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Joe recently posted a long article that resonated with me, with the rather forbidding title, ‘Why I am no longer attempting to build a rigorous science of social change‘. I don’t know Joe, but have been aware of other posts and essays of his for some time. I connected with these because of seeing the name of the organisation he has co-founded; The Center for Applied Cultural Evolution, which immediately gave me the feeling that we had followed many common thought paths –  a feeling that has been reinforced by everything I have read of his since.

Briefly, what I sensed we share is a certainty that all that we humans really have is each other and our shared culture – that it is past time for us to take responsibility for our own development, and to seek to do this in the wisest, most sane way possible – using the best discoverable integration of our rationalising endeavours and our capacity for humanity. That despite full awareness of the provisional, incomplete and patchy status of both these resources, we are nevertheless at a point in our civilisational development when, for all sorts of reasons, it is both possible and necessary to begin this work.

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This is not the place to rehearse this conviction. If you share it, then read on. If it resonates with you, but you want more detail, then you may wish to read elsewhere before continuing.

I’m posting this here at Joe’s request – so that we can have a conversation in public about these issues.

Although I do recommend that you read Joe’s essay before reading this, I will nevertheless attempt a brief gloss – if for no other purpose than to make it as clear as possible how I ‘heard’ it (which is to say that I will have missed things emphasised things, and so on, that will have – however unintentionally –  distorted Joe’s meaning – you have been warned!).

My take

The essay affirms a steady belief in the need for and benefits of a ‘rigorous science of social change’ – this is stipulated as not being under question.

What is being examined is the characteristics of various structures and processes that make it difficult to bring social change proposals to life. The energetic cost of reversing out of established change is discussed, using the metaphor of the physics concept called hysteresis. – ‘the dependence of the state of a system upon its history‘. The example is given of the ‘systematic patterning’ of urban space on the basis of the motor car and of politics on the basis of lobby money and influence.

Joe goes on to consider the reality of what he calls the ‘cultural scaffolding’ that has grown up around the institutions which are supposed to nurture our civilisational development – the Universities, Institutes and think-tanks, the maladaptive structures which have come to constitute this scaffolding, and the way that the status-quo becomes embedded – with particular focus on the context of the existential emergency (for humans) that is climate change. He further describes the way that similar structures have become embedded in human social and emotional development – how the weaknesses that our socio-economic system prefers underlie other social ills, and how this forms a feedback loop.

He goes on to recount his own experience in attempting to bring about change in these environments, and the way that these structures operate to ward off change and notes the toll it has taken on him personally (and which I recognise in others).

He comes to the point with a declaration that ‘without cultural scaffolding it is impossible for social development to thrive‘. He makes an example from his own experience of work at UCBerkeley to provide progressive organisations with best-practice, science based tools for effective communications which has seemingly had no effect – with important work on Climate Change from Yale University still couched in methods and framing that seems certain to ensure that effective insights – and thus impact – will not occur.

The piece ends with Joe’s statement that he is ‘no longer attempting to build this grand, visionary work‘, that he feels the need to think deeply about how he should refocus his efforts, and with a final call to ‘prove me wrong‘ – asking for contributions to the debate that might change or develop his position.

My response

Note: this was originally posted in small fragments due to the limitations of the LinkedIn message service. I have made some small edits and added links for some terms, but have overall tried to leave it as the original.
Further thoughts are in a following section.

Joe, I have agreed with and approved of your insight and intentions in setting out to support conscious design of human culture.

At the same time I am unsurprised by your analysis of the problems with this approach.

Another description of the inherent resistance to change occurred to me as I was reading this, which is in my mind more fruitful than hysteresis.

The concept is path-dependency – the condition where, in a complex environment, the path so far taken conditions the character of the choice landscape at each new decision point.

This thinking guides my decisions about how and where to apply my own efforts.

It does not invalidate the idea of designing with the widest consciousness possible the best proposal possible, and marshalling the evidence and test-cases which might be convincing – but it does add another layer to the thinking – which is to examine the current choice landscape for opportunities which do not require the intended community to move in a direction which seems clearly ‘uphill’ (in other words, hard work – of whatever kind, cognitive, energetic, financial…).

The thought is that we can be fairly confident that the present system is not, in fact, set up to satisfy human desires in a healthy way.

That in fact, it is skewed strongly to satisfy only those desires which can be easily marketised and commodified.

Other elements of a healthy life are either strongly controlled (usually with public morality or conditioned control), or distorted so that we can imagine them as satisfiable by means of some commodified simulacrum/substitute.

Given this view, the possibility exists that we might be able to use the ‘conscious design’ approach to develop propositions in particular areas which offer a ‘downhill’ direction to the community concerned – in other words, it could look as if it will be easier / more satisfying to achieve their desires by using the proposed new arrangement than by sticking with the existing one.

Obviously, if we think about it, this is not a revolutionary idea – advertisers are forever (ab)using it.

The point, though, is to use the sorts of tools that you have been proposing to  look for particular coincidences – overlaps of a/ particular systemic salience (places where a change might have a systematic positive knock-on effect) and b/ significant market failure in respect of a deep human desire (for community, for security, for autonomy, for dignity, for many other things). For these spaces/conditions, one can undertake crude heuristic analysis as to the possibilities of using available new knowledge / technology / insight / synergistic combinations previously untried to develop proposals that produce the possibility of imaginable sustainable adoption.

The approach would be to document these and then review them to arrive at some ability to choose where to concentrate efforts according to the available resources in the service of the most beneficial systemic impact.

All of this, of course, carried out in the full understanding that all choices will be made on the best heuristics available – that it is impossible to be ‘right’ or certain’ – and thus we must build in agile learning modes to support refinement / change of focus in response to feedback as necessary.

The purpose of this is as much for the benefit of the tired, disillusioned, frightened, despairing (take your pick) condition of the activists doing the work as it is for the work itself – these two constitute a system which must in itself be sustainable. Work that burns people out without noticeable result is not wise work to undertake.

The need for operational hope in this area is a serious consideration that cannot be taken for granted. People who have these insights need to be sustained in their work.

This approach is intended to do two things that support the activists/designers/ideators:
1/ minimise the degree of ‘toe-to-toe’ combat/argument with existing entrenched ideologies/structures/thought patterns/public moralities,
2/ look for points of intervention which are tuned to the available capacity/technology/cultural resources.

If we can do these two things and at the same time work with strong hope that success might have meaningful systemic impact, then we have a chance at avoiding despair / burnout.

I don’t imagine that much of this will come as revelatory to you and others in this space – it is my personal re-statement and re-integration of my own learning and thinking around this area over some while, perhaps put together in a way that is novel for some.

So you may well ask, have I arrived at any likely prospects for effort?

My personal belief is that the money system is a likely terrain for conscious design.

Firstly, the current design (debt-based, scarce money with issuance only from the already wealthy/powerful) is significantly skewed so as to deny most people ready ability to satisfy desire (feeding children, living in community, controlling one’s obligation to society, security of abode – there is a long and terrible list).

Secondly, we are at a moment in history where the (multiply flawed) bitcoin project has widened the ‘Overton window’ about the possibility of designing other money systems.

Thirdly, post-blockchain technologies exist that make it possible to design robust, scaleable money analogues that can address these issues.

Fourthly, that achieving any appreciable level of change in the money system – especially if the proposed design is better able to measure flows of real human value rather than abstracted metrical instruments), is likely to have deep systemic impact.

So I guess I’m not trying to prove you wrong – I’m trying to suggest a modified approach. One thing about complex systems is that rigorous, evidence-based approaches lose traction as you increase the desired zone of intervention.

I can, absolutely, increase the humidity of an acre or so with a variety of accessible concrete intervention designs.

But there are (strictly) zero accessible concrete intervention designs that will absolutely increase the humidity of a whole continent (and even the imaginary [inaccessible] ones are fairly dubious).

So we need to look for the smallest scale design and implementation scope requirements that will have the largest systemic impact that is hopeful in terms of the unintended consequences that will arise (the Iron Law of complex systems is unintended consequences).

What this means, as far as I can see, is looking for design interventions that do not seek to instantiate new modes of behaviour which we think ‘ought’ to be. Instead, we must look for interventions which attempt to make existing forces work towards less damaging outcomes – on the basis that less damaging outcomes are likely to produce less damaged societies, which are likely to produce less damaging outcomes, which are…

Some further points

I’m not going to put much here – on the basis that I am hoping for a fruitful interchange with Joe and perhaps others, and it’s his turn to speak..

However, a couple of things occurred to me as I was formatting/tweaking the above which might serve to round out my intention, and thus belong here.

Path Dependency. The distinction I was hoping to make with the use of ‘path dependency’ as opposed to ‘hysteresis’ was twofold: firstly, that the intent of cultural evolution is not typically about reversing back out of some state change, but of moving on from the current state, and secondly, that each state change brings about a state change in the associated environment, too (in two ways; a/ the system is different, so it may relate to identical external conditions in new ways, and b/ the state change always has some impact on the environment itself – at the very minimum some energy has been absorbed from the environment, or some energy has been emitted to the environment)[and it’s usually much more complex than this in any system that is interesting].

Uphill / downhill. The idea here is that there is some (abstract, and probably multi-dimensional) landscape around imagined/perceived cost vs benefit in regard to change which people carry with them. Such landscapes are often used to model the thinking about choices in complex situations (I do not suggest that this is exactly what is going on inside people’s heads).

Conventions as to the meaning of ‘up’ and ‘down’ are not reliable in such conversations. My own preference is to consider such landscapes as full of ‘traps’ – places where on can become stuck because the implications of any move at all seem costly. This can condemn systems to staying in a place which, although apparently optimal, is in fact much worse than other options which would require significant investment to get to.

Because I consider the existence of these traps to be almost the most important insight one can acquire from such models (indeed Joe’s whole piece can be thought of as an exploration of traps of one kind or another), I prefer to think of them as hollows in the landscape. This has the result of making the most highly optimised sites at the same time the deepest traps – with the helpful implication that it is hard to see out to understand the wider landscape.

[The model does work if we invert the landscape – with the most optimised locations now looking like peaks. But I dislike this approach because it feeds into a bias humans have that higher=better, and suggests that we can get a better idea of the ‘lie of the land’ from a more optimised location, which I consider is often not the case. It also seems to imply that optimisation to the maximum is the aim (‘reach the highest peak’) – whereas in reality, systems which are poorly optimised for any particular point in a ‘fitness’ landscape can often be the most resilient to change.]

Please, if any of this resonates with you, do engage!