evolutionary seed is sown for emotions in the state differentiation and estimation problem.

Here is a key takeaway — evolution does not follow a pre-planned route to increased evolution, or sophistication.  Cockroaches have been in their same form for 140 million years!  Yet when you create a composite organism (schools of fish, as well as bands of humans!) where some level of sentience and shared information processing plays a major factor in their survival, we see how our more evolved displays of root-biological empathy (attachment behavior, prosody, development of the vagus nerve) come to the fore.  Think of it this way — it’s hardware that’s evolved, that’s just waiting to be used!

OK.  Now we have the basis for both mirroring behavior (ON/OFF) and emotional empathy (STATE processing.) What happens as we refine state processing?  Well, let’s think about how state processing would have to work.

In order to evaluate and make a decision on a particular state, we would need to evolve a probabilistic detector/estimator combo that would take in data, and then guess at a given state AFTER a certain amount of data is received.  That means State estimation grows out of time-based averaging/dichotomous decision making back in original problem — whether we can see another fishy or not.

Now our State estimator grows in sophistication.  It reads and crunches more and more specific data, now gives several different State recognitions, and pops out a decision.  It may do this more quickly, but over time, quick decisions might not pay off, especially as task complexity increases.

And maybe, as time scales lengthen/increase, averaging for STATE estimation starts yielding NO evolutionary benefit.  Things change around the organism, and so some level of temporal windowing starts playing a role in evolution.  Taking in the data, and matching it to your own experiences, which inherently takes a larger processor and is hugely computationally expensive (you’re matching more details, over different scenes!), and more time, starts yielding some degree of evolutionary advantage.

And it may turn out that the state information also starts confusing your estimation of what’s happening with the individual you’re attempting to coordinate with.  If you’re angry/sad/etc., you’re mixing up the signals that are preventing you from making a good decision, for you specifically, or the collective!  Now we can start seeing for an animal navigating a ton of different environments (remember that humans are spread across the globe!) becoming data-driven makes more and more sense.  Rational empathy starts becoming emergent and an advantage.

AND… finally, we end up where we want to consciously improve our own ability to estimate different changing circumstances, with different changing individuals.  And we realize maybe that WE’RE getting in the way.  So we evolve more profound, differentiated ‘being’ inside the collective.  As well as the ability to watch ourself.  Now we have the seeds of larger self-awareness.  Which leads to more emergent behavior.

What’s the bottom line?  The Empathy Pyramid makes sense.  It generates itself, and takes us far away from the warm Silurian seas our ancestors swam in so long ago.

There’s a couple of points I’d like to leave you with.

  1.  None of this is tied explicitly to a triune brain.  Any systems person can tell you that if you have one computer, and you have to hack a system together, you can do it with a number of different processor architectures.
  2. That said, one can see the advantages in optimality IN a triune brain structure.  Different parts work together, as well as differentiate function along the lines of instantaneous action, state, and experiential data.

So don’t tell me crows can’t love, or be smart.  Or that octopi can’t coordinate.  But you can also see the evolutionary advantages of having a triune brain as far as accelerating evolution and sophistication.

There’s also a relatively clear moral lesson that comes out of this.  We got better, and more sophisticated and evolved, because we took care of each other, in groups with increasing size and diversity.  We might remember this during this particularly mean political season.  We all get to cross the finish line together.