Leadership for Creativity Isn’t all Child’s Play

My favorite stall vendor, Sorong, Indonesia, December 2018

I’ve recently been on Twitter, attempting to understand how the dynamics of the medium, which are definitely different than Facebook, work. As such, I’ve picked up a few followers in the complex systems application community. All these seem to be in health care, which is interesting to me, as I’m mostly embedded in the generalized aerospace/AI community, and hadn’t thought much about complex systems in the context of health care. It’s obviously my problem of linking awareness, as I’ve written about diet pretty extensively, and how all this linked to a decline in the aggregate mind, so it’s obviously an oversight on my part.

One of my new followers posted the following article from MIT Sloan School of Management Review, titled Leadership Lessons from your Inner Child, by one of their instructors, Douglas A. Ready. It’s the standard stuff about how children are bold, take risks, and other such icks. It’s centered around the individual (egocentric) and almost needless to say, centers around a mythic view of the past. If you want to be creative, be as a child.

Another book espousing occasionally a similar philosophy is the best-selling book, The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle. In his book, he leads with a chapter about how creative young children are, in that they can build a taller spaghetti and marshmallow tower than some laundry list of executives, like lawyers and bank officials. I gave back the book, so please forgive my incorrect listing of professions. If we could just be like those kids, Coyle asserts, we’d be more creative, and better professionals.

Inevitably, advice like Coyle’s and Ready’s is enshrined in games that people are made to play at corporate trainings, and, unfortunately, design professor get-togethers as “icebreakers”. You’re given an assortment of random items, or a box of spaghetti, and told to go at it. Some people gleefully leap into the milieu, seizing their child mind because they’re what I call ‘puzzle people’, or alternately because that’s their actual stage of development. But you can’t dodge the social physics of this blog. Design professors that can’t build tall marshmallow towers, or can’t generate a cute group nickname, inevitably feel shame. You don’t just jump out of a status-based Legalistic/Authoritarian social structure because someone hands you a box of pasta.

When I read things like this, however, I’m busy pondering the deeper “Why” of the Matrix. Let’s get at the core of the fundamental validity question. If kids are supposedly so much better at leadership than those hospital executives, why don’t we let 6-year-olds run hospitals? Of course, this is a laughable idea, and not because I’m a traditionalist. We’re never going to get to run the experiment because people would DIE. What’s funny is how our brains have enshrined this myth of childhood creativity so deeply that people from MIT bring it up and preach it as gospel truth.

What it really shows is that we don’t understand creativity, even at an egocentric, individual level very well. And that we have some pretty deep cultural sidebars that lock in that lack of understanding. Our standard process of dealing with the ‘creative child’ myth is to let the nostalgic emotions flow while we’re daydreaming through the inevitable speech, not say anything against the dominant paradigm, and get back to work.

The deeper truth behind the ‘creative child’ myth is not all B.S., however. Children do possess a greater amount of neuroplasticity, that brain flexibility thing that means beliefs (and the meta-linear, incremental single solution sets that accompany them) are more easily overcome, and multi-solution thinking, with its meta-nonlinear characteristics is far more possible. Neuroplasticity comes mostly naturally to kids, but once we’re over the age of 25, it starts to decline, unless it is triggered by trauma, and what I call a grounding validity crisis. If you’ve been mapping yourself to single solution thinking forever, that doesn’t have much to do with reality, when you think you might die, it’s a wonder how creative you can get in order to avoid expiring.

Calling out this transition in individual neuroplasticity can be a good thing. But it still needs the larger adult processes of incorporation and scaffolding in order to be meaningful. Kids exist in what Ken Wilber called the Preconscious stage. This maps to a Spiral Dynamics level of Tribal Authoritarianism, with lots of magical thinking. Counting on adults who have personally evolved to what Wilber would call the Conscious stage to maintain the same level of neuroplasticity, if those same adults have a limited experience base and haven’t really grown empathetically, doesn’t happen. They’re used to being surrounded by people who look like them, figuratively or literally, and that lack of empathetic development means that their neuroplasticity is going to go into the toilet.

What it also means is that in order to get to some level of Wilber’s Post-conscious development stage, which requires self-awareness, means they’re going to have to wait until their mid-life crisis, or until someone they love gets hit by a bus. Not particularly valid methods for building egocentric creativity in your work place, if your needs for multi-solution thinking are more immediate.

I found the picture below in my Facebook feed, and in many ways, it is a.) deeply tragic, and b.) a great example of the stuck-in-lower-stages of development hell. The couple pictured likely wanted to impress their friends by telling them they took a plane trip, which is beyond their means. Instead, their photo of their superficial creativity has gone viral on the Internet, making them a laughingstock. (Maybe — maybe their intent was to fool someone like me and have an image go viral!)

From Facebook, 2019

How, then, do we as leaders, unlock real creativity? The answer is creating conditions that march up the Spiral developmentally. Safety matters, at the bottom, and to be fair, Daniel Coyle mentions this. But further up the developmental chain, the main thing that starts making a difference with creativity is an increase in personal agency. You have to trust yourself to make good decisions, and being given by leadership decision-making heuristics and processes where that agency matters. That experience of personal accomplishment can ground a person, and then make it far more possible to merge into a creative community and contribute. You’ll feel assured you know what you know. But you’ll also look out and realize that others might know stuff as well.

What then follows is a far more complex creative dance. When multiple people are involved, think of people exchanging ideas freely as throwing a ball back and forth, with no end in sight unless everyone can agree, or at least agree to disagree, on a final concept. That blending in the design space is highly meta-nonlinear, and I write about this extensively in this post. Be forewarned — it’s a bit of a deep, systems-goodness deep dive.

The short version is, though, that meta-nonlinear dynamics, naturally produce multiple solutions, with a little piece of everyone synergized as a whole when the group finally reaches conclusions. Because fundamentally, creativity, outside the ranks of flashes of genius, is inherently an emergent group process. When you couple this with noble purpose and meaning, also keyed to the developmental needs and place of the group, things will really take off. And you, as an empathetic leader, can facilitate that by setting up your social structure with more profound empathy.

And the more independently generated relationships you can help your people make, to build their empathetic capacity, the better off they’ll be. So put away the box of spaghetti, the Legos, or (heaven forbid) the Plasticine clay. Next time you’re working to stimulate creativity, crack open a nice bottle of wine and let people talk and get to know each other. Give them a task with deeper purpose, that maps to their ability to contribute and find meaning. Stop any inner urge you have to have your engineers jump on one foot while they brainstorm. They’ll appreciate you for it. They’re not children, after all.

P.S. Not wanting to get into a big discussion re: alcohol, because, well, it’s complicated — but alcohol is much more of a ‘We’ drug when used in moderation, than an ‘I’ drug. Something to think about, creativity-wise. There’s a reason for the old saying ‘when the pub closes, the revolution starts!’

Is Donald Trump a Manchurian Candidate?

Queen Anne Lowboy, photo Mike Beiser, April 2019 — about 200 hours for those that are curious

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’ve recently connected with the Intellectual Father of much of what I base my own work around — Mel Conway, of Conway’s Law fame. I found him on Twitter, interestingly enough. We’ve a had a lot of fun bouncing ideas off each other in the meantime. For me, it’s kind of a Bladerunner moment, where the android gets to meet his maker and ask him questions. Considering Mel’s advanced age, I hope he’s getting one of those “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” moments.

Mel recently floated the idea of Donald Trump as a Manchurian Candidate type of persona, subject to hypnotic suggestion by a larger Russian psy-ops program. Well, maybe. But probably not. For those that don’t remember the cultural allusion, a Manchurian Candidate is a person brainwashed to do a foreign government’s bidding. The title comes from the eponymous novel about a Medal of Honor winner who almost gives the Presidency to the Communists.

Far more likely is that Donald Trump is just a garden-variety, super-rich narcissistic psychopath. And largely why we can’t seem to wrap our heads around Trump as an individual with a deep empathy disorder is because we, as a society, have such a poor understanding of how empathy disorders, as well as empathy in general works. The reason, as I’ve said in the past, we have such a poor understanding, is the structures we’ve set up to explore new knowledge– academic institutions– are empathy deprived in their fundamental social structure. They just don’t get empathy as a connecting force, because they don’t connect, and can’t conceive of it as an important dynamic. Check the link above to understand how egocentric academic understanding can be.

And when it comes to understanding disorders of empathy, what that means is the people that study what psychopathy is are very good at listing endless, fragmented characteristics of a given individual. But those same people in charge of our shared understanding are uniformly awful for understanding how these individuals work inside systems.

This matters greatly for the present moment, because the President of the United States is a narcissistic psychopath. I’m not the only person that’s said this (though I did call it early! 🙂 ) But what’s lacking, again, is how someone like a narcissistic psychopath operates inside a social system.

Two very important characteristics matter in understanding how narcissistic psychopaths operate. First is the primary emphasis on mirroring empathy, with the extremely short-term time- and spatial scales that dominate that mode. No one would deny that Donald Trump is fundamentally impulsive — all you have to do is look at his Twitter feed to understand exactly how impulsive he is. Just like The Joker in the movie The Dark Knight, Donald Trump is a dog chasing cars. He wouldn’t know what to do with one if he caught it. Look no further to the story of his transition team into the Presidency.

The second is delving deep cultural knowledge on how narcissistic psychopaths have been viewed in the past — the iconic image of The Vampire. Vampires are characterized by the following:

  1. Concerned to the exclusion of almost everything else regarding their personal appearance.
  2. Possessing no reflection in a mirror (indicating no profound internal definition of self.)
  3. Fear of daylight.

I’ve called the condition “collapsed egocentricism” — there is nothing else in the world of Donald Trump but Donald Trump and his desires. This lack of boundaries also directly links to a profound inability to make or maintain personal attachment. The end result of this is endless relational disruption of the social network in his reach, which, unfortunately extends out past his Cabinet, and to the rest of our nation.

The problem with all this is that Trump also tends not to respond well to anyone below him in titular authority. That means basically everyone in the United States. He IS President, after all. All here are beneath him.

That means he has to look outside of the country to find someone who he might consider a peer. That means other heads of state. And he’s naturally going to gravitate to people whose brains are wired like his. Kim Jong Oon, the head of North Korea, is probably the best (and most recent) example. The problem with all this is Trump is really only receptive to suggestion from other authoritarian heads of state, like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

The problem with having these folks as your operative Old Boys Club is that these folks aren’t stupid. Donald Trump got to his current status as President through an instinctive reading of media markets. Anyone denying his insight on how new media works needs to start adopting a performance-based ethos toward realizing that Trump was no accident, even if the currents of history favored his ascendancy. He had the one characteristic that mattered in the face of an ossified political system — the ability to use new media channels to turn the rage over neglect of a majority of the country economically into political support. That talent propelled him into the White House.

But Putin, and Xi are different animals. While both are most definitely authoritarians, both rose through myriad political Authority-driven hierarchies to become top dogs without either a.) landing in jail, or b.) getting killed. Donald’s been flying around on an airplane, making screwy business deals and whoring. These other two guys mean business. They may both be Authoritarians, and potentially narcissistic, but the circumstances they evolved in demanded far more sophistication for basic survival. Sophistication demanded they learned to control their darker impulses.

So when it comes to getting Trump to do what they want, they know how to manipulate someone with empathy mirroring distortion. Until, of course, something inside Trump’s brain starts squawking that they’re moving up in status above him. And then he threatens trade sanctions.

Or war. That’s the deep problem with all of this. One of the pathologies of the condition is called splitting. While the phenomenon is well described in infants, it is disordered thinking in a 70+ year old man. Referred to sometimes as ‘black and white thinking’ it is the sudden shift in thinking someone is your friend is now your enemy. This is hardly OK on the playground between six-year-olds. But one can see the peril in this among world leaders. Lots of people have made fun of Trump watching Fox News all day, and carrying on with the hosts. I’m different — that kind of news makes me happy. The last thing we need is for that guy to be more active.

Which then brings me full circle to Conway’s Manchurian Candidate hypothesis. It’s not that it might not be true. Those Russkies are an interesting bunch. But I’ve seen so much incompetence at elite levels in the last ten years, in all sorts of institutions, I’ve become convinced that there are few world-class players who could pull something like that off. Most folks are there through a combination of sophistication, suppression of ego, at least temporarily, and a good bit of luck. The last enlightened authoritarian I witnessed was Deng Xiaoping, and it was clear that empathetic evolution was taking place in his brain throughout his life. The fact that he got sent to prison by Mao and emerged alive is amazing.

But I’ve never favored any organized conspiracy when that same behavior could be explained with emergent dynamics. Donald Trump, as a relational disruptor/collapsed egocentric is prime for above-board manipulation. Being locked in with low-order empathetic functioning — dysfunctional mirroring is all that other world leaders need. Manchurian Candidate? More likely Vampire of New York.

P.S. For a little more lighthearted world-leader influence, this message from (ex) President Vicente Fox is awesome.

Unfortunately, using the logic from above, Trump isn’t likely to listen. Fox is out of office.

Why Humans Aren’t Getting Climate Change

Inside AJ Redhawk’s Teepee, Cochise County, AZ – March, 2019

I’ve lately discovered Twitter, after having dismissed a couple of years ago as a primarily Authoritarian value set format. 240 character fragments, blurted out to the world, didn’t inspire me as a mode for doing much besides asserting one’s viewpoint. I was wrong. Twitter actually has relatively amazing possibilities, and I’ve become convinced the short text length is actually an asset — not a liability. For intelligent people, it forces a conciseness that also requires building on others’ arguments. There’s only so many times you can type “This” and re-tweet someone else’s stuff.

And if you are high-conflict, or stupid, there’s only so many times you can write “You’re STOOPID.” You can follow me on Twitter if you’re so inclined. I’m Empathy Guru, or #PezeshkiCharles.

I have relatively few people I follow, and also relatively few followers. One of the ones I picked up was a friend of my chronic co-conspirator, Ryan Martens, Tom Higley. Tom got pegged with reading the MVP of my manuscript, and is also the founder of 10.10.10 — a serial entrepreneur/institutional connector looking at bringing people together to solve the world’s problems. They’re declared as a “wicked problem” meta-incubator, running workshops around these big questions.

Long story short — Tom’s feed throws up big questions, some that actually are longer than a Twitter comment. One of these today was ‘why don’t people care about global warming?’ The answer, of course, has to be grounded in understanding human empathetic development. Why? Everything we do has to go back to the brain, and how we connect and relate is what evolves that organ. “As we relate, so we think.” You can’t escape it.

Global warming is a sticky wicket, because, at some level, it is a long time-scale/spatial scale problem. Long temporal scale problems become problematic in people’s minds, as many people who have the actual free time to think about them — older people — are going to be dead by the time the excrement really hits the ventilator. Younger people are mired in the economic crisis of the time, and while they have the most to lose, they don’t have the luxury of thinking about it.

Spatial scales in the same way affect concern about global warming. When we’re suffering through an ice storm here in the U.S., it becomes almost impossible for people to conceive that maybe halfway across the world below the equator, a part of the world is suffering the worst heat wave they’ve ever seen, People’s brains just don’t work on that level, unless relationally they have friends who live where the heat wave is taking place. And if that place is someplace like the outer islands of Indonesia, it makes it doubly difficult. No one even has any sense where those places are on the globe.

And it’s worse than that. One of the more depressing exercises I’ve engaged in was to ground myself in people’s actual ignorance of the physicality of our planet. It can be tough, but if you have a hard time understanding where people are actually at, grab a clipboard, put a pen behind your ear, and walk around asking people the simple question: if gravity pulls down (few will deny this) why don’t people on the bottom of the Earth fall off?

Long temporal scales, and large spatial scales also mess with people’s sense of consequentiality. We’re happy to give enough money to buy a baby calf to Heifer Project for a poor kid in an ad in one of those benighted, and inevitably dark countries. Fragmented, interpersonal identification is something our brains fundamentally relate to, with only a little social evolution. Most of us don’t want poor children to starve.

We also understand things like ‘plant a tree in the rainforest’ — the rainforest, besides being a real thing, is a mythic icon after 40 years of campaigning. But getting how to change utility systems at home mystifies us. The hardcore campaigners are always happy to put solar panels on their roofs — and there’s nothing wrong with adding another layer of insulation. But to get people out of their box and connect with others with the goal of rearranging electrical supplies from their local utilities mystifies most. A few communities (Boulder comes to mind) are attempting to do something. But the list ends up being countable on one or two hands. An actual movement outside some place like Germany, where social cohesion AND agency are both strong, as well as a wicked performance mindset, is still elusive.

Current economics, and the income crisis gap affecting the middle class don’t help. Why? Empathetic development is measured in terms of temporal and spatial awareness, of course. But it is also grounded in energetics, meaning you have to have some free time to make and maintain those independently generated relationships. In order to get the masses involved and thinking rationally, they need to not be in a Survival-level crisis all the time. And far too many people are. You can’t run from the thermodynamics of the situation.

The short answer, then, is to fix global warming, we might focus on the well-being of a socially-supported middle class first. People are plenty smart, and if they possibly can participate, they’ll find a way. And then those emergent solutions will start popping up, at larger and larger, appropriate self-organizing scales. We can goose this along with smart technology and appropriate evangelization, of course. There’s nothing to be gained by NOT talking about AGW. It’s happening.

But if we don’t work concomitantly, aiming to expand people’s temporal, spatial and energetic scales, along with working on improving their consequentiality, then larger solutions will remain elusive. Until AGW really does burn folks, and creates that Survival Level Maximal Neuroplasticity crisis. Once you’re down there in the Survival Value Set, anything is indeed possible. But that ‘anything’ is as likely to be magical or authoritarian thinking, and those low empathy modes always result in a lot of people dying who are unfortunate to be in the Out-Group. Not desirable.

So far, from my perch on the Palouse, I’ve seen AGW affect places on the tails of the weather distribution in dramatic ways. Short version — storms nuke places beyond recognition. Puerto Rico and Paradise, CA are the exemplars, as well as Mexican Beach in Florida. The impacts are still small enough that absorption, and at some level, reconstruction are possible with development of those In-group/Out-group low empathy dynamics. But as the problem gets worse, the number of displaced people will grow. And humans are not known for sitting in one location and waiting to die. We can see some of this happening already with crop failures in Central America, which are driving migrant caravans. Larger cause-and-effect will happen. It will not be pretty.

There is no one solution. It is a wicked problem. But any solution that does not include stabilization of the people capable of peacefully thinking through the problem will fail. And then, all bets are off.

PS — though when I started writing this post, I didn’t realize it is Earth Day today! So — Happy Earth Day! Go out and share it with someone whom you can have a meaningful conversation with. Or help someone. Every little bit of personal development helps!

Quickie Post — The Netflix Success Strategy — Scaffolded Heuristics

The camp cassowary — not exactly the best pet, but this is West Papua, Indonesia, Dec. 2018

As usual, the headlines are incendiary — but the text of the actual strategy is exactly what our Theory of Empathetic Evolution would recommend. More agency and personal development, less rules, and elimination of empathetic disruptors. Netflix is famous for its ‘take as much vacation as you need’ policy, as well as encouraging high performance employees through taking care of them. From the article in Inc. magazine, by Justin Bariso:

In contrast, Kruse explains, Netflix asserts that a business should focus specifically on two things: 

1. Invest in hiring high-performance employees. 

2. Build and maintain a culture that rewards high performers and weeds out continuous, unimproved low performers. 

The result?

“Netflix leaders believe that responsible people–the people every company wants to hire–are not only worthy of freedom, they thrive on it,” Kruse continues. “Creating an environment where these individuals are not inhibited by myriad rules allows them to become the best version of themselves.”

In other words, instead of stifling their employees, Netflix uses emotional intelligence to inspire them.

The article’s real takeaway? Give your employees performance-based heuristics, with appropriately set goals, so they can adapt to changing circumstance, and you’ll win. Box them in with algorithms, and you’re on your way to business parthenogenesis. Which means early death. And nothing shows that this works like Netflix, which as the article states, has changed from a DVD delivery company, to a streaming company, to a content creation company.

And whenever you see that term ’emotional intelligence’ — remember that it’s used by people who haven’t pondered the systemic effects of empathy. That’s OK — they’re just getting started.

Housekeeping on the Reader’s Guide

Chiricahua NM, Arizona, March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK — onward!


What is Structural Memetics? And Why Does it Matter?


Below Kanab Creek, Grand Canyon, 2003

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

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

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


What is Structural Memetics?  And Why Does it Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Conway’s Law

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

These are:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empathy Neural Fcn SD Slide

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


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

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

Closing the Doors on Disruptive Innovation and Bacterial Parthenogenesis

Chiricahua Range

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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