The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Samo Burja. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Samo Burja. Samo founded Bismarck Analysis, a consulting firm that investigates the political and institutional landscape of society. And he’s a member of the startup team of Daniel Schmachtenberger’s Consilience Project. Welcome, Samo.
Samo: Great to be here with you.
Jim: Yeah, it’s great to have you back. Samo has been on the show twice previously on EP 117 and EP 125, where we did a pretty deep dive into his very interesting book, Great Founder Theory. If you’re interested in how societies work and how they don’t work, I highly recommend that book. Check out the episode page.
Jim: Today, we’re going to talk about the Consilience Project, which you can find at consilienceproject.org. And of course, as usual, we’ll have a link to that website on our episode page at jimruttshow.com. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should let the audience know that I’ve been an advisor to the Consilience Project for quite a while. And I’m a strong supporter of its mission. So, if I’m nicer to Samo today than I usually am, that’s why.
Jim: My famously disagreeable personality might be a little bit less disagreeable today, because I really do think this is really good stuff. I’m going to bring the story forward rather than challenge it, like I might in the normal course of things, just to let everybody know. Full disclosure, great believer in that. So, Samo, the Consilience Project, what is it? Let’s assume our audience has never even heard of it.
Samo: Yeah, the Consilience Project is a project to develop a body of social theory and analysis that explains and seeks solutions to the unique challenges we face today. It is more than just a media outlet that is producing things such as the foundation series and the situational assessments that I’m going to get right into. It is rather hoping to be a new school of thought, and also, a new strain of discourse.
Samo: The desire we have and our hope for it is that people engage with the material we put on the site, that people engage and critique and extend it. Also, there’s going to be associated media work, such as podcasts and all of that. Because the hope is that we essentially, we first create the body of theory, and then we help educate a whole new citizenry prepared for a different type of civilization, like the next sort of phase of our society that we really have to evolve into.
Samo: The reason why I’m excited about it is because there’s just so few projects aimed at something quite as fundamentalist this. This is a straightforward intervention into the epistemic comments where we’re actually actively happy if we’re imitated. We’re not playing the media game where you’re trying to get the scoop first and get all the credit for your take. You’re very much like, well, if everyone else is adhering to these higher standards because they really liked what we worked on, if everyone else wants to weave in explanations that help the reader evaluate the world on their own later rather than just merely presenting from on high the conclusion, well, that is, in itself a win. That’s an itself a step towards fixing sensemaking, which has been badly broken.
Jim: Yeah, just to make it a little bit more tangible for the audience, it will look to you like an online magazine if you go to consilienceproject.org, but it has got a much deeper philosophical base and reason for being, as Samo points out. The original motivation was the realization that our society is in a bad state. And we are confronting some very major crises. And if our public sensemaking is not adequate to the task, we will fail in the transition. Is that approximately correct?
Samo: Yes, very much so. One of the key concepts is that essentially, we’ve been able to have a society for a while now, where negative externalities are just that, they’re externalities. You don’t have to factor them in, be it political systems, industrial systems, intellectual systems, ideological systems. However, with exponential technology, these externalities exponent to, and some of such externalities might be things that might be best described as catastrophic or existential risks, such as, I don’t know, like leaked bioweapons or super intelligent machines, or just classical good old fashioned ecological collapse.
Samo: And these are strong physical constraints. These are in a way very, very material things. They don’t go away just because we don’t talk about them or just because we don’t think about them. Then, there’s the massive problem of, well, information technology took a giant leap forward, but the social technology we built on top of this information technology is what? Well, at best, we have some 18th century political theory, some 19th century educational theory, and some, let’s say 20th century marketing, or if we’re being less generous, propaganda bolted on top of this tower, this stack of cultural, political, social practices.
Samo: Of course, it’s a shaky tower. It’s starting to shake because not only was it that our political system and our social system, economic system hadn’t fully processed television, television was weirdly disruptive and had all of these weird distorting effects like Radiohead weird and distorting effects.
Samo: I think kind of 19th century newspapers were a little bit of a stable equilibrium. But that’s been what, 160 years since then? And the internet, in fact, made this significantly worse, because people are now participants in discourse. They’re not just consumers. It’s one thing if you read a story, it’s quite another if you tweet about a story, or if you write a Facebook post about a story.
Samo: If it’s a low quality story, it was wrong. Well, you have an ego stake in defending this wrong position. Now, if it was correct, you might still be in trouble for a different reason. We had a society in the 20th century to a significant degree that was based on a uniformity of inputs. There were only a few places doing the transmitting and everyone else was receiving, very much there was a radio star and there was a radio audience. There was a TV star and there was a TV audience. And there’s a reason that’s say presidential debates shifted to television so strongly after the 1950s or ’60s. It was the natural place for that to happen, given the information technology of the era.
Samo: And I’m going to make a claim that the Trump presidency was very natural to the medium of something like Twitter, and natural to the internet as a whole. And that, in fact, we still have to figure out well, okay, if politicians are directly communicating to people through these big media platforms, what does this mean for, first off, there’s the obvious things like populism, nationalism, instability, craziness, all of that. But then there’s also the fun question of, well, the media platforms are the strongest political entities in the world right now, like Twitter, Facebook.
Jim: Yup. It is a different world. And it is funny that and I’ve been involved with the creation of the online world since the beginning, 1980, near the beginning, 1980, when I worked with the Source, the world’s first consumer online service. We actually had much of what exists today, online, the character mode only, 300 bot and $10 an hour, but because it was the only game in town, we have lots of players.
Jim: And it’s very interesting, we thought that we were doing the work for the good and that this could only help make democracy better. And it’s interesting, because the big move, as you point out, is that the previous paradigms all the way back to Gutenberg, frankly, are one-to-many paradigms, where one point broadcast, you write a book or your newspaper, you have a radio outlet or TV outlet.
Jim: And it’s one-to-many, fair amount of curation because it’s expensive to own a point of broadcast only allegedly responsible people that, of course, responsible people also include people like Adolf Hitler, who was a master of radio, but he was the chancellor of Germany. So, he had the legal right to expropriate that broadcast point.
Jim: The big change, and again, this goes back at least 1982, when at the Source, we released something called Participate, which was a true many-to-many communications platform, sort … Not really like anything that exists out there today, but it had many of the same attributes.
Jim: And it was very interesting to see something truly new flourish. And that’s the world we’re in today, the Facebook world, the Twitter world, weird. I mean, Twitter is more broadcasting than Facebook is, in some sense. Facebook is specifically designed to produce lots and lots of small groups, small clusters, small groups or friends. They have a limit of 5000 friends, et cetera. Well, Twitter is very nonlinear. Lots of people, hundreds of thousands or millions of followers on Twitter.
Jim: So, particularly, Facebook is very interesting and that it’s an organic substrate where all kinds of things can grow. Without any real oversight, until very recently, there was no oversight, Facebook, particularly, Zuck was actually a pretty confirmed free speech dude, as were all of us old time internet pioneers. I was vaguely associated with the startup of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, which fought for pretty rigorous free speech on the platforms.
Jim: And frankly, I’m still somewhat conflicted about that. And I’m even more conflicted with the idea of giving the platforms the power to make the decisions of what’s good faith discourse. Because sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong. But the fact that that level of power to adjudicate over our information sphere in the hands of two or three very peculiar oligarchs, I mean, these guys are weirdos. I mean, Zuckerberg is not a normal dude at all. Nor is Bezos, nor is Jack. They’re all peculiar as shit.
Jim: So, why those folks should have the authority to throttle and mold our discourse is not at all obvious to me. But it does put us in an interesting and unexplored space, where as you say, it’s not just the thing that gets spread, it’s the fact that you spread it. You put your credentials on the line essentially, well, at least with your family and your friends, et cetera, when you upload something. And the emergent result is something we don’t yet fully understand.
Samo: Yeah, you very much come to identify with what you say, even if you didn’t originally come up with the words that you’re speaking. This was the brilliance of some early 20th century stuff, middle of 20th century stuff. You put a uniform on people, and suddenly, they identify very strongly with whatever they just heard five minutes ago.
Samo: And today, in a way, where each of our digital profiles is coming to be more and more uniform. And you kind of have to ask, “Well, in whose war and whose army is my uniform. What am I being pledged to? What am I being drawn into? What are these online tribes that are forming? What are these sort of mood affiliations that arise?”
Samo: Because these aren’t necessarily say logical coalitions. This isn’t sort of like a type of thing similar to an ideology like Marxism, where you might have a sort of model of history, you might have these assumptions about how labor works, how economics works. And if you agree with that stuff, then, okay, you go and organize a communist party cell. And if you slightly disagree with that, you go in and organize like the Trotskyites or whatever.
Samo: The mood affiliation that’s emerging is more about what you are against than what you are for. And what you are against is often that’s always a diverse coalition. It’s like a very, very different people. This is why you see these sort of chaotic redrawings of lines in the culture war, where you have these unusual coalitions that form, that rise that collapse, the sort of logical contradictions, where a lot of these things, if you try to boil down common political positions right now into something like a logical system, it’s just not going to work. It’s just going to be completely self-contradictory.
Samo: You’re basically taking something that pretends to be a consistent coherent position is actually then a little bit more like a wish list. And underneath at all, it’s just this particular mood traveling through a large sea of people, each of them something of a conductor, something of a resisting element also to these differences.
Jim: I may also add to them, the Trump phenomenon was very interesting, in that group of us did a fair amount of work looking at the rise of Trumpism. And how the means that drove Trumpism were top down. They were mostly created in the wild over on the chance essentially, than the better ones were up regulated on things like the Donald on Reddit. And then people in at Fox News or Breitbart, et cetera, picked the ones they liked upregulated those and then Trump saw and he started repeating them.
Jim: And then when Trump repeated it, it went way out its broadcast and then they were mutated. They came back up this decentralized mimetic factory. And as far as I know, it’s been nothing like that in history before, because we didn’t have the affordances to make this kind of thing possible.
Samo: Also, it’s very important here is that lack of Trumpism is a coherent worldview enabled this sort of harvesting of the means. One way you could think of Trump during his stay in office was that he was the A/B tester and chief, where you say one thing one day, a different thing the other. If on the first day what you said is 10 times or 100 times as viral as what you said the second day, well, then guess what? Your position on the first day is de facto policy from the perspective of 99 people they only saw the first day’s tweet.
Samo: Later on, you can pretend that that was your position all along, even though you had no clue which one would be the more popular one, the more viral one would anger your opponents more et cetera.
Jim: Yeah, I always say that was one of the aspects of Trump, says A on Monday, B on Wednesday, C on Friday. All three are mutually contradictory, but he doesn’t care because he’s not operating in the domain of logic. He is operating in two domains. One is kind of pop culture and the other is extreme narcissism. And so, things are rated essentially on the two and the nonlinear combination of them. And so, attempting to follow Trumpism from the perspective of enlightenment rationality actually turns out to be a category error.
Samo: Right, right. And I mean, this I think perhaps demonstrates the problem of this sort of excessive sea where it’s all noise and no signal. And the signal that does emerge is just selected for and super selected for virality, mimetic virality. And I think there’s nothing quite as viral as the sort of mood affiliated coalitions. These mood affiliate coalitions are interesting.
Samo: One way to think about it is if you have a coalition around hating something, you need very little coherence. You actually need to do very little logical work. It’s a decently viral set of positions. And it’s very difficult to produce things that are constructive and as viral. I think, importantly, it does happen. There are certain speeches that can be uplifting that can work in that way. But then we’re already talking about speech making.
Samo: In a way, speech is a richer medium than Twitter. Twitter, and to some extent, also Facebook, unless we’re talking video, it’s constrained with these characters. You can read it in multiple ways. You don’t hear the voice of the person. You don’t see the person. And I think this removes a whole set of relevant checks on how something can or can’t work.
Samo: Now, I don’t want to talk up speech too much. I just do think that if you can have the attention span for say, a one-hour conversation or a one-hour lecture, you can cover some pretty complex things. And that’s, I think, still an enduring advantage of, say, the podcast format. The most viral podcasts aren’t the shortest podcasts. They’re not even the punchiest podcasts. They’re often the podcast with the most likable people having the most dynamic conversation. And that’s a vastly better attractor than what makes for the best 140 characters or best 280 characters.
Jim: That’s actually an interesting point, that the long form podcast has really come into its own. I launched my podcast two years ago. I aim for the 90-minute to two-hour timeframe for my full length episodes. And yeah, an hour or so for my short ones. And people, several people thought I was nuts. In fact, my original producer wanted to chop my podcasts up into 10-minute sections and float them in separate episodes. And I said, “Well, now, that’s not what I’m trying to do here.”
Jim: And it has turned out that there does seem to be a libido for this deep form. So, let’s take that back to the Consilience Project. Because people who check it out, you will see this is not your Twitter soundbite, quite the opposite. So, talk a little bit about how the philosophy of the Consilience Project is to have the nerve in this world of thought to be short attention spans to go in the opposite direction, kind of like the long form podcasts and really dig into things.
Samo: Yeah. I think one of the underlying reasons is that if you take these diagnosis of mimetic virality, if you take them for granted, you realize that what you’re searching for isn’t this sort of noise. It isn’t this maximum virality. What you, in fact, are going to try to do is to start a sea change in culture. In the desires of people, they will have to reach a level of education where they simply do not choose to participate in the like morass in the sea of noise, where they go out of their way to evaluate and engage with a much more classical approach to thinking.
Samo: Now, when I say classical approach to thinking, this doesn’t mean a classical content and it certainly doesn’t mean a return to predigital media. If anything, it means building of a new digital culture. Now, what might be the means to do something like this? I think one of the first steps is to help reorient people. People have been now used and reduced to a very passive state of consumption.
Samo: Basically, the most watched video on YouTube is the watch next video driven by recommendation engines. In a way, this is a step down from the search engine. A search engine is in a way a step down from asking a trusted person on a small internet forum that you’ve shit posted with and serious posted with and effort posted with for five years. Each of these is a downward step in how epistemically verified this is for you as an individual.
Samo: So, the hope is that through a set of situational assessments that give answers, practical answers to concrete questions of what’s happening in the world, say, what is up with China and East Africa? What is happening in Taiwan? What is in fact happening with the vast morass of the crazy media landscape? Look, one of the pieces people can find on consilience, which are unique to the Consilience Project is so-called MetaNews.
Samo: MetaNews is our attempt to follow how stories have developed and how they impacted society, and also, how the medic and narrative payload shifted over time. One of the stories that the Consilience Project investigated very, very deeply was the BLM riots and protest period, where were pallets of bricks planted at Black Lives Matter protests.
Samo: Now, this is no longer a viral story. It was very viral last summer. But don’t you want to know the answer? Don’t you want to figure out what was happening around that crazy discourse? It was such an important question. Because the way you would answer that question resulted in you thinking that this is organic, justified, inorganic, fake, possibly framed to be violent when it’s actually just.
Samo: There’s a whole little logical tree that falls out of it. And investigating how such a story played out last summer gives us the contours of our mimetic ideological and propaganda landscape. So, I’m really proud of those projects. Those are ones that I think is providing a unique novel approach to reviewing the media. This isn’t so-called fact checking, where of course, none of the fact checkers agree. They all disagree. And I think they all kind of wear their bias on their sleeves.
Samo: Here, it’s more trying to see how did this develop over time presented in a systematic way. However, also, just making the tools explicit, the tools of how do you do this kind of critical media review on your own. And this always has to be demonstrated in an example. So, there’s MetaNews, deconstructing popular narratives and the noise, trying to find the signal that lets you know what the shape of the noise is, how to avoid the noise.
Samo: The second one is the situational assessments to try to work out as best as possible what’s happening in domains, everything from technology, environmentalism, obviously, the ongoing pandemic, rise of China, political instability, financial systems, everything essentially. These hopefully draw in people who can evaluate in their own domain that you know what you’re talking about.
Samo: One of the key facts of media is that you read about your domain of expertise and you realize the journalist has no idea what they’re talking about, then you turn the page and you take what they’re saying in other domains as completely true and reliable. I think this is called the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.
Jim: Exactly. I’ve experienced it myself involved with things that made it to the media, and it’s 90% wrong every time and yet we don’t assume that’s the case in everything else we read in the media.
Samo: Right, right. And we’re actually hoping for a kind of Gell-Mann Learning effect with our articles. We hope that people who are experts on Taiwan, people who are experts on the Brazilian rainforest, read our articles, and they say, “This is actually quite good. Let me see the other stuff.” It’s a little bit of a countersignaling strategy, where you’re hoping to be the exception, a little bit, the exception that proves the rule or something like that.
Samo: Then finally, there is the foundation series. The foundation series digs directly into the social theory that we make use of to make sense of society, the social theory that’s used to produce MetaNews reports and to produce situational assessments. And this series then digs into some of the basics. One of the articles that contributed to was titled, Democracy in the Epistemic Commons, where the political consequences of, again, mass public speech, a failure of sensemaking are made apparent for both problems that democracy has, but also reconstructing a little bit from first principles, hey, what is this thing? What is democracy? How is it supposed to work? Did we even ever see it?
Jim: That was a great article. I would suggest that that should remain one of the introductory pieces for the Consilience Project, because it really frames the motivation and the technique of people who are going to read Consilience to use the tools from the foundations to be able to make sense of them. Which brings me on to my next point, our mutual friend Daniel Schmachtenberger, when he talks about Consilience Project, often talks about kind of a three-part model of sensemaking, meaning making and choice making. First, explain to the audience what those three things are and how do you see Consilience Project being part of those three social processes?
Samo: The key point is a site, of course, has to have all three processes, working quite well. Sensemaking is first, an orientation and application of things known about the world so that you can make a coherent model of what’s going on either explicitly or implicitly. When you say casually, I don’t know what I’m seeing, you don’t mean that there are no words in your head to describe that. You mean you literally can’t make sense of what you’re seeing. So, this sensemaking goes beyond the words. It goes to things like pattern recognition. It goes things to a literal gut feeling of confusion or clarity, and so on.
Samo: These are very basic human experiences. And the scaling of these basic human experiences is what helps you produce a dynamic coherence to society. So, society to has sensemaking does not need to just follow the leader’s gut feeling. It, in fact, has something of a shared correctly constructed gut feeling versus one that is, to a significant extent, very chaotic, oppositional, no premise is followed up by a conclusion, no incorrect premise is ever disproven. You say A on Monday, B on Tuesday. A is more viral. The virality is rewarded, not the correctness. So, that’s the problem.
Samo: If you wish to have a somewhat free society, the sensemaking has to be participatory, which means that different levels of society can correct each other, different centers of society can correct each other. And they’re even able to find this commonality of speech and so on. Then there’s the question of meaning. How do we evaluate things? Do we find meaning in them? Or do we not find meaning in them? What is motivating us even?
Samo: The sense of enemy often comes with not just the loss of sensemaking. There are many people, in fact, who they have fairly coherent worldviews that you can share these worldviews with others, but they’re fundamentally depressed. And one of the reasons they’re often fundamentally depressed is because of the question, so what. You said how it is. Tell me how it should be. Or rather, I know how it is, but I don’t know how it should be.
Samo: And then finally, there’s the question of choice making and how are decisions between different possible futures made, again, both for individuals and society as a whole. The sort of simple solution is that you have a single center that tries to make decisions. The other alternative is sort of anarchy. There are no real decisions made anywhere. And the ideal coherence is that society builds these decisions together through something like a discourse, something like a deliberative process, where deliberative doesn’t just merely mean voting. It goes much beyond voting. It is the shared building of the model of the world, and the, what about it, so what do we do about it? And finally, the details of the implementation.
Jim: And I think it’s very important, the point that you make. The choice making is more than just voting. It also clearly involves things like the emergence social norms and the society, o the degree that we actually were serious about climate change, for instance. A person flying out a private jet ought to be considered a scoundrel and laughed at and have rotten tomatoes thrown at them, not be celebrated as some pop hero. Until we develop those kinds of social norms, people still fly around in private jets, which they shouldn’t, goddamnit.
Jim: There’s an example the choices that we make, and those are individual, but they need to be informed by some coherent social view on where we’re trying to get, i.e., meaning we’re trying to preserve our earth for future generations. So, these all tied together. And if they’re not functioning correctly, the probability of navigating the through line to what comes next successfully goes way down.
Samo: I mean, we can see this partially in the discourse around nuclear power and climate change. And not just nuclear power, at this point, in fact, there are many environmentalists who are opposed to solar energy because of the massive land use requirements of it. So, if you don’t want solar and you don’t want wind, wind kills birds, you don’t want nuclear, what exactly are you proposing?
Samo: And I think there’s an underlying desire to return to a much lower energy world. A much lower energy world means a notably less complex society. And the problem with that kind of desire is that on a societal level, that’s a self-destructive desire. Where do we even begin to have the language to talk about and address our society’s collective unconscious and these seemingly strong self-destructive drives we have just underneath the surface?
Jim: Yeah, though, it is true that, at least with the technologies we have today, if we want to live within the ecological balance of the earth and we want eight billion people to all have that same standard of living, or at least approximately, we probably do have deenergize our society by maybe as much as 80%. But even to do that, we’re going to need nuclear, solar and wind. And if you eliminate all those, you’re basically talking about hippies and mud huts.
Samo: No one’s going to choose that. And if a country chooses that, well, the other countries are going to make a different choice for that country very soon. There is a way in which unilateral deindustrialization is unilateral disarmament pretty straightforwardly.
Jim: Yeah. And you’re just going to get taken over by the people who don’t play that game. So, even the sensible deenergization of society by say, 80%, which we could still have a very advanced society at that level, even that’s going to be tricky, for a number of reasons.
Jim: And we’ll have to go with that is choice making around social norms, that flying a private jet already should be anathema. I would argue that driving a big Mercedes ought to be anathema, at least on the road towards building a sustainable human society. And unfortunately, through a century of propaganda, particularly Americans, but also Western Europeans, and Chinese and Japanese, et cetera, status through possessions has become the thing.
Jim: And so, a person who drives the big Mercedes, finally, a big Mercedes, drive any better than a small Toyota Camry or something, but they have all the status tied up in this. And until we can deprogram that status through possessions thing, it’s going to be really difficult to bring all these threads together in a way that truly is sustainable. So, that social choice making is going to be an important part of the package.
Samo: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, right? Because I think consumption is a broader category than just possessions. It is a little bit of a generational effect where say, people under 30 might primarily status signal via something like travel, rather than the size of your car. But guess what, if you’re flying to Maui, and you’re flying to Rome, and then you’re flying down to Argentina, or even if you’re flying to the Andes Mountains to spend two weeks with the Native Americans high up in the mountains and you have these beautiful pictures, and you say, “Oh, this is so ecological and so lovely,” your plane emitted a lot of CO2 to get you there. This is not a green lifestyle.
Samo: So, merely throwing away your possessions, however, is retaining high consumption. That isn’t green either. So, the idea that you just Airbnb everywhere, Uber everywhere and fly a plane everywhere, and somehow you’re enlightened and not consumerist, that’s very silly.
Samo: It is something some people latch on to.
Jim: Yeah, truthfully, what everybody should do is have a known carbon operating statement and balance sheet. That would be a very useful thing to help us evolve towards where we need to be. So, that if I fly to Peru, I know what it cost in terms of carbon, and I have a cumulative life balance sheet of how much carbon footprint my life has done. When I buy blueberries that were flown in from Chile in the middle of February, while in dollars, we’ve been able to optimize because we have externalities around the atmosphere, we don’t charge appropriate fees for the atmosphere, we can afford to buy blueberries from Chile in February in Virginia, which is fucking nuts.
Jim: Carbon footprint accounting as one of our principal ways of looking at the world. The locally grown blueberries in June would be very inexpensive as compared to those Chilean ones even though in dollar terms, they might be fairly similar. So, yeah, these are things that we’re going to have to learn as humans if we’re going to succeed. So, what does the Consilience Project … How is it going to help us develop these better world models and having a libido for better social norms? How do you see yourselves contributing to that?
Samo: Well, the example you used was actually of implementing a system of carbon accounting. Tell me, is there any agency in the federal government today that you would trust to implement that system? Is there any organ of the United Nations? Is there even a nonprofit organization? And is there any hope that such a system could be rationally discussed, optimized, taken into account the considerations of the common citizen of all relevant groups of society?
Samo: I think the problem is that to set up a system of carbon accounting, you actually first need a system of epistemic accounting. You need the epistemic commons once more to function, and the epistemic commons have to function updated to the digital world. The hope is that this is achieved through, again, MetaNews giving an example of how to deconstruct the noise, cut through the noise, cut through these emotionally charged mood affiliation coalitions that build up these really intricate, logically inconsistent narratives.
Samo: Then also achieve clarity on some of these basic clear questions like the energy questions that you discussed that we discussed, when thinking about the environment. These aren’t unique. There are many really deep technical aspects to Almost every element of our society. You can’t think about cities without thinking about the social effect of industry, how industry brings people together and out, what it does to social fabric. You can’t think about bringing people in and out, unless you think about mass education. You can’t think about mass education, et cetera, et cetera.
Samo: There’s almost nothing that doesn’t require a precise good technical analysis. We as individuals cannot do always a precise technical analysis for everything. What we however can learn to do is to verify the proof. We don’t need to make the mathematical proof. We just need to verify the mathematical proof. And we need proof makers and proof evaluators. So, mathematics theorems, sure. But there’s a way in which the mathematics community is laudable and healthy.
Samo: You know that there’s a theorem that was proved in a 4chan post. And the mathematician in the paper presenting this theorem to the mathematics community did the remarkable thing of crediting and citing the 4chan post. I wish other parts of academia were that healthy. I think it’s super important.
Jim: That’s pretty amazing. We’ve talked a little bit about why and sort of at the higher level, how, talking about your structure of foundations plus situational assessments, plus MetaNews, and how these link into our societal issues around sensemaking, choice making and meaning making. Let’s drive down a little bit, why don’t you tell us how you all do this? In my conversations with folks out there, it’s kind of interesting. Your usual bunch of journalists, though you do have some people with some journalistic experience. Tell the audience, what kind of folks are working on this stuff that allows it to have such incredibly high quality?
Samo: Well, part of it is every single article is a team effort and a collaboration. There is, in fact, usually something like a principal researcher or two principal researchers who look at a particular topic, lay out the sort of basic arguments. These things then go through a detailed internal discussion that’s not focused on how this will be received. But it’s focused on the truth of the matter.
Samo: So, it’s a very much this sort of small scale discussion, disputation process. That’s a little bit an element of culture, but I’m first focusing on what connects people rather than their backgrounds. Backgrounds are from all sorts of areas. You have people that have worked in science professionally. You have people who have been education theorists, people who have worked in finance, people who have worked in software engineering, people like myself who kind of escaped a good description, people then who are something of brilliant internet autodidact and super forecasters.
Samo: The key aspect of this is we’re not searching for people who necessarily have deep experience with the journalistic world. We value the few high quality, high trust journalistic colleagues that we have for helping us present things to the public, et cetera, et cetera. There is a real craft to writing. There’s so many bloggers out there who I think would agree that they need a good editor. Not an editor to enforce a party line, but an editor to just clear up your words.
Jim: Building sentences is kind of like bricklaying. It’s actually not as easy as it looks.
Samo: Right, right. A beautiful essay, a well-written article reads effortlessly. And that’s because the writer put a lot of effort into making it effortless for you. It’s not just laying out information. You are actually with every single sentence helping the reader both cognitively keep pace with you. But also, you kind of have to give them the emotional motivation to read the next thing.
Samo: The easiest thing any reader can do is stop reading. And they’re correct to stop reading. You’re not respecting their time as a writer. And before I go too far into this, what I would say is deep domain level expertise debated through and questioned in an open sort of format followed by a clarity edit. I think this is a really good way to think of some of these individual articles.
Samo: Now, when it comes to the sourcing, we go through this very intricate process of evaluating sources. We don’t just go and check out a fact checking website of some kind. We will interview people, ask the sources themselves about things, review biases, and the cognitive toolkits that organizations use when producing the reports.
Samo: It’s one thing to say read a paper on what a North Korean EMP strike might do to America’s power grid. It’s quite another to evaluate whether the nonprofit that produced that report or they just producing reports that suggest we should go to war with North Korea? You can’t trust just the white paper. You actually have to see what sort of selection effect is at play. And if you see this kind of conflict of interest, you have to be careful for subterfuge. The proof might still check out. But if a sketchy person is handing you the proof, you might want to put extra scrutiny into it.
Samo: So, there’s a lot of labor that goes into that. It’s one of the reasons we also have a relatively long period for each of our pieces. Each of our pieces might go through a month cycle of development. And this is in fact important since you can’t think through these complicated topics otherwise. Of course, the release schedule is brisk and it’s going to become even faster. You can stagger these in parallel with each other.
Samo: This is just very different from either click chasing or old fashioned narrative setting. You know when The New York Times meets at the start of the year and they literally discuss what the narrative is going to be for this year, and they assign the journalists to beats, yeah, this isn’t done. We ask our people, so, what’s the most important thing that should be discussed that should be figured out? And then these ideas sort of bubble up. Pitches are made. You present why this matters. And then you go ahead and you work on it.
Samo: So, I honestly sometimes feel that this is the way academia should be working at times, but it really doesn’t either. So, we’re trying to take the best from academia, online shitposting, and journalistic tradition.
Jim: Yeah. That also think that the team has made some very interesting and important and good kind of foundational decisions, one of which I actually helped. I was the one that proposed the no by lines policy, for instance. One of the problems of traditional journalism is there’s a bit of a conflict of interest in that the writer if they have a byline is also trying to promote their own brand all the time. And it’s why writing is more flamboyant and button pushing than it needs to be at least I believe.
Jim: And so, the decision to have no guidelines gets that out of the game because nobody gets any credit for being flashy and self-promotional. And I think that’s really worked out. I mean, the articles are really sober and they lack that kind of needless fireworks that so much of clickbait journalism is about today. And I think it’s been quite interesting.
Jim: And then the other one, which, I don’t know who came up with it, probably Daniel, is your business model. Once you talk a little bit about the business model for the Consilience Project and all that, and I know a fair amount about that as well, I can chime in and where you run out of gas and how important that is to the mission of doing what you said you’re trying to do.
Samo: Well, Daniel is certainly better qualified to speak of that part than I am. However, I think it’s very important to note that so many organizations and nonprofits and so on become self-serving entities, where the original meaning is, the original purpose is something that is veered off over time. Every foundation is captured by a staff is one way to think about it.
Samo: Well, one way you can attempt to solve this is to having various sunset clauses. Another way is that you basically set it so that the organization’s membership is people who have stakes in other aspects of caring about the future and caring about the world. Finally, I do think there is something to be said about some classical social technologies here, like donor disclosure, not relying on one specific donor, pursuing multiple et cetera, et cetera.
Jim: Yeah. To be quite precise about it, the board made the decision to take absolutely no revenue from subscriptions and advertising, et cetera. And in this world, that’s a pretty bold decision, which of course, it puts the pressure on the not-for-profit philanthropic fundraising. But it absolutely frees you from clickbaitism from being subject to the whims and having to lean in the direction of your funders, et cetera. And I think it’s really an important part.
Samo: It makes for a more pleasing reading experience as well. Every time I see a pop up asking me to subscribe or checking a certain kind of product, that is attention and information processing taken away from the topic itself.
Jim: And it’s also just a tax on our attention and cognition. Every time one of those things hits, your brain has to reset. And there’s some evidence that the reset time as long as 20 minutes. Of course, we’ve now, meaning that we’re kind of smart monkeys wearing clothes, we have learned to sort of ignore these things, but especially on a non-mainstream site, but like one of these smaller sites, goddamn shits popping up at you all the time. You’re almost like an unconscious subprogram you just click out. No, no, no, you asshole.
Jim: So, it’s been a very powerful, very smart business model that Daniel on the board came up with, though it puts a heavy burden on fundraising. So, anybody, the zillionaires out there that want to give some money to the Consilience Project, we’ll be happy to take it and it helps the mission.
Jim: Now, you mentioned the time to live or the timeframe thing. And I think that’s one of the most amazing, interesting ideas that came out of the team, which was as I understand it, a firm commitment to shut the Consilience Project down after five years.
Samo: Yeah, if goals are not achieved after a certain time period, then this method of intervening in society, assisting the epistemic commons, transforming the culture towards a culture of better information processing, and better education of citizens, that approach failed. And if it succeeded, well, why are you still around? There’s a dynamic culture to participate in. We can all go back to doing other things, applying our specialties once more, where we originally trained them.
Samo: This is one of the things that I think people don’t investigate or question enough, which is, do the many, many self-appointed doctors of society ever want to find a cure for whatever they’re treating? Because if they do, an entire class of society becomes obsolete. So, I think we should be somewhat skeptical of people who intend to make a lifetime career of solving a problem because it often suggests that they believe that it’s not really their job to solve it.
Jim: Yeah. As you said, captured by staff, captured by careerism, all these kinds of things. I think that, again, it was a very bold decision to specifically say this thing will either work or won’t five years. And of course, it also provides a sense of urgency, right?
Samo: Yes. No time to lose.
Jim: No time to lose. Every month going by is 1/60 of the lifetime of this project. So, now we’ve talked about why and sort of how and big picture and we’ve talked about some of the mechanisms. Let’s click down to the more tangible actual articles. One of the articles I read this morning to get ready for our chat was one that I understand you had some involvement in, which is the paper on Taiwan, which I think is quite interesting. It’s somewhat contrary into some of what you see out there and seems unbiased by the usual suspects. Why don’t you tell the audience what was the title of the paper and what were you trying to communicate in that essay?
Samo: Yeah, the title of the paper was Taiwan’s Digital Democracy. And it mostly focuses on how this island that produces some of the world’s most advanced technology combines a robust industrial system governed by relatively efficient state institutions, but succeeds in leveraging information technology and citizen participation. That final aspect is the most interesting one. Because there is a history of the development of Taiwan. Taiwan is this island off the coast of China, that China claims is a part of China, and most of the rest of the world doesn’t recognize as an independent country, even though it actually, yes, it is de facto an independent country. Now, maybe China doesn’t like this. But that’s the reality of it.
Samo: They were exposed to cyber warfare from China’s mainland quite early. There was an incident that’s been called the Taiwan-China hacker war in 1999 when mainland Chinese government backed efforts retaliated to statements by the then Taiwanese president. And the Chinese hackers infiltrated Taiwanese computer networks more than 160 times. This prompted the creation of Taiwan’s National Information and Security Task Force.
Samo: But the interesting part about this task force is that it ingested into government people who are technologically literate for the first time. And one of the reasons this ends up mattering is because it’s possible in China to have information read on an online forum be brought up by a minister at a cabinet level meeting as a piece of evidence for or against a certain policy on say something like COVID-19, where Taiwan performed admirably.
Samo: There are other aspects to this as well, which is that Taiwan obviously has the benefit of producing so much of the physical hardware underneath its systems. There’s no question about who is your CPU compromised by. If you’re importing things from China, who knows what backdoors are installed. To be fair, if you’re importing things from America and you’re not America, who knows what backdoors are installed. It says something when you have the security of hardware is just something you can guarantee because you’re making the stuff.
Samo: Another interesting thing about Taiwan Is that they are trying to successfully shepherd domestic production, which I think is underrated today. I think in the urge to globalize, we missed the vital function that industry plays in society’s ability to do information processing. If you have advanced manufacturing, then you have advanced technical talent. That advanced technical talent doesn’t just think about their job. They think about all sorts of other things with the cognitive training that they received.
Samo: This is an aspect that I don’t dig quite as deep in this article, but I will do so in the future, which is sort of what kind of cognitive types do different professions shape? And what effects do these have on national life?
Samo: One of the important things here is that the geopolitics of the country kind of forced Taiwan to be lean and efficient, because if it’s not, well, then that’s the end of Taiwan. Hong Kong is perhaps a recent example, where its internal autonomy has been significantly revoked by the Chinese state.
Samo: A different example of a country that operates relatively well under a geopolitical pressure because of the geopolitical pressure is Estonia that, of course, always faces some risk of Russian intervention, and only became independent from the USSR in the 1990s after many, many decades of occupation and annexation.
Samo: The key aspect of this here is that there’s no hope for a tiny country, like Estonia to compete with Russia, on the dimensions Russia picks, or a tiny island like Taiwan competing with the Chinese mainland, on whatever dimensions the Chinese mainland picks. They can always build more jet fighters. They can always build more aircraft carriers. They just have 100 times more people. What are you going to do?
Samo: You have to pursue the asymmetric advantages. And because these are both relatively new nations, the asymmetric advantages meant integrating digital infrastructure into government, but also integrating digitally native people, staff, talent into government, and opening yourself to public discourse as a method of sensemaking. You lean into the strength of an open society, rather than imitate the strength of a closed society. Because if you try to beat China at being a closed society, well, it’s not going to really work out for you, especially if China’s 100 times larger.
Jim: Yeah. It’s a very interesting, very good article, one, I’d strongly recommend that folks check out at the consilienceproject.org. What are some of the upcoming essays that you’re aware of that might be of interest to our listeners?
Samo: Yeah, there’s one that describes how you can find coherence and how you can find solutions as an open society. It’ll be titles are always shifting. This is the nature of the editorial process, but also the nature of how an article works. But it’s sort of one that describes this process of teetering between chaos and oppression where you try to find a third attractor.
Samo: We had the society that was based on a unity of inputs with few too many. And now, it seems that there are societies, they’re trying to enforce a unity of outputs, where you basically will be automatically downregulated or censored if you say the wrong thing. Nominally, everyone can speak but not all the words travel far enough. Instead of these two options, there might be a way to have a dynamic coherence.
Samo: And there’s, I think, a limited window to build this attractor. I think every time new technologies are introduced to the world system, societies end up having this window, where constructing these possible attractor states happens. And if there’s no alternative, well, if there’s no alternative to China that’s built out something that can be a dynamic society, then the only business the western world has is slowly step by step deciding how fast do we end up being China, and having long strenuous debates every step of the way, and not actually imagining a different future.
Samo: And that’s what that article digs in. And then there are a few other articles that are on how narrative supply makes its own demand, which reviews some classical methods of narrative warfare, propaganda, and so on. These are two pieces I’m excited to see soon.
Jim: Yeah, they both sound very interesting. I’m looking forward to. Any final thoughts before we wrap up here? This has been great. I think it helped our audience understand both what the Consilience Project is and why it’s important.
Samo: Yeah, I would warmly recommend looking at the articles themselves. The articles do their very best to shepherd your attention. If you go read them, you’re not going to see any ads. You’re not going to see distracting links, though you will find end notes with all the relevant citations if you wish to follow up on any factchecking expedition. The articles reference the deep theory behind each of them in a separate foundation piece. So, I really think they speak for themselves. I really warmly encourage people to read them. And if you don’t like them and you disagree, well, great. Write a well-reasoned reputation in a similar style, we’ll love it.
Jim: Thank you, Samo. This has been great. And to our audience, check it out, consilienceproject.org.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.