The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show, Joe Edelman, or Ellie Hain. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guests are Ellie Hain and Joe Edelman, who just launched Rebuilding Meaning, a new organization focused on radical social change. I’ve known Joe for many years. He was one of the original Game B-ers back in 2013, and is probably best known as the originator of the concept of time well spent as a metric for online services, and more broadly for life itself. He was one of the co-founders along with Tristan Harris and others of what is today the Center for Humane Technology. More recently, he has been active building the School for Social Design, an online school for enlightened product and service design.
I’ve known Ellie for a couple of years virtually, and she describes herself as an artist, researcher, and cultural strategist working on new imaginaries and ideologies for the post-industrial age. I was particularly taken by a line from her Twitter profile where she said, describing herself, “if Ayn Rand and Ram Dass had a daughter.” Welcome, Ellie and Joe.
Joe: Hi Jim.
Ellie: Hi Jim. It’s nice to be here.
Jim: Yeah, this should be fun. Joe and Ellie have just each released a video describing their ideas for a way forward towards a better world, and we’ll get into those videos in some detail. But first, let’s back up a bit and talk about the organizational effort that the videos are part of. Best I can tell, your holding concept, container, to use your terminology, is Rebuilding Meaning. What is that?
Ellie: Yeah. Well, I say rebuilding society on meaning, and how I’ve been describing the project is an ambitious, very ambitious cultural project that comprises of a social vision, so the image that we imagine in society wanting to move forward, and not just a vision, but also a plan, a concrete and actionable plan on how to get there, that’s what Joe’s talk is about, of essentially how to align tech, organizations, products and markets with meaning.
Jim: Cool. Let me read something from the website, maybe you can comment on that. Imagine a society where everybody gets support to live their most meaningful life. One person gets unbridled creativity, another service and love, a third confronts the world’s greatest challenges. We believe this is within reach if we aim for it and that attempting it will reverse the modern trends towards resignation, cynicism, isolation, and polarization. But it means changing the structure of markets, tech, organizations and more. Over eight years, we developed the necessary tools, now it’s time to build.
Jim: Yeah, I love that. I mean, in our own Game B world, we’re struggling mightily to turn from talk and more talk, and yet more talk to actual doing. And that’s a hard turn, so I congratulate you guys on focusing on that.
Ellie: Yeah. And it took us a lot of time to figure out first what was going on. Joe, you’ve been working on this for eight years. I joined in the year three. But yeah, the [inaudible 00:03:13] building is a big one, but it’s worth.
Jim: Yeah, it’s hard. Game B movement’s been at it for 10 years, most of it thinking. And we’ve got an amazingly broad and deep body of thought, but we’re now pulling it together into how do you actually execute. So anyway, we’ll get into that Before we jump in to Ellie’s video, you used the word meaning a lot. And I’m sometimes a bit of a holy fool on Twitter and I constantly ask people, “What the hell do you mean by meaning?” Right? John Vervaeke, who’s been on the show several times, makes a distinction between meaning in life and meaning of life, and I find that to be a very useful distinction, and he stresses meaning in life. So, what do y’all mean when you say meaning?
Joe: Sure, I’ll take that one. I do mean a kind of meaning in life. So, one way we sometimes describe it is the current kind of paradigm, especially in economics, but also in utilitarian ethics is something about preferences, right? It’s like, whatever people choose is what’s good for them. So if you prefer a certain kind of toothpaste or a certain kind of dessert, that’s what’s good for you and that’s kind of the end of the story. And at the center of our effort is an attempt to get beyond just what people prefer towards what they find meaningful. And we have various tools. We develop various tools for figuring out how to categorize, taxonomize, survey, identify different people’s sources of meaning, what two people might have in common and what they find meaningful. How can that be captured and profiled and how can you build things around that?
Jim: Yeah, so this is definitely Vervaeke’s meaning in life as opposed to meaning of life. What is our purpose here on earth? Who the fuck knows? So yeah. Great. So, let’s jump into Ellie’s video, which is titled How to Exit the Void. My first reactions, I very much liked that you rejected doom and gloom. Well, in fact, you said, “Well, because most movements today are what I call death cults.” Right? And it’s quite interesting.
I’m currently writing a book with a co-author and one of our key editorial decisions, I believe, I think it was brilliant, it came from my co-author, was not to reiterate what we’ve labeled the litany of shit. And we’re actually going to use that as a term of art throughout the book. And I think I’m going to hire somebody to put a web, I already bought the domain name, litanyofshit.com, and I’m going to hire a small team of Game B folks to create the litany of shit so that we can all just point to it without having to recite it because this recital itself moves people to a bad place, as you quite brilliantly pointed out in your video. I hope this pattern spreads and that more people just point to the litany of shit because frankly, most of our audience already have already heard it 100 times and we don’t need to repeat it. But you do start out with a name that at first seems kind of ominous. So, what is the void?
Ellie: Yeah, so the void is this metaphor that I use that… Yeah, I cannot [inaudible 00:06:20] in a way where [inaudible 00:06:22] sphere has been called the meta crisis. And is this sort of object that is multidimensional? At the beginning, it can seem very dark, and that’s what people call the meta. But then I kind of twist sit around. I think there’s doctrine in Buddhism also talks about it in this way, that the void is not empty or dark, but actually it’s a plan. So it’s really full and it’s full of life, and it’s where everything that we haven’t conceptualize or processed is happening. And so I use the void as these both personal experience of things are bad, whether that’s anxiety or the Sunday scaries or feeling of meaninglessness, but also the collective meta crisis. And what I do in my talk is take people through this journey of behind these darkness, there is actually something like that we’ve been disconnected from.
And this something is what we call meaning, which in my understanding, meaning is the closest proxy that we can get to us as what’s good. So, all cultures trying to optimize for what’s good, and ours within meaning is the closer one. So yeah, in my talk, I take people through this journey shortly through the void, and then we end up on the light side, comes to bright side with us. And the vision is around how do we build a culture and a new social vision and a narrative that really is always connected to these good.
Jim: Great. You start off with a nice little exercise where you ask people to think about the three most meaningful experiences, first in their life, next in the last year, and then third in the last week. I found that to be quite interesting, and I did it. And I found the first two to be very easily found in key moments from my personal family. It was very much family oriented. Now, last week turned out it was something else just because I hadn’t had any particularly intense family experiences in the last week, but it was clear that the longer term ones were instantly about family when I did the exercise. What’s your experience been with other people who do this exercise?
Ellie: Oh, that’s an interesting question. We haven’t gotten that yet. Yeah, I guess it’s a question that usually conservative, traditional people are quite interested in because they believe that there’s a set of things that are, by definition, the meaningful things. So, the things going to do family very much, but maybe it’s kind of working on a very intense, meaningful project or kind of close relationships, maybe romantic relationships, or maybe religious experiences. So kind of this feeling of transcendence that you can have in an organized religion very often. I do think that there’s some building blocks, these kind of purpose relationships and feeling of transcendent and something greater than yourself that tend to be more meaningful, but I do think that how this expressed in people vary a lot.
Jim: And I think that’s important for us all to recognize. One of the things I hate about classic 18th, 19th, and 20th century utopians is they all think people are the same. I’m constantly having to remind people everything’s on a distribution and it’s actually good, in fact, I’ve termed coin, which I call coherent pluralism, that there ought to be a small number of things that we can agree upon. But outside those small number of things, let diversity reign. You want to live in a community of strict monogamists, great. You want to live in at a community where monogamy is banned and everybody’s polyamorous, great. Just be clear about your norms and agree on some basic principles, and we can all live a good life. And I think so many of reform efforts try to force everybody into the same box, and that’s just not good.
Ellie: Yeah. And I think also something that’s very important about these is that even if there was a way of living that’s kind of optimal, or you were saying family values are really important, I think the reason why plurality is so important is because it’s really relevant for people to figure these out themselves. Because if you just do what you’re told and you’re left forever in this state of adolescence or non maturity. So yeah, that’s another important point that usually has been left out of conservative-
Jim: We should discover our own values, et cetera. Another nice distinction you made, which I think is very useful, is between containers and meaning. Why don’t you dig into that a little bit?
Ellie: Yeah. I mean, that distinction is actually, has been made for a very long time, and it’s the essence of a lot of mysticism and even kind of a cult hermeneutics, narcism traditions. And yeah, I think I was just trying to… It’s something that we can all feel and the reason why we feel drawn to containers is because we always have this deeply relevant experience of what I call the sacred, but at experience of meaning, something that kind of really connects with us at the emotional level and containers are what I call… In the video, I usually… There can be the space, a [inaudible 00:11:28].
So for example, for the filling of togetherness, you can find it in an army or you can find it in a football club, local political community, or in a group DM if that’s what resonates with you most. And what essentially I say, even though in material reality, we can’t just purely live in the realm of feeling, either in the realm of the sacred. We have to interact with realities for containers, but it’s important to maintain this distinction of what is the thing that draws us, the containers, in the first place, to not be lost in the containers, to not be completely identified with them?
Jim: Yeah, I think you made the point that certain traditional religions have often lost their grounding and meaning, other than perhaps for small minority, and just essentially become gestures that people go through, which I think will have worked the same way. Most companies started with a sharp vision of their purpose and a commitment to achieve the purpose. And then when they’ve been at it for 15 years, it’s this bureaucracy that 90% of the people are just involved in gaming the system. And those are, I think, are two pretty stark examples of how the container becomes the worshipful object, rather than the meaning or the purpose. As a counter to this, you suggested a few things, one which I think will tie in very nicely with Joe, is the ideas of values articulacy. Is articulacy actually a word? I don’t know if I’ve ever run across it before, but I understand what it means. So, what is values articulacy?
Ellie: When you’re trying to build the movement, one part that’s important is putting out new vocabulary. So, we hope we’re succeeding at this. It’s good you haven’t heard before. But yeah, so you were saying that a lot of organizations start with an original insight into the sacred, but then when they grow on scale, that degrades. That’s the case with religion. I also show that’s the case with ideologies, and I think that’s actually the case with everything. So, sometimes when we hear an opinion and the opinion feels like completely off, there’s always some signal in the opinion. Maybe this is just kind of the filling of how they felt and what that means for the person. Maybe it connects to a previous drum or something. But usually there going to be a lot of noise. And so what allows… The reason why meaning of articulacy is powerful is because it allows us to go straight to what the signal is and be able to distinguish that from the noise. So in the video, I give some examples about democracy.
Jim: Yeah, why don’t you give us some tangible examples? One of the things I always like to do on this show is to get highfalutin thinkers to bring it down to an everyday example. I know I’m guilty of the highfalutin bullshit too, so that’s one of the reasons I’m so sensitive to get people to ground things in examples.
Ellie: Yeah, totally. So democracy, today, when we think about democracy, it usually comes up in the collective imaginary, in the mouth shallow expression that essentially means to whether a country allows their citizens to put a paper in a ballot every four years. And if you have that, you essentially have democracy, and that’s one of the containers. And also, it’s just a very shallow, low resolution container of the meaning behind democracy. So, I show three different types of values in democracy that are connected to writings from relevant thinkers. One of them is around inverse elitism. So how connected are the leaders to the people, and not how detaching in their ivory tower are they? Another one is about democratic entrepreneurialism.
Joe: I can maybe do it.
Ellie: Yeah, maybe you can do it.
Joe: Yeah. So, I think there’s three. Let’s see. One of them is about trusting that democratic deliberation will end up surfacing information, surfacing policy proposals, things like that the the elites, the educated rulers or whatever wouldn’t be able to come up with if they were in a room without this kind of deliberation. Thomas Jefferson writes a lot about that, [inaudible 00:15:28] also. And another one is the sense that you can be a leader or run for local office or whatever from wherever you are in society, right? This is another thing that you see often in early democratic writings, also even in ancient Greek writings. So, these are two examples of a kind of value or source of meaning because people find those things meaningful. The fact that you can be a local leader no matter what your background is, they find that meaningful. Or the fact that we enter into deliberation and we don’t know where it will go, they find that meaningful.
So, these are sources of meaning that are part of what makes democracy work. And when you lose track of those sources of meaning or we can’t name them, then it becomes hard to self-correct and say, oh, well we have a democracy, but we actually don’t have a situation now where we enter into these deliberations. We’re just voting all the time.
Jim: And further, if we think about our current in the United States and the UK, I’m more familiar with those two, we’ve kind of polarized into Team Red and Team Blue. And often, people have heterodox views who are members of the two teams, but they still go along with the team, which is I find very strange in a broken thing in our democracy. All right, let’s move on to the next idea. And I like this one. It’s one I encourage in the Game B movement, and I think that’s particularly because I personally don’t exemplify it very much, which is the importance of aesthetics.
Ellie: Yeah, A lot of people, when they talk about the importance of aesthetics, they associate it with it’s good for marketing, right? This way, we’ll get the cool girls to come to a party or something like that, or the people like it more. And that’s an avenue which is… It is true. And even if it’s only for marketing, you should do it. But in the video, I take a different route that is not just as a strategy, but also because what is good and what is beautiful is not that different from each other. And this because is very clearly in nature. I put three images. So, if we see really beautiful nature, this usually tends to be also placed as fertile for life versus completely dead nature. It looks ugly because it’s also not a good place where you describe, right? And then in terms of movement building, or in terms of just anything really in life, what we find beautiful is not just because it’s aesthetically pleasing, but it is actually kind of a right signal for what our moral intuitions are.
So in a sense, when we… In front of a really beautiful piece of art or in front of really beautiful nature, the fact that this is resonating with us as an aesthetic level, there’s some signal there, this is kind of something that’s worth preserving about the world, because what world are we trying to optimize for if it’s not a beautiful world that actually feels good, that we feel this kind resonance at the deep level? And also because aesthetic, they allow us to experience something like a source of meaning in a deeply kind of embodied and unfelt sense. So, I think these examples of when you’re in a church, I can tell you all about transcendence. You can read William James, you can read whatever in the Bible, but kind of the feeling that you are when you’re in a church and you’re resonating with the beautiful music, with the organ, with the whole aesthetics, it just hits differently, right?
Jim: Yeah. Though, of course it’s also useful to remember that aesthetics change over time. At one time, brutalist concrete construction was perceived, at least by the avant garde ,to be beautiful. You look at it today, you go, “What the fuck were those people thinking?” And frankly, I find mid fifties interior design kind of like that’s some uncomfortable shit. Why was that the height of fashion in 1956? So, it is useful to keep in mind that aesthetics and aesthetic appreciation is very culturally contextual and it’s something that co-evolved with our sense of what’s meaningful and important.
Ellie: Yeah, totally. And that’s why when I refer to aesthetics, I don’t just mean things that are beautiful and what we would judge as beautiful, because in that sense, kind of the classic stock images that we see of beautiful tropical beach would be the most beautiful thing. But aesthetics, they are tied to certain values, certain source of meaning or sensibilities that that’s what they’re trying to highlight. So, in the sense brutalism is not an intentionally ugly aesthetics, but rather they were trying to transmit a certain ideology. And that’s why in this sense, even if you might find it to be less attractive or appealing, there’s still anesthetic that are actually trying to communicate something, unlike most of modern minimalism and contemporary design. It’s just kind of backwards, empty thing that is unintentional.
Jim: Certainly intentional, but it does evolve. So yeah, that’s interesting and good stuff. Now, we move on to a more cutting edge, ma be a little out there suggestion that you made, which was to use AI to help align society to meaning. And you explicitly propose creating a meaning, finding large language model and using that to help people develop their own meaning profiles. It’s kind of interesting. And I play around with LLMs quite a bit. I know they’re how they work and at least a little bit about deep learning transformer type networks and such. I’m a little curious how you would see that working, because as far as I can tell, LLMs are essentially a statistical compilation of conventional wisdom, or not conventional wisdom, conventional thought. This is what just the crowd thinks, quite the opposite of meaning in some sense.
Joe: Maybe I’ll take this one. They’re actually quite good at certain kinds of transformations. For instance, they’re good at translation from language language, and they’re also good at translation from English to Python or other computer code, or even like refactorings in computer code. So if you want to make a test for a function or a function [inaudible 00:21:21]
Jim: Yeah. They can even find bugs in computer code, amazingly enough.
Joe: That’s right. So, I think actually the task of finding people’s sources of meaning, especially when they’re basically saying them. So if I ask you for one of these meaningful stories that you visualized, that you mentioned… You visualized earlier when you were reading those talk. If I asked you for one of these stories and you told me at length what you found meaningful, then what we’re talking about is a kind of transformation on the input text. What we’re looking for is an abstraction of your story, right? We’re looking for the adjectives, adverbs that you use in your story, the attentional policies that would apply not just to that meaningful story, but to a class of meaningful stories that you and other people who have the same source of meaning will find meaningful. And so the LLMs tend to be pretty good at that kind of transformation. We have a working version of this, and it’s quite surprisingly good. It’s not quite ready for production yet.
Jim: Oh, that’s kind of cool. I like it. Yeah, and I talked sometime back, Joe, I remember you talking about using AI, you didn’t specify LLMs, for helping people extract their meaning profiles. And I thought that was a great idea. Whether LLMs could do it or not, love to see it. In fact, later today, I am going to dictate into Google transcribe my three meanings, and then feed them the chat GPT and ask for it to extract the deep principles.
Joe: We have a fine-tuned version. If you email me your stories, I’ll run it through our fine tune version. We have a prompt engineered fine-tuned version. It gives several examples of sources of meaning, and then says, please do the same thing to Jim’s story that I just gave you three examples of. And so this does a much better job.
Jim: We’ll do both, and we’ll compare and contrast. Be some learning that comes from that. So, let’s now wrap up by digging into, what do you mean when you say a meaning profile?
Joe: I mean, so I guess there’s sort of two things. So, one is you want to capture what’s meaningful to a particular person by collecting stories of what they find meaningful with work, with their best friendships, with their family and so on, trying to get some kind of coverage of their life. And then I’m also interested in figuring out which of those sources of meaning are undersupplied. So, maybe you spend a lot of time with your family, you feel really those sources of meaning that are related to your family meaningful experiences are abundant in your life, but there’s work creativity related sources of meaning that, man, the last time you really felt this was five years ago. You’re really missing it, right? And then there’s maybe some additional information that we’d need. For this particular source of meaning, maybe you need a particular kind of person to have that kind of source of meaning with.
Maybe you only really creatively jam with certain kinds of people. And maybe we need to know, oh, are those people that are far away? Maybe you don’t know somebody like that anymore, you used to. So, we need some information about your environment or the environments you could have. And so if you collect those three kinds of data, so sources of meaning, whether they’re too rare, undersupplied in your life, and what the context is. Then I think we can do a really good job making recommendations, helping somebody get back in touch with the sources of meaning that are too rare in their life and make their life more meaningful. So, that’s the idea.
Jim: Cool. Well, I think that we’re going to wrap Ellie’s video there, unless Ellie has some final thoughts she wants to give.
Ellie: No. Later, we can go over them.
Jim: Yeah, sounds good. Now before we go into Joe’s, I want to, I don’t know if push back’s the right word, but propose a slightly different way of thinking about this, get your reactions to it. You both use the words values a lot and they’re kind of central to your argument. At least some In my corner of the Hame B world lately, we’ve been talking about a triplet of virtues, values and norms, and we think they are three different things, and that they are, all three, important. And particularly that there’s about one or 2% nuts in the world, including us, including most of the people that are already involved in the liminal web transformation world, who can change their values, and maybe even their virtues in the face of the opposition of norms that they are out of congruence with. But that’s not true for most people. 99, 98% of people’s values erode quickly in the face of social norms. Humans, above all else, are memetic with an eye, animals that copy the people around them.
And so I think the one thing I’ve found less than satisfying on the focus on values is missing the precursors, the virtues, the kind of person we want to be, and then the interplay, though I think we’ll talk about a little bit in Joe’s video, interplay between norms and values. And without that centering, it feels a little shaky to me.
Joe: Yeah. One thing I’ll say is that a lot of what we teach at the school for social design, I didn’t get to include that much of it in my video, is the development of spaces with norms that support a set of values or virtues, right? So, there’s a whole social design part of it. And if we have information about people’s sources of meaning, and then we need to go and design a good environment for those people. A big part of that will be crafting norms that are supportive of those.
Jim: Great. Okay. That’s what I was pushing at that. For instance, our Game B world, we talk about proto B as one way of moving forward to Game B, which is on the ground village, around 150 adults. And we’ve assumed that those would craft their own norms, which may vary considerably between them, and that people would sort themselves into those communities that better matched their values looking for that support. That’s that norms and values [inaudible 00:27:16]. So, it sounds like we’re in agreement. You just didn’t have time to get into it in the video.
Jim: Virtues, that’s another story. We can leave that one for another day, gets into how does development work, et cetera. So, let’s go into Joe’s video, which is titled How to Align Social Systems, at least that was the title on your website. And let’s start with a quote from you. “I started out as an internet optimist. In 2008, I worked at Couch Surfing, which was growing fast, so was meetup.com and Wikipedia. Flash mobs were booming. Anyone remember improv everywhere. Seemed to me into others, the internet was bringing us a better economy. People were working together on giant projects like Couch Surfing, Wikipedia, and Lennox. I was a true believer love would be the new motivator. Money would fade. So, that was naive. By 2012, I’d sobered up.”
Well, I’m going to give you my own little mini version of that story. I started working on online products for consumers in 1980. And I’ll tell you what, we were so idealistic. We assumed this had to be great for citizenship and for education and for personal development. We even had the very first Catholic confession done via chat in 1982 with the explicit written permission of the Archbishop of Washington DC. And so we really thought this was going to just be nothing but good for mankind. I’d say personally, I sobered up around 2002 when Google had proved that you can build a ad-based business model. And I immediately said, this is going to be the great suck from this point forward. And then I think the underlying italics, bold, underline was the book Free by Chris Anderson in 2009, where he basically said, anything that can be free, i.e. ad supported will be free. And I go, all right, Chris, thanks for shitting in the well.
And so that corresponds pretty closely to your 2000, well, actually your early, your still optimistic days, and then your sobering up. So, talk to me about the sobering up.
Joe: Yeah. So, I was in conversation with you and Tristan Harris, Jordan Greenhall then, now Jordan Hall, and a few other people around then. And Facebook had just launched newsfeed, and YouTube had also recently launched, I think YouTube recommended, or maybe that was just around the corner. And the implications were just completely clear, because at the time, newsfeed and recommended were both optimizing for one signal, maximize engagement, and it was working. You saw these years from 2008 or so, 2009 to… So, the iPhone was released in 2007, adoption of smartphones was ramping up, and then the news feeds came out. And you saw, and these powerful recommenders, you saw this dramatic increase in screen time. Over just four or five years, people started being glued to their devices. And you saw it cannibalized television at first, but then go way past television. And so people were spending like 12 hours a day staring at screens. And it was just clear that the dynamics of the attention economy were clear as day.
And so I think we all saw this coming because we had some understanding of the basic economics and systems dynamics involved. And we were able to predict the things that actually happened much later. I think the rest of the world woke up in 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency, but most of us saw this coming maybe around 2012.
Jim: And I would suggest that those were an exact example of systems feeding on optimizing around the generator function, which was advertising, right? Consider if we were still in the days when you had to pay. In those cases, the business optimization is to give the customer the most value in the least time, keep the cost as low as possible. But as soon as you switch to an advertising driven model, the generator function compels one, if you’re a pure economic optimizer, which unfortunately our late stage game a companies are, to keep people online as long as possible. Let’s hypnotize them, right? And so yeah, I think that that’s maybe why I saw it a little earlier. I tend to see generator functions, and that I can predict reasonably well what’s going to emerge from them. And exactly the news, the feed optimized for engagement, which would then. It, the box figured out fighting is good for engagement, polarization, wonderful for engagement, the litany of shit, even better for engagement, right?
So, that’s really not too good. Let’s go on to another thing you said, which I thought I think was quite interesting. I really like this actually. Modern society can address a wide range of taste, taste in food, taste in clothing. They’re giant marketplaces, Amazon, app stores something for everyone, or so it seems… I like the so it seems. They addressed a wide range of tastes, but a person isn’t only made of tastes. There’s a kind of difference between people these marketplaces can’t serve. Everyone has a different source of meaning. And this is, I think getting damn close to the center of it here. And the way I talk about this is… Different people talk about different ways. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying have a great book, The Hunter Gatherer of the 21st Century, something like that, and they bring forth an idea called hyper novelty, that our systems today are really good at creating a hundred varieties of barbecue sauce and 300 varieties of shampoo and all this, but not so good at other things.
And when I think about this, I think about it as the breakdown of the meso scale… The meso scale I defined as communities of around 150 where mankind has traditionally lived all the way back to forager days. But as late as 1870, the vast preponderance of people were living in these face-to-face communities where our sustenance and security came from. There were no homeless people in the village, right? If you were the somewhat insane relative, you lived in your aunt’s attic. If you were the mentally retarded kid, you had the job of bringing water from the well to the blacksmith shop. There were positions of at least reasonable dignity for everybody. It’s because it was human, it was warm, it was grounded, it was rich. But since 1870, and we’re starting and accelerating rapidly from then, we’ve been increasingly replacing these warm senses of sustenance with two cold transaction machines, one, the market, and the other, the government.
And there’s has been, so far, no space to rebuild the meso scale, as you talk about, which we’ll get to. There’s a bunch of reasons why it’s hard. So, does that land with you, that what you’re proposing in some sense is replacing that sense of embeddedness in social context that we started giving up?
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s just another way of saying what I call… I refer to it as the decay of spaces, that there’s a certain kind of entrepreneurial project which makes up that meso scale, and that kind of entrepreneurial project is undersupported and undersupplied by our market. I’ll point out one more thing about it, which is I think, in a very zoomed out kind of vague ideological way, this is kind of a consequence of ideologies that are missing the meso scale. So if you’re an economist and you think that there’s the market, the coordinating function, and then individuals with preferences, or you’re a Christian and you think that there’s God, and then an array of human souls, or you’re a social contract theorist and you think that there’s the state and the citizens, if you think in these black and white terms and you build social theories based on that, and then you build social technologies that work according to those kind of… Or if you’re a technologist and you think there’s a recommender and then a bunch of user preference profiles, right?
They all have the same shape, a small central coordinating function and a massive individuals. And designs based on these frameworks will tend to miss the massive scale. So in order to… A big part of the focus of my life over the last seven years has been teaching people to design for this middle layer, because you really need a mind shift to even realize, to even have a cartoon vision of society that gives a place for the things in the [inaudible 00:36:07].
Jim: Yeah, it’s one of those. As you said, one of you said, I don’t remember which one of you, if you can’t name it, you can’t see it, or something like that. And I think that’s really a great part of your work, is naming things that need to be named. You pointed at it briefly, but you didn’t dive into it very much in your video, which is that since, I don’t know, let’s call it 1920s, there’s been an accelerating manufacturer by psychologically astute advertising of what we think we need, right? And this is really quite fundamental, and I would consider it one of the generator functions of where we are today. And as someone who’s been designing or managing the design of online products for more than 40 years, when I pulled up TikTok early in 2022, I go holy fucking shit, this is the most brilliant thing I’ve seen ever, and the most evil.
And I played with it for about two weeks, and then I deleted off my phone. And ever since then, I’ve been regularly ranting on my podcast. It’s one of the advantages of the podcast. You can rant when you want to, that, goddamn it parents, get TikTok off your kids’ phones. It’s worse than cigarettes, by far. It’s online fentanyl. It’s a very finely tuned, brilliantly designed machine to turn AI back at you to suck up every spare moment you have in your life, every spare quantum of attention. Get rid of that motherfucker.
So parents, if you didn’t do it last time, do it this time. When I see pussyfooting all the footing around in politics, oh, we’re going to ban TikTok because of Chinese less and such. And I say, watch a bunch of fucking wimps. Ban it because it’s fucking evil people. Now, let’s get back… Let me read another from the video. Now, I think this inability to meet demand, demand for togetherness and demand for meaning explains a lot of the predicament. And we kind of touched on a little bit about this redoing the meso scale. So, why don’t you run with all of that if you’d like?
Joe: Yeah. One of the points that I’m able to make a great length in my video, but I have trouble making briefly, is that meaning sounds like it’s a very nice to have. It sounds very much like a kind of first world problem, top of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs self-actualization. Meaning isn’t that important, or maybe it’s only important for rich people or something like that. But I think in the video slowly, by giving many, many examples, I’m able to show that actually, our sources of meaning are what make things like democracy, we were talking about earlier, or science, what make them actually keep functioning. So, out community, all sorts of different kinds of community structures are kind of held together by meaning, by what’s meaningful to the people involved.
And so when you have these systems that manufacture preferences and that ramp up individual satisfactions that aren’t meaningful, then you actually throw all of these different institutions and systems into crisis because the thing that made them work, like science for instance, without meaning, ends up being citation ranking careerism, right? And there’s a similar kind of thing you can do for democratic structures for every other kind of institution, marriage, right? If you take any of these things and you pull out the meaning, you get some really dark perverted form of it. And that’s a good description of the meta crisis of litany of shit, if you want to call it that. That’s one way of saying what we’re facing, is we’re facing these perverted versions of all these institutions that come from when people’s focus shifts from more or less from meaning to incentives.
Jim: Gotcha. All right, let’s make the turn to a very nice distinction you make between goals versus sources of meaning. And you give a great example with an online education
Joe: Platform. Yeah, sure. Yeah, I’m talking about it. So, I actually saw this play out at Khan Academy because several people that worked at Khan Academy took my course. And they wanted to make Khan Academy good, not for the goals of passing tests, which is kind of one of the main drivers of Khan Academy. For those who don’t know, Khan Academy is a online video course platform for learning things like math on your own. It’s nonprofit. And it’s mostly used in schools or by school children to learn different things, or by teachers to invert the learning and have people learn at home from videos, and then just take tests in class. And so long as Khan Academy is optimized for the goal of passing tests, then it’s going to work a certain way. And if Khan Academy was optimized for a source of meaning, like being curious about the world, exploring different… Reaching to the edge of knowledge or starting to see patterns all around you. There’s many different kinds of learning related sources of meaning that con could be about, but this would end up creating a very different educational platform.
And I saw this internally inside Khan Academy, a little bit of a war between some designers that wanted it to be more about the sources of meaning and some business people that wanted to keep it about the goals, because the goals related to business objectives and scaling objectives-
Jim: Because people think people, that’s what pays the bills, right? So, now let’s go on to what I personally found one of the most profound things in your work so far. You and I talked about this, I don’t know, three or four months ago, and that’s the concept of funnels, tubes, and spaces. Take some time and describe these. This is important.
Joe: Sure. Yeah, a lot of my work focuses on if you’re a kind of an entrepreneur or a designer, what are you going to make? And I think it’s useful to break the things that we make up into these three categories. And it’s also useful as a kind of an economic rubric. Some of our listeners might know about public goods and private goods and club goods. So, there’s different ways of breaking up either products and services. What are these things that we’re making? And so I break them up into funnels, tubes of spaces, where funnels and tubes are goal driven. So, a funnel would be a project to get everybody doing the same thing. Let’s all vote for some kind of climate regulation, that would be a funnel. Or everybody smash that subscribe button on the Jim [inaudible 00:42:35] show. That would be a funnel, right?
Jim: Yeah, do that, folks.
Joe: Watch my talk and Ellie’s talk. That’s a funnel. So whenever you’re building something where the goal is to get everybody doing one thing, even if it’s a great thing, I’ll call that a funnel. If the goal is to get everybody doing a separate goal directed thing, for instance, Google search or Amazon or Uber, everybody’s goal is different. Uber, everybody wants to go some different place. Amazon, everybody wants to buy a different thing. And you want to help them do all of that stuff as fast as possible. That kind of system, I call a tube. So if you’re making a tube, you’re making something that accelerates people towards their own goal, that’s a tube. And then everything else is spaces. And this is the thing that I think it makes up that meso layer that that’s been missing. And so if we want to repopulate that meso layer, we really got to have more entrepreneurs focused on making spaces.
Spaces are things that are not about accelerating anything, but about doing something, at least to some extent, it’s intrinsically worthwhile to people that are in it. So, a festival is a space, but so is some kind of a research project where basic research where the goal is to explore rather than to reach some kind of known goal, so is these spaces of democratic deliberation that we were talking about. It’s something where the process is actually important. It’s not just a technicality to accelerate towards a goal. And where often you wouldn’t accelerate things, because if you did, you couldn’t help but lose out on the specialness of what happens inside the space. So if you’re making anything that’s like that, then I would say that you’re making a space, you’re a spacemaker. And the key argument in my talk is that to do this, you need very different tools than entrepreneurs who make funnels and tubes use.
And part of the problem, there’s many different aspects of why we’re in this kind of meta crisis. But part of the problem is that even the people who want to make spaces are often using the tools of a funnel or tube entrepreneur. And so then they’re failing to make spaces, even if they want to. And an example, for instance, is Instagram. The founders of Instagram, I used to know them, they wanted to make a art exploration kind of space, but they didn’t. They made a kind of a meta funnel. And one of my ambitions with this work and this talk is to reach a lot of entrepreneurs and say, okay, you want to make a space? Well, you’re going to have to use these particular different tools and to hopefully preserve those spaces.
Jim: Yeah, I really did… I was taken with this idea when we talked about it a few months ago, and with your video. I’m even more taken with it. And to give a sense of some of the breadth of what a space might be, Joe listed a few. I’m going to read them off. Spaces for exploratory thinking, for creativity, for chilling, though I note that’s ageist, us boomers do not chill, vulnerability and celebration. These are quite a wide… He gives the actual tangible examples. So, there’s a lot of cool things that can be done if you open your eyes up from transactions, from transport to people interacting in a way that generates value and meaning. Actually, let’s wait till we get to that. Okay. Let’s move on to the next thing. And you’re saying Ellie, early about words and you want to own some words.
I think some words that are worth owning is piling up strangers. I love that concept. And you have this wonderful distinction between doing things with friends and piling up strangers. And you use an example of a woman who’s a great home cook, and then opens a restaurant. What happens?
Joe: Yeah. Well, so there’s a bunch of costs when you switch from a space-based business to… So, you can try to operate a space in a piling of strangers way, but it’s very, very difficult. So you can open up a restaurant, you can hope that people get to know each other in your restaurant, that you can try to form some kind of community. And people do this in bars. It’s not impossible. Piling up strangers, I mean any kind of situation where strangers kind of cue in through the door and you serve each of them, so that would include a restaurant or a bar. Switching from a situation where you’re hosting your friends in your living room, with drinks maybe, to a situation where you run a bar, or switching from cooking at home to opening a restaurant, you’re suddenly dealing with a whole bunch of strangers who you don’t know well.
So, that means you can’t serve them in a very deep way. You have to… In the talk, I say you have to maybe serve them pizza or whatever kind of… Beer is kind the lowest common denominator, instead of knowing your friend very well and serving them exactly what they like. And similarly, you’re going to have difficulty getting them to interact because they don’t know each other, right? Seems kind of obvious. And you’re going to be stuck in this funny role where you’re the proprietor of the bar or the restaurant and everybody coming in as a customer, whereas the roles are much more fluid in a space kind of situation. And so this is a way of describing why our society, as it scaled up, has lost spaces.
Jim: Cool. And then you go into a very cool riff on the bar about metrics for meaning, and you give a whole bunch of rather horrifying counter examples that are classic examples of Goodhart’s law, that once you start measuring something, it almost inevitably gets perverted. Why don’t you just riff a little bit on that? I thought that was actually a lot of fun, good part of the video.
Joe: Thanks. Yeah. In a way, this is my area of expertise. I started worrying about measuring the right things when I worked at Couch Surfing long, long time ago, in 2007. And I built some metrics for Couch Surfing that I’m still very proud of and that are very different from the metrics that other social networks used, and then I’ve now been adopted and use in some other places. So, I think it’s very easy to measure the wrong thing naively, and then turn something that might be a space into a funnel or tube. For instance, if you have a bar and you want people to be happy in your bar and you start measuring smiles with video cameras up around the bar, this is not so different by the way, from measuring likes or comments on a newsfeed, suddenly there’s this extra pressure to do whatever ramps smiles.
So, maybe you tickle everybody or you hire a comedian or whatever, and suddenly your thing just veers off in a different direction. You didn’t mean to open a comedy entertainment place. You meant to open a bar, but now it’s going to comedy because… So, it’s very, very tricky, I think. And this gets to the heart of why we need values articulacy, meaning articulacy, as you were talking before. If we don’t want it to veer off in a direction, we have to be very, very, very careful with what we measure. What we measure has to be at the heart of what we find meaningful about the thing we’re building.
Jim: Cool. Now, let’s go on to our next topic, which is one that I’m so intrigued on, but I’m still mystified. What the hell is it? Which is your meaning cards as a means to help people find what they want to have in the meanings in their activities. Is there a deck of cards called the meaning cards, or is this something custom for each person? I mean, I searched around trying to find a set of meaning cards. I couldn’t find them. So anyway, tell us about meaning cards, first in the abstract, and then in the specifics.
Jim: And how they’re useful.
Joe: Yeah. Som I think this is kind of, in a way, my biggest research results over the last six or seven years. In order to name precisely what’s meaningful about this bar that you want to create, you want to say, okay, which sources of meaning are we serving at the bar? So, do we want people to really open up with each other in our bar? That would be a vulnerability kind of focused bar. Do we want people to be flirting and have an adventure in the bar where they’re meeting strangers and there’s some kind of intrigue going on or whatever. So no matter what you pick, and you might pick several things, you need to somehow specify this in a way where it won’t go south and there won’t be some other thing that you’re accidentally measuring. So, the values cards are the way that I’ve solved that. And there’s about 4,000 of them in kind of common circulation.
So, it’s a little too much for a deck, but it’s not too much for some kind of online search. It’s actually quite manageable to build your own profile from these 4,000. Yeah. Well, we found that by experiments. So, I was mentioning earlier, we have this large language model that will talk to you about your meaningful stories and send you back values cards. Now, it’ll use your own words in making a values card for you, so in that way, it’s personalized, but it can also show you other people’s values cards that are the same. It might use different words, synonyms, but if you or they or anybody else looked at these two, they’d say, okay, well, these are two different words for obviously the same source of meaning. Every thing that’s meaningful according to one of these cards would also be meaningful according to another. So, that’s how we got this 4,000 number, is by looking at a lot of individual sources of meaning and then de-duplicating them through that kind of process.
Jim: I’m kind of surprised it’s that big, a set. I wonder… But of course, any ontological process, it could be less or it could be more. I’m kind of just visualizing here, using something like latent semantic analysis to find these or different wordings for or around the same concept. I’m thinking about 4,000, way more than I would’ve guessed. I was going to guess 200, that 200 would cover human meaning, but I guess I’m wrong.
Joe: So, I think there’s actually a… There’s a long tail. There’s a fat head and long tail. And we’re also counting everything that’s meaningful, for instance, to artists or musicians, which include many different kinds of things might be good about jamming or collaboration or harmonic tension.
Jim: Ah, gotcha. Okay. Okay. That’s my ontology perspective. I’m actually working on an ontology for another domain for some people. And so if you broke it down to musically meaningful, family meaningful, work meaningful, and then below that, had a whole series, that might be in some sense an easier way to visualize something like this.
Joe: Yeah, that’s right. They cluster like that. Yeah.
Ellie: I think this is connected to what you asked me before around your meaningful experiences with your family. So, I say actually… Sometimes when talking about these, I compare it to colors. So in the end there can be only three primary colors, and that’s kind of purpose relationships and transcendence or whatever. But it’s just a matter of how granular you want to get. Where do you draw the line? And in this case, we’re drawing the line at 4,000 just because it has enough granularity to still be able to provide something of extra bag added. But in the end, it could be one of those and of the wheel of FF1 one or kind of just like green or blue or something.
Jim: Gotcha. I’ll just sort of paint maybe a very rough sketch. Let’s say I’m going to open a decadent nightclub in Berlin and opens at 1:00 AM and runs for two and a half solid days once a week. How would I interact with you and your stack of value cards to figure out what value cards I ought to apply to my new venture?
Joe: Yeah, I mean, I would start with either the proprietors sources of meaning and stories of things that have been really meaningful to them. Or if you your audience, then I might interview them. And I just say things like, what’s the most meaningful or best nightclub experiences you’ve had? And when you’re listening to the stories, we teach in the school, an interview method called vetting values use solicitation where you ask certain kinds of questions. So you ask, okay, maybe the lights are flashing and you’re dancing to the music and you’re sweaty and there’s people around you and they’re sweaty too, and their sweat is getting your eyes, your sweat is getting in their eyes, and you just feel like some kind of primal blob of human flesh, all of you together moving as one.
And then I would say, okay, in that story, what are the things that you’re paying attention to that when you pay attention to that, it’s meaningful? So, then say something like, oh, it’s the synchronicity or synchrony of the bodies, that feels really meaningful. And the viscerality of the experience, the sensuality, the rawness or something, that feels meaningful, or whatever. So you collect these things, the synchrony, sensuality, rawness or whatever. You collect these things. You get them to say more about each of them. That makes up the values card. And then those are the things that you would want people to experience in your club as well.
Jim: So, I’m the entrepreneur getting ready to design this club. About how many cards would you recommend that someone work with?
Joe: Oh, maybe four or five or something like that.
Jim: Okay. That seems good. Because if you told me 3000, I’d say I wouldn’t know where the hell to start with 3000 cards, right? Four or five, very good. Because as you know, five is approximately the number of things you can keep in working memory simultaneously. And if you can’t keep it in working memory simultaneously, you really can’t reason across it very efficiently, which is kind of interesting. Okay, that’s kind of cool. So I would then think about, all right, I want to make sure that I have a good heating system so I can turn the heat up, make everybody sweat, and not too much ventilation so that it has that funk of sweaty bodies. Yeah. And I’m going to make sure that the food is high in sulfur so there’s a lot of [inaudible 00:56:29] some people’s pits give a good solid stench.
Joe: You should open a night club, Joe.
Ellie: [inaudible 00:56:41]
Jim: That’s interesting. All right. That’s cool. All right.
Ellie: [inaudible 00:56:46] talking before I went into ventures in Berlin.
Jim: Yeah. What the heck, right? I got some friends live in Berlin, they’d put me up while I start my nightclub. If it fails, get on the plane and fly back.
Jim: That would be quite funny. The least trendy fellow on Earth, myself, opens the most trendy nightclub in Berlin. I think that would be some great ironic humor in that.
Ellie: Yeah, [inaudible 00:57:11].
Jim: All right, we got a lot of other interesting things to talk about, what not to talk about cause we’re short on time, including people should check out Joe’s idea of the Bento box, which I think is actually very useful. Let’s do skipped over to a new idea, at least for me, although I think you did mention it briefly in our conversation back in November, and that’s a concept of space trains.
Joe: Yeah, sure. So, I wanted to make an alternative to this thing of piling up strangers, say how should we think about architecting, especially large scale systems? So, if you’re making a social media platform, for instance, or democratic structure and institutional structure like scientific publishing or something like that, what’s a way of architecting it, structuring it socially, network topology, kind of, what’s the way of structuring it that is supportive of spaces inside of it, so that it doesn’t give priority to funnels and tubes. And the structure I found, I just gave a name for it. Actually, I gave a new name to it. There’s some sociologists that would call the same thing I call a space trained a legitimation process. And I used that term for a while, but it’s kind of a mouthful, so I decided to rename it space train. The idea is that you build a structure of small groups that are interconnected, and interconnected in a certain way where they share values between groups.
So, it’s got some aspects of… So in social media, there’s a problem where there’s kind of like two dominant modes. One, we have the dark forest mode of discord, telegram, WhatsApp, where there’s a whole bunch of private chats, and the way something moves from private chat to private chat gets forwarded from one of the other cut and pasted or something like that. And no one really shares values. There’s no common organization. And that’s one dominant mode. Another dominant mode is like the newsfeed Twitter kind of mode where everything’s visible to everyone and there’s something trending globally and it’s all very much out in the open. And neither of these are very good for spaces. The private channels one is better for spaces, but something can’t really succeed through a set of common values because the values are… If there are any values are local to each particular private chat or whatever.
So, what we want is a structure, like the structure of science is the example I go into in the talk, where there’s some common values across science, some common values across scientific fields, but there’s many different individual groups, so collaborators, university departments and so on. And they’re connected by those common values and this gives them a way to forward information to each other based on those common values. So, this architecture is what I call space train, and I think it’s what we need to move from away from the dark forest model and away from the kind of public newsfeed model.
Jim: Yeah, very cool. I really resonated with your description of science as a space train is it’s something that I deeply involved with, that science governance at various elite institutions. And also this is news to my audience. I’ve just recently moved a chunk of my time allocation to meta science, which is the design of science as an institution and will be having more… Recently had a good guest on it, and I’m about to affiliate with a meta science institute and some other things. And this is a great interest to me. The design of these meta institutions is hugely interesting. And science does indeed fit your meta, your space train. Don’t use meta. Boy, that words old, right? That’s a 2001 word, Goddamn it. Don’t ever say meta or paradigm, Goddamn it. Or literally, Goddamn, I’m going to smack the next person that says literally to me where that’s not necessary. So, what are some other examples of space trains that people might be familiar with?
Joe: Sure. Yeah. A lot of art, like local art, is space train. For instance, I don’t know, social dance, contact improv, break dancing. There’s local groups, but they share a common ethos with other global groups, even more professional groups. People get discovered in the local groups. You might become a very good break dancer in Virginia, and then you get kind of sent to the regionals or something like that, right? So, that would also be a space train.
Joe: There’s some religions that are space trains. Sports is the same. Some religions, Quakerism, I think is roughly a space train, where there’s local Quaker meetings and you can get kind of bumped up to regional and Quaker meetings if you have an important thing to say.
Jim: Yeah, sports teams was a good example. I think that… Yeah, that’s a good one because again, it is one of the conditions you suggested, that it promote excellence, and yet also be local. It’s really quite interesting design patterns there. So spaces and space trains, a lot of good stuff there. What is systemically going on that keeps that model from taking over everything? You did a good job on this.
Joe: Thank you. Yeah, it’s this thing that I call piling of strangers mainly. It’s a few different things. So, one thing is the piling of strangers patterns. So as long as most of our purchases, for instance, or also applications for universities, things like that, as long as they pile us up as strangers instead of arranging us in little groups that are interconnected by common values, as long as that’s the dominant way of scaling, then spaces have a disadvantage. And we’re building these audiences, more or less, instead of building space trends, right? We’re building these massive audiences for things like The Jim Rutt Show. But what we need is an alternative to… So, there’s a subscribe button, and you can imagine that the subscribe button helps you find a subgroup of people that you could actually vibe with and that somehow is connected by common values to other Jim Rutt Show listeners or whatever. And we can imagine this kind of button is just something everybody knows what it means, just like everybody already knows what subscribe means, right? So, we’re a little far from that world, but it’s some kind of join subgroup button, right?
Jim: Find the others, as we say in the Game B world, right? And it would be really interesting as a slider. I want to find the others at the range of 50 miles, 200 miles, 500 miles thousand miles, or based on science, let’s say biochemistry, biology, sure, science. And of course biochemistry goes way down and it’s… So, [inaudible 01:03:51] having sliders to find the others and somehow get connected into things at the right level of granularity for the purposes at my hand would be a good way to do it. But what’s keeping people from doing that now? Why is it so hard? Why does it get crushed by Tik fucking Tok?
Joe: Yeah, I mean it’s a bunch of reasons. One is that we’re in a kind of a local maxima where there’s additional friction in that button that we just described, right? So, that button is going to interact with you. It’s going to ask you for these sliders and things like that. With the subscribe button, it’s just like subscribe, right? And so that’s going to slow down the number of new subscribers.
Jim: And as we know, when you’re designing a funnel, you want it to be as frictionless as possible. In fact, we always set up ab tests and we change the font and we change the wording until the funnels as frictionless as possible. The kind of work you’re talking about increases the friction, and therefore you will lose in a financial horse race if the payoff is in a transaction.
Joe: Yeah. And I think part of that is… So, part of that is just that we are in a kind of a war of the attention economy, but part of that is that people are inarticulate about all the stuff that Ellie and I have been talking about in this whole podcast, is people don’t know that something should be a space training instead of a meta funnel or whatever. They don’t know that something should be a space instead of a funnel or tube, so they get duped. And they think, oh, I want to connect with others, so I should join this giant audience of people who want to connect with others.
And they don’t have the sophistication to be like… And that’s, in a way, what my project with Ellie is. I see a way out, which is the same… People have a sense if something’s democratic or if the democraticness is kind of bullshit. They have a sense if they’re going to be listened to or not. There’s different things that we can kind of judge from outside, but this space train thing is not something that we could yet judge from outside. And if we can advance culture in that direction so that people could be more discerning and say, “Oh, clicking that subscribe button does not serve me, I’m going to go look for a space train version of this,” then we’ll be in a better place.
Jim: Cool. Well, I think that’s it for the two videos. Now, we’re going to back up again and look at some bigger picture questions. Thanks very much for those two very good descriptions. And I would strongly recommend people check out these videos. You can get links to them at rebuildingmeaning.org, and there you’ll find links to both Joe’s and Ellie’s quite excellent videos. And you listeners know I hate fucking videos. I very seldom watch videos, but I did watch both of those from the beginning to the end and took some fairly careful notes. So, there’s that. Anyway, well, something I’ve been playing with quite a lot lately, and as I was watching both your videos, the bells were ringing, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, which is Carl Rogers, who is a famous 20th century psychologist. He had a concept called congruence, and he defined congruence as minimizing the distance between our current selves and our ideal selves. Does that resonate with you guys?
Ellie: Yeah, of course it does. Yeah, it’s funny, some people, when they kind of watched earlier versions, they were like, “Oh wow, this is about human potential.” And that’s not the initial framing that we had, but yeah, of course it is. And I think for… I guess this also connects to what you were talking about before around virtues. And how I think of it at least is our ideal selves is when we’re unconstrained by norms, and perhaps even the environments that forces into these norms, and we’re leading to the highest expression of our values, and we’re constantly living by the highest expression of our values. That’s when it becomes a virtue, or at least that’s how I would understand it. And so what we’re trying to do, what this project is about is kind of both educating people, and in Joe’s case, consumers about what those values are, but also kind of refining systems so the pressure doesn’t fall entirely on the individual to live by this best version of yourself.
Jim: Joe, do you have anything to add?
Joe: I often find myself on the other side of debates of people that are really into developmental psychology, people that love Keegan, Kholberg, this kind of stuff, spiral dynamics, of which there’s-
Jim: Yeah, me too. Me too, by the way.
Joe: Because for two reasons. One is because I think things are a lot more granular than that, and the other is that I think things are much more environmental. So, I really believe in people. I love people. Part of what I get from doing this kind of interviews to find people’s sources of meaning, so often I’ve done hundreds of them, and I’ve seen my students do maybe a thousand, is I love them. I love what people find meaningful. People find service meaningful, they find creativity meaningful, they find courage meaningful. All these great things are the things that people find most meaningful. And so I think that largely, people are in bad contexts to do what they find meaningful, and they’re stuck in these things like multipolar traps or whatever, where in order to feed their family, they have to do this thing that they don’t find meaningful, it’s actually bad. So yeah, I guess that’s one way that I think about this, is that the way to lower that difference, to increase that congruence is to find better environments.
Jim: And I think that’s, of course, what Game B is all about, is actually trying to design a complete social operating system that helps, one, people see what their ideal self might be, what’s possible. Because one of the sad things about our current world is that we don’t even know… People have reified so much. It seems like our monetary system was brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. Actually, it was cooked up by some guys on JE Island in 1913 and then refined at Brenton Woods in what, 1945. And we built it, we can change it, God damn it. I call that the gateway drug to this whole liminal web experience, is these things that we see out there that we don’t like or that aren’t incongruence with our real selves, in theory at least, we have the power to change. And if we can’t change the whole system, we can change little bubbles that we live in.
And I think that’s really interesting and important. The other part… Just came out of a very intense weekend about 10 days ago, we talked about a bunch of fundamentals, and one of the things that the light came on about this congruence thing is the vector between your current self and your ideal self. Essentially if done right and in the right kind of society, defines a direction you want to go, and then one must be careful about what one’s ideal self is. I suppose one’s ideal self is a sadistic psychopath that likes to go out and chop people up with axes, right? That’s not good. And so that then gets to the virtue and the educational aspects and the social norming and all that. And so it actually gets pretty complicated, and to think about it naively is not good. And then the other idea that popped up as we had this discussion with some really smart people was, oh, good old Game A wants to keep that gap as big as possible to keep everybody hustling, right?
Because in some sense the size of the gap is your dissatisfaction with your current life. And so you have an ideal self of driving around in a Ford F250, drinking Coors light with a couple of babes and bikinis next to you and you’re actually working as a burger flipper at Wendy’s, you’re going to be a hustling dude looking to be promoted to assistant manager at Wendy’s and all this sort of stuff. And so I think that’s also very interesting and useful. One, that the tension gets people moving in the right direction if the ideal self is a good one. And if it’s not, it just provides a tremendous amount of fuel for Game A, to keep people hustling above and beyond perhaps what they should be doing.
Joe: One of the things that I get to see as people go through our course is… So, we have a curriculum around this where you try to identify your sources of meaning. And to do this, you peel off a bunch of things that we don’t call sources of meaning. So, you peel off internalized norms, we call them. It’s like a norm that you’ve taken so seriously for yourself that you don’t even need an environment to put it on you. So, maybe you have a norm about maybe the sports car that you were talking about is part of being masculine, and you kind of internalized that.
And so then we have our students go through it and they’re like, okay, is that really meaningful to me? What aspects of it are meaningful? What aspects is just some kind of image that I’ve internalized? They do a lot of introspection. And they end up, I guess, modifying what you would call their ideal self or something significantly. I’ve seen people dramatically change their lives after the course because of this. And they end up coming up in with things that I really believe in. So, I do think that our ideal selves or our visions for ourselves are just a kind of weird cultural preference or something. I think they’re made up of… It’s like a vector made up of an addition of several different disparate kind of data types. And you can peel those away and get it something really beautiful and true. And people do that in our course.
Ellie: Yeah, that’s, again, where the distinction between values and the container is really useful, because what you were saying, if you have a value that’s about being feeling really powerful and masculine and ambitious, then of course it will fluctuate towards the containers that now society’s providing for you. And maybe it’s being an investment banker, or right now it’s being a [inaudible 01:13:49]. But when you’re able to feel these, as Joe was saying, then you can find there way of being really powerful and ambitious and masculine that really feeds how you want to be.
Jim: Okay. Yeah. Got it. Good. Yeah, and I think a good takeaway is at least some of these vectors in this vector edition are malleable, and that all of our work together in trying to bring a new world into being is going to be in part understanding how to help people adjust those vectors which are adjustable. And don’t waste your time on vectors that aren’t adjustable. And trying to figure out those two may be a certain kind of social wisdom, which we’re going to need to develop here in the years ahead. So final topic, you guys are envisioning a social change movement, lots of other social change movements out there. How do you see yourself in relationship to some of the other projects that exist? Two come to mind, probably two that I know most about is Hanzi Freinacht and his political meta modernism. You guys familiar with that?
Jim: Okay. And then of course the other would be Game B. They overlap each other, they overlap all that you’re doing. There’s all kinds of interesting interactions. How do you see your efforts fitting into this broader community of other social change movements that are out there?
Ellie: Yeah, totally. So, how we think of our project is primarily very pluralistic. And so far, when we’ve… First of all, both Joe and I, we do come from the Game B, meta modern scene. But this summer, we’ve tried to spread these message across other communities, including kind of [inaudible 01:15:29] and effective [inaudible 01:15:31], but also people willing to new spirituality and religion, meaning crisis, social justice, conservatives. And so far, all of these communities, including Game B and meta modern, have really resonated with our message. And I think part of it is because we’re not saying that how you’re thinking about things is wrong. So, we’re not so much in competition, but that rather we’re giving them a new articulacy or a new lens to talk about the things that they care about, but in a different way. So for example, in the case of political meta modernism, maybe you can take Game B.
So, political meta modernism is this idea, this vision that we should try to help individuals become their best selves, close this congruence gap by creating a listening society that really funnels people across the spiral dynamics, levels of development kind of pyramid. And how we think about these is that all these different developmental levels, they’re actually certain values that you can attach to them, or even a similar value have different expressions, depending on where are you on the developmental scale. But we’re choosing to put the emphasis on a different part of it, which is living by the values rather than simply going up the pyramid. So, that’s just one example, but the same could be said about many different cultural projects and different ways of helping them kind of talk about their vision in a different lens.
Joe: Something about Game B, so, I was sort of there at the beginning of Game B, or close to the beginning, and I was into it. And then I learned the lesson very quickly that for some reason the others didn’t learn, at least at that time, which is I tried to teach design workshops with Tristan to top designers. We had people from Apple, from the Gmail… The whole Gmail team was there. We had all these people, and we were like, build your products so that it doesn’t have multipolar traps, so that… We used kind of some of the Game B kind of, especially Daniel Schmachtenberger’s kind of framings. And it just didn’t help at all. They didn’t know what to do. They were like, we don’t know how to do that. They knew what we meant and they tried. But the lesson that I learned was like, wow, it’s not the set of concepts that helps people build is not the set of concepts that helps people diagnose a problem.
You just need a totally different terminology to build than you would to say, “Oh, there’s something wrong with this.” Right? And especially the kind of game theory based terminology just doesn’t really help people build. Might help people with certain mechanism design certain kinds of problems, but mostly doesn’t help people build, especially social products in a different way. So, then I was like, oh God, I got to find this. That’s what I’ve spent the last six, seven years, eight years doing, is like, okay, what set of concepts do help people build? And the only way I can figure out how to find that out was to make a lot of guesses and work with hundreds of designers to see, when I told them, “Of I say X, do you do something, and you do something that actually does meet these criteria that we presented years ago?” And so that’s how we got to the values cards and the spaces and space trains and all of that. These are the ideas that help you build the things that pass some of the Game B criteria.
Jim: Cool. That’s exactly how I saw it as I watched your two videos, that it was not incompatible at all with either Meta Modernism or Game B or Regenerative Agriculture, or any of the other very useful and good movements out there, but it was essentially an applied layer on how to do X in the specific domains of things that straddle the online and in the meat space world. And that’s extremely helpful. So, I want to congratulate you guys both on your good work, and I hope this podcast will get your work out into the world a little bit. And thanks for coming on The Jim Rutt Show.
Joe: Thanks for having us.
Ellie: Thank for having us. That was fun.
Jim: Yeah, this was a really good conversation. I think we got most of the ideas across. And again, if you want to hook up with these folks, rebuildingmeaning.org. As usual, all the links of all the things we talked about will be on the episode page at jimruttshow.com, so check it out.