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In a modification of my last post,  The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, in which I described how memes and paradigms form and spread and combine into social institutions, I added on a few paragraphs describing the fractal geometry of that social institutional landscape, which form the first few paragraphs (following this one) of this post.

The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, aficionados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized professional knowledge through games and entertainments to particular opinions or judgments. Rumors, observations, shared jokes, novel insights, technical innovations all swirl and sweep through humanity like gusting breezes through endless grasslands.

Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, or proliferating due to their economic or military utility, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.

Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.

If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have innumerable distinct colors and shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, the hues shifting as the memes evolve, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with its unique set of genes (and subsequent physical affects of variable environmental factors), by its unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity for a static but in-depth version of the imagery described above.)

But distinct memes themselves are changing as they flow, being modified in individual minds or synthesized with other memes to produce new ones, displacing or disproving others, in a constant dance of creation and destruction interspersed with the flowing patterns of modification, dispersion, expansion, and contraction. Memes are catalysts, interacting with human predispositions, existing cognitive architectures, and the natural environment to produce new forms, new technologies, new social institutions, and to render old ones obsolete or out of favor.

As discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, some of those memes are intentionally cobbled into purposive systems, or “technologies,” programming or channeling some set of natural or behavioral phenomena in service to desired ends. Those that program natural phenomena are the ones conventionally thought of as “technologies,” enabling us to do things we were once unable to do, and to produce wealth and comfort and opportunity (as well both intentional and unintentional damage to human beings, their physical infrastructure, and the natural environment) far in excess of what we once were able to produce. These technologies and technological domains (e.g., electrical, digital, etc., as well as, as explained below, market, contractual, etc.) interact with the more haphazardly accumulating and evolving meme-clusters of the social institutional landscape. Technologies can be thought of as the engineered architectures carved out of the social institutional “natural environment,” the latter comprised of the wilderness of foundational linguistic and cultural forms as well as the economic, political, and ideological accretions diffusely growing in conjunction with our various purposive systems.

(The distinction between “engineered architectures” and the rest of the social institutional landscape can be a bit hazy, since the rest of the landscape is a function of human purposive action as well. The difference is that the architectures are consciously invented components, such as the airplane or the US Constitution, while the rest is everything that organically grows around and in conjunction with them, such as social norms, cultural motifs, and folk beliefs. In a sense, it might be correct to say that the entire social institutional landscape is composed of microcosmic “architectures,” if examined closely enough, since it is the accretion of individual purposive actions. Indeed, technologies are to the social institutional landscape what the social institutional landscape is to Nature itself, an increased focusing and intentionality -in a sense, a distillation- of diffusely accreting “purposiveness.” This is one more aspect of the fractal recursiveness of The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)

While technologies programming physical phenomena are what we most commonly think of when we think of “technologies,” there are undeniable social institutional technologies as well, such as currency instruments (facilitating multilateral, global, on-going exchange, and the enormous economy based on it), enforceable contracts (allowing people to bind one another to mutually beneficial collective action that would have been difficult or impossible in the absence of such instruments), scientific methodology (allowing a more robust and reliable growth in knowledge of the underlying dynamics of the natural world than had been previously possible, and, in fact, underwriting an explosion in the proliferation and sophistication of new technologies), and legal procedure (allowing a more reliable and vigilant system of determining truth in disputes between individuals or between individuals and the state). The United States Constitution, in fact, is the codification of an intentionally invented social institutional purposive system.

New social institutional technologies are constantly being explored, experimented with, implemented, and either proliferate or languish according to their relative reproductive success. In fact, governments are factories of such technologies, passing laws and regulations, creating administrative agencies, establishing new systems and markets, signing treaties with verification and enforcement provisions, forging new social institutions to deal with emergent or suddenly more salient issues and challenges (such as the creation of the United Nations in the wake of World War II, or of tradable carbon market instruments in the context of the Kyoto Protocol. See, e.g., Political Market Instruments).

But just as new technologies in the conventional sense can be created in people’s garages or in small start-ups formed by highly educated young people, so too can new social institutional technologies emerge in contexts more humble than those of the halls of government or international treaty conferences. Many diffuse technological innovations, of both the conventional and social institutional varieties, have occurred in conjunction with information technologies, which have come to form such a vital framework within our social institutional landscape. The Netroots movement is an excellent example of diffuse social institutional innovation in conjunction with emerging physical technologies, contributing substantially to the success of Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.

A particularly good example of a set of robust social institutional innovations contrived by a very small cadre of political entrepreneurs is described in the book The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado, by (pre-eminent Colorado political broadcast journalist) Adam Schrager and (former Republican Colorado state house representative) Rob Witwer. The book describes a confluence of new state laws (both campaign finance and term-limit limitations), a very small group of highly motivated and capable extremely wealthy individuals (“the gang of four”), and the targeted channeling of huge amounts of money by them into non-campaign organizations such as political 527s, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, each with its own advantages and limitations, to affect state legislature races, transforming the Colorado political landscape in the process.

The Tea Party movement, as well, clearly has both some grass roots political entrepreneurial characteristics to it, as well as more centrally orchestrated aspects, both involving some social institutional purposive systems, channeling the deep well of  jingoistic “Political Fundamentalism” in the United States, and the reactionary anger to the combination of the Obama victory in 2008 and the perception of Big Government (“socialist”) actions and policies, tapping into inchoate bigotries and xenophobia, all in service, ultimately, to corporate interests (“small government” meaning non-regulation of corporate behavior, which in turn means foisting costs of production in the forms of externalities onto the public).

The question facing those who want to affect the dynamical fractal geometry of our ever-changing social institutional landscape in purposive and guided ways is how best to do so, where and how to flap the butterfly’s wings in such a way so as to cascade through the system in reverberating, self-amplifying winds of social change. As I put it near the end of The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology:

Negotiating this evolving ecosystem of social institutions, technologies, and their interactions with both individuals and the natural environment involves more than hammering together a set of purposive systems. It is a vibrant whole, a metabolism, more organic than mechanistic. Understanding how it flows, how changes ripple through it, how its complexity and interconnectedness form the roiling currents we are riding, is the ultimate art and science of consciously articulating our lives with their context in ways that allow us to fulfil potentials we have only barely begun to imagine. To some extent, these potentials will be realized by technologies, including social institutional technologies. But human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, and the more our technologies and ideologies flow and undulate with the rhythms of the evolving natural, social institutional, and technological systems within which they are embedded, and with which they articulate, the more fully we will realize the full breadth and depth of our humanity.

I invite and implore all readers to continue to contemplate this question, to consider how best to dance with these complex systems in ways which yield greater human welfare and liberation, greater realization of our humanity and our consciousness. In the meantime, please consider my own evolving “A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill” (or the short version: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified) as one possible starting point. This social institutional world of ours is both a product and source of our genius, in an articulation of coherence and individuation, of interdependence and liberty, of collective and individual consciousness. It is the collective mind upon which we draw, and which draws upon us. It is a narrative we write and act out together in a sprawling improvisation, more subtle and complex than any that has ever been bound into volumes or performed on a stage. Let’s write it well.

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Discipline, both individual and organizational, is an essential component of all successful endeavors. Monks and swamis seeking enlightenment, teams and armies seeking victories, entrepreneurs and corporations seeking profits, scholars and universities seeking empirical and theoretical knowledge, courts and litigants seeking justice, effective activists and successful social movements seeking social change, all adhere to disciplines in service to their goals.

The most robust disciplines channel and activate the genius of those involved, rather than suppress it, but they do so in a disciplined, purposeful manner. The notion that everyone pursuing their own individual whims is the best way for an organized effort to pursue its goal is as detached from reality as the notion that health is best served by being a junk-food gorging couch potato, or that love is best served by selfish disregard of others, or that a broth is best served by having as many chefs as possible each seasoning it to their own taste.

Certainly, everyone is free to say and do as they please, within the limits of the law and their own conscience. Discussing public issues in ineffective ways is as legitimate a pastime, as legitimate a diversion, as bowling or doing crossword puzzles. But for those who claim to be acting with a purpose, who claim to be trying to contribute to positive social change through their actions, the question of whether their actions are actually serving that purpose should always be foremost in their minds. And for those who share the same purpose, the mutual insistence that that question remain foremost in all participants’ minds is the essence of the organizational discipline required for success.

People organized into social movements can change the world, for better or for worse. I believe that Progressives today are unusually well positioned to launch the United States down a sustainable path of accelerating political-economic and cultural progressive development (see, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). The more those who want this to happen work in disciplined and coordinated ways to make it happen, the more likely it is to happen. I have offered on this blog an outline of one possible framework through which to exercise such disciplined coordination, one which is comprehensive and focused (see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). It is right and good that those ideas should be subjected to the crucible of debate, and challenged by competing views, hopefully working toward a synthesis of the best ideas.

But the primary focus should be: What actions, by each speaker (not by remote others), working individually and together, best promote a sustainable progressive path for this nation and this world? The best answers are likely to be, in my opinion, the ones that are least reductionist, most systemic, least dogmatic and intransigent, least bombastic, most analytical, and, in general, most committed to a procedural discipline which ensures both the long-term success of the political agenda, and the wisdom of the ideas it is promoting.

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I sometimes hear progressives saying “It’s time for us to get angry; it worked for the Tea Party.” It also defines the Tea Party, and is among the reasons I oppose the Tea Party. I’m not saying that there’s never cause for anger; I’m saying that it should never be allowed to define us.

Instead, we should define ourselves first, and act in the world in service to that ideal, rather than allow ourselves to be defined by our frustrations, by some negative reaction to the world around us. Let others be the chest-thumping mindless apes. Someone has to strive to be the sentient beings, who lead the way toward something better.

What does it take to be sentient beings? A commitment, a desire, a discipline, an endless hunger to grow and aspire and invite and attract others to do the same. Let others thrive on their calls to arms; let’s instead engage in a call to minds. Let’s instead engage in a call to hearts. Let’s instead engage in a call to souls. We have called enough to our baser nature; it’s time to call to our nobler one.

This may be getting repetitive, and for that I apologize. I enjoy, more than anything, to tease out some hidden insight, some novel perspective, some aspect of the dance of nature around and through us that is not obvious, but is worthy of attention. But some things are less delicate, less unfamiliar, but no less worthy of attention for being mundane.

One such thing is our need to move, in as organized and passionate a manner as possible, in the direction of becoming advocates for a discipline that can be more effective, on multiple dimensions, than the sham of activism in which we are, in general, now engaged.

Some may recognize that this isn’t the first time I’ve referred to social institutional shams. I used the phrase “Kabuki Theater” not long ago to describe professional development workshops in public education, which are largely rituals of signifying a commitment to doing better rather than engaging in the actual discipline of doing better. But it is not a defect relegated only to ossified bureaucracies; it is a defect also found in our most passionate social institutional rites. No, the faces are not impassive in the shams of activism, but the results are as hollow.

WE ARE ABLE TO DO BETTER!!!!  I can’t emphasize that enough, or often enough. We can do better. Just as for millenia humanity exercised the power of the mind through the haphazard accumulation of cultural belief systems, finally stumbling upon a methodology that unleashed its powers in phenomenal new ways; just as there was a time when trials by ordeal were all the rage, giving way to systems of law whose procedural discipline seems excessive to those who don’t realize what a triumph it really is; so too can we do better in every sphere of life, in every aspect of our endeavors.

The value of discipline, of methodology, of procedure, is not a new discovery; it has been a hallmark of spiritual and philosophical schools throughout history. The quest for nirvana may seem trite today, but it is no less compelling, no less authentic, than it was two and a half thousand years ago. It is, in essence, some shade of nirvana that we seek, some spiritual success realized through our own ability to tame our egos and realize our full potential in the process.

We do not necessarily have to sit in the lotus position and chant “om mani padme hum” to be, in essence, exercising a discipline that liberates the human spirit. We can, instead, escape the illusion of activism that is blindly invested in a superficial cycle, the endless trials by ordeal, of changing leadership and representation, and embrace in its place the realization of an activism that is more profound, more effective, and more compelling.

I have already sketched out what that discipline looks like (see, e.g., A Proposal, The Ultimate Political Challenge, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Foundational Progressive Agenda“A Theory of Justice”The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & WithoutThe Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2, and “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few). But words are cheap, and acting on them is essential. To those who are already involved in this effort (e.g., “the coffee party”), let’s form bridges among our groups, form new groups, draw in new members, link to groups that are somewhat different in nature (e.g., Kiwanas,Rotary, church groups, HOAs, PTAs, park districts, school districts, everyone who is organized to do good works of any kind), trying to transcend rather than deepen the ideological divides, trying to create common ground rather than merely to smite enemies (and by doing so ensure that they remain enemies), building more hubs and spokes in expanding social networks all coalescing around the will to do better.

There are those who are quick to say that the opposition is not reasonable, and that trying to reason with them is the mistake that they are so angry about. And I say, the world is subtler than that. I do not argue that there is no place for hardball politics; I only argue that not every place is that place. I do not argue that there are not irrational and intransigent ideologues opposed to progress; I only argue that not everyone across the ideological divide is such a person. The real political battle has always been, and remains, the battle over the middle, over those who are not raging ideologues, over those who can be swayed. Such people are not swayed, but rather are repulsed, by raging ideology. While the Tea Party may seem to have been successful by trying to sway them with contorted faces and angry slogans, what they really did was to coalesce a base, and alienate the middle, at exactly the same time that many on the left thought that the smartest thing to do would be to alienate the middle as well, and thus lose the opportunity to be the only attractive political force left.

Obama won not because there was a huge mandate for expansive government, but rather because there was a huge mandate for hope and reason. Not everyone defines those virtues in the same way, and not everyone stayed on board as the policies themselves involved more government involvement than they were comfortable with. But hope and reason, not rage, are the truly attractive forces, the ones that attract not those who are already full of rage, but rather those who are not and don’t want to be.

So let’s recover that force, that momentum, that Obama unleashed in 2008. Let’s recover a commitment to hope and reason. Let’s agree to be slower to refute and quicker to consider; let’s agree to strive to find the words and attitude that resonate with those who can be swayed. Let’s agree to be reasonable, and humble, people of goodwill, working together to do the best we can. And let’s make that an attractive place to be. Real, and sustainable, progress depends on it.

Contact me, here or by other channels, if you’d like to be a part of an effort to organize along these lines. All reasonable people of goodwill have a responsibility to work as hard at turning this vision into a reality as others, all across the political spectrum, work at obstructing it.

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I’m angry too.

I’m angry at those who try to obstruct improvement of the human condition, and at those who obstruct improvement of the human condition while trying to facilitate it. I’m angry at both those who lack any sense of responsibility to one another, and those who lack any sense of how to satisfy that responsibility to one another. I’m angry at those progressives among us who try to turn every meeting into a group therapy session, focused on how mad they are that their imperfect certainties of the world are not being adequately realized by the candidates that they supported. I’m angry at hubris, and inflexibility, and attempts to impose the noise and obstruction of false certainties on a system already clogged with noise and obstructions of all kinds. I’m angry at folly, littered liberally across the ideological spectrum.

I’m angry at those who believe that progressive activism should consist entirely of trying to impose one’s own will on government, and not at all of trying to inform the will that is being imposed. I’m angry at those who believe that if they are convinced that something must be, then making it so must be good. I’m angry at those who think a straight line is the best path to all destinations, even if the destination cannot be reached by it.

I’m angry at those whose self-indulgent and unproductive anger drives productive people away, dominating discourse and derailing progress. I’m angry at those progressives who are essentially the same as Tea Partiers, only filling in the blanks of the same Mad-lib differently; who are political fundamentalists of another shade, characterized by the same attitude, adamant and inflexible, impermeable to new information, content to be absolutely certain of inevitably imperfect understandings. I’m angry at those who respond to the intentional obstruction of progress with the unintentional obstruction of progress, forming an implicit alliance with those they purport to oppose. I’m angry with those who adhere to and reinforce the cycle of blindly ideological opposition rather than striving to transcend it, as would serve an authentic progressive movement.

I’m angry at those who think that unproductive bitching is the epitome of political activism, and that attempts to plan and execute efforts to actually affect the political and ideological landscape are distractions from their “substantive work.” I’m angry at people who combine working to get favored candidates elected with anger that those candidates consistently disappoint them, or anger that fellow progressives made other choices, while doing nothing to assist those candidates in their efforts to persuade constituents who are not in agreement. I’m angry with people who think elections are the breadth and depth of politics, and that all challenges are met by winning them, though even they constantly observe that the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

I’m angry with people who completely ignore the importance of creating a context which facilitates what we want our elected officials to do. I’m angry with people who don’t understand that getting progressives elected and re-elected is just the most superficial layer of the political challenge we face, and that unless we address the layers beneath it, we will be both less successful at achieving that superficial layer, and less successful at making such success, when it comes, conducive to the ends we had in mind when pursuing it.

I’m angry at those who don’t understand that electoral politics is just the beginning of the challenge; that the rest involves more, not less, responsibility on our part. And the tragedy is that too few people undertake that more essential responsibility.

I’m angry at people who take pride in a passionate commitment to change things for the better that is being squandered in ways which are more emotionally gratifying than effective, and, if anything, actually contribute more to ensuring that things won’t change for the better than that they will. I’m angry when these people speak for the progressive movement, attempt to ostracize and disinvite those who aren’t like them in order better to wallow with fellow travelers in an ecstasy of complete ineffectiveness.

But I’m not angry about the possibilities that lie beyond their fortifications, that can attract larger numbers of more able souls. I’m not angry, but rather am hopeful, that there are many who are silent, put-off, disgusted, and alienated by the combination of arrogance, ignorance, anger, and intransigence that characterizes many of the most vocal lay participants, of all ideological stripes, in our political process. I’m hopeful that a different kind of progressive movement, a more pragmatic but  more robust and effective progressive movement, can attract the vast silent majority, who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, and seek only a sign directing them to where reason and goodwill reside.

I’m hopeful that those of us so inclined will be able to find and create venues in which tackling the real challenges we face, that are ours to tackle, is considered the proper focus of our efforts rather than a distraction from them. I’m hopeful that there are those who want to work with some degree of humility to do our part, on the ground, to improve the quality of life in this state, nation, and world, both by affecting government, and by affecting the context within which it operates.