The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show, Fred Beuttler, or Mark Stahlman. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guests, two guests today are Mark Stallman and Fred Beuttler. Mark is a biologist, a computer architect, and ex-Wall Street technology strategist. He’s the president of the Not-for-Profit Center for the Study of Digital Life. And you can find out more about that organization at digitallife.center and it’s educational project Trivium University, which you can find at trivium.university. Fred Beuttler is a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and he’s also a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life, as well as one of the founding administrators for Trivium University. He teaches history at the University of Chicago’s Graham School for the continuing Liberal and Professional studies. And from 2015 to 2019, he was the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts programs at the Graham School overseeing a master’s in liberal arts, the Great Books certificate program for adults and the Fortnight in Oxford. Good stuff. As also, I remember from our last conversation, you did a few years of government service as the deputy historian for the House of Representatives, which would’ve been fun, I expect. See behind the curtain at all the vile doings that go on down there.
Fred: Yeah. You had a chance to see that earlier this month.
Fred: With the new 118th Congress.
Mark: The CSPAN cameras were all over the place and McCarthy’s saying he’s going to try to put them back in, ’cause normally you don’t get to see much on CSPAN.
Jim: Yeah, talk about a case of something. Nothing better do in life than watch CSPAN, but there it is. Right. Anyway, Mark Stallman, Fred Beuttler, welcome to the Jim Rutt Show.
Mark: Thank you, Jim. We met in 2017 when you had participated and launched something called Rally Point Alpha, which is a part of your larger game B experience. And you and I have had many fascinating encounters in the past five years
Jim: Indeed, been interesting. We’ve putted heads a few times and we’ve collaborated a few times. So it’s been, I think a very interesting relationship. And today we’re going to talk mostly about a new project from Mark and Fred called Trivium University. Let’s get down to that and maybe you could explain to folks what the name Trivium represents and kind of the historical context of how it’s related to the evolution of education.
Fred: You want me to take that one? I can.
Mark: Yeah, sure.
Fred: As a historian, one of the things that goes back to the beginning of the liberal arts and the understanding of how the liberal arts are going to be taught as the basis for an educated human, it’s going to be divided into two parts. The threefold way in the fourfold way or the trivium and the quadrivium. And the trivium is composed of three subject areas, grammar, rhetoric, and logic or dialectic. The quadrivium is going to be divided into four, the fourfold way, and that is arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. And if you look at those two, what you see in the trivium, there is a focus on words and communication and understanding from mind to mind. The quadrivium on the other hand, is focused on numbers. And so if you look at the quadrivium, you see number in the abstract with arithmetic, number in space with geometry, number in time with music, and number in space and time with astronomy. And it’s an understanding that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks where you could see that as you look at the five senses, you could use the trivium or the grammar rhetoric and logic, along with the quadrivium to understand the nature of reality. So those three, the mental disciplines of words, numbers, and the senses. So Mark, do you want to go ahead and head a little bit?
Mark: Well, it turns out that this is what some of us might remember as the three R’s reading, writing, arithmetic, which was the basis of our one time early education. So at this trivium in particular persisted well into the 19th century. And of the three, the one that I think we’ll be emphasizing the most or maybe of the seven liberal arts, will be grammar. And so grammar’s probably one of the seven that has suffered the most at all the changes that have occurred technological and otherwise. And so instilling a better sense of grammar, which is actually, in psychological terms, a psychological recognition of structures, which is how we organize internally our own sensory knowledge of the world, that’s going to get a lot of attention.
Jim: Interesting. Now I have to ask a historian, since I have him here, how did trivium in the long historical sense of one of the set of three disciplines, become adapted to mean trivial, meaning of no importance? Because it certainly seems to me grammar, rhetoric, and logic are mighty important topics
Fred: That’s a good question, but it’s also based on the word that’s there. And so some of it is a denigration of things that seem to be elementary, but in fact they’re not. We could use the term, and you can see it sort of as a remnant, sometimes you call an elementary school, a grammar school, and there, if you look at the medieval university, one of the basic ways to become part of that is you have mastered Latin grammar. That was the idea. And so it seems relatively elementary, but as we look at, as Mark suggested, how words and especially the grammar function as understanding of structures of reality, that becomes much more fundamental. And if you have grammars built in based on specific forms of, we could call it informational technology, you’ll see changes in human sensibilities as you look at changes in these paradigms of information technology.
So a shift from an oral way of communicating to one that is going to be based on the alphabet, for example, that will change fundamentally how people will think. And that’s what we’re trying to get at with using the term Trivium University to reemphasize that aspects of the structures of understanding, the structures of knowledge, which we see as fundamentally grammatical there. You could use it as a way of thinking, going back, for example, to the etymology of words, what do words fundamentally mean? And I use that sometimes when I’m teaching some undergraduates, especially when they’re looking at, I find this sometimes amusing because I ask the freshmen that I teach in a foundations course at a local liberal arts college, what their majors are. And invariably three or four of them will say psychology. And I ask them, “Well, then you’re studying words about the soul, aren’t you?” And they have no idea what I’m talking about. And even it goes as you break the words down, a grammatical way of doing it, psyche and logos, words of the soul. That’s what it fundamentally means. Even a week, two weeks later, they still don’t know what their own discipline they’re studying fundamentally means in a grammatical sense. So it’s interesting to see how we need to recover some of those understandings as also ways of thinking.
Mark: Two things to add maybe quickly here, we’ll be getting into the paradigms. I know that’s on Jim’s list. So putting it in that context, the trivium became trivial, particularly in the shift from scribble to print, which brought with it of course, the reformation. And many words, words like fact and words like innovate were almost flipped entirely on their heads. And so the change in language, the OED, Oxford English Dictionary is of course where people tend to go to track these meanings over time. The meanings shifted dramatically, and so the battle between the Catholics maintained the trivium and the Protestants against them undoubtedly contributed to this denigration of the trivium into being merely trivial. The larger question of course, which we will get to as we move on here, is why is the trivium relevant in the current digital paradigm? And we’ll elaborate on this later, but both Fred and I think believe quite strongly that retrieving the ability to think analogically, which was also reduced in the shift from scribble to print, is very important. And so this retrieval of analogy, as over and against logic, which has become dominant, is going to be enormously important in the digital paradigm if we’re going to survive the robots.
Jim: Great. I think I’m going to change the order a little bit. Let’s talk about the paradigms now. You brought it up and then it also sets up what I was going to ask, which is why the hell do we need another university now? But let’s start with your five paradigms, and I got 20 cents here. There’s my paradigms.
Mark: I had a operation a few years ago on Mardi Gras and got two stents installed in my heart. And so I often say as a result of that, I am now authorized to provide my two stents worth on any subject.
Jim: All right. Paradigms. So paradigms.
Mark: Yeah, brother, can you spare a dime? I’ll just quickly run through this, and I know Fred has been writing some interesting material on this and we’ll probably bring more meat to put on the bones here. But as I’ve mentioned, and as Jim knows very well, one of my most important mentors is Marshall Mcluhan. Marshall Mcluhan, alas, died in 1980 and never met him, but I had his son, Eric as a close friend for many years and now have a similar relationship with his grandson who’s pursuing the Mcluhan world. So Mcluhan’s Understanding Media, published in 1964 winds up being a discussion of paradigms. And it is in particular, this was shown also in his earlier work, Gutenberg Galaxy, which is literally about the print paradigm, in the subsequent work, understanding media as well as in protégé of his Walter Ong, the notion of secondary orality and retrieving enters in. So this whole architecture of paradigms winds up being a technological description, not a deterministic description, but rather formally caused distinction between technology, society, human beings, and how we tend to construct our world based upon the environment in which we live. Fred, you’ve been writing about the sequence of these. Do you want to describe them?
Fred: Sure. One could say that there’s roughly been five different transitions in communication technology over the last say 10,000 years. One could Google all the way back to cave paintings from 30,000 years ago or so, which are in their own way making visual meaning permanent, but we’ve lost the meaning there. And so going back just to the question of an oral culture and an oral, really the first phase in development of human language, but we could describe them as shift from an oral to a written or a scribble, from a scribble to a print, from print to electric, of which there are a number of subsets, everything from telegraph to radio to television, et cetera. And then from electric to digital. So oral to scribble, to print to electric and digital. So those are the five major paradigmatic or transitions that’ll take place in using communications technology.
It’s often a moderate habit of thinking that this is a simple narrative of progress, and that with each technological transition, we are getting closer to an understanding of reality. But I don’t think this is the case. It may be that once we’re fully trained to think with a new medium, our ability to see or think in the old way may atrophy, so that with each new thing, some things may be lost. Most of them experienced this in our own lives of the past decade or so because we read differently from a printed book than say on screen. And we have seen, our intention spans have grown shorter, we read less. And if you look at some of the students that one teaches, they’re now in a generation that have grown up with screens and they have a difficult time following a linear narrative in a printed book.
It’s just interesting to see how computer technology has sort of rewired our brains, if you will. And the psychological literature has demonstrated that clearly within the last decade or so. But I could go into a little bit further on some of the paradigm shifts, but as we are thinking about it, there’s a few times that people are actually very much definitely aware of what is present and what is absent as you see a shift that will take place from a dominant use of one medium to another. And so maybe I could pause and before I get into a little bit further, because it’s fascinating to see that there are certain people at certain times are very aware of the change, and also they’re suggesting that we may have lost something when you move to this new medium.
Jim: Yeah, let me respond just a little bit, that last bit, one of the things I always remember, my good friends, Socrates, how he would denounce writing, right? Well, whether there… I’m sure there was a Socrates for sure, and Plato wrote him down or improved him or whatever, but he was quite emphatic that he thought something big was lost when philosophy moved from the oral to the written as a historical example. I imagine that was one of the ones you had in mind.
Fred: Yeah, that’s the one I was going to think about. A very important quote that Socrates has about the invention of the alphabet. This is in the dialogue, The Phaedrus, which I don’t know if you were going to follow up on that, but there’s a few things that are pertinent because this is from Socrates himself. Socrates didn’t write anything down or at least is not recorded as they haven’t written anything down, he’s one who just speaks. And it’s interesting to see that Plato writes things down, but he does it in a form that’s imitative of speech. He does it in the dialogue form. And so you go back and forth question and answer, but this is what Socrates says. The invention of the alphabet will.
“Create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls because they will not use their memories. They will trust the external written characters and not remember of themselves the specific, which you will have discovered. The alphabet is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence and will give your disciples not truth, but the semblance of truth. They will be hearers of many things, will have learned nothing. They will appear to be omniscient and generally know nothing. It will be tiresome company having the show of wisdom without the reality.” Which I kind of like that, the show of wisdom without the reality. And you could sort of see it now because those of us who are say older than 30 or so, realize that we had a memory, that we memorize countless things, especially phone numbers. And now I think I know mine and I know my wife’s by memory, but I don’t know anybody else’s and we don’t need them anymore. But that has changed the questions of memory, we’ve lost, we’ve sort of outsourced to sort of quote or paraphrase Socrates, we’ve outsourced our memories to other devices.
Jim: Of course, classic. The classic one is kids today that can’t navigate from work to home without the nav on their car, I go, “What the fuck is that about?” But yeah, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Fred: Yeah, you don’t need maps anymore or that’s a skill that’s lost.
Jim: Yeah. My wife and I always carry books of maps just in case because we’re old school in the same way I still read books. I still start a hundred books a year finish about 75. And to me, I really can’t understand a domain unless I read a book about it. I read a lot of scientific papers too, but the integration that happens in a book, and it’s why about 60 or 70% of my podcasts are based around books. I find that the gestalt of 300 to 500 pages is qualitatively different than any other way of knowing a domain. So I stand with the book. My other little quirk is that despite being a podcaster, I don’t listen to many podcasts that I don’t watch many videos on YouTube. And in fact, if I want the material from a podcast, I just did this last week, I have a transcription service. I send the link off to the transcription service and have it transcribed. And regular listeners of the podcast know I provide high quality transcripts of all my episodes so that if you’re somebody like me who would rather read than listen, I have the full text at pretty high quality at jimruttshow.com so it is interesting how these transitions don’t happen abruptly. I mean, I was one of the guys that helped invent the digital realm, for instance, and yet I still love me some books, right?
Fred: Yeah. Notice how the different senses are being used with the oral or listening to a podcast, for example. You’re just using your ears, reading a book, you’re using your eyes, and there sometimes I force my students to read a text aloud in class because there you get both senses to really burn it into one’s memory. But it’s interesting, I’ve listened to a number of books three, four times and I really don’t feel like I’ve known them until I’ve actually read used that sense in order to really sort of write it on my own memory.
Jim: Interesting, Mark.
Mark: This is important for a number of reasons. The obvious point here perhaps is that the three of us, not only don’t we run the world, but we’re getting on, I’ll be 75 in a little while, probably just before this podcast is released. So I’m very cognizant that the clock is ticking. The generations that have followed us, we would all probably be classified as boomers, have actually experienced a very sharp break in the most recent generation to generation change. So gen Z, which includes folks who are now roughly age 12 to 25, typically called the first digital generation. It has been observed that they really do not think the same way as their immediate predecessors, the millennials or for that matter, gen X, which preceded that. And so this is right smack in front of us. We’re handing the world over to people who don’t think the way we do, and it is that change in thought and in particular at Triv U, our hope is to retrieve, preprint ways of thinking, scribal ways of thinking in order to enable them to robustly improve their memories.
So this concern that that Socrates had recently, there was a off-Broadway play titled Socrates, in which the main characters are obviously Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle’s a kid in the way the play is played out. But it is all about that tension between an oral and a scribble paradigm. We’re experiencing now the shift from electric, which is a fantasy based paradigm to digital, which is a memory-based paradigm, and here just referring to the underlying technologies. So Jim knows from his many years, and he was a pioneer to be sure in many ways, and I had my own contributions in this, we know that computers must have endlessly checked an accurate memory or else the computers don’t work.
So when Marshall Mcluhan characterized the Tetrad, another topic we’ll get into hopefully later, of computers, he described the retrieval quadrant as perfect memory, totaled and exact. So we’re now living in an environment very different from, obviously from what Socrates thought of. We’re living in an environment where we are going to have to sort out our memories in order to answer the really critical question, which is very much on people’s minds, given the whole AI and robotic revolution, what does it mean to be human? And what it means to be human means to have a well-functioning memory. And whether we can accomplish that or not is a part of the experiment we’re running with Triv U.
Jim: Interesting. Before we go on to why Triv U, you kind of teed it up a little bit. I’m going to propose a sixth paradigm. Anyone who follows the news or Twitter or whatever knows that everyone’s up in an uproar about ChatGPT. And I’ve been following this area for quite a while, and I’ve used the tools as they’ve come along, GPT-2, some of the predecessors to Dall-E, et cetera, Dall-E 2, ChatGPT-3, but I will say, ChatGPT, which came out in November, I’m going to say it’s a paradigm shift, and I’m going to suggest that the name of the sixth paradigm is generative. It is quite astounding to interact… In fact, I posted an essay this morning by a guy who talked about his use of GPT-3, which was just one version before ChatGPT, as a smart journaling tool, and he has a dialogue with ChatGPT or GPT-3, and I’m working with a friend of mine to possibly write a movie script using these tools.
And I wrote for a school teacher, again this morning, describing the new profession of prompt engineering. He was saying, “I’m afraid that kids will forget how to write sentences.” And I suggested, somewhat facetious, that writing sentences maybe is unuseful these days as having beautiful handwriting. Because as you know, in the medieval times, a scribble person, their handwriting was hugely important. And if it wasn’t beautiful, they were considered a stupid person and an inferior person. Even as late as the eighties, the French demanded a copy of your handwriting before they’d hire you, and they would send it off to some scriptologist to analyze and see what your personality was based on your handwriting. Today, we don’t give a shit at all about your handwriting, but I’m going to suggest that the generative revolution, which writes better sentences than I do, may make even the ability to craft a sentence and maybe even a paragraph, obsolete really soon. The other thing that’s, I think important to think about if we’re entering the generative paradigm, as my good friend Peter Wang says, he agrees with me that ChatGPT is the watershed moment. He says, “Remember folks, it’s December, 1903 at Kitty Hawk.” So these are just the barely gets off the ground versions of these things. So what do you guys think about this? Do these and one other thing about memory, the way these-
Jim: …. do these, and what I think about memory. The way these large language models are made, they essentially suck up the memory of the internet of everything that’s been said. Not everything, but hundreds of billions of characters of what’s been said and compile it into a static neural net, which is convolutional transformers and blah, blah, but it doesn’t really matter.
Mark: They’ve been so forth yeah.
Jim: Yeah. It’s basically a compilation of memory, which it then does statistical sequence regurgitation. It’s amazing they work so good considering it. At base, it’s a simple technology, but you can basically say memory plus some new cool kinds of processing yielded a phase change into a new paradigm, at least I would say that. What do you think about that? Am I full of hot air?
Mark: No, It’s actually quite essential to the digital paradigm. Everything you just described is simply the digital paradigm and other words that could be. Generator is fine, autonomous is fine, artificial is fine. There’s a variety of adjectives that could be used. But I would say that what is critical here is to try to the extent possible, get beyond these relatively superficial descriptions, which will have a series of adjectives, and they’re advocates from various places and to try to get to the underlying technology, which is not generative. Underlying technology is digital. Digital just enables the autonomy, the artificiality, the generative character of this. And everything you said, I would agree with, except it is a core part of the digital paradigm. And in particular, it compels us, as I mentioned earlier, to ask the question, what does it mean to be human? That is the primary effect of generative and all the rest of the way if we might describe this. And that is right at the heart of what we would call the digital paradigm.
Fred: I would just add two, just a little bit to think about it by sort of reemphasizing what Mark said. What we call electric in the paradigm into electric involves the technologies based on electricity, a different medium. But that’s telegraph, that’s radio, the telephone, film, cinema, television, they all slightly different. I mean the differences between radio and television, we’re very clearly aware of, but that’s something that is within the broader electric paradigm. Just exactly what Mark was describing that AI and generative understandings that machine learning and all these, these are technologies, and that’s generally based on the beginning of the digital age. It goes back 70 years ago. So there, which is some of the early development of what will be called cybernetics back in the late 1940s. This is a further development within a paradigm. So technologies will develop, but it’s changing the way of thinking, and that’s the really notion that we’re trying to get at. So I would agree with everything you said, Jim, just like Mark, but I think it’s within that broader digital paradigm.
Jim: Where you draw lines, of course, is always the question.
Mark: And Everybody gets to claim their own authorship under this circumstance. So Jim, I’m happy that you have your old word for what we’re all talking about anyway, and you can trademark it or for whatever as you wish. But this is probably a good point to bring in Norbert Wiener briefly. It turns out that concerns over the impact on society and on all of us. Concerns of that sort were around long before we were in the digital paradigm. In particular, Norbert Wiener, who was mentor to my father and described to me as my godfather by him, Cybernetics is published the year I was born in ’48. But in 1950, he published The Human Use of Human Beings, which got him in very deep trouble because he was saying we need to be careful about these technologies and what they do to us. And he was up against a bunch of people, including Gregory Bateson and a number of others at the old Macy conferences who wanted to use these technologies to reshape the world.
So raising deep questions about what these technologies do to us can get you in trouble as it did with him. Our goal here, in fact, is to stimulate a much wider questioning. So everything that you’ve said, Jim about generative and the fact that people who write press releases don’t have jobs anymore and the fact that colleges are now changing the way that they do testing among other things. So the kids can’t use ChatGPT to get an A on the exam. I think that the idea that we have crossed the threshold with ChatGPT is exactly correct, but that just points out to us how little imagination we had before to a certain extent.
Jim: That’s a great point because truthfully, but of course, that’s what an emergence is. It’s something that’s fundamentally in a new space that we didn’t anticipate before, but maybe in theory we could have, but it was just too big of a jump for our feeble little brains. So anyway, this is all a great setup to what I was going to do earlier, but now we’re going to do now because we’ll have a lot more context, which is why in the world does America need another university? We got, was it 3,000 universities or something? And they’re going out of business at a fairly good rate. So why is this the time to start a new university? What’s your thesis on why this is something that the world needs? And he probably also wants.
Mark: I’ll give a quick answer and then Fred will give the real answer. But the quick answer is, we’re doing this because the kids want it. It turns out that there’s a vast number of kids who went through their college education feeling like they really didn’t get much out of it. They didn’t learn much. They’re not prepared for the world. There’s no jobs because the robots are going to take the jobs, and so there’s a huge concern amongst, particularly Gen Z, about what has happened to their mental health as a result of this transformation. So Jim is a market oriented economist with all sorts of ideas about how we can improve our economy, but my basic answer to this is because there is a demand which is not being met in the other places.
Fred: That’s a good answer. That’s a very important one. It’s a need. Also, it’s a felt need, but really unarticulated because the patterns that our society is sort of set up are ones that push people in a certain direction, leading them to a system of credentialing that is way over bloated as probably a good way of describing it. And one of the things that I think what we need and this is why the idea of a university, that’s a medieval concept. The trivium is medieval, the beginning of liberal arts, so is the university. A university in its essence goes back to a professor and a student, the faculty and student. And if you look at what a modern university is, there’s this huge infrastructure in place that doesn’t work in the classroom. You could see this over the, really the last two decades, but the massive expansion of administrators and staff needed to provide all the various services that are present within, say, a small liberal arts college, for example, or a large research university.
There’s not a lot of interaction between faculty and students. There’s so much else that has served to increase the cost, but also to move away from the real ability of a professor to talk with students. And that’s the thing that we really want to get back to. So we’re not envisioning a vast brick and mortar place that is basically a combination of a health club and apartment buildings centered around a sporting event that’s gets away from what the essence of a university is. If you go say to the University of Virginia, or if you go to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, or even the University of Chicago, which way back 70 years ago had the brilliance to get rid of football. But now it’s come back, you still have things that are away from the professor and the student, and that’s what we’re trying to get back to.
And we’re going to use online platforms that really put together that close interaction. One of the visions that we see, and I think that it’s a very important one. I like to use the model because this comes somewhat from the university where I teach that rather than the lecture hall, what we have is the table that everybody’s around the table. I think an online format can do that in class sizes of a dozen to maybe 20 at the most, where you can get the interaction between student and faculty member. But if you get rid of the bloat of so many administrators, you can significantly reduce the costs and the needs for students to go on $60,000 in debt a year.
Jim: That loan would be a big improvement. Obviously, I was aware of the macro trend just from watching the news, but in the last year and a half, I’ve come quite involved with the MIT, my alma mater. I was a co-founder along with some other folks of the MIT Free Speech Alliance where we were reacting to it, a particularly egregious attack on a guy named Dorian Abbot, who’s from the University of Chicago, by the way.
Fred: University of Chicago.
Jim: And he was giving a talk about the atmospheres of extra solar system planets around other stars. And he got canceled, a speech he was going to give, because of a paper or essay he wrote in the Newsweek posing a positive critique of DEI, a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and it had nothing to do with his speech. Anyway, he got canceled. But when jumping into this work, I have learned an unbelievable amount about, for instance, at MIT, the number of professors is almost identical to what it was when I was an undergraduate in the early 70s. The number of administrators 6x, 6x.
Fred: Six times at least.
Jim: The cost has gone up 4x after controlling for inflation. And based on looking at the what’s actually in the coursework and the quality of the students that comes out, I would say at best, it’s as good as it was, at best.
Fred: The best, yeah.
Jim: It’s certainly not 4x better. So this is clearly an example of cost disease and that alone would be worth a huge amount, would give you a tremendous competitive advantage and to the idea of being in a small classroom with a senior professor and you really learned something. Actually, a fairly important class I took was a small group, 15 students taking macroeconomics from Paul Samuelson himself, and it convinced me I wouldn’t touch academic economics with a 10-foot pole, that it was utter blather and bullshit. And here was the Nobel Prize winner that wrote the book on the topic, and it was an entirely ungrounded discipline as it turned out. I loved microeconomics and I was seriously considering switching from physics to economics. But spending a semester elbow to elbow with Paul Samuelson convinced me not to.
Mark: Wait. Well, here we have a fine example of paradigms. The liberal arts are scribble, medieval in terms of their paradigmatic structure. Obviously, that was transformed when the world went the Western world. Here, it’s important because I hope we get a chance to do more of this as we continue here. We have up until now, not mentioned the fact that the world is not in any way uniform and in particular the print paradigm, which Jim champions. I live inside my own library of thousands of books. I read another one last night and started another one this morning. So I wind up being a book guy, a print guy in that regard, but it turns out that free speech is going to have to be reexamined. I’m also familiar, as Jim knows, through a mutual friend of ours who probably doesn’t want his name mentioned in this regard, but I’m very familiar with how MIT has accomplished some amazing things for the very specific reason that MIT is STEM and STEM is the quadrivium.
So what’s happened here at MIT is that MIT is defending free speech, which is arguably a print paradigm phenomenon and succeeding in ways that others have not, because in fact, they have a scribble basis, the quadrivium for accomplishing this. And all of this paradigm conflict now arises in the context of the digital paradigm. So as I have been suggesting to Gemini’s mutual friend, at some point, they’re going to want to move on from the relatively unattractive, at least in my view, and meeting examination view of classical liberalism, which is probably not going to be sustained. And the way this is going to come to our attention is China as it turns out, and I don’t want to jump ahead in Jim’s layout here too much, but I hope we get around to talking about three spheres.
Jim: Well, why don’t you do it now? Why don’t you do it now? I don’t actually have it on my… I actually do have it, but it only when we go into your courses, but to degree that it’s important for the macro picture, why don’t you hop into it?
Mark: Okay. The very simple slogan is Three spheres: East, West, and Digital. And this is the current layout of geopolitics. I will not go into this in great depth, but the other project from CSDL besides Fred, and my work on Trivium is a three spheres newsletter, which leads into Exogenous, Inc. as a consulting business that that’s a for-profit business. The three spheres would have been viewed as all components of globalism. We’re having this conversation coincident with the latest and most dire emergency the globalists have ever felt at Davos. Well, another friend of this whole effort, again, I will refrain from using his name, I’ll let him step forward with that if he wants to. But he’s very much involved with our Trivium effort, and he is in Davos, Switzerland today. And I suggested to him that he take with him a book titled, Play-Doh Goes to China, which was just published this past week by a very renowned Western classicist from the University of Chicago and Shadi’s book, Shadi Bartsch book.
I wanted him to take that to Davos and put it on the table in front of him just to attract people’s attention as a provocative action here. The Chinese have gone way overboard in recovering their own classics and also Western classics. So the book tries to describe this as a somewhat cynical ploy with the Western classics because we’re going to dig up Play-Doh, we’re going to dig up Sam Huntington, we’re going to dig up Max Weber and Leo Straus all to point to how democracy, as we would refer to it, is an illusion. It’s a fantasy.
So she turns it into a fairly standard, you could see it in the New York Times, but that’s not what’s going on there. There’s very little understanding in my experience having gone to China first 25 years ago, but working with people who really know a lot about that. No, the Chinese are trying literally to retrieve the scribble era, and they’re retrieving it in both the East and the West. This is a phenomenal development. And it couldn’t have happened, of course, without the digital, a transition, without a digital paradigm, they couldn’t do it. Fred, yes.
Fred: Yeah. A couple things maybe before we get in deeply, you should describe the differences between East and West because that is fundamentally based on communications technology with the invention of one side moving from the alphabet versus pictographs. That’s the difference that’s present. So you maybe want to explain that a little bit more.
Mark: Yeah. I actually had an opportunity to have lunch a while back with one of the most world’s best known experts on writing. He was very aggressive at lunch on many subjects, but one of them was, and I’ve tried to do this with my language, so I would recommend it for others who are listening. Logograms is probably a better term than pictograph, because logo implies meaning more than just a script, a picture, a civilization. There are basically only two ways in early terms to deploy the technology of writing. One of them is obviously, we’re going to use something that emulates speech, and so that’s makes sense. And the Phoenicians who left no writing behind, but nonetheless gave us phonetics and the alphabet. They did it for commerce so they could roll into somebody’s new harbor, totally different languages, and yet they could write contracts that were understood by both parties because they could use the alphabet to map into the phonetics of the language, the spoken language. That is not the route that the Chinese took.
The route that the Chinese took instead was to have meaning in the symbols. These are basically the only two ways to do this. It’s either speech or it’s some long-standing meaning. So that’s East and West, and it is shows up in thousands of ways in terms of how these two civilizations are now confronting each other. The notion that China would someday come to chase us as it has been put and join in the United Nations and World Trade Organization and become just like the West was stupid at its core and could only have been sustained by people who didn’t recognize this relationship between fundamental technologies. Technologies that we learned at the age of 3, 4, 5, still the case despite the keyboarding issues, the Chinese are fundamentally logo graphic language. Well, what has happened in our times, and Jim is a participant in this as was I, is another writing system has come about, which would not have occurred likely to these early civilizations in this way, although I’m sure there are some analogies and that is code.
And so coding as a linguistic behavior, which finds itself in all sorts of social applications outside of computers, but certainly, Jim’s generative paradigm is not based on phonetics, it’s not based on meaning, logograms, it’s based on very different procedures. And these linguistic procedures therefore carve out a different kind of human. As it turns out, that kind of human, the digital sphere sort of human has running through its composition, a very negative view about humanity. I remember once asking Jim in our earlier conversations, what is your feeling about computers replacing humans? And as I recall Jim’s answer to that question then was, “Well, I’m interested, tell me more. I’m not categorically opposed to it.” Jim’s read enough science fiction and been involved with enough of this stuff that he knows how these scenarios play out. So what was considered to be globalism with Davos as its capital is now quite obsolete.
It’s gone. And this is a sense of panic that everybody has. I’m waiting for my friend. I’ve never been to Davos, but I suspect he will come back and tell me just how freaked out they are because I know they’re really freaked out. And they’re freaked out because it doesn’t work anymore on so many different levels. It has been replaced in our view with three spheres, East, logographic, West, alphabetic, and digital spheres, which based on code, these are all human beings, but they have very different goals. We describe those three goals in the following way, the Western sphere, the one which all of us come from and we’re all alphabetically biased, which happens obviously because we’ve learned alphabets early in life. So young kids are being taught this stuff. That bias will tend towards under current paradigm conditions, towards attempts to find virtue. Virtue is such an important part of Western civilization and seems to have been lost.
And so there really is no choice in a certain sense. But for us to go on a quest for virtue, which has so many ways that it can express itself, from a silly virtual signaling to all sorts of other exercises, that’s not what’s happening in the East. The East is not looking for virtue. The East is looking for the dow or the way which was so critical in the early years of the formation of that civilization. Both East and West civilizations, by the way, of course were formed in and after the axial age as Jasper described it. So this is basically 3, 4, 500 BC is when these civilizations were being formed around these linguistic practices.
The digital sphere, which is the brand new one, is not looking for virtue. Jim and I know lots of people. Jim interviews many people who are part of the digital sphere. In fact, if I had to summarize Jim’s podcast, it is a digital sphere set of luminaries that he has parading across the stage. And these people are not looking for virtue. These people are looking for the divine spark. They’re looking for something that is above and beyond the way the rest of the world works, and very often consider themselves to be quite superior as a result of that. So here we have three spheres.
Mark: … selves to be quite superior as a result of that. Here we have three spheres, east, west, and digital based on fundamentally different technologies, written technologies, logographs, alphabet and code. Seeking three different goals, the dao, the way, virtues, for the West, and a spark of the divine, alchemical transformation, in the case of the digital sphere.
The fact that we have these three spheres now is an interesting intellectual observation, but alas, it has massive geopolitical implications. As Jim will say, I’ll just finish with this one thought. As Jim knows, there’s something in physics called the three body problem. In a short form fashion, it has no mathematical solution. This is to say, three gravitational bodies interacting with each other in ways that that cannot be simply described mathematically. We now have three spheres analogous to that, and so a part of what we are trying to do is to elevate the understanding of these differences. In the hopes that we can avoid massive conflict. I will probably not be around when all of that finally gets tested, but TrivU is in an effort to develop leaders who can deal with this remarkably, newly, dangerous and perhaps unresolvable conflict.
Jim: Okay. Fred, if you have something to say, why don’t you say that and then I’ll respond.
Fred: Okay. Okay. Yeah, because one of the things that when we use the term Trivium University, it seems to be that we’re looking backwards, that we’re trying to go back to an ideal, even a medieval past where we’re all sitting around talking Latin. That’s not the direction that we’re looking at all.
This is a very future-oriented endeavor, and we’re using the analogical logic or analogical thinking in order to say We’re in the midst of this enormous transition into a digital world. How are we going to understand it? Well, by looking at how the different transitions took place between oral and scribal or between scribal and print or between print and electric. We are thinking that these are analogies that are going to enable the students who are coming to Trivium University in order to navigate the future. That’s what the orientation of what Trivium University is.
And so providing the kind of tools to help them think and to navigate, if you will, to shape a new generation of leaders, to enable them to understand and also shape that transition to a digital paradigm. That’s things that we are committed to. So it’s not an antiquarian venture, but rather a future-oriented one. Using paradigmatic thinking, using analogy in order to understand now what the reality is of three spheres competing and leading to conflict between them. That’s the orientation that we have at Trivium University.
Jim: We’ll come back to the conflict, because this is very interesting and very important, but I’m going to put out two things, just push back a little bit. Mark knows I like to do that. We’ve had this discussion. I think we actually added on Rally Point Alpha, which is, I’m not sure I buy the distinction between alphabetic and I like the term logographic is actually of the essence here. Because if we look at the cognitive neuroscience of reading, first reading is a new phenomenon. It’s only, at most, 3,500 years old, in our modern form, it’s less than 3000 years old. So we don’t have any genetics to support reading. We exapted, which means to reuse previous capacity, to be able to read.
If you look at the cognitive neuroscience of reading, in both the logo graphic and the alphabetic realm, what you find is the areas that are activated during the process of reading is the areas that convert image to auditory. Both Chinese and English go through a bottleneck where they are turned into a neurological analog to audio before they’re interpreted. While the nature of the written medium does make certain things easier and certain things harder for the two cultures, it’s thought that the logographic understanding of language makes coding more difficult, for instance. But in terms of how we think, how we can structure the world, the written symbol to auditory bottleneck before we interpret language makes me think that that is less than of the essence. And then I’ll go on to my second one, then we’ll go back to you for response to that, and then we’ll go to why this is important.
The second is about virtues. I gave a talk this weekend to some luminaries on GameB, which is a thing I spent a lot of time on. I did two slides on virtues values and norms, and put down the flag pretty strongly that GameB was about embedding, amongst a bunch of other things, virtues, values and norms. And I even called out a particular formulation, which I said, we’re too early yet to say if this is the right formulation, but it’s not a terrible one from Deirdre McCloskey. You probably know who Deirdre McCloskey is, historian. She proposed seven virtues, the four, what she called pagan virtues, of justice, temperance, courage and prudence, and the three Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. And I suggested it might not hurt to add an eighth, wisdom. There’s at least some of us digital nerds who believe that if we try to build a civilization without virtue values and norms, we’re building on a foundation of sand.
Mark: Your final point, it is exactly the way the West views these phenomenon. This is not the way that the East, this is not the way Xi Jinping or the standing committee, the Politburo, views what they’re doing at all. And also it’s not the way that the post-humans and those who are attempting to code the AIs intended to replace us think about things. But what you just described for GameB makes it very much a Western answer to the dilemma in which we’re now confronted. So we agree.
Jim: I think, let’s grant East and West are different, whether it’s their alphabet versus logogram, I don’t know, but there’s certainly different spheres. What is the danger of this three body problem. What is it that if we misunderstand each other can go aggrievously wrong?
Jim: That’s two Western people butting heads.
Mark: Well, as a matter of fact, Ukraine would never have happened, regardless of how much NATO saber rattling there was, regardless of how many color coups may have happened in that part of the world, would never have happened, were it not for China. The Russians are in between. They are alphabetic, but not Roman alphabet. Orthodox Christianity is quite different, in fact from Latin. Greek and Latin, if you will, Christianity, are not the same thing. The Russians have been feeling for a very long time, for a good reason, and maybe they deserve it. They’ve been feeling like they’ve been dumped on. And in a certain sense that the rest of the West, the globalist West, has effectively been trying to eliminate Russia as something that has its own characteristics. The Russians have put up with that. They have counter punched, they have sent their spies around, they’ve done all the Cold War sort of things, that is not the situation we are now in.
We’re in the situation in which Russia invaded Ukraine for one reason alone. China backed them up. So we are already in a two spheres conflict that, as all of us know from following this, patriot missiles are now on the way to Ukraine. The United States will train the Ukrainians in operating the patriot missiles in Oklahoma, so they don’t give the impression. Now, is that really going to stop World War III, that the training happens in Oklahoma? I don’t think so.
So we have an early taste of the global conflict as a direct result of conflict between spheres. What is being tested in the Ukraine, of course, are digital weapons. And so we have the digital sphere being brought in. We’ve got Elon Musk with his telling the government, you got to pay me for my satellite dishes. Elon Musk is hardcore digital sphere. Elon Musk has told us that Optimus, his robot, is going to be the most important invention that he has. He’s trying to figure out how to literally rewire our brains with Neuralink and so forth. And he wants to get off the planet. He wants to make us intergalactic. That’s all digital sphere ideology. So all three spheres are already engaging in the Ukraine conflict. Where’s that going to happen next? There are many other places where that could occur.
Jim: Well, certainly, I think about Taiwan. Taiwan is the very center of the digital. Where do all the most advanced computer chips come from?
Mark: Absolutely right. TSMC, and the desire on the part of the Chinese to acquire TSMC, is very typical of the Western narrative about what’s going on here. So from the standpoint of the West sphere, Taiwan is the obvious flashpoint. My knowledge of the situation is limited, but I will tell you that there are plenty of TSMC engineers now working in the PRC in mainland China right now. They don’t need to take Taiwan to get TSMC. They’ve already got TSMC. There’s nothing that TSMC does that isn’t known in all [inaudible 00:58:49] detail in mainland China.
Number two, it is not the way that the East thinks about these things at all. And in fact, a conflict with India, which is also an in between, maybe a more important one, and there are plenty of other places, in Africa, in South America where the Chinese have been running circles around the US. The opportunity for conflict between these spheres, all three, because nothing happens without the digital sphere nowadays, may look like it’s East and West, but it’s all deeply enabled by digital technology. These sorts of conflicts would have been imagined before February of last year by most people on all sides. No one in their right mind could do these sorts of things. No one’s going to provoke this sort of conflict. And yet. So we characterize Putin as insane. We characterize Putin because nobody reasonable could do this and does all kinds of sides in that debate, of course. But our view would be that it is the underlying conditions of the three spheres world in which we now live, which compels these sorts of things to happen.
Our hope is that, which is one of those virtues. I’m a Westerner, and so I display the virtue side of this. Other terms, by the way, for those seven, and adding wisdom is sort of embedded in various ways in those, but they’re often called cardinal virtues, the four, and theological virtues for the three. But it’s the same. Deirdre is… I’ve actually spent some time with Deirdre talking about some of these things. Extremely smart and interesting and funny woman and a good person to bring into this conversation. It’s not going to be possible without a much higher level of understanding of what we have gotten ourselves into to have any confidence that we can avoid 10 more Ukraines at an even more elevated level under a three spheres configuration.
Jim: All right. So let’s imagine we’re sitting in this fraught situation. How in the world does knowledge of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic help us manage this problem? I might think psychology, game theory and AI. that would be the three hammers I might want to bring. Memetic warfare, but we can talk about our memes dead or not. How do we get this grammar rhetoric and dialectic to be a very useful lever to manage the three spheres problem?
Mark: Take it away, Fred.
Fred: I was going to pass it on to you, Mark.
Mark: Oh, okay.
Fred: Some of it, these are foundational. If we’re after what does it mean to really be human, we need to understand, you use the term psychology. That is going back, that’s words about the soul. And that goes to the very nature of what it means to be human. The contrast between an understanding of the fullness of what it means to be human, beyond the reductionism of experimental psychology, that is going to help the students who are trained in that way to see beyond just a really reductionistic limitation on what it means to be human, to see something that’s much broader. That will help them to recover their humanity in the midst of what is going to be some looming conflicts that’ll take place.
That’s going to be a very important one, because notice the psychology on the one hand, by which you mean a reductionistic, experimentally based psychology, which is only part of it because it only gets to part of what the human is, but there already psychology using the model of the mind is like a computer. And once you get to that point, it’s easy to be thinking in, say, Musk’s terms or a digital term, that you merely can upload all your memories into a computer bank and thus live outside of biological life form. You’re using the two of those. Psychology and AI are precisely one limited part of the sphere, well, based on one sphere. And so one of the things I would think that you’d want to be able to do is to see what it really means to be fully human, which is a much broader understanding the nature of the self. So that’s part of the way that we’re seeing as ways that this can be useful and very important to help navigate this transition.
Jim: Let’s dig deeper into the nature of what it is to really be human, but I need to defend psychology and cognitive science a bit. Because it is true that in the 80s part of the cognitive revolution was to model the human psyche as a computer or a machine, and there are still many who do, but I would say the cutting edge of cognitive science is now embodied cognition. In fact-
Mark: That’s correct.
Jim: … I’m having a Anil Seth on next month who’s a leading thinker, and I’m going to probably have a couple other embodied cognition people. Oh, I had Antonio Damasio on last year, and he’s a real leader in the embodied cognition.
Mark: Let me put it this way, Jim. Obviously, the cognitive psychology, which is not just around us, it is totally dominant. You go to college today, you’re not going to be taught embodied cognition. The library associated with that is 1% of the mind is a computer sort of stuff. So I would just suggest to you, the shift in cognitive psychology, and I’m totally agreeing with you, the cutting edge is no longer the computer is a model, that shift is a reflection of the revolution in sciences, which is another very important part of a paradigm shift. So it may very well be those embodied cognitives have… They’re already recognizing that it didn’t work, that the older approach didn’t work.
I’m suggesting to you that there’s a vast, vast array, way beyond psychology, where it didn’t work. And so my response to your question, how will the trivium keep us from blowing each other up would be of course a question or responding question, which you’re probably the only person can answer it. How does complexity science keep us from blowing each other up? And to what extent was complexity science, hoping, been around now for what, 40 years?
Jim: About 40 years? Yep.
Mark: 40 years. Paid for by the people who actually own the bombs. The Department of Energy paid for it. And the original researchers in many ways, of course, walked across the street in Santa Fe, came from Los Alamos and other places. Complexity science is very much a new science, attempting to keep us from blowing each other up in some way.
Our answer to that is, in the new paradigm in which we are living, we are going to have to address the retrieval quadrant of the effects of these technologies. This is McLuhan’s Laws of Media, another mentor of mine. In addressing the retrieval, we have to ask ourselves, well, what are we going to retrieve? And that retrieval in our view is the trivium. And that retrieval winds up addressing the situation, which I think is at the heart of the biggest danger here. Just to be clear here, I am not suggesting that Elon Musk is likely to get us all blown up. I’m not suggesting that. I’m also not suggesting that Xi Jinping is likely to get us all blown up, not the way the Chinese operate in these sorts of things. But I am suggesting to you that western leaders, and in particular Davos and globalism is precisely, if it isn’t itself radically reformed, it is that attitude on the part of the West sphere that is most likely to get us all blown up.
Therefore, here we are. TrivU is Westerners. The trivium is a Western retrieval. And I think our audience will overwhelmingly wind up being Westerners, and potentially some of them may be important in their lives as they move forward, so it’s a experiment. It may be a thin, thin straw, but retrieving the trivium for a new generation of Western leaders is our approach to trying to avoid World War III.
Jim: All right. Let me come back to, very quickly. The complexity view would be that even if nobody wants to blow up the world, there’s a good chance they’re going to do it anyway. Because having studied complexity science now for 20 years, the main effect has been to increase my epistemic humility. That we actually know a shit load les than we think we do, and that the inherent nature of the unfolding of complex systems is mighty hard to predict.
Now, it does also provide us some tools to do experiments and probes, which we didn’t have before. If you don’t have the complexity lens, you can’t envision a certain class of probes, probes that are… In fact, one part of the GameB thinking is to be able to think in terms of complex systems that you can probe safely, or relatively safely, and learn things to avoid the existential risks. That’s, say, where the complexity lens is useful, but not enough.
What I’m going to feed back to you, nod your heads if I’m on the right track here. The point of Trivium U is that there is something potentially dangerous in the current manifestation of Davos Man. I regularly denounce Davos Man, by the way, on my podcast. In the GameB world it’s now a standard rubber stamp to talk about Davos Man, and how if we let Davos Man lead, we’re going to end up in fascism in the West and God knows where else. So let’s play the character game and say, Davos Man is dangerous. And so young wannabe Davos Man needs to be diverted from becoming Davos Man by drinking a quart of trivium tea. So what’s in the trivium tea to divert the 22 year old graduate of Trinity College from turning into Davos Man?
Fred: Probably take more than a, what did you say, a quart of trivium tea?
Fred: Probably have a lot more than that.
Jim: Well, actually, for the audience, because you and I probably have our good guesses. Tell us what is the dangerous attribute of Davos Man? And then tell us what’s in the trivium tea that turns the 22 year old recent college grad into a less dangerous kind of thing?
Mark: Well, my answer to that would be, Davos Man has no comprehension of the actual structure of the world. They do not understand the grammar of the technologies that we have been habitually using. Instead, they are rushing ahead. Here’s my immediate answer to you. Today apparently, John Carey, I don’t know if you mind dating things in this way, but everybody knows this is not going to appear immediately. This isn’t a live podcast. It’ll appear soon. But today, John Carey got up and said, “There are some really special people here, obviously, and I’m one of them. And what makes us special is that we are extraterrestrials. We have ability to stand outside the world, so we can save it.” That, seems to me, is the biggest danger of Davos Man. Imagine that you can somehow stand outside the world, therefore ignoring the grammar of the technologies involved, therefore, ignoring the dangers of three spheres, therefore, puffing yourself up and imagining that you now have some sort of Christ-like, savior quality to you. That’s very dangerous.
Jim: And in fact, that’s the exact opposite of epistemic humility. So it’s also lacking the complexity lens. We’re the pros from Dover. We’ll solve your problem. And I know people that know John Carey and they say he is a nice enough guy, but he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. So even in the actual, what’s…
Jim: … in the drawer. So, even in the actual what someone like a John Kerry could do, it’s a gross case of hubris and a lack of epistemic humility. So, what’s in the Trivium tea to keep a smart 22-year-old from turning into Davos Man?
Fred: Some of it is not an understanding that progress is necessarily cumulative, that there is a sense that there’s a perennial and a progressive, and to understand that, we’ll see really a depth of what wisdom is. Maybe there’s moral progress, but the ancients don’t see that. And in fact, that there may be, but it very clearly it’s done at different rates. But the sense that they’re perennial questions that have a series of answers in it, that you’re going to find in a retrieval of ancient wisdom. That is going to provide epistemic humility when we realize that yes, John Kerry realizes that he’s not going to be as smart as Play-Doh was. Not to say that we’re going back, but rather to use those tools to retrieve an understanding from yes, the great books, to really use them and make those apply to contemporary issues.
It’s not going to eliminate, for example, cognitive psychology, but rather it’s going to use the development of modern research, which is going to be in a progressive model, to interact with the ancient understanding of what psyche and logos means, in order to find something that’s much broader, much larger, that includes the truths within both. That’s going to be the understanding of what wisdom is, and wisdom you want to define as the right use of knowledge.
So, this is going to be very practical in ways. We’re in the midst of a transition, and here we want to see, at least looking by analogy, if you go the development of the printing press. So, Gutenberg to the time of Martin Luther with the 95 Theses, that’s about 75 years. If you look at the beginnings of the electric paradigm. In May of 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse sent his message, “What hath God wrought,” by telegraph from Washington, DC to Baltimore. 70 years after that is 1914, when European empires, ruling worldwide through telegraph wires under the ocean, went to war. That is something that no one was expecting. No one was planning. We’d sort of stumbled in, or the West stumbled into conflict in the Summer of 1914.
Jim: And the leading thinkers thought it was impossible because the level of economic globalism had reached an all-time high. And in fact, that high was not reached again until 1988, which is interesting. I love that. I studied this transition fairly carefully because it was a classic surprise and complex systems problem. So, continue.
Fred: No, I mean, that’s exactly what you’re describing. No one’s anticipating it. No one’s planning for it. I mean, they’re planning for it in the development of militarization and the formation of empires throughout the world, but they’re not anywhere at all anticipating the cataclysm that will take place. And you can see some of the technologies, like for example, you can almost predict someone like Adolf Hitler coming in once you have the centralized technology, the radio.
Jim: Yeah, Goebbels said himself, “Nazism would not be possible without the radio.”
Fred: Without the radio. Yeah. And you could see it also with… Anyway, one understands that we’re in the midst as well of the same kind of transition, if you point the beginnings of artificial intelligence in the Second World War with the development of guided missile torpedoes and an understanding of how mathematics can be used to predict where aircraft are flying so that you can aim anti-aircraft guns much better.
Jim: Though curiously, the one that actually worked was analog. It wasn’t digital. It was Vannevar Bush’s analog computers. That wasn’t actually digital. The digital’s used for code-breaking but not for trajectories. Analog was still better in those days. Just a weird little historical aside.
Fred: Right. Yeah.
Jim: So, anyway, this shit’s common. Whether generative is a new paradigm or a late manifestation or later, more will come, but late generation of digital. How does being able to, at least or rough approximation, be like Socrates, keep us from doing stupid ass-shit with digital technology?
Mark: Here I’d like to introduce a term which will be very important at Triv U, but we have not yet brought it into the conversation. And that is the art of Net Assessment.
Now, it turns out that much as complexity science effectively came out of the Pentagon, Net Assessment was for a while nurtured at the Pentagon. And so another of my mentors, I’m counting Marshall McCluen, but also Andrew Marshall, who I mentioned early on. A name probably unknown to most people who’ll be listening to this, but he is a man who effectively set up critical aspects of the RAND Corporation, which then led into SALT Agreements and so forth. In the late 1950s, it appeared, and many people were, strangely enough, cheering for a nuclear exchange. So, we can go back and we can all watch Dr. Strangelove, which obviously comes out of as a parody of no arguing in the war room. But the folks who in many critical ways, particularly obviously not with Soviets, but with Western leaders, the folks who had a significant hand in avoiding that conflict were the RAND Corporation and Andrew Marshall in particular. Andrew Marshall then went on to form the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon.
So, what is Net Assessment? Net Assessment is a diagnosis. It’s not an action plan, it’s not a strategy, it’s a diagnostic. And so I think, Jim, your use of the term, lens from complexity as a way to understand these things, it’d be quite appropriate to think of Net Assessment as yet another lens, in particular a lens that widens the aperture so everything has to be considered. That’s the net. And then all of this has to somehow be put into a grammar that can then be understood, as often was the case in war gaming and tabletop exercises and so forth. Computer simulations even.
But the goal with Net Assessment was to train Western, particularly US, military leaders on how to not blow ourselves up. As all these things do, it rose and it fell, reporting directly to SecDef, Secretary of Defense. And we’re not in that relationship, obviously with the Pentagon, but nonetheless, the Center directly grew out of work that we did for Andrew Marshall. In fact, in the very early days of the Center, we called ourselves the Digital RAND, and there was a version of CSDL website that had actually a picture of a mushroom cloud. And so this geopolitical, this may be the part that is least obvious in what we’re trying to do here. We’re not simply trying to afford people a window into how to think different, as Steve Jobs would have suggested. We’re not selling Macintoshes here.
What we are hopefully doing though is opening up the aperture with Trivium University, and then helping people in a around-the-table seminar format, discuss the readings that we’ve given them, discuss their own impressions, their own experiences, and come to a greater capability. May or may not be possible. Because after all, these things don’t occur at a conscious level so much as a subconscious level and involve very much who we are, how we grew up. So, we may find that this is harder than we thought, but the goal here with Triv U, it is to provide lenses, including McLuhan tetrad, including Andy Marshall’s Net Assessment, including other lenses that allow us to become digital grammarians and therefore look at these situations in ways that Davos Men could never comprehend.
Jim: Could you give me an example?
Mark: An example of how you would think about these things differently. Well, the obvious one here is the grasping of the implications of globalism no longer being functional. We’ve gotten to the point now where the New York Times will print a op-ed about the end of globalization. We’re at the point now where handfuls of books are appearing about this, but it would have appeared to be the case that in order to avoid war, we must have world government. As it turns out, Davos has, in some sense, actually purchased the United Nations. There’s an alliance that has occurred between the two of them, I think it happened in 2019. Davos obviously has the money. The UN has been sinking fast. And so this widening the aperture recognizes that pursuing this goal of one world is itself an inherent danger. It is a violation of the grammar of reality.
Jim: Yeah, I’d love to say that I only am willing to tolerate planetary government when we have at least five planets. Because it’s too easy to get locked in as we know. You don’t want to have a single attractor in a system that’s as critical as our global governance because you get stuck. You ain’t getting out anytime soon.
Mark: So, Jim, we have a fundamental agreement here, which is the basis of this podcast. And that is to put it in Hollywood terms, “Toto, I don’t believe we’re in Kansas anymore”.
Jim: I think that’s the truth.
Mark: We all agree that that world we grew up in, the world that Davos Man wants to dominate, it simply doesn’t exist anymore. And so if we can begin to spread the implications of that and the need to use various lenses to understand the new world, the digital paradigm in which we live, I think we will have made a significant contribution by doing that.
Jim: Very cool.
Fred, maybe we can wrap up on this. We’re about at our time. Build the bridge from this new lens, which I 100% agree with we need, or frankly, if we don’t have, we’re not going to make it out of the 21st century, probably, at least not with a highly complex society. Humanity won’t disappear, but 90% of them might. So, how does reading great books and having that kind of conversation help build that capacity as opposed to, say, studying Clausewitz and playing computer games and maybe reading Machiavelli, though I suppose Machiavelli constitutes a great book. The Prince is actually a pretty great book, but how does reading the great… I mean, and also just to be a little flippant, when I was living in Santa Fe, I got to know a fair number of St. John’s University grads, and I don’t think I’d hire any of them to build a nuclear power plant, nor to plan the Normandy invasion. So, how does being a Great Books person upskill you to be a better leader than Davos Man?
Fred: Okay, that’s a very good question. And it sort of goes into an issue that when you use the term, great books, you all may go back to the University of Chicago or also St. John’s, as a program that really was a print or an attempt to revive print in an electric age, to provide a sense of, well, a canon of text that’s there. And that’s not really what we’re trying to do. I much prefer a term called the Great Conversation, rather than looking at a fixed canon. But instead to see this and ongoing dialogue at the table. That you’ll use the dialogue partners, if you will. Yes, you use Socrates. Yes, you read Aristotle. Yes, you read Machiavelli. You get an understanding of an ongoing conversation. It’s Western at this point, but that has lasted for 2,500 years or so. But it is a conversation that’s in the present, that you will include other seats at the table. It’s not something that will end.
In fact, if you look at how the Great Books program put together, it’s oftentimes caricatured as looking backwards when instead it’s something, it’s a conversation built forwards. And what you need are, yes, other insights at the table. And so one of the goals is really to have not a… Well, maybe to use one of the ideas that was originally in the Great Books movement in the 1940s, 1950s, that you would put together great books of the Western world and then you have someone else put great books of the East together and then you’ll develop a great books of the world itself. That wasn’t a project that really was fulfilled, in some ways because the East thinks differently than the West. But the notion of having a conversation that would be broad, global, anchored in the present, future-oriented, but looking at perennial questions along with a progressive understanding of the development of technology. There, the relation between technology and wisdom then becomes with wisdom as the right use of knowledge.
This is one of the things that we’re behind and the vision of a great conversation that will train the students in understanding the West. Also understanding how the East thinks, but also understanding how digital. Those three spheres will enable that new leader to be on the lookout for the different lenses that he or she is going to need. And thus, what you’ll want is not necessarily we’re training net assessors, but rather we’re training leaders that need net assessors and that need complexity scientists in order to figure out how best to navigate this transition in a very dangerous spot, in a dangerous world, in order to move beyond that so that we can prevent World War III in many ways and prevent that Summer of 1914 when people blunder in to something that nobody wanted, but rather develops that the world is in that 30-years war, a second 30-years war that lasts until the late 1940s, if you will, and then is stuck in Cold War for another 70 years.
So, that’s a short version, but I think a vision not of Great Books, but rather a great conversation. Going to, even a use of reading that is going to combine a Scribe reading with listening as you read things aloud, perhaps, as one way to continue on that great conversation. And that was one of the things, to go back to Socrates, that he complained about the alphabet, is the alphabet was like painting because you couldn’t ask the artist what it means. And here, if you’re looking at a great conversation, you can actually move beyond that and instead enable to interact as many of us start thinking and really using the ancients and the moderns as dialogue partners, as we try to understand this transition in the future. So, that’s a short version.
Jim: Very good. Very good. Mark, any final thoughts from you?
Mark: I’m just enormously honored to be working with Fred Beuttler on this project. I have the talent, I guess, as do you, Jim, of being somewhat provocative and therefore attracting people. When I was on Wall Street, I was known as a contrarian, and so that’s sort of my character. But then turning that into projects that actually work requires that I be more, I guess, than a Pied Piper or however you might want to characterize it. And so Fred’s answer to your question, which I was hoping would be the answer, is something that only Fred could give under these circumstances. And I’m just greatly honored to be working with Fred on this Trivium University project.
Fred: And I’m excited and humbled to be working with Mark too, as someone who’s been thinking about these for many years. I only met Mark about five years ago, but he’s been a mentor in many ways of getting me to think in much more challenging ways to sort of navigate the midst of what we’re in. And I thank you, Jim, very much for putting us together in this podcast and giving us these hard questions that help to focus our thinking, as iron sharpens iron as it were, right? That’s the idea. And here you could see it very clearly of how dialogue and discussion, this great conversation that we’ve been having, moves the ideas forward. I’ve learned enormous amount from Mark, and I’ve learned quite a bit from your questioning to force us to get us to really think through some of the implications of what we’re trying to do.
Jim: Very good. Now, we talked earlier that if people want to learn more, there’s an email address they can send to. What would that be?
Mark: Yes, as usual, the info address is the best place to go if you want info. When this podcast is seen, you can go to Trivium.University for examples and outlines what we’re talking about. If you’d like to apply for our first cohort, which will be starting in the Spring, please send the details to info@Trivium.University.
Jim: All righty. Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. I’ve enjoyed the heck out of it. I think our audience will find it illuminating as well. Mark Stahlman and Fred Beuttler, thanks again.
Fred: Thank you.
Mark: Thank you.