Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

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.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

It’s not news that political advertising is deceptive (, that our treatment of electoral politics as a spectator sport trivializes it, and that our oversimplistic reduction of the challenges we face to platitudes and slogans creates a noisy obstacle to governing ourselves intelligently and effectively. The blogosphere does not help, amplifying the noise rather than cutting through it (One Colorado Pols blogger, in a moment of unintentional irony, wrote that my choice to focus on understanding and discussing issues, including spending lots of time talking with people in my district, rather than raising money and playing the political marketing game, made a mockery of the political process). Grass roots movements are choked with the crabgrass of superficiality.

The most fundamental issues we face are not taxes, services, or even campaign finance reform. They’re not health care or civil liberties or any of the other substantive issues that occupy our attention and directly affect our lives. The most fundamental issues are, as always, procedural, on how most effectively to solve substantive issues and resolve political disputes. The most fundamental issue is: How do we refine our political process to better liberate rather than distract our collective genius, to apply our thoughts and actions to the challenge of improving the quality of our lives rather than to the challenge of winning the cock fights of dueling false certainties?

I understand the temptation to focus exclusively on accomplishing small gains through traditional means, rather than acknowledging the need to tackle the fundamental, long-term political challenges we face. It’s as though we’re trapped in a pit, fighting over the scraps within it rather than working together to climb out. It may not be possible to turn our backs on the brawl constantly underway in this pit of politics in which we’re trapped, but we have to find ways to free ourselves enough of its immediate demands that we can attend at least marginally to the ultimate goal: Getting out of the pit. And that means refining the political process, hopefully enough to constitute a complete paradigm shift (see The Politics of Consciousness).

I’ve written that, to confront this fundamental political issue, there are three “virtues” we must emphasize: Reason, goodwill, and humility (or perhaps “skepticism”, the reluctance to assume that anything is true until it is well demonstrated) (The Foundational Progressive Agenda ). I am not arguing that we can just ignore the implications of being trapped in the pit of politics-as-usual, and dedicate ourselves exclusively to promoting these three virtues. As Henry Kissinger once said in a different context, that would only succeed in ceding the world to the most ruthless. But neither should we be satisfied with winning brawls in the pit, never attending to the more fundamental challenge of getting out of it altogether.

The irony and frustration of the human condition is that we’re capable of doing so much better. If we were able to address ourselves, as a society, as a world, to the collective enterprise of creating an ever more robust, sustainable, and fair global civilization, we’d be able to create a far less brutal, and far more accommodating, context for our lives. While it’s true that stating this does not move us toward it, and that the challenge of getting people on board, agreeing to work together to address ourselves to these most fundamental of substantive challenges, is as daunting as any we face, it’s also true that progress can be made on this front. And it behooves us to do so.

We need a new social movement, one that is not about the scraps in the pit, but about getting out of the pit altogether. We need a movement that suspends discussion (in the context of that movement) of all of the particular substantive policies and issues we are brawling over, and addresses instead the challenge of getting us more focused on working together as teammates in a collective endeavor, facing shared challenges and opportunities.

This is not something that candidates and office holders can, or perhaps even should, attend to. This is not something that the political parties can, or perhaps even should, attend to. But it is something that we, as a people, have to attend to. We have squandered the wealth of our genius far too egregiously for far too long.

Human history is about cumulative and threshold advances in how well we tap and utilize our genius. One of the best examples of a threshold improvement is the development of the scientific method, which vastly increased the signal-to-noise ratio in the information we generated through our observations of and inferences about the world around us. Making such advances is neither beyond our grasp, nor accomplished independently of the individual and organized efforts of living human beings to accomplish them.

The similarities between politics and science are not trivial. Both involve competing views, passionately held. Both involve bitter rivalries, brutal battles, and eventual outcomes that favor some ideas over others. Both involve resolutions that affect our lives. The main difference is that, in science, we have tamed this process to a far greater extent than we have tamed it in politics. And the benefits of having done so are astronomical.

The advance represented by the scientific revolution is a procedural one, not a substantive one. It is the creation of a more robust and less arbitrary methodology, reducing the casual and drawn-out processes of trial and error to a focused process of systematic investigation. If we can implement such a wondrous step in how we understand the nature of the world and universe around and within us, then we can certainly at least contemplate the possibility of implementing a similarly wondrous step in how we coordinate and frame our shared existence.

In fact, Science is a special cut-out from the universe of politics. Fighting over what is and is not true is a fundamentally political enterprise (see The Politics of Consciousness). Issues that we now recognize to fall clearly under the umbrella of science were once clearly merely political, with equallly rancorous conflicts of power and organization over which vision of the world would prevail. Eventually, to a large if forever incomplete degree, the preeminence of the scientific method to determine what is true and what isn’t, to frame those brawls within an agreed-upon procedure that maximized the influence of reason upon the outcome, to determine what causes result in what effects, has become widely accepted. The challenge now is to continue to subject all political disputes on matters that can be to scientific methodology (we already do, but relegated to the margins of political discourse), and, more dauntingly, to cultivate an agreement that we will privilege those conclusions over others more haphazardly arrived at.

We need a social movement that advances the notion that investing ourselves in the science of self-governance is good for humanity, that creating a context in which it is not just those who shout the loudest, but those who have best applied reason to the most reliable evidence, that prevail. We need to keep fighting to be a more enlightened society. That is the most fundamental political battle of all.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!