The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Forrest Landry. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Forrest Landry. Forrest is a thinker, writer and philosopher, and this is the sixth time he’s been on our show. One of my very favorite guests. We’ve had some awesome conversations, most recently in EP 134 where we talked about his non-relative ethics. Also, Forrest used to be a smart man and didn’t partake of social media much, but he’s now got a presence on social media, and you can find him at @forrestlandry, that’s Forrest with two R’s, 19 on Twitter. Welcome, Forrest.
Forrest: Good to be here. Thank you. Delighted to speak with you yet again.
Jim: Yeah, this is going to be a really good conversation, I think. We’re actually going to go back to the very first thing that I read of Forrest’s, which is his small group practice, I think he called it at the time. And I think I read that in 2015, and we chatted about it a little bit. And this gives me an opportunity to go back and reread it, which I did. Still found it awesome, and to get into it in detail with you. So I’m really looking forward to that.
Forrest: Awesome. Great. So do you want me to just basically describe the overall concepts, or how would you like to begin?
Jim: Yeah, let me just ask you some questions to bring things forward. First, for the audience is to understand that this is a literally small group practice designed for, at least in you’re thinking in 2015, to be optimal for groups up to 16 or so, and maybe with some stretch and with some good people, something above that. Is that still the range that you’re thinking about for the basic small group practice?
Forrest: Yes, it is. There’s some very definite things that limit the scale. And so as a result, the notion behind that piece essentially was to demonstrate some of the underlying concepts. So for instance, when we look at governance models and small group process and things, we notice some particular dynamics about how groups work. And so, in effect, that was essentially an exploration about how to think about governance process in a broader way, but in the sense of the practice of it, what kinds of things would work or not work at that scale became quite clarifying for a number of these other ideas.
Jim: Yeah. And then we’ll get to, later in the conversation, Forrest also has some ideas on multi-level extensions of the basic concept that, at least in theory, allows one to address much larger collectives. But before we jump into the details, why is this important? The world’s full of groups that work to a greater or lesser degree. So why is it important for you to spend your precious time coming up with a new theory on how groups should operate?
Forrest: The main reason that this is, I think, particularly important is that the kinds of problems that we’re facing the world today are the kinds of problems that the existing processes just don’t work for. So large-scale, complex problems spanning multiple generations and multiple cultures or societies that have large numbers of actors and that operate in particularly complex domains, such as ecosystems and things like that.
Forrest: So for example, if we want to solve those kinds of problems, the question can be asked, are the current institutional forms capable of addressing that class of problem? Things like ecological issues or global warming or pollution or the kinds of sustainability things that we would think in terms of large-scale economic process and stuff like that.
Forrest: So when we actually look at the complexity of those problems and the level of human coordination that is genuinely needed on some sort of absolute scale to address these, we notice that we essentially need a whole level of capacity that currently is not yet implemented or available, but is actually genuinely required to solve those kinds of problems.
Forrest: Things of next risk and stuff of that nature is another situation that is highly motivating for us to come up with really, really good sense making and human coordination processes. And pretty much anything that you would look at in the world today that’s important is going to need this sort of capacity. So developing that capacity, to me, seems to be a critical path for our well-being, both presently and in the future.
Jim: Yeah. You also made a very good point, which is one I actually run into myself in my business career, which is attempting to do new things in an old structure is often a prescription for failure. For instance, when I did my startup companies, when I had whole new products and whole new areas to go after, I actually started whole new organizations from scratch, sometimes with quite different design parameters than the home company.
Jim: And it turned out to have been the right decision. I was 28 years old when I vetted this idea, and maybe it was stupid, but it worked. And I convinced myself subsequently that attempting to do new and innovative things in the old structure is generally a bad idea, because the structure was designed for some purpose, emerged and became self-designed for some purpose at its best and may not be right for other purposes. So there’s a lot to be said for thinking about these things fresh.
Jim: So from your thinking, you basically came up with three classes of making decisions, democracy, meritocracy, or you sometimes call it executive. What would you rather us call it, executive or meritocracy?
Forrest: I think meritocracy in this sense is fine, but the idea is any kind of hierarchically-organized structure, anything where you have inequality as part of the metric of how the governance works.
Jim: And consensus being the third. And some of the very best writing I’ve seen on the strengths and the weaknesses of these three classes of how one can operate. So let’s start out by giving your descriptions of, let’s do it in the order, consensus, meritocracy and democracy, what they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Forrest: Great. Well actually, just in part of that, why these three is also a thing.
Jim: Let’s hear it.
Forrest: So for instance, one of the claims that’s being made is that these three are essentially spanning the archetypes of the total space of how to think about human process or human governance or the ways in which we coordinate our choices with one another.
Forrest: So in the sense that you could think about consensus as everybody is at the same level where we’re all speaking to one another as peers and, in effect, that’s a horizontal communication process. And meritocracy, or in this case hierarchal structures, essentially would be a kind of unequal way of relating. And when we’re thinking about democracy, we essentially see something that’s halfway between these two extremes, i.e. things that might be subgroups, where interior to the group you have some sort of equality. And in the relationship between the two subgroups, you might have some sort of hierarchal structure or some sort of inequality.
Forrest: So in effect, if we take these notions of equality and inequality in the various ways of partitioning that, then you end up with essentially these three underlying concepts. Consensus would be a model where people communicate, and to a degree they come to essentially a common understanding of the problem and a common way of thinking about how to solve it. And so, in effect, there’s a uniform agreement.
Forrest: Whereas meritocracy might be thought of as a conventional top-down structure where you have a single person that gets elected to be the representative or the leader. And they might have some other people that they have implement various roles and staff that do specific functions, and that everybody’s coordinating with respect to however that process of who gets to decide what about when. So rather than having everybody deciding everything together, you have essentially one person allocated per choice.
Jim: Yeah. So a classic example is a for-profit corporation where there’s a CEO and, in theory, the CEO has total power, but he delegates it and creates a hierarchy underneath him essentially.
Forrest: Exactly. So essentially the idea is that the total span of choices is spread out across the people in a role-specific way. So who gets to make what choices about when is defined by some sort of bylaws or rule schema or just delegated, as you said, from the CEO. Whereas in the consensus process, essentially everybody’s involved in every choice, and so in effect there’s a kind of ongoing conversation.
Forrest: And then when we’re looking at a democratic process, what we’re basically seeing is a reification of what the choices are and some sort of debate followed by a vote of some sort or another, where you end up with people basically making choices in a distributed way, but about a very much smaller, simpler set of choices.
Forrest: So in this sense, we’re looking at these things as having archetypal qualities for the space of governance, but they each have advantages and disadvantages. So for instance, when we look at consensus, it makes very high-quality choices, but the bandwidth that’s required communicatively is very large. And if the group gets too big, it might not be the case that there is enough time to actually arrive at any decision for any given choice. And there just might be just too many choices being needed to be made too quickly for a consensus group to arrive at a consensus.
Forrest: When you’re looking at meritocratic systems, the main advantage there is that it can respond very quickly to a fairly large number of choices. It’s relatively simple and it’s pretty robust for deal with emergency situations, but it’s actually quite vulnerable to the kinds of things we would call corruption, i.e. issues where people aren’t making choices on behalf of the group, but they’re actually making it for private interests or small, what I would call first circles concerns, i.e. oneself, one’s family, one’s friends and things like that.
Jim: Yeah. And the economic literature, it’s often called agency risk. In a company, the board of directors hires the CEO, in theory, to represent the interest of the shareholders. But guess what? The CEO’s really at least is interested in his own bonus and stock options. And when he hires a VP of sales, the VP of sales is probably more interested in his commission and his fancy Lexus than he is in the health of the company, et cetera. So classic well-known economic problem called agency risk when you start going to hierarchical organizations.
Forrest: Yeah. I refer to it as the principal agent problem, which also has a long literature associated with it. Same thing.
Jim: That’s a different name for the same thing, principal agency, problem agency, risk problems. It’s exactly the same thing.
Forrest: And so just to complete out the thing with different governance types, the democracy would seem to be, in one sense, a better alternative than, say, consensus or meritocracy the way I’ve described them. But it also has some very specific weaknesses. For one thing, there is a lot of hidden and covert forms of power associated with the democratic process, i.e. what ends up being on the ballot or not on the ballot or who gets to decide the wording and things like that.
Forrest: But also that insofar as we would think of the strength of a group or its capacity as being defined in terms of its coherency, i.e. the ability to operate as one together, then in effect voting becomes the most efficient way to divide a group into two equally-sized subgroups, essentially to limit the effectiveness of that community or that group of people by dividing them into two subgroups that are each less effective than the whole group would be as a whole.
Forrest: So in that sense of divide and conquer, it’s unfortunate, but the idea of democracy ends up making for very weak groups, political polarization, and things like that, being a phenomenon that can quite easily happen. And as a result, the community ends up being less resilient to external change for a variety of reasons, not just the sense making and the choice making, but also on a bandwidth and corruption level, because it hasn’t, in itself, fundamentally addressed the issues associated with either meritocracy or consensus.
Jim: Yeah. And this is really important. A few more things about the problems of democracy. As Americans and as Westerners, about half our audience are not Americans but spread around the Western world, we think of democracy as whoa, that’s a good thing, right? It’s a gold star. But you actually dig into a number of quite important problems with the fundamental mechanism of democracy. It might be worthwhile to go into some of these in more details, particularly interested in the fact that because of the institutional structure of democracy, it serves as a corrupting force on how ideas are discussed, framed and how rhetoric is done. I think it’s hugely important. I’d love to hear you go into that in some detail.
Forrest: Well, actually, I think you mentioned the essential of it already is that the notion of it coming from an institutional form or being an institutional form is actually a big part of it is that the notion of an institution implies a kind of hierarchical structure is basically being built into it. And the notion of democracy also has this kind of representational model, i.e. you set up a person to act in a particular executive role, or you end up with this Congress, for example, that becomes the agent operating on behalf of the principal, i.e. the rest of the community or the citizens.
Forrest: And so not only is it very susceptible to covert forms of the kind of corruption that we were mentioning earlier. In some respect, we would rather have the corruption be obvious and therefore you can counteract it to some extent, rather than a cult and therefore not be able to see all of the places. Obviously conspiracy theories and things like that can tend to be how people try to model this in their own minds. But there are actually a number of issues about how corruption can sneak in.
Forrest: And so, in effect, there’s both the divisiveness that occurs as a result of the mechanism itself and therefore losses associated with strength, but also that the kinds of ways in which things go wrong effectively are not easy to identify from the outside. You have to see it from the inside. There’s a whole dynamic called the rules for rulers. If there’s an interest in people to look at this, there’s a video online there’s called The Rules for Rulers, and at first it talks about the kinds of things we would see as being corruption issues associated with any kind of leadership model or any kind of governance model, well, hierarchical in any form.
Forrest: And then it spends the latter half talking about how these same things show up in democratic forms. But all of this is to just say that all three modes, like switching from democracy to consensus doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, or switching to some other form of meritocratic system doesn’t solve the problems. Essentially, for us to really come to grips with how do we do better, can we actually solve the problems? Can we compensate for the weaknesses of each of these three archetypal models and actually come up with something better?
Forrest: And in this particular sense, it turns out the answer to that question is yes. And this is actually very surprising because the three models of governance have been around for a really long time. I think the newcomer in that situation would be consensus. Although if you look at tribal dynamics, there’s versions of it going back a long ways as well. So there’s really no point in history where we can see where does that form ultimately emerge.
Forrest: So then the next most recent candidate might be democracy, but even then it could be described that there were early forms of that in other situations. But regardless of this, these are all well-explored territories, both philosophically and socially. The history of human civilization is replete with all sorts of examples of people trying all sorts of different variations of these techniques. So to do original work in this space and basically to propose something new is actually somewhat surprising just in itself.
Forrest: So one of the things the essay does is it uses this phenomenon called axiom two, which comes from a deeper substrate of … You mentioned the non-relativistic ethics, but there’s a deeper theory of the metaphysics underneath that. And it shows us that if we basically take the three archetypal forms and we convolve them, there’s a kind of rotation that can be done. That we can essentially do all three of them, but we use each essentially as a check and against the other two.
Forrest: So for example, the main problem that we’re compensating for in all of these cases is that if we’re looking at human evolution and the ways in which we have essentially arrived on the planet as a species, there is this very strong propensity for inequality to result, inequality in choice forms and so on and so forth. It’s a biological drive for us to essentially look to one another and find the most skilled person for a particular way of thinking about things and then follow their leadership.
Forrest: So this is a very deeply-built intendancy. And to essentially have the group as a whole act in a wiser way or be more responsive to choices that are needing to be made well, it to some extent requires a certain amount of just actual study and actual care around how that practice is actually held. So the small group essay is essentially a description of how to do that in small groups, essentially to partition the group into that which is internal to the group and that which is external groups, so you create a sort of artificial boundary.
Forrest: And then you basically say things that are going on inside of that group. You want to use consensus and coherency as a way of essentially describing that internal process. But to do that, you have to trade off the fact that that group is essentially not going to be doing any kind of signal receiving or transmission across the boundary. So in other words, if you’re in the process of consensus, you’re looking at internal stuff, you’re focused inward, and you’re not having anything to do with the outside world.
Forrest: So in effect, there’s a bimodal process here. We’re looking at either the group is in the mode of working internally, or it’s in the mode of working externally, and you treat these two as essentially distinct processes. And then you can basically set it up so that the internal process is managed by consensus, and the external process is managed by a role definition, which allows for coordination of that group to external actions. So maybe as good governance would be to protect the land and the people, that it might actually have some agency with respect to the land.
Forrest: So in this sense, the dynamic of how these transitions occur, how it goes from a consensus process to a meritocratic process and then from a meritocratic process back to a consensus process is part of the way in which these three archetypal governance dynamics are essentially used as checks and balances against one another. And that’s part of what that essay is essentially addressing.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s use a little small scale example here, so we can be a little bit clearer about internal and external. When I reread it, I realized, hmm, I have to think about this a little bit. So let’s imagine 16 people living on a small farm that they are living in collectively and farming and maybe doing some other economic activity in together as a collective. So something like farming, even though it’s done on the property of the collective, would still be an external action, I believe, in your nomenclature. So an internal action is really about the processes of the group.
Forrest: Well, it would be things like membership. Do we add another person or, for some reason or other, does a person need to leave? Maybe they’re moving away. Maybe there’s some what might be called irreconcilable personality differences, although that’s maybe less likely. There’s a whole bunch of things where there’s, how the group think of itself as a group? What kind of identity does it feel that it has, or what are its feelings and values? So for instance, when we’re looking at it, we’re not trying to talk about how does that group show up in the world as an identity, so much as we’re looking at, is the group conscious of its own basis? Does it know where come from is when it’s making choices?
Forrest: So in the same sort of way that as an individual, you might be asked, “Well, do you want to do X or Y?” If that choice happens to have something to do with your children and you love your children, then your basis of choice is going to come from what’s best for my child. And so in that sense, the group itself is going to want to have, what are the values, what are the underlying meaningfulness of the group itself that effectively helps us to guide our way when we’re thinking about what purpose does the group or what function might it have in the world? But it’s the basis of choice, for sure, wanting to have coherency about and, in that sense, talking about consensus.
Jim: And there’s another example. Some groups may choose to have explicitly-stated value norms or virtues, and presumably those would be crafted via consensus so that everybody agrees. And then the interesting point about that, actually now that we’re thinking out loud here, is that if that were done democratically, there would be inevitably losers on each vote. And so there would be some people who did not sign on to say the seven Aristotelian virtues or something. But if it’s done by consensus, then we can say that everybody in the community agrees with our set of virtues and norms, just as an example, where consensus produces actually a fundamentally different outcome than, let’s say, democracy might.
Forrest: That’s right. So for instance, when we’re looking at the relationship between value, purpose, and meaning, that the values aren’t mutually exclusive the same way the purposes might be. Usually in any given moment, I can only say one thing or do one particular action, and I have a fundamental sequentiality there. But values are the kind of things which have a sort of parallelism associated with film. There’s no real reason for us to basically say, I can only have values A, B and C, and I can’t have values D, E and F.
Forrest: And part of the underlying notion here is that values are positively stated basically in the same way that I might say, “Everything that is not an elephant doesn’t tell me anything about what it actually is. It just tells me that it’s not an elephant. But if the universe is infinite, then I’ve really said nothing.” So in effect, there’s a notion here that, when we’re talking about values, we want to specify what we care about. And that’s a positive statement, and there’s no mutual exclusiveness in saying, well, I care about this and I care about that, and I care about this other thing.
Forrest: So when we’re thinking about consensus, it’s not so much that it’s about coming up with a finite list so much as it is about coming up with, what are the things that are the drivers as our basis of choice? So that when we do move into some purpose-driven way of being, i.e. external organizations and things like that, that that’s grounded in some sort of thing that we can relate to consciously rather than just unconsciously.
Jim: Very good. That’s a nice distinction and clarification. But of course, let’s say we have our 16 people, it would be really probably a waste of time, the wrong set of expertise, and I don’t even know how you do it to, for instance, figure out how you’re going to lay out the cornfield on the farm. So how do you go from those things which are inwardly focused, that are appropriate for consensus and where heightened coherence is of the essence, to things where action and decisions on a more quick, and frankly in some sense, less consequential often, though not always, basis? How do you go from consensus to the next step?
Forrest: Well, this is actually very straightforward. So for instance, if we’re looking at surveying the land for laying out where the crops are going to go, for example, then there is a kind of inequality in terms of the distribution of that skill among the people in the group, but people in the group are going to know that. So for instance, in the sense the consensus might be yes, for this task this person is going to be essentially the chief organizer for that role or that function. And the notion is that the group is making a choice about both who has the skills, who is willing, and who is available, and hopefully that’s the same person. If it’s not, then to some extent, then there’s wanting to be a bunch of conversation as to how to create that person within the group.
Forrest: So in effect, there is a notion here that the consensus process is effectively not so much electing a leader by a vote, but electing a leader by consensus for that particular task. And so in effect, this is a specific case of a much more general problem of communication. So for instance, if we’re looking at communication that is within the group versus communication that’s crossing the outside of the group, i.e. the surveyor is communicating with the land using surveying instruments essentially. And so in this sense, he is receiving signals from the land about where to put various things and using that expertise to read signs and to know, well, this crop’s going to grow better here because it’s closer to the river or something like that.
Forrest: So in effect, what’s happening is that as we are in the consensus process, we’re essentially deciding what is the scope of communication that a given person is essentially going to be responsible for on the behalf of the group or is going to be representing the values of the group in its communication with the land. And so in that sense, again, the motion from completely flat, non-hierarchical organization to some hierarchal organization is selected by the consensus process. Does every person in the group feel good about the proposed structure of how the group is going to communicate with the outside world in some focused and meritocratic sort of way? Because obviously the group wants to be effective with respect-
Forrest: … sort of way, because obviously the group wants to be effective with respect to the world so it needs some sort of response to do that.
Jim: Yes. As I read it, I’d love to get your clarification if I’m off on this, there’s probably two parts of such a decision. One is what is the scope of the authority of the meritocracy? And then part two is who is the person? Is that approximately correct? Because I can see those both being important decisions and both ones that could be made by consensus in a group of say 15 or 16 people.
Forrest: That’s right, because it’s describing the internal organization. So for instance, the who gets to decide and what the scope of that communication is are interior to the group. So in other words, it’s how does the group self organize into organs? Organs representing functions or systems that the group then uses. It’s like an amoeba decides, okay, well in order to do this thing, I need a heart and then therefore I’m going to need some lungs. I’m going to need some muscles and a bone structure in this place and these places in order to be able to create the appendage to do the thing. But that it’s because it’s an interior organization to perform an outside function, it is very much a consensus oriented process. But once that feeling of we know what we’re doing, what is the scope of action and what are the tools and resources that are being created in order to engage in that scope of action, then there’s this transition.
Forrest: It basically just says, “Yeah, we’re good to go.” Everybody agrees and then it happens. So in that sense for the duration of the process by which the scope of choices is being implemented and the outside flow and communication is essentially being coordinated via the… That person may be elected, but he might say, “Well, I’ll need someone to hold the other end of the transit so that I can see where the reflection is, and I’ll need another person to basically draw these lines and I’ll need another person to dig holes to put these markers in.” And so in effect, there might be a series of delegations that person makes in the context of the group, but it’s scope limited.
Forrest: If it turns out that over the course of say the next week or so in which that person is doing that particular function and the delegations are going on that the group starts to feel that there is some misrepresentation, that there was some mistake regarding the scope of concern or the particular process, or something’s going wrong in terms of whether or not that feels like it’s actually representing the interest of the group, then we would have what it is in the literature called the vote of no confidence, which is essentially a fallback process that transitions the group from a meritocratic process, which is very good at making choices in response to the outside world and coordinating focus of communication to an inward focus process of, okay, we need to figure out how we’re going to do this differently.
Forrest: And so in a sense there’s a role based meritocratic process rather than say a period of time based meritocratic process. This is currently the case in democracy like the United States to a situation where you are essentially using the vote for one purpose and one purpose only, which is just to make the transition from meritocratic back to consensus. If you try to use the voting process for more than that, then essentially you end up with the disadvantages of the voting process creeping back in and causing all sorts of issues.
Jim: And I think this is actually the most brilliant part of your design. And when I read it, I remember I fed it back to you in rut speak. I said, “Say democracy’s only function is it’s the red button, that’s one thing. You can press the red button.” And to make it even more specific because one of the things that you don’t really lay out in the essay but I just want to make sure we get this on the table for the audience’s basis is we would expect there to be multiple meritocracies created in let’s say a complex problem like running a 16 person intentional community. There’d be a meritocracy for farming, a meritocracy for built environment, for things like housing and shared workspace, et cetera, there might be meritocracy for external governmental relations, not running a foul of the zoning commission or what have you. So there can be multiple of them. And then each one of those, and this is key to my understanding of it, each one of those meritocracies that’s been created has its own individual red button, right? So unlike let’s say in the British parliamentary system where there’s a vote of no confidence, you kick out all the ministers. Under the forest small group process, the democracy can press the red button to get rid of the farming guy but keep the other meritocracies in place. Is that a correct read of your structure?
Forrest: It’s a correct read, but there’s one nuance which is pretty important, which is that whatever the structure of the meritocracy is concerned. So for instance, you want to be careful to have the individual functions be distinct. In other words, if I scope the roles in terms of this person and the subgroup that they put together is responsible for this scope of choices that the scopes don’t overlap, right? You want to have really clear partitioning as to what the scope is so that the entire meritocratic structure associated with that scope is collapsed in the vote of no confidence. So in other words, you’re basically saying if I hit the red button and I basically collapse that particular meritocratic structure, that it is fully and completely collapsed back to consensus.
Forrest: In other words, you are starting from scratch for that role, for that function. And so in a sense, for a small group of people it’s probably not a good idea to have too many of these because you don’t want to have a situation where there’s any ambiguity as to what the votes being applied to. You want to have that be very discreet in each case. And again, with a small group, it’s probably not so complicated because in a lot of cases it’s just, again with smaller groups, it’s easier to just treat it as, okay, we’re going to cease all exterior functions, focus on how to get this right and then rebootstrap.
Jim: [inaudible 00:30:55] I don’t know. I mean a group of 16 people is big enough and running a farm has enough discreet components to it that I could see five or six or seven meritocracies as being appropriate. And I could also see situations where you’d want to just make a change on one of them, but I could also see situations where for instance a division of authority isn’t well crafted. And so maybe I’m going to throw this out a suggestion. Maybe in addition to red buttons for each meritocracy created, there also ought to be the macro red button which has collapsed the whole thing and put us back into consensus to rethink how we divided authority up as an example.
Forrest: Yeah. This would all be prepared as part of the consensus process is to simply allocate what would be the areas in which there would be fallbacks. So in other words, as part of the… I think what you’re bringing to mind here is that rather than just talking about the scope of the choices and the particular explicit architecture of how that hierarchical form is going to be, you’re also talking about what are the distributions of the fallback mechanism. So you’re preparing what the end of the meritocratic structure is going to be in advance. So in a sense, you’re characterizing which buttons are going to be where and what they’re going to do.
Jim: Nicely said. And here’s a really important aspect of this that goes to one of the downsides of democracy. The problem with democracy is when there’s a vote, there’s a minority of losers, right? Who might actually be pissed off. Under the forest Landry red button breakdown, the meritocracy go back to consensus. Even the losers of the vote now have substantial input into what it comes next because they are participants in the consensus process and each and every one of them has to sign off on what we do after we press the red button. So you don’t necessarily get the disgruntled minority perspective that straight up voting would likely produce. Is that a reasonable read?
Forrest: Yeah, that’s a reasonable read. The consensus process is essentially able to make really high quality choices. And one of the places you really need really high quality choices is essentially what is the interior structure of the group when we’re looking at things that are high risk? Anything that’s a meritocratic process is effectively high risk. You’re risking the destabilization of the group as essentially being genuinely able to be self-defining as a group.
Jim: It could be incompetence, it could be corruption, it could be we define that the boundaries incorrectly for the authority. There’s lots of ways which you might want to collapse the group. But on the other hand, throwing it back to consensus is a pretty high price to pay because now the group itself is responsible for that function so people would be relatively unlikely to do it frivolously. So I like that tension, I guess is where I’m getting at. All right, the guy isn’t as good as we’d like, the one we have chose for cornfield management, but it’s a hell a lot better than us having to manage the cornfield, so we’ll put up with him till the end of the harvest and then we’ll appoint somebody else for next year as an example of how this might actually roll out in the real world. So that’s democracy. Well, it turns out there’s one other function that you built into democracy. Again, narrow, specific. You want to talk about that?
Forrest: Well, please introduce it. Go ahead.
Jim: Okay. Which is that the democracy can spend the consensus process for a temporary period of time on a specific issue. And the example you gave, let’s say, tempers are hot on how we should define and who we should appoint to deal with the zoning authorities for instance, right? And so the democracy and as a key thing, democracy as I read it again, I like some more clarification on this, is essentially the equivalent of a petition signed by half plus one of the members of the community. So it’s not those who showed up a quorum and whatever the percentage of that is, it’s literally half plus one of them, whole membership of the organizations let’s say signs the petition to do X so of that it is a true majority, not just one of these opportunistic parliamentary majorities. But it could say consensus where the group as a whole are acting like children, we’re not coming to consensus, we’re not converging. And so we’re going to have a two week time out by majority vote only and we’re going to specify a temporary period of time where we’re not going to discuss this and we’ll go work on other stuff. So that’s the other function that you laid out for democracy.
Forrest: This is very well stated. Thank you. That’s correct. So for instance, one of the ways to think about this is you have the group communication internal, right? You have the group communication to the outside world, to other groups or to anything that’s beyond on the boundary and then you have the notion of not communicating, right? So for instance, the group might not be communicating internally or externally, might actually just be suspended for a period of time. And so in effect, the notion here is that in the same way that consensus can move us into a capacity to communicate externally, right? So interior communication bootstrapping capacity for exterior communication, that if the vote collapses, exterior communication back to interior communication, but that interior communication itself is not stable, then in effect the vote can suspend the interior until things cool off a bit.
Forrest: And so there is a tension here. There’s a tension of if the group is feeling like it has to communicate with the outside world, then it’s going to want to have that consensus come to resolution so that it can develop the infrastructure needed to communicate with the outside world. If on the other hand it’s pushed back into consensus because the exterior communication doesn’t last, but as you mentioned the tempers are really high, then to some extent the group itself isn’t able to function in turn with interior communications. So the democratic process is therefore used as a relief valve or escape valve to move into essentially a more temporally spaced out way of being. And this sometimes can make the difference between the group either continues or it doesn’t. If the group can’t develop any interior consensus at all, then to some extent it’s capacity to function as a group has been compromised, to some extent the democratic process is essentially allowing for that to be observed.
Jim: Yeah, that’s actually very interesting. So I got three questions to essentially clarify that came up as I was reading this. Let’s do the third one first, which is in some sense it might be useful for the entity to have some specific parameters around these powers. For instance, the ability to suspend might have a specific time limit of let’s say no more than 14 days or 21 or whatever. And under your scheme, could you imagine… This would have to be consensus I imagine. The consensus creates a constitution about parameters within the process. And one of those might be when democracy stops consensus discussion, it can do so for up to 21 days and it must specify the period, but not more than 21 days. Does something like that fit your vision.
Forrest: It does, but you already mentioned the thing is that any governance or bylaws that the group of is essentially electing for itself wants to be something that is essentially consensus derived and in that same way, it might be consensus revised at some future point.
Jim: Though, it is important to note that consensus decisions are very sticky because all it takes is one objector to stop a change. So let’s say you set it to 21 day, 15 out of 16 people think it should be reset to 14. It stays to 21 until you get that 16th person on board. So it is important who’s ever… Doing these constitutional things in a consensus process is very high stakes. And one of the things one must realize is that it’s not like a democracy where it’s relatively easy to fix. So it’ll be hard to fix stuff that you do by consensus. And so people should keep that in mind. The second question is in the paper and in our discussion so far, you envision a meritocracy as being the simple appointment of a single person.
Jim: Does the idea of a structured executive team also fit within the idea. Again, let’s say the farm. A farm, say a hundred acre farm, big 50 hectare farm is pretty big farm, a lot of complicated things going on. It might well be that you want to appoint a multiple person team and say, “All right, I want a farm manager and one person for crops and one person for animals.” And each of the two have relative autonomy in their field, but there’s a head honcho if disputes arise. Oh, damn pigs are in the lettuce. Could you imagine under your structure, the consensus process defining a more complex meritocracy?
Forrest: Yes, I do. And I think that to some extent there’s also the alternative that the one person that you’ve elected essentially defines for themselves who they’re going to ask to be those people, or it might be that the group itself defines what that is prior to release so to speak, i.e. the transition from a consensus to the run button, right? So the same way there’s a red button, there’s a green button. The button is, let’s do this, right? And so in effect, however that this part gets defined could either be, as you said, a single person or it could be a group of people that have defined relationships between them and so on. The notion of single focus was important mostly to clarify what was meant by the communication dynamic. So in effect, insofar as group again, having a boundary between itself and the outside world that all exterior and interior communications that are crossing that boundary, so for instance anything that the group wants to say to the world or anything that the world wants to say to the group, you in effect need to create a function that’s a little bit like a single mind or single point of contact so that where there is ambiguity, that those things essentially are clear so that the group has itself the appearance from the outside world as being coherent.
Forrest: So, in that particular sense, if I have two points of contact, say I’ve got two groups, and I have person A talking to person C in the second group, so A in the first group and C in the second group, and I have person B in the first group talking to person D in the second group, it could be very easily the case that those two communication paths end up saying contradictory things and the two groups end up not coordinating with one another because of their difference in messages, and then you end up with various versions of the telephone game and all sorts of ethical issues depending upon who’s regarding which channel of communication is more powerful. So in this sense, it just becomes very, very important that for every intragroup relationship or every exterior relationship, that there be at least some way to essentially guarantee full coherency, which usually means aligning yourself to the package of one mind and one body. But it’s an aberration associated with the fact that humans mostly come in units of single people.
Jim: Except for the ones that are schizophrenic, and then there’s [inaudible 00:42:01]. Got the roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic and so am I. I will say that, I think that maybe you’re thinking is more heavily dominated by these protocol issues than it was by say practical work on the ground where a more structured meritocracy may well make sense, like the farming example or a business.
Forrest: No, I think you’re right. I mean, it’s very much the case that all of these possibilities are important to consider. I was trying to essentially come up with a way of thinking about it that revealed some of the issues that are available to solve. So for instance in this particular case, by understanding that we’re thinking about it in terms of archetypal forms and inequality versus equality, and how those two trade off against one another in terms of capacity, particularly in terms of communication and information flows, and what does it mean to make choices, and what does it mean to have agreements and what is the agreement of an individual versus a group, and how do we think about all that, so on. So in this sense, the whole point of the essay is essentially to give language to a lot of these concepts and to essentially show how they play off against one another in a way that allows us for thinking about larger issues.
Jim: Very good. Now, my third question, which I had when I was rereading this, is if we have a meritocracy and we have a theoretical democracy to press the red button if things aren’t going right. In traditional democratic theory, one of the important things is information. So I’m imagining that if I wanted to create a meritocracy from the consensus combine, the 16 people sitting around the table, I might well want to be able to specify reporting requirements so that the democracy can act responsibly. For instance, if I have no idea what the corn yield was or what the current survey, an estimate of the corn yield is, I have no idea if the cornfield team is doing a good job or not. So do you imagine in this structure having stipulated reporting requirements for am meritocracy as something that fits into your architecture?
Forrest: Well, of course. I mean, what we’re really talking about is the communication path. So in effect, when we’re looking at consensus, it’s everybody’s communicating with everybody and every communication path is equal to every other communication path. We’re dealing with any kind of meritocratic structure, we’re dealing with communication paths that have a hierarchical form. And that might mean that to some extent, we’re sensing things through these individuals that are maybe on the ground and in the field and know what’s going on. Like, Hey, the pigs are in the wrong field, for example. And so yeah, there may be explicit balancing of who has what authority and what responsibility. And of course, if we’re doing good governance design, we’re thinking about making sure that a person’s authority and their responsibility are effectively equal, right?
Forrest: I don’t have more responsibility and authority basically means I’m likely to get trapped because something’s going wrong but I can’t fix the problem. Or you might end up with situations where you have more authority and not as much responsibility, which is a tyranny. There’s no feedback mechanism that essentially stabilizes it aside from hitting the red button and essentially starting over. So in this sense, yeah, the communication paths are very much the, as the essence of what is being defined in terms of who is communicating to who about what, when. And again, that structure may be something that the consensus process explicitly puts in place, or it may be something that the focal point explicitly puts in place after they’ve essentially gotten the green light or the green button’s been pushed and extends for as long as the red button has not yet been pushed.
Jim: Got you. Yeah. I’m going to throw out another… I’m just thinking out loud here, it’s fun. Okay, I imagine we have six focal authorities meritocracies out there doing their various thing, but the consensus group is too big to focus on these inbound messages. So instead we have a seventh authority called the newspaper, the Gazette and their job is to receive the inbound messages, write them up in succinct readable fashion and publish a weekly or a daily, depending on the flow of messages, Gazette for the consensus team to read just as an example of information flow architecture that one might be able to create off this thing by using its own rules of creating a seventh meritocracy whose job it is to process and communicate in condensed form messages from the others.
Forrest: Well, I think that obviously all of these structures are possible. And so in effect, the one thing that I would definitely point out is that when it’s consensus, everybody’s participating and when it’s meritocracy, most people are participating, right? I mean, the group is small enough that somebody’s going to be doing something usually. And so in effect, there’s a notion here that it isn’t so much that when we’re in meritocratic process, that the person that’s receiving those messages is essentially communicating that either to the whole group or to specific people that need to know and so on. And as long as the group is comfortable with that information flow, then that it isn’t so much that the consensus is trying to do anything or make any choices. They’re basically trusting the meritocratic process to do that.
Forrest: Until that trust goes away for some reason or other, it looks like something’s going seriously wrong then you hit the red button, and now we’re back into consensus process. So the consensus process is treated as essentially an alternate mode, right? So for instance, you have the group in three modes. You have consensus mode, bootstraps, meritocratic mode, and then you have democracy mode that puts it back into consensus mode. And so in effect, relative to any particular scope that is going to be either interior or exterior that you have a clear transition path for each of these modes.
Jim: Got it. And your system does. That’s what I loved about it, right? If the flow makes sense, consensus creates meritocracy, democracy presses red button destroys meritocracy, consensus recreates new meritocracy. I was just adding the embellishments that you need some reporting and some information to be able to make those decisions wisely. But I think the fundamentals of the three part model and the way you’ve allocated the authorities and the powers actually, I have not found to flaw it. I like it a lot.
Forrest: Yeah, it’s pretty cool because the thing is that once you start to really look at it in these fundamental archetypal forms, you gain a lot of clarity about why these particular tradeoffs are needed and what the advantages of disadvantages are of each and how to essentially trade off the advantages and disadvantages by using all three together. So in effect, this is the insight. It was surprising to me to this because a lot of times people say, “Well, let’s try to use this system for all things that are needed.” And this system being one of the three archetypes of some variation of it, and if you just take any two of them and combine them, you don’t end up with a solution. But if you take all three of them and you combine them, you do end up with a solution.
Forrest: It actually compensates for the disadvantages and plays to the strengths of each one of these methodologies. And that’s a surprising result because usually it’s like, well, this doesn’t work by itself and any pair of all these things doesn’t work by itself, but the three of them together does. And the way in which it does that effectively it’s a limitation on how democracy works that I think that’s the most surprising coming from a USA point of view is that we all feel that there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these things, but we tend to say, “Well, democracy is the best.” But when we look at it, we say, “Well, actually democracy is the best within a very limited scope of what it should be used for.” And then it’s actually, it’s terrible at coming up with the choices that consensus is really good at. On the other hand, consensus is terrible at making the choices that meritocracy is really good at. And meritocracy is really terrible at making the choices that democracy is really good at. And so in effect, by leveraging these against one another in this specific way, you end up with this balancing thing that it actually is way better than anything we would expect to be possible.
Jim: I have to say, I learned about this 2015, been thinking about it on and on.
Jim: Learned about this 2015. Been thinking about it on and off now for seven years and I still like it. I think you actually have come up with something here, it’s very interesting. So, we’ve talked about the base model that’s laid out in most of the essay and I will say a group up to 16 or maybe 30 on a good day with the win if everybody has high capacity, let’s just say 16, but now we want to do something bigger. I use the example specifically of the small firm of 16 people because front and center in my mind today is thinking about so-called proto bees from the Game B movement, which is the next big move by Game B, which is to build on the ground communities of around 150 people when they’re mature. May take five years to get there, but 150 people who have to manage a lot of complicated stuff and certainly 16 or even 30 is way smaller than 150.
Jim: And you do then lay out how one could build groups of groups and come with multi layers. And I’ll have some questions about that, but why don’t you start by laying out that, you also indicated in the pre-game discussion that you have some additional thoughts on how your small group practice might scale up. So, let’s start with what you wrote in the paper about multi-level and then we’ll go on to new thinking.
Forrest: Well, this is probably the single most important question of this entire conversation, which is how do we scale up this process? And so in effect, what I’d like to do is to first point out that when we’re talking about scaling up, we really want to think about the different dynamics, the different group sizes imply. So, for example, this architecture probably the define in the small group process probably wouldn’t work for say a group of smaller than about six people, because in that case, the level of formality that would be needed in order to say, we’re explicitly in the mode of consensus, we’re explicitly in the mode of meritocracy and so on and so forth. Usually, a group of people of say six or fewer can just more or less as friends agree to how they want to operate as a group and how coordinate and collaborate with another and the level of [inaudible 00:52:06].
Jim: In business, I call that managing the company around the lunch table and up to six or seven you can do that.
Forrest: Exactly. So, in this sense the small group dynamic that’s being described has a limit in terms of the scale towards the lower end, i.e towards the scale of zero people being participating. But it also, when I suggested 16, I was basically thinking of the upper end and my ideal size in thinking about the group processes, I just thought of a group of say, nine to 12 people. When I get up to around 16, then there starts to be a tension in the sense that consensus process, the larger the group, the easier it is for the conversation to be derailed by various emotional dynamics and people’s individual traumas and all that other kind of stuff. And of course, the larger the scope of the number of people involved, the greater than number of geometric relationships that are involved.
Forrest: Both in terms of just the sheer number of communication paths, increasing with the number of people in a kind of N squared sort of way, but also just that the sheer number of life experiences that are involved also increases. So, you end up with certainly far more than N squared number of things that can happen in terms of people communicating with another and the level of modeling that each of them has to do with respect to one another. So, we’re starting to think about the Dunbar numbers territory. How well can I keep track of the relationships, really understand what’s going on and what context shifts, which person’s understanding or misunderstandings, et cetera. So, in that sense, we notice that as we start to try to get past 16 people, that the chances of the consensus process working well or the level of creativity that a meritocratic process might events to essentially deceive the group as to essentially hide some personal benefit some strategic advantage that the group itself for whatever reason due to marketing or charisma or whatever, just simply doesn’t notice that it’s not representing the group anymore.
Forrest: I can have principal agent problems which are corrupt and not necessarily… They’re a cult, they’re hidden, they’re not seen by the group and so as a result there ends up being long term disadvantages. So, in this sense, to ask the question of how do we scale this up? Well, first at the time that I was thinking about this bear in mind that this essay was written actually before 2000, I didn’t publish it until about 2001, but it really reflects the thinking I was doing at the time and say the late 90s. And so in this particular sense, as I was completing essay, I was thinking about these scaling issues. I was starting to explore the notion of well, maybe we have inter-group relationships that are coordinated through this process, or maybe the inter-group themselves could be coordinated with this process.
Forrest: And so I included just a few notes at the bottom about how we might address the issue of scale. Since then, I’ve had a chance to do quite a bit more work and so while the core idea of how an individual group or team would function has remained the same and has endured well in time. I also haven’t thought about any improvements to it. Didn’t it make any sense, it actually is as good as it stands. I think when it came to scaling it up, my thinking has changed dramatically. So, at first I tried to do the scale up in the sense of layers of groups or multiple groups or the interactions between groups. And that was just the first of a very large number of experiments that were done in that space, of a lot of different modeling and a lot of different exploratory things that I tried in the business that I had at one point the privilege of being the administer of and so on.
Forrest: And so what I’ve come to notice and this was very surprising to me is that you can’t scale up that model, not in the way that is described. At first, you would think that we would create larger groups by essentially creating onto smaller groups, but there’s a instability that results due to frankly, intersexual dynamics, there’s a kind of much stronger evolutionary power associated with some forces of evolution than with others. This will take a minute to describe, do you mind my going into that?
Jim: No, this is really important. Take as much time as you need on this.
Forrest: So, one of the things that is particularly helpful to understand why these ideas have the shape that they do and what things are needed in order for us to actually achieve scale. As I mentioned earlier, the main tension that is being resolved in the small group process is this difference between horizontal process or horizontal communication and consensus and vertically the oriented communication in meritocracy. But I made the observation in passing that evolution are biological heritage through the last billion years or so, just as animals multicellular organisms has given us a very strong propensity to prefer hierarchically organized structure. Basically, all of nature does this in one fashion or another. And it actually becomes quite tricky to look at ecosystems and to see the underlying substrate of all the cooperation, all of the consensus process that evolution is also built into it.
Forrest: So, when we’re thinking about how to do large scale governance design, a good piece of it is actually understanding evolution in our evolutionary heritage in terms of the biases that creates not just individually, but collectively. So, for a while, it was a lot of work essentially associated with identifying what are the sociological biases that emerge in large group process that basically have us prefer things like market systems or represented systems or voting systems that end up with the dis capacities into space of dealing with things like existential risk or large, big hair audacious problems as I mentioned earlier? So, to really be able to have the tool set to address this, we actually have to think about evolution in first person terms or in principle at level terms.
Forrest: So, in the same way that we made a move in looking at governance architectures in terms of their archetypes and what are the principles that we’re ultimately trying to address when thinking about the notion of communication and choice making and things like that, we essentially need to go back to those level of principles to think about how to produce a governance architecture at scale that actually works.
Forrest: And I found that I needed to go back to the drawing board in a lot of ways to really do that because of the scaling issues associated with consensus. So, first of all, evolution has three principle drivers. You can think about as point changes, what we normally think of as mutation, survival selection, which would basically be whether or not that particular animal continues and then mate selection, which would essentially be how the code is recombined between two animals to produce a third. And so in effect if you think about it in a kind of archetypal way, imagine you have a long string of digits that describe the code of a thing, it could be the genetic code or could be computer code or something like that, but the genotype can either be changed at one location or can be changed at all locations.
Forrest: This would be the survival selection. I cancel out the whole thing, or I can basically do something that’s somewhere between changing one and changing everything, which would be changing some things by combining them with some other things. Taking groups of patterns or groups of bits and merging them together, so the [recombinant toric 00:59:25] aspect. If I’m thinking about this in terms of fundamental algebraic theory and so on and so forth, the fundamental computer science theory, then essentially what I notice is that the point mutations are additive in their effect. The survival selection process is multiplicative in its effect, and the recombinant toric process is exponential in its effect. And so you might say, why the heck are we talking about evolutionary theory and we’re talking about governance stuff? And I mentioned first of all, that we need to understand the forces involved.
Forrest: The recombinant toric effects are far more powerful in terms of their influence on information flow and choice making dynamics and so on and so forth and most people will appreciate. So, when we’re looking at why is it the case that we can’t scale up from small group process to large group process? I think i.e things that are in the post on bar size. We can’t do it directly because of these pressures, these underlying forces that are essentially built into the evolutionary mathematics themselves. It’s not just human evolution in this planet, it’s essentially that the very math of the dynamic of evolution itself essentially requires these compensations. So, it turns out that there’s no process of accretion or no process of essentially starting with smaller groups to create larger groups that works because of these unbounded pressures.
Forrest: But it is the case that there is a pressure that comes back on the scale of the large. So, for instance, while we might say, okay, market systems for example, win well when people create new markets and therefore gain exponential returns on their investments, there is a situation where we are actually living in a finite world and that there is a place in which the additive aspects of it essentially come back and dominate the exponential things. An exponential curve can’t just grow indefinitely, a point is reached at which essentially it falls back simply due to resource constraints and one of the main problems we’re seeing as a civilization is this issue of Hubble curve way of thinking, regardless of whether we’re talking about farming or energy or resources such as copper or tin or whatever. The point is that if I’m basically looking at the way in which these forces under play with one another, it turns out that there’s this uncanny valley, that exists between a small governance process and large governance process.
Forrest: And so in effect, I had to re-architect how I thought about large governance process on these same principles, on these same underlying dynamics, but the shape of it is such that it doesn’t actually start working until we get past the Dunbar group size. So, in other words, the next viable solution doesn’t start working until you have a group of at least 200. And this is a surprising thing. So, in other words, if we’re looking at the total solution space starting at zero, one person or five people again, the dinner table thing works out well. If you get to the scale of between say six people and 16 people, the small group process works well, but then there’s a no man’s land of essentially just what is currently being traded as institutional forms.
Forrest: Things like businesses and schools and governments and stuff like that have all of the apparatus of what we normally think of as an institution would include even religious organizations under this rubic. But then there is this new space that emerges once you get past this no man’s land and a new vector of good governance architecture actually emerges which is stable once you get past 200 or so. And in effect that’s essentially something which at this particular point has never been tried as far as I can see anywhere in human civilization. If you look at governance architectures that have checks and balances in the United States for example, you have these three things, you have the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch, and these are checked and balances against one another to some extent.
Forrest: You are at least starting to see some of the principles that are needed in order to identify what would be the way in which we would actually stabilize the forces of exponential drivers of inequality versus say the actual limitations associated with the environment and with the ecosystem that essentially need us to make wise choices in this space. So, in one sense, it’s a little bit like saying, well, if we’re looking at how do we do good governance at scale, we essentially need to think about the sense making process in a way that implements consensus, meritocracy and democracy in a holographic way.
Forrest: See the trouble is that when we look at institutional forms, all institutional form so far as they’re constructed into the modern world are, basically over-emphasizing omniscient model way of thinking i.e over-emphasizing hierarchical way of thinking. And the model of the market or the market based process is itself not actually responsive over long periods of time. It doesn’t have the coherency needed to actually address the longer term issues. And both of these essentially are indicators. So, for instance, if again, I’m looking at the bandwidth of the communication dynamics, the bandwidth associated with market systems is just too low, because it doesn’t necessarily have connectivity across time.
Jim: Got you. It’s a local hill climber, but market systems is a local hill climber.
Forrest: Exactly. So, in a sense it doesn’t have the global awareness both across time and space in order to essentially do the optimization or to have the wisdom to respond to the level of complexity of the problems that we as a species are currently faced with. I.e everything left over after the toolkit that institutional forms that we currently have can solve, we’re left with this residual class of problems that those architectures a human organization can’t solve. And of course this is now becoming more and more important for us to address. So, in this particular sense if we’re saying, okay, well, the bandwidth and the communication dynamics associated with market based systems, can’t do it. And we look at the bandwidth associated with any hierarchical system, which is essentially all institutions.
Forrest: And categorically, we can say that fundamentally the communication dynamics that are needed just exceed the bandwidth that’s available for those systems all together. So, we’re not going to get there by essentially making small increments to existing systems. We’re not going to be able to do it by upgrades to the voting methodology and this includes things like quadratic voting and first pass to post and all the different ways of thinking about [Aeros 01:05:45] paradox. We’re not going to get there by leadership dynamics or any other hierarchal model based upon that, we’re not going to get there on the basis of narrative or narrative control or propaganda type processes. We’re not going to get there through new financial instruments or market based systems of that nature. Cryptocurrency is not going to help us, NFTs aren’t going to help us.
Forrest: We essentially need to go back to first principles ways of thinking about this sort of thing. So, in a sense, we’re starting to look at stuff Jordan Hall mentions this thing called the [UTA 01:06:12] loop where I orient, I make sense of the world, I connect that to the values that I have and then I start to think about what is the thing that I need to do next and to essentially perceive local position in terms of response capacities and things like that. So, in this sense, we’re looking at how do we create a collective wisdom, a collective intelligence or collective capacity at the level of large groups that can actually be able to implement the level of holographic communication needed to have the bandwidth needed, to have the ability to see what are the wise choices that will basically balance both the needs of sustainability i.e being here for a while.
Forrest: An evolution which essentially is the ability to recognize new solutions to essentially adapt to problems and adapt to change. So, in effect we’re actually talking about the dynamics of group consciousness, because if I look at say for example, that I have a capacity to do really fast evolution, but I don’t have sustainability, what I’ve basically done as I’ve created a thing that has really good ability to be change, evolution is change and it can respond to change, but without sustainability, it just ends. So, sustainability is also important, but if I look at sustainability, sustainability is essentially an absence of change. It’s eventually those things that remain the same. So, how do I mediate between change and changeless? And that’s now we’re starting to get down to the level of which we can begin to see what things we’re actually looking to do.
Forrest: If it was just a system or an algorithm that was essentially defining the relationship between change and changeless. And I might just go directly and observe well, an algorithm is a static thing. It’s a code that remains the same and is attempting to deal with whatever comes up and so in effect, there’s a kind of… It works for as long as it is the case that a change comes, that nature changes in such a way that the algorithm doesn’t know how to handle it at which point the algorithm just fails completely. So, in this particular sense, there needs to be a way of thinking about the relationship between change and changeless that isn’t itself already making assumptions about being based in just change or changeless. There needs to be a consciousness about when to prefer one and when to prefer the other.
Forrest: It is actually more globally in scope i.e wisdom at the level of groups. And so in effect by saying all of this, what I’m really doing is I’m starting to say, I’m basically setting up the point that we can’t think about this in terms of any kind of what I would regard omniscient or enclosure based model of governance. We actually have to think about it as essentially a reification of both a transcendental way of thinking, which includes things like values and the underlying cultures and the basis of our choice and the capacity to choose as well as the direct realization of participation in those choices. So, in effect one of the first things that come out of this is that it’s not a representative model. It can’t be and there’s no place in which it makes sense to essentially fall into the trap associated with the principal agent problem or the capacity to you respond to a situation where you’re asking some representative to do it on your behalf.
Forrest: So, in effect what we’re looking at is how do we involve the whole community in choice making process such that the communication dynamics don’t overload the individuals? That we’re not asking every person to be expert at everything, but that in effect, the overall group still has the level of wisdom and discernment necessary to essentially respond to environmental changes or external in the world in a coherent way. So, rather than thinking about it in terms of some top down architecture, we’re thinking about it from the middle outwards, not from just bottom up which would be evolution, or top down which would be technology, but essentially from the human towards the edges so to speak, i.e at an ordinary C and touch scales, the network of relationships is supported by the network of communication.
Forrest: So, therefore how do we get communication? And so in effect, there’s a cultural transmission that’s going on here. There’s essentially emotion from thinking about strategy first, which is the usual way that people think about this. And then trying to have that strategy create a vision that essentially can be used to manipulate the culture to create an outcome. We actually need to start culture first and I think this is something you’ve pointed to in a number of your essays as well, is that if we get the human dynamics right, the health aspects right, the local ecology stuff down that to some extent there emerges a capacity from that culture to have the culture become aware of what its values are. And from those values to articulate a vision and from that vision to essentially implement the strategy.
Forrest: Strategy comes last because it’s coming out of the community rather than out of any single individual as it would in meritocratic sense. So, in effect the dynamics of how do we embody culture and what is the sense making that we do at that level, at the notion of values discovery and clarifying what’s success means, and then doing the modeling to basically say, are the approaches that we are taking as a community actually generative of health, generative of wellbeing and wise enough to respond with the challenges that we’re actually faced with. And so in this particular sense, we’re looking at a dynamic that is considered in terms of layers, it’s considered terms of how each process essentially supports other processes that collectively create a capacity to respond to the world on the part of the whole group.
Forrest: So, this particular point just make the observation that civilization is complex. There’s tremendous number of factors involved and so on and so forth, but a layered architecture with the right capacity enabling aspects built into each layer can essentially combine to create overall a system that has organization much the same way that the body does. So, for example, is it the case that the brain’s more important than the heart or the lungs? Well, no actually the digestions just as important, the muscles are important, everything is important and it’s the way the whole thing works together that creates a responsive capacity on the part of the whole being. So, what is the equivalent of that in terms of the layered architecture or the multisystem architecture that itself creates more than the sum of the parts and actually is able to balance the additive multiplicative and aspects of the real situation of the world?
Forrest: And so at this particular point what I’m basically doing is I’m saying, okay, rather than looking for solutions in the space between say 16 people and 160 people, let’s look at what architectures we would actually need to have at that scale that is essentially is the other side of the uncanny valley. It enables us to essentially think about those things in a way that does actually balance all of these principles. And that turns out to be a very long and involved conversation. I’ll probably spend several years trying to articulate just what that is and how those principles come to bear. But if you’re familiar with my work on EGP, you’re seeing what I would call level two, which is after we’ve worked on say human health and trauma resolution and the things that allow us to communicate with one another in a way that is particularly clear, to be able to not just see through things and have insights, but to move through issues, then we’re looking at the sense making towards what’s actually going on? What are the values? Are we asking even the right questions?
Forrest: And so in this particular sense, we’re beginning to basically do self-identity discovery at the group level rather than at the individual level. And this turns out to be something which is profoundly important for the capacity of the group to be able to operate in any real way responsive to the kind of complex problems that we’re addressing.
Jim: Okay. I think you were laying out some of the issues though, not even gesturing towards any of the solutions I would say.
Forrest: Well, I’m gesturing to the category of solutions. So, for instance, the first thing I’ve done is if there’s 100 different solutions proposed, what I’ve already done is I’ve basically said of these 100, 90 of them aren’t even worth thinking about. So, for instance, anytime somebody proposes to me a cryptocurrency or anytime somebody proposes an update to the voting system or some incremental improvement to market process or democratic process, they basically say you don’t understand the problem. You’re basically trying to solve it with finance when finance itself is dependent upon infrastructure computers and networks and things. And the infrastructure is itself based upon the cultural dynamics and the cultural dynamics are essentially being destabilized and are actually from the market system, destabilizing the ecosystem and the ecology in which the culture lives. Then to some extent, you’re dealing with much more fundamental problem.
Forrest: Then, to some extent, you’re dealing with much more fundamental problem.
Jim: Well, that’s the meta-systemic problem. People have a tendency to focus on one system when in reality our culture is many systems which interconnect and influence each other. Clearly, for instance, the dynamics of how late stage financialized capitalism interacts with culture is definitely a real thing. Even at the simple minded level of TikTok. What things end up on TikTok and get monetized produces a cultural, monetary interaction. Then both of those influence, let’s say, electoral politics. I would say the fundamental problem of many of these point solutions is that they don’t address the meta-systemic level.
Forrest: Addressing the meta-systemic level, of course, wants us to see all these layers. For instance, we can know that culture is built on ecology, and that infrastructure is built on culture, and that finance is built… economic systems of whatever virtualized kind are built upon infrastructure of one sort or another. In effect, if we’re looking at what’s really going on, then we’re basically saying, “well, okay, maybe we can describe it as finance and economics as destabilizing infrastructure,” i.e. businesses just not paying attention to their fundamentals. Or we can look at it as that capitalistic systems have effectively become stronger than any kind of community. Rather than having the marketplace occur in the community, we now have the community basically being a resource that’s extracted from by the market system. And this of course is a problem, but we also have, as many ecologists know, the economic system is making choices to essentially favor capital over capital, but it’s destabilizing the ecosystem that’s supporting that. The ecosystem basically being the life systems of the planet. Basically all of the plants and animals, and that kind of thing.
Forrest: In effect, we can say, “Okay, well, if we’re going to address the meta-systemic issues, to some extent, we actually need to understand the relationship between the ecological dynamics and the cultural dynamics.” And this is a place where hardly anybody is looking. I mean, some people are thinking about it in terms of histories of injustice and things like that. But the kind of history that I’m concerned with here goes back, 10,000 to a hundred thousand years. In effect there’s a situation where we’re actually trying to be able to understand the ways in which human psychology works, both at the level of individual and at the of groups, such that we can rightly do good governance by compensating for those fundamental drivers of human behavior.
Forrest: Without understanding the drivers of human behavior, we can’t do good governance design that is essentially addressing the causes, rather than just the symptoms. In effect, I can lay out some elements of the solution, but mostly I’m trying to just identify what the category of the solution is. What kinds of things are even possible to articulate as questions? For instance, to be able to describe a solution, to some extent, I have to upgrade your imagination because the imagination of almost everybody listening to this conversation is very much shaped by institutional forms and market forms and these are the ways in which we’ve solved problems up to date. But what got us here, won’t get us there. To some extent, there’s a situation where we actually need to really identify, what does the long term actually look like? If we’re looking at transition and if we’re building a bridge, that’s going to get us from here to there, I kind of need to know where the footings of the other end of the bridge need to go.
Forrest: In this particular sense, what are the dynamics that actually create conscious sustainable evolution? What are the ways in which we as a species, can actually balance the relationship between man, machine and nature? And this becomes critically important because in effect, technology is a creative process, much the same way that evolution is. And that if I actually want to find some way to make good choices about technology, then I’m going to need to essentially understand the principles of the relationship between technology and evolution, the first principles sort of way, which is part of the reason why I spent some time talking about evolutional dynamics. In this sense, what would a solution actually need to be? Well in one sense, we need to have the level of wisdom to essentially handle technology and its capacity to affect both cultures and ecosystems. That’s required. In one sense, when we’re looking at our species, we’re literally the dumbest species capable of developing the tech that we currently have.
Jim: Yeah. I love to say that. In fact, I always say that to the first order, we must be the stupidest possible general intelligence because of how we got here. Mother nature is not profitable in her gifts. And then of course, once you know a little bit about cognitive neuroscience, there’s so many obvious limitations and human cognition. That yeah, first order were just this much over the line.
Forrest: Yeah. Just barely over line. In effect, there’s a kind of uncanny valley between our wisdom to basically have this technology work with it well, and there’s all sorts of Fermi Paradox type considerations. In a sense, there’s a need for us to essentially cross the valley between the level of wisdom that is needed to handle the intelligence and the just barely sufficient level of intelligence necessary to have tech in the first place. And there’s a gap between those two. And that gap is not going to be filled in by evolutionary process. Evolution could not have possibly prepared us for this circumstance. There’s no thing that it was responding to previously that it could have selected for. And this is essentially a singular event. How many times is evolution going to create a modern technological species and then keep trying all the different things until it can’t do the experiment any anymore. If we mess it up, to some extent we’ve to base evolution from the capacity to even perform the experiment of what does a technological species even looks like that can endure.
Jim: And this is important. The Fermi Paradox, which listeners know I am obsessed with. It is important. If it turns out there’s a hundred thousand such experiments being run in parallel in just this galaxy that, ah, if we blow up the earth. So what? However, we do not know whether we may be the only general intelligence in the universe, at least until we know the answer to that question, we have a gigantic moral burden not to fuck up.
Forrest: That’s precisely right. And it turns out to be the case that even if there were other life forms in the universe, that the level of unicity associated with this plant and unicity means uniqueness. I.e. the uniqueness in the universe of life on this earth, can’t be treated as having less value than say one quadrillion quadrillion dollars. And that’s a very conservative estimate. In effect, there’s a notion here that in any real sense of making choices, even if we’re thinking about capital as being the driver of our choices, we are severely underestimating the value of the earth in which we live. Regardless of however else we think about it, that’s kind of built in. In this particular sense for us to get the long term, we actually need to understand how to do conscious sustainable evolution.
Forrest: And I’m using those words in a principled way. There’s a specific thing that I’m pointing to here when I’m basically saying conscious sustainable evolution. And that basically means a kind of way of thinking about governance, which is inclusive of not just protect the land and the people, but also to help the land and the people to genuinely thrive. That’s what good governance is about. So in the sense of, are we you doing it right? That’s the metric we’re in a sense coming back to, or that’s essentially the way of thinking about it that we essentially need to respond to. In this sense, what is the kind of consciousness or conscientiousness that we need to create at the level of the group so that it has the wisdom to be able to handle the balance between technology and evolution itself? And literally nothing less than this is adequate.
Forrest: In effect, what we’re essentially describing then is essentially the absolute conditions of, or the absolute threshold of communicative capacity to essentially establish the level of wisdom necessary at the level of the group. What’s the sense making needed to do that? What are the kinds of processes that we would want to leverage as a communicative species that essentially would enable that level of wisdom to emerge and to enable that group that’s engaged in that process to trust that the outcome was both the right choice and that the people that were involved in it could essentially invest resources into that and know that their resources were wisely invested. And weren’t diverted into some sort of capitalistic scheme to extract them to private benefit.
Forrest: In effect, if people are going to engage in wise governance process, they want to have essentially a visibility to that process that essentially establishes the trust within themselves, that their contributions of time and effort and capital and resources of whatever kind are wise spent and are actually going to contribute to the balance of man, machine, and nature or to long term wellbeing at the level of the species and the level of the planet.
Forrest: In this particular sense, describing those architectures, we could [certainly 00:01:23:52] say, “First of all, we want to be sure that we are sensitive and sensitive to the world in a real way.” Are we asking the right questions? Are we even paying attention? Are we aware of what our values are? Can we make comparisons between the things that we think we might want to try and the actual outcomes and to see whether those outcomes are actually reflective of our values and our visions. There’s a lot of intelligence and process and capability that’s needed in that. In effect, one way of thinking about it is this sort of human development capacity in the sense of are we health enough to actually communicate with one another in a way that isn’t reflective of just our first circle interests?
Forrest: I.e. that there’s this presupposition, particularly in the United States that any communicative act in which I’m engaged is to my personal benefit. And this is just not true. I mean, at this particular point we take it for granted that the things that we say are going to benefit ourselves or our friends or our family, or something that I care about in a first person sort of relationship. But ultimately our capacity as a species to communicate, to assemble into large groups and to do exploration. And then eventually exploitation needs to be supplanted or to be upgraded in the sense that we are not just creating niches and not just exploiting them, but we’re actually creating health in vitality. That is essentially at the level of the collective. And not necessarily in some sort of capable sense, the same way that socialism would describe it. For instance, in this sort of way, I’m basically pointing at what are the solution characteristics?
Forrest: If I’m going to outline what a solution actually looks like in this particular space. I first of all need to characterize what a solution is, and also need to characterize something about what a solution is not. So that we can essentially focus our efforts in a way that actually makes sense. At this point, as you’ve already noticed, I haven’t necessarily been proposing a lot. I’ve been proposing characteristics for a solution. And then after that, I can make explicit recommendations for what the solution is. And even this isn’t enough. For instance, at this particular moment, I could say to you in perfect frankness that I have the answer, I know how to do this. I know how to create the, to create the capacity in groups of people to be able to respond to existential group situations, but knowing the answer, isn’t enough. Being able to imagine the answer isn’t enough. Being able to somehow bring that process into actual practice, now that’s where it gets interesting.
Forrest: So we’re several stages away from that at this point. Right now you and me having this conversation mostly, I’m just trying to give a sense as to what kinds of things even need to be thought about for us to even recognize the solution is genuinely a solution and not get distracted with all of the… I don’t know, probably a hundred thousand proposals that I’ve seen over the last 10 years. In effect, most of the time, if people are thinking about what to invest their time into or where to put their efforts or those kinds of things. I’m first of all, just asking questions along the lines of, do you have the discernment necessary to even know what a real governance solution looks like and why? To some extent, we need to focus our efforts here rather than there.
Jim: Cool. Good place to leave this line of conversation. We’ve got about 13 minutes left or we could just cut it right here, either one. I wouldn’t mind going back and talking about that scale between 16 and 20. In particular, what your thoughts are at this stage age, with respect to what you laid out in the paper, which is at least one extra layer where each small group creates a authority to represent itself at the next level.
Forrest: I’ve done tons of modeling on this. I’ve actually played with that particular model, a bunch, the groups of groups model.
Jim: Do you want to talk about it or is it a dead end? As far as you’re concerned.
Forrest: It’s a dead end. This is the thing. I mean, I tried that and I hit a dead end and then I tried a variation of that and I hit a dead end, and then I tried classes of that and I hit dead ends. And then I tried altogether different things and I hit dead ends. It was crazy. I mean, at first it was just this has got to be able to be done. In effect for a while there, I really, really tried to essentially creep up on the Dunbar number. 149 was the place where I basically said, “Okay.”
Jim: Interestingly [inaudible 01:28:06] ROB number. So yeah, if we can get to 149 or 150 I’m happy for my particular practical need right now.
Forrest: Yeah. And the explicit number isn’t so important. The thing that’s important is that there’s an acid tote there. As I try to crawl up to that particular point, as I try to do any kind of design, that goes up to that. The level of countervailing energy essentially climbs to infinity. And there’s a variety of reasons for it, but basically-
Jim: Let’s drill into dynamics. By the way, I’m going to just toss out the fact that a group of us have actually built a very tentative solution that seems to be working up to about 80, but it’s in a very specific modality. Which is we have a organization called the Staunton Makerspace, which is a classic makerspace, but it’s a little unusual and there’s no paid employees, all volunteer operated. And it’s about 80 members now, 80 or 90 members. And when we crafted a organizational structure called the council of guilds. Where each activity woodworking, pottery, fabric, art, audio, visual, carpentry, robotics, laser cutters has its own guild. And there’s a mechanism to get a guild enabled or instantiated.
Jim: And then each guild sends one representative to the council of guilds, which operates as the Board of Directors. There’s also three organization, wide elected officials, the President, a Vice President and a Treasurer. They are ex officio members of the guild. They don’t actually vote in the council of guilds, but they have an executive committee, which has certain powers as well. So far that has worked and reminded me a fair bit of what would happen if you took your first level, small group process and generalize it up just one additional level.
Forrest: Agreed. First of all, I want to point out that I’m not suggesting that there aren’t ways to basically work for a period of time or in a given situation. It’s just that if we’re looking for a general solution, that essentially is going to act over a thousand years, or is essentially going to be amenable to all possible situations in all possible countries. And in effect we’re dealing with essentially a much more specific tractability issue.
Jim: Gotcha. So let’s jump into where you see these exponential explosions that bite you in the ass between 16 and 149.
Forrest: Well, first of all, the guild thing that you’re describing sounds wonderful. And I personally, as a person that’s been part of a guild would love to join something like that. And I’ve got a lot of experience in the craft world and that’s a place where my heart sings.
Jim: I’ll send you the bylaws of our makerspace that’s literally legally instantiated as a council of guilds.
Forrest: Awesome, great. In a sense, you’re implementing, as you said, some sort of scale up thing that I kind of mentioned in the thing. The kind of things that go wrong usually only happen over time. So in any structure that essentially has a hierarchical structure built into, or is fundamentally hierarchical over time, you end up with ossification type issues. Where the scope of what they’re doing becomes fixed, and then essentially it becomes not adaptive to change or you might end up with essentially a diversion of resources, or just less efficient in terms of how the group works. But most of these kinds of things for the kind of organization you’re talking about, it’s unlikely that kind of stuff will show up unless you have some sort of personality issues or ego thing that goes on for quite a while.
Forrest: I mean, it might be 30 years or something before any real of the kind of instabilities I’m talking about show up. But in effect, this is on one hand, I don’t want to be discouraging because I actually really love it when things like what you’re talking about actually happen. Particularly in a craft space and a community space and things like that. But if we’re really trying to do something which is stable and genuinely has the capacity for long term conscious sustainable evolution, we kind of need to think in a much more profound way. In that particular sense, I wouldn’t necessarily regard what you’re talking about as being an exemplar of what I’m talking about so much as it’s… As you said, it’s a local response to a local situation that genuinely benefits from that.
Jim: And not a particularly hard one as it’s turning out. Because it’s relatively narrow piece of people’s lives, the stakes are relatively low, but we move to a proto B at some people’s full life and the stakes are really high for the participants. To get that proto B designed for 150 is really important. It’s really high stakes.
Forrest: Well, it’s high stakes at the level of the individual. It’s not necessarily high stakes with respect to the species.
Jim: And that’s one of the beauties, the whole idea of proto B is that we’re going to do many of them with different design parameters. So we can explore the high dimensional design space of how to do this.
Forrest: Well, I think that there’s… I mean, this goes back to the sort of maybe Tesla versus Edison arguments, where you can do lots and lots of experiments and vet, all sorts of things. And that certainly works well in the same sort of way that evolution works well, you try everything and you keep what works and you’re very, dispassionate about what sort of preferences you have. But I think one of the things that Tesla brought to that sort of debate was he’s saying, “Well, if you understand the principles really well, if you do the math, like if you actually figure out, what are the underlying dynamics of this sort of thing, then you can invent entirely new categories of technology or new categories of ways of doing things.” And your experimental space may be more constrained in one sense, but it’s going to be far more grounded because it’s going into those places where we much have more confidence that things are actually going to work.
Jim: Yeah. Let me clarify, that I’m not thinking that proto B’s are random experiments, but rather theory, practice theory loops. And theory is incomplete. As you will be the first to admit. You take an incomplete theory, you put it to practice, you find out where it’s either incomplete and or wrong. You adjust the theory, try again. That’s where you get a Tesla type experiment, rather than Edison doing 10,000 different filaments until he found one that works.
Forrest: Well, I think that part of why I’m being careful to sort of point out the scope of the thinking about this, is that the kinds of theories and the basis of those theories that are being described. For instance, anything that’s going to be based upon some sort of social dynamic that makes sense on the basis of an institution or a market is for the most part, just not going to be interesting as an experiment. I mean, it’ll be interesting as a community. It might be a situation where, I personally would want to live, but in terms of actually solving the hard problems facing civilization right now, I wouldn’t necessarily look to that direction.
Forrest: For instance, in this particular sense, I love the proto B concept. I think that there’s some things about that I really, really like. But as far as the kind of dynamics that I’m interested and concerned, at least as far as solving problems at the level of civilization or the scale of existential risk and the big hairy audacious problems. As I said, protecting the rainforest or coral reefs, or how do we feed and house everybody in the world.
Forrest: There’s a sense of, what are the dynamics that essentially enable that level of capacity? And that doesn’t really start happening until you get past well past the Dunbar number. For instance, if we need to coordinate the actions of say 10,000 people with regard to the Amazon, and many of those are indigenous people are coming from very, very different cultural perspectives but have firsthand awareness as to what actually creates health in that particular bio region. Then the kinds of communicative processes that we need to support that are just going to be of an entirely different order than either technological institutional design or tribal design. Tribal process is very, very good for certain kinds of things. Obviously it has endured humanity for a hundred thousand years at least. But when we’re looking at the relationship between evolutionary process, which tribal process is essentially a direct manifestation of versus technological process of which institutional design is a direct manifestation of. And we’re saying, “Well, actually we need to have wisdom and intelligence about the relationship between evolution and technology. Otherwise the predatory nature of people and the toxicity nature of technology just isn’t properly compensated for.”
Forrest: In effect, the goal posts associated with solving this kind of problem are of an entirely different order than anything that humanity has ever attempted previously. This is in some senses, the most difficult engineering or philosophical problem that has ever been posed to the species, point blank period.
Jim: Well, I think we’re going to have to wrap it up here. Two things I want to do. One, I want to book some time with you and just work this 150 problem. See if we can come up with something interesting, even if it isn’t going to last a hundred years or a thousand years, even it lasts 30 years, I’ll accept it at the current time in this experimental mode. And I’ll also wait until you have more to say about this 10,000 plus level. Because yes, that is the big question. And yes, we do have to solve that if we’re going to survive as a species and not be yet another victim of the great filter, if that’s what’s going on.
Jim: So thanks Forrest for another wonderful conversation. And I look forward to continuing our talks.
Forrest: Awesome. Thank you very much. And I appreciate the spaciousness and I’m looking forward to our next engagement.