The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Alexander Beiner. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Alexander Beiner, co-founder of Rebel Wisdom, very interesting and useful video journalism organization. And they also do event planning event and event operation. So, check them out, Rebel Wisdom, on the web. On YouTube, I guess is where most of your material is, right, Alexander?
Alexander: Yeah, that’s correct. Yeah, on YouTube. But we also just revamped our website. So people can find all of our films and articles and events on rebelwisdom.co.uk now.
Jim: And as usual, the links to Rebel Wisdom will be on the episode page for this episode at jimruttshow.com. In this current episode, we’re going to focus on Alexander’s recent medium essay titled Indigenous Narcissism. [inaudible 00:00:44] we usually do on current episodes, God knows where we may go. So, welcome Alexander.
Alexander: Thank you. It’s really good to be here, Jim. Thanks for having me on.
Jim: Yeah, it should be fun. You start off by saying that we really can’t blame social media for everything that’s going on. And I absolutely agree with you. In reality, of course, social media is just an artifact, an engine, a machine, and it has to interact with a culture. And it no doubt interacts with different cultures in different ways. And you then hop in to talking about Joe Henrich and his idea of WEIRDness, which is essentially our culture. Talk about WEIRDness a little bit.
Alexander: Yeah. WEIRDness, so WEIRD stands for western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. So that’s really, as you said, that’s certainly the culture I come from. To put it simply, although I know some people would have issue with the phrase, but let’s say western countries, but it’s not just western countries. But largely actually, no … I’d say largely that’s accurate. And it’s interesting. Not just Henrich, but some other psychologists around 10 years ago, maybe a little bit before that, they started noticing that a lot of psychology papers that were coming out were based on the responses. And the subjects of those papers were western undergraduates. And if not undergraduate, certainly people from a certain, let’s say, weird demographic. And then those results were extrapolated out and very often seen as psychological universals.
Alexander: And the argument he makes and many others have made, and Jonathan Haidt has used the weird terminology in framing pretty extensively as well. Yeah, the argument they’re making is that we’re pretty specific in the way we think. And if you take let’s say a reverse anthropology look and look back at ourselves, we have a number of qualities that are unique to us, are unique to our specific culture, which is no surprise because cultures differ and they’ve adapted to different environments and different situations. And so one of the defining features of weird cultures that we are very focused on ourselves and our own attributes, our own achievements. It’s important usually that we have a sense of consistency across time as who we are. When we see people let’s say like politicians changing their minds, we look at it as flip-flopping. When we see someone behave quite differently to the way they’ve normally behaved, we often question who are they really, what’s their real motivation? He goes into this even that whole idea of determining justice, for example, based on the intention someone had, as well as what actually happened. That’s quite a weird thing as well.
Alexander: So, I find Henrich’s model really, really useful as well, because a lot of things that we take for granted about ourselves and the way we see the world aren’t necessarily cultural constants across the world. So, he points out that another defining aspect of weird culture is that we don’t have the same kind of allegiance to close knit kin groups. So for example, your clan or your wider family, where you have a really dispersed network of cousins and uncles and aunts and the way you move through the world is really determined in large part by your relationship within that whole network of relationships. And also then the embedded obligations that you have. As an oldest daughter, you might have certain obligations. As a third son, whatever it might be.
Alexander: And so we, because of a few reasons that he goes into in detail, one of which was the Catholic church declaring that we couldn’t marry our cousins several hundred years ago, which I think is pretty wretch of the Catholic church considering what they’ve done since. But, that really changed the dynamics European culture as do the Protestant Reformation, which encouraged a huge uptake in literacy, because people were encouraged to have their own personal relationship with God. And that meant have your own connection to the Bible as well as then you had to read. That and a number of other factors meant that we became a lot more atomized and we also started leaving where we grew up. I’d be curious to hear or just curious to know how many people listening to this live in the town and with the family that they grew up with. It’s much more common for us to leave and go somewhere else.
Alexander: And because of that, we have developed much more of a sense of voluntary association, he calls it. That basically we choose what group to join. We’re not necessarily wedded to being in our clan or our family. You could leave your town or village and then end up joining a guild. And maybe that guild became much more of a part of your identity than necessarily your brothers and sisters and parents. And likewise, he talks about impersonal pro sociality that developed. So that’s basically, even when you study now, when you study weird people, we are nice. We’re pretty nice to strangers. That’s why [inaudible 00:06:32] works to some degree. We give people the benefit of the doubt and we tend to be more generous and thought experiments, where, for example, you play a lot of game theory with people and you don’t know what the other person’s going to give. And you get people to place different bets on situations. We tend tO give people the benefit of doubt.
Alexander: And part of the reason, it’s the last thing I’ll say about his weird model, one of the reasons of that and what I found particularly interesting that I looked at in the piece is that we have outsourced our trust to big institutions. So as soon as you leave … If you’re in a kin group, if you’re in a clan, your trust system is there and it’s maintained by lots of different social pressures and shame, for example, but also a sense of belonging. You belong to this group or this land where you all belong to, whereas we don’t have that. We have a different kind of belonging, and we have a different way of making sure that we can trust each other when we’re in a city of say a million people.
Alexander: And a major part of that is that, particularly, a few hundred years ago, we were able to outsource that trust to say the church, for example, or to the state, to know that you and me might be different … You and I might be different people, Jim, but back then or even now, there are certain values that I can safely assume that you hold that I can assume you hold without really having met you. And that’s quite deep in our cultural wiring, Henrich and others would argue. I’ll stop there on the explanation of weird, because I think it raises a whole bunch of different, interesting lines of inquiry about the place we find ourselves in the here and now.
Jim: Yeah. Indeed. I recently read the book and was quite taken with it. And it was particularly interesting, this idea that something as seemingly obscure as the Catholic church banning cousin marriage, and for a while, they banned as far as out as third or fourth cousin marriage, they eventually retreated back to principally banning first and sometimes second cousin marriage, was quite interesting how that propagates on the network and breaks down scale clans as a possible way to organize a society. And at least I don’t recall in the book that Joe had any theory on why the Catholic church did it. It was just a frozen accident for some reason, there was some interpretation of theology. I don’t believe he claimed that the Catholic church did it intentionally to break down family clannishness. And so that’s one of the things I like about evolutionary perspective, is eventually you realize that evolution, whether it’s biological or cultural is to a significant degree, a series of frozen accidents. If you’re in the tape a second time, it might’ve come out differently. But in this case, that particular decision may well have produced this weird culture that Joe speaks about.
Jim: And speaking of which, I have invited Joe onto our show, and he’s going to be doing an episode in January. So those who want to know more about weirdness and his book, WEIRDest People in the World, tune in in probably February for the episode. And so indeed, from way back, certainly by the late middle ages, more and more people in the west were organizing around voluntary organizations. And the quite famously de Tocqueville’s book, Democracy in America, this trend probably happened most rapidly in America since we never had feudalism here. Lots of people came over as individuals or nuclear families and left their extended families to the degree they had them back in Europe, et cetera. And that was a characteristic particularly of America, which then spread back out to the rest of the world as the American system of formal definition of rights and formal ways of adjudicating processes, though most of that came from the English common law. It became essentially how things were done across much of the west, though, adapted to local situations.
Jim: And last, and this is interesting, that into some significant degree, formal voluntary institutions have been in decline for quite a long while. Perhaps most famously Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, it used to be people belong to bowling leagues a lot. Now, a much larger percentage of the bowling is either people bowling alone or a couple of friends, or what have you. And so those micro institutions aren’t what they used to be. And they used to be, again, in the States, I don’t know about the rest of the world, they used to be a whole bunch of voluntary organizations like the Elks Club and the Moose. And they provided some economic insurance. In other words, if you died, your kids would be taken care of, essentially insurance type policies. And again, those have been in longterm decline in the west. And there has been very little to take their place. And into this void, comes social media and its engine of optimization to essentially force you into a tribe, whether you want to or not. Talk a little bit about that.
Alexander: Yeah. This is one of the points I was exploring in the essay, is that, what really strikes me about that particular weird psychology is how it relates to our sense of belonging. As you mentioned, I make the point that we can’t lay all of the problems that we’re facing at the feet of the Silicon Valley tech companies. Although, of course the technologies they’ve created are very destructive combined with a particular void, the void of, well, some people would’ve called it the void of meaning, but certainly there’s a void of belonging. Because as you mentioned, the major institutions that we were outsourcing our trust to aren’t trustworthy anymore. And not only are they not trustworthy, but they don’t really work very well in many, many cases, hence the proliferation of people looking to find ways to do things better and in a more sustainable way.
Alexander: So I’m particularly interested in how that plays out on social media. Because social media is like voluntary association on crack. It’s like you join different tribes. Peter Limburg has talked about the medic tribes, these different tribes that have proliferated online and they each have a different value system and they’re all fighting for some aspect of the narrative. And there’s many of them and there seem to be more every day. So this is war for narratives of belonging. And social media is the battleground where that takes place and they certainly profit off of it. But that war, that void of belonging, I think, is so much deeper than that. We would have a problem without social media, let’s say, in the same way that …
Alexander: So, The Social Dilemma, the film that came out in Netflix, talks a lot about the addictive quality of social media and the way they’re hijacking our nervous systems and hijacking our dopamine systems. A few people recently have written critiques of that, a few psychologists, critiques of the, and biologists, of the nature of addiction and the nature of the dopamine system and whether how true that actually is, but just leaving that to one side. That process of that addiction, there has to be something underneath driving it in the same way that alcoholism isn’t caused by alcohol, it’s caused by underlying trauma and it’s caused by many different developmental factors, situational factors. So, it’s a perfect storm, I think.
Alexander: And I think drilling down into belonging and how we perceive belonging is key. Because if we ignore the fact that we have evolved or certainly our culture has evolved to belong to different voluntary associations and to have a sense of agency on the individual where we have to choose where to belong, when we lose trust in those institutions, it’s not just something that’s happening around us. It’s not just an external reality. It’s actually, I would argue, it’s happening within us. And it’s an internal, psychological, process. And a psychological process of deep fear and dislocation, which makes people, I think, much more susceptible to and ready to fall prey to misinformation to join anything that resembles something that might give them a sense of belonging and identity. And of course we’ve seen like the last, let’s say five or 10 years, that the whole cultural and political conversation has become completely immersed with and obsessed with identity. And I think there’s a relationship there as well, this collapse of having fixed identity.
Jim: Yeah. And it manifests in this new world where weird culture with its breakdown … 500 years worth of dissolving of clan based type relationship. And then this decay of the fractal structure or voluntary organizations, which used to be, at least especially in America, the cornerstone what we relied upon. Instead, that leaves a huge void, just a screaming need for some form of group that had some coherence, even if it’s around nonsense. Hence the rapid growth of ridiculous stuff like QAnon, anti-vaxxerism, flat earth, et cetera. You go, “Holy shit.” But if you use the lens of weirdness plus the hyper optimization of social media, it makes sense.
Jim: In Social Dilemma, I think one of the great lines was, they are using more computational power than the Deep Blue chess machine that beat Kasparov back in the 90s. They’re using that to drive your behavior on social media based on a whole series of low level signals. And the emergent result is pushing people who are lost essentially because they aren’t anchored in trustworthy institutions to form … There’s an attractor towards any institution or any group that feels a little bit like an institution. And that’s a very dangerous situation that we’re in.
Jim: In your essay, you ask us to do some experiments. The third one, you asked us to do, and I actually did it, was shut your eyes and try to find an institution you deeply trust. As people who listened to the show regularly know, I live on a farm deep in Appalachia in one of the lowest population density counties East of the Mississippi, and one that has a surprising amount of social intactness. And so when I did that experiment, what did I come up with? I came up with the Maple Festival committee, the biggest event in our County. The Sheriff’s department, volunteer fire department and our county fair association. Those are very trustworthy organizations. I know the people who head them, I know their process, and I know the fact that they do what they do well and have been doing it for anywhere between … Sheriff’s department goes back 150 years. Even the Maple Festival is now 70 years old. But note what’s not on the list, anything at a higher level than our local county.
Jim: And I’m I think fortunate and unusual in being in a place where the life of a community of 2200 people, which is the total population of our county, is still healthy and intact. But as you point out, when you’re in a city of a million, those structures have long since disappeared and have been blended into the chaos of life in the city. And there really isn’t much that has replaced it.
Alexander: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting point. That’s what I was thinking when you were talking. That the local scale and the fact that you know the people, it’s such a huge factor. One exception that I don’t personally feel necessarily, but my wife pointed out is the National Health Service, the NHS in the UK, has probably a level of trust that no other institution does certainly in this country. And it’s far from perfect, but it’s interesting. I’m just reflecting on why that is. And there’s a bunch of cultural reasons, but one of them is that it’s socialized health care and it’s not subject to market forces and market capture in the same way that a lot of other institutions are like the media, for example.
Jim: Yeah. A great point. This is what I wanted to make, that when we don’t have these institutions of trust and at the same time, and we’ll talk about this, how postmodernism and some of its related theories have impacted this ecosystem, when the idea of virtue ethics has been undermined, what do you expect to result but game theory let loose, right, that’s I think the game beef synthesis at its deepest. Is if you’re not constraining a society and relationships and obligations and trustworthy people, and you’ve undermined the concept of virtue ethics, of course game theory is going to run a muck. And what is late Game A, but game theory, run extensively a muck. And lacking these large scale institutions in small scale and medium scale, [inaudible 00:20:55] scale institutions, very little to resist it.
Jim: And it’s an interesting point, that something like the National Health Service in the UK, or let’s say the military in the US, which always ranks at the top of trustworthy organizations at the national scale, neither of them are subject to economic driven money on money return game theory. And that may be an important part of why they retained at least a much greater level of trust than say the legislature or the executive, or unfortunately even the courts.
Alexander: Interesting point. You just mentioned the role of postmodernism. I’d love to pick up on that because it reminds me of something that came to me a couple of days ago. It’s not in the essay, but … So, I’m not sure how familiar you are, Jim, with … I’m sure you know Michelle Foucault but I’m not sure how much of his work you might have delved into. But his probably his most famous book, Discipline and Punish, or one of his most famous ones, what is I think striking about that in terms of what we’re discussing is that, so he talks about … And you see this same or very similar idea played out in the intersectional narratives and identity politics that we’re seeing now. He talks about power being ever present and running through everything and everyone and the world, looking at the world through a lens of power relations. But very specifically, he encourages people to look at institutions as the apparatus of power. So he’s like, “If you want to look at the source of it, you look to the institutions.”
Alexander: And so there’s been years of people looking to in some way deconstruct institutions, because institutions have been seen as inherently oppressive and the apparatus through which power is exercised. So, this is something I’m particularly interested in because I see it come up a lot in different groups who want to change the world in some way or I guess I think you’ve referred to it as the war next space. And I’ve been involved in those circles, various types of those circles, for, I don’t know, 10, 15 years. And it really strikes me that there is an underlying assumption that institutions need to be either destroyed or deconstructed. Very often that’s present. And what I think the weird model shows or suggests is that, that protest of deconstruction leaves an incredible void that potentially destroys us. It’s a truism. You deconstruct without replacing with something else. And very often the impulse is simply to deconstruct. But I think it has its roots, not only, but certainly has its roots in post-modern thinking. The whole idea of institutions being that place where power is being exercised, and we got to do something about it in some way.
Jim: Yeah. And I agree. And that net postmodernism is, from my perspective, on net, on balance, a relatively negative vector in our current space and certainly in our Game B world, we’re well focused on the fact that we need institutional structures. And that the way you draw people into behavior is essentially a co-evolution of institutions and upgrading the capacity and sovereignty of the individual. But if you forget about institutions and you assume that they’re always corrupt, you are not going to build shit, right?
Jim: Let’s talk about postmodernism. I have not read the original sources, but I read a lot of the secondary sources and commentaries. And what I’ve decided is that, talking about postmodernism with a broad brush is less helpful than decomposing it, let’s say deconstructing it, into five components. First, postmodernism actually started as an arts movement, a form of aesthetics, one built principally around irony and resuscitating some older forms and merging them with modernism. And like any later forms of artistic expression, one can have some opinions about whether it’s good or bad. In my book, I put it in the intermediate range, not as bad as some shit, not as good as the old classics, right?
Jim: Second is the post-modern condition. Here’s the cartoon version, some dude playing video games in his parents’ basement at the age of 32 rather than engaging the world and going out and having sex, right, [inaudible 00:25:46] simulation stack, essentially. People deep in the simulation are people who are stuck in the postmodern condition. And my view is that that’s bad and that what comes next needs to seduce people out of the postmodern condition and get them engaged with the world, feeling the soil under their feet, knowing how to change the oil on their car, knowing how to do a romantic relationships in a decent fashion, all the things that really make you human and pull people back out of the postmodern condition.
Jim: Next, [inaudible 00:26:23], who’s been on the show three times and I’ve made a good personal connection with the folks behind that, they put forth the idea of postmodern values, things like cosmopolitanism tolerance, et cetera. I pushed back on that a little bit. To my mind, those are enlightenment values. And the useful point of postmodernism, where I don’t condemn postmodernism outright, is that, while things like cosmopolitanism and tolerance and interest in other cultures … Go back and read Diderot, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, they’ve been there since early in the enlightenment. However, they have been constrained and deformed by hypocrisy. Thomas Jefferson is an enlightenment guy to the bone, right, very cosmopolitan. But, he was also a slave owner, what the fuck, right, and at the time of the founding of the United States constitution, not only were Black people and Indians prevented from voting, but women too. And in many states, people that didn’t own property.
Jim: So if one takes some of the postmodernist perspective and uses it to hold the enlightenment’s feet to the fire to live up to the enlightenment values, and then you can say, perhaps the postmodern values are enlightenment values that have been purged of their hypocrisy. And that would be good. So there’s a good something nice to say about postmodernism.
Jim: The next, I call the post-modern stance. And that’s, I think, what people think of when they think of postmodernists, these people who argue that a witch doctor is no different than Johns Hopkins Hospital or that are anti-science, or that don’t understand that science is a fundamentally different way of knowing than anything that ever came before. And producers of what are essentially religious statements like critical race theory that explicitly reject empiricism as a way to investigate their domain. And in fact, argue that the use of empiricism to criticize something like critical race theory makes one a racist oneself. Very similar to late medieval Catholicism, where any kind of questioning of this intricate unfalsifiable tangled web of doctrine was itself sinful and very much opposed to that.
Jim: And then finally, the tools. For instance, deconstruction is literally tool, was used often to deconstruct literary works. It can be very useful there. And to the great degree, we can use deconstruction softly and in good faith to find the hypocrisies in our institutions and purge them of that, it’s useful. To a degree that everything you see is the lens of deconstruction and all you do is destroy, that’s fucked up. That ends up with a moral nihilism essentially, and that’s happened more than we might like.
Alexander: Yeah. There’s lots to pick up on in there. One thing that comes up for me is the … Yes, there is use to both the values and to the deconstruction, because it shakes up rigid structures and ideally at its best, if done correctly, opens out the margins of our thought and brings in new perspectives that wouldn’t have been allowed in previously. But, it’s also has the quality of being perpetual if it’s not done well. By which, I mean, if you continuously deconstruct, you get into this perpetual deconstruction with loads of full of Kafka traps and impossible illogical situations.
Alexander: And some of the early post-modernists like Francois Leotard talked about this concept of the sublime, which being really important in deconstruction. Because the sublime is the point … It comes from romantic poetry, several hundred years before they were talking. But, the sublime is the point at which you walk out into nature and your language just fails you. It’s all inspiring. You’re just in this moment in which all of the classification and categorization fails. Some of them talks about the importance of that in terms of this postmodern deconstruction.
Alexander: And what they meant or one of the things they meant was that you have to have some fixed point at which all of that deconstruction is irrelevant. You have to have something certain, some groundedness. And you talked about that a second ago, the difference between the postmodern condition and then actually just going out and living life and being immersed in the world. And I think there’s a huge tension in a lot of people around that. The phrase indigenous narcissism popped into my head. I was at a festival at the end of the summer in the UK, and it was called Medicine Festival. You would’ve hated it, Jim.
Jim: Yeah. Stop being hippies.
Alexander: They had made a big effort and talked a lot about including lots of indigenous voices. And they had some people up on stage, some indigenous people, I mean, setting aside how complex and problematic the phrase indigenous is, what exactly does it mean and who is and isn’t indigenous. But, as I was watching and I was thinking, “There’s something off here.” And the phrase indigenous narcissism just popped into my head. And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. I wonder what that means.” There’s something in that. it felt very much about … There was a certain fixation on the self and a falseness to it for me.
Alexander: But part of it was that, and this returns to the weird aspect of it, it’s like people have an urge to connect and belong and to feel part of something. And a lot of people, especially in that community, want to feel more deeply connected to nature, which I completely celebrate and I think is vital. It’s also universal that that transcends culture. So it’s a clean way for people to connect and is essentially I think very, very important. But they’re doing it through the lens of, we should be more like indigenous people very often. And that is a massive problem because indigenous communities are kin based, so all of the known weird stuff that we’re just not used to and doesn’t fit into our culture.
Alexander: But the other thing is that they are deeply connected to a particular land. We’ve both spoken to Tyson Yunkaporta and he speaks really eloquently about Australian Aboriginal culture and how the land is … I mean, there’s a psychogeography of understanding and deep wisdom that’s embedded and encoded in people’s understanding and connection to the land. And I was thinking, what does it actually look like if we start saying, say in Europe, “I want to feel connected to the land.” Well, firstly, it’s very unpostmodern. That creates a huge amount of cognitive dissonance that these communities aren’t talking about, because it’s like, saying that means that you have to raise all sorts of questions about … Well, firstly, private ownership of land is a pretty essential part of our culture. So if I say I’m deeply connected to this land, does the dude who owns the land, the festival was on, does he mediate or own me in turn? Ridiculous questions start coming up.
Alexander: And then equally, the sense of belonging that we are looking for through that connection, it’s hugely problematic because basically that is something the far right did or still does extensively. And so while I think it’s very important to be connected to land, there’s this tension in those communities where people want it, but they don’t quite want to say it. And then they want to talk about … So what they end up doing is they talk about other people’s connection to land and try and bypass and have that connection for themselves. So, I found that whole dynamic of what comes up, really interesting.
Jim: Yeah. I read that. It was indeed interesting. I had the same thought. I go, “One could interpret this as blood and land fascism,” right, one of the nasty drivers behind Nazi-ism. “[inaudible 00:34:47], we are going to grab the land from those other people. This is our land.” On the other hand, and this is to my mind, this is where it gets really interesting, and you talk about some of the new movements, the new tribes that are forming up. And one of what you mentioned was our Game B group.
Jim: And I think one of the things that, at least my version of Game B and one of the strange and interesting things about Game B, is there are no authorities. Anyone can say whatever they want about Game B. So it’s not yet highly coherent, but it has a core of coherence. My perspective is that there are definitely things that can be taken from these perspectives, but one shouldn’t adopt them hook, line, and sinker. For instance, reverence for the land can be relatively contingent in a time and a place. So let’s say for instance, 150 people get together to establish a [Proto B 00:35:43] or a [Sivium 00:35:44], which is our form of thinking about an intentional community, which is getting pretty advanced. It’s getting pretty close to happening. I expect, well, at least three Proto Bs up and running by the end of 2021. [inaudible 00:35:58] may have one this year. No, probably won’t get done this year, but it’s getting close.
Jim: And so, such an entity would buy a chunk of land, let’s call it 100 hectares or something like that, 200 acres plus. And so that group of people will have a referential relationship to that piece of land as long as that community exists. And yet we don’t say we’re going to dedicate our future to this particular parcel forever. And if time comes up that there’s a better piece of land that we can get somewhere else, we’ll move there, right, and a good example, I like to tell people about are the Mennonites. Interestingly, the Ruts were Mennonites long, long time ago. Fortunately though, my particular branch had the good sense to give that shit up in the 19th century and interbred with a bunch of Irish Catholics, and now consider themselves Irish Catholic even though they’re really about half German Mennonite. Oh, well, America is wonderful.
Jim: But I live in an area with lots of Mennonites and they have a tight knit community based on the land. But, when the time comes that, for instance, over in the Shenandoah Valley, maybe an hour and a half drive from our farm, land prices spiked during the big real estate bubble in the double arts. And many of the Mennonites sold this now overpriced land and moved west into the mountains and bought land for a third the price. And so something like 10% of the people here in our county and deep in the mountains are now Mennonites. It’s quite interesting. So, what I suggest around building these knit new tribes is don’t be doctrinaire and ideological, be pragmatic. Find what works and realize that there is probably not one design. And you point out, situationally based, if one were to build a Proto B in a major city, it’s going to look very different than one built deep in Appalachia, which is going to look very different on one built on farm lands, 50 miles out from a major city.
Jim: So, don’t be doctrinaire. Look at all kinds of things, right, you mentioned Tyson Yunkaporta. He’s become a good personal friend of mine. He’s been on the Jim Rutt Show three times, very interesting episodes. And he has some very interesting ideas that come out of indigenous cultures. But, and he would agree, that you don’t want to adopt endogenous cultures in total, one takes some of the ideas and some of the learnings and combine them with other lenses. What I love about his work is he combines two, what seem to be utterly different lenses. One’s an endogenous lens, and one’s a complexity science lens. [inaudible 00:38:42], but I happen to resonate with pretty carefully.
Jim: And he comes up with some very interesting insights. And I think he’s still thinking about, what are the implications about what is useful from an endogenous lens when combined with a complexity lens, that are relevant to a world with 8 billion people on it. Unfortunately, this is the one I like to point out to people who say, “Oh, we should go back to the indigenous ways.” Well, as long as you don’t mind about 99% of the population dying off rather horribly, you could do that. But, alas, we’re too far along for that. We need to be pragmatists and look for ideas everywhere and not be afraid to build them into institutions and interact with them as people who are undergoing transformation to higher levels of capacity and sovereignty and see what works.
Alexander: Yeah, no, I agree completely with that. And a useful metaphor I found is … I actually borrowed from one of my heroes, Terence McKenna, is to see culture as an operating system. And if you see culture as an operating system, then you can run other operating systems in your hardware, your brain. That’s actually one of the reasons that culture shock happens and is a real neurological phenomenon. Because our brains are so designed to adapt to the culture we’re born into because that’s we have to to survive. And if you go to a radically different culture, you have a physiological and emotional and psychological response of, “Oh shit, I don’t know what is going on here and I need to be really careful because I could use the wrong spoon or I could look at someone the wrong way and I might get shanked.” So that’s what your brain is worried about. And so it takes a few days or sometimes longer to adjust.
Alexander: So, I’m particularly interested in how we run multiple operating systems. So, we can run indigenous wisdom 3.0, but I think the problem comes when we try and get rid of weird culture 2.1, right, we can’t get rid of our base cultural operating system. It’s just not doable. It’s too late. Your brain is already wired that way. And I’ve seen that happen again and again in various communities who want to do things differently. And so I think the approach you’re talking about with that flexibility is a really great antidote to that because it needs that flexibility. And the ability to hold multiple perspectives, that’s a huge part of integral philosophy and it’s something I believe in very much. It’s a remedy to audiological fixation, which is something that kills pragmatism. Yeah, so I think that’s a really key point.
Jim: Yeah. I think we’re in agreement on there. And that goes to a part of your essay later on, where you essentially make that point in a broad way, which is, “Hey, we’re weird people, whether we like it or not,” right, and I will say, I would argue weirdness is good, right, for all the people that complain. And yes, there are been hypocrisies on the enlightenment mission, but it’s been a shitload better than anything else that ever happened before. You think about our religious founders like Moses and Jesus and Mohammad, all three of them found slavery perfectly acceptable. Talk about slavery as it was just part of the plumbing. Who finally stepped up and got rid of slavery? It was the enlightenment, the Brits originally, and then it spread across the world very rapidly. And after probably 10,000 years of slavery being a significant institution in many societies, the world finally got freed of it in 1962 or three, when Saudi Arabia finally abolished slavery, the last country on earth, where it was legal.
Jim: I think about the emancipation of women. Again, at least 10,000 years of patriarchy. And a lot of anthropologists I know say, frankly, it’s always been there probably 200,000 years in most cultures. Amazingly, weirdness, the enlightenment way plus weirdness, which are two similar but related things, finally have started. And when people look back at the 20th century, I like to say this, it won’t be the World War 1, World War 2, it won’t be atomic bombs, it won’t be landing on the moon, it won’t be the internet. Won’t even be the shipping container, which might have been the most significant technology of the 20th century. It will be the emancipation of women starting around 1975 when it really became a real and sincere and deep thing.
Jim: Enlightenment, weirdness plus the enlightenment, has produced a society which is far from perfect. And as our Game B critique has it, it has a fundamental deep problem, is that it cannot seem to stop this game theoretical cycle that’s driving it over the cliff and exhausting the capacity of the earth to support what we’re doing and is driving us as humans, manifested currently by machine learning driven advertising based social media into a place of where our sense-making has broken down. But, as I iterate, there’s lots of good in our tradition and we shouldn’t throw it all out by any means. And again, it was one of the things that annoys me about wokeism. They somehow assume that the west is bad, right, the west is not perfect, but it’s a shitload better than anything that came before.
Alexander: Yeah. And this is a point I often make, is if you think it’s really bad, and by no means the only person to make this point [inaudible 00:44:26], if people think it’s really bad in say in a western country, spend a few weeks in a country that really struggles and is at a different stage of development and then decide which one you would prefer to live in. Of course it’s not perfect. And we have a level of technology that means that we have the ability to just basically completely wipe ourselves out. And it’s unsustainable. We’re in the depths of a meaning crisis. There is a lot wrong. But as you said, there was a lot right. And that nuance of able being able to say yes and, I think is the key thing and it’s something that I think a lot of communities could use a little bit moral of. The wokeism aspect, all that is almost a fetishistic self hatred and guilt.
Alexander: In a way, the very ability to have that kind of perspective on our own culture is an aspect of our weirdness as well. That self critiquing and that conversation being allowed in the comments and even encouraged, that’s a pretty major thing. That you weren’t having that in say China 2000 years ago. You didn’t go to the emperor’s court and be like, “Hey, I think we should deconstruct this place because I think it’s really [inaudible 00:45:48].”
Jim: Yeah. It’s funny. I’ll give you a little story I tell fairly frequently. Regular listeners know I’ve been affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute for the last 20 years, the home of complexity science and lots of other interesting science. Check them out at santafe.edu. But anyway, we have lots of anthropologists and archeologists been affiliated with our community. And as I’ve gotten to know a bunch of them, I always ask them this question once I get to know them. You studied people X somewhere, either in time or in space. And what are the chances that in that society an obnoxious 17 year old, and here I’m thinking to myself in some sense, came up to the elders in the community and said, “You know all that time and effort we spend on the rain dance, it might be a waste of time. Why don’t we run the experiment by doing the rain dance in village A and not do the rain dance and village B for five years, measure the rainfall and see if it makes a difference?” And uniformly, 50 out of 50, these anthropologists and archeologists said it would have been literally unthinkable for that question to have even been asked.
Alexander: I love that example. Yeah. Because I’m just trying to picture it. It’s even hard to picture just because of the … Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It’s something that’s key, is with that ability to question, comes a responsibility and also incumbent on the person questioning to have something else in place, which we’ve talked about before. That the having something else after the deconstruction. And writing this essay and the reading Henrich’s work and a few other things, it changed my thinking a little bit about institutions. I’ve gone through a process of toying with the idea of, “Okay, what would it look like to build new institutions?” And then it’s like, “That’s pretty difficult.”
Alexander: And then the point I’ve came to, or at least the point I’m at now, which may well change is, the legacy institutions are there. So how do we take them and let’s say inject them with a deeper wisdom, with better processes, with better systems? And it’s one of the first times I’m exploring that more deeply and considering it. Because there’s some part of me that thinks that they’re broken beyond repair and there’re no good. We’ve got to fix them. And now I’m wondering, maybe the better and more strategically prudent process is to go, “Okay, well, we’ve got to fix them and what does that look like?” And that requires a lot of dedicated people within those institutions. I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are on that dynamic, Jim.
Jim: That’s interesting. I was probably where you are now, how many years ago, eight years ago, when I first started thinking about the predecessors to Game B, something called the emancipation party. And we laid out a platform. You want to check it out. It’s still online, emancipationparty.org. And we thought we could reform government and monetary systems and finance and law enforcement, all in one big swoop. Yeah, we were ridiculously naive. And instead I think our thinking is focused that it’s not impossible in theory to change our existing institutions, but in practice, it’s exceedingly difficult, again, for these game theoretical reasons.
Jim: And I’d like to point people to what I believe to be the most important political science book ever written called the Logic of Collective Action by Moncur Olson, in which he discusses in great detail and with some quasi-mathematical formality, the fact that vested interests i.e. concentrated interests have both tactical and strategic advantages against diffuse interests. The two examples I’d like to use to communicate this idea is why is it that Comcast, which in the United States is this ugly monopolist cable TV company, is able to manipulate the regulators at the city level to get higher and higher rates for worse and worse services when the large community of people who in theory are democratically sovereign, get their government to do what they want, have no chance against Comcast? It’s because their interests are very, very concentrated and that gives a tactical and strategic advantage versus diffuse interest. And the other is, why have the oil companies and coal companies had their ways when clearly their day is over and should be gradually phased out? Again, for the same issue, economic and political concentration beats diffusion.
Jim: So for those reasons, at the moment, I am focusing on bottom up. That, let’s get very clear and let’s build and demonstrate a social operating system. And in the Game B world, we literally call that the social operating system. Either we call it the social operating system or deep code and more or less, they’re the same idea. But let’s do it at a small scale and then let’s build in from the beginning the fact that these small scale entities, let’s call them Proto Bs or Siviums, interact with each other on a network and then build their own shadow economy and shadow governance with each other gradually over time. And this is the important part, perfect these institutions. Because I think the other thing that anyone who’s experimenting with social operating systems needs to bring to the table is epistemic modesty. From a complexity science perspective of 20 years of learning there, I understood that our ability to predict the unfolding of a complex system is a shitload less than we think it is, particularly if we make major changes from current underlying systems.
Jim: I suspect guys like Carl Marx never imagined something like Cambodia under Pol Pot, for instance, right, but it happened, right, and so I think the other big advantage of starting bottom up is the cost of being wrong are much smaller and the cycle times of experimentation in high dimensional phase space of design, it’s much less expensive. It takes a lot less long to say, “Okay, here’s attempt A. It didn’t work. Let’s do attempt B. Let’s modify the design, adapt better to local situations. Oh shit, we didn’t even consider this. Let’s try it again and do better.” And so personally, I am much increasing my emphasis on experimentation from the bottom up but in a way that’s eventually scalable all the way to the top. And I wrote a paper called The Journey to Game B that if people are interested in at least a pencil sketch of how that might work on medium, I would encourage them to read it.
Alexander: Yeah, no, it’s interesting. It’s interesting to feel that pull between those two different models. I think the model you just laid out or something similar to it, is where I’ve spent most of my time thinking about and leaning towards. I guess one major question is how those proto-institutions, let’s call them, how they manage to out … That crux point when they start out-competing the Game A institutions. I’m particularly interested in that and interested in what they need to have in order to do that. And I think part of it, and I think I’ve heard you say something similar to this, is that it can’t just be pure Game B in a sense of it’s like a brand new thing. It’s got to have some grounding in Game A. It’s got to use some of the tactics and dynamics that make a Game A institution’s and ways of doing things so successful. So I think it’s a very interesting question, what some of those are and how you play with the devil’s tools without getting sucked in to then becoming yourself another rivalrous institution that falls into all those dynamics.
Jim: Yeah. A lovely and key question and actually goes back to the very beginning, literally the day the idea of Game B was created at the whiteboard by a guy named Jordan Hall. And by the end of that day, we had already, group of 20 of us or so, had already realized that for Game B to be realistic and not just yet another utopian idea, it had to be able as part of its fundamental architecture to parasitize, is the word we use, people still flinch at that word, parasitize Game A by out-competing Game A at least in some and eventually growing areas of domain using Game B methods, but out-competing Game A in those domains. And I think we’re been a fair amount of thinking’s continued about that.
Jim: I just had a four hour conversation with Jordan Hall on the front porch of my farm, what day was that, yesterday, shit, where we made considerable progress in some formal institutional design, which might well produce a homeostasis where a Proto B operates internally one way and has significant but well-defined interfaces to Game A, with the literal intent of out-competing Game A at its own game in carefully selected domains. And over time, as Game B gets bigger and we get better at playing Game B, and as I said, early instantiations might actually not be quite right, we’ll add to those domains where we can successfully out-compete Game A.
Jim: An example I throw out because it’s just so cheesy and low level is, imagine a Game B auto repair business. If you deal with getting your car fixed, man, you can get screwed 15 ways from Sunday. The service writer claims shit’s wrong with your car when it’s not. They say they’re using original manufactured parts. Oh well, not actually true. They got them from Chinese knockoffs or the junkyard, and they charge you for the new part. There’s pressure on the mechanics to buy as many parts as possible from the parks department. It’s an industry that’s remarkably corrupt. Not in every case. I can say a couple of people I know that do a good job, but there’s, at least in the United States, high level of corruption in the auto repair business.
Jim: So suppose we started, each Proto B had as part of its business, a Game B auto repair business. It’s completely honest. We’ll never lie. We’ll give you your parts back. We’ll provide the proof that the parts we bought are the ones that you paid for. We’ll have honest service writers. There’ll be no internal tension between the mechanics and the parts department, because they’re both owners of the business. And I just use that as a nice, interesting, and low tech example of one way we might actually be able to, in a principled and scalable fashion, auto repair to big ass business, out-compete Game A at its own game by using Game B method.
Alexander: Yeah. And I would love to see the Game B auto repair. But I love that. I resonate with that a lot. And just briefly, I think there’s a great live example happening right now that I’m currently I’m working on a film about, which is the mainstreaming of psychedelic medicine, which some people might be aware psychedelics have a huge efficacy in treating mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. And they were illegal for many years. The last 10 years has seen a lot of research with positive results. And now, this year, there’s been four IPOs of psychedelic companies. So now venture capitalists and big pharma are coming into it as a fascinating case study because you have what is effectively a completely different paradigm and one that’s based on completely different values and works in a very different way. For example, you have to give people a lot of pre therapy. You sit with them in a very carefully contained environment as they go through the process. And then you have to give them a lot of support after.
Alexander: That is a completely different model to giving someone an antidepressant pill. And so all of these tensions of a Game A medical system are now meeting a very different paradigm of mental health, which involves the community, which involves a completely different … Which may well be that a few doses and you don’t need the medicine anymore. So, that makes it difficult for pharma companies to profit on it. So, that’s all playing out right now. Yeah, I’d encourage people [inaudible 00:58:26] dynamics to pay attention to that, because it’s going to be a crux point between what happens when a completely different modality tries to enter that kind of entrenched system.
Jim: Great example. I’m aware of the work on psychedelics or near psychedelics for treating PTSD, for instance, right, and again, as you point out, the reason it’s so Game A is that the pharma companies or talk therapists, et cetera, are looking to turn people who have conditions into ongoing chronic conditions to be able to extract from their wallet and perpetuity while something that, okay, two MDMA pills and two counseling sessions and some connection to a real community solved your problem, there ain’t that much profit in it, right, so it’s got to have a different driver in the Game A, money on money return machine rejects these kinds of solutions. And I think that’s an excellent example of a potential Game B perspective on that particular situation. Well, Alexander, we could probably talk for another hour, but I think we should probably wrap it about here. Any final thoughts?
Alexander: No, no, I think we covered a lot of ground. I really enjoyed myself. So yeah, thanks again for the conversation, Jim.
Jim: Yeah. I loved it. It’s great. So again, for our listeners, Indigenous Narcissism; Social Media, Belonging and WEIRDness is on Medium by Alexander Beiner. And as always, the link will be on our episode page at jimruttshow.com. Thanks for listening.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.