I’ve felt a bit of pandemic stress myself here recently — my dear students are definitely suffering from a lack of social contact, and I can see the fading of resilience in our young people that only connection can heal.
It’s forced me to think a bit about what I write — and why anyone should care. I do know my R0 << 1, regardless of my own regard, or the actual virtue of the work. So recently I was thinking about how to explain why someone should bother, or even attempt to steep themselves in the work on this blog, which, for the most part, avoids descriptive narratives, along with the inevitable good or bad, of current events.
So I came up with this. Whack-A-Mole. For those that care, “Whack” is the Anglicized version of the Japanese-Anglicized world “Whac”. In Japan, the game is called mogura taiji, “Mole Buster” — and so was rebranded to “Whac”, which then got turned into “Whack”. The Wikipedia post is well worth the read.
For those unfamiliar with the game, it is a mechanical arcade game where, for a certain amount of time, little moles pop up out of holes, and you have to whack them before they retreat. Your score is dependent on how many of the moles you whack. When your time is up, it’s up, and your score is tabulated. I’m sure there is a theoretical maximum of moles one can whack in a certain amount of time. Here’s a picture pirated from a software consultancy in Germany.
Whack-a-Mole is the resonant paradigm for our time, with all our various Wicked Problems. We never can get ahead of whacking the heads of the little critters. They keep coming on and coming on until our time’s up, or our shoulders are tired. You’re set up for fun (or failure) from the moment the system hands you the padded hammer. And yes, you’re never going to really destroy the moles. The best you can do is count coup on the little suckers.
What does this have to do with our Theory of Empathetic Evolution? Or rather, why should you care about the complex, interwoven structure of knowledge, social systems, personal development and culture? If you were to draw a big circle around everything that was involved in Whack-a-Mole, you’d include the arcade game itself. You’d also include the workings underneath. And you’d also have to include both the person doing the whacking, as well as the person who handed them the hammer.
The only real way of winning Whack-a-Mole is to have the self-realization that it is a game, and that the game is actually embedded in a framework where the actual, underlying dynamics are hidden, and elusive. I myself don’t know if the randomness of the moles is generated digitally, or if it’s a complex mechanical system with a non-repeatable pattern. Either way, the only way out of the endless game is to either break the machine, or do game-change beneath the surface. The moles’ behavior is, quite literally, emergent — and we simply can’t know on the surface what makes the moles pop up in the order they show their little faces. They just do.
But if we understand the Deep OS, at least we have a chance. You have the work on this blog about the social physics of game change, and you can, if you’re willing to sweat your brain, make more educated guesses on the pattern of the moles. Or you could potentially reprogram the game, so the moles popped up in a more orderly fashion.
And if you do need a more top-level description, you could read Hanzi Freinacht’s book Nordic Ideology. Highly recommended and as exciting a book on political philosophy as one can find!
Or you could elect not to play. But be aware, just because you decide to sit out a couple of rounds, the moles are going to keep showing their little noggins. As long as someone keeps putting quarters in the machine. And someone is ALWAYS putting quarters in the machine.
Note — this is not an easy post, and requires familiarity with the larger memetic theory I write about. But it’s an important thing I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
In the hurly burly of political discussions, one of the most volatile topics in play is how we talk about censoring misinformation, or disinformation. For reasons discussed in this previous article, we can expect little help in evolving nuance from the mainstream journalism community. Locked in the paradigm of “reportage”, their job is solely to report what the various experts and authorities tell them — even if what that is goes against everything that is observable.
This surfaces the larger philosophical question — how do we know the truth? And, not surprisingly, how we know the truth must be hooked to how our brains process information. That leads inevitably to our own understanding of how we think and form perspective — which then, inexorably, leads to v-Memes. How we relate in the social structures that we’re given creates in our own mind the truth, because that leads to the basis for coordinated action. A group of individuals sharing the same truth can then functionally coordinate activity — and that leads to, more or less, evolutionary success if, over the long term, that group of truths/information reliably constructs a model of the world that is grounded in reality.
This is a big thought, so I’ll state it outright:
Truth is the reliable and valid representation of information that allows shared coordination of action inside a social network.
This is the kind of statement that opens up whole cans of worms. Nothing in this indicates anything necessarily contact with physical reality, though with the various forms of social evolution, obviously this matters. Truth also becomes dependent on scales of time and space, as well as energetic reach of a given agent. No one can teach us better about this than Winnie the Pooh. Trees may be filled with hives of bees with delicious honey — but without some means of accessing the honey, we rapidly become disinterested in honey as a food source. That doesn’t mean we can’t find modes of spatial enlargement, as Pooh Bear aptly demonstrates in this famous picture:
Where are we going with this? Instead of arguing about truth, what we really need to do is recast this discussion in terms of what I call validity grounding. How do we know things are true? Or really, how do we know things are valid, and grounded to a larger physical reality?
For those with some electrical background, grounding is a familiar concept. It is a way of taking a given circuit, and making sure that all parts of that circuit function off the same base potential. We use the term as well to show someone, in all forms of life, are not floating about in how they perceive the world, dependent on whatever knowledge base they may reference. We’ve all heard statements like:
“He’s very emotionally grounded.”
“She’s grounded in the physics of the situation.”
And so on. From there, it’s easy to expand the concept to all sorts of information. Validity grounding matters because it becomes the reference that all other activities in a person’s social network (or larger society) relate back to. And this is predicated on the two primary types of information in a society: a society’s beliefs, which are integrated aggregates of information, often processed by and through elites; and the accepted observations of other sentient agents (We the People!) who are doing their own thinking on what they see.
This dichotomy of beliefs and independent observations also map to the notion of closed and open systems in how they manage validity grounding. Beliefs are held inside a closed network that almost inevitably sorts into some version of a hierarchy, with the people at the top of the hierarchy being responsible for defining truth for the larger group. As opposed to more open social networks — data-driven observations rely on the agency of the members of that network, which can both form and dissolve, and so are inherently open in nature. Beliefs are low-empathy and dependent far more on how members holding them feel; data-driven observations are dependent on more developed, rational empathy.
Closed and open systems, for anyone that has done any measurement work inside a lab, also behave very differently. Inside a closed system, signal drift , the result leading to arbitrary measures of voltage or current, makes measurement inherently unreliable, as well as invalid. An insulated, closed system cannot self-correct on its own. My favorite example of this was the Aztec Empire, that I write about here. They convinced themselves (through their priest caste) that human sacrifice and cannibalism not only were acceptable, but necessary for the survival of the society. Without killing people on a daily basis on the altars, the sun would not come up. This set of beliefs led to profound, psychopathic drift in validity grounding for an entire society. One of my favorite examples of this was the focus on developing obsidian spears, refined for the technical purpose of solely wounding their enemies, so they could be sacrificed alive later. The Aztecs had so utterly dominated the subservient tribes that they would line up their young people as tribute when the Aztec emissaries came knocking. They were marched up the mountain to have their hearts cut out and eaten.
But when the Spaniards showed up with their forged metal swords and horses, it served as a profound validity grounding moment for the Empire. Metal swords are, in reality, much more robust than obsidian spears. And that, along with the revolt of the subservient tribes, allowed a handful of Spaniards to sweep away the battle forces of the Aztecs, which likely numbered into the hundreds of thousands, over the course of only a year. If you’re a closed social system, be careful what beliefs serve as your primary source of validity grounding. Because reality is still out there to bite you in the ass. In the lab, poorly grounded systems that drift are subject to violent arcing between different potentials when those systems actually connect with a larger, more relevant grounded systems. In societies, it can literally mean collapse of empires.
More highly evolved systems can still suffer validity grounding failures. But systems that integrate, in an evolved fashion, more viewpoints, are also far less likely to be surprised. I talk about this concept in the context of design in this post. Regardless of how well we may listen, understand and integrate our various agents/people/sensors inside an open system, though, tragedy can still strike.
Consider this example. We’re all relatively comfortable with planning a picnic on any given day if we can check the weather report. And modern weather forecasting has even given us the ability to plan a bike ride, following a nice wind direction on that same day. Models are made and updated every hour that take into account the winds off the California coast and how they’ll affect the foothills of the Sierras that are tremendously accurate — large, global spatial scales are now routinely integrated into modeling of weather in your backyard. But if an asteroid hits the planet (understand this in terms of much larger-than-comprehensible scales of time and space) it’s still “See you later, alligator!”
Walking up the V-Memes — Validity Grounding for Different Social Systems
Since people need points of synchronization in order to understand their position in the universe — relative or absolute — references are provided for validity grounding dependent on the active social structure of a given social organization, and its needs. The simplest example is perhaps the conversion of time of day from being independent for each city (noon could be easily measured when the sun was directly overhead, and watches set accordingly) to time zones, which were required for trains to run on a single track with passing sidings. Two trains, headed in the opposite direction on one track, was literally a disaster waiting to happen.
So.. here we go — a list of the v-Memes, with social structure, and primary validity grounding (VG)!
Survival v-Meme — (survival band) — conscious acquisition of immediate information (is there a tiger in the bushes?) — VG — You lived to see the next day! Centered on the individual and their immediate senses, with little/no influence of social connection to others around you.
Tribal/Magical v-Meme (tribal society with magical beliefs) — old myths and stories provide environmental grounding and allow persistence of a group of people into the future who can carry forward these stories. VG — modest level of reinforcing basic survival information, as well as larger context integrated over time from explorations outside the group and returned to “make sense” of the larger world. More VG in an immutable identity as the same as those in your in-group, but different from other groups around you. (Most tribes’ names are usually a variant of “the people” — which has implications for those in out-groups who are NOT part of that tribe.)
Authoritarian — (power structure dependent on those higher in the rigid hierarchy holding positions assigned by people higher in the hierarchy). VG is provided by the person at the top of the hierarchy, with potential sub-assignments by that person to various sub-classes of individuals. “The King Knows Best.” One can see the perils of this type of system clearly — if that one person, in charge of grounding the entire society to reality, is a nut, obvious bad things can happen.
Legalistic/Absolutistic — (Stacked hierarchy organized by rules, and organized elites somewhat independent of personality. Position/title matters!) VG — different roles are supposed to be aware of certain inputs outside this closed system, and are responsible for the veracity of information used in decision making inside the hierarchy.
Performance/Goal-Based — (Mix of lower social structures, where individuals have some ability to choose who they talk and listen to.) VG provided by a shared goal or purpose, that requires the individual to both observe and facilitate that shared purpose. Additionally, this is the first truly open system. If an individual decides that outside input is needed, others can be added to the social structure (like customers) that can provide fresh perspectives to determine if the system is meeting the needs it proposes.
Communitarian — (Mix of lower social structures, where group well-being is assessed both by aggregate means, as well as individual cases inside the social structure.) VG is provided to greater or lesser extent by input and data collection of all members of the social system. Where these systems can stumble is through the assumption of equal input. Everyone owns a piece of system validity — but not everyone owns the same size of chunk. This v-Meme will also be more or less valid and grounded dependent on the personal evolution of all system members. One where only a couple of individuals are truly data-driven, but most members are magical thinkers, will not persist, at least at this level. Much of the problems we are seeing with individuals struggling to validity-ground our own current form of governance is related to this failure of personal development.
Higher v-Memes/Second Tier (mix of lower v-Meme systems, with intentionality as part of system evolution — we are designing a system for a combination of functions, both lower and higher.) The big VG shifts in Second Tier systems are two-fold. The first is the addition of reflective practice on a profound scale — are we really doing what we thought we were doing? Can we explore other modes of grounding so we can be sure we’re actually doing what we think we’re doing? The second VG point involves actively understanding what is NOT known, as well as what CANNOT be known. This metacognitive awareness may be experienced to lesser extents lower down in the v-Meme stack, but in real Second Tier thinking, is an active part of the discussion. This as well is a current problem in our social systems. We refuse to accept or acknowledge the fact that we can make our systems more valid, and grounded over time — and demand perfection immediately, without evolved change. Or we accept Authorities at face-value, instead of demanding them to provide prima facie, observable evidence that what they say is true. The lack of VG in, for example, the dietary community is extreme — the US has an obesity rate of something approaching 65%. Yet the nutrition community insists on managing old guidelines that have been shown to be wildly, demonstrably false. This is not Second Tier thinking.
Summary — How Do We Know the Truth?
I know the text above is complex. And while it is possible to reason through the above validity grounding points, I thought I’d add this section for those that want to beat me over the head so I just get to the point! The list below is how we get to the truth for the various social structures/v-Memes/stages of development that are all linked together! No justification is given — that comes from above.
· Survival v-Meme — did we live another day? The information we reflect on will let us figure out what was true or not if we think back on the day’s events.
· Tribal v-Meme — did our immediate group last another year? Did our myths of how the world works hold up in the face of any larger changes?
· Authoritarian v-Meme — This one’s easy. The boss tells us what the truth is, and it’s our job, regardless of what we see around us, to believe it.
· Legalistic v-Meme — The rules are the truth, and we better follow them, as well as make appropriate sacrifices to our own personal well-being to conform.
· Performance/Goal-Based v-Meme — The truth will get us closer to both our personal goals, as well as goals shared by a more compact community. The big transition here — we, as individuals, get to contribute to the truth. Our observations matter.
· Communitarian v-Meme — the truth is reflected in actions that promote aggregate member well-being, which can be measured as those circumstances change.
· Second Tier v-Memes — the truth is reflected in larger Guiding Principles of the Universe (we’re not going to argue that the Law of Gravity is The Truth, for example) as well as a deeper understanding of where we cannot possess the truth.
I’ll close with this thought. Validity Grounding — the process of evaluating whether what we believe and act on matches reality — is one of the most important exercises a society can engage in. It’s why science, well-done, is one of the most important functions of a modern society. But as I’ve written elsewhere, it cannot be separated from personal and societal evolution — both in the creation of more complex knowledge, as well as the ability of people in that society to correctly apply it. We will always need authorities as part of validity grounding. But they cannot be, nor should they aspire to be absolute Authorities. We have to come far more deeply to terms with the fact that many outcomes cannot be known with certainty, all the time.
And that is the current peril with the most recent advocacy movements for censorship. It’s easy to look at the polis and declare certain parts of the information space “untrue” — like QAnon. But there are always going to be controversial shades-of-gray discussion in any modern society. For example, as the pandemic has shown, and will continue to show, many initial assumptions about various prophylactic behaviors involving Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions are false. I wrote a sense making piece myself on mask efficacy here, early on in the pandemic before widespread adoption. I believe that the data I evaluated was true, and the reasoning solid.
The deep reality that we will have to deal with is that unevolved Authorities in our society are always fond, through emergent disposition, of controlling the information stream – reality be damned. And those Authorities will also be intrinsically interested in their own egocentric interest — regardless how much they may protest. AND they are far more likely to squelch the voices of Validity Grounding that do not support their position — and turn an open society into a closed one.
Let’s never forget what happens to closed systems with poor grounding. That arcing thing ain’t pretty.
One of the reasons I’ve always loved whitewater so much is because running rivers (or surfing big waves) hones one’s sense of validity grounding constantly. You under- or overestimate? The river spanks your ass. The picture above of Benny shredding what is known as “The Cheese Wave” is classic. He’s got to find the wave, figure out when the water level is right, and then practice so he can get on the face of that monster. And then, in the moment, has to rip it up. That’s an entire scaling stack of reality that led to that picture.
One of my favorite visionaries was/is Greg Noll, the dude that (on a surfboard) surfed Big Waimea the first time. His famous quote:
“You want to know what it’s like to be a big wave surfer. Grab a board, paddle out past the break, point that board down the face of a grinder, and MAKE A COMMITMENT. That’s when you know The Truth.”
One of the things you’ll often hear repeated, ad nauseam, is the value of family in raising kids. And make no mistake, good family is basically priceless. Good family cares about the long-term success of you, as well as your kids, and can create a safety net when, not if you have emotional challenges in your life.
But not all of us are born into families that care. In fact, as I’ve stated, some of us have really drawn the short straw when it comes to that kind of thing. Biological family that plays the “if you love us, you’ll let us beat you” game are more common than folks realize.
Such as it was for my situation. And no — I’m not going to discuss the long tapestry of misery that goes in my own background — I’ve alluded to it enough in my other writings. Too many of them are still alive, and would be happy to litigate.
But I have been truly gifted with an extended family of non-biological uncles and aunts, that have been deeply concerned with the well-being of me, and especially my boys. These people have served pivotal roles in my children’s development, in a host of situations. They have taken their roles as functional adults in my children’s lives seriously. And I am truly, eternally grateful for that. We live in a society that preaches that children are a liability — too much money to raise, think of the career possibilities constrained, and other such icks. But the people that have stepped up in my circle are an exemplary group of humans. They haven’t all be there, at all times — they have other lives and responsibilities. No one person in diffuse modern society can be held to that standard. But they all have brought something, selflessly, to the table.
And you would be surprised how the connections have been made.
A quick review — relationships, as we’ve discussed, create the brain wiring that we all live by. These relationships have two primary components. When combined, they create the memetic profile that the child will see and interact with.
The first are called Externally Defined Relationships — these are title-driven relationships that come with a code of conduct that is established by larger society, and are largely belief-based. Rooted deep down in the limbic system that ran our Tribal past, they are instinctual. Mother and father are great examples, and come with elaborate descriptions of what mother and father are supposed to provide. But there are other slots in all our various hierarchies. Doctor, pharmacist, engineer, teacher — these are also important titles, some gained through extensive schooling. If you are sick, you don’t wander around the local shopping mall, yelling “I’m sick, come help!” You go to a doctor’s office. Externally defined relationships help us, and our children quickly navigate large, complex societies. And to the extent that we have our children practice those relationships, ranging from that tribal background (mother, father) to the far more Legalistic and formal (professor) the greater a range of thinking modes we open for our children to seek out authority-driven advice, as well as form the patterns in their brains for other rule-based processing.
This is an important point. Our children need formal relationships in their life so they can process rules in other parts of their life. As we relate, so we think.
But all the externally defined, healthy relationships in the world are not enough in and of themselves in training your children’s brains. Healthy externally defined relationships do provide children with a bedrock of sturdy attachment. No one can create an entire culture on their own. And not every hierarchy a child is exposed to is wrong.
The second category of relationship deals far more with active empathy. I call it an Independently Generated, Data-Driven, Trust-Based relationship, and it derives its legitimacy through interaction with the two participants. These relationships are inherently data-driven. People interact, they read the cues from faces, and calibrate their behavior toward each other based on that information and their own judgment.
This sounds more complicated than it is. You may trust your wife, for example, to remember to pick up your prescription from a pharmacy, but when she offers to make soup, you might want to order take-out. The independently generated relationship here shows how the scaffolding works. A good wife or husband should be deeply concerned with a partner’s health. But we all know that when it comes to being a great cook, the proof is in the pudding!
These relationships are absolutely vital. They evolve your children to be rational human beings. Rational relationships lead to rational humans, and especially humans that have agency — the ability to act, pick and choose for themselves.
Which brings us back to adding family, especially in the case where you don’t have any. I’m a declared orphan, and my boys functionally are as well. You cannot raise a child in isolation — it just doesn’t work, regardless of how good a parent you are. You need other people, and especially other adults, in your child’s life. If we are having a crisis in contemporary society, it is with that destruction of the multiple-generation family in all our kids’ lives. Kids can indeed learn important lessons from playing with other kids. But anyone that has the idea that homogeneous age interactions (think playing soccer) can completely do the trick, — you’re wrong.
Kids can, and do learn important lessons from interacting with other kids. But when everyone looks like you, and runs like you around a soccer field, there’s not much empathy development going on. Rather, what you’re doing is raising a child with a crowd mentality. And that’s not good for popping kids out of their own egocentricity, which is developmentally where they naturally start. Anyone that’s ever attended a seven-year-old’s soccer game can attest. The ball is kicked. The mob follows the ball, until it is kicked again. Rinse and repeat.
That’s why aunts and uncles are so important. And they can be found and cultivated, from all sorts of interesting places. They will come and go — but they are vitally important in your child’s upbringing.
Here is the challenging part of child-rearing. To receive maximum benefit for your child, you have to establish a pattern. First, assess the person and their ability to be alone with that person safely. All the rest of the advice flows from understanding that trust you can give the adult.
The second part? You have to get out from in between the child and the adult. With all the aunts and uncles in my kids’ lives, I’m very clear at the outset. “I’ve raised this child to this point. I think he/she is a pretty good kid. But if you spoil the child, or create some other imbalance in the relationship, I’m not going to worry about it. You’re going to have to fix it. I’ll always be happy to talk to the child, and potentially discipline after the fact. But I consider you a partner in raising this young mind.”
In the picture at the top is an old girlfriend, Karrie, who definitely fell into the “aunt” category. Karrie and I had a relationship that only lasted formally about three or four months, though we still remain friends to this day. We took a number of camping trips with the boys — Karrie would drive up for the weekend to Pullman, and we would take off with the kids from there. Since we drove two cars, it was imperative that Karrie had a companion to talk to as well. No isolating the kids from their responsibilities as good hosts. So the boys would take turns riding with her.
On one car ride, Conor, who was nine at the time, engaged Karrie in a conversation on her stock portfolio. Of course, I realize how much a nine-year-old can actually know about stocks — not much. But for half the ride, he asked questions regarding Karrie’s choice of stocks, why she thought those particular companies were good investments, and so forth.
At about the halfway mark, though, Conor got out his Yu-gi-oh card collection. While not trying to terribly distract Karrie from her driving, he turned the discussion toward which was his favorite card, and so on. Of course, Karrie found this deeply endearing. As best as a nine-year-old could do, Conor was attempting to balance the conversation, mixing topics he thought she might be interested in, with others that he cared about.
The picture at the top of this post is also a great example. I had taught Conor how to open a bottle of wine and serve, so he was getting a little help from Karrie in setting the table for dinner. Conor had the title on our trips of a “nine-year-old sommelier” so he would always taste the bottle to make sure the wine wasn’t bad (of course, he didn’t really drink himself) and then serve. Karrie was also famous for her chocolate-chip cookies, and she would bring the boys small gifts. A perfect auntie!
Every aunt and uncle is different, and that is part of the joy. Every different one will bring a different set of talents into the child’s life. We spent much of our weekends post-divorce with Uncle Ronnie, who has a son Conor’s age. Ronnie is an amazing skier and lifetime friend of mine. It was through his tutelage that Conor also became an amazing, expert skier. Conor and Ronnie would always be the first up the mountain on powder days, for the first run (called Rope Drop, for the moment that ski patrol would remove the rope blocking the run. )
Other uncles have served other roles. One of the most memorable Uncle moments happened when Conor was five years old. We were on a river trip down the Lower Salmon, and Conor was riding in the raft. We have a standard adventure rule that is enforced by all the uncles — “talk the talk, gotta walk the walk.” One of the things I noticed with young men especially, is in a crowd, they would talk themselves up into doing really stupid things. But this was a ratcheting effect — back and forth, daring each other and then stopping realistic assessment of the actual threat an activity might pose to life and limb.
So we implemented a rule — there was never any pressure to do something risky. But if you say you’re going to do something, then if the uncles present decided it was fundamentally safe, you could not back out. And if something was truly out there, you were called out for that bad decision as well. But you learned to think before you opened your mouth. There was never a shame in deciding a priori to NOT do something. Risk is relative, and rests with the individual. But your word? That’s a different story.
We were drifting down to a very modest rapids, one that is very swimmable. Conor started jumping up and down. “I want to swim the rapids,” he exclaimed. I was rowing — “are you sure?” I asked. He said “yep.”
We drifted down another 100 yards. “OK, get ready,” I said. Conor was looking over the edge, now not nearly as certain about his boast. “You gonna go?” I asked? Conor said “I don’t want to. I’m scared.” Sharing the front of the raft with him was my long-time traveling companion, Uncle George. George looked Conor square in the eye. “You know the rules.” Conor took one look at Uncle George’s face, and immediately bailed off the raft into the whitewater.
If you raise your children right, with a diverse community, they will internalize far more from these relationships than you might realize. On an expedition to West Papua, only a couple of years ago, my older son Braden and I were with a very poor trip organizer, in one of the most remote circumstances I’d ever been in. We crowded into an overloaded boat in the dark, because the trip organizer had failed to account for a shift in ferry schedule. The boat had no lights, and the boat driver had positioned a young boy up in the front with a cellphone, to theoretically spot any obstacles on what would be a 20 mile boat traverse of a finger of a bay.
Halfway out, Braden turned to me and said “you realize that you’re violating every rule that you and our uncles have taught us.” “Huh?” I said. “You beat into our heads, ‘Never get on a traverse without some plan on how to get off of it if something goes wrong.’ Always figure out how to bail off the traverse before you start.” He was right, of course. We immediately started guessing distances to shore in the darkness, and deciding which direction we would swim if the boat hit a lost shipping container. These are lessons that stick.
Uncles can be older. One of my mentors, Al Espinosa and his wife Mindy, helped me profoundly raising my boys after my divorce. They are the boys’ only real grandparents. Mindy took Conor to church, and as a consequence, Conor has a far deeper grounding than most of us with a secular background on how other people think. They communicate regularly with both boys, even though they have other grandchildren with their own kids.
It’s also important that if you expect others to be good aunts and uncles to your kids, you stand ready to serve as well. One trip I had organized brought along Peter, an expert backcountry skiing friend of mine, and his two girls, Willow and Sophie. Sophie was a classic easy keeper for an eight-year-old. But Willow, age six, had the devil in her. She was sitting naked save for a lifejacket in the front of the raft, taking one of the water guns and spraying the other adult, who was a bit less forceful than me, in the face. I told her to stop — and said if she didn’t stop, I was gonna pick her up by one leg and drop her overboard. She looked at me, filled the water gun again, and did it to my passenger.
So I grabbed her leg, and held her out over the edge of the raft. “You wouldn’t dare drop me! I’ll tell my dad!” Of course, I knew her dad, and we both shared that understanding of the value of a child forming her own relationship with adults in the party. I rolled my eyes, said “Oh brother!” and let go. She came up sputtering (she did have a lifejacket on.) “I want my daddy!” she hollered. He was about 1/2 mile down in his own raft. “Start swimming,” I said. In about 30 seconds we had her back in our boat.
At camp that night, she was still sulking, finding very little succor from her father for her behavior. I was seated in my camp chair, smoking a cigar. I reached into my snack bag, and pulled out a jumbo-sized chocolate bar, and started peeling back the wrapper. The rest of the kids started swarming me for their share. Willow cried out, “I want some too!” I replied “I only give chocolate to little girls that can make up and give me a hug.” She had been sitting on her father’s lap. Instantly, she vaulted off the stool of safety and into my arms. We had no other issues the rest of the trip, and of course, became fast friends. And yes — six-year-olds make great friends.
What you’ll find if you open your mind is that there are lots of elders who are willing to be involved with your kids. I came at mine through my outdoor activities, and often with my dating life. Your path may be different. But the secret is still the same. Once safety is established, get out of the way. Let the child learn to manage their own relationships. It is the foundation of appropriate agency and rationality.
Sometimes, Twitter provides. I had a bit of fun with a couple of youngish Austrians, reminiscing about times in Vienna and the Austrian countryside. And Matt Pirkowski, another public intellectual and complex systems thinker, turned me on to the concept of The Great Filter.
What is the Great Filter? From the Wikipedia article, it’s a concept proposed by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University. (For all the academics out there, I’m sourcing info from the Wikipedia article — fair warning. This is a blog!) The Great Filter attempts to explain why we’ve witnessed no definitive extraterrestrial sightings.
That statement is actually an extremely complex one to unpack. And the former head of Harvard Astronomy, Avi Loeb, as I wrote about in this piece, would strongly disagree. Avi thinks that we haven’t been looking very hard, and he’s probably right. There’s a crazy romp through the memetics of why we wouldn’t necessarily even be able to have contact with aliens, even if they showed up with the answers to our problems. The memetic differences between underdeveloped us and them would likely be so great we wouldn’t get anything they’re trying to tell us.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Great Filter, defined as the obstacle for developing interstellar life is actually correct. For every stage of the nine progressions, there are challenges — some greater than others. Here’s the nine:
What concerns us in this piece is the transition from 8 -> 9. Can we get there? And if we don’t, what happens?
I wrote about what we need to actually generate starships in this piece, titled “Stephen Hawking and Not Getting Eaten by Aliens”. The main takeaway of that piece is that we can’t get there physically without realizing the importance of most of life in the biosphere. Everything is connected, to greater or lesser extent, in what Lynn Margulis called a “holobiont“. This concept is so important, friend and collaborator Ugo Bardi, a physical chemist at University of Florence and I are working on writing a book on it.
The raw fact that everything is connected is undeniable. It smacks us in the face every day. But the deeper problem with us understanding this (or at least a critical number of us) is in the memetics. We have to have enough people thinking along the lines of meaningfully connecting penguins in the Antarctic with condos in S. Florida. And it’s not just knowing whether they are connected or not. It’s whether we should meaningfully care, and how ignorant we are. That’s far more complex than screaming from the rooftops at the public as a biodiversity advocate for saving all the penguins, or a real estate developer arguing for building more condos because of “the market.”
And the problems don’t end there — in fact, they’re just getting started. Those interconnected thinkers have to be understood, or at least mirrored by enough folks to start the meaningful memetic down-migration of smaller, less-connected pieces of information for broader dissemination. And the public then has to exist inside a culture that reinforces values at least marginally friendly to the idea that “All Holobionts are Important.” Or else you end up not just with incomprehension, but tribal warfare as various status-based leaders use and manipulate those knowledge fragments for their own end. In case you’re looking for an example of this, look at how people manipulate even something as simple and noble as The Golden Rule. ‘Nuf said.
What’s the big transition between #8 and #9 that seems to be the sticker. My friends, Daniel Görtz and Emil Ejner Friis, under the pen name Hanzi Freinacht, describe this elegantly in their books “The Listening Society” and “Nordic Ideology“. That is the transformation of masses, to individual identity, to the context of individual identity in the sense of also a group. They call this the “Dividual”, and if you’re interested in a deep understanding of these things, I can’t recommend their books highly enough.
From an empathy perspective, that thing of going from the idea of masses/elites, to individuals, to even further, individuals as part of the larger, active, agency-empowered collective, is really what I write about on this blog. The short version of this is that the transition from “individual” to “individual as a more deterministic, and self-actualized member of a group” is hard. Really hard. Our hardwired brain really isn’t set up for it (short version, we like mirroring and copying), which means it totally has to be loaded into the software of our neural system.
But if we don’t do it, we really can’t understand, or create the world holobiont that we need to get through The Great Filter. You have to have enough decentralized sensing and actuating in order to create the social structure that can grok the holobiont. And it’s more than that. There’s one hundred steps in between the penguin and the South Beach condo. It is simply not realistic for any one person to understand the decisions and trade-offs in a causal chain that links aggregate survival of either. But if enough people, are aware enough, with a global perspective, and a commitment to appropriate information detection, transmittal, and action, and are also humble enough to work in the context of what I’ve called a Hierarchy of Responsibility, as opposed to the Hierarchy of Status — taking on burdens because, well, we know better, and not because we’ll be immediately rewarded, then we just might pull it off.
We might get through the Great Filter. Because if we’re not there, we can’t evolve the social structures to develop the spaceships that might get us off this planet without destroying it. Because, as crazy as it may seem, those two outcomes — both preservation of the Earth holobiont, and creation of the tech. that would enable large-scale colonization — are absolutely linked in memetic structure. And though I realize I’m one of the only people writing this kind of stuff, I’ll tell you — the memetics don’t lie.
What the real transition is called between #8 and #9 is a term also coined by my friend, Ugo. He calls it a ‘Seneca Cliff’, and he’s got a whole blog, called The Seneca Effect devoted to it. If we don’t figure it out, we die.
What’s fantastically interesting about it is that while it deeply concerns humans (we’ll go extinct, potentially with life on Earth if we don’t figure it out) it’s not so much a function of our humanity. It’s a natural outgrowth of crowding without the requisite information coordination and appropriate development of complexity. We’re basically everywhere on the planet, and running into each other. Even in the Arctic, the Russians and us are arguing over drilling for oil and shipping across ice-free zones that have only recently been created with Anthropogenic Global Warming.
And our efforts to the end of world collaboration have been only limited successes, with a fair amount of abject failures. Talking about how the UN is a mess, or even the WHO, is outside the scope of this blog post. The reality is, though, that any large central authority is very unlikely to pull off the changes we need. It’s centralized, and as such, the memetics just don’t line up. Any world hierarchy is inevitably, no matter how benevolent, going to generalize, and end up being controlled by high status, egocentric people. Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates anyone? In our current system, regardless of discipline, the elites in those disciplines live in bubbles, and no matter what kind of rational argument is made, it simply can’t penetrate. Uh, don’t ask me how I know. The laws of social physics apply to Yours Truly as well.
And that leads to a perennial lack of validity grounding. No one knows what’s real anymore.
And that leads us back to The Great Filter. That doesn’t mean that there is no race of extraterrestrials out there who hasn’t passed through the eye of that particular needle. But there are laws of information physics that must be followed. Because they’re the LAW.
Will we make it? I can more tell people how we won’t make it if we don’t change certain things. Of course, preserving the physical holobiont of the Earth is vitally important. It’s a rear-guard action to say we should save forests, grasslands, oceans and their critters. Especially while we figure the rest of it out.
But even that won’t be enough if we don’t truly turn to developing our young people — and more than anything we need not only a focus on healthy early development, but a focus on young people in the 18-25 years of age cohort. I’ve been watching my students (and of course this is part of my contribution to the global information flow) and am just appalled at the way we’ve treated this age cohort during the pandemic. Only six months ago, we were condemning them as super-spreaders and such. But from where I sat, I saw broad compliance with the ersatz public health safety measures we elders put on them.
What’s broken it for me lately, as one example, is understanding how we’re running tests on them in their university classes. Various “services” for exam proctoring require loading of malware on their computer for tracking their browser history. And some even require a second camera to “watch” them to make sure they don’t take their eyes off the screen. I don’t doubt that some young people will cheat on tests. But every measure we take should be weighed against a larger set of outcomes. And one of the most important is how we develop the brains of the people who will be responsible for the future. We already have massive surveillance in the U.S. How is personalizing that going to create the decision making brains we are going to need in the future? To call it Orwellian is a crazy understatement.
We need to start drawing those lines between development of all, survival of our Earth holobiont, and what we do short-term for whatever an end. Because there is a price that will be paid — potentially sooner rather than later.
It’s all connected. And dunno about you, but I sure don’t want our species, or our Earth holobiont, to get filtered out.
One of the saddest (and scariest) things that I’ve avoided writing about forever is the enormous problems in our journalism community, that appeared to have started with the Trump years — but in reality, have roots far beyond our current sad state of affairs. One of my personal heroes, William Greider, wrote about this back in 1993, in one of certainly the books seminal in my own mindset — Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy.
The book is full of crazy deja vu for those that think our current problems are somehow new, or due to Donald Trump’s presidency. The grand bazaar that is the current reality of our modern political system was already well in place then, and Greider chronicled all of it long before “populism” was turned into a dirty word. In fact, one of the chapters was titled “Rancid Populism”, where Greider described things like Astroturf, and White Hat politics for the first time.
One of the most interesting chapters, though, was on journalism, and the intrinsic problems that had arisen with the field since its slow “professionalism” in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s easy to take a comment like that and immediately assume that it is some Right Wing pigeonholing of the field. Journalism schools are, unsurprisingly, housed inside universities, and universities have long been known for ascribed liberal politics, regardless of the actual reality of the charge.
What Greider talks about though was not so much the notion of effete liberalism taking over newspapers and television. What he noticed, even though he came from a modest white collar background (Greider grew up in Cincinnati, about 90 miles from where I grew up) was that newspapers, formerly dominated by blue-collar working class types, had long since given way to people with degrees from universities. He was one himself (he graduated from Princeton), and documented the move away in the journalism community from demanding rights and improved labor conditions for the working class. Just like the Democratic Party, who used to draw on unions for their base power, newspapers had left those readers in the dustbin of history. Now we get fancy cooking sections.
Greider didn’t have the tools of memetics to comment on the changes that he so ably documented. But what was actually happening was profound. By moving journalism inside universities, and creating a professional class, now of high-minded, but naive middle-class youngsters, the axis of change in journalism had shifted away from Evolution, with increased validity, data-driven thinking and real consequences for the people receiving the papers, to increased Sophistication — processing increasingly complicated beliefs, particularly in the lower Authority-driven and Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Memes that reflected the university system minting new graduates.
Here’s a picture that is a quick display of these tendencies in data structures.
And here’s the bad news. Instead of the data-driven question of authorities and institutions that the media used to be famous for, when you educate journalists with college professors (of which I am one) and establish things like accreditation bodies, you inculcate belief-based authority-seeking. It’s a natural consequence of the type of relational development inherent in these systems, as well as the fundamental knowledge structure. A natural predetermination for authority-seeking in the memetic make-up in the people doing the reporting.
This was a profound sea change from what had gone before. Though one would find it hard to argue that the earlier press had also leaned heavily Democratic, their orientation was fundamentally different. Their v-Memetic axis was about power, or rather, a natural suspicion of power. Contemporary journalism, on either Right or Left wouldn’t say they’re concerned so much with sucking up to powerful people. It’s not a conscious action. It’s what they do. They would call it access, but it’s powerfully corrosive. Fox News is widely condemned for inaccurate and destructive reporting, and at some level, this is fair. But there’s hardly any difference in the Deep OS of Fox News, letting former President Trump prattle on with his three breakfast buddies, than CNN or Rachel Maddow printing everything various powerful liberals say. Both end up divergent from any notion of validity — the grounding process that relates information back to what’s actually happening in reality. And here’s the other thing — irrational relationships lead to irrational thought processing. As we relate, so we think.
And so in the case of information or misinformation, or disinformation, one ends up with a corrupted news source that people just tune out. Or not. Once separated from most people’s common reality, it becomes entertainment. What I’ve seen happen is that while politics has always had a good bit of theater involved in it, reporting on our politics have turned entirely INTO theater. Outrageous events like the Capitol Riots are billed as coup attempts. I’ve written about this before. Real coup attempts are actions involving at least some segment of the military, a la the various machinations of South American governments, that intend to replace the acting government. In the run-up to the Capitol Riots on January 6, all former Secretaries of Defense, and the current head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “leave us out of this.” Of course, what did happen was tragic, and an inquiry is needed. But it was no coup.
The problem that occurs when you mess with the Deep OS of the system, you end up leaving the dominant information flows driving our country outside of grounding reality, as well as driving how we know things to more belief-based mental models. Worse, though, is the decomplexification of knowledge structures that are used. Instead of shades of gray, we end up with a lot of black-and-white, dichotomous thinking. And worse — as things deteriorate further, we see “splitting” in an entire cohort of our population — an inability to reconcile any good with bad on deciding perspective on issues. Here’s the complete psychological definition from Wikipedia. Sound familiar?
Splitting is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism. The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual’s actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground).
When you uncouple development of any particular societal organ (and journalism is one of our most important) from information evolution, you get energy poured into sophistication — which means you’ll end up with increasingly convincing, belief-based narratives that are still fundamentally ungrounded. Journalism had beat that with its working class flacks walking the streets. But arguing with sophisticated thinkers, regardless of how self-evidently wrong they are (COVID is a mind-bending proof of this) is exhausting.
The other thing that has happened with the corruption of contemporary journalism, or rather, the de-evolution from grounding validity in the press corps, is that no matter what the actual state of affairs, profound memetic filtering happens on the downstream side of any current event. There is almost no cause today that is completely above scrutiny in the complex interplay of modern life. The critically thinking observer certainly knows this. Yet when you put a double stack of memetic filters — first in favor of the Authority-Driven v-Meme (important people get an outsize voice in defining reality) — and then add the inevitable topical filter that naturally exists on both Left and Right sides of the political spectrum, you end up with repetitive garbage. Further, when you add the effects of victims of trauma into the feed, these large signals are the primary ones that make it through that double filter bank.
No better example exists in the COVID crisis than the one deconstructed, with just a little fact-checking by WIRED journalist David Zweig, Are Covid Patients Gasping ‘It Isn’t Real’ As They Die? In the article (review ‘splitting’ above!) Zweig covers a CNN interview of ER nurse Jodi Doering from South Dakota.
“When I read some of your tweets, my jaw dropped,” the host told Jodi Doering, referring to her account of gravely ill patients who “scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath.”
“The reason I tweeted what I did is that it wasn’t one particular patient,” the nurse said. “It’s just a culmination of so many people, and their last, dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening, it’s not real.’ And when they should be spending time FaceTime-ing their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred, and it just made me really sad.”
Zweig tiptoes very gently around calling her a liar — and I think that’s fair. What’s far more likely is that she’s traumatized, and suffering from the effects, which, unfortunately include splitting. But basically Zweig, with a little shoe leather, virtual or otherwise, demolishes her claim. Additionally, other nurses in the same hospital chain call bullshit on the whole trauma angle.
COVID is a sensitive subject now — I get that. But this kind of BS is incredibly corrosive to our national identity. This story was used, along with the notion of the Sturgis, SD motorcycle rally, coupled with a Republican governor, Kristi Noem, a high-profile politician who refused to implement any of the regressive, restrictive COVID policies on her state, as a Red State/Blue State narrative by the journalism community. The reality, not surprisingly, of COVID in North Dakota and South Dakota, two states in the same seasonal situation, with roughly equivalent topological concerns and population demographics, was that COVID affected both roughly the same.
Yet the mainstream journalism community, including the New York Times, used it as an example to double down on negative coverage of the state, regardless of the plausibility that events like the motorcycle rally really did much of anything. They didn’t. And funny that at the same time as Sturgis was being held, another large crowd event — the South Dakota State Fair — was being held, with little, if any scrutiny from journalists. Even East Coast affiliated journalists don’t want to mess with the deeply Tribal v-memetics of Mom, apple pie, and Hereford steers.
What these examples show, unfortunately, is that the mainstream journalism community acts exactly in the memetic band-pass filtering mode that I’ve been discussing. Start with a poorly sourced, but powerfully resonant emotional story, of a benighted nurse, coupled with stupid hicks deep in denial in the American Heartland, who are low-status and deserve whatever they get, so steeped in denial-of-authority of the epidemiology/professor overclass. Add in interpretation and amplification of those authorities — “We knew this would happen.” And then, finally, run it through the topical filter (Right vs. Left) with a little concern trolling along the way. The Sturgis rally coverage was especially pernicious. The gap between any surges in cases and the motorcycle rally was literal months, for a virus that is well-established as highly infectious, in a venue where most of the events were held outside anyway. But that grounding validity generates nary a peep.
The problem with all this is that the memetic filtering also applies to learned scientists, like Martin Kuldorff and Sunipta Gupta that may be far less sanguine about restrictive COVID policies than others. Naturally resonant low empathy policies, such as population masking, even of little children, and school closures, as well as ridiculous policies as COVID-Zero, and restrictive lockdowns, all definitely residing in the low-empathy v-Memes, have their efficacy regularly trumpeted by the mainstream press. V-Meme matches v-Meme. Yet experience and more careful scientific research is showing that all these low- and anti-empathetic interventions really don’t do much of anything. And scientists I’ve covered in the past, with more subtle messages, are attacked as angels of death and whatnot.
The pandemic is indeed a multi-faceted event — but consider this picture from this story on kids in band practice at the school, in Wenatchee, WA. At some level, it’s such an extreme example, I’ve got to ask myself if I’m indulging in a little splitting myself!
But you can’t get at the core of all this as tending to fragmentation and individual isolation better than kids in outhouse tents (that’s what they are — in case you’re wondering.)
Lest one think this is just an American affectation, you’d also be making a mistake. The memetic problems we are experiencing here are also present in other countries. Of particular interest is how the international media has handled Sweden, which favored voluntary restrictions and a focus on preservation of civil liberties. Popping out the other end of the pandemic, Sweden has fared somewhere in the middle of all the mortality figures (I think it’s currently 11th in standing.) Here’s Sweden’s current death curves.
Yet instead of critically examining the Swedish population-based experiment, there has been almost uniform condemnation of their efforts. Letting people make choices and have agency is a Performance/Goal-Based or Communitarian v-Meme function, as well as trusting people to make those good choices. That’s not resonant with the lower v-Meme structures of the journalism community. And as journalists have sought further access to higher authority individuals, with no cultural sidebars to even respect lower status individuals, such strategies are an anathema. So much, in fact, that a recent Swedish public radio investigative report uncovered a closed 200 member Facebook group with the primary reason of discrediting the higher empathy approach adopted in Sweden. It’s no surprise that the article reports major news outlets, such as Science and the Washington Post, printed and amplified the information from the effort. That’s the effect of memetic resonances.
And, not surprisingly, the group is engaged in “splitting” messaging with regards to the foreign press. From the article:
“The leader of the Facebook group also describes in posts and on Twitter plans to try to bring those responsible for the corona strategy in Sweden before an international court for crimes against humanity. It is described as absurd by experts in international law with whom we spoke. They emphasize that this criminal classification is about deliberate attacks on the civilian population and which is primarily used in wars and conflicts.“
Not surprisingly, inside Sweden, the various restrictions on individual freedoms don’t line up with the memetics at all — and hence, the messaging have gone nowhere inside Swedish national boundaries. The public health authority in Sweden, run by Anders Tegnell, a noted public health epidemiologist, actually has a firewall between it and the government. For all the hue and cry about science running the management of the pandemic, Sweden is arguably one of the few places where it’s actually happened.
It goes on to issues facing the Developing World, which largely has been unaffected by COVID. Why? Mean population age. Consider the average age in the U.S. — 38 years — to India — 26.8 years. Or even Nigeria — 18.4 years! The journalism community reports a lack of vaccines in the latter two countries as more proof of white supremacy, or colonial thinking. And there’s no question — there’s surely a little of that. But there’s also not a problem in those countries, with lower mean ages. COVID below 50 or 60 is a bad cold. Should one spend precious dollars on a nationwide vaccination program in these countries? Surely the trade-offs are worth a little debate. And if you find it, notify me in the comments.
We have the ability to understand the root cause. Journalists, like all of us, are not inured to the effects of social structure on their fundamental neural wiring. Self-awareness has to be the first step.
There are no easy solutions to evolving the memetics of our journalism community. What’s worse is that the pressures on journalism — from more state control, to chronic defunding of the more legacy institutional model, make it difficult to propagate reform. Add on top of that the challenges of a younger, less experienced corps simply because a journalist’s salary can no longer feed a family, and it’s clear we’re definitely up against it. And let’s not mince words here — the Trump years were appalling for evolving a more insightful journalistic corps. Trump would take any criticism and use it to incite violence against the press corps.
But instead of blaming everything on Trump, let’s harken back to the problems that Greider laid out, what is now a long time ago. Evolving more independent relationships with sources can help. A healthy distrust of power and politicians would also be a start. The memetics point the way we have to go.
P.S.— I know that at times, believing that there are these larger structural forces that compel people to think how they think. I go back to my favorite Arthur Conan Doyle quote, from Sherlock Holmes:“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
There are days when it feels pretty lonely in the zone of being a scientist, and actually remarking that it may be larger social forces and physics are doing science and scientists no favors. Then along comes no one less in stature than Avi Loeb, astrophysicist and Chair of the Astronomy Department at Harvard. If there’s two areas of research that get a pass on musing about how messed up we are, it’s particle physicists and astrophysicists — their stature is that high. And with his Harvard and National Academy pedigree, Avi sports the trifecta at the start of the argument. He’s recently gained notoriety with his belief that the oddly shaped meteor, Oumuamua, stating that he thinks it is likely artificial, and a light sail from a galactic civilization from long ago.
But Avi doesn’t argue from the standpoint of “I’m a famous Harvard astrophysicist — listen to me.” Nope. He says “consider the evidence, and considering how difficult it is to collect the evidence, back an observation up with a potentially causal hypothesis that captures a larger dynamic.” Now we’re memetically talking. And he talks extensively about this in this piece in Scientific American.
It makes me think I need to add one more person to my “most like to have lunch with” list. I think that Avi’s likelihood of learning about my work on structural memetics is probably on par with establishing definitive evidence that space aliens are among us, or me actually having lunch with the ghost of Antoine de St. Exupery, the other person on my list. Which, in a curious way, says something about how the War of Ideas goes. I keep going back to the famous quote by Max Planck (a particle physicist) saying “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Avi’s got friends in low places. Like Pullman, WA.
Too many scientists are now mostly motivated by ego, by getting honors and awards, by showing their colleagues how smart they are. They treat science as a monologue about themselves rather than a dialogue with nature. They build echo chambers using students and postdocs who repeat their mantras so that their voice will be louder and their image will be promoted. But that’s not the purpose of science. Science is not about us; it’s not about empowering ourselves or making our image great. It’s about trying to understand the world, and it’s meant to be a learning experience in which we take risks and make mistakes along the way. You can never tell in advance, when you work on the frontier, what is the right path forward. You only learn that by getting feedback from experiments.
He, of course, is diagnosing an Authoritarian-Legalistic power structure, a closed system with poor validity grounding that I’ve discussed before — scientists as authorities, instead of scientists practicing data-driven and theoretical model reasoning. As our systems become more closed, there is the larger and larger potential for what, in the systems community, we call signal drift (I write about this in a longer piece here. Data and observation are the key elements in validity grounding, and the minute you abandon our ability to do this, by positing multiple unseen dimensions, to the exclusion of other questions, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. The other vitally important one is the ability to admit you’re wrong, and change your mind. The lack of COVID theoretical remediation is one example — we’re still waiting for the most prominent voices to even acknowledge seasonality. But it goes on and on. As Avi brings up, “String theory anyone?”
Avi would be at home in the Lean/Agile community — and is also a populist. He’s got a customer — the public — and like it or not, the public are interested in aliens.
“Okay, here is my point of view. By and large, the public funds science. And the public is extremely interested in the search for alien life. So I must ask: If scientists are supported by the public, how dare they shy away from this question that can be addressed with the technologies they are developing?”
As I’ve noted, they could show up with the answers to all our problems, and because of their advanced v-Memetic development, it’s unlikely we could understand them. But Avi urges us to attempt to do so, and the article makes the case that it’s not THAT unlikely that we could discover some potential friends, who might be patient enough with us to help out with our current milieu. E.T. for therapist, instead of dissection target? Phone Home, little buddy. And if we don’t, we’ll still gain a far greater understanding of our place in the larger universe. Can’t get much more grounded-metaphysical than that.
Lest there’s any doubt that Avi is a higher v-Meme synthesizer, consider his argument on exoplanet research. Most exoplanet research is focused on finding oxygen in atmospheres. This is a relatively safe area of research, everyone can agree on hunting for oxygen and water. Throw out more odd chemical assays as bad data. But as someone with metacognitive stretch, Avi argues that we should exactly be looking for outliers, like industrial pollution on exoplanets. Good scientists look at outliers, and don’t just discard them because they’re inconvenient — it’s my key trigger to see if someone’s using their brain in understanding new phenomena. Now we’re talking.
So if you’re looking for a good, reasonably short Sunday read, here’s the link again. And if by some weird quirk of fate you know Avi, tell him there’s someone he needs to have lunch with. I’m buying.
PS — If you follow this blog, I know it likely doesn’t need saying — but here it is:
“As we relate, so we think.”
“We cannot reform science without fundamentally rethinking the social structures we create knowledge in — and subjecting them to dramatic reform.”
I’ve got a couple of short posts I’m going to churn out to keep my loyal readers happy that are primarily food-for-thought, as I complete a longer piece for another friend (Hi, Ugo! I haven’t forgotten!)
One of the more interesting graphs I’ve seen come across my desk was produced by Kate Starbird, at the University of Washington. Kate is a professor studying, with data science, conspiracy theories and their effects through graphical analysis. It’s a bit like staring into Saruman’s Palantir as it means dealing with Mordor on a relatively continual basis. What that means is that the work is definitely well-done, and instructive, but doesn’t really tend toward nuanced predictions. This is a picture generated by Starbird that ran in a short piece in Nature on Qanon. For me personally, I am not questioning the existence of the Qanon crowd. At the same time, I also would like some way of estimating their ability to act consistently on their fantastic belief. The structure of Qanon is so fantastic (in the literal sense of the word) it makes great story. And of course, the media just love it. But how large is the action envelope, and how many people will do something? Those are big questions.
Here is Starbird’s graph on the meme-o-sphere.
The tripartite nature maps well into the memetic landscape. Democrats are Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme rule followers, and as such are more diffuse in focus on content. The Political Right is definitely Authoritarian v-Meme, and as such has greater coherence of views. And finally, the dark cloud on the right of the picture is the cluster of Magical Thinkers — people with one of Julian Jayne’s Old Gods installed in their head – that may look just like Trump.
With incumbent chaos — these are the people raiding pizza parlors looking for pedophile rings. Naturally, there is bleed-over in the meme-o-sphere, especially between the Right and the Magical Right.
But as I discussed in this piece, bonds formed socially on line don’t necessarily lead to action. Yes — we had the Capitol riots. Yes — they were in essence seditious, but from a material perspective, not realistically so. There was no ability that any of the actors had to actually install a new government, a la a real coup. And those riots did not lead to the vaunted armed protests in 50 states on Inauguration Day.
We need to understand why — as any civil state needs to figure out appropriate action. Do we need some total crackdown and suspension of freedoms in order to maintain civil democracy? I’d argue not. But we could also use a deeper analysis on what the shape of the funnel is that Starbird’s tripartite clouds feed. As long as we have a toxic combination of weak national identity, and growing wealth inequality (and as I have argued in the piece — dietary/health instability) we are going to have some level of insurrection. Whether we are in a more profound state of collapse, or maybe just hitting some nominal stride a la Spain and its Catalonian/Basque problem, or even Russia’s chronic issues in the Caucasus involving Chechnya and Dagestan, is a perspective deserving of far more thought and scrutiny than our current chronic nods to the Apocalypse.
Especially when it comes to any debate involving regulating social media. I was one of the people that breathed a sigh of relief when Twitter finally suspended Donald Trump. But I gave that sigh with an enormous sense of foreboding. Like it or not, social media is how we communicate. And suspending any person is the modern equivalent of Being Sent to Coventry — a total ostracism of the target. It’s time to have a more nuanced debate between the sickness and the cure. Something, on a variety of fronts, we haven’t been doing so well with recently.
Memetic war has been coming fast and hard these last couple of years. And our understanding of it is so poor, it’s likely to continue without any hope of remediation or fixes, with uncertain consequence, for a while. Our journalistic/academic classes are so embedded in their own social structure frameworks, they simply don’t have the models for all but the most intuitive observers (I’m personally partial to Matt Taibbi.)
Take the Gamestop Short story. There are lots of renditions, with increasingly accurate detail, but in brief, this is it. Wall Street firms called “hedge funds” buy shares of companies whose stock price they think will decline, then sell these shares in futures contracts, “shorting” the stock — saying they will present sometime in the future, with the amount of shares necessary to fulfill the contract. In a month, or whatever the term for the contract is, they have to show up with the promised shares (which they already sold) and return the actual shares to the people they promised they would deliver them to.
The big difference between this and a futures options contract is that when buying and selling options, your “exposure” — the cost of the risk for the futures deal going sour is limited to the price of your options. But when actually shorting a stock, you have to show up with the stock itself. So, if the price of the stock goes up in between when you sold the shares you bought (or said you bought) and when you need to deliver them, you’ve got to go out and buy those shares and deliver them. It’s NOT an option.
In the case of Gamestop, a group on one of the most popular social media sites on the web — Reddit — called WallStreetBets, started tracking the hedge fund raid on Gamestop, and encouraged its members to buy Gamestop and drive its price higher, fully aware of the fact that the stock was severely shorted. This drove the price far higher than when the hedge funds, who were originally shorting the stock, bought their initial position.
Thus screwing them.
There’s a whole loop in the story about the micro-stock facilitation company called Robin Hood, where many small traders buy stocks, was then called on to stop trading in stocks that the large Wall Street funds had shorted, thus protecting those brokerages from a similar kind of price run-up. That game is still afoot, as various federal agencies are involved, and there are better people to cover what is obvious elite fuckery in the whole shebang. That’s not the point of this piece.
Wall Street commentators have called it a “phenomenon”, “insane”, and like “nothing [they’ve] ever seen”.
[An aside — every time I quote anything from the MSM, I can expect that it’s run through it’s own lower v-Meme filters which broadcast their own status-driven, extreme limbic triggering viewpoints — which is largely why we can’t discuss important, nuanced issues like COVID in the public arena. But for the sake of this piece, let’s assume this is true.]
So… restarting the conversation here — “nothing they’ve ever seen.”
Back up. I have two sons, 22 and 20. Both are ahead of the curve in any kind of generational aspect. The 22 year old is the nominal CTO of the decentralized web concern Unstoppabledomains.com. The 20 year old is a computer science student at University of Nevada-Reno. They live together, and regularly chide me on my relative backwardness as far as any larger global trends, relying on me to tell them things like how to get their car fixed.
Both young men populate the Reddit ecosystem. My younger son does some small-scale trading, and older son, since he is in the blockchain business, trades cryptocurrency online. But that’s not all that they do. One of the things they do is bet for fun — on all sorts of sports. They bet on various parleys of basketball games. But the most interesting one (by far) for someone like myself is that they regularly bet on Ukrainian ping pong.
You may think this is a joke — but it is not.
What is interesting is that younger son (age 20) does reasonably well betting on Ukrainian ping pong, with information that he captures on Reddit. Yes, there is a subReddit dedicated to Ukrainian ping pong. He sometimes loses money, sometimes makes money — but the short version is that he makes a small profit, and amuses himself greatly in the process. He’s not turning into a pathological gambler. And in the pandemic, where young people have been walled off from any meaningful life by their elders, that’s good enough for me.
Older son, enmeshed deeply in the blockchain/crypto business, has been trading for the last three years. He watches intently the moves of the crypto market, as it directly affects his business. Like his brother, he is on numerous Reddit and subReddit communities, trading information constantly. Considering that he is one of the real blockchain pioneers, it’s fascinating to watch the evolution of his own knowledge, as well as his product. When I asked him how he learned everything he knows that’s enabled him to create his company, he told me “Pops, adults read the manual.”
Those are words to make a teacher proud, but they’re not quite accurate. There is no manual to read. He pioneers information himself, of course. But he has other sources — like Reddit — where he regularly frequents, finds people to work on coding contracts for his business, and though he gives more than he gets, I’m sure he learns some things as well. When he was home for the summer, during quarantine, he occupied himself constructing stock market dashboards and algorithms for predictive trading. That was for fun.
One may a.) believe I’m bullshitting you about my kids (I’m not — see this piece on older son) or b.) not be able to understand this phenomenon at all. I’ll tell you though — it all started with video games. And I’m not talking about Space Invaders.
For those of us in my generation (I’m the tail-end of the Baby Boomers) how we learn was structured by our school environments. We went to class, the teachers (in my case, the good Catholic sisters) gave us assignments, and we went home, executed our homework, and handed it in. Our relational learning environment was structured around following rules, and completing work. Friendships, and more complex informal learning, were limited to Friday night football games, and smoking cigarettes and dope on the walk home from work. This was back in the day where, when we were younger, people might come over and play (I was always building things like rockets, and I had a large Erector set.) But mostly, gatherings were passive outside team sports.
That is not the world my kids were raised in. For them, they faced sterile, lifeless academic environments, where contact between the kids was carefully metered. The schools they attended, during the course of their tenure, became more and more closed, ostensibly with the reasoning behind protecting kids from getting gunned down inside the school. Instead of riding the bus, parents would line up in cars to both drop off and pick up their kids from school. And then there were the myriad structured athletic activities, as well as band (a local highlight.) It wasn’t all bad — it was just rigid in a way that no one on the inside of the school system could see. Needless to say, kids didn’t smoke cigarettes together next to the creek after school.
But young minds need creative flexibility. And they found it — with video games, like Halo, or Call of Duty, or Legend of Zelda. As time went on, these games became far more team-based. Actually, virtual team-based. They could play with friends not in the room to kill whatever space aliens du jour were threatening the known universe. And they were good at it.
In fact, it was amazing to watch. As a single parent, I attempted to get involved. I tried to learn how to manage the canonical game controller, but was really never successful. They, on the other hand, would go on to develop what I call “hyper-collaboration” skills with each other. In the context of the game, they could very quickly move from walking and engaging in friendly banter about their day (Yu-gi-oh and Pokemon cards) and then shift inside the virtual threat environment within milliseconds to killing some bad guy. They’d bark orders to each other, rearrange their team on the map, and blast the alien.
They’d also frequent bulletin boards to learn various hacks, get background information on some aspect of that game, or even watch videos of successful move sequences. And they’d comment, share and synthesize that information, in that relational environment, for goal setting.
Even our framing of the problem, or understanding the circumstances suffers. Someone in my age cohort might say “Independent action and decision making was encouraged.” That would be a limited perspective. In many of these environments, independent heuristic decision making, as well as rational assessment of gaming partners, was inherent. You might play with someone who you knew from school, that was a worse Halo player than you. But you also would calibrate the play environment so you could have fun. And it’s no fun playing with someone getting shot by a space alien and sidelined all the time.
In the parlance of this blog, video games force calibration of rational empathy on a running basis. Emotional empathy? Not so much — that still was developmentally driven, as well as a bit stunted by the rigid school environment. But the notion of discovery-driven learning was inculcated at an early age. As well as the ability to coordinate large-scale in online environments.It’s in their brain wiring.
Sound familiar? Or rather, what about considering how this might translated to another game — like the stock market? Large Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are, to the newer generation, not much different.
And here’s the key — coordinated action learned in these environments are immediately transferred, in some subset of that population (not all!) to another big game that involves real stakes. Namely commodities and stock trading. As well as cryptocurrency.
Where our misunderstanding of the Gamestop phenomenon has come is assuming, just as we have with politics, that somehow our old models, which by and large are submerged in our unconscious, about how people learn and collaborate are valid. The very fact that my phone isn’t ringing off the hook (dating myself with that statement, eh?) is the key that the larger media space is clueless.
In the Gamestop situation, what emerged was a highly coordinated campaign NOT to take over an entire industry. Rather, it was a demonstration of power law dynamics and information concentration making coordinated collective action possible, on a short timescale. It wasn’t a mob acting like an uncoordinated mob. It was a coordinated effort with a structured network, weaving together high status players along with generalized knowledge with limited participation from a social network platform. We assume knowledge comes from an authority, and then everyone blindly follows that authority. In fact, it’s naturally assumed that this is the mode of action. THIS IS WRONG.
And it was turned against an elite bubble that have been playing what they had presumed was a de facto closed game, adding little value to society, save for migrating more money into their space. When those elites started losing at their own game, they started hollering to their v-Meme-matched partners — in this case, the federal government, where they had already bought controlling positions (gotta love the fact that Janet Yellen had recently taken an $800K check from Citadel, one of the hedge funds involved in the Gamestop debacle) . It was no surprise that the government sprang rapidly into action. They had not just been memetically aligned. They had been bought.
What is not being understood here at all is that this is not a one-off. These are classic Power Law information concentration dynamics, based on the social evolution of the actors and their ability to exchange information. (READ that piece for the entire explanation, then transfer argument to this space!) The initial players in the WallStreetBets group didn’t meet in isolation down at the local pub. They met in the open on a Reddit subgroup. I’m sure that the group, since establishing its winning position in this fight, has seen massive upswings in growth of membership. But this was no secret algorithm, which is the current cause célèbre among the intelligentsia on everything ostensibly wrong with social media. This was out in the open. The Internet has created the ability for memetic like to find memetic like. Some of these people are crazy — like the Qanon folks. Some are nihilistic anarchists, like the assorted nut jobs that stormed the Capitol.
But some are just plain smart kids, like my own. If you believe that you’re going to take apart the Internet just to maintain class privilege, that’s going to be a much harder task than people realize.
We have been engaged in an ongoing conflict with our young people in this country for the last 40 years. As a university professor, I’ve had a ringside seat. We’ve suffered a decline in the quality of education experience, and those of us in charge have been happy to explain it all away. Just in my microcosm, I’ve watched whole fields of young people now be required to take unpaid internships (read work-for-free) for a year just to gain “experience” so they can get a full-time position. We’ve rationalized stagnating the minimum wage, which, while it does affect all people, disproportionately affects the young. In the process of creating class-driven and generational stagnation, we’ve driven more and more into the military, and then shipped them off to never-ending wars on, quite literally, the other side of the planet.
How does anyone really think this is going to turn out? Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut, and one of the founders of the field cliodynamics — modeling history with math, has theorized that it is large classes of 20-somethings without prospects that create social turmoil and potentially collapse. I find Turchin’s work interesting, and should write something on it. But you don’t have to look far to see that the lack of that age cohort to find meaningful work drives societal decay. In one of the more recent examples, the formation of the Islamic State (IS, ISIS) was driven through recruitment from the Russian Caucasus states as much as anything. Declining economic prospects, coupled with collapsing standards of living, left some percentage of young men looking for answers — which they found in the context of a dysfunctional, Dark Ages caliphate, complete with slavery. I read an article about a year ago about how Russia now must deal with the repatriation of young Dagestani men — in an area that is already under essential religious control.
Of course, we in the U.S. are bound up, intergenerationally, in this crazy game. As a 58 year old man, my retirement is in the stock market, and my security rests in rigging the game. Wall Street knows this, and has no problem exercising its power to maintain the boundaries of its bubble.
But there’s a bigger wake-up call here. The idea that the younger generation is just going to continue to take it might be false. We might see active disruption of many of the systems in this country.
But the worst case scenario is likely NOT that. The fact that they’ll continue to take it might actually be true. The idea that even what some might consider the “best case scenario” — we bank on the passivity of our young people so we can just eke our way through retirement — is fraught. We need young productive people, happy, and meeting partners. Or we won’t have any grandchildren. China has already run the experiment with that type of social control. And now their elder population is literally dying of loneliness, to the point where the Chinese government is actively punishing people that won’t go home to visit their parents.
I could keep writing — but I’ll stop. Here are the basics.
The idea of unrelated, statistically independent information flows, driven by various authorities, is no longer valid.
Geography is a poorly supported means of understanding how people organize, with limited, and rapidly fading validity. Geography assumes statistical independence of opinion – no longer relevant in the Internet Age.
The causes of intergenerational conflict are both concrete (resource-driven/money) as well as information-driven – memetic.
The Gamestop situation is just the beginning — because our children have been raised in far richer relational environments than we understand, or even consider. As we relate — so we think.
This is actually an incredible opportunity — but we must understand ourselves.
So many things are so contentious about COVID, as a thinking person, it wears me out. Though in my younger days, I might have thrived with a bit more conflict. But as I have aged, I count on the exchange of ideas and information, combined with a sense making process (all accurate data must fit together in some kind of a combined narrative) to unearth the more complex narrative around the current crisis. Without that network of knowledge, where all people possess some piece, and level of truth, we as a society swim in a memetic fog. We can’t get to the truth, and subsequent plan of action.
That’s especially true for the current v-Meme vaccine wars that we’ve been engaging in. And it’s hard to know exactly how badly we’re sabotaging ourselves because, once again, we don’t know whether the problem described in this piece is really that bad. After a whole year of both a.) really bad things happening, and b.) event also being blown out of proportion, it’s hard to recalibrate. Is the news media actually telling us the truth this time, or are we in on the memetic feedback loop to reinforce our distrust of fellow citizens and establish even more authoritarianism?
It’s still foggy.
With regards to vaccine distribution, this piece from NBC News is the latest for today. Here’s the scenario from that piece.
“A hospital Covid-19 vaccination team shows up at the emergency room to inoculate employees who haven’t received their shots.
Finding just a few, the team is about to leave when an ER doctor suggests they give the remaining doses to vulnerable patients or nonhospital employees. The team refuses, saying that would violate hospital policy and state guidelines.
Incensed, the doctor works his way up the hospital chain of command until he finds an administrator who gives the OK for the team to use up the rest of the doses.
But by the time the doctor tracks down the medical team, its shift is over and, following protocol, whatever doses remained are now in the garbage.
Isolated incident? Not a chance, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told NBC News.
“This kind of thing is pretty rampant,” Jha said. “I have personally heard stories like this from dozens of physician friends in a variety of different states. Hundreds, if not thousands, of doses are getting tossed across the country every day. It’s unbelievable.”
For the purpose of this piece, I’m going to assume Dr. Jha is correct, and we’re dumping unused vaccines, instead of finding ways to distribute them outside the established guidelines. It would be what we would expect from a rigid hierarchy. Breaking rules on distribution and using personal judgment, that requires agency, isn’t allowable even among highly educated/trained physicians. The last thing you’d want these doctors to do is feel empathy toward patients, because the implicit projection of their character is that they’re weak-willed softies, with limited moral bearing. Sheesh.
And the doctors know this projected image, regardless of reality, so they dump the vaccines instead of using them. Because the basic consequence is getting fired (Authoritarian) or being subjected to a long, likely pathological legal-and-punishment process (Legalistic/Absolutistic.) The process IS the punishment, and the doctors know this. Far easier just to take the passive path and let the vaccines go bad, that the social structure is strongly encouraging of, anyway.
Here’s the deal. If there’s a single takeaway from all this for the medical community, and as I’ve said, COVID-19 has really rung society’s bell, memetically testing all of our various systems, it’s that they need to understand that a lot of the behavior in their community is NOT a function of individual judgment gone either right or wrong. Rather, it’s automatic, with little thought of actual consequence. Instead, as long as the doctors color within the lines, then health care workers can just turn on the auto-pilot.
If you’re an American, possessing any desire of living a normal life, this first week in January, 2021, had to shake you up. People being shot in the Capitol, law enforcement officers attempting to prevent the execution of members of Congress as well as the Vice President– all of it is more than enough to make your head reel.
Or at least mine — because I have dealt directly and indirectly with at least some of the membership of the Patriot Movement as a timber/environmental activist back in the ’90s. And when you’re worried about people killing you, then, well, you pay attention.
A few stories — I was involved with, and organized Forest Service roadless protection efforts across the ’90s, and into the ’00s. A good hunk of this work is profiled in my book, ‘Wild to the Last: Environmental Conflict in the Clearwater Country’ printed by WSU Press. The book was published in 1998, and still holds up today, in my opinion — though the events described in the book had a far more positive resolution than appeared possible when it was published. I did work across generic timber over-harvest issues, but my primary focus was preserving unlogged and pristine areas for eventual designated federal ‘Wilderness’ — what we call ‘Big W’ wilderness, that is protected by Congress from mechanized entry and management.
I have lots of stories, as this did not go down easily in many of the logging communities in northern Idaho, where the Clearwater National Forest is located. Decades of over-harvest had driven mill closures across the state, and when towns dependent on timber lost their money, they mostly had no easy economic transition. This was coupled with positively feudal politics (e.g. the one guy running most of the wood chip trucks was also County Commissioner of one of the counties we worked in, and there wasn’t a time when the scales were opened on the road) as well as some of the same conspiratorial stories that we are seeing now.
Coupled with brain drain from these areas, as well as reactionary politicians like Helen Chenoweth, an iconic “Wise Use” movement Congressman (she herself asked for that designation as a push-back against perceived political correctness) things got hot on more than one occasion. I can remember being at one hearing about roadless areas that the US Forest Service had been hosting in Coeur D’alene, Idaho. We had set up outside the door, on the sidewalk — myself and a handful of activists, mostly women that day– with our pamphlets and such. It had been a quiet morning, when suddenly a group of timber workers — loggers as well as mill employees — came rushing us in a mob, screaming that they were going to kick our asses.
I was, and still am a physically large man. It’s funny how there’s a natural organization that occurs in that kind of event. I turned around to the women, in the face of oncoming chaos, and yelled “Run!” which they did. And me, standing there dressed in my Carhartt overalls and jacket, stood there ready to fight — or really, get my ass kicked, because that was what was about to happen.
Except it didn’t. The Idaho Attorney General, Al Lance, who was tightly aligned with the screaming mob, started blasting them in a commanding tone, and that message was amplified through their leadership. What then happened was an amazing example of how conflicting people can at least come together. The leadership forced the much larger mob into a circle, and then allowed any member who wanted to stand in the center give their story. The theme was remarkable — most of the stories told by the workers resonated around the theme of “these environmentalists — they want us to be poor like them.” Quite a different change from the “environmental elites” wanting to deprive workers of their jobs. The chants grew louder for us to also stand in the middle of the circle, and of course, I did. But the most moving testimony was given by a young mother, on our side of the issue, who stood in the middle, with her baby on her hip. She spoke with the usual hippy pitch of loving Mother Earth. But then she turned and looked at them and said “But all of you are old. And we are young — and it will be our world soon.”
The Clinton Roadless Initiative, which protected essentially all remaining roadless areas, and driven by my friend, Steve Kallick, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, passed in the late part of Clinton’s presidency. So, at some level, we won. That victory, though, was to be one of the last real environmental victories the community has experienced — and that was in 2001.
During the whole season of my more intense involvement with the environmental movement — from a start in 1990 to 2002 or so, I watched the various militia, hardcore Christian Nationalist and Wise Use movements — the constituencies of what we would call the Patriot Movement, grow. Helen Chenoweth, whom I dealt with multiple times, was a full-on nut and a member of what is called the Christian Identity faith, that postulates that the Lost Tribe of Israel is actually a bunch of white folks that ended up migrating to Northern Idaho. All of it may sound wacky, and a lot of it was — Chenoweth herself was famed for her promiscuity, and her church had services where there was sections designated to “charismatic laughing” — where constituencies would laugh for an hour straight. None of it makes sense to those on the outside of these folks. But the roots are deep. Listen to Great Britain’s unofficial anthem if you don’t believe me.
Chenoweth (she’s now passed away — died in a car wreck) was prophetic in more than instance about the expansion of the surveillance state, especially post- 9/11. And there were also real failures of governance at the time as well. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Randy Weaver and Ruby Ridge — all these crises help lead to Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building. Many of the stories we hear now have persistence, though with new actors given larger roles. Some are more archaic — The Turner Diaries and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion comes to mind. And others transformed — for example, George Soros hadn’t achieved the prominence he has now, but the internationalist cartels still played heavily in the rotation of hits.
Yet strangely enough, even though I had my own life threatened multiple times, most of it seemed rational. Or at least less crazy. Timber workers actually didn’t know much about the woods (loggers more because they at least drove around in the forest for their jobs) and couldn’t appreciate that most of the places we were fighting to save had little timber left to harvest anyway. A huge part of the crisis was brain drain. As the more enterprising and evolved folks moved out of the towns to seek other opportunities, that left a leadership void. And while I might not like the various conspiracy theories, at least most of it made sense. I was an anti-logging activist, after all. Death threats were, to some level, part of the game.
But they never developed into much. There’s kind of an unspoken rule in the woods, that made most of that so much hot air. We were both (at least the loggers and me) back in the woods together. You didn’t broach that line of hurting someone in the woods — because then it could happen to you.
The other point which is becoming far more clear to me in the current crisis is that even only 25 years ago, we were organized around geography. I lived in Pullman/Moscow, and worked on timber issues in North Idaho. The first chapter in my book is titled ‘A Sense of Place’. Our coalition of groups all had names, mostly dedicated to the place they were working to preserve, such as The Wild Swan Coalition, on the Swan River in the Flathead Valley.
What that also means is that information concentration, and establishment of myths was modestly constrained. If you wanted to believe the really crazy stuff, you had to find people of like mind to share your stories with. And for North Idaho, that meant either living on a Neo-Nazi compound outside of Hayden Lake, or attempting to connect with other pagan neo-hippies and apocalyptists in the woods outside of St. Maries. None of it was easy, and people would likely argue about the truth. You don’t find massive network builders living in small communities in the Intermountain West. You move there to get the hell away from everyone — not necessarily find friends.
And that affects the concentration effects of populations. There’s a great analogy in Kenneth Stern’s prescient book, “A Force Upon the Plain” that talks about the concept of a recruitment funnel for extreme activities. There’s a stack of radicalism on the Right, starting with the large, fundamentalist churches, such as the Pentecostals and Nazarenes. Beneath that might be Full Bible/Christian Literalist churches. Below that were the Christian Identity folks, that then fed the militia members, or sat co-jointly with the Neo-Nazis, or other radical right Pagan movements. If the funnel was wide enough at the top, it would squeeze down enough people, and rage, so that a Timothy McVeigh would pop out the bottom. It was (and actually remains) really a probabilistic numbers game.
There were all sorts of dampers, even in that funnel of crazy. I remember one apocalyptic cult that decided it wanted to wait for the Second Coming up around Dixie, Idaho, where the Cove-Mallard civil disobedience campaign had been held. Dixie sits at around 5000′ in elevation in the Northern Rockies, which means that it’s 10 months of winter and 2 months of mighty late fall. And those two months probably had lots of black flies. Inevitably, these types of cults had men and women, and sometimes families. But they would never last, at least up in places like Dixie, for more than two years. The women basically wouldn’t put up with it. If you’re going to wait for Jesus, it was far better to do it in a place like Moscow, that at least had a couple of grocery stores and a decent shopping mall. Proof of that is self-evident in the success of Christ Church, a Full Bible Church founded by Doug Wilson, a local pastor who writes revisionist history on the Confederacy. He even has his own college now — New St. Andrews.
All of this has made me realize this important truth. What is going on with Trump and the riots at the Capitol is really nothing like what I experienced. And the dynamics must be re-thought.
I’ve talked pretty extensively on my blog about trauma, and how it changes perspectives. It’s mostly positive if you recover from it. The one thing it does is gives you far greater range of experience, and potentially empathy, if it doesn’t kill you. But there are drawbacks as well. I have to admit I did not see the Trump/Capitol riots coming at all. I thought we’d get out of the Trump years with a whimper, not a bang, and even wrote a conciliatory op-ed piece here about Donald Trump and voting choice, that ran just days before the Capitol takeover.
How I managed to miss this has caused me reason to reflect on my own thought process. The short take is that when dealing with these ersatz ‘Patriots’ in the past, one of the rules of thumb I follow is that if someone’s saying they’re going to do something illegal, like kill you, they’re extremely likely to NOT do it. Anyone threatening me at a meeting with the standard “I’m gonna kill you” was really just attempting to intimidate me. Actually killing you would involve anonymous phone-calls and hang-ups (I got a number of those) and a bullet from nowhere. I was also younger, and just didn’t worry about it. Often the news focus in the various Wise Use organizations would target the wrong organization as being responsible for a given advancement in environmental policy. If they couldn’t even figure out who was behind a given lawsuit, or timber appeal, who really needed to worry about those folks?
And there’s the final part of my own development I’ve also had to ponder. I’ve had an incredible life, with highs and lows. But part of having trauma in the background (and there are studies that have been done that validate this) is that one can develop kind of an Ultimate Survivor’s Syndrome. Bad stuff may happen. But it takes more to get on one’s radar screen. And until that happens, your brain just figures it will handle it. After all, you’ve made it this far.
What I’ve noticed is that my developed perspective from those times is far less relevant now. People are saying crazy things. And, unlike the past, people are DOING crazy things. I believe that the majority of people that stormed the Capitol last Wednesday did it as part of some bizarre demonstration, or “theatre of overthrow” with no real hope of having a coup where Trump would be reappointed President. But there’s enough evidence now that I’ve seen that a more coherent minority had murder on their mind. And denying that is in no one’s interest — especially the persistence of our nation.
What changed, as I’ve written about earlier, is how our organizational methodologies have changed. As I said above, if you wanted to be part of a hard-core anti-government group in the ’80s and ’90s, you had to go to the compound. The organization was geographical, and inevitably involved hardships. One of my mentors, the original back-to-the-woods liberal hippie, Leroy Lee, lived in a tee-pee for years, carrying water half a mile up the hill from the well on his small property, outside the community of Santa, Idaho. Politics were distributed in predicting the apocalypse as well. There were still far-right and hardcore libertarians, but there were also more than a fair share of Lefties, like Leroy. None of the Instagram poseurs that took place in the Capitol riots would last more than a day up there on the mountain.
But now geography simply doesn’t matter. You can find your tribe online, from the comfort of your sofa. And that matters a lot. I’ve discussed before John Robb’s term of ‘networked tribes’ and he’s right. But the other reason that REALLY matters is now organization occurs through resonant views, on multiple levels, of individual’s value sets/v-Memes. That’s now the primary driver. You go to 4Chan, or 8Chan, or wherever, and you find your memetic tribe. The coherence generated is far greater than anything hashed out in a log cabin in a mountain – because if you don’t agree, you just refresh your browser and move on. In a real-life living situation, you have to deal with differences, even if they’re minute, in your immediate geographic community. Someone’s wife might not be so hot on driving all the way across the country and storming the Capitol. That disapproval serves as a necessary damping in the system, and limits the number of recruits. And physical cults, like the fundamentalist Mormon groups in places like Colorado City, AZ, are fundamentally far less attractive. Life is boring in those small communities, like they always have been. Everyone has to wear the same clothes, and so on. Reality intrudes, or as I would call it, validity grounding. You can’t create nearly as perfect a bubble as you can online.
My friend, Betsy Gaines Quammen has written a book, “American Zion” that talks in depth about the potential for violence in the current movement, through looking at the lens of the most recent of geographic seditionists — Cliven Bundy and his sons. She does an excellent job of profiling, in their case, their historic Mormon roots, and how they branched off from the more mainstream versions of that faith. They are both geographically isolated AND intensely wired into the memetic fabric of the current milieu. With big cowboy hats, and demonstrations/seizures like the stand-off at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon, they are stage-playing the myths that spread into the online bubbles of sedition out there on the Internet, and until very recently, amplified through services like Facebook, Twitter, and Parler. (As I write this, Parler just got taken offline by Amazon, and there are implications there that are basically gone as well.) Betsy’s book is highly recommended for understanding the people generating the real-life myth structures that the modern movement most capable of violence is embracing.
But the problem is bigger than just Cliven Bundy and sons. Now that geography is really just a background set for Sedition Theatre, the real coherence building between individuals can occur exactly at the resonant v-Meme the individual has. What that means, especially in regards to Trump, is that not only can Trump send out signals to those individuals at an empathetic development state — all those people for whom Trump is living in their head rent-free — that enshrines the Magical Authoritarian v-Meme (“Make America Great Again” and by the way, I’m the only one who can do it.) Trump, as a relationally disruptive, empathy-disordered narcissist, can also connect with a subset of those folks who meta-think just like him. And that’s far more powerful. As I wrote in this piece, Value Sets/v-Memes serve as containers for thoughts — plug a couple of parameters into the outgoing information stream, and people assemble a far more complicated narrative, quickly and with extremely high coherence, of the intent. That’s how it works. Here’s a picture from Trump’s son, Don. Jr., Parler feed.
And when the empathy-disordered connect, therein lies a real problem. One of the questions researched in the standard psychological literature on psychopathy is the observation of the lack of a habituation response. For normal people, subject to basically any positive stimulus, regardless of how pleasurable it is, you get tired of it. That first scoop of ice cream you have, that first beer you open, tastes amazing. But as you continue to drink, each taste satisfies a little less. And in the end, you finish the bowl of ice cream, or put down the beer. Beer engineers realize this explicitly, and devote quite a bit of attention to how to make that last warm dregs taste passable.
But that’s not what happens with psychopaths. The habituation response is far less, if it exists at all. Murderous psychopaths hang the victim up and carve them up, seemingly inured to the screams of their victims. And all that input only fuels more behavior. When you put two empathy-disordered people together, they climb Jacob’s Ladder together — at least in the short term. The actions proposed are more surreal, the conspiracies more extreme. And that means that crazy, idle threats can actually turn into actionable items. Looking at the handcuff zip ties on some of the rioters’ kits should give everyone the willies.
Long-term IS different. Over time, psychopaths winnow themselves out of social networks, primarily as a function of fragmentation of the information stream, and people moving away from the disruptor. Most people need homeostasis in their brains. And that doesn’t come from having FBI agents knocking on your door and hauling you off to jail. Empathy in stable human systems on average at least stays the same, or increases. Civilizations and their edifices are primary exhibits. Collapse does happen, of course — but we wouldn’t have our advanced technological society without the concomitant average increase in complexity — and the empathy that created it.
There is real peril in dealing with this crisis right now. The fact that the Republican-controlled Senate isn’t begging for passed Articles of Impeachment for Trump right now is deeply problematic. Enough of them are hoping that the rage over the Capitol burning will habituate and fade. But a certain number of the empathy-disordered Senate are stepping forward to defend Trump. Even after the Capitol riots, Senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz continued with their pointless protest of the Electoral College vote. As Twitter friend Adam Townsend has said, “the spectacles will only get bigger in the Coliseum.” If there was ever evidence that this insight is true, it was with this continued nonsense.
The Left itself, though, is far from out of the woods in this whole debacle. Short-term, the institutions of this nation must stabilize the nation itself. And that absolutely means removal of means for organizing for outright sedition. But there are far too many opportunities for overreach in this situation, that appears simple, but is really complex. The Left has won the Culture War — and Big Tech has lined up behind the Left at this moment in time, essentially killing off the more extreme memetic tribes of the Right in one fell swoop. But that does not mean that all members of the Left are morally or scientifically correct about everything. Nor that these privatized social utilities, like Facebook and Twitter, will do the right thing in the long term. The moment may not demand complexity and nuance. But the long term governance most certainly will.
What will happen in the short term? It’s Sunday, January 10, today, and frankly, I’ll admit I have no idea. But I’ll tell you what we’re going to test — the robustness of the connections of the Right Wing’s social network, as well as the actual strength of compulsion to translate the more extreme and violent messages into action. Do they exist beyond the ephemeral nature of a Twitter post? Like it or not, we’re in a Memetic War of Ideas, that are translating increasingly into actions. And we’re running the experiment.