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Social institutions, technologies, and ideologies and conceptual frameworks are comprised of memes (cognitions) linked together into coherent bundles according to organizing principles called “paradigms.” For instance, a government or economy is comprised of the memes which define the roles of all actors in the system, the rules and processes involved, and the underlying principles which inform and guide it (the paradigm). This is true of informal as well as formal institutions, across levels of organization, including everything from religions and industries to popular beliefs and customs of all kinds.

Memes and paradigms are in constant flux, evolving by several interrelated mechanisms. At core, as in biological evolution, is the variable reproductive success of the underlying memes. Memes, like genes, are packets of information which reproduce (are communicated), mutate (change in the various minds of those to whom they are communicated), differentially thrive (sometimes in direct competition, and sometimes due merely to contextual circumstances), and thus evolve (those mutations that are more reproductively successful proliferate while those that are less so fade away). Memes and sets of memes can also be combined in novel ways through intentional human effort to innovate, producing new memes and sets of memes from the consciously mediated synthesis of existing ones.

The relative reproductive success of memes is driven by a combination of reflexive and reflective individual human responses. Motivating these responses are psychological and emotional predispositions, general utility, and localized utility, blended into both rote and strategic interactions. The localized utility of certain memes and sets of memes can coalesce into social institutional power (often originated by, and implicitly underwritten by, access to physical force), allowing the imposition of paradigms that yield differentiated costs and benefits to those organized under them.

The evolution of technological memes and sets of memes, for instance, is driven at one level by general utility (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology), from which individuals involved in their creation, production and utilization draw localized utility, and, when combined with facilitating organizational memes, can give differentiated power to those groups of people with differentiated access to them or ability to utilize them for maximum benefit. The evolution of popular beliefs, on the other hand, is driven more by identifiable and inherent psychological and emotional predispositions, in a process of adaptation to and articulation with memes and paradigms evolving under the lathe of utility (which in turn adapt to and articulate with memes and paradigms evolving under the lathe of psychological and emotional predispositions).

Social institutions (including social institutional purposive systems that program human behavioral phenomena, or social institutional “technologies,” but excluding other technologies that program natural phenomena) coalesce around organizational adaptations to technologies of all kinds, as well as in both haphazard (decentralized, organic, and cumulative) and intentional (centralized, purposive, and punctuated) response to collective action and (to a lesser extent) time horizon problems (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems; in brief, collective action problems are situations in which individual rational self-interested behavior leads to worse outcomes for everyone involved than could be achieved through mutual commitment to cooperative action, and time horizon problems occur when the discounting of future costs and benefits leads to a sub-optimal short-sightedness in rational self-interested individual and collective behavior).

Separating out social institutions from non-social-institutional technologies (i.e., what we normally think of when we think of “technologies”), we can discern four social institutional modalities: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are authority structures comprised of formal rules centrally enforced by means of explicit rewards and punishments. Markets are mutually beneficial systems of exchange, in which one’s share of the benefits of collective action is determined by the market value of their contribution to it. Norms are unwritten rules diffusely and informally enforced through the social approval and disapproval of others. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame).

Actual social institutions and social institutional paradigms are comprised of blends and hybrids of these modalities, articulated with technologies, responding to a combination of the organizational demands and opportunities presented by technologies, related and independent collective action and time horizon problems, and the demands and opportunities posed by the diffuse organic psychological and emotional reflexive reactions to all of these other changes.

The various social sciences, with differing focal points but considerable overlap, examine the dynamics of the various aspects and various overlapping and cross-cutting organizing principles (“paradigms”) of this social institutional landscape. Though differing disciplines and schools within disciplines often utilize superficially conflicting or incompatible theoretical lenses, much of the perceived mutual exclusivity of perspectives evaporates when these perspectives are combined under the umbrella of a comprehensive social systems paradigm such as the one I am describing here (much as string theory in physics reconciles quantum mechanics and relativity).

Paradigms shift when a new guiding principle is used, or an old guiding principle is used in a new way, in the social institutional as well as social theoretical context. Changing physical power sources, for instance (such as the advent of the steam engine or electrification), creates rippling new challenges and opportunities, a need to adapt architecturally, organizationally, and economically to the new principle. The change from monarchy to popular sovereignty that occurred during the 17th-19th centuries in several Western European and Western European derived nations reversed the principal-agent relationship between government and populace (transforming the government from principal to agent, and the populace from agent to principal), accompanied by continuing cascades of social institutional and ideological accommodations and adaptations. (Interestingly, the political ideology in the United States today that is rooted in 18th century American Revolutionary ideology is based largely on the anachronistic rejection of government as principal and populace as agent that motivated the American Revolution).

Revolutions (whether political, technological, economic, or cultural) are essentially just such paradigm shifts, in science catalyzed by an accumulation of anomalies within an existing paradigm; in technology by limits imposed by existing technologies combined with “opportunity niches” provided by the current technological and economic landscape (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology); in politics by the limits imposed by the current regime on certain empowered or ready-to-be-self-empowered interest groups and the opportunities they perceive (e.g., American Independence, African American Civil Rights, various post-colonial national independence movements); and in culture by the diffuse organic adaptations and adjustments that ripple through the institutional landscape as a result of these other changes, involving a combination of aesthetics (fine arts, music, cuisine, etc.), entertainments and public celebrations, and psychologically and emotionally motivated cognitive adaptations and reactions.

There are two types of processes that memes can undergo during their residence in a human mind: 1) They can be implicitly accepted intact and modified only unconsciously and unintentionally (if at all), or 2) they can be worked on, in conjunction with and through utilization of other memes, critiqued, evaluated, intentionally modified, synthesized, and/or woven into a larger cognitive framework. Technological memes as discussed by Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology, for instance, undergo the second process.

Sometimes and to some extent these clash with sets of memes associated primarily with the first process, memes that are reproduced as elements of authoritative traditions, taken as “gospel.” Sometimes and to some extent the two types of meme processes articulate with one another in mutually reinforcing and synergistic ways. And these two interactions can occur simultaneously between the same two sets of memes. It can be argued, for instance, that though the memes of the Medieval Catholic Church and the early products of modern science were often and most obviously in conflict with one another, they were also in some ways mutually reinforcing, the monotheism at the heart of Catholicism providing a coherent “creation” for science to explore.

The conflicts themselves can generate or invigorate particular social institutional innovations. The rise in popularity of home schooling in the United States, for instance, emerges to a large extent from the aversion of some religious fundamentalists to the secularized secondary socialization provided by public schools. 

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, afficianados 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 shared knowledge to particular opinions or judgments, rumors or observations or shared jokes rustling through them like a breeze through tall grass.

Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, 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 billions of distinct colors and trillions of distinct shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, 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 their unique set of genes, by their 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 Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).

Precise analyses of various kinds -political, economic, and cultural- can be organized under this paradigmatic umbrella, articulating with one another in new and more robust ways. In future posts, I will frequently explore specific historical developments, current events, and political, economic, and social issues in the light of the framework outlined above (as I have in fact done in many previous posts). Much is gained by creating an accommodating and encompassing analytical language through which to explore and examine the complex and subtle dynamics of the world in which we live.

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I’ve been developing A Proposal: The Politics of Kindness in recent weeks, as well as communicating with others from across the political spectrum on matters of policy, ideology, and personal style, and the sheer lunacy and pettiness of popular discourse raises the question of whether reason and goodwill are powerful enough forces to cut through it, or whether those who are advocates for reason and goodwill have simply failed to present it in a transparent and compelling enough manner.

Here’s what should be completely non-controversial: We should govern ourselves by using sound reason applied to reliable information in service to all legitimate values and goals, including the protection and augmentation of individual liberty, the recognition of mutual interdependence, and a commitment to kindness and compassion. And yet, it is controversial, the simplicity of it buried beneath various idolatries and ideological rationalizations.

One former supporter wrote me and said that my use of jargon turns him off, and that I would attract more people to my ideas by avoiding it. I wrote back thanking him, telling him that I thought that he was absolutely right, that I would work on it, but that my writing style is really just my writing style, and it probably wasn’t going to change dramatically, in part due to my own lack of skill and my own unwillingness to invest the amount of time and energy necessary. I asked him to “bear with me.” He replied that I had chosen not to take his suggestion, but rather to rationalize continuing to do what he suggested I stop doing, so he wasn’t going to bear with me. I responded: “Fair enough. Different people have different ways of thinking, speaking, writing, and behaving. Some of those differences shouldn’t be tolerated, and some should. It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves where we draw that line. No hard feelings.”

How much should it matter to any of us if another person’s writing style is annoying? Should it matter any more than if another has a tic, or a stutter, or a physical defect? How much does it matter whether the offending trait is seen as more or less an artifact of volition, or amenable to voluntary modification? Should gay rights really hinge on the argument over whether it is a life-style choice, or an inherent characteristic?

The defects of some ideologies (not just some conservative ones) have more to do with attitude than with substance. They are characterized by intolerance, absolutism, and other attributes that are inherently centrifugal in nature, tearing people apart rather than binding us together. Progressives should not see themselves as being in a battle against external foes called “conservatives,” but rather against both internal and external foes called “intolerance, irrationality, ignorance, anger, hostility, cruelty” and so on.

It’s time for all reasonable people of goodwill to dedicate ourselves to The Politics of Kindness. Yes, well-reasoned and well-informed kindness; well-communicated kindness; kindness that seeks the kindest outcomes and not just the kindest intentions; kindness that is disciplined and channeled and cautious in its certainties; kindness that is courageous and assertive and even at times combative in its advocacy; but, ultimately, kindness.

We exhaust ourselves in futile opposition to irrelevancies, and fortify ourselves within shallow but passionately held dogmas. What if we simply all tried to do better? Or, more realistically, what if those of us who read this message, or receive it from some other source, or independently think of it, consider the possibility of doing better? What if all those who care about participating productively in the creation of our future dedicate themselves to doing better? And what if all those so inclined began to more consistently and frequently encourage others to do better as well, in the kindest and most endearing of ways?

I’ve learned a lot from my seven-year-old daughter. One of the things I’ve learned is that love is far more powerful than anger. And, in the same vein, tolerance is far more powerful than intolerance. Kindness is far more powerful than hatred or indifference. Reason is far more powerful than irrationality, and knowledge is far more powerful than ignorance. And yet, these more powerful forces seem forever on the defensive. Anger, intolerance, hatred, mutual indifference, irrationality, and ignorance are forever on the march, while love, tolerance, kindness, reason, and knowledge seem forever (or at least too frequently) in retreat. It’s not because the latter set is weaker, but rather because those of us who would be its advocates are weaker in our commitment to it, which demands more of its adherents than do hatred, intolerance, anger, indifference, irrationality, and ignorance.

Those who want reason and kindness to prevail in the political sphere have to work harder in promoting it within ourselves, within our families and communities, within our thoughts and our actions. We will continue to lose to weaker forces more easily served unless and until we do.

(See A Proposal for a slightly revised version of this post, followed by an extensive elaboration of its various components)

To advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill, I propose a project, or movement, that is comprised of three parts: 1) a policy analysis component; 2) an information dissemination component; and 3) a community organizational network component. While I conceptualize each of these in somewhat novel ways, in the context of grass roots political activism, it is the third which is perhaps the most innovative and crucial component, and so it is with the third that I will begin.

Currently, grass roots activism by those who claim the mantel of advocacy of Reason and Goodwill is almost entirely focused on electoral politics and public policy as generated through governmental mechanisms. As such, it is very easy for the opponents of this movement to dismiss these activists as people who want to take the opponents’ money and give it to others. One aspect of this conceptualization is that government is not considered an agent of the people, but rather an external entity which imposes itself on people and deprives them of their liberty. The arguments for and against this conceptualization are irrelevant for my present purposes. There are clearly many people who do indeed adhere to this conceptualization, and that fact is what’s relevant.

George Lakoff in The Political Mind talked about the need to activate the frames and narratives in all of us that are empathy-based, if we want to be successful in implementing empathy-based public policies. There are few people of any ideological stripe who oppose community involvement, and most actively support it. Many conservatives are involved in their communities through churches, civic groups, and PTAs, for instance. Such involvement is where their empathy-based frames and narratives reside, along with, in many cases, a notion of “family values,” some aspects of which are also empathy based. By increasing the association of these activities with what is currently referred to as “the progressive agenda” (though avoidance of the word “progressive” might be crucial to the success of this project), we can increase the value of the (possibly renamed) brand, attracting more people to it, including some who never imagined that they might be attracted to it.

History is replete with examples of the persuasive power of those who “walk the walk.” Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two examples of “progressives” in their day, fighting to advance particular causes (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively), whose examples were so compelling that few today would denounce what either of them stood for. They were “political entrepreneurs,” mobilizing “charismatic authority” in service to humanity. We can’t all be such giants, and we aren’t all willing to make the sacrifices it requires, but we can all make more modest sacrifices and rise to more modest heights, demonstrating the sincerity of our convictions and, by doing so, making the power of our message that much more irresistible.

There are already many who invest a great deal of time, energy, money, and personal commitment into advancing the progressive agenda. If some significant fraction can be persuaded to invest some increased portion of that time, energy, money, and personal commitment into increased, non-partisan community involvement, they will contribute greatly to increasing the association of the policies they advocate with the spirit of goodwill in service to mutual benefit. And by being direct agents of reason and goodwill in their communities, the public policies such activists favor are given a human face; rather than being easily conceptualized as the impositions of a remote overlord, such policies can be plainly seen to be the sincere preference of some good neighbors and community members who believe that the spirit of community can be expressed not just directly, but also through our government acting as an agent of our collective will.

I describe this component at greater length in several posts on my blog, Colorado Confluence. The post with the most concise and focused treatment is “The Power of ‘Walking the Walk'”:

This community-strengthening component isn’t only a laudable end in itself, but it also serves the second component I mentioned: Messaging. The cause of Reason and Goodwill is a powerful one, one which few would explicitly claim opposition to. The most pronounced failure of those who are its political advocates is the failure to connect the political expression of Reason and Goodwill to the widespread individual aspirations to be reasonable people of goodwill. One aspect of addressing that failure involves modeling what it means to be reasonable people of goodwill, and cultivating the commitment to it that might eventually translate into increased popular support for public policies that are expressions of reason and goodwill.

More generally, the messaging has to rely less on academic or legalistic argumentation, and more on resonating with the frames and narratives that form people’s minds. We need to reach people where they live, finding their own empathetic frames and narratives, and connecting the set of well-reasoned public policies which are empathy-based to those frames and narratives. Therefore, the second component of the project I am proposing is the continuing and focused development of a cognitively sophisticated system of disseminating not just “progressive” ideas, but doing so in ways which resonate with non-progressive mindsets.

This project, therefore, involves not only increasing popular positive associations with progressive policies by modeling a progressive spirit of mutual goodwill, and forming increased positive social connections with people who do not self-identify as “progressives,” but also involves communicating that same message in ways that are precisely tailored to most effectively resonate with those who are currently perhaps only marginally inclined to be attracted by it. The community involvement becomes the most important conduit for the message, communicated with increased credibility, and couched in increasingly effective ways.

Finally, the first component of this project involves reducing the arbitrariness and exclusiveness of what is assumed to be those policies which advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill. Rather than a traditional policy think tank with an ideological bias, this component of the project would have to strive to map out the entire range of public policy ideas and options, guided only by a commitment to reason in service to the public interest, acknowledging legitimate debates and ranges of uncertainty (such as, for example, between Keynesian and Chicago School Economics, and the associated policies of economic stimulus through public spending v. “fiscal conservativism”).

I envision this component as a very ambitious social institutional analogue to “the human genome project,” in which the social institutional landscape is mapped out using available analytical tools (e.g., microeconomic analysis, network analysis, legal analysis, meme theory, etc.), comprising a coherent complex dynamical systems paradigm, and then, within this context, all competing ideologies, policy ideas, proposals, and analyses are cataloged and evaluated, controlling as much as possible for ideological bias, simply subjecting the universe of human social and political thought to the crucible of methodologically rigorous reason.

Two important dimensions of this project need to be highlighted: 1) These three components are not mutually segregated, but are rather integral aspects of a single coherent effort, reinforcing one another, and creating a powerful synergy of progressive thought, communication, and action; and 2) An enormous amount of work has been done in all three areas, under a variety of organizational umbrellas; utilization and integration of the product of those efforts, and of the existing social institutional material that has been generated from all quarters, is a large part of what this project would be about. The community involvement component would actively seek out partnerships with churches and other religious organizations, civic organizations, PTAs, park districts, non-profits, local businesses, and all others who have already developed a community infrastructure to work with and through.

We would, through this synthesis of focused analysis, focused communication, and focused action, weave the spirit of reason and goodwill into the social fabric as it currently exists, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of that social fabric in ways more conducive to the cause of Reason and Goodwill.

I believe that this project would have to avoid direct political advocacy of any kind (a function already addressed by other organizations) in order to preserve its legitimacy, and to reduce the obstacles that explicit partisanship creates. Its purpose would be to explore the social institutional landscape with as little bias as possible (but with an explicit commitment to advancing the public interest through the advocacy of reason in service to mutual goodwill), and through a combination of direct involvement in our communities and well-designed (cognitively targeted) messaging, disseminating that understanding as widely and deeply as possible. This would “soften the ground” for traditional political advocacy, and would also increase the quality of what we are advocating for (by decreasing ideological presumption and increasing openness to all ideas).

I am currently looking for any and all feedback, assistance, direction, and referrals to others who might offer the same. I can envision this as either being a directly funded project that I oversee (or merely participate in), or as a project that finds a home in an existing organizational context. I am completely amenable to these, and any other, possible paths of implementation. Please email me at