The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Michael Garfield. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: If anybody would like to comment or join in the discussion on this episode, check out the episode tweet on Twitter at Jim_Rutt. I look forward to seeing you there. Today’s guest is Michael Garfield. Michael has a quite interesting podcast called Future Fossils. I appeared on his show in episode 181. I think we talked and argued a bit about Game B a little bit or something like that, as I vaguely recall. And until very recently, Michael was the producer and host of the Santa Fe interest … Try that again. Santa Fe Institute podcast, Complexity, which is a really great podcast. A lot of interesting guests, many of them ones who have appeared on the Jim Rutt Show. But Michael takes a different perspective, and I think for those of you who see some overlap, check out the work that he’s done. It’s really quite good. In addition to being a podcaster, he’s a freelance writer and editor, and he’s also a not shabby musician and a visual artist. He’s a talented motherfucker, right?
Michael: Thanks, Him.
Jim: I mean, his stuff is really interesting. Worth checking out. And he’s currently … And by the way, you can find a link to his stuff on the episode page as usual at jimruttshow com. And he’s currently working on a book about the intersection of entertainment, media, technology and complexity. I’m certainly looking forward to it and I’ll certainly buy a copy. We’ll have you back on the show when it comes out. Welcome!
Michael: Thanks, Jim. And yeah, it’s funny, as we were saying before the call, I really worry that, yeah, I’ve never made entirely sensible decisions in my life. And leaving SFI to pursue more impactful work, including this consummation and synthesis of everything I’ve learned there in other media projects, that … you know, this is also during the collapse of the publishing industry and also at this time when everything on the six-month horizon and forward seems like it’s up for grabs with the accelerating pace of language models and their suffusion into society. So I honestly don’t know if waiting for this book to be finished before I share it with the world is the right idea, so I’m workshopping everything right now with my Substack readers and involving them in the manuscript research and drafting. And I find that to be a much more appropriate way to pursue this project than to simply work on this in secrecy as a … I think everything now, it’s about teams, right? It’s human AI teams, human human teams. And so I welcome people’s participation and contributions to this project, and I’ve already had a lot of success with Future Fossils listeners in helping me think through this synthesis. So anyway.
Jim: Yeah, there’s a lot of that opportunity out there right now to do collaboration in ways that we haven’t fully thought about before. And as you mentioned, not just with humans, but also with things like LLMs. This is an exciting time. I really feel excited about technology again. I believe this LLM thing and the things that will come down from it, be built from it will be as fruitful at least as the last really big thing, which I would suggest was the PC in 1977 or 78 or thereabouts. Now, we talk about the internet, but the internet kind of follows from PCs. We talk about smartphones, and they essentially are just a miniature little PC hooked up to a network. But this is a whole new space. It’s really, really quite interesting. So I look forward to see how this collaboration of yours goes forward. Do you intend to put LLMs in the loop to some degree.
Michael: To some degree. I’ve already been drafting the cover of the book in mid-journey, and the generative image fills from Photoshop. And I don’t know, I’m going to be talking on future fossils to a couple from Copenhagen that are working on a project called Leica, which allows you to create bespoke customized language models that learn your particular writing style. At the same time, call me old-fashioned, but I still haven’t found a lot of personal utility in writing with ChatGPT except to see what kind of interesting … Like it’s terrible at sonnets, for instance. It cannot do iambic pentameter to save its life. And so I value having some agency in this.
And then just to double down on this particular thing, I think that the way that these tools are being presented as a productivity amplifier is a part of the problem that I see us working through now, which has to do with a very SFI notion that came up on complexity a lot, which is information scaling and the way that the super exponential production of information is causing something that you and I talk about a lot, as well as many other people in the so-called liminal web in which both of us have been implicated, which is the epistemic crisis of how do we make sense of all of this additional information? And so this is where I see one of the core themes of the book really coming to the fore, which is that I grew up a super fan of Michael Crichton’s work and of Jurassic Park in particular. And I studied paleontology with the book and films, principal paleontological consultant Robert Bakker as a child, and left paleontology when I discovered the work that David Krakauer did with Martin Nowak on the error catastrophe and on the evolution of syntactic language.
I realized in my senior year of college that that research was generalizable to an understanding of major evolutionary transitions jet as a whole. And so these are these questions about the complexity that’s produced endogenously through recombinant relationships between agents in a complex system and then how it pushes the sense-making processes of various social systems, as simple as chemicals relating to one another in a prebiotic soup or the origins of multicellularity, et cetera, to create new levels of individuality. So, this is the driving story to make sense of the origins of complex society and the origins of what we’re calling the Technocene or the Technosphere.
And so this is what Crichton was pointing to in the problems that the engineers and architects of Jurassic Park were facing, which was that the complexities of the systems that they were trying to control outpaced their abilities to make sense of them and to effectively control them. And so I see Jurassic Park as a tale that’s not really about dinosaurs in particular, but is about what Kevin Kelly after spending time at SFI pointed to in his book Out of Control in the nineties, which is the way that our technologies have become living systems in their own and therefore exceed our abilities to model them adequately such as we can remain at the top of the so-called food chain in the postmodern world.
Jim: That’s of course hugely interesting. And how do we deal with the level of both complicatedness and complexity that we have created both inadvertently and inadvertently? And it’s a huge question. Is human cognitive capacity up for the game? The early returns don’t seem too promising.
Michael: No. And of course, something that I talked about with David in the last episode of Complexity, which should be appearing soon, is that … everything that you’re talking about, but the PC revolution, the development of the internet and so on, leads us deeper into what philosopher Timothy Morton called the hyper object, which is that … Again, to point to Kevin Kelly who I just interviewed for the third time for Future Fossils and had a fabulous discussion with, Kevin talked in what technology wants about how this appearance of the ephemeralization of technology, that the phones are getting … the interface is getting smaller and less visible occludes the fact that all of this stuff is running on an ever greater and more pervasive information architecture such that it looks like you’re dealing with … Instead of a room sized pc like our buddy Bruce Damer has in his DigiBarn museum … He’s got the first pc, which is desk-sized, and now you’re dealing with something that fits in our pockets and pretty soon will disappear even further. But it’s actually just the tip of the iceberg of this enormous thing, and that all of us are actually connected with this. And I don’t know if you’ve had Gordon Brander on your show yet, but-
Jim: No, [inaudible 00:10:02].
Michael: Yeah, hordonsubconscious.substack.com. He’s working on Tools for Thought. I’m talking with him and Kevin Awoki later today on the Green Pill podcast. But Gordon and I have had a lot of interesting conversations about how the response to this problem of an increasingly opaque information processing architecture in which each of us are embedded like coral polyps within the colonial organism of a coral is it means that we can’t really think of ourselves as discreet modern individuals in the way that we were inclined to 300 years ago, that we are participating in a massive sort of distributed computation and we’re all sort of joined at the hip and the brain by these things. And so it really …
Again, just to nod to David Krakauer and the work that he did recently with Melanie Mitchell on do language models demonstrate understanding. David has made the point several times through his career that the culture in the modern world is defined by collective learning increasingly outpacing individual learning. And so even as we get better at that new meta individual layer of intelligence at understanding and interacting with things, as individuals, the world that we’re relating to is becoming more and more opaque. And so there’s a fundamental trade-off between our own ability to understand it and to engage with these black box predictive algorithms. So I think that you look at the work of weirdo visionaries like Terence McKenna and how he built on Marshall McLuhan’s work to say that the information age is reviving an archaic way of relating to the world, a pre-modern sort of indigenous, animistic, polytheistic, cosmic view in which we live in a kind of sentient ecosystem of everything being animate, everything being this … We live in a jungle of our own making. And so that it’s going to change the way that we engage with all of these things.
And I think that ultimately, it just puts us back in a very … I think epistemic humility is basically the going to be the real core of what emerges here. We’re going to have to accept that we can’t think this through on our own and that we need the cognitive ecosystem that involves non-human animal intelligences like slime molds and language models and all of these things. And we’re going to have to think through this stuff together with all of these non-human intelligences.
Jim: Yeah, and we also have to … I think we’re … You know, and I both have some interest. Is there a way to … Well, we know there are some ways, but are there better and more scalable and less corruptible and capturable ways to create collective intelligences that actually can work on these problems? And I say we already have collective intelligences. Every business is a collective intelligence. It’s a fairly archaically one in most cases, but it is smarter than any one of its components, typically. But can we do a bigger net mind of us to help steer this increasingly difficult ship of civilization that we have? I will say, so far it’s unclear. You know, you think about something like Twitter. Kind of amazing that fully emergent networks are formed. Twitter’s kind of almost the most pure case and that you can connect … You can follow anybody, anybody can follow you, no limits on numbers, et cetera. But of course, we’re all mediated by that black box in the middle, though maybe not quite so black anymore since they published the code. But a gray box at least that is very substantially modulating the nature of this network.
And yeah, Twitter, it’s sort of interesting, but I’ve certainly connected to some interesting folks. But at the end of the day, it isn’t very satisfying. Nothing much ever happens on Twitter other than blah, blah, blah. And in fact, I’m very much looking forward to my annual six-month social media sabbatical. Some days I feel like Frodo in the last few miles to the ring of fire waiting for July 1st to Mount Doom. It’s just like, ugh, what a just blah Twitter can be, but it at least points towards something. But we’re going to need some new thinking. And I’ve been talking to a number of people about this, and some of them … had Monica Anderson on the show and some other folks I’ve been talking to offline. And it seems like a new topology might be necessary.
I’d love to get your thoughts on this because if you’re thinking about the intersection of entertainment, media, technology and complexity, your thoughts could be bang on, and that is that … And then let’s add in the accelerator, which is the LLMs and the sea of sludge that they’re producing. We can already see it. I can already see the degrading … Facebook has lost control. Facebook is just totally useless shit now, close to. Twitter, maybe they’re doing a little bit better. And it reminds me of the spam attacks in the mid-nineties where email almost went down when there was a clever algorithm developed that was just barely good enough to keep ahead of the sea. And the algorithms have stayed better so email remains useful, somewhat surprisingly, all the years later.
But anyway, back to the sea of sludge and just too much, too much, and the black boxes. A number of us are hypothesizing that the basic model of connectivity will change in that what we really want is each of us to have a very smart information agent around us that interfaces with these various platforms, including our email, including our text messages, but also including Twitter, if that’s what you want, and Facebook and Reddit or your sub-Reddits and all this sort of thing. And more importantly though, with each other, each other’s agents, and for instance, that your info agent … I think of it as a sphere essentially. Probably an idea I got from Monica Anderson. She calls hers Bubble City. And your sphere could have an exhaust coming out of it which is your curations and what you’re interested in. People could subscribe to your exhaust and have their info agents process the transactions that you choose to publish out your exhaust. Maybe you charge a dollar a month for it, something like that.
And then there are people set themselves up as second order curators who offer curation service where they actually work. Let’s say somebody follows, say, evolutionary theory and reads the papers and makes brief comments and gives thumbs up, thumbs down on them. And that feed can be plugged into your info agent, and that curation can exist outside of any of the existing platforms. And then potentially a new virtual platform emerges from these connectivities. And when you want to post a reply to something, it goes to wherever it’s supposed to go, right? Oh, I want to reply to this tweet. Okay, boom. It just goes off to Twitter. You don’t have to deal with Twitter at all. Your info agent takes care of it for you.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Jim: And here’s a top of the food chain thing for me, I feel like, is I would love to have a slider says I only want to look at 10 things a day, period. Info agent, you figure out the 10 things in collaboration with all my friends who I’ve hooked you up to, and don’t give me more than 10 things, God dammit, because it wastes my time. Anyway, I’m starting to smell that this could be a quite remarkable change in the whole topology of how all this stuff works. What do you think of that?
Michael: Absolutely. And to just make the stakes of all of this really, really explicit for your listeners, I want to point to one of my favorite episodes of Complexity, which was with Rajiv Sethi back in episode seven, where we were talking about the work that he did with Brennan O’Flaherty on the criminal justice and stereotyping and police violence. And one of the things that he said was that all of us have to create these compressed encodings based on our life experience such that we’re not constantly testing our environment as though we’re interacting with it for the first time. The amount of computational resources required to test a chair before you sit in it every single time because you haven’t developed a concept of chairs, you’re not sure if it’s actually going to … You know, you have to assume that on average that thing is going to support your weight, or we would never get anywhere.
Anyone who has had a psychedelic experience knows that the way … One of the characteristics of psychedelia points to this is that it’s just enormously costly to sit there and try to figure out how to hold a glass of water. This is ridiculous and it’s enormously inefficient. And yet, on the other end of it, we end up at these situations where people have developed these horrible stereotypes, racist, sexist, ageist stereotypes that in a moment of crisis, in a moment where we’re having to make flash decisions on the spot, you encounter someone in a dark alley, that we tend to lean on these stereotyped models of one another. And what came up in the conversation with Rajiv was how the pace of interactions required of us to engage with one another online in social media where we have very little information about strangers results in these encounters where people are assuming the worst about one another and they’re not getting the time to break bread and get to know each other as individuals. And so this is why social media is such a trash fire, in my opinion.
And one of the reasons is that the scale and pace of interactions required to participate in the global economy is such that it is inherently dehumanizing and alienating. And so the question of … Something that I appreciate about this return to Dunbar and sub-Dunbar levels of human interaction in the Game B discourse is it really is about how do we get back to this kind of thinking? And so Gordon, again, Gordon Brander, he was part of the SFI Applied Complexity Network back when he was at Google with Robinson Eaton and Alex Komorowski and Casey Klein. Robinson went on to work at Discord. And I think Discord’s a really good example of people fleeing this enormous open environment of the original web 2.0 social media platforms to something that’s a lot more narrow, and it’s focused and a lot more like the campfire where everyone’s kind of gathered around these specific affinity groups.
And when I had Burning Man’s resident philosopher, Caveat Magister, on Future Fossils for the first time, we talked about this with respect to Burning Man getting shut down due to COVID, and it really amplifying the interest that people had in regional burns and backyard gatherings and taking the ethos of cultural self-determination from Burning Man into a more human scale environment. And I think that one of my favorite historians, William Irwin Thompson, talked a lot about the way that the technocratic paradigm of the early information age would undermine itself and lead to a collapse that would bring back a village scale in human interaction. And he looked at the coming planetary dark age, quote unquote, is actually a very positive development where people can get back to this stuff. So Gordon’s work I think is a perfect example of the kind of technological platform that you’re talking about. It’s based on-
Michael: … technological platform that you’re talking about, it’s based on, in large part, the work of Gordon Bell of Microsoft Research, who was trying to create that external brain that he was able to train on all of his document scan, documentation and personal correspondence, email history, paperwork and so on. The first time that I encountered anything like this was in the work of … I think you and I have both read Charles Stross’s novel, Accelerando.
Michael: The protagonist of that book, which I think came out in like 2005 … I mean, just an extraordinary, prophetic work. I’ve tried to get Charles on a podcast several times, but he’s just burned out talking about the singularity. Doesn’t want to go there anymore. His protagonist, Manfred Macx, had exactly the kind of system that you’re talking about. It was called a metacortex, where it was helping scan terabytes of news information for him every day, serving it up, synthesizing it for him, and then allowing him to not only identify interesting new ideas, have automatically a patent filed, but then find the people that would benefit from those ideas the most and then issue them patents for free. He made his entire living in this story as a so-called venture altruist, who didn’t make a dime but just benefited from this non-rival risk, non-zero sum, infinite-game cultural evolution dynamic that was empowered by this tech layer that you’re alluding to here.
The last thing I’ll say about this was that in the sequel to that novel, Glasshouse, Stross also points to a similar kind of collapse back to the human scale, because that society 600 years hence has become … people are more or less guaranteed immortality, because they’ve been digitized and can be basically respawned whenever their physical form is destroyed. The consequence is that, even though we’ve somehow managed to defeat what we think of as physical death, that people moving through the router network that connects these spatially dislocated planetary systems in this world, basically anytime you move through the router system, you risk being hacked and coming out a different person on the other side. The wars are no longer fought by murdering people’s physical forms but by converting them, unbeknownst to them. People are systematically pulling out of this supposed technological golden age and returning to a world in which they are going to age and die.
I think that these two counterforces need to be presented as a negative feedback, that we keep seeking this endogenous information production thing, but then it’s not indefinite. This is an argument I’ve been having with Bobby Azarian for years, building on David Deutsch and this notion that this kind of process is going to go on indefinitely. It’s like, well, no, because at some point the reach exceeds the grasp. That was exactly the point made to John Hammond in Jurassic Park, was that at some point, you’ve created a system that’s unmanageably complex, and so you seek to return back to something more manageable from whence you came. Yeah. How this all relates, I’m not really sure.
Jim: Well, you hit a bunch of things there. Let me just respond.
Michael: Yeah, please.
Jim: First, I think one of the things I think we’re strongly in agreement on is that intelligence, we have to have rules of thumb. We have to know what a chair is. In fact, I’ve been trying to get the idea out into the AGI world, where I do a little bit of helping out from time to time, that perhaps the human way to get to AGI, at least, barely … I like to say we’re the stupidest possible general intelligence … is through heuristic induction principally, right? Rules of thumb. We couldn’t get through the day without lots and lots of rules of thumb.
It is funny you mentioned it. I’m going to not even tell the name of it, but there’s one particular psychedelic drug I used to be a fan of in my bad old days, where if you were driving a car, which I shouldn’t have been doing, you had to pay total time and attention to every single move you made. If you did so, you could drive brilliantly. If you talked to the person in the seat next to you, you’d end up in somebody’s front yard. It was quite an interesting and weird experience, to say the least.
Heuristic induction is certainly something that we use, and it’s not entirely clear yet. Well, it think it is pretty clear that things like large language models don’t have that concept. Probably to actually get to general intelligence, there’ll have to be some other parts of the architecture that do do something like heuristic induction, though the LLMs may well serve as a piece part for finding them.
Next, you talked about the unsatisfaction of all these amorphous, spread-around-the-world conversations. What I’ve long said is that the way to make that work better is to combine those weak links with strong links, and to build networks at the Dunbar number, or up two or three X the Dunbar number, that include a strong mixture of strong links and weak links.
By strong links I used to mean face-to-face, and I still think that face-to-face is by far the best way to build strong links. I mean, I think back to the intense face-to-face sessions I’ve had with people over the years, and I know those people way better than anybody else. Even if it was only for a weekend, as long as it was an intense enough weekend. While weak links, on the other hand, are inexpensive to maintain, and can communicate low-dimensional information at low cost and high speed. Somehow combining the two.
Now today, since things like Zoom became ubiquitous, I have found you can build stronger links with things like Zoom than you can with things like Twitter or Slack. I think that’s worth thinking about, and we’ll certainly have much more immersive ways to interact virtually as well. Think of the architecture of weak links and strong links when you’re thinking about these things.
Next, you gave this description of bias. You’re in a dark alley, right? There’s, generally speaking, some signal in most of these biases. Some there’s not, but in many there is. If you think about them as Bayesian priors, you may not be too far off the whack, but it’s important to update your prior based on experience and what you learn. On the other hand, to pretend that there’s no information at all in these signals is goofy, frankly. The people who claim that they don’t are, in the main, lying, in my perspective.
With respect to the Dunbar number, this opens up, I think to my mind, still about the richest insight yet from the Game B movement and thinking, is that what we’re missing in the current world is a mesoscale, for most of us. I mean, some people still have it. They live in certain kinds of neighborhoods in certain places, but that’s where the nexus of your life and your support and your security is, from a group of 150, 300, 100, something in that range, of people who you live with face-to-face and have high dimensional interactions with.
f we look back in history, most humans lived that way until about 1870. Even in the United States in 1870, the majority of people were still living on a farm in a rural community, where they knew the people and had multiple generational interactions. Since then, however, particularly in the West but now throughout the world, we’ve been trading in the mesoscale, these rich, high-dimensionality provisioning networks of security and embeddedness, et cetera, with two cold transactional systems, one called the market and the other called the government.
That strikes me and many of the Game B people as one of the fundamental things that we need to concentrate on rebuilding, is a live mesoscale, but something that’s more permeable and more mobile than the old small village. My mother grew up in a small town and hated it, left as soon as she could when she turned 16. Said, “Oh, yeah, a bunch of narrow-minded people.” You need to have some provision for people to move between them and fertilization, and a mixture of diversity and coherence. Getting that balance right’s going to be interesting. I do think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to rethink how we organize the nexus of our security and our embeddedness. I think that’s really, really interesting.
Just as a final aside, I happened to meet Gordon Bell once at SFI, actually, and had a nice chat with him. He was the father of the VAX computer at Digital, which I actually used in my first two startups. It was the best damn computer there ever was. I still say I’ve never seen a better computer than the DEC VAX and the DEC VMS operating system. I told Gordon so, and he very shyly chuckled a little bit, and that was fun. Anyway, back to you, Michael.
Michael: Oh, yeah. Just to talk about this resurrection or restoration of the mesoscale, yeah. I think about this all the time, and on both of my podcasts I reference a lot this article that was written for Vox EU by Wendy Carlin and Sam Bowles back at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 about the coming battle for the Covid-19 narrative, which pointed to precisely this thing. They created a triangular plot of state power, market power, and on the third axis, something that most of us do, the colonization of our minds by these economies of scale and the convenience that they, at least for a long time, seemed to provide us. This third thing, which is the civil society, the neighborhoods, the guilds, the mutual aid networks, the kind in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that my cousin Samantha Garfield was volunteering with at the beginning of the pandemic for a while, and the Autonomous Zone that sprung up in Seattle during the George Floyd and Brianna Parker protests.
You look at the way that, as someone with two small kids living hundreds of miles away from the nearest blood relationships that I have or my wife has in our family, this, “Go West, young man,” mythos of American car culture and manifest destiny and westward expansion, et cetera, has undermined itself now to the point where the pain of living even in the suburbs of a relatively small city like Santa Fe is that it’s clear that people don’t really know how to forge relationships with their neighbors anymore. Now that we’ve become so dependent on the state and the market for our sustenance, for our entertainment, et cetera, people have lost the ability to grow their own food. We have all of the benefits of the city as a social reactor, but these people are living in food deserts where if there is a collapse of the supply chains more pronounced than what we saw during the Covid pandemic, then all of those benefits evaporate.
One of the big inspirations for the Future Fossils podcast was Doug Rushkoff’s work, and in particular his book Present Shock. Doug, in his promotion of this notion of Team Human, has talked a lot about how it used to be the case that, growing up in New York, there was one person with a grill and that you’d have block parties, and everybody would get together and they’d share food. Everyone would be updating each other on what they have and what they need, and this really natural, neighborhood-scale community of mutual support. At some point, all of us got sold on this idea. I had an argument with my wife about how we have people with leaf blowers on three sides of us and we don’t need our own leaf blower, but we’ve all been sold into this idea that everyone has to have one of everything or two of everything in their house, and the material costs of this are insane. This is why, as of 10 or 15 years ago, and I’m sure it’s worse now, the American standard of living would’ve required nine Planet Earths in order to sustain it.
There’s the other level too, which you alluded to in the last comment that you made, which is the James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State issue, which is that the platform of state and market level computation is coarse-graining information at the human scale. This is another reason why, in spite of all of the benefits conferred by living in society, that there’s an inherent tension between the individual and the institution. David and I talked about this in Episode 106, where it’s simply due to the social contract that we create with one another, that in a way, being members of the society is the primary and most impactful relationship we have. It supersedes the relationships that we have with one another and renders each of us basically numbered individuals, rather than, we just become barcodes in this bigger thing, in the way that we as complex organisms do not relate to our individual cells as they’re fungible. There’s something that’s lost in our dignity as modern agents in the profusion of this stuff.
I want to point to another, Cosma Shalizi, whose essay on his blog, “The Singularity in Our Past Light-Cone.” I just want to read a little bit from here, which he says … let’s see, where is that? It says … I mean, this alludes to a lot that we were just discussing. He says, “The singularity has happened. We call it the Industrial Revolution or the long 19th century. It was over by the close of 1918. Exponential yet basically unpredictable growth of technology, rendering long-term extrapolation impossible, even when attempted by geniuses? Check. Massive, profoundly disorienting transformation in the life of humanity, extending to our ecology, mentality and social organization? Check. Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time? Check. Embrace of the fusion of humanity and machines? Check.”
This last piece about the annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time is where I’d like to steer this conversation with you, because this is one of the primary themes that has been coming up for me since reading Present Shock and really in my writing about Jurassic Park, and Westworld is another work of Michael Chrichton’s that alludes to this, and so does Sphere. All three of these books deal with the way that, in the pressure to create ever more comprehensive computational architectures as these new institutional layers emerge demands more and more of us, that we lead into a breakdown of a clear differentiation between moments in time and also locations in space. This is where the future is one in which dinosaurs exist. It erodes the narrative of progress.
I think about this again with respect to the tension. When I had the members of the Cabin DAO on Future Fossils, and they’re one group that is working on this … I think it was Navalit, that talked about the network state … and they’re trying to come up with these new human-scale governance platforms that exist in a networked way and are layered orthogonally with geographic polities. Bill Thompson talked about moving beyond the geographic polity into the noetic polity, where something like religion is a community that’s inhabited by people that are distributed across space and time. How that noetic polity interacts with and conflicts with geographic polity I think is going to be one of the biggest questions of our century, right?
Jim: Yeah, indeed. Let’s talk about that one. Yeah, I definitely have some thoughts on that, which is that for at least the last 10 years, I’ve heard a lot of people saying, “Oh, the state’s obsolete. It’s not going to exist. We’ll all be multipolycentric in our relationships. We’ll be citizens in multiple ways, in multiple places.” I go, “Yes, but.” Control of the ground still matters.
I give a very simple analogy. Let’s say we have a Dunbar-sized neighborhood. Will we allow drinking in public or not? It affects the quality of life either way. I mean, there’s positives and negatives to how you set that switch. I can argue for either side of this one. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much. The determination of whether in this little neighborhood you should allow public alcohol consumption should not be made by anybody outside that neighborhood. It doesn’t affect anybody else, and they have the full authority to understand the trade-offs, both pro and con. Of course, the same is true in a sensible space to other kinds of disturbances of the peace, or should people be allowed to have sex in public. You can go on and on and on, so that the ground layer is qualitatively different than the other layers. Failure to understand that strikes me as a sign of something like autism, not really understanding what life is actually about.
Yes, I’m a person who’s heavily engaged in the virtual, probably more so than most, certainly more so than most of my age. I’m an old son of a bitch, but I’m highly engaged in many online communities, but I also pay a lot of attention to the ground. To think that the ground is going away, wrong. Now, I did like Balaji and his network state, his thinking that maybe we start virtually but we eventually go and get land. He was arguing both sides of it, but at least he did say eventually we have to have control of the base layer. It’s really easy for people out on the cutting edge to somehow think that it’s all going to be all virtual all the time, but I suggest you go to a Walmart someplace in Mississippi. I think you’ll be disillusioned to that pretty quickly.
Also, just get the hell away from your computer and go out and just deal with people. It makes a whole bunch of sense. We also react to the idea of suburbanites totally isolated in their little houses, and everybody having three leaf blowers and all that. Yeah. Fortunately, I’m older than Doug Rushkoff by about seven or eight years, I think, and I was able to grow up in a place in a post-World War II suburbia that was very much unlike that.
The example I love to give was these mothers, who had all come from somewhere else. This was outside of D.C. in a close-in burb, where a farm had recently been converted into a subdivision. People from all over the East Coast. Did not know each other at all. Less than half of them were high school graduates. Essentially none of them were college graduates, and yet they were able to build cultural capital and build commons very quickly.
One of the things they built was the babysitting club. Nobody had any money, they couldn’t afford to pay anybody for babysitting, but they’d all like to go out on dates with their husbands or with their boyfriends, I suppose. They quickly built this group where they had a ledger in a bound book, and if you gave three hours’ worth of babysitting, you got plus-three in the book. If somebody consumed three hours, it was minus-three. You kept the ledger and once a month there was a report, and these folks were able to build that commons and it worked great, because they still knew how to deal with each other in a human way and assess who was too dangerous to let in the babysitting club, right? Clearly it’s a membrane.
Jim: Dangerous to let in the babysitting club, right? Clearly it’s a membrane, semi-permeable membrane like we talk about in Game B a lot. And there were some women who were not invited to join the babysitting club. They were not considered to be sound, but most women were. In that same neighborhood, again, keep in mind, essentially no college grads, less than 50% high school graduates. We also built a community swimming pool. Our community was growing so fast that the county couldn’t build any infrastructure to speak of. They could barely keep up building schools.
And so a number of the fathers this time came together, established a not-for-profit corporation, sold, I think it was 300 memberships, and built a very nice community pool, which still exists to this day, amazingly enough. And self-governed, self-run and the same was true of our local sports teams.
We had a boys club that was emergent and not affiliated with any government entity. This was before the rec departments had any money and they cut deals with the schools to play ball on their school fields and the parents of my parents’ generation, these were the World War II GI Joe generation, they still knew how to do that, right? Boomers considerably less. And then the next generations afterwards, less and less and less so in the physical world. And this seems to me a major mistake of our civilization is to have given up on the skill of dealing naturally and organically with each other at this ground level and building commons.
As we’ve been thinking hard about what is Game B really, at one level you can say it’s creating semi-permeable membranes and creating commons inside of them. And I think this is a hugely important thing that everything about our current society is driving in the opposite direction towards evermore atomization, evermore anonymity, evermore government and evermore market when in reality we ought to be finding other ways to live. And that’s not to say the market is bad.
The market’s one of the greatest inventions of the human mind, but to put the market over everything is nuts. We will always need governance. But the idea that a government of 350 million people whose headquarters is a thousand miles away should be making any determination about what you do in your local community strikes me as nuts and in which our ancestors would not have tolerated in a moment. That’s not how humans have historically lived.
Michael: Yeah, it’s complicated to say the least. And I want to just tether a few more documents to this particular inquiry, one of which is John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Looking back now at the kind of techno optimism of this document, even Barlow himself admits that this was lunacy. It’s like high on new technology.
Jim: I was on the well at the time, and that thing was written on the well, right? And that was part of that Kevin Kelly, he was part of that circle, Mitch Kapor, a bunch of other folks, and we were all drinking the bath water big time at that point. I’ll confess I was maybe a little more skeptical than some, but not skeptical enough.
Michael: Yeah, and it’s fair because you have this thing that was just as true of Marconi and the evolution of the radio and this thing that anytime a new communications platform emerges, there is this sort of zealotry with which people approach it as a tool for emancipation before it’s co-opted by accelerationist capital forces.
So again, when I was a Google Glass Explorer and I was talking with John Perry Barlow at my friend’s music festival Rootwire in Ohio, there’s a video you can find of an micro interview I did with John through Google Glass where he says, “No, I remember wanting this thing.” He’s talking to the glass. He’s saying, “I remember wanting you once upon a time, and now I now I don’t want anything less than you.” Because with age comes the ability to reflect on the way that these things emerge and are successively co-opted. So for me, the question of how tech platforms lead to renegotiations of this tension between localized self-determination and a kind of fascistic control is really interesting.
So another piece I want to stack on this is John Danaher’s Transhumanism and Algocracy podcast, when in 2019 he interviewed Erica Neely of Ohio Northern University and they were talking about augmented reality and the ethics whereby property rights and the problems that arise in blending virtual and physical reality create issues where people feel like they should be able to tag geo-located items in AR that are overlaid with physical spaces. So this issue of AR graffiti, and to whom does the virtual double of that particular public monument, the obelisk that used to exist downtown in Santa Fe. So should anyone be able to tag that with graffiti metadata or is that part of a digital commons? Or is that something that exists as something that is forever a part of the actual object that is a private property of some kind of institution?
And then the last piece is going back to my work on these kinds of investigations that were precipitated through interacting with Google Glass. I wrote a series called The Evolution of Surveillance. And in it, I was thinking about to go back to Jurassic Park, the AR game, Jurassic World Alive, which is kind of a Pokemon Go style game where you’re traveling through your city and collecting dinosaurs that exist as virtual objects in space. That game, which was developed by Ludia and Pokemon Go, which was developed by Niantic Labs, which received, Niantic exists courtesy of CIA funding. And so the question of why people were so interested in how to get virtual objects on a map to steer collective human physical space behavior is a really interesting one. This is another piece explored in the work of Charles Stross through his novel Halting State. So you have these issues where you create a rare Pokemon or dinosaur that exists downtown in some city, and then you can motivate everyone to try and cluster a busy traffic intersection and block and divert physical traffic through that intersection.
And so these questions of, well, who is actually placing these things on the map? Supposedly they’re algorithmically generated, your charmander or whatever is just, but in reality, again, you get into this sort of love crafty and paranoid premise that this allows occluded actors in the state or market spaces to use us in the way that Jaron Lanier talked about reasons to get rid of your social media profiles, to use people as the terminal nodes of some sort of hyper objects of social behavioral control. And so what would you do if you had access to the Jurassic World Alive or Pokemon Go map? Well, you could steer, you could interfere with the presidential limousine and prevent it from getting to the airport on time or place it in the path of a sniper and these kinds of things. And so the question of who actually gets to control the metadata that is overlaid with physical space becomes one of extreme importance. And it’s not just the sort of video games separated from the consequences of our physical lives.
And this is why I think it’s so important for people to understand the influence of science fiction and imagination in this technologically empowered age. And why it is that the transition in entertainment media from analog physical effects to digital effects allows for kind of penetration of our physical lives with the virtual objects of our imagination, such that this story, Jurassic Park, which is about computationally resurrected, prehistoric creatures, is actually a parable about the way that those exact same computer technologies have created a space where the so-called velociraptors have escaped the island. And now we have to live with the transgressions of our zoonotic illnesses and of our language models having escaped the reserve and now are something that we have to live with and have to face the consequences of a new sort of symbiotic encounter with.
Jim: Yeah, this goes back to your first point that we now live in this extraordinarily abstract InfoSphere that includes things like augmented reality overlays. And I’ve chatted a fair bit with a local company called Raincrow Studios, which builds real world games. Covens, I think, is their most well known one. They got a new one about to come out called Vampire Capitalists, where again, the games get people out all over the street and all this. And it is a very interesting question and one which our legal system has no opinion about at this point, right? In the same way, or I would argue at least our legal system has no opinion. Well, we’ll talk about this a little bit later, but LLMs and what is that all about with respect to copyright? I’d love to get your insight on that.
But this [inaudible 00:56:45]. Yeah, but this idea of what property rights does one have, let’s say, or personal rights, even? Someone annotates the geolocation of your house, go what a lousy ugly house this is. What idiot built this, right? And that’s trivial to build today so that at least shows up on somebody’s phone. And in a few years, assuming somebody ever gets the AR goggles right, which we’ll see, then there will be at least some people walking around with those things, looking at these annotations on people’s houses. Do you have any rights against that? I don’t know. It’s an interesting, damn interesting question. And the current law is completely silent on that question.
So let’s branch off that ’cause this is something I did write in my notes As a musician, as an artist, as a podcaster, you’re a creator of intellectual property and these generative models have gone around scooping up, sometimes copyrighted, sometimes not properties. And to, unlike what some people think, these models do not actually have the text of the stuff that they have processed in them. What they have is a gigantic matrix of numbers that have distilled some attributes of which each individual component piece had some piece in adjusting millions, perhaps billions of numbers in a very small, tiny little way. So it’s in some sense extracted the soul from these artifacts as opposed to actually copying the artifacts themselves. And so that, I would argue as someone who’s been in IP intensive businesses and studied IP law, I do not think that copyright holders will have a leg to stand on saying that it’s a infringement to extract the numeric oddities of their artifacts and then create new artifacts. The argument’s less clear on trademark actually but I think at copyright it’s pretty clear.
And if we do want to provide any kind of protection there, it’s going to have to be through new legal structures and new ways to think about the world or the alternative, and I don’t see how we get this collective action to have, people have to create rights-based sets of corpus to train these things that produce as good or better than the scoop it up from the web. And that may not actually be possible. As a person who’s played in these spaces and understands the technology probably better than your average musician, what do you think about all this, generative AI and intellectual property?
Michael: Well, this is probably the principal concern that I have right now, and I’m really trying to press this conversation as much as possible so I’m glad you brought it up. I just recently applied for a fellowship with O’Shaughnessy Ventures and have been grateful enough to engage in kind of intermittent conversation with Peter Gabriel’s business manager, Mike Large, about this stuff. And I pointed him recently to Holly Herndon’s work to, Holly’s another musician that’s gotten really, really far ahead of the curve of people’s thinking on this stuff and is trying to create a platform with her partner Mat Dryhurst, to help identify when this have I been trained thing, has your work shown up in the training set for the stability models or these other things?
And yet, I agree with you that on the one hand, this satisfies the concerns that artists living within a contemporary copyrights paradigm have about the intellectual property and that they’ve generated and the economic value that’s supposedly attached to it. This is my stuff just being appropriated in the way that the genetic information of Henrietta Lacks was appropriated and her family’s never going to get paid for that. Or the Holly gives the example of the Amen Break, which is the most sample piece of music in the entire history of music. And yet the guy, I can’t even remember his name right now, but that guy never received a dime for being the most sampled musician of all time.
But to me this points, another EFF member Cory Doctorow wrote a great piece for Locus Magazine a few years ago about this fraudulent notion that economic value is created ex nihilo by the refinement of wild resources, that [inaudible 01:01:46] principle where we make value out of nothing, right? By interacting with the wild resources. And he says basically, this is as ridiculous as suggesting that when European settlers came to North America, that they were interacting with a landscape that had not already been stewarded by wildcrafting indigenous agricultural practices for thousands and thousands of years. They didn’t even realize they were looking at something that was a cultural artifact. They saw it as wild.
And so when I think about the way that artists that are afraid of these language models appropriating their work are engaging with this issue, I think the what they’re really, these people that want Disney to fight stability AI and win a copyright case about this are not thinking clearly because they’re saying that somehow cultural value started with their refinement of something that they created intellectual property from scratch. And they’re asking the automated royalty payment system to start with them rather than to reach back into hundreds and hundreds of, thousands of years of cultural inheritance and remixing. It’s the same issue with likeness rights.
You don’t want your image, like you were saying earlier about graffiti tag to your residential properties. You don’t want your image to completely spin out of your control and be used in pornography and DeepFakes or whatever. At the same time, why does your likeness belong to you? Your likeness was inherited from your parents and they inherited that DNA from their parents. And so I think this is a really profoundly sticky and complex question because ultimately what we’re saying is that we owe the past nothing but the future owes us everything.
Jim: Yeah, I love this. This is a very nice sharp lens, right? Because another way I think about it is every one of us who’s a creator has been able to participate in our creation because we’ve been embedded in a commons that’s been built up over 300,000 years. On my essays, do I owe royalties to Chaucer because he invented middle English? You can say without Chaucer, Rutt, your damn articles would, you couldn’t write. It seems crazy. And yet this is [foreign language 01:04:25], this is something new. So we as a society have to come to some thoughts ’cause the old law, I don’t believe will help the artists. I don’t think it will.
And certainly, and I will say as a practical matter, the there’s too much to be gained by too many rich people for it to fall their way, I suspect. Even with the mouse on their side, the artists are going to lose, I do believe, but it doesn’t mean we can’t come to some kind of consensus. And perhaps something smarter is, again, come back to this idea of commons.
Suppose we built a, and I know somebody working on this or about to start working on it, built a corpus of all rights agreed and contributed material that becomes a commons and that they together will get dividends from the licensing of these things. And yet it still has the ability for all of humanity very inexpensively to have access to all this creative stuff. That plays in closely to a thought experiment of mine. I always said if I were President of the United States, God damn, well actually better king of the United States, who the fuck wants to deal with Congress assholes? If I was the king, one of the things I would do is limit music copyrights to 10 years. And for one reason so that when you’re 25, you can grab the music from when you were 15 to put into videos for free.
So you want to put a Rolling Stone song in when say when I was 15, Rolling Stones, the Beatles, all that was the shit. By the time you turn 25, it’s available for you to use. And in reality, you know artists, I know artists, I know writers, none of them in their calculus put much value into their active creation on what their thing would be worth in 10 years. It’s in a very, very, very, very tiny few luck out and turn into a perpetuity but it’s less than a 10th of 1% of all artists. So why in the world should we be rewarding the 10th of 1% lottery ticket winners when we could have been creating a commons for everybody to use in their work? And I think some thinking like that, some level of rights, but into a pool that’s priced very inexpensively and that the economic rights dissipate relatively rapidly might be a framework for thinking this thing through.
Michael: I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that the issue of the commons is the crux of this. I love and frequently reference Lewis Hyde’s book, Common As Air, which is about the history of intellectual property in Europe and the United States and the way that our treatment of intellectual property patents and copyright in particular has diverged rather profoundly from the way that they were originally articulated by the founding fathers of the United States. He calls Benjamin Franklin the founding pirate because at the time, the pamphleteering that was done by these people, what existed in a framework where people were very hesitant to take personal credit for the ideas that they were disseminating. They saw the work of cultural creation as something that belonged to everybody and came from everybody.
And so when Hyde identifies three successive enclosures of the commons, he points to first the enclosure of physical space, the woods that people were hunting in now belongs to the king. He determines who gets to hunt there. Then the intellectual commons and then the commons of futurity where we have this issue now where a huge portion of the human genome has been patented by Monsanto with no understanding of what it’s actually good for. It’s speculative patenting, right?
And so I want to reference a riff on a recent blog by Are You Serious at Mineplex about the relationship between cultural appropriation and sampling and this language model problem that we’re facing now where Are You points to the fact that as he puts it, getting paid, defines one as a capital A artist or capital W writer? Because otherwise everybody does the same thing that you do.
And my point is that with that is that isn’t this the problem? I would rather live in a society where everyone participates in meaningful creative contributions to a rich and colorful infinite game of culture. Some slaves got marginally better treatment by their overlords to keep the slaves divided against each other and the privilege of getting.
Michael: … their overlords to keep the slaves divided against each other. The privilege of getting paid poorly to make art should not be the determining factor in our collective decisions about how to handle the future of IP law when the very factors forcing this discussion are about to reshape our economy in even deeper and more profound ways. Defending the right to make a horrible living on cultural creation is actually occluding us from being able to maintain a commons where that’s going to benefit us. It’s actually undermining our ability to act as good ancestors. I would think, calling back to Bucky Fuller and his point that jobs are a specious notion, I think this whole conversation is forcing a much deeper investigation into how it is that people should be capable of making a subsistence living. When I had Brian Arthur on the show on complexity back in the day, we talked about his 2017 McKinsey essay on looking at Keynes and his 1930 paper, the economic prospects for our grandchildren.
Jim: We’d be working 15 hours a week by 1975 or something.
Michael: Right. Arthur says the reason that this hasn’t happened is because the automation is only amplifying a system where the point is to increase our productivity, but it’s in a system that’s condensing wealth to the highest layers of the economic strata. Arthur sees what’s needed in a global economy as something like a heart, like active redistribution of wealth. That’s the system that you’re talking about. The system where people are in the capillaries of a global economy are getting pumped blood. They’re not being expected to manufacture blood at every terminal node of this system.
So, how do we come up with a more creative vision of the economy? People forget when you’re talking about the mouse. The mouse itself was a stolen piece of IP. It was created by Ub Iwerks, and then he was ripped off by his partner, Walt Disney. Is that really the world that we want to foist on our kids? In my opinion, absolutely not.
Jim: Okay, good. That’s very interesting. It’s been a pet peeve of mine, and, of course, Disney being one of the worst benefactors when, amazingly, the US Supreme Court upheld the extension of copyright for existing works, which is totally unconstitutional. I’m going to read this right out of the Constitution, “The Congress should have the power to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries.” It’s just to promote the progress. How the hell could extending the copyright on existing works promote the progress of anything? It can’t. It was just a pure goddamn hijack by politically well-connected people. As you and I both know, those who make more than anything after the first 10 years is de minimis. It’s all about the few giant winners of the lottery ticket who are fighting, essentially, for their own payoffs. Despicable. The classic example of how the money power has corrupted our politics.
Jim: Now as to the bigger question of what does a new economy look like? And I’m with Brian there. Interestingly, Brian was my office mate the first year I was at the Santa Fe Institute when I was a researcher there. We had some very interesting conversations, that bright Brian Arthur. He has been on my podcast too, as we had a very good conversation about his book about technology, Technology, Its Nature, I think it was called. What that new economy looks like, I think we’re not sure yet, but that’s something that we certainly need to do if humanity’s going to make it through the 21st century intact.
Today, we have a system where the short loop of short term, up to three year money on money return drives everything, and the meta game of asset allocation and financial management also scored on money on money return on even shorter cycles than three years. That machine demands exponential growth. It is very happy to drive civilization off the cliff. If we continue to collapse all value into that single number, we’re not going to escape the meta crisis. Ma nature bats last and she will win. Personally, I don’t believe it’s the end of humanity, but it may well be the end of the deep technological stack for at least a few hundred years. If we’re going to avoid that, we’re going to have to find a way to not be on this ever increasing exponential growth, and we’re going to have to find a way to meta stability. The current institutions just do not support it even down at the level of how our monetary system works.
People have heard me rant about money countless times. I have a good YouTube called Dividend Money that lays out an alternative. But everything about our system is designed to force this up this more and more. Why are there 200 varieties of shampoo at Walgreens? No good reason. It’s just out of control and it’s nuts.
On the other hand, we also know that central planning of the Soviet Union doesn’t work either and leads to even more horror. So I think one of the great challenges for those of us in the liminal web is to start to become serious about thinking about what meta stable economics actually looks like. I know the Santa Fe Institute is engaged with a consortium of other scientific institutions to begin some of that work over the next few years. A well-funded effort, and I look very much forward to seeing what comes out of that. I would put that as near the top of the things that people need to figure out and solve over the next 10 or 20 years if we’re going to make it through this century.
Of course, we also have very broken political institutions, particularly in the United States. Think about the absolute idiocy of this shit show around the debt ceiling, or think about the absolute idiocy that we have a hack politician, mediocre politician who will be 82 years old a couple of weeks after election day versus the king of liars, narcissism, and pussy grabbing. What kind of society throws those two up as the best and the brightest? Our political institutions are so broken, it’s absolutely ridiculous. So yeah, we have some serious social operating system re-engineering here to do if we’re going to make it in the years ahead.
Michael: Totally. Again, I think the defining sort of central thesis that I feel like helping people grasp in my own career, coming out of evolutionary biology and paleontology and paleo ecology, and then working in the world of entertainment and festival culture, and then coming into complex systems and science communication. I have an angle on this thinking about being a technological early adopter and guinea pig. Everything in the first essay collection that I’m going to be make as an ebook available to my Substack and Patreon supporters here soon called How to Live in the Future. It’s a book about how to think through the lens of natural history at the evolution of technology. In a way, kind of like what Kevin Kelly has been doing in his work, to think about all of technology as something that exists as an extension of the biosphere and noosphere, just as everything else does, eroding the boundary between the dynamics and characteristics of living and “non-living” systems, challenging that boundary conceptually.
And so, where that puts us is in understanding the ways in which what we’re living through now is qualitatively different from what has come before on this planet, but also continuous with so that we’re not stranded and desperate in our attempts to make sense of the maturation of the internet as something that is completely unprecedented in biosphere. And so, when I had Ming, SFI postdoc Ming Lu on complexity, I think it was episode 80, he studies the evolution of mycorrhizal affiliations between plants-
Michael: … and fungi trees. He says, “Look, if you look back at once upon a time, a significant amount of the petrochemical deposits on earth are due to the fact that fungi had not yet figured out a way to metabolize wood.” So this whole surface of the planet, the terrestrial ecosystems of the planet were covered with fallen logs that no one had found a way to make use of, and this was essentially in an industrial pollution catastrophe. Much as earlier in the world, the earliest photosynthetic microbes flooded the atmosphere with oxygen, which was at the time was a toxic chemical. It took the evolution of the glycolytic metabolism to metabolize atmospheric oxygen before it destroyed everything in the world, and then later it took the evolution of the digestion of lignin to prevent another catastrophe where …
So we’re here again. In some ways, the climate disaster that we’re living through right now is just the latest fold in this ongoing iterative story whereby the industrial pollution processes are closed. I’ve heard Daniel Schmachtenberger talk about this a lot in terms of creating circular economies. You got Kate Raworth and the doughnut economy. This kind of thing. And so, this is where we are. This is looking forward. This question of how do you reconcile the demands of the economy to continue growing indefinitely with the real physical constraints of our planet I think is resolved by the innovation of metabolisms that close these material, informational, and energetic loops.
And so, it’s really just about the question of how do we keep this thing from running off the rails has everything to do with what, I’ve been following the work of Charles Eisenstein for a long time, and in his book, the Ascent of Humanity, he suggests that early capitalism and also what we’re calling late stage capitalism were like weeds growing in an empty parking lot, and that at some point, that first stage of ecological succession matures to the point where the soil has been prepared for trees. Then trees fall over and they create logs that allow for the growth of new trees and new mushrooms and so on. We haven’t figured that out at the level of a planet scale economy yet, the question of how do we mulch all of this economic production so that it’s decay becomes something that can be reutilized.
And so, when you’re talking about currency design, the last thing I’ll say about this is the architect of the Euro Bernard Lietaer suggested that where the rubber hits the road as far as our money systems are concerned is that the entire capitalist economy depends on the dividends of money that accrues value over time by being removed from circulation. That usury is essentially at the root of this problem, and that what we need is a global economic system based on money that actually decays in value over time as it’s being kept out of circulation. Demurrage is the answer to this problem.
Jim: My dividend money platform has a knob that you either make it negative or positive based on measuring the velocity of money. There’s no doubt about it that demurrage is something that we don’t have in our current system that would make a huge difference as would focusing on velocity. There’s a whole lot of interesting design work there.
Let’s see. We got just a few minutes here before we wrap up. I want to get your thoughts on of our … oh, by the way, Charles Eisenstein was the guest on my most recent podcast. You could check it out at the jimruttshow.com or your favorite podcast app.
Ken Stanley is an interesting guy in neuroevolution and also now in deep learning. He wrote a very cool book on open-ended exploration. I don’t know, what the hell was the name of that thing? Let’s see. Let’s see. Ken Stanley, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned. He makes an interesting argument. He slightly overstates it, I thought. He said the tendency to have objectives first forces us into these hill climbers. If we can relax that constraint and say, “Why don’t we see what we can create without necessarily having an objective in mind?” we can produce much more interesting things. Truthfully, I’ve seen the ability of chatGPT to do these things, particularly under API control, where you get into a loop where it’s essentially sky hooking itself into creating something with no objective at all.
How we add that into an ecosystem of humanity, I’m not really quite sure, but I think it’s a very interesting opportunity. If we were making music not because we thought it had a one chance and 10,000 becoming the next Taylor Wall … Taylor Swift, is that her name, but rather because we love making music with our neighbors and jamming, where would music go instead of it being under this money on money return constraint? I suspect it would be much more interesting, but I’m not sure.
Michael: This is actually one of my favorite topics because I’m kind of a player eternist or Peter Pan character. David Krakauer said I’m an exemplar of what he calls high temperature search, which is we discussed in our last conversation for complexity. Alison Gopnik’s work on the explore exploit tension and the reason why the noisy open-ended search and exploration of children is balanced ecologically, why play is essential in the evolutionary process, why it is that we don’t just have this sort of optimized narrow-minded search that’s more characteristic of risk averse adult cognition.
If you look at the, again, Jurassic Park and a conversation that’s been going in a really deep and interesting way in the future fossils Discord server about this stuff, Crichton puts this central theme in his work of the tension between the children and the adults. There’s a classic scene in Jurassic Park where children save the day because they know how to operate the computer systems that everyone else with any kind of computer literacy on the park has died. And so, the kids end up, the kids who are systematically shut down, told to shut up, told to put away the expensive electronics through the entire story, end up saving everyone else’s lives.
I think that this speaks to this sort of economic question that you’re pointing to which is that in order to navigate the profusion of new challenges that face us in this explosive, endogenous novelty space that we’ve found ourselves in, then we need to emphasize the ability to explore the space of what Stu Kauffman called the adjacent possible, and really, really allow this sort of childlike cognitive mode to regain a prominence and a partnership with the efficient mode. Allow more noisy kinds of thinking in search to come back into the process. And so, this is why it grieves me to hear people talk about how they don’t understand the economic utility of the arts. We got to cut arts funding because this is just a luxury, or cut the funding on fundamental research because we don’t understand why this stuff matters.
That’s exactly the point. That’s exactly why it’s important, is because we don’t get it. We need to make space for these things to eventually demonstrate some kind of fruit. But we need to accept that blue-sky thinking and play and exploration are just unfathomably important. Again, this is why the challenge of being at the margin or at the growing edge of things is a persistent one because this is why the liminal web is liminal. It’s because the work of sense-making is by definition economically illegible. So you’re in a privileged point where you’re at the tail end of a career where you’ve already made enough value that you can pursue these things without great risk to yourself. I’m at the beginning of a career in which my greatest challenge is to remind people that this exploratory work is crucial to the human enterprise and the continuance of a sustainable biosphere and society.
So that’s my pitch for future fossils and for the work that I’m doing and the conversation that I’m trying to facilitate, which is that first of all, it’s fun and exploration as a ludic enterprise. We should never lose sight of the fact that life should be fun on some level; that even in dire moments such as ours, that chasing the inherent hedonic imperative of exploration, there’s a reason why our systems are wired to enjoy curiosity. Because it balances fear and risk aversion. And so, that’s my answer to your question, I think is just that.
Jim: I love it. That’s great. And I think it’s actually a very hopeful one because it lets me at least very vaguely see that once we have finally figured out the problem of material abundance, or at least the material enough, there’s essentially an infinity of open-ended search that humanity can go on if we all aren’t raised in the time we’re young, if we were no longer raised with the hustle, hustle, hustle, or starve, starve, starve imperative, which has become very stark in our society today. The kind of human that would develop under those circumstances, I think, would be very beautiful and very interesting.
Michael: I think that’s ultimately our future is one that is more childlike and more playful than what we think of traditionally as the maturation of the human species. Really where we are now as human beings, we can tell the story of our evolution as one in where which we are the sexually mature larva of the earliest chordates or earlier primate ancestors. In order to live in a complex society with one another, we have maintained neuroplasticity and kind of developmental open-endedness that was lost or was foreclosed by our ancestors.
So, I mean, how do we balance this with the needs of maintaining focus and clarity and efficiency in society? It’s an interesting question, but it’s one that we’re not going to resolve by discarding our childlike curiosity and our ability to explore and play together.
Jim: Well, I think on that very nice hopeful note, I’m going to wrap it up. Thank you, Michael Garfield. Where can people go if they want to give you money?
Michael: Oh, go to my Substack. Follow me there. Or link tr.ee/michaelgarfield has links to my [inaudible 01:30:11]
Jim: We’ll have all that stuff up on the episode page, jimruttshow.com. Give Michael money so he could continue to do this great work.