Destination Unknown: A Necessary Journey to a Stable World

The ship needs turning. As is the case for any entity, changing trajectory requires an external force, and with many icebergs ahead that impetus is long overdue. For the world has been shaken, stress-tested and the current configuration does not fit together; the pieces are jammed and the container is leaking. Another iceberg is scarcely an option. A detectable general sense of confusion that things no longer seem to add up or make sense, seems to be increasingly lingering, yet under a collective shroud of an individual rationalisation that the benefit of doubt is likely still a price worth paying. And so, the head stays straight but the gaze stares down. For all intents and purposes in terms of recent obstacles along the current trajectory, let’s rewind to 2019. Do you recall New Year’s Eve? In retrospect, it felt like a grand finale; an adios to an era.

Then jump forward two months. Speaking of trajectories, remember two weeks to flatten the curve? It turns out that seemingly relatively predictable era was perhaps unsustainable at best, and illusory at worst. Until that point, the road ahead reflected a mirage, which glazed over rough patches, and appeared relatively unscathed and discernible all the way to the horizon. But even the sense of how unmoored things have become in the ensuing years does not provide any useful prescription of how to navigate these times, nor to what destination our society and civilisation may arrive. Relying on prior assumptions or a business-as-usual modus operandi may invariably turn out to be a failed strategy. Therefore, for the purposes of sanity, attaining a higher resolution understanding of an increasingly unpredictable world, and the risk factors that underpin that instability, may be a wiser strategy. For if the human voyage is to continue and a path to long-term stability is to emerge, these risks will need to be accounted for and integrated with the necessary human behavioural changes to provide the energy impetus to alter course.


A Meta Crisis

To better grasp humanity’s current predicament, one could do worse than paying attention to those who have dedicated much time and cognitive resource to such a complex puzzle. One of the most prominent thinkers on civilisational risk and collective sense-making is Daniel Schmachtenberger. Much of his work has centred on looking at how our society can upgrade its systems and collective sense-making capabilities in the face of multiple potentially catastrophic risks, all of which have been building in prominence and in their destructive potential over recent decades. Many of these risks are well observed:

The effects of environmental degradation; the dependence of our systems on exponential financial growth within the bounds of a linear materials economy reliant on linear global supply chains; resource depletion pushing up against the embedded economic growth obligation leading to greater chance of nuclear conflict; increasing probability of malicious state and non-state actors acquiring the technology to develop nuclear weapons; sophisticated Artificial Intelligence integrated with defence systems; the technological democratisation of highly sophisticated yet potentially catastrophic biological tools; the capture of our institutions by industries with vast financial incentives; algorithm driven polarisation of the populous through social media, degrading harmony between the citizenry and leadership class, and inhibiting the ability to effectively govern; the technological dissemination of the information landscape loosening the state’s control of the narrative. And so on.

Each one of these human induced risks is a complex system with failure modes whose consequences would be far reaching and have potentially devastating ripple effects; and with the level of intricate interconnectivity, the ripples would be compounded. When one then factors in destructive human behaviours resulting from market incentivised institutional corruption and first mover advantage, such as the game theoretic incentive to prioritise and privatise short-term benefits whilst ignoring the risks and socialising long-term losses, together with the complacency of lacking the necessary wisdom to manage such complex systems, the likelihood of a catastrophic outcome becomes a far cry from improbable.

Collectively, these risks have been termed the ‘Meta Crisis’ as they share common fundamental generator functions, being the result of collective action problems and multi-polar traps. With the insight of a true polymath, Schmachtenberger argues that on its current trajectory humanity will increasingly find itself being pulled over the event horizon towards one of two attractors. One pathway, and with justified pessimism given the current direction, leads to the ‘catastrophic’ attractor in which the destructive potential of exponentially more powerful tech ensures that the probability of humanity escaping a devastating fate approaches zero. At the other end of the dial, is the dystopic ‘control mechanism’ attractor whereby, in order to avoid a catastrophic outcome, authorities will increasingly utilise sophisticated technological tools to impose ever more draconian control measures to guarantee population compliance. As luck would have it, events of recent times have provided a vivid glimpse of both.


Covid-19: A Game of Two Attractors

The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing global response offers a pertinent example of several catastrophic risks and how both attractors are not only tangibly plausible, but intricately linked. Many words could be dedicated to the Covid story and the institutional failures and corruption that led to what evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein has argued is the biggest blunder humanity has ever faced.

Let’s start with the lab. Despite the early coordinated corporate coverup, the sheer weight of evidence both biologically and circumstantially, overwhelmingly indicating that the Sars-Cov-2 virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the result of gain of function research, demonstrates that the capacity to expose humanity to risks it would not otherwise face, not only exists but does so in a system where a primary mitigation mechanism – namely a US-wide ban on conducting such research – was bypassed and Federal funding granted to move the risks overseas. Overseas to the West’s primary antagonist and to a facility where safety protocols were insufficient to prevent such a disaster from occurring.

Cue the dystopic global ‘Public Health’ response. This was led in the US by the same man responsible for the granting of such research funding. With politicians and health officials imposing some of the most morally defective and authoritarian policies ever seen in free societies, all under the guise yet at the expense of the well-being of its citizens, a preview of what a dystopic attractor may entail emerged in plain sight. The organs of censorship then fully sprang into action with the deliberate suppression of the Great Barrington Declaration, in which Dr Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford, Dr Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, and Dr Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, credibly argued for the targeted lockdown and protection of the most vulnerable, whilst keeping most of society open. Then there was the systematic censorship, suppression and medical governance banning demonstrably effective early treatments such as ivermectin, that began with Dr Pierre Kory’s testimony to Congress and his subsequent appearance on the Darkhorse podcast being removed from YouTube. Finally, and most egregiously of all, the immense political and societal coercion to take a novel therapeutic, which could not prevent viral transmission even in principle, and certainly could not be demonstrated to be ‘safe’ or effective in any meaningful sense, leaves one in a position to validly question whether simply assuming naivety and corrupt benevolence – but benevolence nonetheless – goes far enough in explaining this horrific self-inflicted wound. If we are to assume it does, then one is left to conclude that institutional capture, extending far beyond the regulatory agencies, by a pharmaceutical industry with a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders, has resulted in immense influence over those in positions of policy making. By operating within a market driven environment that has succeeded in selecting individuals who harbour the characteristics and ability to kowtow to such influence, either unknowingly, or through immense moral corruption and cowardice, and we have the set up for an unprecedented global disaster.


Where Lies a Third Attractor?

Conceptualising a solution space to account for the fundamental generator functions lies one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Discovering a third attractor, one which is neither catastrophic or dystopic, and which establishes an evolutionarily stable pathway forward through our hyper-novel world, is perhaps our only option if the path is to continue. This quest acts as a primary focus of Schmachtenberger’s work, and a couple of key dialogues of this exploration are linked below. Critical features of such a path, he argues, include the ability to replicate the types of collective transparency, incentive mechanisms and coordination structures that existed for much of human evolutionary history when our social networks generally remained within the Dunbar number, at the scale civilisation now operates at. This is a task of immense magnitude.

Ensuring such a path is ‘imploitative’ by closing the loop on negative externalities, has disincentive mechanisms built in to mitigate against market incentivised recklessness, and possesses the foresight to suitably regulate ahead of an event which exposes the need for such regulation, is going to require a vast amount of coordinated cognitive effort. Humanity has, afterall, developed the power of Gods without the necessary wisdom, and so there needs to be a commitment to creating a collective mind capable of harbouring the responsibility of managing the technology that is comparable to the kind of collective mind that created it.


The Transparency Hypothesis

The concept of appropriate and suitable transparency will increasingly act as a major focal point in humanity’s future, as it is a key feature in how states operate. As technological power advances non-linearly, it creates a multi-polar trap whereby the ongoing arms race that exists as states strive to always remain one step ahead becomes exponentially more dangerous. Such a collective action problem then encodes a pattern of human behaviour that is at odds with our long-term interest, especially if such arms races continue to produce such tools as increasingly sophisticated AI-powered autonomous weapons. By continuing to strive for victory whilst pushing up against the limits of planetary boundaries, the future will cease to be.

One potential means of integrating these psychosocial externalities is through realising the embedded value of ensuring that transparency and the capacity for enforcement act as key features of international agreements. Without such a steadfast commitment from all players, the arms races will continue in stealth. Therefore, there needs to be adequate disincentive and enforcement mechanisms to ensure the tendency to opt towards opaqueness is overcome.

But what if the benefits of greater transparency extend beyond decelerating technological arms races? What if the incentive to uphold it may prove to be game theoretically advantageous and in a state’s best interests? There may well be another route. By increasing a state’s operating transparency, the citizenry would likely develop greater trust in the governing apparatus, strengthening trust in the democratic process and resulting in greater enthusiasm for civic participation. Over time, this would lead to a more engaged and educated populace, advancing the collective values underpinning the culture, which would eventually get encoded into law through voting for representatives who advocate for a more developed ethical framework. Such laws would then act to better regulate markets and mitigate against the proclivity for detrimental human behaviours. It would be a positive feedback loop in the most valuable sense.

Furthermore, greater transparency would also improve the efficiency and integrity of the mechanics of state operations by eliminating the need for elaborate compartmentalisation and the barriers required to maintain opaqueness. If these effects then manifest in enhanced military capability and strategic advantage, then the opportunity cost of continuing to reside in obscurity may well render it game theoretically disadvantageous to continue doing so, and a transparency race to the top would emerge at the international level. The ability to enact and transition to such a system, with all the antagonistic vested interests, makes this fiendishly difficult and likely scarcely more than a hypothetical thought experiment. There may just be few alternatives.


Collective Sense-making: Necessary but Not Sufficient

So from where is the external impetus to turn the ship to emerge? What is one able to do? The need to recover and cultivate an environment and capacity for harmonious and honest discourse is a critical safeguard against our current chaotic landscape and should surely act as a key foundation for any stable future state. The degradation of institutional trust and fragmentation of what seemed only a few years ago to be a society that had a level of cohesion at least sufficient for the acknowledgement of facts that, in the words of Douglas Murray, “everyone knew until yesterday”, is tangible and poses a threat to this endeavour.

One of the most prominent examples is the society-wide confusion over sex and gender. Despite great efforts from some corners to instill such confusion, especially in children, hard-wired biological differences between men and women prevent one from being able to jump the binary sex divide. With the backing of hundreds of millions of years of reproductive history, no amount of social contagion, exploitation of a fashionable whim, pronouns, or medical intervention can change that, even despite a genuine but extremely rare dysphoric condition for which there should naturally be utmost empathy and reasonable accommodation where appropriate. This holds true even whilst the characteristic gender expression of biological sex varies substantially amongst individuals.

Regaining a form of coherent sense-making where truth is pursued via the free expression of ideas, together with the acknowledgment of the human limitation of holding imperfect information, would facilitate an environment for conversations to take place and relationships to be formed, that cross perspectives without creating further fissures in the fabric of society. Doing so in the current landscape is one of the major challenges of our times.

To quote Solzhenitsyn:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Similar lines separating conservatism and liberalism, dividing left and right also dissect us all. Ideological presuppositions aside, look hard enough and it will be found. If it isn’t, then congratulations, a blind spot has been discovered and the next step is to work to shed some light and bring it into vision. With this insight may emerge a stronger foundation for how we can enhance our ability to communicate with greater empathy and curiosity, with the core tenets of what it means to be human remaining intact.  


Jumping Mediums

Whilst there are some extremely astute and capable minds trying to explore a viable path forward, as a starting point, it is imperative to recapture and upgrade our individual and collective level of critical thought. One way to facilitate this is by making the jump to the alternative media space and taking responsibility for where and how the precious currency of our attention is spent. It has become increasingly evident that the legacy mainstream sources of information have become irredeemably compromised in their stated mission of reporting what is true. The increasingly puerile and ideological infantilisation of an ever-shrinking audience has resulted in many millions turning elsewhere for nourishing and informative content. Alternative media, however imperfect and varied, now offers anybody with an internet connection the opportunity to tap into the minds of some of the most interesting, informed and nuanced thinkers engaging in multi-hour dialogues, often crossing political lines and covering topics legacy sources either opt to avoid, intentionally distort or scarcely touch.

As Russell Brand proclaims, ‘the algorithms are not your friend.’ But with this awareness, they need not be your foe. By selecting for what best captures attention, playing on human emotion and limbic system hijack, and therefore for what goes viral, social media has increasingly exacerbated an issue which a two-party political game tilts to naturally, which is the entrenched polarisation of the populous through ideological echo chambers. As the rivalry for viewership becomes ever more prominent and audience capture takes hold, this contributes to the breakdown in societal harmony and toxifies political discourse. This is the antithesis of a recipe for creating a scientifically minded, sophisticated society. Yet this awareness also brings the ability to question one’s own assumptions and to discern which information sources have a record of reliable predictive power whilst possessing the humility to admit to and correct errors. Afterall, there are many signals within the noise and the ability to detect them is our collective responsibility.


A Bazaar Analogy

If the Covid pandemic revealed anything, it is that rigid top-down authoritarian policy making by centralised institutions who have mechanisms in place to safeguard against accountability, failed us on a scale that is not yet fully comprehensible. It also exposed the clandestine nature of how such power operates. Whilst there are clearly issues for which some degree of coordinated international action is necessary, the current structure of global policy formation is so short sighted that the proposed and enacted solutions are creating novel ones with consequences that end up being more destructive than the original problem they were purported to solve. As the size of the state increases, a radical A-symmetry of power to the individual emerges, and this has threatened the open and free societies that are needed to stay creative and to solve collective problems.

One concept discussed in a conversation between Schmachtenberger and Alexander Bard as to how transparent and accountable decision-making could be conducted in a manner that ensures any collective action will not lead to unforeseen consequences at a local level, is the analogy of a global network of localised Bazaars. Such a framework would, by nature, operate under a bottom-up structure for policy formation with each locale’s long-term interest remaining front and centre. Baird argues that the difficulty with factoring in the long-term interest under the current globalised structure is that it requires an Imaginary Realm, or the mythos – one which in a seemingly post-religious age, no longer really exists. Therefore, perhaps constructing a mythos fit for our hyper novel times may be the greatest and most important challenge ahead. It may well be that humanity’s unique capacity to imagine, the same innate gift that created our world today with all its wonders and flaws, needs to be called upon again to re-adjust the ship’s trajectory. Generations to come are depending upon it.


Post Script: Imagine

At some point in time, there exists a small house tucked away half-way down a quiet lane that dissects a few acres of protected woodland. At one end, the road scarcely wide enough to fit two cars, veers right and turns into a golf course car park. At the other end, the main road beckons at which point the brief microcosm of tranquillity meets the frequent sound of cars and the occasional bus. Within and amongst those trees, the suburban sounds are drowned out and the only noise remotely audible is a delicate admixture of the light summer wind through the leaves, the faint hum of distant traffic as well as the infrequent plane coming in from the West.

From the far end, emerging from the lane which continues down for a few hundred metres towards a small creek, a boy, no older than 5, comes running up on his way back to the house. To him, the world seemed straight forward enough. The sense that the horrors of the twentieth century decades previously, had been integrated with the necessary lessons appeared evident, at least to a naïve boy. Any genuine suffering in the world seemed a literal world away from London. People generally got on. That kid existed in the past and yet is crying out to be running along that lane decades into the future. The river will still flow and the trees will still stand. A new house will sit upon its predecessor’s foundations. Perhaps cars and aircraft have been resigned to a bygone era. But the trees will still remain standing. For like the generations of boys and girls who have run along that same narrow road, their roots and foundations simply run too deep…


Reference Material

In Search of the Third Attractor –

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