Transcript of EP 189 – Forrest Landry on Civilization Design

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Forrest Landry. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Forrest Landry. Forrest is a thinker, writer and philosopher, and he’s one of my very favorite guests. Welcome back, Forrest.

Forrest: Good to be here. Great to see you again.

Jim: Yeah, I’m looking forward to this conversation and in some ways it’s a capstone, I was realizing of all the conversations we’ve had over the last three years. I went through and counted them up and Forrest has been on at least eight times, and I may have missed one first back in EP 31 where we talk about building our future. Then we had three episodes on his eminent metaphysics, EP 96, 109, and 128. We dug into his non relativistic ethics in EP 134. We went quite deep on small group process. One of my favorite things, actually, I use this all the time, I know it drives Forrest a little nuts because I push it beyond what it was designed for, but that’s all right, in EP 153.

We recently did two closely linked episodes on AI risk in EP 181 and EP 183 and today we’re going to kind of probably tie it all together and talk about civilization design. There’s a big topic, so let’s start off with what is your view Forrest, on what is civilization design?

Forrest: Awesome. So the notion of civilization, so what do we mean when we say civilization, and so when I think about this concept, I think of two components. One is the notion of civility, how we talk to one another or more fundamentally the idea that we would prefer to talk to one another than to say be engaged in physical conflict. The second concept that comes up with the notion of civilization is the notion of city i.e., that we have consolations of people living in close proximity to one another and that in effect the benefits of all of the sort of experience that people can have by meeting a wide variety of other people and the opportunities of exploration and working together and so on provide very distinct advantages for a social species such as we are.

So when we think about civilization design, what we’re really thinking about is what is the toolkits by which we have communities and live together, and what are the toolkits by which we communicate with one another, and how do we maintain and develop social relational process?

So in effect, there’s sort of two levels, one of which has a very embodied element, what does it mean to have a good city, and then a sort of virtual elements, what does it mean to have a good society or good culture or good communication process and how do we manage conflict and things like that. So when we’re thinking about civilization design, we’re thinking about how to address these very embodied and very virtual aspects in a way that makes sense for the long term, like what would it take for us to be together as a civilization for the next thousand years, knowing that that’s not guaranteed, that there’s a lot of complexities involved in terms of just how do we actually manage to make that happen?

Jim: Yeah, interesting. Yeah. Let’s dig in just a little bit into, you mentioned city and the root of civilization as the word civita, which originally spoke about the body of people in and around a city, but when we talk about civilization design, we’re talking about something bigger than a city, right?

Forrest: Right. Yeah. We’re talking about the toolkits that allow us to solve problems. For example, food and water distribution, power distribution, shelter, transportation, all of the logistics associated with manufacturing, with food production and basically, you think about what a city is and all of the things and functions that it performs and you’re looking at a sort of template that we have reproduced in multiple places. There’s obviously lots of cities all around the world and so what are the kinds of characteristics that we would need to think about in order to have a sort of understanding of how social process, infrastructure and things like economics and finance all interconnect.

So in a lot of ways when we look at the world, the modern world as it is today, most of these features of the sort of toolkit of how we solve problems at large scale, large scale social systems, not just nation states, but cities in particular, what are the ways in which we can address all of these different kinds of issues and so in effect, we’re at a kind of key point in our overall, I guess, history of the human species and to some extent it makes sense to look at some of these issues in a kind of first principles way.

Jim: All right. So why, that’s the next topic on my list, so you set me up perfectly. Why is it important right now to engage in this work?

Forrest: So there’s two factors. One is that we’re looking at a situation of what got us here won’t get us there. So in other words, the kinds of tools that we are using and have been using, as everybody knows, has been deployed to great effect. I mean, there’s a higher standard of living for most of the people in the world. There’s a lot of things that we’re no longer thinking about as frequently as we were say back when starvation was an issue. So for instance, there’s a broad strokes category of tools and problems and a kind of good match between the tools and the problems. However, the world’s always changing and the kinds of problems that civilization, that the current toolkit is good at solving won’t necessarily address all problems, it’s not the case that one tool can solve all problems.

So the kinds of problems that are emerging now that are outside of the scope of what our current toolkit can address, things like global warming, pollution issues, global equality issues, and things that have to do with these big, hairy audacious problems, ecological issues that we’re starting to see that our current methodologies of solving problems using technology and so on and so forth, are increasingly unable to deal with these issues. So in effect, there’s a kind of accumulation of issues that our current toolkit can’t address and so in effect, we need to develop new tools to address these kinds of emerging situations.

The other piece of it is that technology acts as a very strong accelerant. So in effect, the rate of change that’s that that’s occurring of course is there’s the base rate of change that nature and just the environment would have as the world moves, so to speak but there’s also a lot of changes that are introduced into the environment, or introduced into the world because of technology, because of human population and such like that. So in effect, there’s an increasing need for us to understand essentially the relationship between technology, humanity and nature, and to really be able to balance that so that in effect for the long term, we don’t end up essentially going extinct because we made some mistake in an existential risk category or we essentially didn’t manage our resources very well and effectively ran out.

And the kind of timescale that we’re thinking about is hundreds to thousands of years. I mean, I might for certain categories of existential risk be thinking in terms of mere decades but when we’re thinking about civilization design as an overall process, it needs to be much larger scale and to some extent it’s over broader intervals of consideration than would normally be considered in say, business.

Jim: One way, I’d like to, I have framed this kind of thing, I’d love to get your reaction to it, is that most of our institutions that exist in the world today think of the money on money return economy, antagonistic, and often polarized, first pass the post democracy or other forms of voting in boxes ends up with very short planning horizons and if we think about it in terms of complexity science, we end up with cultures and institutions that are essentially hill climbers. All they can do is react to a local gradient on what they see right in front of them. I usually say our headlights go out three years, something like that and frankly, that was okay when the world was changing slowly in 1700 when our current civilization started pulling itself together from the components of science, modern finance, and the beginnings of democracy, things were moving slow enough.

Three years was plenty of headlights, but today, where is what’s GPT seven going to look like in three years? Oh my God. So it seems to me that if we want to look at it from the complexity lens, we could say that we have this rather large challenge of moving from a hill climber world where we just follow gradients up to a network world, we have to start to learn to think about truly complex networks where influences are highly in multiple dimensions, they’re very nonlinear, and then even worse where all the players are agentic. Does that framing do anything for you?

Forrest: It does, and in fact, it sort of highlights some of the things that I was mentioning. So for instance, if we’re having trouble predicting what’s going to happen over three years, how are we actually going to ensure sustainability over the next thousand years? So for instance, what kinds of preconditions would enable us to essentially navigate in a way that we wouldn’t run into some blind alley, or as you said, hill climb up to a particular peak but is not sustainable or not optimal with respect to the situation that we’re actually in and so in this sense, there’s kind of, again, sort of this multiple aspect of it, which is that on one hand we have this incredibly high rate of change, and on another hand, the stakes are higher, right, because in effect there’s more people and there’s more complexity and the impacts of some of these changes are more wide sweeping and more permanent.

So in this sense, it’s like the quality of the choices that we need to make is increasing. In other words, the requirement that the world is placing in front of us to make higher quality choices is going up at the same time as our technological capacity is essentially creating change for that to occur. So in one sense, there’s sort of this increased demand that the world is placing on our capacity to choose and we need to essentially now come to those choices with enough perspective, with enough capacity to be able to ensure that there’s adequate wisdom associated with those choices so that we can actually make those in a way that not just satisfies the short term, but as you mentioned, satisfies the long term i.e., more than three years out, and then likely more than 300 years out and so people can ask, well, can that be done, and it turns out that yes, there are some principled ways to think about this, that although it wouldn’t necessarily be able to predict what would happen in the long term.

We can say these are the kinds of conditions that would be needed for sustainability, or these are the kinds of things that lead to an adequate level of wisdom for these kinds of issues and so in effect, there is this going back to the why now. On one hand we have this increased demand being placed on us, but we also have increased resources. So collective intelligence capacities are more available to us because of technology. We have ways of thinking about psychology and sociology and anthropology that are dependent upon things we’ve only learned in the last 50 years and are still learning the science of how consciousness works or how brains work or how societies work, and what does it mean to be a healthy person or a healthy community or a healthy civilization. We’re starting to be able to articulate some of the things as to what that actually means so that we can make better choices in these spaces in the face of increased need for those kinds of choices.

Jim: You mentioned the word wisdom, I think at least three times here in a fairly short interval and we talked a bit about the decay of our epistemic commons in our last couple of discussions and when I look at our world today and compare it to the world I grew up in, I’m an old dude and I was old enough to know what was going on in the world in 1964. I had a newspaper route, I had my own copy of the newspaper, which I read cover to cover, and I sort of knew what was going on in politics and in our society in 1964, and there was a lot less crazy loose in the world in 1964.

I recently ran some polls on Twitter and the level of adherence to various bizarro conspiracy theories, but I couldn’t believe it and probably the subset of people I was polling was way more sensible and wise than average. So we have a vision, your vision that requires an instantiation of wisdom high dimensional for a thousand years, and yet our epistemic commons and our collective wisdom seems to be on a downtrend. What does that bring to mind?

Forrest: Well, so in effect you’re describing what is the challenge? I mean, there’s some real issues in the space that you’re speaking to. So in other words, the demands that are being placed upon us, of course, none of us get to decide that. I mean that’s defined by nature and by circumstance. So in effect, it’s a bit like, okay, when we’re looking at the principles of what makes a good epistemic commons, or what are the kinds of qualities that an individual could have or develop that would help them to be able to navigate these spaces and these questions more easily or to have the capacity to build the capacity to navigate these sorts of spaces. So in this sense, a lot of what I’ve been thinking about is communities and how do communities amongst themselves build kind of epistemic commons that allow them to make sensible choices in these spaces.

So in effect, it’s kind of like the capacity to create, the capacity to solve these kinds of issues and I’m coming from a software engineering background as I’m sure you know, and in effect what that essentially means is that I’m not uncomfortable with the idea of, oh, I need to solve a problem, but I don’t have the tools to solve that problem. So I need to build the tools to solve the problem, but I don’t have the tools to make those tools yet. So maybe I’ll make the tools that make the tools, that make the tools, that give me the capacity to solve the problem and although it might seem really indirect in that particular thing, there is a path of that type that can actually work. So this is part of the reason why I mentioned civility in addition to cities. It’s not just a question of finance or of moving resources around or building the right kind of infrastructure.

A lot of it has to do with cultural changes. So in this particular sense, it’s a bit like as you were saying earlier, there’s a kind of allowance for a wide variety of ideas, but there’s also a need for integration. There’s a need for the kind of sense making where people are comparing notes and figuring things out, and what are the times and spaces that allow for us to actually do that, and how do we essentially create values around that process because they’re connected to say what we might call family values or health values or things that have to do with more holistic or ecological thinking. So in this particular sense, it starts with a kind of cultural impulse to recognize that not everything can be purchased, that there are some things, for example, that if we’re oriented from a commercial perspective, that that’s only going to be able to solve a certain class of issues.

And so in effect, I’m kind of pushing back and saying, unlike the Adam Smith idea that marketism or the commercial process in general can solve all governance problems, obviously we know that’s not strictly true and moreover than that, there’s some things that even government and business combined wouldn’t necessarily have the capacity to address that we would need entirely new orders of sense-making processors or entirely new orders of how communities relate to one another that create the capacities to deal with things that are what we would say big, hairy, audacious problems, just because the bandwidth constraints, for example, just demand that.

Jim: Now this gets us into the domains of values. We could also call that closely related ethics. In fact, we did a whole episode on your non relativistic ethics and EP 134, and we looked at the history of philosophy, ethics. Generally ethics theories fall into three big buckets, deontological theories that say God said this is the right thing to do, or it’s natural law that says this is the right thing to do. Some external definition of what is right and what is wrong. The other extreme is utilitarianism, what provides the greatest good for the greatest numbers, and then the Greek approach virtue ethics or especially Aristotle, and then other people later, which says that if we have certain attributes in people, then the emergent result will be a ethical civilization.

Truthfully, none of those actually seem entirely correct. Could you talk about your non relativistic ethics and how that ties into your notion of values here as we start to think about civilization design and no real need to place it in that triple of deontological, utilitarian and virtue ethics, but if it seems like it might be handy, feel free to do so?

Forrest: Definitely, yeah. I mean, this is actually a question that connects to an essay that I wrote. As far as I can see, the two notions of ethics, the sort of notion of law or the idea that what’s a good choice to make depends upon a series of rules or kind of logic system and then the sort of utilitarian perspective of what’s good to do can be something that can be optimized on the basis of certain feedback or metrics. I feel that both of those, in a sense, actually reduce to in the extrema. So for instance, if you look at where do the rules come from or where do the ultimate values of what it is we’re trying to measure come from that ultimately it ends up becoming a kind of value ethics and I say value ethics rather than virtue ethics. Cause a lot of time we’re talking about Aristotle such like that they’re basically saying things like, okay, we’re going to take this list of things and we’re going to call these virtues and we’re going to try to choose in a way that’s consistent with these virtues.

Whereas I’m talking about value ethics, which essentially is to say something about what is the nature of the relationship between value, meaning, and purpose. So in a sense, I’m treating the notion of value as not just some sort of notion of monetary value, how much of something we’d have, which would be compatible with the utilitarian perspective, but broader notions in an embodied level. So rather than a virtual notion of value, an actual embodied notion of value, which would be things like health or wellbeing or ecological, thriving or family thriving or community thriving. So in effect, when we think about things like governance, for example, and we’re saying the function of governance is to protect the land and the people, and moreover, to have the land and the people thrive, that would be characterization of good governance. What we’re really getting down to is this more fundamental notion of what are the principles of good choices.

If a government process or a governance process is essentially about making choices, how to regulate or how to essentially manage the business world and the business world itself is connected to finance and money and things like that and those also represent the notion of choices, i.e., the idea that a dollar represents I could choose this service or these goods and through that enable future choices. Perhaps then in effect when we’re really talking about here is what does it mean to make a good choice? And so in this sense where we’re talking about individual choices or community choices or nation state choices, or how does a city, for example, make choices about how to manage its finances or its resources? In a lot of ways, what we’re really interested in are what are the principles of good choices? Is there something about the nature of choice itself or something about the nature of the relationship between the subjective and the objective, which is deep enough that it actually informs what do we mean when we say a good choice?

And so that the notion of virtue or the notion of value in this particular sense is connected to the notion of goodness and the notion of ethics is connected to the notion of choice and so in the sense the study of ethics is the study of how do we make good choices or how are good choices made and so in this sense, this connects back to why we would think about civilization design because design itself is a series of choices, some of which are constrained by natural circumstances.

We could think about natural law, some of which are constrained by social circumstances and some of which might be considered as aesthetic preferences, but somewhere along the way all of this sort of combines and we’re kind of choosing how do we live together, how does the world work, how do we manage resources and all of those, how do we do X kinds of things is partially voluntary.

So there’s a notion here that if we understand ethics really, really well, if we understand those principles really well, then we’ll just be better at managing things like epistemic commons or doing the kind of stuff that we would think of as making choices in governance or as businesses or in general as individuals. So in this sense, with the non relativistic ethics show up in that sort of three kinds of moral or ethical theories, as you mentioned earlier, it’s certainly not law-based and it’s certainly not utilitarian, but I would say that to some extent at least, it provides a kind of way of thinking about value because in a sense it lives…

If we think about optimization functions, they would be things that might be evaluated from a purely subjective point of view, or if we’re thinking about lawfulness, the place the law might come from might seem to be from an exterior point of view, but in a lot of ways when we’re thinking about choice, we’re talking about emotion from the subjective to the objective. So in that sense, the principles are neither something which is just an abstraction that lives in some sort of platonic ideal, nor is it the case that it is something that’s purely subjective or was handed down through some sort of emanation or revelation.

Forrest: …some sort of emanation or revelation. In this particular sense, to be able to talk about ethics and principles in a direct sense is essentially to provide a foundation that provides support for the three kinds of ethical theories that you mentioned earlier. In one sense, it’s not really in the category of those systems, but it includes aspects of all of them, or rather provides the foundations to support all of them in various ways.

Jim: Yep. As you always do, you mentioned choice and choosing a lot. And if I step back a little bit and think about this idea of values or ethics, presumably, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so kick back if I’m doing too much here, one of the things, if we’re going to try to apply ethics to designing a civilizational system, we need to be able to inform choice so that it is vectoring towards the good. Now, that then leaves us with a regression problem, which is what is the good and how do we define it?

Forrest: That’s right. This is essentially, what is the way in which we ground the notion of the good? One of the things that sort of, and this is part of the reason why I was connecting it back through the notion of value, purpose, and meaning, is that at a certain juncture, we say that goodness is connected to value and value is itself grounded in meaningfulness. And so what is meaningfulness grounded in? Well, ultimately, it’s grounded in life. It’s grounded in the relationships. It’s grounded in the between us. So in a sense, there’s both a objective element or aspect to it and a subjective element or aspect to it, and it’s in the contact between the two of those, the notion of integrity or the notion of holding together that is actually happening.

So in a lot of ways, when we’re thinking about ethics, we’re basically saying, “What is it in the nature of the relationship in that process?” Because choosing itself, again, is an expression from the subjective to the objective, is in the relationship between the subjective and the objective. It’s part of the real. So in this sense, to basically say, “Well, how do I increase the integrity of the subjective? Or how do I increase the integrity of the objective?” It’s effectively to ask, “How do I increase the integrity of the relationship between the subjective and the objective?” And so the notion of goodness is essentially grounded in this notion of integrity of the relationship between the subjective and the objective.

And as I said, it’s kind of indirect how this is connected. Like I said, goodness goes to virtue or value itself connects to meaningfulness, and meaningfulness is in that relationship. It is in that notion of integrity. So in this sense, when we’re looking at it in a summary sort of way, we would say, “Well, those things that increase health and vitality in living, organic systems in the personal and interpersonal and transpersonal sense, these would be things that are…” We could just basically say, “These are categorically good,” if it subtracts years from your life or if it decreases the quality of life, yours and your family or yours and your community or the environment in which you live.

It’s like if we were playing pool, for example, I’d want to take a shot in such a way that although I might have positioned the ball in the pocket or something like that, I want to leave the cue ball in a good position. So every choice that I’m making, I want to ensure that not only are the actual outcomes of that choice, the causative effects that show up in the world, things that have the quality of goodness, but I’m also looking for the potentialities of future choices to also be ones that enable similarly reasonable outcomes and/or they’re choices that don’t have huge amounts of conflict in them.

For instance, if I find myself in a situation where I’m forced to make worse and worse compromises, then the choices that I made previously are probably not the best because they’ve arrived at this apparent unwinnable situation. So in effect, it’s a bit like thinking holistically about this. What are the choices that I could make that in an enduring and ongoing way not only produce good outcomes, but produce good potentials? So in this sense, we start to ground the notion of goodness through the reification associated with the principles to things that are actually connective between the subjective and the objective. And so in this sense, the notion of goodness doesn’t end up just free floating or a matter of subjective opinion, but ends up being grounded in something that is actually realizable or noticeable as being part of the real.

Jim: Let’s see if we can ground this a little bit. I understand what you’re saying, but for the audience, it may be up pretty high in abstraction space. If one were designing, let’s say a small city, and when we’re thinking about choices around goodness, one of the historical things that civilizations have tried to do is sumptuary laws, which said that only nobility can wear ermine fur and only nobles of X rank can wear purple cloth, et cetera. Those things always failed and they produce a lot of hard feelings.

On the other hand, if we think about something like the good being defined of having a civilization that can operate in planetary limits, something like sumptuary laws might actually be deemed the good, like 40,000 square foot houses. That would be 4,000 square meters for you Europeans and Asians out there, which is, by the way, half my audience interestingly. Some things like sumptuary laws may actually make sense if we have an overarching value living within planetary limits. Is that something that would be a way of describing how the value of planetary limits can then be reduced to something called the good, which is our cultural norms or even stronger than cultural norms, about how much consumption each person ought to be doing?

Forrest: For instance, the question’s like, “Well, how do we translate these concepts, these ethical ideas of goodness and choice-making and so on, which are admittedly quite abstract, into something very practical for a city that could actually show up?” And the first thing that occurs to me is not so much thinking about rules and ruler relationships or things like that, but things more having to do with the city in a gestalt sort of way. For instance, if a city is going to endure for a long time, then three conditions are necessary and actually sufficient. So in other words, what are the things that are necessary and sufficient for a healthy city or a city to be in some vitality or to achieve some notion of goodness in the sense that we were using earlier?

So in this sense, if I ask, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions?”, well, I would observe that there wants to be social balance, which is part of what you were alluding to. How do we think about social process and social balance? Energy balance, because if you don’t have an energy input to the city to keep the city going, then it just stops. If you shut down all the power or all the fuel flow or all of the food going into the city, then obviously, the city can’t endure it. People just don’t have a way of staying there. And so in effect, there’s also a need for what we might call ecological balance. So if the city essentially has farms in its surrounding 100-mile radius, for example, and those farms are not operating in a sustainable way, then eventually, you end up with dust bowl type conditions and there’s no longer any food.

So in this specific sense, I would say that for a city to achieve sustainability and therefore the capacity to evolve and to have conscientiousness about its future and how to make choices and so on and so forth in any kind of enduring or adaptive way, if it’s going to have resilience, then it’s going to have resilience in its energy balance, its social balance, and its ecological balance. So in this sense, the first tier of questions that generally can be asked is, “Is it the case that a city or a collection of cities or a nation state or the planet as a whole, is it in social balance, is it in ecological balance, and is it in energy balance?” And if we look at just the energy perspective all by itself, we notice that there’s a lot of transition going on there.

We’re thinking of fossil fuel. Is the available future reserves of fossil fuels okay? Is it going to be a thing where the carbon in the atmosphere causes ecological balance issues, and therefore people are moving around and you have social unrest and social inequality issues showing up? So in effect, we would say, “Well, if we look at it from the perspective of at a city level or at a planetary level or a nation state level, pick your scale, basically. And is it the case that things are in ecological, social, and energy balance?” And largely, I would say no, and this is part of the reason why that it’s very crucial for us to be thinking about civilization design based upon all of the experience of basically millions or billions of people having explored all the different permutations of different ways of thinking about civilization, different ways of thinking about organization.

If you think of the total course of human history and all of the variations of different social processes that have been tried and played out, in effect, we’re at a state where we need to learn from all of that and yet still not be hindered by it in a sense of thinking about designs and methodologies that have never before been tried, but which are actually responsive to these principles of, what would it mean to attain social balance and what does that actually consist of? Or what does it mean to attain energy balance and what does that actually consist of? Or what does it mean to maintain an ecological balance and how does that work? Because we can definitely say that without these things, the city won’t endure. And again, when I’m saying endure, I’m talking in over 1000-year intervals.

If you look at cities, one of the things that is fortunate about this is that unlike corporations or other kinds of social process, cities are genuinely very enduring. Their position on the land and relative to waterways and things like that, as a energy feature in terms of just the landscape of possibility, then there’s a strong sense that there’s forces that shape cities to essentially cohere and to persist. But in this particular sense, for us to maintain civilization, we do have to think about the civility angle, the idea of how we communicate with one another, how culture works, and the kinds of dynamics that would create the sorts of values for which ecological balance and energy balance would be maintained and held collectively in culture.

So in this particular sense, while there may be short-term cultural definitions about, say, a manner of dress or a signaling protocol that establishes social relationships, to me, that’s a very small part of the overall cultural dynamic, which is itself a part of what we might be considering social balance and cultural process that itself gives rise to the kinds of infrastructure and the kinds of both embodied and value relationships. When we think about economies and economic process, there’s a virtual relationship of the civility. And when we’re talking about the infrastructure, we’re talking about an embodied relationship of civility.

So in a sense, it’s kind of like we notice that there’s usually a preference for managing things on a conversational or on a virtual or on a cultural level, but it’s important to consider that that is itself in relationship to infrastructure and things like energy balance particularly. So in this sense, to me, it’s the hyper abstract question of metaphysics and how it provides a foundation for ethics lends itself to thinking about the kinds of principles that would allow us to identify, for example, why ecological energy and social balance would be necessary, and then starts to give us some tools as to, how do we think about culture and its relationship to infrastructure? How do we think about how energy and infrastructure interact, or how technology, humanity, and nature interact?

So in effect, when we’re thinking about these kinds of things, fortunately starting with the principles and the master key associated with the metaphysics, that allows us, it gives us the tools to basically notice what are the questions that we need to ask that would actually move us forward in the design space.

Jim: Yeah, that’s good. It makes perfect sense, but what about the underlying generator functions which tend to cause us to diverge from that kind of convergence? One in particular that I’ve been scratching my head a whole lot about is, I try to dig into these ideas, is Rene Girard in his claim that humans are fundamentally engaged in mimetic status signaling, mimetic with an I, that I see somebody with a Porsche, therefore I’m not happy until I have a Porsche. We’re trying to emulate the people we perceive as our betters, and you can write a very simple little simulation which says that’s a runaway race condition right there.

If that is fundamental to human nature, we got ourselves a big problem. But maybe it is, maybe it’s not. How do you think about that example of a generator function which is in conflict with the idea of establishing a level of intense, let’s say, energetic intensity in a civilization which is compatible with our planetary boundaries?

Forrest: I’m delighted with this question. This is actually the question, or variation of this question is what led me into doing this work in the first place. We know that we’re not going to be able to change the human condition and the human nature. We are the kind of animals that we are. There’s eight billion of us in the world, maybe more, maybe less. Who knows? But the point is, is that there’s a kind of persistence to that. And moreover than that, technology and science is the way it is. It’s not something we quote, unquote, choose what the laws of nature are going to be or how we learn about causation and so on.

So in effect, the nature of technology is what it is, and some people say it’s neutral. I personally disagree with that. But I would suggest that if we look at it in the broadest possible strokes, if we think about what is fundamentally the nature of technology and what is fundamentally the nature of humanity, to a first approximation, and there’s a lot of justification for why it’s reasonable to think this way, but we can pretty much regard that people come from a predatory species. We’re omnivores, and there’s a sense in which our superpower as a group is to not only maintain social process, but to do exploration and then exploitation.

And of course, when you’re dealing with a finite world, there’s only so much exploration you can do before you have gone around the planet and done the Columbus thing and so on, and there’s only so much exploitation you can do before the resources that are available are utilized, committed in one fashion or another. So in effect, we need a new approach. We need something that goes beyond explore and beyond exploit, but we’re not changing the fundamental nature of human beings. We’re noticing that we need to adapt new behaviors or to essentially increase our repertoire, add to our toolkit what is fundamentally a kind of new capacity. And so in this sense, if we say, “Well, technology is toxic and people are predators, what could possibly be a solution to civilization design in this sort of circumstance?”

When I was first presented with this particular question, made these observations, I spent several years trying to work on a proof, you couldn’t do it. It’s like trying to build a skyscraper out of ice. It’s just not a very good material for doing that sort of thing. It’s too brittle. It doesn’t handle compressive loads, intensive loads the way you’d need to. And moreover than that, if it’s a sunny day, it’s going to melt. So in this sense, it looked to me initially that from a just first cut perspective, that this is just the wrong ingredients to be doing this sort of work. You can’t make a skyscraper out of ice and have it [inaudible 00:41:10].

Jim: Meaning, let’s get blunt here, you can’t build a decent civilization out of human beings. Was that-

Forrest: Well, that was my first war with technology, and like I said, for a while, I was just like, this should be possible to prove that that’s impossible. And I found myself in this unexpected position of attempting to do a formal and rigorous proof of that and discovering I couldn’t, and trying again and discovering I couldn’t. I kept working on it for a while and eventually I decided, well, let’s do the opposite thing. Let’s see if we can do a proof of existence that there is a solution. And somehow, that actually worked. So then I was in the position where I knew that it was possible to solve this problem. I didn’t know what the solution was, but I knew that it was possible, so it gave me hope to start looking at it in a different way.

And so to really answer the question that you’re speaking to, which is given that human nature is the way it is, and you’re looking at the way in which people compare themselves to one another and the status games and arms races and things like that, yes, those forces are real. And so in effect, for me to think about how could we address these kinds of things, first of all, I have to be, in a sense, in direct understanding of what those forces are. Because if you don’t account for the nature of the problem as it actually is, any solutions that you’re proposing just won’t connect. It’s like you got to pass the litmus test of what is actually the problem and what is actually the nature of the forces involved.

But this is also one of the ways in which we can actually start to say something that is good about our current position. It’s like there’s a force of why we need to be doing civilization design. It’s driven from essentially a perspective of the future, but there’s also a capacity to do civilization design that’s driven from a perspective of the past. We know more about our instincts and our unconscious or largely unconscious psychological drivers than we ever have previously, so you can say, “Well, why is it the case that a person wants to keep up with the Joneses?” Well, you could ask them, and they may or may not have insight into that, but in a larger sense, we do have insight into that.

Well, largely signaling and status games and so on and so forth, well, why would a person want power or prestige? Well, effectively, if you have a line of men and some of them have more power and prestige than others, the ones that will get the mates will be the ones that essentially have more of the capacity to raise children. And so in effect, there’s a sense of people that have a somewhat more personable manner or are more resourced or more intelligent or more-

Jim: Or a bigger schlong. Don’t forget that one.

Forrest: Yeah. It’s got to be some combination of capacities that for the large part, make it so that there is a desirability there for someone to choose them as a partner for a family. I’m not trying to be reductionistic here, but the idea is that all of our choices are going to connect back to what would be concerns of social process, concerns of survival process, and concerns of what might be called sexual process. So in a sense, these fundamental instincts of which those three, I think are the categorical exemplars, effectively are the drivers of our choices. And so in effect, if we’re unconscious of these drivers, if we’re operating from a place of need or we’re driven from a position of external wants, something that some advertising agency convinced you that you must have, that you can only buy from them, then in effect, the choices that you’re making are in a sense compelled.

You’re not actually in free choice. You’re in a situation where your sovereignty has been affected. So in this particular sense, to really come into a sense of what is our actual desires, having corrected for knowing what our instincts and our drives are, but to some extent, to be able to respond to our desires, our mutual desires, to discover what we desire together because desire also is a between-ness, then we can start to basically make a whole different category of choices or a whole different quality of choices than would be driven from, say, the causal dynamics of either want or need.

So in this particular sense, we’re looking at a kind of culture that has in its very nature, an embodiment of the skill of discerning from which the choices are being made, from which basis are we operating, and is that basis a one that is essentially compensating for essentially a transpersonal perspective that is compensating for an individual perspective, that it doesn’t override what would be a transpersonal perspective? So in this sense, I think of it as, I mentioned wisdom earlier and you noted that, is that when we’re thinking about civility, it depends a lot on what we think of as relationships of attunement with one another.

Do I actually know what your needs are? Do I know what my needs are? Attunement and discernment as cultural practices, as skills, that through some modest amount of technology process essentially enables us to become more skillful in the spaces of discernments and attunement, the natural result of that is an increase in wisdom individually and collectively. So in effect, we’re looking at the kinds of dynamics that held culturally that, say, for example, we notice that we actually like being together in person and small group process.

If we prefer conversations with our partners and with the people that we have dinner with or our friends and so on and so forth, that these conversational dynamics in a personal sense rather than, say, mediated through text messages or gaming apps or things like that, that we actually enjoy the interpersonal relationship and the kind of attunement we have with one another and the kind of discernments that enables us to make better, wiser choices in an individual sense and in a collective sense. There’s something fulfilling about that. There’s something actually wholesome and healthy about it.

Jim: Let me jump in here with an important point, the wholesome and the desire for it. I know I personally love a dinner party. I love to meet people coming from out of town and go out and have a good time, but that’s because that’s how I was raised. In the same way that if you raise children to eat green vegetables from the time they’re very young, I’ll give my daughter credit for doing that with our granddaughter, you’ll develop a taste that you like vegetables. If you’re always eating macaroni and cheese out of a package, vegetables will taste pretty nasty. And so it’s the experiences we have and essentially how we nurture and raise the next generation. If we look at those statistics on a whole bunch of things, the way the current generation-

Jim: … statistics on a whole bunch of things. The way the current generations are coming up, the people in their, say, from 10 or 12 years old, up into their early 20s, the so-called Zoomer, they have many fewer friends. They do much less in-person anything. Scarily, they’re having a lot less sex.

Forrest: That’s right.

Jim: Here we are in a world overcome with dating apps and hookup apps and pornography, the bottom line is late, older teenagers are having a lot less sex, and young adults. Could it be that if we don’t have a proper civilizational design in the same way that if you don’t have young children eating their green beans and their peas, they won’t develop a taste for vegetables, if we’re not having a society where the first class way of relating with each other is face-to-face, is it possible we lose that as the sense of the good?

Forrest: Yeah. This is why I keep referring to cultural dynamics. For instance, and this is exactly the right sort of point, is that, depending upon what we value as a culture, we teach our children what it is that we value as a culture, and they take on those values too. So in effect, we’re wanting to ensure that the value set that’s embodied in children is complete enough. Not just, do they have value A or B, but do they also have value C, D, E, and F? Because somewhere along the way, we need to ensure that at least the minimum subset of values that are sustainable or provide for resilience in the next generation. Because without that, if they don’t have that resilience, then they will be even less able to raise the next generation after them.

You end up with this attrition that goes on over time. As you’re pointing out, people are less likely to enter into relationships because the intermediation of technology has essentially changed the name of what it even means to be in a relationship. So in effect, there’s a sense here that without some perspective of principle about what is the nature of the problem, if I tried to solve something like that with just money, for example, and say, “Okay, well, we’re going to change the way the economic system works,” but we haven’t actually touched the nature of the real issue, that’s more of a cultural thing, or more fundamentally, the nature of the way culture and ecology relate to one another. Then trying to solve it at a finance level or at a policy level or even at an infrastructure level is just not going to be adequate, because it’s treating symptoms.

Jim: Yeah. There’s a counter, for instance, in some of the work some of us have done on Game B communities. One of the arguments we make for why it makes sense to have a coherent community with coherent values is, for instance, we might, as a collective, agree, no cell phones for people under 16. Extremely difficult to do if you live out in the broader society and your 12-year-old daughter comes home and said her three best friends all just got smartphones for Christmas, really hard to tell her no and get cut off from her social group.

But if you live in a community where that is the value, that it’s actually worse to give a 12-year-old a smartphone than it is to give a 12-year-old cigarettes, which I approximately agree is true, then there’s at least a chance to build in how children are conditioned so that they will put more value in the face-to-face and in our animal aspects, and not just abstract all that away to bits over an electronic device. So there’s an example of where a higher order idea of good gets instantiated as a collective consensual values in a probably fairly small community. Is that getting at what you’re pointing at here a little bit?

Forrest: It is, yeah. I love the example that you’re making between cigarettes versus cell phones because, in effect, it’s like if you ask yourself, “Well, why is it the case that this might be true? What are the kinds of rationales that we would have, and are those grounded in some sort of observation or some sort of empirical experience that is shared experience?” I remember when I went to Washington to talk about technology issues back before COVID. I went down with the Center for Maine Tech, Tristan and all, and we talked to a number of senators and their aides and people in various parts of the government. One thing that we did notice and that I particularly was actually very glad to see was that we weren’t necessarily telling them things they didn’t already know.

We were giving them language to understand the things they were already experiencing, so that in effect, we were comparing notes and saying, “Here’s what we’ve observed,” and they’re saying, “Yeah, I’ve observed this with my own children, and by the way, I’m concerned about this.” We said, “Well, here’s some of the reasons why we feel the same as you do about these issues.” So in effect, there’s a sense here in which when the rules break down, when civilization in a sense is under stress and the things that used to work, the tools that used to solve problems aren’t working for the problems and the situations we are in currently, you have to go back from a reliance on heuristics and rules and get back to first principles, and from the first principles to think about what are the new practices? What are the new ways of being? What are the new cultural dynamics or the new processes that we will engage as a community or as a society or as a world that effectively provide us with a future, provide a future for our children because we actually care about that?

So in this particular sense, it’s a bit like just observing that human relationships are basically, there’s three dimensions of it. There’s a transactional dimension, there’s a power dimension, and then there’s a care dimension. That in effect, because of the nature of the world as it is today, all of our tools are mostly associated with the power dimension and with the transactional dimension. Institutions essentially are hierarchies of power relationships most of the time. There are some things which are more level, but the notion of who helps other people to do what and who in service to what and so on and so forth, and the transactionalism that a lot of people end up being very, very unconscious about how do we hold care? A true community is going to be defined by relationships of care primarily. So in effect, when we’re looking at the things that are facilitating of care, well, we need time. We need enough spaciousness.

In other words, if we think about the issues only in terms of power dynamics and transactional dynamics, and that’s the only way we understand social process, then the notion of social equality is going to be really hard to achieve because we’re missing the one tool that matters the most. So for instance, when we’re looking at ethics and saying values, somewhere along the way, we’re talking about what and who do we love? We’re talking about what and who do we care about? The notion of goodness in a sense is connected to the notion of care. So in this sense, we can think of transactionalism and power relationships, particularly if they’ve got fiduciary aspects as being the way in which we address how do we implement choices? What are the ways in which we take care and embody it? So it’s not that there’s anything fundamentally a wrong about some relationships being involved in transaction or power, but that if we don’t ground our choices in the sense of what do we care about, then we’ll find ourselves in a world that effectively doesn’t have what we care about in it.

So in effect, if we care about ourselves, if we care about our thriving or our life and so on and so forth, particularly as it extends in an intergenerational way, we’re going to want to ensure that those cares are part of the way in which we relate to one another and part of the nature of how we do civility. How do we do the sense of how do we live together? The infrastructure and the food and the resource parts of it, comparatively speaking, learning how to live together in relative mutual support and fulfillment and things like that is actually a much harder challenge currently than say, solving problems associated with food acquisition or shelter and things of that nature. So in effect-

Jim: If you don’t mind, let me hop in here and go back to something you said earlier, which I think is hugely important. I’d love to get your thoughts on this. We talked about sexual competition essentially, or the idea, the status symbols was to help you make progress in the sexual game, et cetera, which makes perfect sense, since we are Darwinian entities. We have been for 3.5 billion years, or at least for 550 million years since the Cambrian explosion, everybody alive today is the winner of a ferocious competition whose ancestors never lost. If they had ever lost once the game of reproducing, we personally would not be here. So no surprise that Darwinian ratchet has made us care a whole lot about sexual reproduction. This is something I have noticed, and I haven’t seen it commented on all that much, most of human civilizations are polygamous.

Anthropologists show most are, and most of the big empires were, particularly for the most successful for the game, the hyper gamey game. However, there was an amazing cultural innovation, a definition of the good. When the Greco-Romans invented monogamy, they more or less invented it. Even our relatively close cultural relatives in the Middle East were definitely not monogamous. Read the Bible, King Saul had 200 wives and 1000 concubines or something. The Greco-Roman monogamy was really, really strong as a cultural value, though, of course, violated in practice a lot, not a single one of the Roman emperors ever dared to take a second wife. Now, they’re serial monogamy, they would divorce them, and of course, they had girls on the side, et cetera. But even the emperor who had close to absolute power at times felt that they could violate this really strong social norm of monogamy, which as a emergent effect, produces something closer to sexual egalitarianism than does polygamy.

We have been gradually eroding the monogamy standard at least since 1960 or thereabouts. As I read about things like the online dating scene, and to actually talk to people engaged in it, it sounds like this formulation is reinventing polygamy, at least in practice, if not in law in that one quick way, I’ve heard people describe how these dating marketplaces work. I will say, I don’t know a goddamn thing about it. I am a happily married guy who will have been married 42 years on Sunday. So I don’t have any personal experience in this stuff at all. But the way I’ve heard it described in shorthand is the top 15% of guys do great, get all the girls they want, whatever top 15% means between looks and occupation and flashy cars and big absolutely. What do they call them, abs or something? I don’t know. But then top 50% of girls do okay, ’cause guys are happy.

The top 15% are happy to sport fuck the five out of tens. But that basically leaves everybody else out, the bottom 85% of guys and the bottom 50% of girls. So in some sense, at least in the formative young adult periods, we are moving radically away from sexual egalitarianism. No wonder we have things like people going nuts and shooting people. If you heighten sexual egalitarianism and you allow guns over the counter at every Walmart cash on the barrel head, I’m surprised we don’t have a lot more mass shootings. So when we think about something like the good and design of a civilization, and we acknowledge the fact that sex competition is an important thing, should we be paying more attention than we are today in making a less extreme and less destructive form of sexual competition the norm?

Forrest: Well, first of all, this is an excellent question and it’s an important one, but I want to point out a couple of things. So one of the things that we need to do is to make the unconscious conscious. If we’re in sexual competition, but we don’t realize that we’re in sexual competition, then of course. The playing field could be affected by that. Our fighting with one another could destroy the environment around us. So in a sense, we’re noticing that it is actually important to notice when the choices that we’re making are based upon considerations such as the ones that you’ve mentioned, but it’s not the only factor. So for instance, sometimes we may be willing to, men in particular might, for example, be willing to take life-threatening risks in order to impress some woman. Historically, you see lots of hero saga or Joseph Campbell kind of things where the guy goes on a very dangerous quest in order to develop himself as a being and to eventually win the woman, or at least impress her well enough that she would consent to be with him.

So in effect, there’s a sense here of what is the relative weighing of the instinct of survival versus the instinct of sexuality? But it’s not the only one. As I mentioned, there’s the instinct of sociality. I think this is the piece that’s a little bit under-emphasized here, because while it may be the case in some sense that on an evolutionary basis that of course every single one of your ancestors was essentially the winner of the genetic capacity to win out and to provide offspring from which we are ourselves inherited, it is also the case that civilization and people cooperate with one another. The two parents had to cooperate after the reproductive act for a good long time after in order to raise a child from essentially a baby, which is relatively helpless in the environment to an adult which was able to have the skills to raise their own children.

So in this sense, there’s a long gestation period followed by an even longer developmental period where attachments and then attunement and then nurturing care action has to actually occur for the child to develop the necessary level of societal trust or trust in their own capacities and in the cooperativeness of their families and the communities that they’re a part of so that they can develop enough autonomy to have the resources that when they develop a capacity for sexuality, that they can actually support their own family. So in a sense, I would say it’s actually the balance between competition and cooperation, which is the crucial metric. So in effect, if we have more competition than we have cooperation, then civilization essentially comes apart, and you don’t end up with enough social process to support the sexual process.

So as a result, there ends up being not just a reduction in the number of people born to the next civilization, but also a decrease in their ability to survive. So in this particular sense, the three instincts of survival, sexuality and social are tightly coupled to one another, and that it’s under relatively extreme circumstances that we end up having to prioritize one or the other of these over another one. So in effect, what we’re really wanting to do when we’re thinking about things like this is first of all is to notice these drivers notice these forces, notice the kind of conditions under which they operate on a personal and interpersonal basis, and to begin to be able to account for these forces in the way in which we think about choices. So in this particular sense, I don’t know that I actually have a very strong opinion about polygamy versus monogamy.

Though, I do notice that these sorts of dynamics tend to be very culturally defined, as you’ve pointed out, and that in a lot of ways, the cultures themselves are trying to shape their own future through these sorts of processes about the interrelationship between sexuality, survival, and social. So in effect, rather than having the culture be something which is essentially inherited and it worked for our ancestors and therefore, it works for us and that that’s something we should pay attention to, but that we should actually understand the principles of, why did it work for our ancestors and the current circumstances well enough that we can apply those same principles to the circumstances today. Because as you mentioned earlier, things are changing fast enough that we’re not going to be able to evolve a new set of solutions quickly.

Trial and error is no longer the way in which we would be able to solve certain problems, particularly when we’re talking about existential risk. So in this particular sense, we actually need to be more mindful as to what are the principles and to know how to translate those into practices so that we maintain balances between say, cooperation and competition so that things like social process at a city level, for example, does actually remain stable. So in this sense, first of all, just as a expectation setting here, just recognize the civilization design as a skill requires a pretty broad strokes understanding of psychology and sociology as well as economics and physics and chemistry, and literally every BA branch of technology and quite a bit of mathematics too. So in effect, this is not a trivial subject. You need to know about history and all sorts of political and legal things.

So it’s like the notion here is that many of these questions are actually quite complex. But the idea is that if we’re thinking about at a cultural level, if these processes are conscious, then we may notice places where we’re ending up with arms races, for example, or instabilities in the nature of human interrelationships or intersexual relationships. That in effect, if we’re understanding the underlying drivers, we’re better able to make choices about these things without say, neglecting the fact that cooperation is just as important as competition. This is to say in the evolutionary process itself, because if you look at nature for example, and you say, “Well, what we notice are the things that are obvious, the places where there’s competition or one animal leading another, but what’s harder to see are all the places where cooperation’s happening, the way the trees cooperate with one another, the way the animals cooperate with one another that aren’t feeding on one another, or how that’s actually happening most of the time.”

So in effect, there’s a sense here in which we’re wanting to be sure that we’re actually understanding the holism of this thing in a really good way, so that when we’re applying the principles that we end up, as I said, addressing the actual cause without say, being too deep into it, i.e., throwing a baby out with the bath water, we’re too surface about it, which would be just treating symptoms. We have to have an awareness that brings it down to the right level of consideration. One last point, in terms of just about human relationships. It’s not just the case that it’s always about relative comparisons, keeping up with the Joneses and whatever they have, I want one more of and so on. Four things that have to do with survival rather than sexuality, we notice that it’s actually comparison on an absolute basis, I eat to nature rather than to other humans.

So in this sense, if we’re looking at the notion of, “Well, how many burgers can you eat in a particular day?” Well, it might be more than one, but on the other hand, it’s certainly not going to be much more than six. At a certain point, you might have a million dollars that you could buy a million burgers, but having a million burgers, you just can’t consume all of that in a single day. So there’s a sense in which when we’re thinking about survival level issues, you want passes threshold conditions, i.e., is it’s not below criticality that if you don’t have enough, you fail the test. If you don’t make a choice, that’s sufficiently wise, you’re going to die. But also that it’s the case that having an arbitrary amount more than that probably doesn’t do you that much good. Once you’ve got enough water, once you’ve got enough food, sleep and so on, more of the same doesn’t necessarily help you.

So in this sense, there’s just as much interpersonal relationship process that is governed by what might be called absolute metrics, as would be evaluated on the basis of relative metrics. So we’re thinking about the relationship between say, consciousness, sustainability, and evolution, which is essentially what we would normally think of as conscious sustainable evolution, i.e., what is the preconditions for the absolute long term, i.e., 1,000 to 10,000 years out? The kinds of principles that we’re needing to be able to think about those kinds of things in a coherent way, essentially, are talking about what is the nature of evolution? What is the nature of sustainability? Ultimately, what is the nature of consciousness, and how do these three interrelate to one another? So in this sense, it is the case that we’re looking at both absolute and relative metrics and things which can’t be metricated at all, i.e., consciousness [inaudible 01:10:04]

Jim: Yeah. Let’s change our focus just a little bit here. We’ve been-

Forrest: Okay.

Jim: … talk … really rich conversation about values and human nature and generator functions, et cetera. Let’s maybe talk a little bit now the bigger structural design space. One thing that comes up a lot in the Game B discussions, and also in related radical social change movements is, how do we think about subsidiarity? Subsidiarity being the doctrine, I think originally from the Catholics that said, “A decision should be made at the lowest level in the stack that is suitable for the resolution of that issue.” For instance, whether you should allow drinking on street corners is probably a decision to be made at the neighborhood level. On the other hand, how much CO2 should each human be able to emit is by definition a global problem?

So subsidiarity and then closely related is the issue of pluralism. A term I personally like, I think I coined it, is coherent pluralism. How do we somehow within the schema of subsidiarity, rightly designed and pluralism, because humans want different things? We know famously that cultures radically differ over 10,000 years that we know very much about, and it’s not unreasonable for cultures to be different, but without a coherence, the subsidiarity breaks down. Either that, or you have to have a monarch at the top pushing everybody down. So wrestle for me a little bit with the issue of subsidiarity, coherence and pluralism, which are in tension with each other.

Forrest: Understood. Yes. So the thing that’s interesting about all of this is that in-

Forrest: The thing that’s interesting about all of this is that in every case we’re talking about choices. And so one of the things that comes up about the nature of choice itself is that choice is cooperative. So when we think about choices, normally we think about it particularly here in the United States, is the idea that people are pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, and they’re doing it as individuals rather than say the notion of pursuing life, liberty, and happiness as a community or as a collective.

And so I’m not necessarily trying to advocate a nation state way of thinking about that, but the idea here is just that when we’re thinking about choices, most of the time we feel as individuals that we’re making choices as individuals. But when we’re looking at governance and who makes what choices and so on and so forth, the idea is, as you mentioned, is that to some extent when we’re thinking about communities and effects on the world and so on and so forth, you want to have the choice making distribution match to the distribution of the effects.

So in other words, is the body that is making the choice, not necessarily the human body, but the community body for example, or whatever unit or notion of scale of human collective that you’re thinking about that that is in a sense, in some commensurate relationship with the effects of the choice. So for instance, if I’m making a choice that’s in a sense going to affect a thousand people, then to some extent I’m going to want a thousand people’s worth of wisdom to inform the choice.

Now, obviously as a single individual, it’s going to be really hard for me to hold a thousand people’s worth of wisdom. Roughly, you want to basically engage those people and have them be part of the choice and have them be in some sense involved with it. Similarly, not just in the sense of who’s affected, but what region of space and also what region of time.

So for instance, if I’m thinking about the triple of time, space and possibility, then to some extent I’m looking at, say for example, I make a choice that although it might be relatively limited in effect in my lifetime, might have significant outsized effects five or six generations from now. Toxicity issues and nuclear things can be thought of as exemplars of this.

Then to some extent we’re going to want to actually have, again, some level of encompassing that matches the effect of those choices. What is the consequence for future generations? Somehow or another, I’m going to want to bring that consideration into the present as being part and parcel of the choice.

Another piece when we’re talking about things like coherent subsidiarity as you mentioned, is not just that I want the choices to be appropriately distributed, not too distributed and not too concentrated. I’m also wanting to ensure that the basis of that choice is in a sense well held. And what I mean by that is, and I alluded to this earlier in the triple of want, need and desire, that if I have individuals basically making choices on the basis of what they think of as their needs, they’re not really going to compromise with one another. And if they’re making choices on the basis of what they want, needs being internal and wants being external, the source and resolution of a need is internal. The source of resolution of a want is external.

Again, if it’s an external thing, planes, trains, and automobiles as competition of who’s got more status or things like that. Those are all exterior things. So in effect, there’s a notion here that there’s sort of egoic or signaling aspect in the social relationships, and again, it becomes highly politicized or highly individualistic or driven by relative measures of relationship. Whereas what we’re really interested in is what are the desires? If I’m making choices on the basis of desire rather than on the basis of say, wants or needs, then in effect what I’m able to do is to start thinking about what are our desires together.

There’s a sense in which we can make the transition from thinking about desire on a purely personal level to thinking about desire on an interpersonal level and to some extent a transhuman level. So for instance, what would be the desire of the ecosystem or what would be the desire of this river or that tree? And in effect, there’s a notion here that we can connect with one another in a kind of cross-cultural sort of way. You mentioned earlier a kind of impassing, is that different cultures have different ways of solving problems. Like some cultures, for example, may have toolkits that are well adapted to living in the Alaskan wilderness, for example.

So they have things that talk about the narratives, include things about making tools that can deal with ice and fishing and things like that. Whereas if you’re dealing with someone who’s living in a desert, you’re going to have a completely different tool set and therefore completely different culture.

But the thing is that in each of these cases, the desires to drive humanity or the kind of underlying forces, as you said, the generator functions that sort of move things into position or to shape things as they move in time, they will in a sense still be common because the laws of physics and the universe are still going to be the same. Human nature is still human nature and so on.

So in this particular sense, we can start to by being conscious of these deeper underlying principles or these deeper underlying drives, begin to see ways in which my culture and another person’s culture are actually responses to particular wants, needs and desires as I’ve mentioned, and that we can begin to connect at the level of desire to since start to be able to cooperate in ways that would actually allow us to make, in a sense wiser choices in those scopes that essentially involve both of us, global warming being an example.

So in this sense, there’s a sense here of how are we orienting our perspective. If we’re treating culture as sacred, then in effect we’ve kind of eclipsed ourselves from perceiving life as sacred. And if we reorient ourselves to basically say that culture is an embodiment of life, or it’s essentially an exemplar of living well and thriving, for example, then yes, of course we want to uphold culture, but not at the cost of supporting life.

So in this sense, if the culture finds itself through habit or disablement or disability of one sort or another being out of ecological balance, then to some extent it’s in trouble. And so in a lot of ways, we’re wanting to find the ways in which to develop the sorts of cultures that have resilience, have the kind of consciousness and conscientiousness that although being vital and robust as a culture themselves, that they can still visit and have visibility too and be able to engender health in other cultures adjacent to them in the same sort of way that a healthy friend can help another friend that’s suffering to become healthy again.

This is some of the ways in which we help one another, and obviously it’s not just about need resolution in that sense, it’s also about shared discoveries and essentially the celebration of good things in life. And in some cases that I might choose to value something for the mere fact that you value it, that I take on some of your values and you take on some of my values, and that as a result, we’re both richer and more well adapted and more able to be in right relationship to nature, to self and to world.

So in this particular sense, I think that your notion of coherent solidarity has a lot of merit, but it has merit because of its connection to these sort of deeper principles. It’s like it’s alluding to the sorts of things that we actually want to get right.

Jim: In my reading last year, I came across something I didn’t know about, which I think is closely related to this. We talk about desire. Carl Rogers, the Gestalt psychologist, has a concept called congruence, which is the measure of the distance between what you believe is the good life and the life you’re actually living. And this congruence seems to change over time.

I suspect in the 1950s, congruence was pretty high. People thought that the life of, let’s say in America in particular in 1957 was pretty much what they wanted. They wanted the relatively modest three bedroom house in suburbia and 1.5 cars and three children, and they were pretty happy. The data we’re seeing on young people today is the desire for the kind of world they want, which is more humane, less energy consumptive, much more concerned about living within planetary limits, is very distant from the life most people are actually living today.

So we’re in an epoch where congruence is at a low. So I was thinking about how do you blend this concept in? And then I would then also assert a rut, conjecture that low congruence is probably bad for wellbeing, and may be one of the drivers of the deaths of despair and the mental health crisis, et cetera, where you’ve put a whole generation of people who have developed a more enlightened set of desires but aren’t in a context where that’s really operationalized by the civilization design.

Forrest: Exactly. It comes to mind as you’re mentioning this, that I think that if I was to speculate a bit as to what my model would be for why the congruence levels are lower. So in the 50s, we didn’t have cell phones. There wasn’t this sort of virtualization layer that each person had with respect to others. Whereas in the modern world, we now have this virtual process, people have Facebook accounts that present an image of who they are, or they’re putting images up on Instagram, and of course there’s a selectivity such that what we’re putting into this presentational layer is going to, in a sense, be the best of what we have.

So in effect, it’s going to be the times we’re on vacation, we’re going to post a lot more images and the times that we’re working, and it’s not anything exciting going on, of course there won’t be any visuals or videos of that at all.

So in a sense, there’s a notion here that the level of differential between the virtual world, essentially what’s on the internet versus the embodied world i.e. What’s actually happening when you look out on city streets in example. That those things are increasingly disconnected from one another, it’s a lot easier to create a presentation layer and a virtual thing that has a particular quality or feel to it and have that be a great variance to what I would experience if I were to actually go to the business to put up that website.

It’s sort of a routine thing that what shows on the website and what you actually experience in person, there are probably two very different things. So in this sense, this kind of incongruence would only have been made possible by the mere fact of there being an internet or cell phone representation in place of in-person representation.

Because obviously if I’m seeing you in person, then there’s an embodied layer to some extent that it’s going to be a lot harder for there to be a difference between what you say and what you are because I can see right end, immediately what’s actually happening. So in this sense, I would say that that’s maybe a pretty strong driver of this sort of process, which means we now need to start to account for in our design thinking and our philosophical thinking about what are the kinds of things that would help to bring the virtual and the embodied back into congruence with one another. Not so much just on an individual level, but collectively speaking.

So in other words, to some extent, we’re talking a little bit of a de-virtualization or a re-humanization as being sort of the fundamental notion here that we’re wanting to have the virtual world come back into congruence with the embodied world rather than essentially abandoning the embodied world for the virtual world and therefore ending up with situations where everything looks good on paper, but the person’s committing suicide because their life is empty.

So in this sense, there’s a sense in which we need to understand the relationship between what looks good, what feels good, and what actually is good.

Jim: Is good, absolutely, is good. That’s and of course, if we live in a money on money return world where every business decision is designed on is it profitable and is the penalty for getting caught violating norms or laws smaller than the profit I’ll make in the interim, i.e. the Facebook and the Uber business models then is good is not even on the table today, right?

Forrest: No, it’s not.

Jim: Our mechanisms, our social design is good, is a fools game. In fact, this was the conversation Jordan Hall and I had in 2008 when the first time we met, we realized we both had the same view of why the world was so fucked up. And that is, is good is a sucker’s game right now. If you’re playing the money on money return game, and that is pathological.

Forrest: Agreed. So money on money return, I mean, first of all, notice that money is a virtual thing, the investment process, the stocks and all that. I mean all of that is virtual. It doesn’t actually touch the physical or the embodied until those investments translate into physical plants with manufacturing capacities or things of that nature. So in effect, there’s a notion here that if you have just the virtual without the embodied, of course it’s going to go off the rails because the embodied, for example, is being neglected. It’s not part of the choice making framework.

So in this sense, we’re noticing that we really do need to have a set of values that goes beyond just the virtual in order to basically be holistic enough to address problems that are happening in the embodied. So yeah, I very strongly agree.

And moreover than that, again, as you may have noticed along the way, it’s about the interrelationship. It’s about what are the correspondences, not just what is going on with the embodied in the sort of physical world sense, but also what’s going on in the embodied in the sense of social process, right? Because the thing is that capital over capital investment also results in people losing their jobs or having them where they wouldn’t have otherwise or broad shifts in terms of where people are living and what sort of circumstances they’re living in.

So the social systems dynamic is also broadly affected by this process. And somewhere along the way you just kind of recognize that choice making on the basis of just how much money saving up the capacity to be making choices for some future point. You’ve invested all this capital, you got all these returns, then what. Right? At some point or another, you kind of have to exit the game and actually use the dollars. You’ve passed it on to your grandchildren, they pass it on to their grandchildren and it just ends up basically never becoming part of the embodied world again, that’s not actually helpful.

Jim: And well of course we’re caught in a dynamic, Girardian dynamic of he who dies with the most toys wins, right? Totally idiotic. Why does Jeff Bezos still go to work to add another 10 billion to his net worth? Because he’s in some dick waving contest with Larry Ellison and whoever the other big swinging dicks of the world are. I don’t even track that anymore. And so yeah, you can get into absurd competitions around status singling even when you have enough to buy and sell medium-sized countries, which is really interesting and problematic.

So we got eight minutes left here, and I know you are a philosopher in this context, but we also know that you are an engineer and a woodworker, a practical guy. So I’m going to ask you to take the philosopher’s hat off for 10 minutes. And what would you do tomorrow to help move the world in the direction of better civilizational design? Because we’re going to need it in a hell of a hurry. And so I suppose I would also constrain the first couple of moves by the fact that we have to move fast enough so that whatever civilization redesign occurs, happens in time to keep civilization from likely driving over a cliff, which is what certainly seems like going to happen if we don’t have some significant change. So take off philosopher’s hat, put on engineer’s hat. What do we do?

Forrest: Well, I guess I should clarify the question. If you’re asking what do I personally do, like what is my capacity as a single individual-

Jim: Let’s pop it up. Let’s call it 50,000 people in the game B metamodern, liminal web. The folks that have been following this discourse for the last 15 years, maybe there’s 300,000, somewhere between 50,000 and 300,000, what should this group of people do to start?

Forrest: Well, I think a lot of terms of governance design, and so in effect, what is good governance for communities and how do we create a healthy community that in a sense has the capacity to manage its resources without having those resources stolen from it by the predatory actions of any number of corporations whose sole function is to do something like that.

So in effect, when I think of what do we do, I’m thinking about it in the sense of do we have good communication practices individually and collectively? Are we actually implementing the right to speak, the right to be understood and the right to know that you have been understood? Are we in right balance with things like thought, feeling and emotion and know the distinctions? Are we in right understanding of things like the instincts and how they drive behavior or the difference between change choice and causation in which we are going to basically be skillful at making choices because we’re not confused about what is the nature of choice versus the nature of causation.

So assuming those sort of ground level things, so we have the cultural stuff going. The next layer up essentially is what I call a femoral group process, which is essentially collective inquiry that leads to collective values discovery, which could itself lead to collective visioning as to what would thriving look like, what would success in the sense of holistic and wise living look like? And so in effect, a femoral group process is a technique by which that can occur in a distributed way that doesn’t lead itself to corruption or to the kinds of inequality dynamics that tend to drive choice making processes off the rails.

So in effect, after we’ve kind of come to some notion of what is our collective vision and the values that sort of uphold that or that the vision is a fulfillment of those values, we have clarity that there’s a connection between the vision and the values.

And then finally, or the next stage perhaps would be what actions would that community take that would essentially be an embodiment of that vision? So in other words, how do we do collective strategy generation, for example, and embodiment of that strategy. And before the embodiment happened, do we have some real belief that the strategy in a sense is going to uphold the vision and it’s going to actually fulfill the values?

And so in a sense, we’re looking at not so much a voting process as a design process. Can the community design its future? Can it design a healthy future? Does it have the wisdom as an engineer, as I’m thinking about it in a sort of transcendental way rather than a omniscient design as it’s currently thought of, but transcendental design as I’ve been developing as a practice for some years now. That in effect we can have some confidence that the strategies that we will implement through our simulations and our efforts are going to fulfill the vision and fulfill the values and actually be healthy for the community in some real way or healthy for the land and the people in some way that not only protects them, but also creates thriving.

So in this sense, I think that in some respects, the path forward is actually quite clear, but it’s based upon a culture that is conscious of these principles and can translate them into practices in ways that sort of follow this distributed choice making arc in this sense of embodied collective intelligence in a way that actually works.

Jim: Yeah, I love it. Now how to do that that’s the other question. You and I have been talking in the background about some possible ways and there are a lot of other people working on as well. So I’m at least somewhat hopeful that the time is about right and maybe we’ll take these first few steps. Well, I want to thank Forrest Landry, one of the most amazing deep thinkers that I know of for making yet another really interesting appearance here on the Jim Rutt Show.

Forrest: Awesome. It’s good to be here, especially because you’ve met so many people and know so many actually really wonderful people in the world. I take that as actually quite a compliment.

Jim: Yeah. Well, you-