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An alternative representation, to emphasize the “flor”

The Flor de Luz, the Flower of Light, is both a symbol and, potentially, a tool. It is the symbol of Transcendental Politics (and logo of The Transcendental Politics Foundation) found in the middle of this Venn diagram, and the diagram itself. The name is, in part, a play on words of the French “Fleur de Lis” (a stylized lily), recognizing the incidental similarity of the original logo to a luminescent lily. It is also in part a reference to the concentric flower patterns formed by the overlapping circles of the Venn Diagram, with five small petals surrounding the logo, five larger ones surrounding those. and five larger ones still surrounding those (see the alternative representation). Most importantly, it is a reference to what both the logo and the Venn Diagram represent: Transcendental Politics, the flowering (“flor”) of a new Enlightenment (“luz”).

The Flor de Luz is, in one sense, a simple graphic with a simple purpose. It represents how Transcendental Politics resides at the confluence of our various overarching social institutions, how it aspires to be a distillation and synthesis of what is best in each of them, what has thus far worked well for humanity, leaving out what is least useful in each of them, what has thus far not served humanity well, an ongoing social movement that recognizes and respects the cumulative product of human history and humbly but proactively builds on it, weeding and pruning and watering portions of our social institutional landscape with new layers of conscious cultivation, continuing the human enterprise of transforming the wilderness of what time and numbers have produced into a garden of intentionality that better serves human welfare.

But the Flor de Luz is, in another sense, potentially (in a dynamical form discussed below) something more subtle and complex, a conceptual tool to assist in the identification stage of that ongoing endeavor of social institutional distillation and synthesis, a tool that is only partially and statically represented by the Venn Diagram above. Let’s explore, step-by-step, how it might be transformed into a dynamical tool.

First, consider possible variations of the Venn Diagram above. A different arrangement, or sequence, of the same five circles could be chosen, different pairs overlapping in the outermost petals (e.g., placing politics and activism next to each other, and religion and science next to each other, producing in their overlaps “campaigning” and “pursuit of universal paradigms,” respectively); or different overarching institutions altogether could be chosen (e.g., economics, family, technology, energy, environment, fine arts, etc.), creating a proliferation of possible combinations and sequences. (For instance, one product of the overlap of activism and economics might be “entrepreneurialism,” and of entrepreneurialism and technology “innovation,” leading to one of the already identified smaller petals by a different route.) Different aspects of what their convergences create can be highlighted, illustrating, in a sense, how “all roads lead to Transcendental Politics,” to the commitment to foster a more rational, imaginative, empathetic, humble and humane world.

We can create a completely different kind of Flor de Luz comprised of cognitive and emotional modalities instead of social institutions, with, for instance, reason, imagination, empathy, humility, and humanity (the five core values of Transcendental Politics) as the five overlapping circles, producing social institutions and types of behaviors and endeavors. We can even include such emotions and modalities as anger, fear, and tribalism, things we usually identify as that which we are striving to transcend, to acknowledge that they too have evolved for reasons, and that they may well have something to contribute to our garden of intentionality. Or we can combine cognitive and emotional modalities with social institutions from the outset, testing our minds to identify, for instance, what good can be harvested from the distillation and synthesis of anger, reason, and activism, or of imagination, fear, hope, and science, or of the convergence of those two sets. The possibilities are nearly limitless.

The purpose of presenting ourselves with these nearly limitless combinations is to guide our minds in an exploration of what is, in pursuit of what can be, by facilitating consideration of how we can work to leverage what is into something more beneficial. This can occur both in the abstract, imagining possibilities without worrying about how to attain them, and in the particular, identifying viable pathways to implementation and devising first steps that can be taken now in service to that end. It is, if nothing else, a tool for taking our minds out of the tumultuous onslaught of the perpetual urgency of now, and providing them with a space defined by a more synoptic view, in which we are guided not only in “thinking outside the box,” but in redefining “the box” as something far more expansive.

(I should insert here a response to the criticism, that I imagine has arisen in the minds of at least some readers by now, of “what does this have to do with anything? How does combining names of social institutions and cognitive and emotional modalities accomplish anything?” The answer is that it displaces our tendency to think in fixed ways determined by ideological narratives and ingrained habits of thought with a set of semi-random but also subtly systemic prompts to think in new ways. That can be remarkably useful, and it is integral to the meaning of “Transcendental Politics,” which is about institutionalizing the ongoing effort to transcend our ideological tribalisms and false certainties.)

Let me guide you through a consideration of how this design (five overlapping disks representing distinct social institutional, cognitive, and emotional modalities) can be utilized in the manner described above.

Imagine a narrated animation in which, first, the diagram is explained as representative of how Transcendental Politics is that which resides where our social institutional modalities overlap, each mitigating the others’ defects and reinforcing the others’ strengths, a sort of distillation of the best of what we’ve produced over the millennia, the product of the spinning lathe of trial and error. Then, the outer sections labeled “science, politics, education, activism, religion” are removed and the largest flower pattern is revealed, the narration stating that even though the various institutional modalities themselves are not precisely what Transcendental Politics is (because they exist independently), those aspects of their synthesis that are relevant to serving our shared humanity most effectively are distilled into the Flor de Luz. Then the next layer of petals is removed, and the next, and the narration continues, focusing on the distillation down to those essential ingredients that define Transcendental Politics, bringing the narration to a focus on precisely what Transcendental Politics IS, that quintessence at the center of this convergence of social and cultural evolution.

The animation can then grow back outward, with new petals labeled with new virtues distilled from other arrangements, both in sequence and in selection, of overarching institutions and modalities until a new completed Flor de Luz is constructed, the narration describing along the way how the petals of the concentric flowers, which in the other direction were derived from the larger overlapping petals, in this direction are emergent from the smaller ones (and ultimately from the center, from Transcendental Politics), illustrating how it inherits the cultural material of the past and helps create the cultural material of the future. The animation can then proceed to to a sliding around of the overarching circles, with the petals formed by their new overlaps changing accordingly, and then to a changing of the overarching institutions and modalities themselves, exploring some of the many different permutations of the Flor de Luz.

Now imagine a physical artifact, with five overlapping translucent plastic or glass colored circles in the form of the Flor de Luz, each rotatable around its center and able to switch positions by pivoting around the center circle containing the TPF logo and snapping into a new position. Each disk would contain perhaps three related social institutions or cognitive or emotional modalities that can be rotated into place, creating the possibility for 15 different arrangements without moving the relative positions of the disks, and some multiple of that by moving the relative positions of the disks. A complete set of disks can include far more than five, with the ability to switch out individual disks for others, removing all limits on how many arrangements can be explored. Of course doing so only suggests the combinations; the work of thinking about what that implies, what productive uses those combinations have, remains. But that work, too, can be cataloged and accumulated, in a kind of ongoing “social institutional genome project.”

(We can even create disks whose overarching categories are the finer ones produced by the confluence of other disks, and take their confluence into deeper, finer, and subtler levels.)

In an online version, that cumulative work can result in different combinations leading to different implied products of those combinations appearing in the various petals of the flower (much as they do in the graphic above). The physical artifact might accomplish the same through symbols visible in each petal in each rotational position of the disk, depending on which overarching principle is in effect, forming a sequence with the others, and then using a reference manual to interpret different sequences of symbols, the reference manual itself being a cumulative compendium of previous thought about the various possible combinations. Thus, this device could be used to explore different configurations of overlapping social institutional, cognitive, and emotional modalities, as a useful analytical and practical tool for thinking about how we can create different kinds of collaborative projects using those modalities in service to working our way toward the convergence in the center (Transcendental Politics).

(I can imagine turning it into a game as well, one that exercises the mind in certain ways that are aligned to what we are trying to cultivate, in which in each player’s turn they are challenged to take the set of social institutions and cognitive modalities they get from their “spin” of a Flor de Luz designed for that purpose and either create something from it following a set of rules and in pursuit of a defined goal, or build on what previous players have created. This is, obviously, not a fully fleshed out idea yet; just a glimpse of another possible use.)

What the Flor de Luz thus represents is that we have inherited an enormous quantity of social institutional, technological, cultural, cognitive, and emotional material, that is blended and can continue to be blended in complex ways, and that forms an evolving shared cognitive landscape of enormous complexity, subtlety, and power. It represents that we are not merely passive recipients of this material, but rather active participants in its ongoing formation, in how we combine and distill it, in what we derive from it, in how we employ it, in short, in what kind of world we choose to create together.

The Flor de Luz provides us with a relatively simple but elegant tool for thinking about this, for focusing our thoughts in productive ways. It reminds us of the possibilities, of how religious material and scientific material can combine beneficially, of the need to draw on reason and imagination and empathy all at once and not to pretend that anger and tribalism can (or should) just be wished away, of where our shared stories come from and what purposes they can serve. It reminds us of the fractal geometry of the anthrosphere, of how social institutional and cognitive and emotional materials are tributaries to larger streams; it helps us to reconstruct those tributaries and streams and rivers of possibilities in endless combinations. It is not a necessary tool; we can engage in the same contemplations without it. But it assists us in doing so more comprehensively and more precisely. Think of it as a social institutional kaleidoscope, with mechanisms for considering every set of combinations of every set of cognitive, emotional, and social institutional materials, and thinking about what those combinations imply, what challenges and possibilities they pose, what opportunities they present.

While potentially useful, it is certainly not a sufficient tool in and of itself; in the forthcoming book, “Transcendental Politics: A New Enlightenment,” I go into considerable detail exploring some small portion of the corpus of analytical and practical tools that are relevant to our endeavor. The need to continue to gather, produce, and synthesize them is perpetual. But the Flor de Luz is a reminder that at the core of all of that intellectual and material and practitioner expertise are the lessons of our ongoing history, the convergence of a history of past experiments, and the cumulative products of human genius forming the foundation of present and future innovations. It is up to us to design those innovations to most effectively serve the ever fuller realization of our consciousness and of our shared humanity.

Our various personalities and affinities are reflected in which petals of which variations of the Flor de Luz resonate most with our own predispositions, talents, and desires; it becomes a way of locating ourselves in this shared endeavor of ours, of thinking about who our social institutional neighbors and natural partners are, of who we can reach out to to create new synergies in service to our shared humanity, to the greatest realization of our consciousness and our well-being, individually and collectively. It recognizes both diversity and coherence, facilitates both, draws upon both. The Flor de Luz is a way of thinking about our various roles in this shared story we are living and writing together, and how we can each individually and in cooperation with others, consciously and conscientiously, ensure that we are writing it and living it well.

To learn more about Transcendental Politics and The Transcendental Politics Foundation, visit our Facebook group, our Facebook page, or our website (still under construction).

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For those who are ready for the debate on how to become a kinder, gentler, and less tragic nation (including but not limited to a discussion of the role of our current paradigm regarding firearms), please visit the robust discussion taking place on the Colorado Confluence Facebook page under the post of the gun wrapped in an American flag. http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence

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Social institutional innovation, like technological innovation, has an evolutionary quality to it: New instruments fumblingly addressing new challenges or opportunities sometimes grow up into highly elaborate systems that take on a life of their own. Market economies in general are an archetypical example of this phenomenon: From places where people came together to exchange their wares, markets have evolved into highly complex and robust networks of global transactions, implicated in a velocity of wealth production and transmission that would have boggled the minds of ancient merchants. Therefore, as we stand on the threshold of inventing new kinds of market instruments which trade in artifacts of administrative regulation, even those of us anchored to the dusty tomes of law and economics might benefit from stretching our imaginations a bit, and contemplating what may lie beyond the horizon.

For the purposes of this fanciful conversation, let’s refer to all present and future market instruments that trade in artifacts of political regulation or aspiration as Political Market Instruments (PMIs). The question posed in this essay, therefore, is: If the challenges involved in current tradable regulatory instruments are increasingly surmounted, and the range of PMIs is extended into other realms, such that the trading of such instruments becomes commonplace, what might such markets evolve into?

In order to explore this question, we need to consider what kinds of goods or services PMIs would commodify. Current and recent uses, including global warming abatement, renewable energy credits, and pollution reduction, are examples of a broader category of challenges called “collective action problems,” which have been discussed extensively, in various forms, in the economic, social scientific, and even mathematical literature (see . Global warming, for instance, invokes the need to create viable international accords through which a preferable global energy and GHG emissions regime can be developed, implemented, and enforced. The challenge emanates from the fact that nations individually bear the costs of contributing to such a regime, but collectively reap the benefits. Simplifying the matter somewhat for this initial discussion, all have an incentive to arrive at an optimal agreement and see it enforced, though all also have an incentive for not complying with the agreement to the extent that they can get away with non-compliance.

Here’s a simple thought experiment which illustrates the nature of collective action problems well enough for the average high school social studies student to understand. Imagine that I make the following offer to a group of thirty people, of which you are a member: For each of you that chooses to pay me $10, I will give each and every person in the group (including you) $1, regardless of whether those other members of the group chose to pay the $10 or not. To avoid discussing any complexities at this point, let’s say that the decision is made in secret, no member of the group ever knows what any other individual member chose to do, and all members agree that their only goal in this exercise is to maximize their own individual wealth. If each individual acts in his or her own rational self-interest, since accepting the offer costs him or her $9, no one would choose to do so. However, if everyone does accept it, each person is made $20 richer. No matter how many people accept or reject the offer, those who chose not to take it will always be better off than those who chose to take it. In other words, rationally doing what best maximizes one’s own individual wealth (in this scenario) leads to an outcome in which everyone does worse than they would have done had they been able to enforce a cooperative agreement.

Real world collective action problems are generally much more complex, in which, just as in market exchanges, there are a variety of comparative advantages (differing concessions or contributions which each is best positioned to make, such as Brazilians being better positioned to offer deforestation reduction, and Americans better positioned to offer industrial CO2 emissions reductions). And they occur on multiple overlapping and nested levels and regarding multiple issues, with myriad collective action problems coexisting intranationally, internationally (among nations as the actors), and transnationally (across national boundaries by non-state actors).

Social institutions arise primarily in response to such collective action problems (and, relatedly, in response to time horizon problems resulting from the devaluation of future consequences leading to insufficient foresight in decision-making processes), and utilize four distinct modalities in order to align individual to collective (and immediate to long-term) interests: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are systems of legitimate authority relying on formally codified and enforced rules. Markets are decentralized systems of multilateral exchange, usually facilitated by some form of currency. Norms are informal rules mutually enforced through decentralized social approval and disapproval. 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). Individual social institutions generally are comprised of some or all of these modalities, usually in combination, developing interdependently both within and across individual social institutions.

PMIs are essentially a hybrid institutional mechanism, comprised primarily of the hierarchical element necessary to regulatory regimes, and the market element which facilitates an efficient allocation of resources and burdens. Governments or international commissions imbue PMIs with their value by creating scarcity (in the case of compliance allowances) or subsidized demand (in the case of off-sets or RECs). The benefit of creating an accounting and exchange mechanism for political concessions and accommodations is the same as creating one for the exchange of goods and services: Like money, it frees actors involved in an exchange from what Edgeworth called “a double coincidence of wants,” that is, the necessity of two actors each having something the other wants more than they want what they themselves have. And, like money, it permits multilateral, geographically and temporally decentralized exchanges among a potentially unlimited number of actors, facilitating the achievement of collectively beneficial arrangements with greatly reduced transaction costs. PMIs are a mechanism for duplicating this innovation in the context of political rather than economic exchange.

Differences among nations, among their individual conditions and priorities, provide opportunities to make political exchanges which help both to facilitate such agreements, and to distribute responsibilities and benefits in accord with each nation’s particular circumstances. The expanded PMI model I am contemplating explores both the potential and the limitations of exchanging political concessions among multiple parties to arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes.

The simplest illustration of the PMI model involves three parties negotiating over three issues. Country A wants a concession from Country C, but has nothing to offer Country C in return. Country B wants a concession from Country A, but has nothing to offer Country A in return. And Country C wants a concession from Country B, but has nothing to offer Country B in return. No bilateral agreement can be arrived at among any combination of these three nations. But if it is worth it to A to make the concession to B in return for the concession from C, to B to make the concession to C in return for the concession from A, and to C to make the concession to A in return for the concession from B, then the three of them can negotiate a tri-lateral exchange that satisfies all of their needs. (In this case, the transaction costs are manageable, and PMIs are not required.)

Similarly, it may be possible at times for numerous nations to arrive at an agreement through such “circular exchange,” under circumstances in which no subset of that group could have arrived at any mutually beneficial agreement. At its most complex (and traditionally most difficult to accomplish, as discussed below), a PMI model aspires to facilitate a tangled web of multilateral exchanges of concessions of varying magnitude implicating numerous unrelated issues, such that the removal of any party to the negotiation or any concession being made would unravel the entire agreement. This frees the parties from the necessity of having bilaterally reciprocal interests, and permits the kind of decentralized, multilateral pattern of exchange typified by markets.

The basic premise of the PMI model is that the more parties and issues that can be conflated in a single negotiation, the more optimal the agreements that can be arrived at through a multilateral exchange of concessions on those issues among those parties. The logical conclusion would be that, therefore, conflating all issues and all parties into a single negotiation leads to the most optimal agreement possible. The limiting factor has been that the larger the number of negotiating parties and issues on the table, the higher the transaction costs of coming to a multilateral, multi-issue agreement. The PMI model, therefore, is currently useful to the extent that it can reduce transaction costs enough that the benefits accrued from the arrangement arrived at exceed the transaction costs spent to arrive at it, and to the extent that there is no other non-PMI-facilitated deal that any subset of the parties could have arrived at which would have given them a better benefit-to-transaction-cost ratio.

This is still an onerous obstacle. However, just as various innovations developed historically to reduce the transaction costs involved in economic exchange (money being the most critical one), the PMI model is not immune to future innovations which might reduce the transaction costs involved, and thus increase the range of its applicability. Such innovation begins with a precise analysis of the anatomy of the transaction costs imposed by political (or contractual) negotiations. The least intractable transaction costs involved in multilateral negotiations are coordination costs: Getting the parties to the table, so to speak. Coordination costs are most salient early in such negotiations, and have been greatly reduced, in international relations, by the proliferation of international institutions and treaties.

Bargaining costs, which involve determining the exact nature of the agreement and the precise division of costs and benefits, are somewhat more significant. Bargaining costs are incurred during the actual negotiation process, when the parties involved try to exchange their way to a multilateral agreement that is satisfactory to each and every one of them. At this stage, the negotiations most closely resemble a traditional bartering market, with all parties both sellers and buyers bartering around a single stall.

Finally, and sometimes most intractably, multi-party agreements are beset by defection (or enforcement) costs. Defection costs are those costs incurred by monitoring and enforcing the agreements arrived at during the negotiations. Improving the salience of the multi-party negotiations, and extending its range of applicability, necessarily involves finding ways to reduce all of the aforementioned transaction costs implicated by it.

The potential benefits of pursuing a PMI approach are myriad. As more activities or concessions are brought into a single market, coordination and bargaining costs are almost eliminated, and even enforcement costs are greatly reduced by creating a much larger shared investment in the integrity of the system. To the extent that successful multilateral political exchange agreements are implemented through it, it increases international interdependence, produces oversight commissions with enough authority to ensure the value of the PMIs, and thus provides an incremental back door into some limited though significant degree of global federalism. To the extent that political market solutions can be implemented, they have strong reverberating effects throughout our integrated social institutional and technological subsystems, creating new markets and new entrepreneurial opportunities, and increasing the ideological and normative association of the development and distribution of sustainable energy technologies with political and economic opportunity in general.

In fact, the development of commissions with the authority to ensure the value of PMIs is both a major benefit and a major challenge. Contractual arrangements within jurisdictions are made possible by a legal structure under which they can be enforced. International agreements are made difficult by the paucity of such enforcement mechanisms on the global level. But international commerce, more than perhaps any other historical force, has integrated sovereign nations into a single interdependent global system. Commodifying political exchange requires more oversight than commercial exchange, but also provides more incentives to create it than traditional international negotiations do, by creating more, and more distributed, opportunities to profit from international political exchange.

Despite the potential for PMIs to improve international and transnational cooperation, they would face all of the challenges already encountered by existing regulatory instruments, and to a far greater extent. The determination of the relative value of seemingly unrelated political concessions would be difficult, but fully established markets are particularly good at accomplishing that (their respective market values would determine their exchange rates). Ensuring the integrity of the instruments (preventing leakage, ensuring additionality, etc.) would grow in magnitude of difficulty as the markets become more multifaceted and extensive (though that could also reduce the problem in the long run by bringing more measurements of more changes in more places into the system). The transaction costs involved in every incremental step in establishing such a market will be enormous.

One benefit of such a comprehensive system is that the universal scope and coverage essentially eliminates the problem of leakage, since there is nowhere for any abated public bad to leak to. Just as the concern about leakage has pushed focus on off-set markets from individual projects to sectoral and nation- or province-wide abatements, it would be one force pushing the expansion of PMI markets in general.

Another obstacle for PMIs, already contemplated in regards to existing instruments, is the perverse incentives they can create. If, for instance, we incorporate deforestation avoidance into international carbon markets, then their value is a creature of past deforestation. When a market values the cessation or reduction of the rate of a destructive activity, it implicitly retroactively values having initially increased the rate of that activity in order to necessitate its reduction. In the context of enduring markets for the abatement of past destructive activity, such perverse incentives pose a serious challenge that must be decisively addressed. Many things we might want to incorporate into future and more comprehensive PMI markets -such as improvement in human rights, military de-escalation, and reduced trade barriers, to name a few- would all have current positive value as the result of the negative value of past or continuing actions and policies. Designing mechanisms to prevent the incentive to create problems in order to trade in their correction would be a fundamental challenge for establishing authentic value-generating PMI markets.

It’s worth noting that in our current international political bartering system, this problem already exists. In the lead-up to international treaty negotiations, countries frequently amp up certain misbehaviors in order to have more to trade with. The increased robustness of PMI markets would only increase the robustness of the problem. And, presumably, at the time of establishment of any new abatement PMI, the baseline set for reduction targets would precede any amping up that may have occurred in anticipation of the creation of such markets.

Stretching our imaginations to the utmost, PMIs could trade in a vast array of political goods. As stated above, there are many public bads that we all have a shared interest in abating: human rights violations, military build-ups, trade barriers, and domestic criminal activities with international consequences (e.g., drug cartels), to name a few. And there are many public goods or broadly shared aspirations that there is either already a shared interest in encouraging, or a potential for some degree of international consensus: improved worker conditions and salaries; more political, economic, and cultural freedom; more open borders; and stronger guarantees of protection for foreign nationals abroad, to name a few. In each case, measures would have to be created (such as a “human rights abuse index”); a target would have to be set for abatement markets (either by reference to a baseline, or by some other aspirational standard) and a system for ensuring the integrity of instruments measuring incremental gains in public goods would have to be established; and monitoring, reporting, and verification systems would have to be in place. As such markets proliferate, the ability to identify and implement new areas amenable to new PMIs would continue to emerge.

Though the notion of trading in human rights abuse abatement, or organized criminal activity abatement, may seem odd, and could certainly raise some moral hackles, it is essentially the same idea as trading in GHG emissions abatement: creating markets for the diminution of some undesirable activity. Given the fact that the obstacles are daunting enough for GHG emissions abatement markets, and that the problems facing them grow exponentially as the scope and coverage is expanded to more issues and parties, the path from the present to this possible future would be a long and tortuous one, with many seemingly insurmountable challenges and as-yet-unforeseen technical innovations defining the way. Whether such a future will ever come to pass is far from certain, but that some future which currently appears equally improbable will come to pass seems almost inevitable (assuming continued human survival).

Such speculation may seem to be an unwarranted flight of fancy from our current vantage point, just as to the ancient Greeks, not unfamiliar with the wonders of the agora, contemplation of the exotic financial instruments being traded today would have appeared equally untethered from reality. The preceding discussion is not intended as a blueprint of how to implement an imminently practicable policy instrument, but rather as an added perspective regarding how to contextualize current innovations in terms of potential long-term historical significance. The question isn’t whether current institutions will evolve to surmount obstacles seemingly insurmountable today, but rather which institutions and in what ways. The lathe of trial and error which will produce those innovations is more productive when we experiment with an eye to future as well as present possibilities. I believe that in a comparison between taxes-and-subsidies and tradable instruments as means for internalizing externalities (specifically carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade regulation), while both should be used, each in circumstances most appropriate for it, a less obvious (and perhaps still very slight) added weight needs to be accorded to tradable instruments, due to their dramatic long-term potential for facilitating mutually beneficial cooperation, particularly in the Hobbesian paradise of international relations.

1See, e.g., John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (Princeton University Press 1944); John Nash, The Bargaining Problem, 18 Econometrica 155 (1950); Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243 (1968); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965)

2See, e.g., Kenneth Boulding, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, in Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy (Henry Jarrett ed., 1966).

3See, e.g., Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243 (1968); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965)

4I utilized this illustration as a high school social studies teacher, using classroom currency points.

5The actual results in my classroom experiment varied considerably, though there were always some students who accepted the deal and some who rejected it.

6See, e.g., Robert Axelrod, An Evolutionary Approach to Norms, 80 American Political Science Review 1095 (1986); and Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press 1990).

7Steve Harvey, Institutionalizing the Production of Supranational Public Goods: The Shifting Locus of Interest Group Lobbying in Europe (August 1994) (unpublished paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association in Los Angeles, CA).

8F.Y. Edgeworth, Mathematical Physics, (Kegan Paul 1881).

9This is precisely what the famous Coase Theorem postulates. See Ronald H. Coase, The Problem of Social Costs, 3 J.L. & Econ. 1 (1960).

10See Douglas D. Heckathorn and Stephen M. Maser, Bargaining and the Source of Transaction Costs: The Case of Government Regulation, 3 J.L. Econ. & Org. 69 (1987).

11See id.

12See id.

13Admittedly, such discussions quickly run into the issue of cultural relativism v. universal human (and non-human) rights, and the related issue of “imperialism” or hegemony v. cultural and political self-determination, but this issue is implicit in all discussions of international law and international standards of conduct.

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As I’ve been developing in numerous posts (see, e.g., Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human TechnologyThe Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix, Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), our social reality is comprised of intermingled, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes competing, cognitions and the emotional content that accompanies them (“memes” and “emes”). In Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II, I emphasized our potential to create new marvels of human existence, new social institutional technologies, new attitudes, a new attitude conducive to ever-growing consciousness.

Many of us have grown wary of such claims, having seen “the Age of Aquarius” dawn and disappear more rapidly than the Broadway musical in which it was sung. People who are grounded, who are realistic, who take stock of history and of economics and of human nature, are often, perhaps generally, swept into an ever deepening cynicism and pessimism as their years roll by. We look at most of those who still believe in the possibility of achieving new heights of consciousness, and see a flakiness, a superficiality, an eagerness to grasp at ethereal fantasies that history has proven so elusive as to be delusional, and we wisely disassociate ourselves from that form of thought and aspiration.

But there are other lessons of history as well, lessons that are written with what appears to be invisible ink, for we are blind to their ubiquity and significance. These lessons make clear the constancy of change, and even how profound it can sometimes be, when looked at in the context of the broad sweep of history.

Let’s start with the most obvious, even if routinely too rapidly dismissed as trivial. When we think of human history, we divide it into epochs according to changing technologies: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age…, and now, The Computer Age. We all recognize that humanity has progressed technologically, and has  passed through a succession of technological thresholds, each ushering in what in many ways is a new age.

We bracket this off from the notion of changes in human consciousness primarily by considering “technology” something distinct from “consciousness,” a lesser cognitive animal, not reaching down deep enough into who and what we are to be considered a form of “consciousness.” Kindness and brutality, reason and irrationality, occupy separate spheres, deeper and more fundamental than the mere mechanisms by which we express them. These mechanisms are ripples on the surface of our shared reality, rather than its defining characteristics.

But how true is this? Technologies are implicated in our consciousness in ways deeper and more essential than we often realize. For one thing, they occupy a broader range than we generally acknowledge: Technologies are not merely programmings of natural (non-human) phenomena to human benefit, but also programmings of human behavioral and social phenomena. Contracts and Constitutions, money and markets and various legal and economic innovations by which they have developed, scientific methodology and legal procedure, our media of communications and information processing and the particular forms that they take, are all technological innovations.

Technologies are also made of the same stuff as the rest of human consciousness, and are inextricably intertwined with the rest of human consciousness. Through scientific methodology, for instance, we have produced instruments both in service to science itself, and in service to other production functions in which we are engaged. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory, to name a few, all owe a debt to the social technologies of scientific methodology and mathematics, and to the physical technologies that have become their tools. We are capable of understanding the subtleties of nature in ways never before imagined, and only very generally glimpsed by the most transcendent of historical philosophers and sages, now with a mathematical precision that occupies spheres few today have had the pleasure of visiting, but many fully realize exist.

But, surely, even these admittedly significant developments in our understanding and manipulation of nature do not penetrate into the realms imagined by those who believe that fundamental transformations of human consciousness are possible and attainable? After all, we use them in service to exploitation and dominance, not harmony and liberation, ever-more voraciously consuming the host body of the Earth upon which we are increasingly robust parasites, and seemingly advancing not at all toward a more compassionate and just state of collective being…. Or is it really that simple?

Never before in industrial society has there been such an extensive and deepening sense that we have to change our paradigms to align our collective existence better with the natural context in which it is found, and with the evolving sense of social justice that has blossomed rather dramatically in the developed world as a whole (America being a notable hold-out in many ways). True, many pre-industrial, tribalistic societies that lived “closer” to nature adhered to ideologies far more cognizant of the need for harmonious coexistence. But this went hand-in-hand with the actual limits on the capacity for exploitation; few such societies did not reach out for the products of more exploitative technologies when they came into view.

Many are more impressed with how inadequate these changes remain, with so few so shallowly committed to such minimal modifications in our existence, still generally driving individually owned fossil-fuel propelled vehicles, living in excessive houses and consuming excessive resources. This is true: We are on the first steps of a long road, one along which our journey will continue to accelerate as urgency continues to impress itself on us. It may be too late; we may destroy our host before we either temper our appetites sufficiently to save it or achieve the technical abilities necessary to abandon it and colonize new ones. (I am not commenting on the desirability or undesirability of the latter prospect, but only recognizing it as one imaginably plausible way for humans to survive indefinitely). But, while we exist, it is probably wise to continue to consider the possibility that we will continue to exist, and to contemplate how to navigate the possible paths into the future.

Some may acknowledge what I’ve written above, that we have undergone transformations in our understanding of and relationship with nature, and that we may even be beginning a process of institutionalizing checks on our own avarice in service to our sustainability, but still contend that none of it reaches into who and what we really are, into our own human nature, and that therefore none of this represents true changes in human consciousness, but merely changes in the clothing that consciousness wears.

In a sense I agree with this, though, on the margins of this discourse, I am going to push the envelope in ways which some will consider too fanciful for any practically grounded conversation. Yes, thus far and into the foreseeable future, it would be correct to say that there is some immutable defining nature to being human, one that we have never transformed, and, according to the most prevalent conventional wisdom, either will never be able to transform, or perhaps should never be tempted to transform.

Some radical thinkers dismiss the notion of “human nature,” rightly reacting adversely to the overly reductionist ways in which it has generally been conceptualized, but wrongly (and absurdly) missing the fact that, given that there is a category of species called “human,” and given that there is no real ambiguity about which creatures are and are not members of that category, it must therefore be the case that there are some defining characteristics which distinguish all members from all non-members and which describe all members without fail. Therefore, the question is not whether there is any such thing as “human nature,” but rather what its precise scope is.

(The notion that it is no more than a set of physical, biological parameters ignores the fact that there is no real divide between our physical/biological aspects and the rest of what we are, and that therefore to fabricate such a distinction is just another departure from reality. One interesting example is that certain facial expressions, such as a smile, are common to all cultures, and mean the same thing in all cultures. More profoundly, language itself is common to all cultures, a fact examined more closely  by Psycholinguist Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct.)

My marginal aside is that we may in fact soon be capable of transforming that fundamental, “immutable” human nature itself, through genetic engineering (I am only identifying the possibility, not commenting on its desirability). This of course raises all sorts of issues, such as how decisions would be made concerning this next level of manipulation of nature, and whether it could ever be wise to try to ride the Pegasus of our technical abilities to such Olympian heights, or whether it would dash us to our collective destruction in disgust at our hubris. That is a discussion I leave for another time.

My marginal aside is telling in a more fundamental way: Part of our nature includes the ability to transcend itself, as we currently know it, in multiple ways, whether for good or for bad, and to do so ever-more dramatically. We even have a deeply embedded meme reflecting this: Our cognitive divorce of “human” from “natural,” as if they are two distinct things, rather than one subset of a larger sphere of phenomena. We fundamentally believe that we have transcended nature, that we are distinct from nature, that we can be in conflict with nature. Personally, I consider this a delusion, even were we to genetically engineer new variations on the entity known as human: It’s all “natural,” because there is no exit from that which is “natural.” It is all-encompassing.

It is not the “unnaturalness” that is key here, but rather the accelerating ability to transform ourselves and our environment. And that may be an integral part of our “nature.” We transform our social institutional and technological landscape, both constantly, in a cumulative, gradual progression, and through thresholds of dramatic metamorphosis. We reduce, for those to whom our social institutions permit access, the ravages of disease, and do so through increasingly sophisticated means. One such emerging technology is particularly illustrative: Stem-cell research. Not only does it hold it great promise, but also meets with great resistance, some feeling that it tampers too much with life (destroying embryonic life) to warrant its service to life (saving mature and fully realized lives).

Embryonic stem-cell research is also telling because it illustrates how comfortable rational people can become with such dramatic manipulations of nature. Most rational people recognize, implicitly, that our prohibition against killing human beings is based on a protection of conscious beings (or beings who have been and will again be conscious), not a mere moral abstraction. A cluster of cells is, to such minds (at least to mine), less deserving of such protection than a fully conscious large non-human mammal that would actually experience terror and pain and lose a life that the being had some cognizance of, because it is consciousness rather than membership in the human in-group, that is worthy of such respect and compassion, the degree of deference being a function of the degree of consciousness rather than the particular category of membership.

But if we can become comfortable with cultivating embryos to treat diseases, can we also become comfortable with (hopefully cautious and restrained) manipulations of our genetic architecture, reducing aggression, increasing cooperation, and, in general, making humans less the haphazard product of the logic of reproductive competition and more the product of our dreams and aspirations as conscious beings? Would it really be so horrible? (The caveat here is not that it would be inherently wrong to do so, but rather that it is too easy to inadvertantly wreak havok on the sensitively balanced natural systems which we are, and of which we are a part, by doing so. Our degree of caution and restraint would have to be commensurate with the heat of the fire we are playing with, which, in practice, is rarely the case.)

Whether through such (legitimately scary) dramatic manipulation of nature’s building blocks, or through more subtle and less intrusive means, humans are clearly capable of, and even defined by, our ability to transform ourselves. We have successfully transferred a great deal of our violence into social institutions that maintain some checks on it, that make it more reflective and less reflexive, even if woefully imperfectly so. We have systems of justice within our nations (some better than others), and systems of diplomacy and rationalized warfare among them (still mostly in a barbarian stage of development, but, though in a historical lull and belied by the brutality of its failures, long developing toward increasing institutionalization and pacification). The glass may seem well more than half empty to those who are rightly aware of how brutal and animalistic we remain, but it clearly contains some significant drops to those who examine the greater attitudinal brutality so ubiquitous throughout human history, and the growing yearning as the centuries pass for something more conducive to human welfare.

It’s true, as one aspect of The Variable Malleability of Reality, that we change our most superficial aspects most frequently and easily (e.g., the technologies we employ, and the arrangements by which we coexist), and, the deeper into our essence you delve, the more beyond our reach our nature becomes. But changes on the surface can and do ripple outward and downward, incidentally affecting our deeper natures by changing the context of our lives, and providing us with ever-more sophisticated tools with which to change ourselves more dramatically, both superficially and ever-more profoundly. We are, in fact, for good or for ill, on the threshold of having come full circle, the echo of natural history (human history) acquiring the capacity to manipulate that biological evolution itself at the genetic level (we have long affected it through agriculture and animal husbandry).

Human consciousness does not, and should not, change with the snap of a finger. Lofty aspirations with short time horizons are quickly dashed, and their adherents justly (if perhaps unkindly) ridiculed. But it does change, and dramatically so. And we are participants in it.

However, it does not always change for the better, particularly in the short run. America, or at least one prominent and consequential current within America, is currently deeply embedded in a period of regression, entrenching its bigotries, rejecting reason and imagination and compassion, embracing extreme individualism and a shallow and brutal political economic ideology. This, too, is real, and has enormous significance to our collective welfare. I will address it in an upcoming essay, “The Mutating Memes (and ‘Emes’) of Organized Ignorance.”

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The title quote, uttered by President Obama to describe the choice we had in the 2010 elections, captures the essence of the on-going struggle between humanity’s inner-angels and inner-demons, a struggle which produces the realization of both our dreams and our nightmares, depending on which prevails in any given moment of history.

The refrain “we want our country back” is the refrain of those who fear progress, who cling to a mythologically sanitized past rather than forge a path into the inevitable future. It attracts, along with those who are making some vaguer, narrower reference, those who want to take the country back from, among others, women, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christians, and Gays, groups which have succeeded in diminishing the opportunity gap between themselves and the white, male, Christian minority that has historically maintained that gap to their own advantage and in accord with their own bigotries. And while we have progressed in diminishing the gap, the legacy of history remains with us today, and demands our forward-looking rather than backward-looking attention.

Those who have the courage to hope, to aspire to do better, don’t ever want their country “back.” We always want it “forward.” Our history has been the story of a people moving forward, conceived in a Declaration of Independence which continued and contributed to a transformation of the world already underway, accelerating our reach for future possibilities, and our removal of the shackles of past institutional deficiencies. It was a nation of Progressives, of people who knew that you don’t just accept the institutions handed down, but always seek to refine and improve them. It was a nation that drafted a document by which to govern itself, one which proved insufficient (The Articles of Confederation, drafted and adopted in 1777, though not actually ratified until 1781), and then got its representatives together to try again, ten years later, and get it right (producing the U.S. Constitution, which was a document drafted to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government).

The drafting and ratification of our brilliant Constitution marked a beginning, not an end, a point of departure through which to express and fully realize our collective genius, not an impediment to the use of our reason and will to address the challenges yet to come. It was drafted by people wise enough and humble enough not to imbue it with the quasi-religious hold it (or an insulting caricature of it) now has over some contracted imaginations. It was meant to be a source of guidance rather than a source of idolatry. It provided the nation with a robust legal framework through which to address future challenges, some of which were already visible at the time, and some of which were not, but which the framers knew would ceaselessly present themselves (and which many thought would promptly make the Constitution itself obsolete. The fact that that hasn’t come to pass is a tribute to our ability to make from the document they created in a given historical context one which adapts itself to changing historical circumstances).

Ahead of the country remained the abolition of slavery, the protection of individual civil rights from state as well as federal power, a far-too-late end to the slaughter and displacement of the indigenous population (too late because they had already been nearly exterminated, and removed to tiny, infertile plots of land), the institution of free universal public education, the extension of suffrage to unpropertied males and women, the passage of anti-trust laws to preserve a competitive market, the establishment and necessary growth of an administrative infrastructure which immediately preceded and facilitated the most robust acceleration of economic growth in the history of the world, the desegregation of our schools, the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beginnings of absolutely crucial efforts to address the long-term detrimental health and economic consequences of environmental contamination.

There never was a moment in the course of this story when there weren’t challenges yet to be identified and addressed, many of which could only be successfully addressed by means of government, and, often, only by means of the federal government (e.g., the abolition of slavery, which ended up requiring the federal government to prosecute a civil war; the enforcement of Civil Rights protections; and environmental protections covering interstate pollutants). Our Founding Fathers understood that. Thomas Jefferson himself said that every generation needed to refine its institutions to adapt to changing circumstances and meet the challenges of their own day. Such people never wanted their country “back.” They always wanted it “forward.” And they dreamed of establishing a country that would renew rather than renounce that commitment with every new generation.

Though there are many today who don’t get this, most don’t get it by means of blurry vision and historical inconsistency, rather than a retroactive commitment to what they claim currently to be an immutable truth. It is a tiny minority today, utterly detached from reality, who want to completely abolish Social Security or Medicare, though there are many who vehemently opposed health care reform and improved financial sector regulation. The difference between those past acts of our federal government that we have come to take for granted and whose value we almost universally recognize, and those present acts of our federal government that so many (so absurdly) call a “socialist” threat to our “liberty,” isn’t in the nature of the policies themselves (they are actually very similar in nature), but rather in the difference of perspective granted by elapsed time and an improved quality of life.

The impassioned, angry, vehement opposition to today’s progressive reforms, almost down to the precise words and phrases (including cries of “socialism”), is virtually identical to that which confronted the passage of Social Security and Medicare in their day. It is the perennial resurgence of the same faction, the same force at work today as in those previous generations: The voice of fear, the clinging to past failures and deficiencies for lack of courage, the perception of progress as a threat rather than a promise, though those same cowering souls could hardly imagine living without the promises of progress fulfilled before their birth and in their youth. They take gladly from those progressives who came before and fought to establish the world they now take for granted, but fight passionately against those progressives of today striving to provide similar gifts of social improvement to future generations.

Economically, Hope counsels that we employ the best economic models to forge the best fiscal and economic policies possible to ensure the robustness, sustainability, and equity of our economic system, while Fear counsels that we base our economic policies on information-stripped platitudes, contracting rather than expanding, insulating rather than competing, cowering rather than aspiring. A hopeful people invests in its future; a fearful people stuffs its money in a mattress. A hopeful people works to create a higher quality of life, while a fearful people works toward enshrining past achievements and, by doing so, obstructing future ones. A hopeful people seeks to expand opportunity; a fearful people seeks to protect what’s theirs from incursions by others. A hopeful people reaches out, looks past the horizon, and works toward positive goals. A fearful people builds walls, huddles together, and obstructs the dreams and aspirations of others.

But in the past couple of years, it has not been just any other incarnation of the struggle between Hope and Fear. It is the most dangerous form of that struggle, the form it takes when we are on the brink of inflicting on ourselves enormous suffering. Because the struggle in recent years has been characterized by a terrifying discrepancy in passion: The angry, fearful mob is ascendant, while cooler heads are too cool, too uninspired, to face that mob down and disperse it.

It is under just such circumstances when, historically, Fear prevails over Hope. It is under these circumstances, circumstances that the hopeful among us are allowing to take hold, when countries get sucked into the nightmare that fear produces. This is what responsible, reasonable people of goodwill cannot, must not, allow to happen.

Be voices of reason and goodwill, voices that do not simply return anger with anger, nor return anger with despair, but rather return anger and irrationality with implacable reason and goodwill. Confront the angry, frightened and frightening mob and insist that we are better than that. Don’t let them put this state, this country, and this world back into Reverse again, as it was from 2001-2009, when America became a nation defined by fear, with a government defined by the belligerent ignorance which is Fear’s most loyal servant. Let’s keep this nation in Drive, and move hopefully into the future. In 2008, many of us were excited by that prospect, and in 2010, we should have remained warriors of reason and goodwill in the face of the Grendel of small-mindedness awoken by the small, fledgling steps forward we have taken as a people. We need to defend, preserve, and advance what we accomplished in 2008. We need to move forward, not backward.

There is a path forward, one that is not simply the continuing volleys of mutually belligerent blind ideology, nor one that is focused only on the upcoming election cycle: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified. Join me in turning this simple, clear message into a reality. Let’s create the future we are wise enough to hope for, rather than the one we are foolish enough to forge in the pettiness of our fears.

Don’t sit this one out. Don’t let the brutal tyranny of Fear and Ignorance rule us.

“The genius of the many is a captive giant, whose freedom is the ends and the means of all other things.” This is a line from my novel (A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology), uttered by the wizard Evenstar to his disciple Algono, both expressing one of the underlying dynamics of nature about which the novel is ultimately about, and foreshadowing a metaphorical representation of it: A fiery giantess trapped in a mountain (a volcano myth; see The Hollow Mountain), representing the pent-up power of Mother Nature herself.

Nature (more specifically, the terrestrial biosphere) is a product of the genius of the many, of time and numbers, of a “selfish gene” (to use biologist Richard Dawkins’ term) replicating, mutating, and competing (or struggling) for reproductive success, in a process of non-linear diversification and proliferation (i.e., there are ebbs and flows to both). This diffusion of thriving, of experimentation, of massive quantities of failed variations interspersed with occasional successes, winnowing down the spectrum of forms to those which can articulate themselves into the transcient biological and geological landscape of their time and place, is the progenitor of human existence. And, as might be expected, the progeny (humanity and human history) resembles but is not identical to its parent (the biosphere and “natural history”).

I have already described this resemblance in a series of essays (Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). This is not another reiteration of that theme. Here, I am focusing on a single aspect, an underlying dynamic: The relationship between the Many and the One (see E Pluribus Unum and Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for related discussions). More specifically, this post is about the aggregation of the many into a more or less robust unity, focusing especially on the robustness of information processing.

Arguably, the robustness of information processing is precisely what defines the genius of the many, as exemplified in the progressions of biological evolution and human history (parallel phenomena on different time scales, with a different breadth and depth of forms). Genes are packets of information, and evolution is how they are naturally processed (accidental mutations fit themselves, successfully or unsuccessfully, into their environments, modifying the environment in which both previous and subsequent accidental mutations must fit themselves, in an evolving matrix of informationally defined forms). And the same is true for human technologies and social institutional forms, including the various ways in which organized divisions of specialized labor are accomplished: It is all information-based (see Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, for a discussion of these interrelated generators of human historical progress).

The informational foundation of our existence is not just what we normally identify, such as the product of universities and research institutions, or the communication of information through our various media, but also the full range of human activities: all of the norms, values, techniques, rituals, arts, recreations, jokes, gestures, expressions…, in short, all that constitutes human life.

In human affairs, there are two fundamental facets to the genius of the many: One that is the product of averaging, and one that is the product of aggregating. The first aspect is best illustrated by the fact that if you have a thousand people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the average of their guesses will be far closer than any individual guess, and, in fact, will be remarkably close to the actual number. The second aspect is best illustrated by the robustness of a division of labor in a market economy, in which the organic articulation of separate expertises and activities produces greater aggregate wealth. This essay is primarily about the second facet, but it is important to remain aware of the first as well, that the “averaging” of our diverse opinions and assessments also contributes to our collective genius, and that, in many circumstances, seeking more moderate positions is recommended by such awareness. But it is through the aggregation rather than the averaging of our individual consciousnesses in which the most robust expressions of the genius of the many can be found.

Embedded in our technologies and social institutions is something analogous to the human genome, but encoded in cognitions rather than in genes, and more fluid (or faster flowing, and acceleratingly so as a result of its own feedback loop) due to the speed and intentionality of cognitive communication, mutation, adaptation, and competition for (cognitive) reproductive success. Our intentionality is a part of this process: To the extent that we, individually and collectively, prefer some outcomes over others, our will, and how we exercise it, affects this evolutionary process for better or worse. The two predominant variables affecting the quality of the effect our will has on this process are the degrees of reason and goodwill employed in our efforts: A deficit in either leads to less desirable aggregate outcomes, while an abundance of both leads to more desirable aggregate outcomes, in proportion to the extent of the deficit or abundance (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, for a discussion of how we can and should organize in service to these two values). 

In a sense, embedding reason and goodwill into our social institutional landscape, and cultivating them as the predominant (metaphorical) flora and fauna of that landscape, is the recursive function of the genius of the many in service to human welfare (by which I mean not just the relative absence of devastating hardships, but also the increasing presence of conditions which give full expression to the human spirit and the joyful celebration of life). As the quote from my novel says, freeing the genius of the many is both the means and the ends of this goal, because it both produces and defines human welfare. Thus, we value individual liberty both as an end in itself (enabling each of us to more fully pursue and celebrate our own lives), and as a means to the end of aggregating into a more creative and productive society.

A slight digression is required here, to distinguish liberating the genius of the many, on the one hand, from liberating individuals from oppression on the other. The two are related, but not identical. The former depends both on the liberation of individual creativity and initiative, and the aggregation of that individual creativity and initiative into a collectively productive force. The latter is a more unbalanced concept, focusing only on the individual and not on the articulation of individual efforts into a collective and mutually enriching enterprise. The latter is the blind ideological expression of a historical recalibration, in which the tendency of societies to be overcentralized and oppressive was confronted and eroded, and the ideology favoring individual liberty rose in prominence in those societies which most successfully confronted this previous historical imbalance.

Unfortunately, in contemporary America, the pendulum has swung too far, creating an ideological obliviousness to our interdependence and mutual responsibilities to one another. We need now a new conceptual framework, which recognizes both the value of individual liberty, and the value of organizing into a collective enterprise for mutual benefit and in service to humane values and ideals. The genius of the many is not liberated by disintegration into mutually indifferent individuals, but rather by recognizing the complex and subtle relationship between the individual and society (see, e.g., Liberty & InterdependenceLiberty & SocietyLiberty Idolatry, and The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism). Indeed, true liberty is something subtler and richer than mere freedom from government; it is a function of our mutually liberating collective enterprise, which endows us with the conceptual and material means to live fuller, more expressive, and more gratifying lives, with a wider spectrum of possibilities available to us.

It is true that the genius of the many does not always serve this end, that its product can be temporarily diverted toward its own containment. It is sometimes tapped in service to goals that do not seem to serve human welfare at all, such as building great monuments to ancient rulers (e.g., the pyramids), or enriching the few on the backs of the many. In the former instance, such ostentatious displays are both the oppressive aggrandizement of the rulers who commission them, and are a symbolic consolidation of our collective genius, an expression of the degree to which a society has managed to organize itself sufficiently to mobilize enormous resources in service to the mere advertisement of that ability. It is analogous to the Irish Elk, which, according to a still debated theory, went extinct due to having evolved ostentatious antlers in males, as a way of advertising to females their ability to squander their surplus nutritional intake (and thus their prowess in being able to obtain and consume that surplus) on a mere symbol of such prowess (the antlers having reduced their competitiveness vis-a-vis other species, eventually leading to their extinction).

But this diversion of the product of the genius of the many, in human societies, is generally in service to the few, or in service to blind militancy. It gradually leads to the collapse of the society that indulges in it under its own weight (much as the Irish Elk did under the weight of their antlers), rather than the invigoration of that society by virtue of the continuing liberation and mobilization of the genius of the many. A good modern example is the Soviet Union, which mobilized enormous resources in service to a militant totalitarianism, but in an unsustainable way.

In other words, diverting the product of the genius of the many away from human welfare, and away from liberating individual initiative and creativity, expresses and consolidates a current degree of liberation of that genius, but often curtails further liberation of it, and even contracts the existing degree of liberation. One theory of the rise of modern democracy in England illustrates this most clearly: According to the theory, the constant internecine wars of Medieval Europe create a constant pressure on monarchs to mobilize sufficient resources to fund those wars. The pressure was greater than it was in other parts of the comparably developed world, because European states had resisted (since the fall of the Western Roman Empire) consolidation into a strongly centralized large empire, leaving kings to vie with other kings close enough to pose an immediate and constant threat to the throne itself. The English solution to this problem was the gradual granting of increasing rights, first to nobles, and then expanding outward, in order to liberate the individual initiative and effort sufficient to produce enough taxable resources to fund these wars. In other words, to compete through utilization of rather than display the genius of the many requires liberating more of it rather than merely channeling it into the production of monumental works.

While historically, (implicit and explicit) competition with other (internal and external) polities was the generating force of the progressive liberation of the genius of the many, we have within our power the ability to replace that motivating force with one more directly committed to the maximization of human welfare. We can compete, in other words, not against each other, but against suffering and in service to our collective well-being.

So the question is: How do we organize ourselves to best liberate and mobilize this genius of the many in service to human welfare, broadly understood? Again, the two essential ingredients to such organization are reason and goodwill. We must increasingly focus our efforts on serving humanity rather than merely serving either ourselves individually (or locally) or serving some blind ideology which evolved in haphazard response to the end goal we can now explicitly define and pursue. And we must do so by subjecting all policy choices to the crucible of systematic and procedurally disciplined “reason.”

Government is our agency for such collective decision-making. We have two basic challenges facing us vis-a-vis government: 1) Ensuring that it serves our collective welfare rather than the welfare of smaller, privileged sub-groups; and 2) ensuring that we enable it to do so most effectively. These are somewhat in tension with one another, because democracy, which evolved in service to the former demand, can limit or obstruct the mobilization of specialized knowledge and expertise through a division of labor that best serves the latter demand. The challenge for us, and the vehicle for most effectively liberating and channeling the genius of the many, is how to most efficiently and effectively articulate these two mechanisms into a single coherent system.

Our national ideology has enshrined both of these values (democracy and division of labor through a market economy), but has conceptually divorced them from one another, obstructing their articulation. In the popular American view, the economy may benefit from specialization and a division of labor, but government benefits from direct popular control of decision-making. We may want to hire our surgeons on the basis of their training and expertise, but we don’t want to entrust such responsibilities to our governmental representatives. The problem is that governance is, like surgery, an information-intensive task, requiring the mobilization of precise knowledge and analysis in service to well-designed public policies. And the challenge we face in governing ourselves accordingly is not dissimilar to the challenge face in other principal-agent relationships: We have an agent to whom we must delegate some specialized functions, but in such a way that we ensure that that agent is acting in our interests rather than its own (at our expense).

The most efficient way to accomplish this is to align the interests of the agent with those of the principal, so that when the agent pursues its own interests most robustly, it incidentally is also serving its principal’s interests most faithfully. This is what social institutions generally attempt to accomplish, through market mechanisms, hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments, diffuse social approval and disapproval, and internalized values invoking one’s own “conscience.”

On the other side of the relationship, the complacency or disengagement of the principal permits the agent to run amok. In order to improve our articulation of the interests of the principal with the expertise of the agent, we need a principal, a polity, that is as engaged as possible, actually tracking the outlines of the information that the agent will be mobilizing, just as the parent of a child about to undergo surgery might want to be as well informed and involved as possible, even while recognizing that they have to entrust their child’s life to the surgeon’s expertise.

In America today, we suffer the combination of a polity that blindly entrusts its own self-governance to a government it feels disassociated from, while simultaneously distrusting that same government and wanting to impose on it its own uninformed will. What we need instead is a polity that has access to and an interest in the details of what it means to govern ourselves intelligently, and works with our agents to utilize their expertise in service to our informed and engaged collective will.

To most effectively liberate the genius of the many, we need to organize ourselves from top to bottom, filling in the chasm between “people” and “government,” forming layers of engagement, and channels of information flows, so that our various potential contributions to intelligent self-governance flow “inward” to our agents, while the outlines of the relevant expertise to which we must frequently defer flow “outward” to the polity. (Again, my outline for how to go about doing that can be found at The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). By doing so, we can most effectively and organically institutionalize the incorporation of both reason and goodwill (or collective will) into our political decision-making processes, more fully liberating the genius of the many, and, by doing so, more fully liberating the human spirit.

(cross-posted on SquareState: http://www.squarestate.net/diary/1137/a-progressive-new-year-the-ongoing-project)

I think most people who self-identify as “progressives” are, at root, committed to advancing the cause of reason in service to universal goodwill as the driving force of public policy. Unfortunately, we are all less than perfect on both dimensions, often failing to be either particularly reasonable, or particularly motivated by goodwill. But if we are serious about our commitment to improving the quality of human life by employing more reason in our public policies, more in service to humanity (and, by extension, all that humanity depends upon), there are things we can strive to do, dimensions we can strive to improve on, to advance the cause to which we are all committed.

In A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, I outline three components of the individual and collective disciplines that would best serve the on-going progressive project: 1) The Compilation of Social Systemic Knowledge; 2) The Cultivation of Social Identification; and 3) The Activation of Interpersonal Kindness. I describe each of these three, and penumbral aspects of the overall proposal (such as the commitment to process), in detail in the post linked to above.

One aspect of the first component (“The Compilation of Social Systemic Knowledge”) is the creation of an overarching social systems paradigm through which to compile and evaluate all competing ideas, one which does not start with any inherent political ideological bias, and in fact accommodates currently conflicting analytical and ideological paradigms. I have outlined such an overarching paradigm in The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change.

One aspect of the second component (“The Cultivation of Social Identification”) is finding frames and narratives that resonate with the frames and narratives of those who either are not “progressives,” or are “progressives” of the sort that are promoting just another blind ideology (precipitously certain substantive conclusions) rather than a commitment to reason in service to goodwill (a procedural and methodological discipline). In A Political Christmas Carol, I’ve provided an example of the kind of “messaging” I’m talking about (and that George Lakoff was referring to in his book The Political Mind). By associating the currently prevalent extreme-individualist ideology with a character almost universally pitied and disdained, and a reason-in-service-to-goodwill approach (what I consider to be the essence of progressivism) with his almost universally appealing transformed self, the gravitational cognitive force of progressivism is marginally increased, drawing more of those toward it who are capable of being drawn toward it. Since we know that social attitudes and ideological centers of gravity shift over time, we know that current distributions are not fixed and immutable; a major challenge is how most effectively to sway the zeitgeist in the direction of reason and goodwill.

Of course, one lonely act of such messaging on one blog is not going to do the trick. We need to flood discursive space with this kind of messaging; not, as some believe, only with the kind of mechanistic and reductionist sloganeering that has served the Right so well (though, yes, some of that as well), but also with the deeper appeals to human souls which is where the Progressive comparative advantage lies. We don’t want to become just an equal-and-opposite counterpart of the Tea Party; we want to be the clear distinction from all that is wrong with it, the opposition to irrationality and belligerence, not to perceived enemies and reductionist boogeymen.

And, finally, one aspect of the third component is the organization of community groups dedicated not to anything overtly political, but rather only to strengthening our communities and increasing our interpersonal commitment to reason and goodwill. The value of this is not only intrinsic, but also increasing the association of empathy-based policies with interpersonal goodwill, something which helps erode the successful Libertarian meme of government as some external entity imposing its will on an antagonistic public. If we want to promote progressive public policies, which use government to improve opportunities and enhance the quality of life, we have to associate support of such policies with actions in our communities based on that same attitude. This helps dispell the enervating argument over whether government itself is “good” or “bad,” and refocus on the inevitable fact that government is the battleground over whether our public policies will be yielded to the interests of the most wealthy and powerful, or will be successfully harnessed in service to humanity. I have made some efforts on this dimension as well, organizing the South Jeffco Community Organization, an on-going project I will return to after I clear my plate of some other more immediate and pressing obligations.

My point here is that there is a pretty clear path forward for a progressive movement that wants to be effective at the most fundamental level, and that there are clear substantive steps we can all take in service to that path. Our almost absolute focus on who is elected to office and how successfully we compel them to do our substantive bidding is sub-optimal on several levels: 1) It reduces us to mere equal and opposite counterparts of the advocates of irrationality and belligerence, and leaves many marginally engaged moderates seeking some midpoint between the two camps, as though that were the definition of “reasonable;” 2) It fails to attend to the very real issue of how often and to what extent our substantive bidding is imperfectly informed and conceived, and the resultant need to place more emphasis on the procedural discipline of discovering the best policies motivated by less certainty of the infallibility of our current understandings; and 3) It fails to address the more fundamental determinant of public policy, the zeitgeist, the popular political ideological center of gravity. There is, of course, a place for traditional political activism, but if we really want to catalyze and institute social change, traditional political activism alone is not enough.

If we redistributed the resources of time, money, effort, and passion currently invested by American Progressives in progressive advocacy in more targeted ways, looking beyond the superficial political arena, and focusing more on the ultimate political battlefield (the human mind), and doing so in well-designed and coordinated ways, we would have far more success at moving this country in a progressive direction. Here’s to the hope that we begin to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!!!

Brian Arthur’s thesis on the evolution of technology in his book The Nature of Technology (with thanks to Rick Munoz for the gift) dovetails so nicely with my broader paradigm of human social institutional ecology, addressing precisely that aspect which I had mostly left to the side (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness, in which I identify “social institutional and technological regimes” as the paradigms into which evolving memes aggregate, but focus on social institutions and ideologies), that this post is largely a synopsis of Arthur’s ideas, extended into and blended with “my own” marginal contribution. (The book is well worth reading; my summary here does not do it justice).

In brief, Arthur’s thesis is that technologies, which are essentially “programmed” natural phenomena, are comprised of assemblies and components, and subassemblies and subcomponents, down to an elemental level, with constant marginal modifications and recombinations of subcomponents, creating technological domains (e.g., digital, electronic, genetic, etc.), thus evolving within the context of these technological ecosystems (an idea I began to address before reading Arthur’s book, in The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). The entire corpus of technology, in articulation with the evolving economy and legal system, evolves as well, causing cascades of destruction of linkages to technologies made obsolete by innovations, and cascades of new technologies made possible or necessary by other recent innovations.

The key to Arthur’s paradigm is that technologies are purposive programmings of natural phenomena (including human behavioral phenomena), and so both include (along with what is more conventionally visualized as “technology”) those social institutional innovations that are purposive (e.g., currency instruments) and exclude anything that developed haphazardly (e.g., informal social norms), though they both coevolve, adapting to one another. Technological evolution differs from Darwinian biological evolution primarily in the fact that new “species” (i.e., inventions) do not emerge merely as the result of an accretion of incremental changes selected by virtue of their relative reproductive success, but also by virtue of rather sudden new configurations of old technologies, and applications of new principles to old challenges. But these novel forms, whether the small increments of engineers making new applications of old technologies to solve novel problems, or the larger innovations of inventors utilizing new principles to address new or old challenges, are then subjected to that same Darwinian lathe.

Some of the distinguishing characteristics of technologies are that they are recursive (they are comprised of components that are themselves technologies, which in turn are comprised of components that are in turn technologies), modular (comprised of main assemblies performing main functions and subassemblies performing auxiliary functions), programmings of natural phenomena, and constantly evolving from earlier forms, midwifed by human ingenuity, but generated, in a sense, by earlier innovations. Each problem confronted implicates both backward and forward linkages, affecting the components of the technology worked with, and the possibilities with which new problems can be addressed.

Technologies form a kind of language within their domain, which practitioners draw on the way a composer or author draws on the musical or written language that is their medium, expressing a desired objective through recourse to the known phrases and grammars of those languages. It develops according to a combinatorial evolution, with something that developed in another domain for another reason available to those who recognize a novel use for it elsewhere. The memes of technological evolution are free radicals, able to attach to any other group of memes where they may have a particular basis for thriving.

Technology evolves in tandem with science, both the means of scientific discovery (the instruments used) and informed by science (finding the principles on which to base technological advances).

Technology evolves from few to many, from simple to complex, beginning with direct exploitations of natural phenomena (fire, sharp objects, etc.), and growing on the possibilities created by their exploitation, with new technologies and technological domains opening up new opportunities for yet more innovations. This is not unlike the evolution of biological and social institutional forms, which evolved from a single cell into the plethora of life now on Earth, and from more or less homogeneous primate cultures to the great variation of human cultures generated by geographic dispersion and differentiation.

Nor is the winnowing out process particularly different, in which some technologies (species, cultures) become dominant and widespread, eclipsing others, sometimes even eliminating them all together, forming distinct branches where an undifferentiated continuum would otherwise have been.

The processes of innovation rippling through the system (by posing new problems and creating new opportunities, by requiring new auxiliary assemblies, by rendering old ones obsolete, and the linkages that depended wholly on them obsolete as well), sweeping up economic and legal structures with it (creating new needs for new infrastructure, new forms of organization, new legal contexts, etc., while rendering others obsolete and archaic), includes a variety of stages, such as “standard engineering” (adapting an existing technology to varying contexts), adding on (improving performance and addressing problems by tacking on new subsystems), reaching limits and being faced with needs (trying to capture new potentialities that would require some improvement that current technologies can’t yet provide, and seeking a new principle to exploit to provide it), and undergoing a paradigm shift as a result (creating a new technology, that then sets in motion all of the rippling changes new technologies set into motion).

What does this mean for public policy? Public policy is, essentially, the attempt to establish and implement social institutional technologies, based on principles of human behavioral phenomena. From the haphazardly accumulated mass of social institutional materials, the challenge is to find components and assemblies that are usable, to combine and recombine them in fluent ways, in pursuit of specific objectives. One example would be what I have called “Political Market Instruments” (see Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year), which simply adapt the combined technologies of market exchange and regulatory oversight to the goal of increasing the production of a public good or decreasing the production of a public bad. It is an excellent example of Arthur’s modularity in action, since it is the integration of technologies that had not previously been so combined.

Some examples of social institutional technologies and how they combine include Democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and corporate business organization, resulting in, among other things, constitutionally protected massive funding for commercial-saturated campaign cycles. Many would argue that new technologies are demanded by the problems created through this combination of old ones. Another example is the borrowing from markets to combine its principles to public education in the form of vouchers. These examples point to the fact that while we gain much from our technologies, we also create new problems with them, and need to pick and choose how and when to implement them, always in service to a vision of how to forge our way into the future most in service to human well-being in the fullest sense.

Human social institutional and technological evolution is not something that occurs exclusively “in” the human mind, via the differentially successful reproduction of memes and their aggregation into paradigms (shifting in response to accumulations of anomalies). At least in regards to successful purposive systems, the natural phenomena upon which those memes and paradigms are working are in some ways (as Arthur points out) more the “genetic material” of those evolving forms than the packets of information working them. The programmed phenomena themselves form the alphabet and vocabulary of technological innovation, which the memes order into a grammar.

An example of an obvious human behavioral phenomenon on which the social institutional technologies of markets draw is: People will exchange what they have for something they value more highly. Another one, which allows the shift from barter to currency, is: People will recognize some fungible and generally fairly compact thing of agreed upon value, in large enough supply to serve the purpose but small enough supply to retain its value, as a medium of exchange. Many such social institutional technologies exist, based on how we respond to potential costs and benefits (including hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments and diffusely imposed  social approval and disapproval), how we internalize values, and so on. The need to base social policies on an understanding of these phenomena is critical.

But, in a sense, there are two interwoven currents in our social institutional evolutionary ecology: The evolution of technologies (“purposive systems”), including social institutional technologies, and the haphazard maelstrom of psychologically and emotionally (rather than social systemically and economically) motivated reactions to it. The distinction is similar to the natural landscape around us, from which we have sculpted some architectures of our own. (Both, it might be argued, are evolutionary ecologies, and bear some of the characteristics described by Arthur, since even the haphazardly evolving social institutional landscape can borrow from other cultures or social institutional milieu and combine forms in new ways).

The purposeful and utlilitarian stream is characterized by a relatively high signal-to-noise ratio (see The Signal-To-Noise Ratio), utilizing the grammar of various domains relatively fluently. The psychologically and emotionally unreflective reactions to it are characterized by a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio, speaking internal languages whose correspondence to external reality is less disciplined (see Ideology v. Methodology). Technologies correspond to scientific and legal methodologies, while the evolutionary currents around them correspond to collections of arbitrary or unreflectively formed beliefs and rituals. The latter evolve as well, and may serve many human needs, but with less precision and reliability.

To be sure, sometimes technologies are quite toxic, and cultural rituals are quite benign. But the toxicity of the former can not be nullified by the benign qualities of the latter: It can only be addressed through another purposeful system, another technology, designed with the intention of addressing it. When there is a purpose beyond the inherent value of the thing itself, an architecture is required (such as shelter from the elements); when there is no purpose beyond that inherent value (such as a conversation with a friend or a party), no architecture beyond that which facilitates the event is required.

So the purposeful processes by which technologies emerge and develop, particularly social institutional technologies, and particularly those mediated by government action, slog through the viscous resistance of emotionally and psychologically motivated beliefs and rituals, bludgeoned by Luddites and chased by torch-bearing mobs. The progress of human consciousness (including that portion designed to address the problems caused by other products of the same process) is thus encumbered by those clinging to some sacred tradition and determined to tether all humanity to it.

The result is not stagnation, since change is constant. It is not an avoidance of the pitfalls and dangers of progress, but rather a blindfolding of it, an assurance that though forward progress will be slower and clumsier, it will also more certainly and more heavily be laden with the catastrophes of self-destruction that are inherent to stumbling down unexamined and danger-strewn paths.

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 forms 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.

Ironically, the haphazardly formed social institutional landscape from which technology carves out its architectures is approximated again in the ecology of that architecture itself. It is not the escape from that beautiful dance of chaos that holds the greatest promise for humanity, but rather the perfection of the art of dancing to its rhythms.

(See The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).

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