xTopia

The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden) by Hieronymus Bosch. (Wikimedia) (Note: You can click the image, then click again on the image in the new window for a VERY magnified view)

“Welcome to your introductory tour of xTopia University.”

The emphasis of xTopia U is on the YOU— the student, faculty member, staff person, or other valued member of the xTopia University community!

My name is Podkayne and I was born here on campus, in the xTopia U-Natorium! And I’ve lived here all my life–15 years (that’s a bit over eight Martian years)!

Visitor #6: Podkayne, if you were born and raised here, and you’ve been in this place all your life, don’t you ever want to get away from it?

Podkayne: Oh, I like to explore other places, but I always want to come home to University. I feel more alive here than anywhere I’ve ever been. We are told that our project was named University because our purpose is to facilitate a universe of possibilities. xTopia University started as one of those possibilities, a project conceived and carried out by, for, and of a conscious community of artists, engineers, scientists and philosophers. I grew up in this community, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

We learn in the histories, and know that in many places still today, education has been separated from general life, often made compulsory and relegated to specific times, places and procedures. Corporations took on the tasks of research and product development for a profit, while politicians were responsible to craft projects of benefit to the community. At University projects are constantly being started, executed, sent out to find those who can now benefit from what has been accomplished. Someone or ones snag onto an idea and start to figure out the steps from here to there. A call is given out to anyone who is interested or has relevant skills to join in. We learn what we need to know each step of the way and bring in others as the project progresses. We have the background structure of xTopia University to draw upon, where learning of all kinds is constantly in session.

From the time I was very young, from my first moments of remembered consciousness, I knew any of my questions would find serious response at University. There are the libraries, record chips of any subject imaginable, everything explained from the simplest child’s vantage point up through the most learned of scholars in the field, fully illustrated in animation and live action, as appropriate. More importantly, there are the people, the scholars, engineers, scientists, artists, each with their passions that they are so very happy to share.

University is the busiest, bubbliest, energized and enthusiastic environment to grow in. No one says: “it can’t be done.” It’s always: “well, what’s the next step we need to get there?”

Well, are you guys ready to get started?

[Nods, grins, eager murmurs, and a few blank stares]

OK. But before we actually start the tour, I want to give you some background on the beautiful and somewhat exotic  name of our alma mater. (BTW that’s Latin for our bountiful mother.)

If you don’t have your Google-eyes on, please put them on now so you’ll get the video and hyperlinks and stuff as I talk.

Ready? OK. The name of xTopia U is derived (obviously) from the word Utopia.

Sir Thomas More coined the word from the Greek οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”), or “no place” for the title of his 1516 book.

The English homophone eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (“good” or “well”)  and τόπος (“place”), means “good place”. The identical English pronunciation of “utopia” and “eutopia”, gives rise to a double meaning– a good place that is no place.

Thus a Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect social, political, economic and legal system . . . that doesn’t exist.

Utopian societies don’t exist on terra firma, either because they are places described only in works of philosophy, fantasy, or satire; or because the Utopian communities which have actually been founded from time to time here on planet earth have utterly failed to thrive or to persist.

“Chronologically, the first recorded utopian proposal is Plato‘s Republic. Part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, it proposes a categorization of citizens into a rigid class structure of “golden,” “silver,” “bronze” and “iron” socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year long educational program to be benign oligarchs, the “philosopher-kings.” The wisdom of these rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, though the details on how to do this are unclear.”(Wikipedia/Utopia)

Utopias in Economyland

Among the many varied species of Homo Utopianus, some have invented perfect economic systems that never existed, or which existed in humanity’s distant, romanticized past.

“[C]apitalist utopias do not address the issue of market failure, any more than socialist utopias address the issue of planning failure. Thus a blend of socialism and capitalism is seen by some as the type of economy in a utopia. . . .  According to the Dutch philosopher Marius de Geus, ecological utopias could be sources of inspiration for green political movements.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)

Holy Utopia!

Yet other Utopian visions have been based on religion, science, or a combination of both.

“Inter-religious utopia is a condition where the leaders of different religions accept science as a part of human life and agree to abolish all baseless superstitious beliefs. In more extended theories it goes up to the level of different religious leaders setting-aside their differences and accepting harmony, peace and understanding to unite all religions within one another. . . .

“Intra-Religious utopias are based on religious ideals, and are to date those most commonly found in human society. Their members are usually required to follow and believe in the particular religious tradition that established the utopia. Some permit non-believers or non-adherents to take up residence within them; others (such as the Community at Qumran) do not. . . . In the United States and Europe during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century and thereafter, many radical religious groups formed utopian societies in which all aspects of people’s lives could be governed by their faith. Among the best-known of these utopian societies were the Shakers . . . . (Wikipedia/Utopia)

(Credit: Wikipedia)

Scientific Utopias are set in a future day when science and technology have created all manner of wonders and cured all human maladies.

“Buckminster Fuller presented a theoretical basis for technological utopianism and set out to develop a variety of technologies ranging from maps to designs for cars and houses which might lead to the development of such a utopia.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)

Extropianism, also referred to as the philosophy of Extropy, is an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition.

“Extropianism describes a pragmatic consilience of transhumanist thought guided by a proactive approach to human evolution and progress.

“Originated by a set of principles developed by Dr. Max More, The Principles of Extropy,[1] extropian thinking places strong emphasis on rational thinking and practical optimism.

In 1988, Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought was first published. This brought together thinkers with interests in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, life extension, mind uploading, idea futures, robotics, space exploration, memetics, and the politics and economics of transhumanism.” (Wikipedia/Extropianism)

Where does xTopia University fit in all this?

We have taken this historical sidetrack so I can put xTopia U in context and explain what it is and is not. It is not a Utopia. It is not based on a preconceived idea of perfection. There is no preset formula, blueprint, or master plan. Instead, the ongoing evolution of xTopia University is symbolically represented by the mathematical variable “x”, which also stands for “experimentation“.

“The true method of knowledge is experiment.” (William Blake)

But xTopia is not a single experiment– it is an evolving place and resource base through which we cultivate an endlessly-developing and diversifying ecosystem of experiments, observations, discoveries, connections, and production processes. One metaphor for this physical and intellectual ecosystem and its ever-spreading,  interweaving networks of roots, branches, and nodes is the great Tree of Life.

Yggdrasil – The Tree of Life (Wikipedia)

The scientific method and the art of empirical experimentation was first pioneered in ancient times by gifted individuals. It gradually developed into a systematized and teachable craft, and then evolved into a science and a technology. I don’t refer to technologies employed within particular experimental fields but to the evolving and recursive science and technology of experimentation itself. By experimenting on experimentation xTopia extends the science of science. At xTopia, continuous improvement applies to the methods as well as to the products of science.

On the other hand, from the outside xTopia doesn’t look or act much differently from other communities centered around a large college or land-grant university. In ancient Rome a collegium  was roughly analogous to a corporation, a club or society, or a group of persons living together under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”).

“Land-grant universities …are institutions of higher education in the United States designated by each state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science and engineering (though “without excluding … classical studies”), as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on [Religious or] abstract Liberal Arts curricula. Ultimately, most land-grant colleges became large public universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational opportunities. However, some land-grant colleges are private schools, including Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” (Wikipedia)

In addition, xTopia U has intentionally copied many of the features of the University of Virginia, the school established in 1819 by the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. More than 200 years later UVA is still considered one of the best universities in the US.

University of Virginia (Wikipedia)

On January 18, 1800, Thomas Jefferson…alluded to plans for a new college in a letter written to British scientist Joseph Priestley: “We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”

Other universities of the day allowed only three choices of specialization: Medicine, Law, and Religion, but under Jefferson’s guidance, the University of Virginia became the first in the United States to allow specializations in such diverse fields as Astronomy, Architecture, Botany, Philosophy, and Political Science. Jefferson explained, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

(Wikipedia/University of Virginia)

Keep that last sentence in mind. I’ll be coming back to that after I say just a little more about Jefferson’s approach at UVA.

Jefferson centered UVA around the “Academical Village” consisting of a vast, terraced green surrounded first by the residential and academic buildings and then by the gardens, The Range, and the larger university. The common bonding of faculty and students in residency is considered integral to establishing peer discourse. And of course Jefferson’s university was originally surrounded by extensive lands which provided local sources for many of the economic necessities of life.  xTopia U is  fortunate to have adequate land holdings of our own. When we purchased our campus (then it was called the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) from The State in 2019, we were able to acquire nearly 22,000 additional acres surrounding the property. Much of the area around xTopia U still remains largely undeveloped and rural. In addition to the pre-existing towns nearby, a number of Eco-villages have grown up around us.

In all these ways xTopia U is very similar to Jefferson’s vision which in some respects may have been a pretty darn good approximation of a Utopia. The big difference is that xTopia might have started in almost any arbitrary configuration because its core principle is innovation, adaptation, and evolution. It doesn’t hurt to start with a great foundation, but the emphasis is not on a preexisting design–the emphasis is on continuous improvement.

Colleges and schools

xTopia’s initial organization was patterned after Jefferson’s UVA in the arrangement of its colleges and schools.

  • College of Liberal Arts
  • College of Arts & Sciences
  • School of Architecture
  • School of Business Administration
  • School of Commerce
  • School of Continuing and Professional Studies
  • School of Education
  • School of Engineering and Applied Science
  • School of Law
  • School of Medicine
  • School of Nursing
  • School of Leadership and Public Policy
  • Center for Chemistry of the Universe and Radio Astronomy Observatory

Of course we continuously extend and improve all the curricula and add new schools and centers of our own design which I will go into a little later on.

Now, when The State put Alabama A & M up for sale it was a historically black university with a lot of history. It was originally established by an act of the Alabama State Legislature in 1873 as the State Normal School and University for the Education of the Colored Teachers and Students. By the time it was purchased by us, it had about 6,000 undergraduates and graduate students from 44 states and 11 countries and a faculty of about 300. Quite a few of the A&M faculty and staff are still here at xTopia U, but now there are about 10,000 students, 2,000 faculty, 5,000 people on staff, and about 10,000 other independent free-lancers and family members in residence. The folks here now are of every imaginable ethnic, cultural, and national origin.

We’ve done a lot of new construction but we also retained some of the original Alabama A&M facilities. The original Learning Resources Center is a 75,000-square-foot building with over 50,000 real paper books. There were originally half a million hard-copy books in there but we had to get rid of most of them to make room for the necessary digital equipment and facilities  like the interactive Distance Learning Auditorium and the conference rooms, study lounges, labs, multimedia production studios, etc. We also kept:

  • The State Black Archives Research Center and Museum, housed in the James H. Wilson Building, a national registered historical structure.
  • The Small Business Development Center (now specializing in incubating Co-operative enterprises)
  • The Agribition Center, designed to host almost any kind of event, including trade shows and agricultural events.
  • The Campus Health and Wellness Center
  • Louis Crews Stadium is now the home of the xTopian Olympic Association and the Better Angels Football Club. The multi-purpose stadium seats 21,000 and is the sixth largest stadium in Alabama.

Credit: Wikipedia

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System which was based here when we bought the school back in 2019 is still here working in partnership with xTopia U. They work with our scientists, farmers, and foresters on developing and testing sustainable, organic practices and providing research, education, and technical services around the world. We are a major permaculture center and there are so many other sustainable and ecology things I don’t even have time to talk about it on the tour. You can get the details that interest you online.

Solar Power Station (Wikipedia)

We have also added some things Jefferson’s UVA or Alabama A&M never dreamed of. We have two concentrating solar-thermal power stations that supply all the power for the campus. We produce the bulk of our own food and forestry products. We have our own water wells and rainwater catchment systems. We have a variety of cottage industries and light manufacturing facilities that make things like electric vehicles, solar roofing tiles, and photovoltaic films and coatings.

xTopia has become a leader in the production of ethanol from grasses and waste cellulose. We not only sell ethanol in our local market but we also export our ethanol technology around the world.

Visitor #2: “My brother in law is a rocket scientist, and he told me it takes more energy to make ethanol that you can get out of it.”

(Rolling her eyes) We don’t have time to get into that side track right now, but when you get a chance, look at this debate between Doubting Thomas and my father, Poor Richard: Fermenting the Ethanol Debate.

Democratic Economics

A large number of xTopians from many disciplines participate in R&D for sustainable, ecological economic models. Consistent with our experimental approach to everything, we test a hypothesis with controlled trials in real-world situations. We often experiment on ourselves because the entire xTopia campus is a laboratory, wired for massive data collection, and we carry on a wide variety of economic activities that provide convenient test-beds for new ideas. (For a quick intro to sustainable, scientific economics, check this link: Escape from the Planet of the Economists.)

xTopia is, in part, a federation of co-operatives.  Many of xTopia’s tangible and intangible assets are collectively owned by  members of its cooperatives. In many cases workers participate in collective bargaining, although in some cases (such as certain xTopia faculty and staff positions) the pay scale is computed according to an algorithm (I’ll explain in just one minute).

A janitor who has worked at xTopia for 10 years may earn considerably more than a janitor in the mainstream economy, so many people might want to compete for the job. What keeps xTopia from firing a highly paid janitor and replacing her with a low-paid janitor? Something akin to a tenure policy. Most xTopia labor contracts permit firing only for “just cause” as determined by democratically governed labor councils of working xTopia peers. Labor councils also deal with issues of labor standards, job descriptions, workplace conditions, etc.

Although our experimental orientation leads to a lot of diversity, fringe benefits are often provided through member-funded mutual benefit associations. A fringe benefit that everyone loves is the sabbatical. For every five years I work, I get a year of paid leave. We consider this as much a benefit to the community as to the individual.

xTopia is a also a leader in the development of alternative and complementary currencies and banking methods. Many xTopia members and contractors who work with xTopia have agreed to be compensated in xTopia Happy Hours (HH) for their labor. Several coops use a scheme in which each hour worked earns one HH (plus an additional .00033HH times the total cumulative number of hours a person has worked for xTopia in their lifetime), up to a maximum hourly rate of 30 times the hourly rate of the lowest paid member,  regardless of the nature of work performed. Thus each successive hour worked earns slightly more HH than the hour before, and the rate doubles approximately every three years (6,000 hours). The maximum rate is reached in about 15 years.

Additional HHs may be paid for certain finished products, goods, or services over and above the labor involved. These rates are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. HH credits can be exchanged for a great variety goods and services on the xTopia campus, at many places in the surrounding communities, and at numerous sites online.

Naturally other schemes are constantly emerging and evolving as much (or more) through trial and error as by design.

(BTW, at xTopia U we are constantly developing the art, craft, and science of the experimental method itself. In other words, we even experiment with the process of experimentation, so new and different experimental methods and styles are always emerging and evolving here.)

Advanced Social R&D

The last thing I’ll include in this part of the tour is just a brief mention of some of xTopia’s unique social R&D centers. In addition to basic research, these centers help to develop new pedagogic methods and curricula and provide guidance for public policy:

  • The Center for Intentional Community
  • Center for Cognitive, Social, and Cultural Re-engineering
  • Center for Self-Study (study of, by, and for the self)
  • Center for Ecological Economics and Re-localization
  • The Center for Open Source Government and Culture
  • Center for Peer-to-Peer Process and Organization (C3PO)
  • Center for Social Entrepreneurship

So that’s the bird’s eye view of the xTopia campus with some of our history and organization in the physical sense.

The xTopia approach

The group that started xTopia, including my father, Poor Richard, came from many walks of life: Occupy Wall Street, MIT, UC Berkeley, Harvard, The Wikipedia Foundation, Google, the Integral Institute, the AHA! Foundation, the Gurdjieff Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, and too many others to list. They were a community of collaborators with expertise in psychology, linguistics, media studies, education, neuroscience, strategic planning, entrepreneurship, and innovation design.

A few minutes ago I quoted Thomas Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” That’s really the key to xTopia U. We don’t know what a Utopia might look like or how it might work, but here we are working towards a happy and sustainable future, as close as we can come to Utopia perhaps, one day and one experiment at a time. You might say its an enlightened trial and error approach.

Of course we always have lots of experiments going on all at once. Its a massively parallel multiplayer game. And almost everyone here at xTopia is a volunteer guinea pig, including the faculty and the families. Every school, college, research center, and every other organization and individual on campus is both a conductor of research and a subject of research. At the same time that we study math or science or music, or work in the labs, farms, or other facilities, we also study ourselves. We capture, analyze, and experiment with everything about ourselves– everything we do, everything we say, and a lot of what we think and feel– all the time.

This approach evolved out of various “Extreme Life Logging” projects back in the 2000’s. In 2003 it was estimated that as much new data was being generated about every two days as had been accumulated in all of history up to that year. By 2015, the rate of accumulation reached about 8 zettabytes (1 ZB = 10^21 bytes) per year, or about 18 million times the total digital assets held by the Library of Congress just five years earlier. At our current logging rates the xTopia community is generating that much new data on a monthly basis.

Such volumes would have been utterly toxic to the Metanet 20 years ago, yet it was the expanding “data deluge” (or “Great Flood”)  that initially lead to major advances in artificial intelligence and turned the scientific method on its head for about a decade while machine learning systems churned through growing backlogs of undigested data. This was called the Fourth Paradigm of Science. In those days about the only “science” that could get funded in the Corporate States of America was experimental data mining methodology and new human-readable presentation techniques. Until fairly recently the financial return on investment for improvements in data utilization remained orders of magnitude higher than for data collection.

The Virtual xTopia

The Google-eyes we use here are our own special design. We call them “peepers”. They do all the things your regular Google-eyes do and a lot more. They constantly record what I look at and what I say, and they record my brainwaves,  blood pressure, pulse, temperature, galvanic skin resistance, and lots of other bio-metric stuff. We call it the quantified self. They also record things going on around me for context.

Visitor #5: “Don’t you ever have any privacy, Podcayne? It sounds like Big Brother is always watching. How can you stand that?”

It isn’t like that, really. All the information my peepers collect is psuedo-anonymized. That is, recorded under an encrypted account. The audio and video that is collected of me, and other people around me, is stored in a way that protects the real identities. If a scientist views the data from my peepers today, or from any of the other millions of recording devices around campus, she will see and hear realistic, computer-generated, anonymous avatars instead of seeing and hearing the actual people. The body language, facial micro-expressions, voice metrics, bio-metrics, etc. will be equivalent but she won’t be able to identify the actual people involved unless she has access to the encrypted reference data in someone’s personal profile to compare it with. That personalized data is very carefully protected, and personal identities can only be accessed and used with each person’s permission. I’m sending your Google-eys some of the computer-rendered video of us right now so you can see what its like.

Visitor #8: “Wow, Podcayne. I love your costume!”

(Grinning) Thanks! I designed that Avatar myself.

Visitor #1: “Doesn’t that give away your identity, then?”

Only to you guys right now and other people who know me and know how I have customized my avatars. A lot of us do it. But our customized avatars are only used when and in ways we allow.

BTW our hypergrid is the best three-dimensional virtual world in the known virtual universe. Its a lot like the Star Trek holodeck, but with our peepers we access it from anywhere. We use it for recreation, research, and education. We have a hypergrid version of the whole campus, and most of our distance learning is done “in-world”.  After our tour is over, you’ll be able to continue exploring xTopia U in-world all you like.

Visitor #1: “Hey, I look like a dork!”

Podcayne looks at an image that her peepers project on the floor and makes a few gestures: How’s that?

Visitor #1: “Ahh, sick! Thanks.”

With virtual reality we do a lot more than teaching and learning (or goofing off). Its more like coaching, training, and practicing. There is only so much you can get from a text or a lecture. You sure can’t learn how to play basketball from a book.  But with VR we can put you on location and in the action. You don’t just get information, you develop skills. One of my favorite xTopia massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) is the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The whole setting, including the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the surrounding area of 1482 Paris, represents the landscape of the mind. All the characters are potentially parts of your own identity. Playing roles in the game helps you to to see yourself in others and others in yourself.

For kids of all ages we have some fun things like the Virtual Fables. These are based on classic fairy tales and folk tales like Aesop’s Fables, Tales of Br’er Rabbit, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One of our most popular games is Animal Farm 2.0, based on George Orwell’s classic allegory. The players can become any of the characters in the stories. The stories that we select to make into games all have important morals, lessons, cognitive skills, or social skills for the players to discover and practice.

Our role-play games all give individualized feedback on the players’ social and cognitive skills, cognitive biases, implicit associations, etc. This feedback helps players develop skills and capabilities very rapidly.

xTopia’s secret sauce

That brings me to the point where I can explain the special mission of xTopia U. The recipe of our secret sauce: self awareness. xTopia is founded on the belief that humanity does not face a crisis of the environment or energy or population or even a lack of ideas. Technical solutions to our economic, political, and environmental problems have been sitting unused on the shelf for a long time. Instead, humanity faces a crisis of human nature.

Human nature is a product of evolution. The Origins of Human Nature are found in the evolutionary contest between individual and group selection. We also have a lot of cognitive idiosyncrasies, such a tendency towards certain kinds of predictable irrationality.

Human culture has always evolved more rapidly than our anatomy. But even the rapid progress of our culture in the past few centuries has begun to fall behind the pace of changes and challenges we now face in our crowded societies and  our ravaged environment. Rather than rising to meet these challenges, our social institutions show signs of actually breaking down and becoming less effective. Increasing competition over land, water, food, and other resources is likely to favor increasingly authoritarian institutions. While technology offers solutions to resource problems in theory, in practice it also favors greater stratification of wealth and power. If recent trends continue we may be faced with a future of highly authoritarian corporate neofeudalism (privatized government).

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Paul Gauguin

Faced with such prospects, some of us should be choosing to explore the boundaries of the brain’s ability to examine and extend itself and to accelerate the evolution of culture with the same kind of intensity and effort that it takes for the military occupation of the Middle East or sending a spacecraft to the Moon.

If we live or work together long enough and closely enough we may begin to establish what we call human broadband connections. This may evolve further as we keep house, interact with nature, travel, solve problems, share adventures, meet challenges and survive crises together, until we can finish each others sentences. We are beginning to realize that such intimacy can gradually change the chemistry and structure of the nervous system and allow for progressively increasing inter-personal communication bandwidth and synchronization. One example is menstrual synchrony.

Neural connections in the brain – bigthink.com

Some might consider this an interpersonal spiritual connection, but it is a natural phenomenon that we call bio-cognitive development (bio-cognitive = body + brain) and psycho-neuro-synchronization.

To achieve continuous improvement and positive quality control, we systematize and instrument our intentional community of self-study and self-development. We consciously formalize our group dynamics in a context of systems science and rigorous experimental design.

In addition to the shared activities mentioned above, some of the possible tools and techniques for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization include:

These and many other tools can be used for increasing adult brain plasticity and promoting emotional and physiological states that enhance learning, memory, and neural network integration. Conducted in groups they can also promote  psycho-neuro-synchronization and bio-cognitive group intimacy.

“Self Observation”

All this provides a matrix for accelerated cultural and cognitive evolution that is independent of gross  brain anatomy. (Lets face it, we aren’t getting bigger brains any time soon.)  Nonetheless, there is good reason to hope that radical self-knowledge, bio-cognitive development,  neuro-physiological practice, and psycho-neuro-synchronization may all work together to promote developmental changes in the brain’s micro-structure and its operational patterns. In other words we can re-engineer and re-program the brain’s operating system and its “apps”, even though much of all that is unconscious. We can try to examine and consciously modify various aspects of our irrationality, automaticity, implicit associations, cognitive biases, etc. With all these tools and techniques we may have a shot at developing a kind of persistent group consciousness capable of hosting perceptions and representations of reality and establishing behavioral innovations and capabilities well beyond the confines of the mainstream culture and language.

Micro-cultural Exchange

We need a diversity of experimental colleges and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

“Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”)” (Wikipedia: college)

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, at xTopia U we see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard

[Portions of Podkayne’s dialog by libramoon.]

Related PRA 2010 topics:

Additional Resources:

a quiet revolution unfolds

Virtual Worlds, Avatars, free 3D chat, online meetings in Second Life

RSA Animate – The Power of Networks (YouTube)

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AHA!

AHA! = Average Humans Anonymous!

(A 12-step program for cognitive enhancement)

What is an “average” human?

Modern humans are known taxonomically as Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man” or “knowing man”).

Mitochondrial DNA and fossil evidence indicates that anatomically modern humans originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. (Wikipedia: Homo Sapiens)

Of course, 200,000 years ago we were not nearly as wise or knowing, not nearly as sapient, as we are (or think we are) today.

Behavioral modernity is a term used in anthropology, archeology and sociology to refer to a set of traits that distinguish present day humans and their recent ancestors from both living primates and other extinct hominid lineages. It is the point at which Homo sapiens began to demonstrate a reliance on symbolic thought and to express cultural creativity. These developments are often thought to be associated with the origin of language.[1]

There are two main theories regarding when modern human behavior emerged.[2] One theory holds that behavioral modernity occurred as a sudden event some 50 kya (50,000 years ago), possibly as a result of a major genetic mutation or as a result of a biological reorganization of the brain that led to the emergence of modern human natural languages.[3] Proponents of this theory refer to this event as the Great Leap Forward[4] or the Upper Paleolithic Revolution.

The second theory holds that there was never any single technological or cognitive revolution. Proponents of this view argue that modern human behavior is basically the result of the gradual accumulation of knowledge, skills and culture occurring over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution.[5] Proponents of this view include Stephen Oppenheimer in his book Out of Eden, and John Skoyles and Dorion Sagan in their book Up from Dragons: The evolution of human intelligence. (Wikipedia: Behavioral Modernity)

Whenever behavioral modernity may have settled upon Homo sapiens, the beginnings of it are lost in prehistory, in past ages far before we have any clear and unambiguous physical or historical evidence.  The fields of evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics promise to shed new light on the origins of modern human behavior but they are only in the very early stages of their own evolution as scientific genres.

Nevertheless, the important point is that the typical, average, or normal human has a brain that is an evolutionary work-in-progress.

We only invented agriculture about 10,000 years or so ago, which in brain-evolution time is like ten seconds ago. In that 10,000 years (or ten seconds) our brains have not had time to really get it right. Our agricultural methods are still causing too much long-term damage to the very resources we depend on to continue being productive in the future. Instead of improving the resource base over time, as brainless nature does, we are still destroying it faster than ever before. The situation with energy and manufacturing is just as bad. Our technology develops at a far greater pace than our brains, which we use to plan and manage the applications of the technology, hoping to maximize productivity and avoid drastic unintended consequences.

Our track record is not so good.

Interesting times

May you live in interesting times, often referred to as the Chinese curse, was the first of three curses of increasing severity, the other two being:

  • May you come to the attention of those in authority
  • May you find what you are looking for

(Wikipedia)

It is only in very recent, recorded history that humanity has come so close to achieving true greatness. Only recently have the consequences of human behavior become so great and so visible.  That makes the present day the most interesting time in all of human history.

In the past, the planetary environment was vast in proportion to all the cumulative impacts of human populations. Over a fairly recent period of time, however, humanity has turned a corner or crossed a tipping point where the environment is no longer large enough to fully absorb and erase all the effects that human activity creates. Those human effects are overtaking the planet’s homeostatic systems and causing ecological processes and environments to degrade or permanently fail. We can see this in species extinctions, failing hydrological systems, changing ocean currents and weather systems, and now even in planetary temperature regulation and rising sea levels.

The most interesting thing about these times is the extent to which the external world has become our mirror. Almost everything that’s wrong with our culture and our environment now is a result of human behavior and can be traced backwards to an evolutionary origin in the normal, anatomically and behaviorally modern, human brain.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Animation of Plato’s Cave

Madness and normality

The problem with the modern human brain isn’t what we call clinical, DSM-level, mental illness–it is sub-clinical. The problem is normality–which includes standard, predictable cognitive faults, irregularities, and distortions that belong to many kinds of so-called “spectrum disorders” but fall below the accepted level of clinical severity or are just too complex to disentange.

It is the pandemic of typical, sub-clinical mental faults that causes poverty, crime,  global warming, oil spills, Iraq & Afghan wars, financial crisis, bad government, etc. Any behavior which produces negative utility is irrational.

The main reason our times have become so “interesting” is not disease, not resource scarcity, not over population. The root problem is our normal thinking and our typical behavior. We could cure all physical illness, all clinical mental illness, all poverty, war, etc. and we would still be hurtling just as fast (and probably even faster!) towards our own self-destruction! The problem is not what we have traditionally seen as illness or scarcity or other external threats. The problem is normality!

The root cause of our threatened survival is installed inside of every “healthy”, “normal” human being.

It’s in our DNA!

The standard brain: our normal cognitive faults, boo-boos, crutches, and placebos:

  • excessive bias towards simplicity and popularity of ideas and beliefs with little regard for accuracy
  • intolerance of ambiguity and cognitive dissonance
  • excessive sensitivity to emotional states and excessive positive bias (leading to addictions)
  • unconscious mental associations, cognitive biases, and behavior patterns
  • black-box (unconscious or pre-conscious) decision making with post hoc rationale
  • reverse-precedence cognitive hierarchy (highest, most recently evolved cognitive functions have lowest precedence)
  • fragmentation/compartmentalization (weak integration) of values, goals, personality, identity, and memory components
  • weak self-observation and attention management
  • automatic thoughts and behaviors (autopilot)
  • dishonesty
  • corruption
  • magical thinking (errors of causal association)
  • unconscious logical fallacies/errors
  • cultural biases (reinforcements for conformity, educational agenda biases, neuro-linguistic “dialects”, memes, etc.)
  • random and inconsistent neural programming (spaghetti code) from random experience/reinforcements
  • inappropriate psychological defense mechanisms (denial, self-delusion, wishful thinking, etc.)
  • linguistic deficiencies (formal thinking requires linguistic/grammatical/logical proficiency)

The 12 Steps of AHA!

By which we attempt to correct as many of the above cognitive boo-boos as possible:

We…

  1. Admit we are powerless over our thoughts, emotions, and moods; and over our sub-clinical  neurotic or impulsive behavior disorders and cognitive disorders—that our lives have become unmanageable, and if we don’t fix ourselves, our species will probably hit the wall in fifty years or less.

    “The subjective experience of powerlessness over one’s emotions can generate multiple kinds of behavior disorders, or it can be a cause of mental suffering with no consistent behavioral manifestation, such as affective disorders.” (Wikipedia: Emotions Anonymous)

    “The cognitive mental disorder perspective is the theory that psychological disorders originate from an interruption, whether short or long, in our basic cognitive functions, i.e. memory processing, perception, problem solving and language. In distinction (or in addition) to this perspective are the psychodynamic mental disorder perspective, behavioral mental disorder perspective, sociocultural mental disorder perspective, interpersonal mental disorder perspective and neurological/biological mental disorder perspective. One pioneer of cognitive disorder perspective is Albert Ellis. In 1962, Ellis proposed that humans develop irrational beliefs/goals about the world; and therefore, create disorders in cognitive abilities[1]. Another pioneer of the cognitive disorder perspective is Aaron Beck. In 1967, Beck designed what is known as the “cognitive model” for emotional disorders, mainly depression[2]. His model showed that a blending of negative cognitive functions about the self, the world, and possible selves lead to cognitive mental disorders.” (Wikipedia: Cognitive disorders).

    Nearly all forms of clinical mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD), Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and Dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder), have sub-clinical counterparts in nearly all normal individuals.

  2. Came to believe that a higher, more stable, and more consistent level of cognitive integration and functionality could be achieved through work on cognitive modification.
  3. Made a searching and fearless cognitive inventory of ourselves. A cognitive inventory consists of a self-assessment and a coached/group assessment of our cognitive faults (see list of “The standard human cognitive faults, boo-boos, crutches and placebos” above) using various assessment tools, tests, surveys, monitored exercises, etc.

    The Deming System of Profound Knowledge

    “The prevailing [default] style of [cognition] must undergo transformation. A system cannot fully understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside….”

    “The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding of the system of profound knowledge. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.” (More on this later…)

  4. Admitted to ourselves and to others in our group the exact nature of our cognitive faults.
  5. Were entirely ready to give up all these cognitive defects and shortcomings.
  6. Made a list of all persons we had affected as a consequence of our cognitive defects, and made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would harm them or others.
  7. Continued to take personal cognitive inventories and when we discovered faults promptly admitted and modified them via the Deming “PDCA” Cycle for Continuous Improvement:
      Wikipedia: PDCA (plan-do-check-act) is an iterative four-step problem-solving process typically used in business process improvement. It is also known as the Deming cycle, Shewhart cycle, Deming wheel, or plan-do-study-act.

  8. PDCA was made popular by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who is considered by many to be the father of modern quality control; however it was always referred to by him as the “Shewhart cycle”. Later in Deming’s career, he modified PDCA to “Plan, Do, Study, Act” (PDSA) so as to better describe his recommendations.

    The concept of PDCA is based on the scientific method, as developed from the work of Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620). The scientific method can be written as “hypothesis” – “experiment” – “evaluation”; or plan, do, and check… According to Deming, during his lectures in Japan in the early 1950s, the Japanese participants revised the steps to the now traditional plan, do, check, act.

    Deming preferred plan, do, study, act (PDSA) because “study” has connotations in English closer to Shewhart’s intent than “check”.

    Wikipedia: William Edwards Deming “(October 14, 1900 – December 20, 1993) was an American statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and consultant. He is perhaps best known for his work in Japan. There, from 1950 onward he taught top management how to improve design (and thus service), product quality, testing and sales (the last through global markets), through various methods, including the application of statistical methods.

    Deming made a significant contribution to Japan’s later reputation for innovative high-quality products and its economic power. He is regarded as having had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Despite being considered something of a hero in Japan, he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death.” (Wikipedia)


    Though virtually unknown and unappreciated in the US, Deming is almost solely responsible for the transformation of Japanese industry from having, in my childhood, a reputation for manufacturing cheap junk goods to, by the mid-70’s, a reputation as the maker of the world’s highest quality and highest value automobiles, electronics , and many other consumer goods. Though his ideas of continuous improvement were originally widely rejected in the US until recently because they did not fit with autocratic US corporate culture, in the 80’s and 90’s US industry imported many Japanese manufacturing consultants  due to the reputation for quality and efficiency that Japan had gained, ironically, as a direct result of adopting Deming’s ideas.

    Demings ideas, rejected by US captains of industry for decades, swept through the entire Asian world and are largely responsible for the fact that Asian manufacturers are still kicking US industry’s ass today in markets as diverse as cars, cell phones, personal computers, and solar cells. Where would American workers be without such enlightened and visionary US corporate management? Perhaps still in the middle class instead of in unemployment lines or among the the ranks of the working poor.

    Deming’s PDCA continuous improvement cycle constitutes the next four steps (8 through 11) of AHA!

  9. PLAN

    Establish the objectives and cognitive processes necessary to deliver results in accordance with the expected output. By making the expected output the focus, it differs from other techniques in that the completeness and accuracy of the specification is also part of the improvement.

  10. DO
    Implement the new cognitive processes . Often on a small group scale if possible.
  11. CHECK
    Measure the new cognitive processes and compare the results against the expected results to ascertain any differences.
  12. ACT
    Analyze the differences to determine their cause. Each will be part of either one or more of the P-D-C-A steps. Determine where to apply cognitive changes that will include improvement. When a pass through these four steps does not result in the need to improve, refine the scope to which PDCA is applied until there is a plan that involves improvement.
  13. The final step of the AHA! twelve-step program: Having had a cognitive awakening and transformation as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The principles and practices of cognitive modification (cognitive hygiene)

  1. Linguistic education and training. Although humans could think before they developed language, language has now become the brick, mortar, timber, metal and glass of conscious, rational thought and social interaction. Cognitive hygiene requires education and practice in formal language but not merely for the sake of constructing well-formed internal thoughts. Improving cognitive hygiene depends heavily on group dynamics and interaction, which require a common set of effective communication skills. Language is one of the most recently evolved abilities of the brain, and language training reinforces the dominance of the higher reasoning centers and networks over the earlier and more primitive functions of the brain. In addition to vocabulary, grammar, English usage and style, etc. (linguistic prescription), linguistic education involves the skills of well-crafted logic and argument (debate). The recognition of logical fallacies, a major cognitive pitfall, can be taught best in this context as well.
    Wikipedia: The origin of language:The main difficulty of the question [of language origins] stems from the fact that it concerns a development in deep prehistory which left no direct fossil traces and for which no comparable processes can be observed today.[2]The time range under discussion in this context extends from the phylogenetic separation of Homo and Pan some 5 million years ago to the emergence of full behavioral modernity some 50,000 years ago. The evolution of fully modern human language requires the development of the vocal tract used for speech production and the cognitive abilities required to produce linguistic utterances… It is mostly undisputed that pre-human australopithecines did not have communication systems significantly different from those found in great apes in general, but scholarly opinions vary as to the developments since the appearance of Homo some 2.5 million years ago. Some scholars assume the development of primitive language-like systems (proto-language) as early as Homo habilis, while others place the development of primitive symbolic communication only with Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) or Homo heidelbergensis (0.6 million years ago) and the development of language proper with Homo sapiens sapiens less than 100,000 years ago.Wikipedia: History of concepts of the origin of language

    Thomas Hobbes, followed by John Locke and others, said that language is an extension of the “speech” that humans have within themselves as part of reason, one of the most primary characteristics of human nature. Hobbes in Leviathan while postulating as did Aristotle that language is a prerequisite for society, attributed it to innovation and learning after an initial impulse by God:[16]

    But the most noble and profitable invention of all others was that of speech … whereby men register their thoughts, recall them when they are past, and also declare them to one another for mutual utility and conversation; without which there had been amongst men neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears and wolves. The first author of speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as He presented to his sight; for the Scripture goeth no further in this matter.”

    In Hobbes, man proceeds to learn on his own initiative all the words not taught by God: “figures, numbers, measures, colours ….” which are taught by “need, the mother of all inventions.” Hobbes, one of the first rationalists of the Age of Reason, identifies the ability of self-instruction as reason:[17]

    “For reason, in this sense, is nothing but reckoning … of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts; ….”

    Others have argued the opposite, that reason developed out of the need for more complex communication. Rousseau, despite writing[18] before the publication of Darwin‘s theory of evolution, said that there had once been humans with no language or reason who developed language first, rather than reason, the development of which he explicitly described as a mixed blessing, with many negative characteristics.

    Since the arrival of Darwin, the subject has been approached more often by scientists than philosophers. For example, neurologist Terrence Deacon in his Symbolic Species has argued that reason and language “coevolved“. Merlin Donald sees language as a later development building upon what he refers to as mimetic culture,[19] emphasizing that this coevolution depended upon the interactions of many individuals. He writes:

    A shared communicative culture, with sharing of mental representations to some degree, must have come first, before language, creating a social environment in which language would have been useful and adaptive.[20]

    The specific causes of the natural selection that led to language are, however, still the subject of much speculation, but a common theme going back to Aristotle is that many theories propose that the gains to be had from language and/or reason were probably mainly in the area of increasingly sophisticated social structures.

    In more recent times, a theory of mirror neurons has emerged in relation to language. Ramachandran[21] has gone so far as to argue that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments”. Mirror neurons are located in the human inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe, and are unique in that they fire when one completes an action and also when one witnesses an actor performing the same action. Various studies have proposed a theory of mirror neurons related to language development.[22][23][24]

  2. Cognitive neuroscience education. General and specific material to support all the other cognitive modification goals and practices.
  3. Unconscious cognitive biases, implicit associations, and repetitive automatic thoughts. These items can be identified and quantified by computer tests and questionnaires. Once identified, they become the subjects of self-observation and cognitive de-conditioning/retraining via cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive restructuring, and similar methods.
  4. Attention training. This includes self-observation of mental and physical states and behaviors, focused attention, dual attention, mindfulness mediation, memory practices, brainwave bio-feedback, Tai Chi (proprioceptive awareness) etc.
  5. Behavior modification. Behavioral self-awareness, applied behavior analysis, operant conditioning, etc.
  6. Radical honesty.
  7. Cognitive integration and meta-cognition (thinking about thinking). Methods and practices to improve the integration and coordination of existing neural networks and functional centers, and reverse the bottom-up evolutionary order of precedence so that the highest (most recent) cognitive areas and functions such as the rational neo-cortex take greater precedence over more primitive areas like the “limbic” (emotional) system. This area of work is still largely speculative and experimental and at this date would consist primarily of research.
  8. The Deming System of Profound Knowledge. This is a catch-all category for research into ways that Deming’s theories of quality control and continuous improvement can be applied to cognitive modification.

    “The prevailing [default] style of management [cognition] must undergo transformation. A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside….

    “The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding of the system of profound knowledge. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.

    “Once the individual understands the system of profound knowledge, he will apply its principles in every kind of relationship with other people. He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to. The individual, once transformed, will:

    • Set an example;
    • Be a good listener, but will not compromise;
    • Continually teach other people; and
    • Help people to pull away from their current practices and beliefs and move into the new philosophy without a feeling of guilt about the past.”

    Deming advocated that all managers need to have what he called a System of Profound Knowledge, consisting of four parts:

    1. Appreciation of a system: understanding the overall processes involving suppliers, producers, and customers (or recipients) of goods and services (explained below);
    2. Knowledge of variation: the range and causes of variation in quality, and use of statistical sampling in measurements;
    3. Theory of knowledge: the concepts explaining knowledge and the limits of what can be known (see also: epistemology);
    4. Knowledge of psychology: concepts of human nature.

    Deming explained, “One need not be eminent in any part nor in all four parts in order to understand it and to apply it. The 14 points for management in industry, education, and government follow naturally as application of this outside knowledge, for transformation from the present style of Western management to one of optimization.”

    “The various segments of the system of profound knowledge proposed here cannot be separated. They interact with each other. Thus, knowledge of psychology is incomplete without knowledge of variation.

    “A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management. A psychologist that possesses even a crude understanding of variation as will be learned in the experiment with the Red Beads (Ch. 7) could no longer participate in refinement of a plan for ranking people.”[21]

    The Appreciation of a system involves understanding how interactions (i.e., feedback) between the elements of a system can result in internal restrictions that force the system to behave as a single organism that automatically seeks a steady state. It is this steady state that determines the output of the system rather than the individual elements. Thus it is the structure of the organization rather than the employees, alone, which holds the key to improving the quality of output.

    The Knowledge of variation involves understanding that everything measured consists of both “normal” variation due to the flexibility of the system and of “special causes” that create defects. Quality involves recognizing the difference to eliminate “special causes” while controlling normal variation. Deming taught that making changes in response to “normal” variation would only make the system perform worse. Understanding variation includes the mathematical certainty that variation will normally occur within six standard deviations of the mean.

  9. Cognitive self-help Group: In addition to serving as one venue or vehicle for many of the preceding methods and practices, the group setting promotes non-verbal communication skills, listening, assertiveness, boundaries, and numerous other social and cognitive skills.
  10. Wikipedia: Mental health self-help groups: In most cases, the group becomes a miniature society that can function like a buffer between the members and the rest of the world.[19] The most essential processes are those that meet personal and social needs in an environment of safety and simplicity. Elegant theoretical formulations, systematic behavioral techniques, and complicated cognitive-restructuring methods are not necessary.[11]

    Despite the differences, researchers have identified many psychosocial processes occurring in self-help groups related to their effectiveness. This list includes, but is not limited too: acceptance, behavioral rehearsal, changing member’s perspectives of themselves, changing member’s perspectives of the world, catharsis, extinction, role modeling, learning new coping strategies, mutual affirmation, personal goal setting, instilling hope, justification, normalization, positive reinforcement, reducing social isolation, reducing stigma, self-disclosure, sharing (or “opening up”), and showing empathy.[5][6][8][11][19][20][21]

    Five theoretical frameworks have been used in attempts to explain the effectiveness of self-help groups.[5]

    1. Social support: Having a community of people to give physical and emotional comfort, people who love and care, is a moderating factor in the development of psychological and physical disease.
    2. Experiential knowledge: Members obtain specialized information and perspectives that other members have obtained through living with severe mental illness. Validation of their approaches to problems increase their confidence.
    3. Social learning theory: Members with experience become creditable role models.
    4. Social comparison theory: Individuals with similar mental illness are attracted to each other in order to establish a sense of normalcy for themselves. Comparing one another to each other is considered to provide other peers with an incentive to change for the better either through upward comparison (looking up to someone as a role model) or downward comparison (seeing an example of how debilitating mental illness can be).
    5. Helper theory: Those helping each other feel greater interpersonal competence from changing other’s lives for the better. The helpers feel they have gained as much as they have given to others. The helpers receive “personalized learning” from working with helpees. The helpers’ self-esteem improves with the social approval received from those they have helped, putting them an a more advantageous position to help others.

    A framework derived from common themes in empirical data describes recovery as a contextual nonlinear process, a trend of general improvement with unavoidable paroxysms while negotiating environmental, socioeconomic and internal forces, motivated by a drive to move forward in one’s life. The framework identified several negotiation strategies, some designed to accommodate illnesses and other’s designed to change thinking and behavior. The former category includes strategies such as acceptance and balancing activities. The latter includes positive thinking, increasing one’s own personal agency/control and activism within the mental health system.[22]

  11. Community. This could range from a community of affiliated cognitive self-help groups to one or more complex, self-reliant, and sustainable communities or “micro-cultures” serving a broad variety of social, educational, and economic functions with cognitive modification at the core of each one. Such a micro-culture could provide a full spectrum of venues, each having appropriate cognitive hygiene processes and objectives at its core in addition to its other activity:
    • cognitive self-help groups
    • skilled trades and professional work groups
    • green agriculture, cottage industries, and commercial enterprises
    • medical, professional, and scientific facilities
    • formal educational venues
    • and many others

    Such a complex, cognitively optimized community might offer the most effective possible matrix for rapid human cognitive development.

Poor Richard
7/29/2010

Externalizing Reality

In economic theory, an externality is any cost or benefit not accounted for in a calculation of profit or loss. Classic examples are the cost of pollution not included in the price of a manufactured product, the death of coal miners not included in the price of electricity, and the cost of mass murder or the little matter of global warming not included in the price of oil and gasoline.

Economic externalities are only a small subset of a more general category I call cognitive externalities–anything that is filtered out of our mental picture of the world around us.

We all externalize parts of reality, not because they are unknowable, but because they are unpleasant or inconvenient. That is the principal basis of all our corruption, all our dis-enlightenment. We all do it. Its in our DNA. But the costs or consequences of externalities in economic models or in any other domain of reality, are disproportionately borne by the poor and powerless. One of the worst examples of externalized reality is this: despite some remnants of local color from country to country, the new world order is a global East India Company with helicopter gunships. A Martian anthropologist studying the last five thousand years or so of human history would have to conclude that the primary industry of our species is conducting mass murder for profit and that the masses, even in the dominant cultures, have all devolved into cargo cults.

If cargo cults are mentioned in anyone’s personal library of mental narratives they probably take the form of a story about the peculiar behavior of small numbers of black natives somewhere on the coast of Africa in some prior century. Am I the only person with a story in her head about how that same behavior shows through in all of us under the euphemistic label of “consumerism”?

People live by stories. Each person’s head holds a library of short and long narratives and we pull one off the shelf that fits something about any particular situation or circumstance we meet from moment to moment. Too often these stories are on the level of children’s picture books, suggesting simple but wrong solutions to complex problems or situations. Most of us have stories about history that are wrong, stories about our families that are wrong, stories about nature that are wrong, and stories about ourselves that are wrong. And anything that doesn’t exist in the current active mental story, right or wrong, is externalized from a person’s reality in that moment.

Sometimes, reality is externalized on purpose. The principle weapon of special interests today is information asymmetry, a simple idea (better known to most of us as fraud, deception, marketing, public relations, spin, infotainment, etc.) that won a Nobel Prize for economics. This has resulted in a vast and thriving industry of disinformation and information pollution that corrupts and perverts every institution of society. But by far the most destructive lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

Our addiction to self delusion is encouraged and enabled by a liar’s code. If you don’t unmask me I won’t defrock you. Popes, presidents, senators, CEO’s, teachers, and parents set the example for one and all.

Of course there is such a thing as an ethical (justified) lie, a lesser evil than some dire alternative, but self deception dissolves sanity itself. Identity itself becomes externalized. Self awareness fails and then, as Yeats said, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” This is the truly unpardonable sin. But it won’t be avoided by force of will, strength of character, or high moral ideals. Our cognitive deformity, self-delusion, settled upon us by evolution, will be undone not by willpower, for which humanity is not noted, but mostly by wit, art and innovation–things we are good at.

The opposite of the unpardonable sin of self deception is liberation from self-imposed delusion–especially delusions about ourselves. The ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and look clearly at uncomfortable facts is the essence of authentic enlightenment. It was inscribed on the entrance of the ancient Greek Temple of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself.”

Externalizing inconvenient reality (sometimes called denial, self deception, willful ignorance, or preserving cognitive consonance) is a coping mechanism. I would never suggest that we discard a coping mechanism without replacing the truly protective parts of it with something new. In fact with many, many new things.

The Greeks knew what they didn’t know (self-knowledge) but their philosophical methods were empirically weak. Today we know how to come by that knowledge–by the scientific method. We must discover and invent new cognitive prophylactics and prosthetics not as Sir Thomas Moore invented Utopia or as Reagan-era bean counters invented “Trickle-Down Economics”, but as Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin: with all the real working parts. We need a science and technology of cognitive hygiene and end-to-end information quality control. Despite living in an “age of science,” we still mostly resort to authority and reputation to judge the quality of information. I guess there are many reasons that “fact checking” remains in the dark ages. Information Quality Management is fine for database administrators, but we human beings reserve the right to our own facts, just as we reserve the right to mate with the worst possible partner. Still, without surrendering such rights, it might be nice if the scientific/academic community devoted more effort to producing a science and technology of information quality assurance that we could consult or ignore at our own risk.

In addition to empirical knowledge, like that which we might gain from brain signals, functional MRI pictures, or implicit association tests, enlightenment grows from coaching and practice with the object of re-engineering faulty parts of the operating system of the brain. Unlike genetic engineering, it requires exercise and training much as any physical, athletic ability.

I’m not drumming up a utopia built on some cult of cognitive science. But we MUST discover alternative practical means to protect ourselves from that suffering which we seek to evade by externalizing reality. As we do, we may find that workable solutions to nearly every other problem and crisis are already on the table.

Poor Richard

“The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0”

“The Enlightenment 2.0″

“The Inner Hunchback”

“Is Spiritual the New Supernatural?”

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