The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Matthew Pirkowski. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: I’m going to do a little promo before we get started. If you haven’t yet, you should check out my mobile game called Network Wars. It’s for Apple iOS and Android. You can find it on The App Store or Google Play or links to both at networkwars.com. I wrote Network Wars as an exploration in human problem-solving, and particularly using the idea of heuristics induction. In my view, we come to usefully understand complex situations typically not analytically, but by building up a repertoire of rules of thumb, i.e., heuristics. While the rules of Network Wars are trivially simple, taking no more than 10 seconds to learn them, the emergent complexity is great.
Jim: To get good at it, you’ll need to build your own collection of heuristics. A typical game takes five minutes to play, and every game is different. It’ll take a lot of plays to get good at it. Can you win the Network Wars? Check it out. Network Wars, two words on The App Store or Google Play, or find links to both at networkwars.com. Thanks. Now, on to the show.
Jim: Today’s guest is Matthew Pirkowski. Matthew’s a computer technology guy and a crypto guy, and a really interesting thinker. I ran across him on Twitter and you can follow him on Twitter at @MattPirkowski, that’s P-I-R-K-O-W-S-K-I. Matthew is my guest on current episode 053, titled The Grammar of Emergence. In some ways, this is a continuation of that chat, with no doubt there’ll be a little bit of overlap, but there’ll be plenty of new material. Back in 053, Matthew was singing the praises of Terence Deacon’s book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter. Matthew’s talk about it definitely caught my ear and interest, so I went and read the book and then invited Terence Deacon to come on the show. The result was EP 157, Terence Deacon on Mind’s Emergence From Matter. We may well make some reference to Deacon here today, and that podcast was a good introduction to his thinking. Welcome back, Matthew.
Matthew: Thanks, Jim. It’s great to be here. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation.
Jim: Yeah, that was really a great conversation last time. Got a lot of good feedback on it, so let’s take it to the next level. But before we do that, let’s get started with a refresher. What is emergence, and why is it such an important part of understanding our world?
Matthew: Yeah, so last time I went with a bit more of a historical perspective on that, but I think this time I’m just going to go with my current contemporary vision of how I see emergence and how I think the broader perspective toward emergence is moving. I would say that a lot of that has to do with the movement from a kind of inert understanding of the spaces in which dynamics occur, to a bringing into those understandings of possibility, bringing in the idea that there actually exists potential, that we actually treat potential as an ontologically real structure. That harmonizes with a lot of what Stuart Kauffman has talked about when he talks about ontologically real possibles.
Matthew: The reason I bring up this possibility space and the navigation through possibility space, is because I think it has everything to do with recalibrating the way we see emergence and understand the concept of emergence, because I think it’s most appropriate to look at emergence as a manner in which we access novel regimes in possibility space, or novel neighborhoods you could say, or niches within possibility space, how we stabilize the dynamics necessary to begin to play in that new possibility space, which opens up a new creative mode, a new way to recombine what we have created and actualized within that space, and then recapitulate the process, right?
Matthew: We can basically explore new domains of possibility, produce what is possible given the constraints of that space. Many of those productions, many of those artifacts that we precipitate or we create will fail, or will die, will not survive. You can map this to evolutionary biology. You can map this to conscious creativity. Most experiments fail. All animals, all living creatures die, but often species also go extinct in this discovery process. But then occasionally there’s a mechanism or a way of configuring or combining the available tools or the available structures or processes in a given possibility space that opens a door to a whole new level or a whole new order of creative [inaudible 00:04:32].
Matthew: I think from my perspective, I think that’s how I can best describe this concept of emergence. I know there’s a little bit of a divergence from the historical way that that concept has been used, but I also, I think you can weave that together if you go deep enough into the philosophy behind it and the history behind it. So happy to do that if you want, but I think it’ll stop there.
Jim: Yeah, that’s great. I think, in fact, that’s where I was kind of hoping we’d go with this conversation, was a little bit more into essentially social emergence and systems emergence, because there’s lots of stacks way before that. If people who do want the historical view, I would suggest read Harold Morowitz book called The Emergence of Everything, where he goes back to the big bang and he defines 28 levels of emergence, which starts with the big bang and then a bunch of physical things like, all right, how do quirks come together to produce elementary particles? How do particles eventually produce nuclei, which then produce atoms, then molecules and all [inaudible 00:05:28]. But that’s probably not mostly what we’ll talk about today.
Jim: I will though, give two of my favorite examples on the idea of emergence as a series of levels. Number one emerges from the next. The obvious one is life, because at some level we are molecules bouncing around. Actually we’re atoms, which turn into molecules, which then produce chemistry such as metabolisms and mechanisms that build membranes. Those things turn into enclosed metabolisms, with some information carrying, which becomes cells. Cells eventually became multicellular. They eventually developed neurons to coordinate the multicellularity. Then we started developing tissues, which grew to become organs. Organs became systems, like the circulatory system. Then we got large scale animals, like dinosaurs and mammals and then, and actually before then, those interacted to produce ecosystems.
Jim: There’s, I think a classic example of emergence, each of those being a stage of emergence, and that the important part is that the previous ones are typically built upon. The economy is actually quite similar in some sense, it’s a social emergence, I like to say. Economics went back to when Aug traded Gog a rock for a stick. Since that time, we’ve gone through levels of emergence, first home scale, homestead scale, trade with your neighbors and then to adjacent tribes. Then we developed trade routes and then intermediaries like merchants, and then eventually financial instruments, things like double entry bookkeeping. Now we have stock markets and derivatives and derivatives on derivatives on derivatives, et cetera. Each one of those is built upon the other.
Jim: Both of those are good examples of emergent structures, and the economy, particularly in the social sphere where the idea of the adjacent possible of Stuart Kauffman’s language basically says at any given time there are a lot of things we could do. We don’t have to do them all, but they’re out there as new levels of complexity.
Matthew: Yeah, and they are by nature, also a path dependent function of the combinations that are existing now. We think of that aperture of possibility as extremely large and extremely wide. In relative terms to our own individual capacity, the absolute possibility of an entire species or an entire company, seems very large and it is very large in terms of just numeric, like an absolute number. But if you compare it to all possible states, it becomes actually, you start to see that it is very path dependent. It is much narrower aperture or possibility then all possible spaces, which kind of reflects back on Deacon’s conversations around constraints.
Matthew: But also I just wanted to go back to when you were talking about Morwitz for a second there, because I think that oftentimes when we use language, we use it as if we’re dealing with a flat ontology in the same space. I think there’s a difference in the sense that when we’re talking about stage theories, often time, we’re talking about the particular instantiations of a more general mechanism. We often then work from the particular to the general, and that’s a natural tendency because of the nature of an emergent system, because of the nature of what we are. We had to begin by moving backwards down the stack and trying to dissect ourselves and understand ourselves before we could find sufficiently general synthesis or mechanisms to build back up from the bottom up.
Matthew: But when I was talking initially, I gave my initial definition of emergence, the way that I’m kind of seeing that definition is that that process of opening a possibility space, that happens at every one of those levels of the 27 levels, let’s say that Morwitz talks about. It’s the general moving into the particular instantiations.
Matthew: Then going back to the conversation that you had with Deacon as well, his on his ontology or his process ontology around homeo dynamic processes, morpho dynamic processes, and telo dynamic processes is a different three part cycle of emergence. At each stage, the definition I gave applies, but he talks about that in relation to how different types of dissipated energy structures relate to one another and come to create a kind of cycle that’s able to self reference or self evidence itself, or act toward future goals or telos. Purpose driven activity.
Matthew: I just wanted to that context in relation to these stage theories and my language and the other language in this emergent space before we get into more complex social systems, because as we move into those more complex social systems, it can get very difficult to figure out what we’re talking about if we’re not precise in the levels of analysis we’re unpacking.
Jim: Yep. Good point. I recently did a very interesting podcast with Bobby Azarian, who just published a book called The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life Consciousness and Cosmic Complexity, EP 159. In that book, he threw out something which seemed so obvious, but why hadn’t I ever thought about it? Which is one of the drivers of emergence in the adjacent possible and the complexification of the universe is the fact that once anything new occurs, let’s call it a species if we’re talking about biology, suddenly a new niche occurs that which eats that species. If you think about that in business, you get Facebook. Suddenly the niche occurs of someone to compete with Facebook and take market share from them or to build add-ons. You think of the huge industries of advertising tools that have emerged around Facebook. So once species X occurs, there’s a whole new set of adjacent possibles that open up because that exists. If you think about that a little bit, that’s at least a good solid hint that there’s something open-ended and forward pointing about evolution.
Matthew: Yeah, the word that comes to mind when you mention that and yeah, I’m somewhat familiar with Azarian’s work. I haven’t yet read his book, although I have heard him interviewed on both your podcast and on Joe Rogan’s podcast, so I’m at least surface level familiar with his narrative. But the word that comes to mind when you kind of take that tack is exaptation, which converts to adaptation is the idea that there exists all sorts of, whenever there’s a change in the structure of a being… let’s say that I grew a third arm. There’s a whole range of possibilities that are now open to me with three arms that weren’t open to me with two arms. We tend to focus on how that third arm is being used right now. We can see the function of the third arm in some adaptive way, but exaptation, and this also relates to a lot of Kauffman’s work.
Matthew: His prime example with adaptation is the fact that, the heartbeat, for example. The heart evolved pump blood, but the heartbeat was a function or a feature of the heart that wasn’t used. It had no functional closure at that point in time. Yet the possibility for it to be used for, for example health monitoring, or a stethoscope, or increasingly sophisticated technology. That possibility was still there and latent. It was an adaptive potential. When you’re talking about this new niche of whenever something exists, then there’s also the space of what might come into existence to feed upon it as a source of energy, a source of its own continuation. I see that as a meta adaptive process. It’s another one of these types of deep mechanisms that, with each one of these moves, will always recapitulate itself. It’s always present, just in the same way that a new possibility space is opened, we will have new adaptive and exapted potentials for every possibility space.
Jim: Indeed. Think about the evolution of unfolding of technology. Brian Arthur’s famous book on technology makes this point, is that much of what we think of as technology is actually recombination of existing technologies. Sometimes there’s some real new innovation at the heart of it, but oftentimes surprisingly not. How much was really invented in the creation of Twitter? The answer is not much. It was combining things that existed with a new concept. Mostly exaptation, maybe a little bit of innovation in certain areas on how to manipulate people or something like that. Especially in the social sphere, exaptation is very strong, but even in the biological and the physical, it’s always been part of the story.
Jim: Another foundational thing I’m going to throw in here, because I’m going to point to, I think, a case where it’s not, an important case where it’s not true, is that one of the foundational pieces of emergence from the scientific bottom up perspective is the work of [inaudible 00:14:09] and his idea of dissipated systems, which is that complexity is in some sense the universe’s way to make burning energy more efficient. He has a very complicated theory about that. Deacon talked a lot about it in his book and Bobby Azarian did, too. It does certainly apply in the physical world, but I’m going to make the point later that it does not apply, at least not in the same way, in the medic space that we’ve entered today.
Matthew: I think that’s very fascinating and I think that has a lot to do with… when we talk about the initial, I’m a big fan of the history of science. The reason I’m interested in the history of science is because the concept of path dependency really resonates with me. The fact that we are deeply informed by the information and the perspectives that have brought us to the point at which we stand today. When we’re talking about thermodynamics, we’re talking about dissipated systems and we’re talking about the perspective that we impose a purpose upon a system and say that the purpose of the system is to, for example, facilitate the production of entropy, taking free energy and turning it into entropy, essentially. That assumption is interesting because I think it maps well to the kinds of systems that Deacon would talk about as homeo dynamic, or even potentially morpho dynamic.
Matthew: But I think when you get into the sort of the higher order [inaudible 00:15:32] dynamic structures, which is the kinds of systems that are able to set thermodynamic processes against one another, with the goal in mind of their own preservation or the extension of their own life process, then I think we get into a space where the telos changes, because we’re no longer taking this universal non-agentic viewpoint and saying the primary phenomenon that seems to be occurring here is entry production. Actually the new, much more interesting phenomenon that’s occurring in addition to entry production in the global system, is this new structure that seems to care about preserving its own integrity. I think that’s kind of where the divergence occurs that relates to what you’re talking about insofar as that does not apply in the metic space, or insofar as that maximization of dissipation of order or energy does not necessarily apply to the metic space. Does that resonate?
Jim: Yeah, actually that’s good. I think for popular purposes, you could essentially say the line of life is where things become agentic and the teleology of agency then becomes an important part of it. Though it is important to keep in mind that the prorogation dissipative system still apply to the evolution of microbiology. The paths that are chosen are often ones that you would expect if essentially the job is to efficiently convert free energy into entropy or something like entropy. But now there’s a whole new level on top of it, I think, which is important.
Matthew: That’s essential. That’s an essential conversation, especially in light of… I have that conversation quite a bit in light of the environmental movement when I talk with people who are very deeply enmeshed in the regenerative agriculture space or the space of trying to create close loop economic or agricultural cycles, cycling of energy within natural systems, because the desire is always to believe that there is some mode of free energy production or infinite closure to this perfect system where we can fundamentally escape that necessity to take energy and turn it into a greater level of entropy, or produce that entropy, produce that disorder, wind down the clock of the universe so to speak. Despite the fact that we’re producing and we can produce local order on the planet, despite the fact that we can facilitate and produce more regenerative and healthier processes that have fewer externalities from humans, in terms of the human perspective, we can impose fewer externalities on our environment. We can create a healthier relationship to those processes, but it is naive to believe that we can escape the net constraint of the fact that we do require net energy production as the whole system, and that you can define the boundary of that system as sort of the planetary boundary.
Matthew: That’s sort of the engineering perspective of yes, solar energy in, and then we find a way to vent heat out, sort of infrared heat out into the universe, while maintaining some sort of preferable dynamics here locally. But I think that’s a very important point to keep in mind and I definitely, I try never to lose sight of that point. So I’m right there with you.
Jim: Yeah, and truthfully, I occasionally do hear such nonsense. “We’re going to have a completely closed system” and I go, “no, you’re not.” There’s a name for a system that’s completely closed, dead.
Matthew: Perpetual motion, or dead. Either or, and one doesn’t exist in the sense that it can’t exist and the other doesn’t exist in the sense that it’s stopped existing precisely because of that.
Jim: In fact, actually it’s a little sidebar here, but from the literature of emergence, we talked about quite a bit of this with Deacon, is that the interesting forms of emergence all happen only in systems very far from equilibrium. Again, [inaudible 00:19:09] predicts that as well, is that the more energy flowing through a system being converted from high grade energy to heat basically, the more room there is for interesting things. Of course, interesting things from the perspective of physics, not necessarily the interesting things for humans. So the arc that we have here is we probably need to get ourselves off of using fossil fuels unless we can find a cheap way to recapture the carbon, and that may well mean for a while at least until we have new technologies, cutting our energy consumption by maybe two thirds. In the west, maybe a little bit more, in the US, Australia, and Canada.
Jim: But that doesn’t mean we can’t steer our societies to create even more interesting things with the energy we have. We have plenty of energy actually compared to humans at any time in previous history. Even if you cut us by a third, we still are generating 30 times the energy per human that we were in 1700, for instance. That’s very important that you are never going to have a closed system, but you need to have an energy budget that is compatible long term stability of humans with the ecosystem, and then steer it to get the most interesting stuff possible out of it.
Matthew: Yeah, and I think where we’re at, we’re in a place where we really lack a lot of high resolution conversation about what these kind of topics imply and what this actually means. I’m somewhat agnostic about whether we require more efficiency or more energy production. I think that there are possible futures that, there are desirable futures that entail different balances of either of those. But I do think that we should make a distinction between the energy we produce or the energy we embody as a system, as a network of human beings harnessing other sources of free energy and putting those to use in work production, in oftentimes cyclic work production, and then venting some sort of waste into the world, and then the actual free energy available. Because efficiencies are essentially mechanisms by which we take an existing quantity of energy inputs and we make some free energy by retaining the same functional processes, or at least an equivalent or a more desirable set of functional processes, while removing the energy dependency on some of those processes and applying it to some other novel… that’s an efficiency. We have that free energy back. We can use it towards some other process that we desire.
Matthew: Now, are there bounds to that? I do think that there are bounds. In the same way that not everybody likes to give out free money, because money is in a very deep way of representation of energy across time, not everybody wants to give up their access to free energy or their inputs. Obviously that plays itself out in politics. Energy politics are going to be, already are, and have been, and will continue to be, a central focusing aspect of our political realm because the conversation centers around who gets access to the free energy, how much, and who has to pay the price, or who has to make a sacrifice? Those are all very difficult problems for humans to navigate and negotiate collectively, especially when they’re not tied in close community.
Jim: Then of course, this is our game B thesis, is that game A does not know how to make those trade offs because the good is defined in game A terms very much about increasing your energy consumption. Have a bigger, fancier, and shinier car with a bigger engine in it. Have a 10,000 square foot house, fly around in a private jet. What the fuck? The game B thesis is that the good life could be achieved, a better life than most game A players play, at a much lower energy level. I’ll say probably a third to a quarter of what typical American bends. But you have to think about your social operating system. What are the attributes of the social operating system? They’re very inexpensive. Getting together with your friends every Friday for a sunset ceremony costs very little energetically, as opposed to living in a 10,000 square foot house and flying around in a private jet.
Jim: Keep in mind, a human is only about equivalent to an 80 to 100 watt bulb. Whatever a human does is actually pretty cheap on the scale of things. Moving culture around to increase wellbeing while decreasing energy consumption, at least now where we don’t have the infrastructure or the technology to produce large amounts, increasing amounts of energy, without negative environmental consequences. It’s a very, very important way to go, because if we don’t, we’re going to end up with what I call the Davos man trap. Davos man just pounds on people. Less, less, less. They’re going to tell people, all right, you need to cut back your energy by 25%. They’re not going to have the cajones to say cut it back by two thirds. But when you’re trapped in game A terms, if your sense of status wellbeing and even mental health is in how many shiny objects you have and how big your house is and all that, if you’re told you’re going to get 25% less, you’re going to be feeling bad. You’re going to say no.
Jim: I’ll give the example of the yellow jackets movement in France where a relatively modest increase in diesel fuel, because there was nothing offered in return, just a pure loss, people revolted against the personification of Davos man, IE Marcron. If game A continues on its current road of just telling people to do less and get less, in their own terms, people are going to revolt. Not going to happen. Got to do a social change where living differently and less energetically is actually a net positive to human wellbeing.
Matthew: Yeah, or differently energetically in some way. I think that I would like to make a little bit of a distinction here. I completely agree in the sense that we need to, or not we need to. I think that it is extremely valuable for people to reflect upon what gives them meaning, and the extent to which the consumptive processes in which they engage actually add to their perception of life satisfaction and actually constantly reflect on that, and bring that conscious reflection more into popular culture. Less unthinking consumption, more thoughtful consideration of how we want to steward our lives, both individually, as families, as communities, and at higher levels as well. I think that’s all well and good. I think that’s absolutely necessary, and an essential component to developing as individuals, but also as a species.
Matthew: On the other side of that, I do think that, one of the books I’ve been reading recently is Vaclav Smil’s History of Energy and Civilization, or something along those lines. I’m forgetting the exact title right now. I don’t know if you’ve read any Smil.
Jim: Yeah, in fact, I just read his most recent book actually.
Matthew: Oh, really? Awesome. Awesome. I haven’t read that one yet.
Jim: It’s not as good as some of his earlier ones, because it’s very broad and he is getting old. But How the World Really Works. I just finished reading that. I was going to reach out to him and say, “Hey, do you want to do a podcast?” but when I finished it, I go, eh, I’m not so sure.
Matthew: Yeah, I don’t know about that one. Even the History of Energy Civilization, it’s very dry, but I was looking for a survey across time of our relationship as a species to energy and all of the processes that we’ve used to transform energy into work, as well as to access energy and make it available to us. I think in that respect, it’s an excellent book. It is dry, but every fact you need to understand about the history of humanity’s relationship with energy is essentially in that book. Interpretations may vary, but it’s a great fact set.
Matthew: The reason I bring that up is because one of the distinct patterns that struck me as I read through that book, is the pattern of how little slack there often is, or has been, in the system of just basic flu production, or allowing for… and this isn’t just intensive civilization. Even before that, animals don’t exist with extreme slack in their metabolic circuitry.
Jim: Not for long, not for long. Every once in a while you develop a new skill. There’s rabbits, you suddenly become a hawk and you can eat rabbits. Well for a couple of years, there’s lots of rabbits, but very quickly you reach a classic evolutionary arms race until everybody’s just about starving, but not quite.
Matthew: Yeah, exactly. That has a lot to do with the different levels of emergence that Deacon talks about. We could go into that if you want, but one of the reasons I bring this up is because it keeps striking me that it’s not as if we are in situations where we can easily break cycles that are currently bound to energy sources and re attribute them at will. I also, I think that conscious choice plays a role in this. I also am not against the idea of more intensive energy production, especially with low externality profiles, because of the fact that I see that adds also a way to make new possibilities spaces available that are not available.
Matthew: There are certain processes that we simply can’t access right now because the activation energy is non economical. All sorts of recycling processes fit that category. For example, all sorts of, transforming our outputs back into possible raw inputs fit that bill. There are so many types of processes that we simply do not do because they’re energetically prohibitive at present. So the activation energy, if we look at it in terms of the chemical reaction, the reaction won’t happen, because the activation energy is too high. But if we do have access to certain modes of low externality, clean energy, high efficiency energy, then you can actually begin to bring those processes into a life that also takes into consideration whether or not that consumption is consciously benefiting one’s self, one’s family, one’s environment, one’s community, et cetera. That’s my perspective on all of that.
Jim: Yeah, and I agree. One of the things that Smil’s book, it’s kind of a survey of a number of energy related issues, he makes. I make this to the regen agriculture people. It pisses them off, which is, sorry, we got 8 billion people. We’re going to need artificial ammonia and nitrogen to feed them, period. Smil reinforces that. He estimates maybe you could handle three and a half billion. I think the real number is more like 2 billion without artificial fertilizer. But the point is, if you’re not willing to use artificial fertilizer, you might as well just scratch at least 50% of humanity. For awhile at least, we have to figure out how to do that in a way that doesn’t bust the ecosystem. There are ways. They’re expensive, but there are ways.
Jim: Also to your point about a higher density energy, I’m absolutely in favor. I’m not one of those people that says, “Oh yeah, it’s good to be a hippie living in a mud hut.” We don’t have to live in mud huts, but even at the level that we probably need to fall back to in our current technological capacity, we’re going to have 8 billion people make the transition. That’s only until we can get the high intensity, high energy on energy return, and environmentally safe and neutral energy sources. Fusion is certainly one possibility. There’s other ones like deep geothermal. There is that tremendous heat flux still coming out of the earth’s core and there will be for billions of years. Far more energy than we as humans consume.
Jim: Over the next few hundred years, we may well be able to build back to America, 2022 level of energy consumption, and maybe a lot higher, hopefully a lot higher so we have enough energy to go to the stars someday, for instance. But for now, the math doesn’t work. You can’t run 8 billion people at American levels of energy consumption with the ensemble of technologies we have today. That’s the bottom line.
Matthew: Yeah. That’s an interesting aspect of Smil’s book. I wasn’t trying to imply that that was your perspective, but I would just like to also extend this conversation into that body of work a bit, because one of the interesting aspects for one of the constraints, the bottoming out constraints of why currently our agricultural systems, especially the intensive agriculture systems are predicated on this importation or synthetic production of fertility, is precisely because of the energy boundaries of inputs and outputs with respect to both human labor and animal labor, draft animal labor, that established constraints on the attempted scaling of composting systems. Composting systems have been around, they predate civilization. They were in all of the early civilizations within… also, especially in east Asia, there were a number of attempts to scale up composting programs and moving fertility between the countryside and cities, or near to cities. Actually, that takes a lot of energy too. You get yourself into this constraint system where you top out on the efficiency you can get from working the land for fertility or cycling fertility within a given location without some external input of energy.
Matthew: Because really the fundamental input that needs to occur is just the energy input. With more energy in the system, you could locally cycle that. You could actually have composting programs that were able to locally cycle sufficient fertility for arbitrarily large numbers of human beings. It just requires the transformation of that energy into processes and technologies that could do that without, or with better constraints than actual physical beings, like embodied animals, because we are relatively efficient, but we’re not efficient enough to break that cycle.
Matthew: I don’t want to say this is, it’s not pie in the sky thinking, but I do think that extremely intensive local energy production, 4th gen fission, emerging possible fusion within the next 20 year time horizon, this is where I diverge strongly oftentimes and quite noticeably, from most of the others in the regenerative agriculture niche from most of the people in ecological concern niche, because of the fact that I very much see a role for that alongside the idea of a closer connection with the cyclic processes and regenerative processes of nature. I think they go hand in hand in, my view.
Jim: Yeah, I think it’s just a matter of doing the arithmetic. What systems work within the ecological boundaries? When you have something like 4th fission, I would be happy to have that. Of course the other one that actually I did a deep dive into in 2004 is mass electrical storage. Photo voltaic has gotten cheap enough that you could actually power our whole civilization with it, but, with a big but, only if you have massive amounts of storage and storage is still grotesquely expensive. But there may be a breakthrough there someday, or we may conclude that it’s worth paying the price to go with, let’s say massive solar farms in the Southwest United States and Northern Chile and the Sahara, et cetera, send them with relatively efficient high voltage DC lines, and then store them near where they’re used, near to where they’re be to be used. That’s another route that we could get there.
Jim: Of course we can also, once you have essentially infinite amount of electricity, not infinite, but large amounts of electricity, it turns out it’s not that hard to get back to the liquid high density fuels like jet fuel. There’s a hydrogen cycle that Siemens is working on. They’ve actually got it working now where they can produce diesel fuel for about twice the price of making it from oil, and twice isn’t that bad. We could actually probably live with half as much jet travel as we have today and the world would not stop turning. There are numerous pathways, many of which we can’t yet understand.
Jim: It’s actually, that’s kind of an interesting perspective is that, it’s one of the reasons I’m such a strong advocate on a large and refundable carbon tax because there’s nothing else that we could do to send a powerful signal to all the innovators out there to start thinking about all these interesting things and then make it 100% refundable back to the each person per capita, such that each person has to confront the price at the point of purchase. Yet, it doesn’t siphon money from the private sphere into the government sphere, because then we would be exploring and expanding these other possibilities. Is it solar plus storage? Is it the hydrogen cycle? Is it deep rock geo, which doesn’t quite make economic sense today, but with a $300 a ton carbon tax, it would. There’s how you can use the evolution and emergence of new things that steer it in a right direction by essentially tilting the environment a little bit with a hefty carbon tax.
Matthew: Along those lines, I know that some extent you wanted to talk a bit more about social emergence. I think that this might be a really nice entree into that space because what’s coming up in my mind as you’re talking about those processes, and we’re talking about a carbon tax, one way of looking at that is, it’s a signal. It’s a signal, but what is this? What is the receiver? What is sensing the signal? Well, at one level we’re talking about individuals or companies at that scale, but we’re also trying to have a larger holistic frame where there can be coordination at a much greater scale than has ever existed before in response to a novel way of making externalities that are typically local, a unified level perceivable quantity in reality. At some level, what we’re trying to do by creating that percept, is to create a perceptual shelling point, or a rallying point, or a basin of attraction around a new mode of perception. Through that new mode of perception, allow for or enable forms of organization that structure themselves around that as a priority, as a primary constraint, that actually take that seriously as a constraint.
Matthew: Also, therefore by doing so, extend the temporal horizon of their collective intelligence, and doing that is, that’s the same question really of how a group of loosely affiliated agents comes together into essentially an emergent organism, which is what we’re trying to achieve through all of these collective problem solving efforts directed towards long term problems that we believe we may be encountering.
Matthew: At some level, we’re navigating this concept or this problem of how to be a collective organism, which is why so many of these conversations about origin of life are bubbling to the top and becoming top of mind, because there’s a symmetry there. There’s a recurrence of certain patterns, which goes back to, and these questions of emergence, what kind of mechanisms reoccur again and again and again, which is precisely the kind of ontology I’m interested in exploring and generating.
Matthew: I think I just said that in an effort to begin tying some of these threads back together, and let me know where you’d like to go from there, or if you find that interesting to talk about.
Jim: Yeah, perfect setup for the set of topics I have for essentially the second half of the show here. We’ll have to hustle, because we’re getting short on time, which is you alluded to it. We are a species whose main superpower is cooperation. We’re not that big. We’re not that strong. We don’t have fangs. We don’t have big claws. We can’t fly, but we can cooperate. Ten men armed with stone tipped spears can take down a mammoth. Nobody else can take down a mammoth on earth pretty much, at least anymore.
Jim: But now we have stumbled into, without any real thought, a new ecosystem of cooperation and communication. I guess we can call it something like the info sphere, the techno info sphere. We think about it in its current form, in the double aughts, we had Twitter and Facebook, and then Instagram and then chat apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, and the one I happened to use, which is Signal. These are all tools, but they’ve also evolved. It’s interesting to remember that Facebook didn’t even have a newsfeed originally, nor groups nor at tagging. We’re in this interesting environment where the ecosystem itself, the affordances that the ecosystem provide are also evolving, and then people are putting them to use. Of course, these new techno info sphere substrates coexist with earlier tech comms, like email, text messaging, and legacy media like MSNBC and Fox News, et cetera. They all produce this resonant thrumming dynamic, where we’re trying to organize ourselves to address these very critical transition to sustainable futures issues. But it doesn’t really seem to be working all that well, or at least there’s good and there’s bad.
Jim: I would point readers to one of Matthew’s medium essays called On the Phenomenology of Hyper-Connectivity, a brief, albeit deep dive into the dynamics of techno social fragmentation. Let’s talk a little bit about, from your perspective, what is this substrate that we’re trying to use to organize ourselves? What’s good about it? What’s not so good about it? How does it need to evolve to actually allow us to mobilize humanity to address these problems?
Matthew: Oh, man. That’s a left turn. I didn’t expect you to bring up that essay, but I’m really happy that you did. It’s one of my favorite essays, even though I just wrote it in a sitting and just brain dumped on that page. Where to begin with that? I think beginning in an embodied frame and then moving into the abstract is the best way to understand this, given the concept of phenomenology begins with the reality of one’s perception as the interface between the internal/external state of the world. What we bring to the table in any given moment of perception is actually an active process that has a inertia, or what I’ve begun to call conertia. Inertia is essentially etymologically without art or without skill. It’s used to describe a tendency of something to remain in motion and a direction without any telos, without any structure, without any complexity, whereas this idea of a conertia would be a much more, it’s kind of like a telodynamic or an auto catalytic process, than the kind of inertia that it possesses.
Matthew: That inertia, you can look at it as a wavefront moving through experiential space. Where it’s hitting experiential space, where it’s sensory apparatus are getting signals, there’s a dynamic that happens there, a conscious percept, that happens there. That generates an experience. That is the core of, what’s at this heart of philosophical conversation called phenomenology. We can relate to this very… in terms of the way that we structure our percepts and structure our environments to reflect back to us what we value and what we care about.
Matthew: I would invite anyone listening at the moment to, especially if they’re in a space that they created or that they designed themselves that they spend time in, to look around and really understand. Try to inquire as to why the types of art or the books around you, or the colors that you bring into your spaces, why have you put them there? Well, part of that is because we are reflecting back to ourselves, the values and the directions that we wish to continuously reintegrate as we keep moving forward in that phenomenological space we’ve created.
Matthew: I call that an artifactual membrane. We generate this artifactual membrane that’s reflecting back to us meaning and helping us to continuously cycle that percept to help parametrize our decisions, our actions, our directions that we’re moving. That is very old history. The entire mytho poetic history of humanity is an extension of that phenomenological relationship to ourselves, to our communities, to patterns of communal being that actually function and work to keep society coherent and adaptive. Now we’ve generated a space that is a massive step beyond that in terms of the perceptual spaces in which we interact, because of the fact that those are connected to a vastly larger number of human beings, sharing a vastly larger number of symbols with very different histories, much different from our own, at the speed of light continuously.
Jim: And at long end at long range. Let me hop in here. This is so important. Most propagation of signal historically has been at short range. Think of animals. They have impact on each other, even humans, when they’re in forger bands. They impact the people in the next valley and around and about, but not very far. Even when you get to city, states who are still based on word of mouth initially, and then sort of simple writing, and then only when we can mass produce printing, very late in the day, 1450 or thereabouts, do written things, get far out into the world, then radio. But now I can hop on Twitter and type some ridiculous horseshit and people all over the world get it instantly.
Matthew: Exactly, and that inversion, that inversion of causality from the global to the local, as opposed from the bottom up local to the global, which is the much more natural way of perceiving our external world, right? We see ourselves as the center of our experience because our percepts have to, they first make contact with the signals we’re receiving closest to us. But when we are changing that locality, when we’re sampling from a non-local structure, which is exactly what these social networks are doing, we don’t necessarily have… the intuitions we’ve developed and evolved in those locally mediated spaces often either function very differently, cease to function at all, or can begin to undermine absolutely essential processes to community or to one’s own life, or one’s own sanity.
Matthew: On this essay, the thesis essentially of this essay, this hyper-connectivity as I was calling it, the phenomenology of hyper-connectivity is essentially a schizophrenic phenomenology. That schizophrenic phenomenology is a fragmentation in our own minds that then we project upon the world, and our relationships and our institutional structures also begin to fragment as we project back out through our behavior the fragmented input that we’re taking in in this non-local sphere.
Matthew: We can go in many different directions from that, but I think a huge challenge we are faced with in the 21st century, going all the way back to the artifactual membrane idea, is how do we structure these spaces? How do we build mechanisms? How do we present ourselves and re present, or represent ourselves to one another such that it helps to build artifactual membranes in the phenomenology of digital interaction that facilitate the same kind of coherent and adaptive dynamics to which we were previously locally adapted, but at larger scales?
Matthew: We made a very large stationary jump, a discontinuous leap into an entirely new possibility space. It was a form of emergence, per the previous definition I gave, the initial definition I gave. In that new possibility space, it is so vast that it is as if we are adrift on an ocean. We were scattered in this ocean on our life rafts, and we need to find a way to weave ourselves back together into some sort of flotilla.
Matthew: The image that I used in that essay was the way that ants, if you put a series of, throw 50 ants of certain species into water, they can actually clump together, find each other, clump together. In doing so, the relative surface tension that they have becomes more buoyant. Well, at some level they sacrifice the ants on the bottom, but a far larger amount of them also survive. But it is this naturally emergent tendency to find one another and create a structure of themselves within this new open, empty, and inhospitable space of the water that they’ve been placed in that allows them to perhaps drift to a new beachhead of possibility that’s a little bit more tractable, quite literally, that they could then walk on again, or use their intuitions productively once again. That was the metaphor I was attempting to point out and extend in that paper.
Jim: I think the bigger question, which it obviously pointed at is, we were completely unprepared for this giant leap, as you point out. But of course in the same way, humanity was not really prepared for the giant leap of moveable type. The invention of printing resulted in science, the reformation, the 30 years war, probably capitalism, democracy, all kinds of things. But of course, that played out over a couple of hundred years. This damn thing with the speed of light and its ability to reform itself every couple of years, there’s always something new that we talked about in the pregame. If Twitter is the crystal meth of online, somebody has finally reached, I’m sure it’s not the end of line. Somebody’s reached the fentanyl of online with TikTok. This constant churn and change in reconfiguration and exaptation of what came before is just happening at a staggering rate. Every change opens up a whole new gigantic adjacent possible, and we just have no clue how to deal with this.
Jim: People always point about the bad things of what has emerged, QAnon usually being a classic example. I would also point to some of the COVID nuttery, of all sorts, that was out there and Rohingya persecutions in Burma. Many, many bad things, but there’s also been a lot of good things that have evolved in this new ecosystem. A lot of new thinking about civilization. The work of our game B world and its many allies, which has now been called the liminal web, which is interesting. It’s a very cool essay, Joe Lightfoot, the liminal web. People like Daniel Schmockenberger, Nora Bateson, Tyson Young [inaudible 00:49:37], John [inaudible 00:49:38], Hansi Frineck, very interesting thinkers that would’ve never come to each other’s attention and started working in a loosely coupled cooperative fashion if it wasn’t for this new techno info sphere.
Jim: But at the same time, we have nuttery of every sort and it’s hard to say who’s going to win. Then of course, another affordance, which I know you’re interested in, is the whole crypto space, would never have come into being, I don’t believe, without the rapid communication and adaptation and mutation of all the various ideas that came together to produce what’ misleadingly called, web three. I don’t know why they call it that. It doesn’t use the web at all, actually. There’s no HTTP or HTML protocols involved with it most of the time, but the web three phenomena, crypto, defi, smart contracts, et cetera, is another blossom off of this info techno sphere which opens up a whole new set of affordances, which we understand even less than the previous ones. So we get some good, we get some bad, we’re not even sure what the balance is at this point. What do you think about that?
Matthew: Yeah, I think you’re dead on there. I think both of those examples you’ve given have in common is a… well, they have a couple things in common, probably more than I’m even thinking about, but the two that come to mind, first of all, the fact that they are a response to a prior exaptive move that is fundamentally destabilizing. Destabilization of our own creative expression is a deep theme, a recurrent theme in human history. When we solve a problem, we also create a new problem space. Every solution is the entry to a new problem space. Those new problem spaces will call forth new patterns of connection, social relationships, and all the people that you mentioned, I think they’re also very fascinating thinkers. I’m glad that they’re working together. I’m glad they’ve been brought together by these mechanisms, these new mechanisms of social connectivity.
Matthew: I think that in many ways they’re doing so because they are also worried about what’s going on in the world and what we are generating with these tools. But like in crypto, it’s a very similar story, but what both of those also share is this deep appreciation for, I think, continuity with the past and not having a discontinuous transformation, the fact that it is essential to understand history, understand where these patterns come from, understand what we are rooted in emergently. That is also exactly why the concept of emergence is such an important concept, because it does provide a lens through which continuity is an axiom, which is ironic, because the typical way of thinking of emergence is almost as a discontinuous transformation in and of itself.
Matthew: But I think that continuity of the layers that we add, the way that they are integrated or laminated, is extremely important. I think that that lamination is also a metaphor or an image I love to use, because of the fact that you can tie it into a familiar domain for most people, such as instruments. You can talk about string instruments. You can talk about the cavities in these string instruments and the way that they’re constructed by layering different pieces of wood, and that layered structure and the connectivity between those, the lamination actually has this really interesting effect on different sounds, on the resident’s properties and you [inaudible 00:53:02] these laminations across time that have properties. But if you shock them too much at once, if you have a very large sound event, they can de laminate. They come apart, and then the instrument entirely loses its function, its telos. It dies.
Matthew: It’s like the death of this emergent creation, or this process that had a purpose and it was situated within its possessive context, after a de lamination event, it is no longer capable of fulfilling that role. It is no longer guitar. It no longer resonates. I think what we have to be very careful of, I acknowledge fully that there are many positive aspects to our high degree of conversation. This conversation being, but one of them. That said, we also have to understand that despite the fact that our past experimentations with novel possibility spaces have tended largely to also produce positive side effects, it is possible to jump so far beyond ourselves that we delaminate. I think that we are much more likely to do that if we lose touch with history, if we lose touch with stories of continuity, cultural continuity, familial continuity, biological continuity.
Matthew: The idea that we are part of life, the life process. There’s few more dangerous trends psychologically and philosophically on this planet, in my estimation, than the idea that we should disconnect ourselves from the concept of nature and then look upon ourselves as either superior to nature or a destroyer of nature. I think that we are an expression of nature. We exhibit many similar properties. The continuities far exceed the discontinuities, if there are even any discontinuities. I think that’s my reflection on that idea. Fundamentally that continuous thread within the emergent structure, and despite the fact that we are making these large moves into new possibility spaces, is actually essential if we are to navigate this.
Jim: My home academic discipline is evolutionary computation, where we essentially evolve software rather than writing it in something that kind of looks like Darwinian evolution. One of the absolute fundamentals in evolutionary computation is the trade off between exploration and exploitation Exploration meaning how far and how fast do you jump around on a fitness landscape looking for the tall peaks, versus how much local hill climbing do you do? It turns out that there is no one right answer. It’s so called no free lunch theorem, but any given fitness landscape does have an optimal trade off typically, between near optimal trade off between exploitation and exploration. Unfortunately our society has no ability to set either of those with respect to the invention of a completely new paradigm, such as the techno info sphere. How do we think about that, or should we, or should we just take it as it comes?
Matthew: Well, I think this is a problem that occupies my mind consistently, and also leads me to very interesting opportunities. Directly relevant to that trade off between exploration and exploitation is a project I’m currently working on in my professional life, a consulting project that I’m working on, actually with Regen Network, and a few other people, called Bioforms Lab, where this modeling, this emerging modeling technique called active inference is being applied to understanding various kinds of emergent systems and their causal boundaries and how they respond to sense that and act back upon that. But the core part of this is that actually within this mathematical model, and we don’t have to geek out too much, but it turns out that if you shift perspective from a perspective of action and reward, to a perspective of generating models and then those models having that conertia, that conertial frame of reference that generates a expectation of what is going to happen based on the model, and then understanding error deviations from that, you can actually generalize certain mathematics from thermodynamics, and namely free energy mathematics. You can use that to unify a whole set of other mathematical formulations, one of which is precisely that trade off mathematics between exploitation and exploration.
Matthew: In this frame of reference, when you’re talking about active inference, those are no longer antithetical. They actually become complimentary aspects of how one leverages the information that they’ve attained about the world to build their model about the world, to decide how much they want to seek information pertaining to whether their information is still valid. Do they want to disrupt their current understanding of the world, or do they want to, or need to, based on their current internal state, use their model of the world to try to continue their pragmatic goals, their life process needs? That becomes an aspect of a larger framework that ties into a lot of these thermodynamic questions and frameworks we were talking about before, and also helps us to have a more interesting, I would say a more, a more ontologically grounded approach and a more normative approach to integrating multi-scale dynamics when we’re talking about emergence, when we’re talking about how we reach trade off, how organisms at any scale reach trade offs.
Matthew: When I say organism, I mean any system where you can draw a causal boundary statistically around it, and in this format it’s called, they use Markoff blankets, which is a particular… we don’t have to go too deep into that rabbit hole. That’s my current relationship to that question. I’m actually actively exploring this, trying to apply this to the question of soil health, trying to apply this with Open Earth Foundation, to the question of ocean biodiversity, trying to understand systems as agents that actually generate their own models. Because one of the fascinating aspects, so this came out of the work by Karl Friston and his free energy principle work. Basically one of the fascinating early hypotheses that he had, and this is still a little bit debatable, but I think he’s made a pretty strong case for it, is that even systems that are extremely, they’re dynamics that are specified, are extremely simple.
Matthew: You take a bunch of particles and you specify just some [inaudible 00:59:32], essentially. What he has shown is that statistically using the mathematics of active inference, you can show that the particles that are toward the interiority of that system, begin to statistically encode and represent the actions, activity, and future movement of the particles that are at the periphery of that, which is fascinating because that’s actually a brain free kind of memory. I’m being a little loose with language there, but it’s a way of a system and a process beginning to encode representations non-consciously that could be a kind of exaptive mechanism onto which consciousness, or onto which the organism later grasps in a feedback, a self representational loop, that could lead to consciousness. That’s where I’m at in respect to this line of thought.
Jim: Anything down from theory and math to something more applied, if we as a society wanted to think about our techno info sphere? Anything specific that your cogitations have brought forth, that if you were the master of the universe, you would dictate?
Matthew: Well, I definitely, again, I come down in many ways to representation. How do we actually represent our values and how do we represent values? How do we map the representations of values to our actions? That interface between how we surround ourselves with representations, or reflections of our values in the world, and how those are mapped onto, how we actually decide every day to make decisions pertaining to embodied action. I think that is something that has been completely ignored in almost all social media spaces. There’s essentially no telos in the interaction space. There’s no purpose. There’s no overarching, there’s no way for these conversations on Twitter to ladder up within the system itself into more action oriented relationships to the world. Why is that? Well in a lot of ways, because the most economically effective, or the most extractedly potentiated social network is that with a bunch of hyper agitated atomized individuals constantly generating these interactions. At least I think that’s what they’ve probably inferred from their current metrics to date.
Matthew: That being said, I doubt they’ve actually done the sufficient research to understand how having a bunch of people on your network in that mental state changes the dynamics of how receptive they might actually be to engaging with a brand or a piece of advertisement or a potential affordance that might be another economic advantage. I think there’s a lot of work to be done there, but fundamentally I think that these systems that are networking and weaving together millions or billions of human beings, need to understand that they are changing the phenomenology of individuals, and in so doing, changing their behavioral trajectories in the world, and that can’t just be stewarded towards those company’s profit extraction motive. That’s a fundamentally perverse mode of interaction for any set of human beings, let alone a million or a billion human beings together.
Matthew: I think we’re currently in the midst of witnessing exactly what happens when we do pervert those mechanisms of proposing relation to those around us and the way that we perceive potential, either optimistically or pessimistically or cynically in the world. I think a lot of that flows from precisely the mechanisms that are agnostic to these questions on social media.
Jim: Yeah, of course. At least in my brand of cognitive science, I often say that we are our attention. If we’re now immersed in a world where what the these systems are really competing for is our attention… as every atom of attention could be converted to money. How does one hijack attention, and how do you convert that to money? That’s essentially the inner engine that is driving the evolution of this ecosystem. That’s what was driving the inner loops of game A long before this ecosystem emerged, but it’s just happening at a higher rate, and unfortunately with a much sharper scalpel to literally reach into each of our brains and modify our synapses through hijacking our attention. It is amazing that we just stand there and let it happen.
Matthew: Yep, and we do. Maybe this is, because I know we’re getting close to your time here, maybe this is fodder for another future conversation on monetary representation, because that’s another domain that I’ve done a lot of work on and thinking around and writing on. In terms of my essays, Crypto Beyond Capitalism is five essay series that I published back in 2018 tracking what I see as the evolution of how we represent value and how that representation has continuously been selected for efficiency, which has led to lower and lower dimensional representation. At some level, that lossiness stops being helpful and that lost information, that compression, that lossy compression, starts actually accruing a cost. At some threshold, you cross a level of cost that is no longer sustainable. I think with respect to our monetary representations and the dollar and our typical unit dimensional systems of account, we’ve crossed that threshold probably around the year 2000 or so, in terms of complexity.
Jim: Yeah, I’d love to have that conversation. I’ve done a lot of work on alternative currency systems that have nothing to do with our current crypto world, but are indeed that level of abstraction. What is the signaling? If we organize the world as membranes and signaling protocols, as ways to organize ourselves, hierarchies of membranes and various protocols, and not just collapse it down to a single denominator, money on money return, we could have a quite different social trajectory. But that’s a conversation for another day. Any final thoughts before we wrap up here?
Matthew: I think I’ll just reiterate the same final thought I had last time in the sense that, the last time I brought this idea forward of calling out to people who are interested in these topics to get in touch with me, if anybody’s interested in figuring out how to articulate these patterns in a structured way to weave our efforts together, please reach out to me. I had some great conversations after our last conversation along those lines, and hopefully those will come to fruition in the near future. But yeah, it’s been a really wonderful time interacting with you. I always love our conversations and I know it can get pretty abstract, but I’m always happy to try to stay more grounded and continue the conversation and explore more of these topics with you, Jim. It’s been really wonderful.
Jim: Yeah. Thanks. I did try to bring it down a bit this time, but I do think we did a good job. I think you did a great job, actually, of bringing it down where necessary. If you want to reach Matt, @MattPirkowski, P-I-R-K-O-W-S-K-I on Twitter. As always, there’ll be links to the various resources we talked about, and Matt on Twitter, on the episode page @jim[inaudible 01:06:33].com So thank you, Matt. This was great. I think I will have you back for that conversation about how to think about things like monetary systems as formal signaling and symbol systems. That’d be fun.
Matthew: Thanks, Jim. I really look forward to that conversation, something I’m really passionate about, and I always love talking with you about anything, but that would be particularly enjoyable.
Jim: Very good.