The title of this essay may seem naive or idealistic, particularly when written by someone who not only answers in the affirmative, but insists that it’s only a question of how contagious we choose to make them. Wisdom and compassion (or the various instances of them) have been viral throughout human history, as have been their opposites. Our challenge, as conscious beings participating in our history, has always been to facilitate the spread of those memes and “emes” (i.e., cognitions and emotions) in service to wisdom and compassion, and to curtail the spread of those that serve their opposites.

The real question is: Are we capable of altering the balance in a fundamentally transformative way? The confluence of memes and emes in fundamentally transformative ways isn’t some pie-in-the-sky notion, but rather a norm of human history. To take just modern European (and European off-shoot) history, we see a sequence of cumulative thresholds: The Renaissance, The Reformation, The Scientific Revolution, The Enlightenment, The Enlightenment-informed political revolutions, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, followed by a flow of accelerating consequences of the Industrial Revolution (telegraph, electrification, telephone, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, plastics, cars, planes, nuclear energy and weapons, jet airliners), culminating in what may well eclipse the Industrial Revolution in hindsight (the Information Technology Revolution) and catalyze an even greater acceleration of change.

The most dramatic of these thresholds may appear to be technological, but many were social institutional as well: The Glorious Revolution in England, which put William III and Mary II on the thrown and tipped the scales toward a reversal of the principal-agent relationship between people and government (e.g., the invention of popular sovereignty); the U.S. Constitution, which inherited that political transformation, a body of Enlightenment thought, and an easily conquered new continental nation in which to more fully implement it; and the rise of “the administrative state” during and after The Great Depression.

Obviously, not all of these transformative developments were unambiguously positive: Industrial warfare wreaked horrendous destruction in WWI, which was eclipsed by WWII, which culminated in the only infliction of nuclear weapons on a human population. But equally obviously, they are not on the whole unambiguously negative: Popular sovereignty, the rule of law, an increasingly functional blend of a market economy with administrative oversight to harness that economy more in service to humanity, while all woefully imperfect and incomplete, are admirable achievements nonetheless.

There is also the crucial question of how do we as individuals best articulate our efforts with these grand historical processes and “revolutions,” given that most of them seem to be aggregations of more immediate and less ambitious efforts, rather than grand movements contemplated and executed in any intentionally organized way. “The Industrial Revolution,” for instance, was an accumulation of inventions, and even The American Revolution began as a war of secession in response to specific grievances, the crowning achievement, the U.S. Constitution, not even being a glimmer in the national eye until well after the war was over.

But all of these developments, dubbed “revolutions” in retrospect, were to some extent the result of underlying ideals and disciplines that gained favor and momentum through intentional human efforts and advocacy. The Renaissance involved a growing commitment to “humanism.” The Reformation was, to some extent, a reaction to the oppressive and exploitational Medieval Church, driven by religiously couched yearnings for increased liberty and justice. The Scientific Revolution was a growing commitment to a methodology which increased the robustness and reliability of the human exploration of nature (nor was it a bloodless development, with folks like Galileo enduring The Inquisition for having insisted that a scientific finding, that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa, was more accurate than the religious dogma it had challenged).

These historical developments and transformations do not occur independently of us, but rather because of us, because of the Thomas Paines who, only recently arrived in America, having failed miserably in all of his previous endeavors, wrote first “Common Sense,” basically starting the colonial conversation in earnest about whether those colonists should secede from the Empire of which they had until recently been proud subjects, and then the poem that gave hope and courage to the demoralized soldiers gathered at Valley Forge. They happen because people create and are inspired by new ideas, new possibilities, new nascent hope and belief that we are capable of something more than what we have yet accomplished.

We need to rally first to that realization, the realization that we can be conscious beings consciously participating in our own shared history, aspiring for more than the passage or defeat of this or that bill currently in Congress or the election of this or that candidate who seems to favor the ideology we prefer. Of course, these urgencies of the moment are anything but trivial, but they do not define the limits of what we can strive to achieve.

We need to divert a little of our passion, a little of our dedication, a little of our aspiration, to the deeper political struggle to promote the memes and emes which best serve our humanity, which lead ever more people to be ever more amenable to the disciplined products of imaginative reason and universal goodwill. I’ve offered my suggestion, in The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, about how we might go about doing so. In the second part of this essay (Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), I make my appeal to all of you reading this how you can help me spread these particular memes and emes to as many others as possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, afficianados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized shared knowledge to particular opinions or judgments, rumors or observations or shared jokes rustling through them like a breeze through tall grass.

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

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

If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have billions of distinct colors and trillions of distinct shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with their unique set of genes, by their unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).

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

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Understanding what causes memes to reproduce most robustly is an important aspect of moving our social institutional landscape in directions that best serve humanity. Moving “minds and hearts” doesn’t always move them in positive directions: Many minds and hearts have been moved recently in some very self-destructive directions. But they were moved by recourse to a proliferation of a combination of haphazard and sophisticated messages which appealed to people’s frames and narratives, which tapped into the metaphors that comprise our minds and resonated with them. Doing so is an essential part of the challenge.

When we debate what can and can’t be done, what does and doesn’t work, one of the fundamental dimensions to be considered involves the variable malleability of reality. I can easily divert a small trickle of water following a rainfall, not so easily a large river, and probably not at all a planet in orbit around a star, particularly one that is light years away. When I’m attempting to affect the world, or any part of it (including another person), I need to look for those things that are most amenable to modification, and use them as leverage to address those things less amenable to modification. The time frame involved, mass, momentum, accessibility, available materials and technologies, existing social institutional and organizational vehicles and techniques, the rates and processes of change of the system or element that is the object to be altered, are all relevant variables contributing to malleability.

When you pick a goal, you need to identify a means to achieve it via those aspects of reality that are malleable enough to create an in-road to success. One of the biggest mistakes people often make when they talk about public policy, for instance, is to suggest something that a large number of decentralized actors have to spontaneously decide to do. For examples: “the solution to the crime problem is for parents to impose more responsibility on their kids,” or “the solution to war is for soldiers everywhere to refuse to fight.” The list is endless. The problem is that the suggestion not only fails to change the reality, it also fails to identify a meaningful strategy for changing the reality. It is a wish rather than a plan.

It makes as much sense to say, “the solution to the crime problem is for criminals to stop committing crime,” or “the solution to collective action and time horizon problems is for everyone to just automatically act in our collective long-term interests.” It’s meaningless, because it recommends as a solution an equally intractable intermediate challenge (sometimes merely restating the problem itself), rather than considering how to address it. How do you get parents to be better parents, criminals to commit less crimes, and people to act more cooperatively and farsightedly? These are the questions to be addressed. 

The difference between identifying decentralized wishes and viable strategies is organizational and social institutional. I alone can divert that small trickle of water I mentioned above, but I would need to organize an effort and mobilize resources to divert a river. The challenge is to identify first the collective action problems involved, then ways in which it might be addressed, followed by how to get more people interested in realizing change and how they can contribute to doing so, and finally to design and implement policies which move us in the right direction.

Many dramatic changes in our social reality can be realized, but only by investing heavily in an analytical understanding of the systems which comprise it, and seeking the “pressure points” in those systems where manageable applications of focused human effort can have a rippling effect through the fabric of those social (and surrounding) systems. More parents can be assisted at being better parents, more criminals rehabilitated or, better yet, prevented from ever going down that path with early interventions and proactive policies, and more people in general channeled into more cooperative and far-sighted endeavors, by understanding what motivates them, what affects their decisions and choices, and creating institutional contexts which produce better rather than worse outcomes.

For those who insist that it can’t be done, all that is required is to point out that it has been done, frequently and on very large scales. Virtually every developed nation on Earth invests more in the challenges I just described than the U.S. does, and virtually every developed nation on Earth does a better job of meeting these challenges than the U.S. does. It’s no coincidence. 

By far the most important political arena, the most important “pressure point” for social change, is the human mind, affected by formal and informal instruments of education, propaganda, and socialization, as well as by changes in the legal and economic context in which we live. “Will and Grace” arguably did as much for gay rights (along with all of the proliferating soap opera gay couples, and concomitant cultural shifts) as any law that anyone could have passed, because the change in attitude eases in the change in law, while a change in law grunts mightily against resistant attitudes. It’s a dialectic, to be sure, and laws help to change attitudes as well, become faits accomplis that are eventually accepted as the norm. But it is the cascade of changes in attitudes and understandings that is the real goal, and the real triumph.

One place to look for the dynamics of how such change occurs is to nature itself, and how life evolved: Those genes which were best at replicating themselves are the ones that persisted into the future. Humans are a product of that process as well, and, despite the resistance to the notion from various quarters, much of what we are can be best understood by understanding how that process, that lathe of heaven upon which we were rotated and carved over the millenia, made us what we are.

Human history spins on a similar lathe, an echo of Nature’s primary one (see, e.g.,  The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).

There are caveats: Just because change, even “progressive” change, can be effected doesn’t mean that it will increase human welfare to do so. The social institutions we sometimes too blithely condemn are more subtle and sophisticated than we are sometimes willing to acknowledge, because they are the product of a secondary lathe of heaven, the one which involves the reproduction and natural selection of memes, and they reflect the ways in which humans imperfectly align the interests of self-interested individuals in order to serve the interests of self-interested individuals. Not just those “in power,” but to a limited extent, and with great injustices of distributions of gains, their constituents as well.

The mistake many people make is in presuming that if they could just erase all that is and replace it with what they think would work better, the world would be a better place for it. In fact, whenever people have had some success in doing that, they have created only suffering and destitution. Arguably the most successful political revolution in World History (The American Revolution) wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a war of secession, which incorporated some very subtle and marginal modifications into the existing scheme of things, to great effect.

We must work with the material on the ground, understand it (by far the most difficult and important step of all), refine it, develop it, cultivate it to better serve the needs of social justice, economic robustness, and sustainability. This involves an appreciation for, and ongoing analysis of, the social institutions and social institutional materials that have been generated over millenia of cultural evolution, as well as a deftness in discerning where to tweak it, where to redirect it, where to channel it in new ways and utilize it in new combinations, in order to better serve the interests of humanity.

There are errors on both sides; the error of doing nothing on the pretext that it can only do harm, and the error of doing anything on the pretext that it can only do good. Trying to change that which can’t be changed, or is more resistant to change than the efforts mobilized have taken into account, leads to results often worse than those from which the change was made. The Russian and French Revolutions were bloody messes, and the Russian Revolution, at least, probably made just about everyone’s life worse, in perpetuity. The problem was that it replaced tyranny with tyranny, as so often happens, informed by the “good-guy/bad-guy” fallacy, and certain that replacing the bad guys with the good guys would solve all problems. But it failed to replace bad ideas with better ideas, and so only perpetuated and augmented the problems already deeply rooted in the social institutional landscape.

What the Tea Partiers call “socialists” are for the most part people who are pretty much right where we should be, preserving most of the institutional framework in which we live, but tweaking it in significant ways to address the unaddressed problems that have been festering for decades. The Tea Partiers themselves are extraordinarily addicted to stagnation and regression, clinging to a fictionalized past in order to create a dangerous new future, and obstructing any and all sensible attempts to make any improvements in our social institutional framework. Those at the other extreme, who would err on the side of sweeping away too much of our established social institutional framework, are such an insignificant minority, and so powerless to advance their agenda, that they are at present hardly relevant to the discussion.

The challenge now is to find the mechanisms, the pressure points, the means of social persuasion and institutional catalyst that will allow us to move the center of gravity to a more functional and useful place, where the debate revolves around questions of what works and what doesn’t work, what can be accomplished and what can’t be accomplished, costs and benefits, means and ends, inspiration and aspiration, hope and progress. We have a long way to go, but it’s not beyond our ability to get there.

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