The air feels different these days.
We had thought we were on a different trajectory. Already well on our way - despite a few hiccups and existential risks that lew beyond some distant horizon - to solving many of our greatest challenges and benefiting from all sorts of technological breakthroughs. Turns out, we’ve still to nail down some crucial basics.
We’ve seemingly stalled. And we may very well be on the brink of entering a free-fall.
It’s clear that our existing models, systems, and structures are stuttering, sputtering, and convulsing.
It’s also difficult to perceive and anticipate what’s coming next. Humans assume that the future will be like the past; we prepare for what we have prior experience of.
This is our attempt to describe - with a broad brush - why humanity is facing this moment. And how we can begin to increase our chance of creating a future that’s desirable.
In so few words: we are gaining the power of gods, but for the wisdom. The greater this gap grows, the more likely that we’ll fuck up, and the greater the severity of that fuck up. On such a trajectory, It’s not a matter of if - but when - we reach a point of no return. And the lead up to that point won’t be pretty.
Let’s unpack this a bit.
The amount of power available to us has been accelerating for a few reasons.
One is that the last century has witnessed numerous break-throughs in our understanding of reality’s ‘source code.’ The knowledge gained about the atom in 1938 and the cell in 1953 are just two of several inflection points over this period, across which our power significantly increased.
Another is that some technologies - such as digital computers - both accelerate innovation, and allow for new types of technology. Technology leads to more technology.
A third is that the threshold for use of much of this technology is lower than it’s ever been. And it’s getting lower.
Be it new software, improved gene-editing techniques, or a next generation of 3d printers, fewer people and resources are needed to access higher degrees of power.
At some point in a probable, not-too-distant future, some children won’t just shoot up their schools. They’ll make deadly viruses in their basements. 🦠 ☠️
It’s not that technology itself is the problem. There’s a deeper reason why our prospects appear to worsen as humanity becomes more ‘advanced.’
It’s a disorder that’s been getting worse, and whose symptoms include environmental damage, extremism, and a number of other dangers to human life & flourishing.
We’re continuing to advance our abilities, without raising the level at which we approach our impacts.
So, why has wisdom flat-lined?
A succinct answer is difficult, to say the least. In fact, the rest of this piece is our attempt to introduce you to perspectives we’ve come to see as important for beginning to piece together an answer.
Sensemaking - at a collective scale - can be thought of as a series of layered consensus: a shared prioritization of values, opinions, and approaches by a critical mass such that meaningful progress can be made. It’s also the entry point to unified wisdom - embedded across and within societies.
‘Progress’ here could mean many things. Gleaning insight from a conversation - whether after agreement, concession, or compromise - therefore broadening the understanding of all involved. It could entail the realization of a project. It could involve effective collaboration on research or writing. It could take the form of an organization or group that affects material change in a community. It could appear as new forms of art and expression. But truly meaningful progress - of any sort - cannot be made until a critical mass has at least attempted to ‘make sense’ with themselves: awareness of self-awareness. Which - for most individuals - is a realm of unknown unknowns.
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
It’s not just a matter of how powerful we’ve become, when compared to the size of the playing field - and the fragility of the players.
There’s a game that’s come to dominate how we relate to one another. A set of perverse incentive misalignments that saturate the cultures, institutions, and systems that - by and large - define our coordinations.
It has a name. ‘Game A’ - a realm of game-theoretic predispositions to rivalrous dynamics, sub-optimal outcomes, and self-termination conditions.
Let’s unpack this a bit too. 🎅🏼
Game A has been played for some time now. You see, the thing about it is: if you don’t play it, you lose.
Take, for example, one of the many peace-loving, culture-prioritized people-groups that have existed to-date.
The instant such a community or society comes in contact with another that has developed a capacity to ‘Win’ - in a combative, exploitative, 0-sum-game sense - they’ve either had to switch ‘games’ or else become conquered and consumed. And in most cases, it’s already too late by that point. Because of their priorities, they ‘lost’ almost as soon as they came in contact with a group better at playing Game A.
Fast-forward to today, and we’ve almost unanimously converged on developing ‘strong enough’ militaries from the get-go. Large countries can spend anywhere from 5% to 30% of their budget on defense. In the absence of war – a condition which has mostly held for the past fifty years – all this does is sap money away from infrastructure, health, education, or economic growth. But any country that fails to spend enough money on defense risks being invaded by a neighboring country that did. Therefore, almost all countries try to spend some money on defense.
A more contemporary example has been nuclear armaments - the arms races many nation-states competed in - and the proliferation of supremely-destructive weapons we've ended up with.
An emerging scenario is AI weaponry. We’ve all seen those Terminator movies - or at least enough of the good ones. It’d be a worse world with them in it. So we develop international treaties, sign our commitments, and then. . .
Nationstate X can’t entirely trust Nationstate Y not to develop them in their basement, because of a lack of transparency and what would happen if they were surprised by NS.Y with them.
So NS.X starts building them in their basement and NS.Y does too.
And before we long, the bottle of AIs taking human lives is uncorked.
A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps - or, destructive defections - above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse.
Game A permeates so many of our paradigms and structures. It’s why narcissists and sociopaths usually climb ‘The Ladder’ the highest. It’s the underlying reason for man-made climate change. It’s how there’s almost never enough public grass for privately-owned sheep. It’s the reason $1.9 trillion was spent in 2019 on militaries world-wide - despite dire needs for resources across so many other, more beneficial fronts.
There’s an emerging movement around the need for an alternative - called ‘Game B’. But more on that in a minute.
Of particular relevance these days are the Game A dynamics driving the design of an entire landscape. A geography that we inhabit together as a species. One that defines how we interact, communicate, collaborate, allocate resources, and relate to - and with - each other.
The deficiencies in the design of the current social internet has become increasingly clear. In short - the gulf between the public duty (enable & inform us) and private duty (make a profit) of many internet companies has grown so wide as to make the former impossible.
Today’s most popular social platforms are remarkably effective at extracting our attention. They have been honed to a razor-sharp edge to activate our limbic system - the animal part of our brain. In this sense, humans are reduced to commodities in a manner much akin to industrial livestock production. Side effects include addiction, depression, fear, anger, rage, trauma, and extremism. A marketplace that trades in human futures - at scale - has created some the richest companies in the history of humanity.
Seemingly little thought or care is paid to the potential that lies above and beyond our animal brains - and what becomes possible when more individuals can orchestrate collaboration and fully realize their potential, together.
Game A isn't new. Neither is ad revenue. The power technology has attained is. The invention of the printing press - in Europe at least - unleashed centuries of religious persecution and conflict. The internet has the potential to unleash much more - both good and bad. It exaggerates consequences and exacerbates the symptoms of flawed systems. Failures and weaknesses leave more of a mark now. And unless we’re more careful, creative, and compassionate with the technology we design and adopt going forward, it’s going to get ugly.
The landscapes we use to consume, process, and communicate information have become highly polluted. Powerful interests use these spaces to get people to believe and do things that are useful for those interests. Increasingly advanced technologies help them do so.
The world is open to us as never before, and we walk about as prisoners, each in our private, portable cage.
We are hyper-connected, but our conversations have markedly deteriorated. And the implications of this dissonance & discord are increasingly dire.
Where can - and should - we go from here?
As apprehensions about the use of technology grows, it’s worth asking how effective existing approaches can be in addressing these concerns.
When it comes to digital products, choosing a better alternative is not so easy when there’s a monopoly in play. There’s only one Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. - and the barriers for competitors to emerge are high. The manner in which some of these products undermine self-control further erodes our ability to choose something better.
As attitudes shift about types of tech - and the companies behind them - new types of regulation seems more likely. Although such an outcome could improve the situation, regulation has its limitations. Regulatory bodies usually lag years behind technology. Technology moves fast, few policy makers have technical literacy, and issues & abuses are often identified (by politicians at least) too late. Regulation can also contain loopholes - unintended or otherwise - and regulators can be influenced by private interests.
What about companies doing ‘the right thing’ themselves? In some industries, this works quite well. In others, ethical ‘gray zones’ appear simply too lucrative - and the shadows too concealing. When public awareness changes, there’s a rush to manage perceptions. But it’s often too little, too late. The harm has already been done. In spite of being more aware, earlier, than either Users or regulators of their impacts, companies all too often fail to address damage before it happens.
We need some new approaches.
'Behind every exciting, dramatic failure, there is a more important story about a larger and less dramatic failure that made the first failure possible.' (The Black Belt Bayesian)
It’s possible that the next few years will witness a reevaluation of our social internet - and our use of a few other technologies - via existing means. But new technology will emerge. And a lot of it is going to be even more integrated into our lives.
The costs of playing ‘Wack-a-Mole’ are becoming too great. Problems can’t be solved with the same thinking that caused them.
Evidence of systemic failures are popping up all around us. Placing Band-Aids on these wounds and proclaiming 'fixed' prevents meaningful progress at worst - and mask serious symptoms of something deeper at best.
Such patterns appear to be evidence of a deeply-rooted dilemma. What does it say about our existing structures that such circumstances are so probable within them?
Continued mistakes with advanced technology deteriorate our coherence at a global scale - and thus our ability to pull out of any nose-dive we enter into. We may be in one already.
Our assessments of problems are one of the main causes of the problems themselves, and the worsening of those problems. A problem fully understand is half solved. This also means that a problem not well understood is almost unsolvable.
We must discern the underlying reasons an undesirable future appears increasingly likely if we're to improve our outcomes. We also have to prioritize the right causes, for meaningful, lasting change to happen - soon enough. We need to find the longest levers, and the right fulcrums on which to place them. And then pull them.
We're not kidding ourselves - this isn’t going to be easy. And we're not smarter than anyone else because of what we're pointing out. The sense of urgency we share also doesn't give us any claim on moral superiority. Our clear motive - and challenge - is actually impacting these issues. It’s hard to change a system when you’re inside it.
Our mission is to do the best we can to increase human flourishing, with what's available to us - and become better at both.
Part of that effort is doing our best to understand what’s most important to be aware of - and doing our best to describe it.
Another is to raise awareness and inspire action. It’s important that you’re here.
‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’ - Archimedes
We all have our own point of view, in our own line of site, on a plane of ignorance.
Like a fish that can see water for the first time when it jumps above the surface, gaining a new perspective requires that we dis-identify from something we were previously engulfed by.
Our perspectives must transform if we’re to move beyond a perpetuation of the same problems. Chances are, we’ve been in flatland. There’s been a Z-axis missing.
Mostly it’s hard to get people to hear that which confronts their version of reality. But there’s a moment in which people become open to the idea that they are in fact not seeing something. And all too often it only lasts a minute. A screen of normalcy descends again which stifles all sound, so that we can walk on once more. We are in fact reachable, but then become unreachable after we’ve already been reached.
How can the lag between reality and our acceptance of it be reduced? What will it take for more of us to step outside of more comfortable, desirable narratives? To alter our values? To act in new ways?
The weak link in the chain - in fact - is not the presence or absence of heroes. Our stumbling block comes down to what we do when exposed to information that should propel us towards action. The problem isn’t whether or not people can be reached. The challenge is how to hold them, and bold them.
What we initially imagine is the problem of teaching and informing people is in fact of little use whatsoever. The real issue has to do with what we do to make sure that the information stays in place. And better yet acted upon. It’s not that we need the information superhighway. Instead, the question is: where’s the superhighway of emotion, realization, and action-taking?
Too many of us feel as if we can’t have an active role in engaging with the challenges that matter most. As a result, the most important issues facing our species become less relevant to most of us.
There’s a widespread feeling that nothing is going to change for the better, at least in any real, lasting sense. Dreams - or at least our capacity for them - have been collapsed. So much life for creativity has been sucked out of our current existence that even the idea of imagining potential futures that are positively different seems to be something we leave to corporate conglomerates, political overlords, and others who have the wealth and the influence to imagine for us.
A lot of us have lost hope. Most of us don’t even have the energy or desire to even bother imagining. And the vacuum created out of a lack of hope lets anything pass through.
The way out of this state is to give back to people the capacity to conceive of something better, and the means to build a path that gets us there.
Ongoing technological developments are triggers for change. Emerging cultural developments are cause for hope.
The world is truly open to us as never before. The power of today’s technology is not only unprecedented - it’s right at our fingertips. It’s never required less time and fewer people to impact what we can do, and how we do it.
The way we communicate, consume information, earn income, and find our partners have all been changed by increasingly small teams working on something new.
More has become possible with less as the components that comprise technology mature and tools improve. Be it computing resources, AI capabilities, or app development, that which used to take teams of people can now be done by a few - if not one, part time.
Fewer people and capital are required to unleash something new. The stage is set for meaningful and lasting improvements to come from bottom-up collaboration, instead of top-down orchestration.
The transformation of the music industry over the last few decades exemplifies a similar trend. Artists used to depend on the support of a record label to obtain access to expensive equipment, the know-how of producers, and radio air time. Labels optimized their selection of artists and their control over them to get a return on their investment. The result was more ear-worms and less genuine expression.
As music technology became more advanced, less costly, and easier to use, a transformation occurred. The number of new sounds and genres exploded. Top-charting tracks are now written, recorded, and produced in bedrooms. A growing number of artists collaborate around labels they create themselves. Discovery, authenticity, and novelty have come to trump the formulaic, profit-maximizing, back-room dealings of the past.
'Human beings are not problems waiting to be solved, but potential waiting to unfold.'
- Frederic Laloux
As attitudes shift and increasingly advanced means of production continue to democratize, we’ll witness the emergence of a new generation of organizations. These scenes of collaboration will be centered around purpose, values, and missions - rather than the maximization of shareholder value. Some will generate a profit. Others won't. But for them, revenue will always be a means to and end - and not the other way around. Some further ideas about such organizations can be found here.
Participation in these groups will be deeply enriching and fulfilling. It will also contribute to the realization of a new breed of technology, products, and culture - many of which will enable even more self-organizations to form, better, and at larger scales.
We're gonna get better at collaborating with each other. And the benefits of doing so have never been greater.
'The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.' - John Naisbitt