Engineering and Evolving Ideaspace
Can we find some better memes already?
I’ve been thinking about how to have better ideas lately. On the one hand, this is a selfish pursuit so that I can think of interesting projects to work on, but at civilisational level our ideas are also, generally speaking, becoming harder to work with. Humans are exceptionally good at finding connections and relationships within the realm of what we understand, but we have very few tools to grapple with the unknown. In fact, we’re scared of it1. For example, over history we’ve become experts in constructing larger, more robust buildings but we seem to have worked with the same general idea of what a building is for thousands of years. What other kinds of physical structure have we failed to imagine so far?
Construction is one example of what I’m calling the engineered approach to exploring our ideas. We identify variables and relationships and then iteratively adjust, study, identify etc. until the diminishing returns kick in. The other common strategy is to take moonshots into the unknown (also known as startup) which, occasionally, pays off big time. But how does one think of a startup idea in the first place? Well, complex ideas propagate through citation, or rather, discussion. The process of ideas replicating, mutating and being selectively shared amongst the population is the evolutionary approach to discovering ideas. Both present very different models for exploring the ideaspace2.
In my view these can be very loosely characterised as:
engineered ideaspace selects for specifically useful ideas that often improve efficiency
evolving ideaspace selects for generally useful ideas that are applicable in multiple settings
These two modes are difficult to combine and I suspect this is one way of understanding the origins of The Innovator’s Dilemma. One possible unifying lens is to engineer the environment in which evolution occurs3. This is pretty much the definition of a Petri Dish experiment. So let’s ask a weird question: what is the Petri Dish of the ideaspace?
DAOs, Network States, and potential interplanetary colonies are all somewhat promising vessels for cultural evolution. They all at least provide a structure in which new ideas can be discovered, though whether those ideas will survive is another question.
Another possible source is social media. There are many reasons to dislike social media but it does seem to be generating fascinating new concepts: Enlightenment 2.0 asks whether the internet can provoke a new renaissance. Solarpunk beckons us to respect and nurture nature but Terrapunk pushes us further4: to ask how we can work with nature in a symbiotic relationship5.
DAOs, Network States, Enlightment 2.0, Solarpunk and Terrapunk are all hyper-modern ideas. They emerged out of the internet discourse over the last few years, coming more and more into focus until they proved themselves to be stable memes. If these concepts can arise out of a primordial soup of tweets organically, what can be done to catalyse this reaction?
Unsurprisingly, my first instinct for an approach to this involves computers. Specifically: building hardware and software tools to explore human knowledge, emotion and creativity; to uncover hidden connections and provoke serendipitous insight. So far that’s mostly been head scratching and hanging out in the Subconscious Discord Community, with a few experiments in the pipeline.
I am hopeful that technology can be used to turn the light of reason upon reason itself6. Looking backwards, all biological and human development seems to be in an upward spiral of "meta". At each stage existing patterns combine until new, higher-order phenomena appear which eventually combine into even higher-order patterns yet again7.
This same model applies collectively to life itself and individually to each human: Adult Development Theory provides a model for how we transcend past behaviour patterns through an increasingly meta perspective. So that’s it right, more meta is better? Well, before we go on I should say that accelerating these natural processes should be approached with caution. Technology is already letting us share more of our ideas, faster than ever... but the outcome, at best, varied8. Can we select for the memes that will actually help people?
We seem to be having "better" ideas over the course of history, but why? We owe much of our success to the OG selection pressure: survival. Many ideologies and belief systems have gone extinct along with the civilisations that practiced them. However with the introduction of modern capitalism the profit incentive has massively9 shaped the selection process for our memes. Insofar as GDP aligns with wellbeing, this has worked well, but the two are far from being in total agreement.
All of this is really just to ask: what does a better environment and selective pressure for evolving ideas look like?
Evolving Good Ideas
Importantly: evolution requires a medium of storage. For our genes this is DNA and, while we have plenty of mutations and transcription errors, this is a pretty stable physical record. Contrast this with memetic evolution where every time a meme is articulated and transmitted it subtly (or grossly) changes form. It's incredibly difficult to encode memes in a robust format, the most determined modern attempts seem to result in pithy philosophy texts. Unfortunately, most people have no patience for consuming the abstract concepts philosophy tends to produce. Is there another way?
Well, yeah, art. Stories, images, films, games, music etc. all point to some level of pre-conceptual understanding in our minds. Perhaps these media reach the Jungian unconscious where they resonate with our primordial archetypes. Perhaps they simply point to fragments of the shared human experience, showing us we're never alone in the most fundamental of ways. Artists compress these wisdoms into artwork in a similar sense to nature compressing structure and behaviour into genes. DNA itself is an interpreted language, it cannot be understood without the surrounding chemical context. Similarly, art encodes memes into forms that only make sense when considered by human minds (at least for now). Somehow, just like a robust gene, great art carries its message across generations, borders and even millennia.
A single photo ultimately spawned much of the modern environmental movement, forcing us to reconsider our place in the universe. Similarly, until the creation of a very nice yoghurt ad, the concept of Solarpunk was missing a suitable vehicle for mass-transmission. These artistic vehicles can catalyse massive leaps forward in our thinking and we need many such efforts to express inspiring visions for the future. Yet we seem increasingly uninterested in art that challenges our assumptions. I’ve talked at length about the consumerist engagement-farming apparatus so I’ll keep it brief: optimising for short-term popularity is the death of art. Most art made today is jammed into social media timelines for only a few moments, begging for a few precious likes, before disappearing forever.
Art (with a capital A) points to something beyond base emotional stimulation and novel experience. It reminds us of the imminence of death, the power of love, the arrogance of humankind. What will our museums hold in the future? 10k NFT projects (BAYC)? TikTok compilations? I guess they would be a good reminder of human fallibility.
I think the path forward here consists of equal parts thinking clearly and feeling deeply10. I hope to personally make concrete contributions to both these efforts but as we search for memes worth sharing there will be many traps on the way. Diversity of perspective has never been more important. We need people of all walks of life, not just scientists and engineers, working to imagine, share and build a future worth living in. My sense is that diversity of perspective leads to exponentially more connections between concepts11, and exponentially more robust memes in turn.
I can think of (at least) six obvious investigations along these lines:
Exploring boundary pushing philosophy to unite people around a common good
Improving communication systems to help people have better conversations
Researching tools for provoking serendipitous connections, leading to new insights
Researching tools for better examining the information we already have, from new perspectives
Constructing a record of progress that can last for centuries but is still open to change
Creating novel artworks using modern tools to communicate complex concepts and have them understood broadly
Sounds like a lot of work. If you’re interested in any of these areas, please do reach out, I’d love to chat!
Wisdom is rationally self-transcending rationality.
Until next time,
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🧠 Stuff I’ve been thinking about
Uncertainty (with a threat of danger) may in fact be the very definition of fear
In the business world this seems to be R&D departments, which have highly variable results
Of course, we are not actually seperate to nature, but it’s a useful way of thinking.
This is a nod to turning attention upon itself, or, “look for the one who’s looking” - which are both prompts for Buddhist glimpse practices
This really seems to wrap around everything. strings → quarks → atoms → molecules → ??? → life → networks → ??? → concepts → concepts (ad infinitum? or is there another layer?)
In case this is unclear, I am condemning KiwiFarms
But not totally