Several influences molded me as a writer over the years: A fascination with classical history and mythology, a love of science fiction and fantasy, years of world travel laden with ample adventures of my own, and a deep sense of wonder about the systems of Nature, most particularly (though by no means exclusively) about the human sphere of Nature, fed by a highly analytical and imaginative mind and abundant sources on which to draw.
At around the age of 18 (in 1977 or 1978), I wrote a short psychedelic vignette called “River Palace” which was the first seed of what would later become A Conspiracy of Wizards. A couple of years later, while living in Berkeley, I started an unrelated novel in which crystalized talismans of the five elements of classical natural philosophy had magical properties that were amplified when brought together, an idea that found its way into A Conspiracy of Wizards.
Most of my 20s was dedicated to world travels and adventures and the keeping of journals laden with descriptions and contemplations. Many of the real-world, visceral descriptive passages from those journals found their way into A Conspiracy of Wizards. During this time I also read prolifically and broadly, trying to catch up on as many classics of literature and of more recent intellectual discovery as I possibly could.
One year into my career as a sociology grad student in Connecticut, having become an aficionado of Chaos Theory in the late 1980s and believing it to be a critical piece of the puzzle of the story of our existence, I wrote a vignette about Chaos and Order being the parents of the universe, and immediately knew that this would be the nucleus of the novel I had always dreamed of writing.
During my grad student career in Connecticut, I was working on my novel at the same time that I was soaking up the spectrum of social theory, designing my world and weaving bits and pieces of my gradually emerging synthesis of the social theoretical landscape into it and the story-line. I incorporated into the novel a variety of epistemological theories (including, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” most visibly in the scene of Algonion in the ice sphere), Marxist theory, microeconomic and game theory, and network analysis and epidemiology. I also incorporated my previously acquired knowledge of international relations and world history to create a more complex and in many ways “realistic” world than is found in most novels of any kind, let alone fantasy fiction. The geopolitics and geopolitical and military strategies found in the novel are, I think, particularly elaborate and faithful to the forms found in the real world.
Two years into my status as “All-But Dissertation,” not actually writing my dissertation, I left the program and my position as a college lecturer to work full time on my novel. In many ways, I realized, I had been in the Ph.D. program primarily to inform my novel. Before moving out west, I took a couple of months to do a car trip around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, during which, while camping and hiking in beautiful Acadia National Park in Maine, I fully fleshed out the story of Cholumga (derived from “Chomo Lungma,” Tibetan for “Earth Mother” and the Tibetan name for Mount Everest), the giantess trapped in the hollow mountain. I did this in part by telling the story to a young girl and her mother who I ran into while hiking, as we sat on a bluff overlooking the gorgeous autumn colors. (Also from Acadia comes the imagery of Algonion arriving at the sea as he is escaping Lokewood.)
In late 1996, I moved to a cabin in the mountains of Northern New Mexico for a year (in Cabresto Canyon, between Questa and Red River, north of Taos) to write the first draft of the novel, simultaneously focusing my informal studies more on World Mythology and World History (both long-time interests of mine, along with International Relations), including studying Joseph Campbell’s analyses of mythological motifs. The multi-hued beauty of Northern New Mexico and the Four Corners region, around which I took frequent car-and-camping trips, filtered into the imagery of the novel. I then finished the millennium in Albuquerque, teaching and taking classes, working through some of the issues and challenges with my novel, developing it further, and developing other ideas as well (such as a series of vignettes about the institutionalization of time travel, including reunions of multiple selves across time, branching historical trajectories, and the colonization of the past). I began to submit excerpts of the novel to agents and publishers, trying to line up a publication deal, but without success.
While living in the cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I used to wander into the forest and visualize various characters in particular locations dedicated to each, having conversations with them to flesh out who they were. It was a form of intentional, self-induced semi-hallucination, powerful enough that occasionally a character would “say” something that would surprise me! This was a technique for discovering each character’s own authenticity rather than populating my world with contrived characters with less of a life of their own.
I believe it was also while I was in New Mexico that I saw (on video tape borrowed from the Taos library, since I had no television reception in my cabin) a National Geographic special on the rain forest canopy ecosystem, the imagery of which inspired the imagery of Algonion’s largely airborne trek through Lokewood in search of the Loci imps, one of my descriptively favorite passages.
Also while in New Mexico, I further developed my sociological paradigm, focusing it more on Richard Dawkins’ “Meme Theory,” which provided a lynchpin to the synthesis I had been developing. This has since found its way into the novel, particularly in the Kindle e-book version, in my newly rewritten description of the Vaznallam mindscape and the fractal geometry of their mental representation of the Sadache cognitive landscape, which is the imagery presented in a series of expository essays I’ve written on the fractal geometry and evolutionary ecology of our shared human cognitive landscape (and, along with it, our social institutional and technological landscape).
In December of 1999, I set out for Mexico to find a spot in which to continue to work on the novel, living modestly off investments, which were doing well at the time. I ended up in Mazatlan, where I developed the routine of waking up before dawn to write from my balcony, watching the morning light spread over the city and the bay while I was writing. I stayed in Mazatlan for over two years, taking several car trips to various regions of Mexico while there, all of which also contributed something to the imagery of the novel. During that time I got married and toward the end of my time in Mazatlan finished the current hard copy version of the novel and began seeking unsuccessfully to publish it.
We moved up to the Denver area in the summer of 2002 (and had our wonderful daughter, Scheherazade, in 2003), and I embarked on a combination of teaching, law school, a run for the state legislature, public policy research and analysis, and a variety of civic engagement, not touching the novel other than to self-publish it in 2005. The combination of my failure to do anything to market the novel and my realization that I had not, in fact, finished refining it prior to publishing it, that I had not ironed out all of the rough spots, that I had not perfected my own vision of what the novel should be, culminated in my decision in the summer of 2013 to do one more set of revisions and refinements, and to republish it as an e-book.
The ebook version of the novel is now available, via the links provided at the top and bottom of this narrative.
The cloudscape glowed in the streaming light of the sun, whorls and tufts poised in a floating dance of fluid form. Strains of ethereal music drifted with strands of luminous mist among hovering puffs and whimsical foam behemoths.
Draped only in these wafting wisps, dazzling muses lounged on the tiers of a fountain carved from the froth. Feathered wings unfurled with an occasional flourish. Cerulean locks swirled in the gusty breeze. The spray of light laughter laced the air. Whether basking in a rain of radiance, or beneath the celestial canopy sparkling with thickly sprinkled specks of fire, there was always a gathering on the cloud-paved plaza, a mingling of sounds rising and falling like distant waves caressing a rocky shore.
“Welcome, Lord Evenstar!” the Chorus sang in unison, as Azhanli, alighting on the lip of the fountain, lowered her passenger onto the tier just below her own. Azhanli had asked the ancient wizard to join them, and ferried him there herself, for he had shared in the story to be told today, and would tell it again in the tongues of men when the world of Sarena’s vision had come to pass.
Azhanli was to conduct this day’s Chorus, for she too had been a part of the tale about to be told. Perched on the fountain’s edge like a sphinx posing her riddle to those gathered round, she orchestrated the various voices chiming in. Mellifluous chatter coalesced into a symphony of nuanced tones and gestures.
The whirling mists responded. At first, mere shadows of shapes emerged, and windswept whispers barely heard. The skin tingled with hints of crisp morning air. Twilit tints peeked through the veil of shifting vapors. Then a salty spray could be discerned, and hollow, echoing calls.
Plumes hardened into rugged cliffs, their heights haloed by dawn’s first blush. The cloud-carpet before them melted into a dull tide clad in tatters of fog, paying ceaseless homage to the chiseled sentinels of the land, salaaming in furies of foam at their feet. Gulls glided above the roiling surf, screeching a forlorn and ominous ode to the mysteries of sea and shore. The dark shroud of night had been just cast aside, revealing the naked spirit of day.
But brilliance blossomed without delay, clothing that spirit in splendor. The Ilyarian plaza became a shimmering panorama, flowing by as if seen through eyes aloft on the wind. Islands and coastal palisades rose starkly from the ocean waves like monuments to the gods. The sun-flecked sea danced in ecstasy below. Nestled within the land’s lush folds life sprouted and throve, rivers plummeted from mountain springs, leaves quivered on swaying boughs. And people strove, weaving tales of Nature’s own.
The soaring overture dove toward a sunbaked country far from the rolling swells, to a wedge of red rock overlooking a small village. A lone figure stood there, cleaving the warm dusty wind like a figurehead maiden mounted on a stone prow. Long black hair fluttered, a banner on the battlements, a sail in search of distant shores. And eyes dark and bright as starlit skies gazed into the golden haze of the horizon, reaching out across the vast expanse before them….
(For more vignettes excerpted or derived from my novel, “A Conspiracy of Wizards,” please see The Hollow Mountain, The Wizards’ Eye, “Flesh Around A Whim”, and The Cloud Gardener. Also see The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”. To purchase an electronic copy of the novel, click the link below.)
Due to the appreciation of the fractal images I use here and on the Colorado Confluence Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence), and the interest in fractals and the Mandelbrot Set that that appreciation has generated, as well as the relevance of fractals to my overarching evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems paradigm (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, and particularly The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for an explanation and description of the connection), I’ve decided to post here a few different video “zooms” of the set.
These are not just visually interesting and beautiful displays: They are the exploration of the underlying patterns of complexity found in nature. The Mandelbrot Set is an extremely intricate fractal generated by iterations of a simple (though mathematically sophisticated) mathematical algorithm. Zooming in on any part of the swirling pattern reveals a degree of complexity equal to that on the larger scale, across limitless levels. I selected such images to represent Colorado Confluence because I believe (as many of my essays on Colorado Confluence explicitly expound upon) that life in general is of an essentially similar nature, swirling patterns of complexity within complexity, and that our challenge, in this human endeavor of ours, is to continue to ever-better align our consciousness and our efforts with these subtle and intricate systems of which we are a part. Enjoy!
Notice the coral-like formations in this one!
There are many, many more Mandelbrot Set zooms out there! Look for the most beautiful ones, and comment here or on the Colorado Confluence FB page with the URL.
In our exploration of our collective consciousness and our shared existence, much can be understood in terms of how far down into underlying ordering principles particular thoughts and actions reach. The vast majority of our academic and political debates occur between ideas residing at similar levels of subtlety, with decreasing participation as depth increases. These conflicting positions are generally more compatible in some essential ways than their various adherents realize, but also generally defective due to errors of oversimplification and “overreach” of application.
Examples in science include the 19th century debate between particle and wave theories of light, reconciled in the 20th century into a paradigm that transcended the distinction; and the apparent incompatibility of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, reconciled by String Theory, which provides a subtler mathematical penetration transcending that apparent incompatibility.
The principal modern example in geopolitics was the “debate,” culminating in a half-century long Cold War, between Totalitarian Command Economies and Democratic Capitalism, between political economic centralization and political economic decentralization. The lessons of history clearly point to some subtle blend of market dynamics and state regulation, of representative democracy rather than either plebiscite or dictatorship, as a form that transcends either of the previous political ideological poles. Even so, depending on the history of the particular country, extremists at one pole or the other (or both) are likely to continue to obstruct and disrupt the approach toward that transcendent blend, insisting that their pure ideology, existing on a more simplistic plane of conceptualization, is superior. In such instances the dialectic is across levels of subtlety, and the preference should be , in the light of the paradigm I am developing here, for the deeper level of subtlety.
(There are many today who are convinced that the fall of Communism conclusively vindicates its extreme opposite, though even if it had fallen to its extreme opposite, it would only have proven that it was the inferior, in terms of competitiveness, of two extreme views, not that there were no forms superior to both. In reality, Communism didn’t fall to its extreme opposite, but rather to the hybrid form that had developed from the Great Depression onward, that all societies that had participated in the post-WWII expansion of wealth had already implemented and continued to develop, by far the most successful modern form, which blind anti-government ideologues seek to undermine by insisting that their never-tested and fundamentally flawed ideal replace it.)
Another way to conceptualize this historical dynamic is in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, or the Taoist dance of opposites. In the Hegelian dialectic, a thesis is developed and argued, generating an antithesis and counterarguments, resulting eventually in a synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, generating a new antithesis…, and so on, constantly penetrating into deeper levels of subtlety by means of this dialectic. In Taoism, yin and yang are in a constant dynamic tension with one another, each always bearing the seed of its opposite (as in the image of the Taiji Tu, the Taoist symbol of yin and yang).
But it is not just the dance of opposites; it is also the resolution of puzzles. Hegel’s thesis and antithesis are both attempts to understand something, their interaction leading to a deeper understanding. But there is a perhaps even more robust “dialectic” involving Dominant Paradigm, Emerging Anomalies, and Subsequent Paradigm Shift. Frequently, the traditional dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis both precedes and occurs in the interstices of this paradigm-anomalies-paradigm shift dynamic, with competing pre-paradigmatic views vying for dominance, and then, within a given paradigm increasingly beset by anomalies, competing proposed resolutions vying for dominance.
There is even a dialectic that can be discerned in the competition of these two views, between those who understand human history primarily in terms of class conflict punctuated with occasional revolutions, and those who understand human history primarily in terms of dominant paradigms undergoing constant refinement through a process of trial-and-error and responses by centralized regimes to historical exigencies. An example of this can be seen in the competing views on the rise of modern democracy, between those who view it as the result of the less powerful confronting and challenging the more powerful and gradually advancing as a result (the Hegelian dialectic), and those who view it as the result of the English Crown’s need to empower broader and broader swathes of the population in order to finance internecine European wars (the dominant paradigm, anomalies or challenges, paradigm shift view).
In academe as in politics, people debate these competing views, these competing paradigms, these competing theses, as though they are mutually incompatible, only grudgingly and gradually arriving at some evenutal reconciliation which recognizes a subtler reality beneath them, subsuming them, transcending them.
Recently, I broadened and deepened the colorful thesis/paradigm described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change (and the related posts on “the evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems”) by adding in the concept of Emotional Contagion, and by doing so, continued to reconcile with new interweaving threads the social theoretical and social movement tapestries of thought being simultaneously developed on this blog. Another development of the thesis/paradigm might include recognition of the ways in which that pulsating, reverberating, expanding and contracting fractal flow of memes across our collective cognitive landscape involves a progression into ever-increasing subtlety and complexity, penetrating deeper into the ever-more fundamental algorithms generating ever-broader swathes of the complexity around and within us.
Just as the character Algono, in The Wizards’ Eye, was reaching ever-deeper into the potential of human consciousness, finding the algorithms by which change occurs, and then the algorithms by which those algorithms themselves change (as, for instance, scientific paradigms do, as we delve deeper into their implications, discover their anomalies, and transcend them), and so forth, into levels beneath levels, we are, or could be, forever reaching down into the deeper currents that subsume the shallower ones.
To put it another way, this act of reaching down into deeper currents is the act of finding the subtlest algorithms generating the greatest complexity, in much the way that a simple algorithm generates the Mandelbrot Set fractal. (Videos exploring the Mandelbrot Set: The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity. See also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foxD6ZQlnlU&NR=1, capturing the combination of self-similarity and complexity across scales; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEw8xpb1aRA, emphasizing self-similarity across scales, and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eD9IRS9_tc&feature=BFa&list=SP6848FE2899BA0E73&index=10, emphasizing the complexity across scales. See YouTube “Mandelbrot Set Zooms” or “Fractal Zooms” for a wide variety of different projections, no two exactly the same. Also, see http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~wayne/mandel/gallery/, for a wide selection of different still images from the Mandelbrot Set.)
The implication is that, in both thought and action, our challenge in The Dance of Consciousness is to reach into ever deeper currents, finding ever-subtler algorithms of change that affect ever-broader swathes of the encompassing complexity of our existence. When we discuss the actual, practical problems that confront us as a people –problems such as unemployment, the collapse of the housing market, climate change, and illegal immigration– the most useful and effective policies for addressing them are invariably the policies based on more rather than less systemic understanding, reaching deeper down into the currents beneath the superficial phenomena under discussion. This effort, one aspect of which I have outlined in The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, is what I will call “Transcendental Politics.”
The benefit of striving for the ideal of “the rule of law” is that doing so imperfectly seals out human caprice and the unrestrained exercises of power that such caprice enables. But it does so at a cost, for striving for the ideal of “the rule of law” also imperfectly seals out the ability of unrestrained minds to make nuanced, context-sensitive decisions on a case-by-case basis. The lathe of history, spun with an eye to maximizing the benefit while minimizing the cost (though also with the bias of power resisting its own marginalization), has carved out a balance between relative objectivity (“blind justice”) and nuanced human judgment by allowing decisions in the interstices of established law to continually create new and finer filaments reaching into the endless inner-space of novel fact patterns.
Combined with this is the political game of testing how much ambiguity can be read into words and phrases given from above in the procedural flow-chart of legislating, executing, and adjudicating the law, and to what extent that real or imagined ambiguity can be exploited to stretch and fold the law to desired ends.
While I am about to describe the dynamical, evolving legal structure generated by these forces in static, structural terms, it’s important to remember that it is really an on-going process, one consisting of the movement and manipulation of human cognitions (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a more comprehensive description of this more general phenomenon). The specific sphere of human cognition most centrally implicated in the generation and evolution of the legal structure is that which is encompassed by policy analysis and legal reasoning, the latter representing finer filaments of the former. As I wrote in a law school final exam essay:
Legal reasoning is artificially constrained policy analysis. If ethical and political discourse is a ship adrift at sea, then legal reasoning is a ship that has dropped an anchor too light to keep it from drifting, but heavy enough to drag on the seabed and restrict it’s meanderings. Even when the anchor momentarily snags on the kelp of a particular law or legal theory, the ship of legal reasoning still swings in broad arcs defined by the length of the anchor line and the currents of the sea. Of course, the anchor itself, its weight and the length of the line, and the kelp upon which it snags, are shifting functions of the drifting ship rather than exogenous parameters, byproducts of generations of ethical and political reasoning which themselves drift with the judicial-political zeitgeist. And not one but many ships are adrift at once, exploring many areas of law, proliferating and occasionally pruning the thickening forest of kelp while becoming entangled in the growing vines. Legal reasoning, therefore, is a subset of policy analysis, with tentacles branching like veins throughout the universe of ethical and political discourse, according to a fractal geometry generated by an algorithm of “distinctive . . . argumentative techniques” and limiting rules.
The U.S. Constitution and the English common law, together, provide the broad framework within which this cognitive process takes place. The English common law (the accumulated law created by court decisions over the centuries) was adopted and continued by the new United States, the Constitution being the first codification of our own will carved into it. Gradually, Congress and state legislatures continued this process of codification within the universe defined by common law, enacting statutes which superceded the common law, sometimes merely codifying it and sometimes overriding and replacing it. These two levels (state and federal legislation) articulated in their own way, with states building on federal law, and federal law sometimes nationalizing widespread state laws.
Eventually, the complexity of the economy and our demands on government generated the need for finer filaments of codified law, a finer elaboration within the framework of statutory law. Congress (and, to a lesser extent, state legislatures) increasingly delegated essentially legislative responsibilities to executive branch administrative agencies, which promulgated regulations designed to specify more precisely how to define the broad statutes passed by Congress.
As can be seen from the above discussion, the legal structure in America is recursive, with the broad, general outlines of common law and the Constitution filled in by more massive and specific statutes, which in turn are filled in by yet more massive and specific regulations, all carving out codified law from the space historically occupied by common law. But this recursiveness occurs not just in enacted and codified law, but also in the evolution of common law itself, with court decisions occasionally encountering novel fact patterns not perfectly anticipated by existing common law, and, like occasional mutation creating new species, coming to decisions in response to these anomalies which generate new inner-spaces of common law.
This does not exist independently of the courts’ role in interpreting Constitutional, statutory, and regulatory law. Not even the fine filaments of regulatory law can anticipate all contingencies. Courts are left to decide cases in which, occasionally, the specific facts fall within the inevitable remaining gaps in Constitutional, statutory, regulatory, and common law. (In regulatory law, this occurs first in administrative courts with quasi-judicial functions, and only sometimes then end up in Article III judicial courts). This is the mechanism by which the finest filaments of our legal structure are forged.
One can discern in all of this the complementary fractal geometry of government, which exists to create (legislative branch), implement (executive branch), and interpret (judicial branch) the law. Our founding legal and governmental blueprint (the Constitution) provides the simple formula that, when iterated and reiterated over time, generates the branches and twigs and tiny veins of both government and law. The three branches of government exist at the federal, state, and local levels (the executive and legislative often being combined at the local level, particularly in county commissioners).
Congress is mirrored at the state level by state assemblies and at the local level by city councils, county commissioners, school boards, and transportation (and other special district) boards. The federal executive branch, headed by the president and including the Cabinet and the major executive branch agencies under the control of these secretaries (e.g., departments of state, interior, defense, etc.), as well as the proliferation of regulatory agencies created by Congress, is mirrored at the state level by the Governor’s office and state level administrative agencies, and at the local level by city mayors, county commissioners, school superintendents, and special district board chairmen. Similarly, federal courts (comprised of appellate circuits which in turn are comprised of federal districts) are mirrored, recursively, by state courts (comprised of state districts), county courts, and municipal courts, with specialized courts tucked into this structure. Quasi-governmental entities such as HOAs fill in some of the remaining gaps.
Inevitably, some of this is excessive, redundant, and wasteful. The underlying algorithm generating, continuously, this complex fractal of law and government doesn’t have an “off” switch, and is over-productive in part because of political pressures both to try to cover all bases and to appease all interests. And some of it is oppressive, imposing an excess of controls on individual freedoms, particularly at the micro-quasi-governmental levels (e.g., HOAs).
But the wastefulness and oppressiveness of this throbbing, organic entity tend to be exaggerated, and its utility underappreciated. Some of the redundancy is functional, providing checks and balances, and allowing for efficiencies of less cumbersome and expensive recourses as a first response, in order to siphon off the simpler issues and filter out all but those that need to continue up the hierarchy into more elaborate and involved processes, leaving each issue addressed at the level most appropriate for it. And rules, in reality, can liberate as well as oppress, protecting rights and coordinating our coexstence without requiring us to spend all of our time and energy ordering our coexistence from scratch in an endless trap of institutional amnesia.
The massive size of bills drafted by Congress is as much a function of the complexity of the world in which it is legislating as of the political processes that cause accretions of “pork” to glob on to every piece of legislation. Some of that bulk is due to Congress’ healthy desire to cede as little power as possible to the executive branch, for once enacted legislation leaves Congress and enters the administrative infrastructure, Congress loses control of it. The more gaps Congress leaves to be filled in, the more those administrative agencies end up writing the law, and rewriting it in accord with successive presidents’ ideologies. In other words, even while our laws are a messy product of an imperfect world, they are amazingly adapted to the complex challenges of that complex world even so.
What’s left over after Congress, state legislatures, and local governments carve their enacted law into the space of haphazardly evolved common law is the inner-universe of the unforeseeable, to which the organs of legal production must constantly respond and adapt. This is the function, first, of the judicial branch, at all levels, addressing, on the margins, unique circumstances unanticipated by both existing common law, and existing federal (constitutional, statutory and regulatory), state (constitutional, statutory and regulatory), or local law.
When existing law cannot be interpreted in service to reason, the courts generally must submit to the unreasonable, while, in their written opinions, sending a message to legislators that there is a defect requiring their attention. Depending on the egregiousness of the defect and the political obstacles involved, the defect may or may not be remedied. This process can certainly be improved upon, lubricated and rationalized. While the lathe of time places a constant pressure in favor of doing so, the institutionalized resistance to that pressure can be quite obstinate.
All of this articulates with the processes described in Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, and The Politics of Consciousness. The waxing and waning technologies, social institutions, and ideological beliefs reverberating through the social field create the environment within which the above described processes occur and to which they respond, and the above described processes, in turn, further modify that environment and, by doing so, affect the complementary processes of technological, ideological, and social institutional evolution. The ebbs and flows, expansions and contractions, of all aspects of the social institutional landscape, including technologies, ideologies, religions, norms, rituals, beliefs, and laws, are intertwined and mutually formative.
There are many portals of human intentionality into this system. In fact, it is comprised predominantly of human intentionality. Every act by every person either reproduces or slightly modifies some aspect of this dynamo. Human will and ingenuity insinuates itself in particularly salient ways in several fields, such as academe, writing (both fiction and non-fiction), and engineering. But, of all of these, there is something particularly important about politics, about how we exercise our will in the on-going refinement of the formal rules by which we intentionally provide a context for this all-encompassing human enterprise, a context which determines how robustly our imaginations are activated and their products realized. For it is through the political process that we consciously determine how well or poorly we manage to liberate The Genius of the Many, which is the most valuable of all human and natural resources.
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.