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Art Life and Death Modern World Science Uncategorized

On Coronavirus, Complex Adaptive Systems, & Creative Opportunity

The best possible outcome I can imagine from this is to witness all of the creative and intelligent people who have been shackled to pointless, stupid, undignified work for our entire lives rise up and create something new and beautiful together. Emergencies often elicit the best of our humanity, a concern for the true priorities of our existence. These are moments when we are called to act on what really matters, and to contribute to our communities and to the legacy that we pass on, at a time when good ideas are unusually quick to spread.

This is a lightly edited transcript of Future Fossils Podcast Episode 139:

Greetings, Future Fossils! That word has taken on a strange new pallor over the last few weeks as the world has descended into crisis and in some cases panic around the coronavirus pandemic. Offices at my day job are closed for weeks. My brother is out of school for presumably the rest of the semester. I’m sure all of you are experiencing the knock-on effects of this as people take, in some cases, much overdue precautions and implement social distancing measures.

I had a scheduled episode for this week, my conversation with novelist Alex Shakar about his work and the themes in his work about cultural appropriation and consumerism, neurotheology, and a bunch of other really amazing stuff. But it seemed kind of tone-deaf to put that out this week, instead of taking a moment to process some of my own thoughts on what we’re living through together right now. At the recommendation of a friend of mine, painter and collaborator, Jamie Gaviola, I’m going to make this a solo cast in which I share some resources with you and how I’m making sense of this in my own life.

We had to cancel my daughter’s first birthday party coming up next week, because we had family flying in from all over the country. And I’m actually supposed to be at South by Southwest right now, presenting on behalf of the Santa Fe Institute, which I was really looking forward to…and meeting with members of the Long Now Foundation, which is a massive inspiration to this podcast, really interesting people.

But I guess that’s the thing: now is a chance to talk about that longer-term, that long time horizon, and to look at what maybe what this moment that we’re living through now, collectively, is gonna mean for us on that longer scale. What it means looking further back, so this is really an opportunity to unpack what this show is about in light of current events…which is something I’ve been, admittedly kind of bad about for 138 episodes so far, and maybe we’re going to change that.

There are a few themes that I’ve been touching on in pretty much every episode of this show that seem really important right now, and I would like to highlight them. The first is living with uncertainty. I probably don’t have to preach this to any regular listeners of the show, but we live in a world that is vastly beyond our abilities to understand. The modern lens through which we see the world is that it can be rationally understood it can be broken down into its parts, that we will eventually arrive at some grand unified understanding by the more we learn about the evolutionary conditions of our own perception and cognition. The more we learn about the thermodynamic and metabolic demands of thought and of perception, the tradeoffs that our brains are making all the time about where we direct our attention, because how we encode our experiences in a way to reduce the amount of computationally-intensive novelty processing required of us. There are some things that we are culturally conditioned not to notice; there are some things that our nervous systems have just habituated themselves into not noticing; and there are some things that we are incapable of noticing.

(This is one of the things that I talked about with David Weinberger in Episode 123, about big data and the way that our narratives are only good enough and that this notion of black box AI. Opaque data-processing being a big issue is really nothing different from what is already true of us at the level of our own neuroanatomy.)

So level one of this is that we don’t actually even perceive how complex this world is. And so, in this, I’m going to reference a lot of conversations that I had for the other podcast that I host complexity for the Santa Fe Institute, because this comes up time and time again on that show also. I was talking with W. Brian Arthur on that show, about the difference between old school modern economics and the new complexity economics, and one of the major differences is understanding that is fundamental uncertainty in our economic models, because every actor in the system is adapting their strategies to the constantly changing strategies of the other actors. So all of us are acting on information that’s about the past. All of us are responding to the past. By the time you swing at the ball, it’s in a different place than it was a second ago. But that’s a relatively simple mechanical system…it’s easy, although it requires training, to plot the arc of an incoming baseball, but if the baseball is adjusting its strategy in midair, then we really just have to live with the reality of the fact that we have to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty.I recently saw a quote from Dr. Mike Ryan at the World Health Organization, who said, “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.”

So world health experts are advising people to move quickly and decisively in their response. But, you know, one of the problems with fear is paralyzation. And one thing I’ve tried to do with this show, in general, is to stress that there is never a perfect answer. I think when most people talk about acting on intuition, what they really mean is not having the time to properly verify all of the things that one knows. Our bodies are noticing and process things a lot more rapidly than we can consciously attend to and analyze them.

I really do believe there is a sense in which intuition as a more comprehensive and embodied intelligence is a valid and important thing. At the same time, I want to stress that it is often difficult to tell the difference between a valid intuition and the voice of some anxiety or inferior impulse. And, at least in my own case, it took years to systematically A-B test these things and learn the difference between some junior brain motif that just wants a candy bar and a deeper guidance that understands that if I take one action over another — though I may not understand the benefit immediately — there will be a benefit in the bigger picture. So that’s a good point to bring up.

The second major issue that I see here, and another thing we’ve talked about a lot on the show, is the issue of authority in the Information Age. After the initial invention and spread of the printing press in Europe, the advent of the Thirty Years’ War, the authority of the church as a central institution crumbled, and suddenly, there was an epistemological and ontological contest for control over the reality narrative. (Jamie Stantonian wrote a beautiful essay about this, “Apocalyptic Cults and the Early-Modern Information Explosion.”) It’s very obvious that that kind of thing is going on now.

On the one hand, I think it’s good for some of these entrenched central systems to loosen their grip on us as a species. But it is a time of extraordinary trial, because what comes next, the better and more adaptive systems are not really in place yet. And that means dealing with a lot of turbulence and chaos. In mundane, everyday practical terms, what that means is that we’re in some sense lucky that we are not subject to the one correct story about what is happening on this planet right now. But it also means that we are vulnerable to a lot of misinformation if you think about this in terms of like geopolitical dynamics, and the way that removing a demagogue from power creates a vacuum into which tribal and gang warfare can run. There are certainly historical cases where a tyrannical leader was, in certain ways, a better option, a more secure and stable life condition for their subjects than the Game of Thrones insanity that takes place in their absence. I think we can look at it very similarly in terms of the loss of modern progress in narratives, and the crumbling legitimacy of mainstream media, and how this is a time when more of us are more empowered to do our own research, and to arrive at a truth that would not merely be given to us by vested interests, attempting to control the narrative, but at the same time, we have to be more vigilant than ever that we’re not just succumbing to our political motivations to believe a particular narrative, that we’re not succumbing to our cognitive biases, especially confirmation bias.

There’s a kind of beautiful poetry in the way that the central dogmas of the modern world collapse in order to create the context, in order to provide the opportunity for us to actually rise up to the occasion, as critical thinkers…as the kind of rigorous minds that were enshrined by the philosophy of modernity. I just saw a really powerful piece about this actually, by Long Now Foundation fellow Samo Burja, who was talking about how our failure to respond collectively to the threat of the coronavirus is, in part, because the lack of trust that we have in our authorities. So there’s this other piece of it, which is that the health and well being of billions of people worldwide are now at stake because of the complexity of the matter at hand. Much like climate change, it’s a hyperobject, and it’s impossible for us to see. It’s not a tangible thing for the vast majority of us, especially when it hasn’t really landed in our own communities.

And then also this legitimacy crisis, in which fewer people — with good reason — have been willing to put their faith in the authority and the testimony of political officials of scientific experts. Burja puts it really well in his article. He says, “In the middle of the 20th century, a cadre of credentialed experts was created to replace citizens. This was a mistake. The selection mechanism for entry into this cadre selects against bravery and original thinking experts must be consulted. But what use is an expert unwilling to consult on a grand vision? The American system of the 2020s, through the city, county, state and up to federal level, has been staffed with people who know how to speak and make themselves appear blameless, but not how to act.” He goes on to say, “It is no victory for free society that a small segment of the online commentariat are right when all major institutions are wrong. Their prolific tweets are evidence that society has failed to harness their capacities, leaving them misapplied and our elites adrift. Don’t worry about credentials or prestige. Don’t worry about party affiliation. Find the brave and the smart and hand them the keys to the ignition as fast as you can. Your boss can fire them later if need be. And yes, he will fire you too. Who can afford to care about job security in a plague?”

This is what we’re beginning to see, I think: the adaptive response of human civilization as a whole to handling uncertainty, if you want to think about what I was just saying a moment ago. The brains, if you will, of these larger institutions in which we have vested decision making authority are clearly incapable of responding due to internal information bottlenecks, latencies in information processing that are like the latencies of our own brains, political motivations that are like the biases of our own brains but at a much larger scale. They aren’t capable of pivoting to address this kind of a crisis in the timeframe required. I’ve said a lot about on this show about how it seems, echoing an Alan Moore talk about civilization going through a phase change, that we’re moving from solid institutions to liquid — moving into positions where people can be delegated provisional authorities based on the immediate needs of the moment, but are then not locked into place in four-year election cycles, or responding to the Board of Directors rather than to the needs of the entire company’s consumer base or political constituency, or the scientific data that we’re getting about ecological feedback loops.

There’s a kind of a silver lining here, which is that it’s getting quicker and quicker, in some respects, to determine when a particular approach is not going to work. And there’s an interesting fold to this, maybe the third component major component here, which is about our ability to respond based on our available attention. I must bring up Douglas Rushkoff book Present Shock almost every episode. I had him on Future Fossils Episode 67 to talk about some of this, to loop back on that first point about fundamental insecurity and network latency and our ability to respond to the world as it is rather than the world as it was last week.

We all suffer from the conditions of what he called “present shock”: that you’re always getting more email than you can read, more recommendations for music than you can listen to. You have experts giving you contradictory advice, and it becomes difficult to know whom to trust. I talked about this with Hunter Maats way back in Future Fossils Episode 39. And it’s another recurring theme, this question of how we organize knowledge resources under these conditions. There’s something interesting happening here that I didn’t quite foresee, which is that these challenges to our ability to attend to the world and respond to it appropriately have led to a collapse of networks is a very similar dynamic to the way an empire life cycle goes, to how the regulatory networks of something like Rome or the United States stretch themselves to the point where the scale of the civilization in question no longer allows for effective distribution of information and resources. And things start to fall apart. There is a video I’m always sharing about this, with SFI External Professor Raissa D’Souza on “The Collapse of Networks,” about cascading collapses and why they happen due to in part the way that “canalization,” or how, as networks optimize for efficiency with scale, they get to a point where the efficiency actively inhibits innovation and the ability of those networks to adapt to perturbation.

These things lead to sort-of domino effects where the network comes unwoven. And in fact, the whole crisis following the invention of the printing press is a great example of this, where it’s sort of like the giant tree that falls in the woods, and suddenly all of the little saplings that had been unable to access the sunlight due to an impenetrable canopy of mature trees are in a race to make use of those resources. What rushes in to fill the gap created by these lacunae, these opportunities, it’s kind of appropriate that this particular disease at least officially originated in China, where famously, the words for “crisis” and “opportunity” are the same. In Future Fossils Episode 23, I talked about the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” versus the Irish toast, “May you live at the end of the world,” and how I know that means that I’m more Irish than Chinese. Because it’s not the world. It’s a world.

The question of which world is ending is really key here. If it isn’t obvious to everyone listening from the political will expressed in the United States and in other countries over the last five to ten years, many people are desperate for a change, realize that things can’t continue as they are. The retro-romantic urge to respond to the complexity of our era, with fundamentalism and nationalism, and other regressive ideologies, is in some sense a natural response to the reality of the situation — which is that global civilization is optimized for the wrong things, that a lot of the systems that we live within today were conceived, designed, and implemented by a technocratic managerial elite in the middle of the 20th Century. And again, this implementation of a planet-scale society simply doesn’t work for what it needs to do: for example, international collaboration in the containment and response to a pandemic.

So this brings us to the fourth node in this network of ideas I wanted to present to you today. And really the primary thing I wanted to say, which is about a conversation I had with evolutionary biologist Nicole Creanza of Vanderbilt University for Complexity Podcast last week. This episode dropped on the day that SFI announced that we were closing our offices for the next few weeks. And the timing was surprisingly perfect, because a big part of the conversation was about the changes in cultural evolution that occur when two populations are separated, or whether they’re in infrequent communication, or whether they’re in frequent communication — and how all of that depends on levels of the environmental complexity and so on.

One of the key insights that came out of that conversation is linked to this related insight from population biology that I’ve been meditating on for years, which is about how when everyone in a given population — she gave an example of anthropologists who studied hunter-gatherer communities, by tracking them with GPS, and how when everyone in the community is talking to everyone else, actually innovations don’t spread very well. The entire community will come to one answer for a problem that is not necessarily the best answer. But if people are only talking to their families, to small local contact networks, then everyone comes up with different solutions, and the information spreads through the network more effectively.

This is related to the conversation I had in Future Fossils Episode 109 with Bruce Damer about the origins of life, and why it seems more likely that life started in a small pond rather than in the ocean, which is this solvent that makes it very difficult for chemicals to cluster and combine in unique ways. Something very similar happens with the spread of, for example, popular music. A few years ago Spotify bought this big data company called Echo Nest that looked at where real innovative pop acts were coming from. They did a worldwide study where they found that Iceland and the UK, Australia and New Zealand were hotspots. That makes intuitive sense, because as a musician who has lived on the continental United States for my entire life, it is just so big and so diffuse and it’s very difficult unless you willingly anchor yourself down and create depth in your local community and saturate your local network. The pop stars that I see getting big in the United States are people that really emphasized local over national strategies for their careers and really made a name for themselves in Santa Fe or Austin or New York or wherever. At that point, you’re able to branch out — and this is confirmed by military studies on the spread of viral media and how it makes sense to first saturate a local network and then it diffuses from a point of concentration.

So the point is, there’s a silver lining here to a forced timeout for the global economy, and it’s happening at multiple scales simultaneously. One of those benefits is that obviously we have climbed the wrong hill, and unless we’re knocked off of that hill, the uphill-only engine of our evolutionary algorithm, the efficiency-tuned economy cannot actually decide to take some time out and reevaluate whether there’s a better global strategy. We’re required to do so by enforced event cancellations and social distancing. And much as in an individual human life, a pattern of unhealthy habits and behaviors is revealed and called to attention. We’re forced to reckon with our unsustainable activities through a surprise illness, called to sit and think about how we might be able to take better care of ourselves. Something similar seems to be going on now, at the planetary scale.

I asked Nicole Creanza in that episode of Complexity Podcast whether she agreed, and she did, that the surprise benefit of this kind of slowdown or lockdown is that a lot of people are going to be forced to come up with local solutions for systems that were truly unsustainably reliant on these very large and brittle networks that were tuned to run as fast and as cheaply as possible, but lack any kind of flexibility or adaptability. And there were no buffers built into these just-in-time supply chains, and all kinds of related systems. When we grow back together, whether that’s weeks or months from now, all of these different systems are going to repair at different speeds. But what we’re going to see is that in this downtime, people had an opportunity to step back and look at things from a different angle, reflect on these things, come up with their own ways of doing them. And then those things are going to be brought together into a new synthesis. And the world after this pandemic is going to look very different, and in many cases, in better ways than it did before.

It’s important that this crisis has made it clear where we have invested faith in leaders that care more about economic growth than they do about community well-being. That faith has been misplaced. I think that this crisis is making it clear where we have other vulnerabilities due to the previously invisible networks we took for granted and that maybe we don’t want to continue taking for granted.

I appreciate the poetry of sunlight as a disinfectant, and of this term I’ve mentioned on the show before, a term I learned from Katherine Harrison, “daylighting.” When we built modern cities, we paved over all of these natural waterways, we turned them into sewers, and the photosynthetic processes upon which the carbon and oxygen and other chemical cycles of those areas were based were interrupted by forcing these rivers underground. The modern world in its now obviously reckless drive for convenience has hidden a lot of extremely important things from view. Daylighting, this process by which civil engineers restore these natural waterways to the sunlight and restore these vital ecological cycles…that can happen intentionally. But it can also happen through earthquakes, or other surprise and unintentional disruptions. I mean, I’ve never heard of a giant mature tree that’s blocking all sunlight from its descendants on the forest floor decide to take one for the team and just fall over on its own. But forest fires and beetle infestations make those kinds of decisions for the trees all the time.

At risk of sounding a little more provocative than I would like, I do think that there’s going to be an interesting resolution in the intergenerational conversation that was occupying us for a good bit of last year: this brawl between boomers and millennials about the unfair concentration of financial resources and political power in the hands of the older generations, and about the unsustainability of gerontocracy. But I’ll just leave that there.

I think the real point to stress here is, as was noted in a recent Washington Post article by Gillian Brockwell, is that we wouldn’t have a modern theory of gravity or of optics had not the great plague of London hit while Isaac Newton was a college student. In 1665 when he was sent home by Cambridge to continue his studies and spent what he called a year of wonders the, the “annus mirabilis,” at home, just tinkering with experiments, boring holes in his window shutters so that a small beam could come through that he could diffract into a prism, observing apples falling out of the trees in his family orchard. That led to modern physics as we understand it. I remember Charles Eisenstein saying a very similar thing about the 2008 financial crisis in his book The Ascent of Humanity. This loops back to the point about present shock and us not having the time to devote our attention to an adequate response to the world as it is. Eisenstein said, you know, a lot of people are getting laid off — a lot of people who have never had an opportunity to be bored, to wonder about who they are, what their purpose is, what they enjoy doing with their lives. These people are in a very admittedly difficult, painful way, being given this profound opportunity that the conditions of their economic lives have never given them, which is the leisure of free time. Eisenstein speculated that one of the benefits of economic disruption might be that it gives us this time for reflection, to take stock of what really matters, to experiment with new ways of being living with ourselves in the world with others.

This also doubles back to the conversation I had with Nicole Creanza, because some of her work asks the question, “Is necessity the mother of invention, or is opportunity the mother of invention?” We know that many if not most scientific advancements over the years were made by people because they had the free time to do so, because they were privileged and lived in luxury, and were afforded the opportunity to allocate their mental resources to problems that had no immediate benefit in their solution…that blue-sky thinking is really crucial to progress (in any way we can sort of salvage the idea of progress in this time). Without boredom, there’s no ingress for the imagination.

I mean, it’s obviously more multi-dimensional than just necessity versus opportunity, because necessity might constrain things along one axis or at one scale while opportunity creates a channel through which imagination can flow at a different scale or along a different axis. But the point is, a lot of us have known for some time that things need to change, but haven’t been able to do so, have been forced by the conditions of our lives to lock into this very rapid and kind of insane reactive cycle. And here, paradoxically, amidst this planet-scale crisis, we are given a chance to break out of this giant conversation, go off, huddle, contemplate, step out of the head-locked cubicle insanity and out on a walk in the sun, move our bodies, allow that movement to drive new ideas, new perspectives. I saw Travel and Leisure had a list of twelve museums that you can visit through virtual reality and explore entirely from home, which is amazing. If ever there were an opportunity for people to learn, to make the most of this interregnum, now is the time to really begin work on something that can contribute in a powerful, meaningful way to the public good. And to whatever comes next.

The real jerks in the situation have made themselves obvious: these are the people that want the machine to keep grinding us all into powder, that don’t want businesses closed, don’t want the economy to take a breather here and reconsider the bender that it’s been on for decades.

I guess really, ultimately, I just wanted to tell everybody that I think that the best science available supports a way of making sense of this kind of a crisis that is ultimately empowering, and that helps us see past this narrow emphasis on an emergency mindset — which admittedly is crucial, we should not attempt to bypass the severity and the intensity of this situation, but at the same time see it in a larger context, see it as a potential restoration of healthier dynamics at the level of the individual, the family, the community, the society, the planet, see crisis as an opportunity, a moment, a window, an invitation to innovate.

The best possible outcome I can imagine from this is to witness all of the creative and intelligent people who have been shackled to pointless, stupid, undignified work for our entire lives rise up and create something new and beautiful together. Emergencies often elicit the best of our humanity, a concern for the true priorities of our existence. These are moments when we are called to act on what really matters, and to contribute to our communities and to the legacy that we pass on, at a time when good ideas are unusually quick to spread.

So that’s my rant. With any luck, campus closure at SFI means I’ll have more time to get into the production and publication of this podcast. I have some really interesting and timely conversations coming up recorded this week for both Future Fossils and Complexity with epidemiologists and various deep thinkers and practitioners helping people make sense of these times. I’ll keep you posted about all of that.

If you want to contribute to collective sensemaking about this, we’ll be discussing everything that I talked about and probably a whole lot more in the Future Fossils Facebook Group, or on Twitter at @michaelgarfield. You can also reach me by email.

It’s a funny time to ask for support for the show, but if you feel like this is helping in any way, I hope you’ll consider becoming a Patreon supporter. It would be a dream come true, basically the work of over 15 years of my adult life, to be able to support myself on my contributions to the commons—like this show, like the vast amount of volunteer work I put into social media moderation, and so on. So if you have the means, then please head on over to patreon.com/michaelgarfield and sign up. You’ll get all sorts of exclusive early access to a vast array of different projects.

But of course, you know, no expectations there. And really, you know, anyone sharing the show in social media, or reviewing it in Apple Podcasts is also pretty helpful. And I thank you, everyone who’s been doing that.

Thanks again and stay safe out there.

For all of the resources mentioned here—and many more—check the Future Fossils Podcast show notes.

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