The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Joe Edelman. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt and this is the Jim Rutt show. Listeners have asked us to provide pointers to some of the resources we talk about on the show. We now have links to books and articles referenced in recent podcasts that are available on our website. We also offer full transcripts, go to jimruttshow.com that’s jimruttshow.com. Today’s guest is Joe Edelman, philosopher, social scientist and designer.
Joe: It’s good to be here, Jim. Thank you.
Jim: Hey Joe, it’s great to have you on board for the show. Joe is the founder and flight attendant at human systems, you can get human systems at human-systems.org. Human systems is a network for mentorship and research around one global challenge, redesigning social systems so as to better support meaningful lives and human values. Human systems is a network for mentorship and research that gets to some of the meat of the deepest issues of our time. Let’s start with what you mean by meaningful lives, there’s been a lot of talk recently in circles I travel in about a meaning crisis. I’m not quite sure truly what that means. So I’m going to open it up to you. What is a meaningful life and do you see a meaning crisis in modern life?
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. So I think the question here is what are the atoms of meaning and what are the atoms of life meaning? And I think that they are values, so living by your values is kind of like what makes life meaningful. So to give a really concrete example, if you really believe in being honest or deepening your relationships or getting real, but you have a conversation where it’s difficult to get real but you do it, that’s the kind of thing that makes for a meaningful life. Or if you’re super into creative productivity and generative brainstorming with somebody and then you find a way to do that with somebody new, that’s a little piece of a meaningful life. So I come to this conclusion that meaningful lives and human values are quite closely related kind of empirically by looking at what are the most meaningful times that people report, what are the least meaningful times?
Joe: What’s the difference between the most and the least? And I’ve come to the conclusion that has a lot to do with the person’s values.
Jim: I like that.
Joe: And if it does, then there’s this kind of explanation for the meaning crisis, which is in many places in our lives, different kinds of game theoretic or strategic incentives or social norms and performances that requires certain expectations, live up to certain expectations, like the performance of professionalism or the kinds of performances that we do on social media. These are crowding out situations where we live by values. So we approach the situation and because of the strategic incentives of the situation or because of the norms that impose in the situation, our values are no longer kind of top of mind because there’s some more pressing concern. And so the more that happens, the more that we are part of strategic and norm driven systems with less slack for living by values, the more there’s a kind of a meaning crisis where it’s impossible for people to live in the way that’s meaningful for them.
Jim: I like that a lot cause it’s quite simple. Unfortunately, a lot of the talk about meaning crisis it leaves me scratching my head. I don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about. But yours is a very good, solid, tangible example. In a lot of your work you’ve done for a long time, even way back yonder and the early game B days, you always stress the importance of values. That’s a term thats often been kind of politicized, you know, think things like GOP, family values, et cetera. And I know you don’t mean exactly things like that. What do you mean when you say values? Maybe give us some examples?
Joe: Yeah, sure. So I think there’s a difference between what I mean by values it’s a kind of heuristic that we use to interact improvisationaly in a way that we’ve decided is part of the good life or is what’s meaningful to us. So the examples I gave before about creatively riffing with somebody or being honest are good examples of values. Something I specifically don’t mean by values are the things that I cover with terms like social norms or ideological commitments. So this is when you’re modeling a certain behavior or you want a certain behavior to be normal. So you’re either trying to set a norm, you say for instance, people shouldn’t flirt in the office or we have to check our privilege or we need to support the troops. These are statements that are not really about me improvising in the moment, making my social interactions and decisions for myself in a way that’s meaningful to me.
Joe: They’re kind of ideologies that I’m battling for. I’m saying that a space out there in public should be different. It should be one where our troops are supported and you can do that with honesty for instance too. You can say, “Oh, we should all be honest.” This is a space where we demand honesty. And that’s a situation where you’re turning honesty and it’s no longer acting as a personal value, it’s acting as an ideological commitment. And so this is I think the missing distinction. If you can separate out the ideological commitments, some of which are quite reasonable. Like it makes sense for us to discuss what’s normal in a space. Like whether it’s okay to flirt in the office. It’s totally cool to have those conversations, but they’re not the same as values. And it’s the same with many of the larger banners that we’re fighting in our society, like support our troops, make America great again, fight the patriarchy. All of these are maybe necessary conversations to have, but they’re not exactly the same as what I mean by values. And they’re not what makes an individual life meaningful.
Jim: You use the expression, we have decided about values, so I want to tease that apart. To what degree are values truly personal or to what degree are they a consensus that arises amongst a community of interaction?
Joe: Values have a social life. It’s just different than the social life of social norms or ideological commitments. But all of them are, I don’t know if you could say socially constructed or they have some kind of epidemiology where they spread to a population. So I don’t mean that they just like arise spontaneously inside of an individual human soul. But values spread by things like admiration, inspiration, appreciation. So you see somebody who’s curious in a way that you want to be and it shows you how to improvise in a different way the way that they do. You see how they do it and it feels meaningful when you see them do it and then you try doing it yourself and it feels meaningful when you do it yourself. And so this is how we learn from role models, mentors, things like that. And this is really different than the ways that social norms spread through pressure usually. Like if you’re not professional, you’ll get fired. And I do like clean and spread through some other kind of rational argumentation kind of thing or there’s ingroup outgroup dynamics.
Joe: There’s a bunch of different ways that ideological commitments spread. But one way they spread is like, I see that if I’m going to have a safe workplace, then we need to make it not okay to flirt in the workplace. So I decide that I need to fight for a workplace where we don’t flirt. That’s a really different kind of epidemiology than the admiration story.
Jim: Interesting. You know what that really brings up to me, tell me if I’m right or wrong here, but your definition of values strikes me as very similar to the traditional category known as character. If we go back to Aristotle, who calls excellent of character, very important way in which we organize society. Could you maybe tease apart any distinction if there is or if there isn’t say, “Hey yeah, they’re the same thing.”
Joe: They’re very close to the same thing. I think that Greeks were less confused about values than we are. I think the medieval church was probably in the West got people really confused between norms and values because it was kind of interested in confusing those two categories. But before that, like the Greeks and even Aquinas earlier thinkers and philosophers were kind of clear about this category, which includes, I call it values. This is very broad term, slightly narrow terms are virtues, character, but those are maybe subsets. When Aristotle was talking about character, he meant something that’s closer to what I might call moral values, but unfortunately in medieval times, in sense and enlightenment times the term moral also got mixed up with social norms. So it’s really hard to like take the Greek terminology and map it clearly to the present because there’ve been so many layers of confusion in between them and us.
Joe: But I think that one thing that Greeks had more right and you can see this in Plato’s symposium for instance, is that they didn’t make so much of a distinction between what we might call moral values and what we might call aesthetic values, at least in terms of a life well lived. If you look at Plato’s symposium, you have a bunch of Greeks arguing about what makes… They have an equivalence between what makes a beautiful life, what makes a good life, what makes a true life. And so if character does this spread, like if it includes both the aesthetic and the moral, then it’s yes, very close to what I would call values.
Jim: Ah, I like it. And of course, since Aristotle, we’ve had things like we might call them systems of character. One that seems to be kind of in the upswing right now is stoicism. Do you have any view on those kinds of what I might call packages of values or packages of character? Are they useful?
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Well, so one thing that’s true about values is they’re kind of multivalent or you can explore it. Like if you make a root decision like am I going to be monogamous or polyamorous or something? Then there’s a bunch of different values that you might discover in each direction. So people kind of diverge or explore a complex space of different sets of values that work together. In business there’s a set of values that go with ruthlessness and a different set of values that go with collaboration. And so some people end up in one sub tree, some people end up in another sub tree. And so maybe that’s one way to think about what stoicism or even certain branches of Christianity are as explorations of a coherent sub tree.
Jim: Yep. That’s a good thought. And I think the fact that there are differences is really important and something that our current society seems to be having more and more difficulty dealing with. From one of your class descriptions, which I pulled off online, you said being meaning first involves getting a grip on other’s values, which might be very different from yours. So it sounds like you’re well aware of and a supporter of the idea of pluralism. Could you talk a little bit about that and why does it that we seem to be having such a hard time with accepting the fact that other people’s values might be different from ours?
Joe: I think it comes down to this distinction I was making earlier between ideological commitments or social norms and values. So one thing we’ve seen over the last 100, 150 years is a collapse in the fractal nature and the number of social spaces. So it used to be that you had all these different churches and families and not really much visibility into the other kinds of things. And there’ve been kind of two trends there. One is flattening where we go as like all of society has been flattening into kind of the government takes care of the individual. So there’s kind of two layers. There’s like the social safety net and the individuals and there’s less of these intermediate social fabric of different kinds of religious groups and congregations and communities and so on. This has been collapsing some and then also there’s social networking, things like that.
Joe: There’s been this kind of like panopticon effect of modern media and so these make the areas that are governed by ideological commitments and social norms much bigger. Like if everybody’s watching the same comedians, then it’s really important what standards we hold them to and that we all agree and have the same standards and assert these standards so that the one thing that we’re all deciding, whether that’s whether there’s a social safety net or whether the comedian behavior is okay, we have the idea that there’s one social space and that we all have to decide what’s right in it. We don’t really have this idea with values.
Joe: If you’re capable of making this distinction between ideological commitments and values, then it’s fine for someone else to find something else that’s like personally meaningful. Like you want to be really honest and they want to be really creative, that’s fine there’s no problem there. And you can both make spaces for each of you to pursue your values. So I think once you get clear on this distinction, then this problem gets a lot more less severe. And pluralism is just obviously the right answer.
Jim: Maybe at the values level, it’s obvious but maybe not. I know I’m currently involved in a couple of threads on Twitter about metaphysics and its importance. And I put that kind of in the values category, right? Quite personal. And I take a radical view that metaphysics isn’t that important. And if you’re going to have a metaphysics, it might well be as simple as possible. And that really seems to get some people annoyed and they start arguing with me, right? And I go, “Well, why are you arguing with me?” But none of us know a God damn thing about what is the real ground of being, right? We just make some shit up and we memetically propagate it and it sticks on some people doesn’t stick on others. So what’s wrong with us each having our own view of metaphysics and be willing to boldly put ours forth and defend it, but also be honest about its limits. And yet when that happens, it clearly stirs people up.
Joe: I don’t know because I would have to look into, we have a interview technique we use that we call epiphany interviews that tries to get at the values behind these kinds of disagreements or positions. And I would have to interview these people and see what’s stirring them up to see if it’s really a value difference. My sense is if it is a values difference once it was revealed as such, my sense is that maybe it’s problematic because you have this shared social space and maybe you want to have one conversation and once the different values were clear, it might be also clear that it makes sense to have more than one conversation or something like that.
Jim: There’s just some fundamental differences of use about things oh well, right? And that we don’t all have to agree. You know one of the things I love to point people to is I think one of the most important documents from the enlightenment, but it’s very little talked about in our schools or anywhere, and that’s the Virginia statute of religious freedom of 1777. It was written 14 years before the first amendment was ratified and it was written by Jefferson and Madison, two characters who popped up later in history. It’s available on Wikipedia, just type in Virginia statute for religious freedom. And it takes a very strong and wonderful principled perspective on how the idea that we should demand uniformity and metaphysical commitments is just a bad idea and it’s even worse to give anything like government authority to enforce such. I would really recommend people take a look at that if they want an old yet at this point fresh look at the idea of pluralism.
Joe: Sure. I do think that we’re looking to have an idea of pluralism and to think as a society that pluralism is a good idea. You have to kind of be able to make a kind of a map of diversity in your mind and see it working out. And I think we’re pretty good at doing that with goals and preferences. Like we’re like some people prefer tennis and some people prefer video games and you can kind of imagine what a society is like where some people play tennis and some people play video games and it’s all right. But I think because the whole idea of values in the sense of what values are and aren’t and diversity of values, it’s like a lot harder for people to imagine because we’re less articulate about values than we are about preferences. This makes it harder for the public right now to really buy into value pluralism.
Jim: Yeah, that might be useful for us all to try to propagate your distinction that these things that you call values are distinct from social norms and let us have a conversation about those values because people don’t generally have a conversation of things at that level.
Jim: I think that might be part of the issue. And I will also say, when I talk about pluralism, I also warn you know that infinite pluralism or infinite diversity isn’t a good thing. Right? You know one of the things I find most annoying about our current world is that people use the word diversity as if it’s a monotonical increasing good, you know more diversity is good. And that’s probably not true, almost certainly in fact definitely not true. There are some optimal amount of diversity in any given domain. And the example I give is there are very, very few people that would like to live in a town where every person spoke a different language and nobody spoke two languages that would be highly annoying and yet it would be very diverse.
Jim: And so I’ve been trying to push forth the idea something I call coherent pluralism, which is to tune some coherence and some pluralism. So there’s a few things we agree on, maybe honesty and good faith and maybe it’s a few more than that and that we have pluralism and other dimensions, the same would be true in the neighborhood. Maybe we have 300 languages spoken, but it’d be great if there was one language that we all spoke. And so thinking about the tension between coherence and pluralism is also something that at least strikes me as making sense and might apply to your values level.
Joe: Yeah. Well I think actually these ideological commitments or social norms versus values thing maps pretty well onto your coherence versus diversity thing. My guess is that in the realm of values the normal functions by which shared values emerge, which are admiration, inspiration, appreciation, experimentation and reflection roughly and shared practices maybe which is sort of part of experimentation. These work very well so my guess is that you don’t need to mind shared values. If you have a situation where people can appreciate each other, admire each other and so on, where they can experiment together, you’re going to end up with maybe the nearly optimal amount of value coherence versus value diversity.
Joe: What’s in trouble is not actually this coherence versus diversity issue in the realm of values, but in the realm of social norms where our social spaces have been so reconfigured that we are scrambling to find those minimal norms like you were saying, like I think that maybe acting in good faith could be a social norm where it makes sense actually to reject those who are not doing that. So this would make it a social norm. It’s something that’s maintained via pressure. It’s something that’s an expectation that we all have that’s a social norm and that’s something that maybe should be more coherent. And it’s this area in the realm of social norms and ideological commitments where it maybe makes sense to worry about what kinds of coherence we need to find
Jim: Maybe, but I have to tell you in the area I would call values, maybe I’m wrong here in your definition, I’m seeing some pretty strange divergences and sort of deep values what I might call the bothers me. Maybe I’m just an old faddy daddy, but it seems to be a growing amount, what I might call anti-enlightenment thinking. Which to me seems like people who are actually insane, postmodernism et cetera. And those strike me as pretty close to values as opposed to social norms. Am I getting that right or am I mixing my levels here?
Joe: Oh, it’s a good question. Again, I might have to interview these people, but even if it is in the realm of values, it may also be a breakdown in this kind of systems of admiration, appreciation, inspiration, experimentation. One of the things that’s happening is that there’s so much discourse around ideology right now, especially on the internet, places like Twitter. So much is ideological that the discourse around values and people just being kind of impressed with each other’s character or whatever. This is being crowded out. So I think there’s actually been a reduction, an unusual reduction in the amount of admiration and mentorship and role modeling and so on.
Jim: Interesting. Of course that also speaks to the weak nature of internet links. It’s something again I’ve been pushing for years. You may remember it from the old game B days is the distinction between weak links and strong links. Online, I would pause it we mostly make weak links because of the low bandwidth, if nothing else, right? We don’t see body language, we don’t smell, we don’t see the person’s eyes, et cetera. We don’t see how they physically occupy space, et cetera and so it may be a lot harder to even visualize character and values in these low bandwidth environments like online. While face to face we seem to do that naturally what I call strong links. And it seems to me that if we’re going to really take advantage of our new capabilities in a network world, being discerning about how we mix strong links and weak links may be important.
Jim: I know I go out of my way to try to track down people who I find interesting online and engage them in a video chat for instance. Which well, not as good as face to face is a hell of a lot higher bandwidth in this ability to access people’s character and values than a stream of text on Twitter.
Joe: Absolutely. Yeah. In most of my internet career, I worked at CouchSurfing and I started this startup ground crew and both of those were online to offline websites where people would meet each other or kind of connect through profiles online but then meet each other in person. And I think we need much more of that. I am kind of optimistic that if there were social networks that were built specifically around things like admiring each other, we might be able to do better online as well.
Jim: That’s kind of a cool idea. Could you unpack that a little bit?
Joe: Well, so one thing that I would love for Facebook newsfeed to do, I’ll give maybe two examples. So one example is imagine if on newsfeed when you posted a news link, it asks you why you care and somehow through some interactive process got down to the value that you think, like the thing that you think is important, that’s relevant for you personally that’s relevant to news story. So you’re posting a link on the news about Trump making America great again and like doing something for coal miners or something and somehow the website interviews you and it ends up with the idea that you value small town living and there are particular kinds of relationships that you have in your small town that are endangered by economic decline. That you think are actually really special and you don’t think those relationships are the same in cities and that they are really valuable.
Joe: And so somehow it captures this value and puts it up top and makes the news link subsidiary to that. So the big thing is your value, you say small town living and these relationships and then the news link is, smaller and available. Now, I think there would be a lot less debate on the comment thread under that. Like people would be like, wow, like yeah, small town living. I haven’t really thought about that. I live in a city, I want to learn more about your relationships, et cetera. Right? Instead of saying like, no, Trump is a bad guy or whatever, like he’s not making America great again. So the discussion would be completely different. And I also think that people would find something to like and admire about people that they don’t know. So that’s one example.
Jim: I like that and it’s implementable, right? I can actually see how one might implement that. Why do you think we haven’t seen things like that?
Joe: I think our culture is really, really confused between values, social norms, ideological commitments. Nobody knows the difference even in their own life. Like people have this idea about being a good man or a good husband or a good entrepreneur and they haven’t decomposed this. It’s actually made up of all three like it’s made up, the idea of being a good entrepreneur is made up of some values, some social norms that go with entrepreneurship and some ideological commitments where you think more people should be like this or something cause that will make a good society. And no one knows how to decompose that. And so this, everything gets lumped into kind of like this is what’s important to me bucket and no one can imagine this interview process that you would need to be able to pull out the values.
Jim: Interesting. Okay, so might even call it an ontological problem, not in the metaphysical sense, but in the category sense that we use in everyday life that if people have this kind of swarm of things that they’re worried about but haven’t thought about the distinction between values, norms and ideological commitments, then it’s going to be difficult for them to prioritize values, for instance.
Joe: Totally, and I’ve actually proven this and this is kind of the big success of human systems so far is that when we train people to make these distinctions and see a couple other things like how norms evolve. When we train people to do this, they actually design dramatically different things and those things actually tend to work and do something very different socially. And we’ve seen this in social networks, we’ve seen this in other kinds of policy designs and social space designs. So it’s kind of a existence proof that if people can get clear ontologically, something very different is possible.
Jim: Are there any publicly available like say social media sites that yet exemplify these distinctions?
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. One of them is named Jolly J-O-L-L-Y. It’s a…
Joe: Yep. It’s a LinkedIn competitor based around meaningful work. And so one of the things it does is try to separate, it does this kind of interview process to figure out what your work related values where if you can work in a place where those values are supported and not suppressed, you’ll do well. Figures out what your work rate values are and to do that, it needs to separate out your ideological commitments and norms. It needs to separate out how you think you should be. Like you should be professional or how you think workplaces should be. And focus just in on the values and then it does a kind of a workplace matching search, marketplace thing with employers around those values. So that’s one example we have several different startups, social startups that have gone through our program.
Jim: Ah, very cool. We’ll put a link to those on our episode page. So people take a look at them. We’ve talked a lot about values and we’ve talked in passing about norms and ideological commitments. Could you tease out norms and ideological commitments, how they differ from values and from each other?
Joe: Mu-hmm, yeah. So norms and ideological commitments are kind of two sides of the same coin. Something that seems to be part of human nature is that we battle for what’s okay in a space. So is it okay to go to work naked? No. And this is a-
Jim: That should work in a nudist colony, right? If you work in a nudist colony, it’d be okay.
Joe: Yeah, exactly. So there’s this kind of like a almost imaginary read-write list of what’s okay and what’s not okay in every single social space we’re in. Like whether it’s an intimate marriage or whether it’s a workplace or the street or the sidewalk. It’s almost like there’s this, imaginary chair list that everybody can see to different resolutions. And then we all keep track of and it’s just part of our machinery. And this is not really about what’s meaningful to us, there’s a whole bunch of more or less strategic concerns that go into the formation of norms. So you can imagine that you work at a place which does stand up meetings first thing in the day. A norm that will arise in this kind of workplace is getting right to the point, right? Because it wastes everybody’s time if you’re doing the standup meeting and somebody is like going on and on and on and not really getting to the point of their concern or whatever. Right?
Joe: So this doesn’t say anything about what’s meaningful to people. It doesn’t say, “Oh, this is really meaningful to get to the point or something.” But people will develop an ideological commitment to getting to the point because there’s a big social cost to not doing it and they’ll feel a pressure to get to the point, which is the social norm part coming from the other people. So you see it’s really just like whether I call it an ideological commitment or a social norm is just about whether I’m trying to set an expectation or meet an expectation. Either way the expectation is this kind of thing that’s in the space and that we sometimes fight over because sometimes there’s differing incentives for different people.
Joe: Norms evolve through a relatively robust mechanism and in all sorts of different kinds of situations based on the structure of the situation. In driving, we have a norm of either everybody has to drive on the right side or in the UK everybody has to drive on the left side, but this kind of social negotiation gets set up because there’s really high costs for not setting it up and social norms and ideological commitments generally work in that way.
Jim: Yeah, I could see how the norms part works. Very interesting example and you and I both sat in enough business meetings to know that there is this tension where people want air time, right? Somehow in the business world, people think more air time they have in meetings, the more important they are of course, but they don’t realize if they’re a fucking idiot, all they’re doing is advertising that fact to the world. But nonetheless, there is that tension on the other side, there’s a community interest in keeping air time as short as is reasonable to get the core of the ideas across. And so we’re going to have this dynamic group versus individual misalignment, I guess I would say. And that norms I would say are a dynamic equilibrium between those two.
Joe: Sure. Yeah. I don’t think that anybody, only a very powerless person is completely obeying the norms that have been written into their social environment. Everybody’s trying to calculate how much they need to obey the norms and how much freedom they can give themselves to live by other strategic incentives they have or to live by their values. We only really get to live by our values when neither norms nor other strategic incentives are operating really strongly on us.
Jim: Yeah. Well is that right or are they operating at different levels in which you know that we’re working within the norms you can do without violating your values? Or is there a natural tension between the two?
Joe: I think there’s a tension. I think that you can say that I guess what I think is that values are, although this is getting pretty esoteric and I’m not really committed to these views, values are all we really care about in the long run. Values is what makes for a meaningful life. But we do some kinds of trade offs about, “Well, if I don’t really live by my values at work, then I’ll continue to work there, I’ll get paid and I’ll be able to feed my family. And so this is another way that I get to live by my values.” So it’s worth it to sacrifice my values over here to be able to live by my values over here. And so values are all that matters kind of at the end of the day. But in the middle of the day, we’re constantly making trade offs of values against our values and for social norms like professionalism at work or strategic incentives like making a promotion.
Jim: Yeah, maybe more neutrally when we talk about trade offs and the universe is full of trade offs, maybe we’re talking about the fact that values are personal as you’ve made pretty clear, but in any multi person system there’s going to be inevitably coordination issues. Right? And the example we talked about earlier, that maybe my value is I want to be really open and really share everything that’s inside my head, you know? So that would lead you to being highly garrulous and going into seven levels of meaning on every topic. And yet if everybody did that in a standup meeting in 15 minutes, the 15 minute meeting would become 15 hours. So we have a legitimate coordination issue or we have to, as a group of say 30 people on a standup meeting collectively get the most value out of that 15 minutes as possible. Even though by definition closing that coordination value is going to cramp people who have a value for open-ended discourse, shall we say?
Joe: Sure. Yeah, exactly. That’s what I believe. I believe that norms in general always evolve because of coordination problems. Exactly like the ones you said and one of the other big mistakes we’re making as a culture is missing that, and this is also something that we teach. You can’t just make up a norm about like let’s say gender roles or something. You can’t just arbitrarily decide what kind of norm you wish, like how how everybody should behave and then enforce it. You have to understand what coordination problem the norm is there to solve and then find maybe a new set of norms, but instead of norms that actually addresses the underlying coordination problem. Otherwise you’re just starting a war that’s doomed to fail.
Jim: Now, is that part of the distinction between an ideological commitment and a norm that a norm is an evolved solution to a coordination problem while an ideological commitment is a top down statement of how one thinks things ought to be in the norm space?
Joe: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I don’t usually teach it that way, but I think that has legs. It’s good.
Jim: How would you teach the distinction between ideological commitments and norms?
Joe: Yeah, I think that the issue is that the solution to the coordination problem doesn’t really just emerge. It’s kind of subject to debate and so that debate actually involves different people’s wrong ideas about what the norm should be. So there’s just not a clear cut distinction between the two kinds of things that like a sort of bottom up and top down kind of mode that you were talking about. Really the bottom up includes a lot of top-down arguing and so when I use the terms I just refer to ideological commitments as when it’s kind of outward, like I have an idea about how things should be and norms when it’s inward. I sense what the norm is in the space and I try to comply.
Jim: Let me throw out one I use as a probe for these kinds of things all the time because it’s in some ways different than some of the things we talk about, which is punctuality. One of the things we know is that cultures differ hugely in how they view punctuality. Let’s even narrow it to a business sense you know the difference between business meetings in Italy and business meetings in Germany for instance, right? How would you place punctuality in the space of norms versus ideology?
Joe: If you’re in any of either of these countries, it’s probably just a norm in most of the spaces that you’re involved in. And we could even say that there’s multiple solutions to this coordination problem and they have different trade offs and they’ve just been, these different countries has settled on different areas in the solution space and thus different norms. But if you have the idea, let’s say you grew up in Germany and you go to the US or something and you have the idea that it would be better in the second country if things were like the first country, then you’re maybe trying to spread an ideological commitment to punctuality. And if you actually try to find some way to do that in a position of power, like let’s say you take over a company and you say that, there’ll be this payroll penalty for people who are late, then you actually may be in a situation where you’re changing the norms in that country or in that area. Otherwise it stays, I would just call it an ideological commitment.
Jim: Okay, that’s interesting. Yeah. One of the startups I did, it was extremely fast startup. We went from zero to a hundred people in like six months and very early on I did exactly that. It’s interesting, we did do a equivalent of a standup. We had a different name for it and a little different format, but people were not on time, God dammit. Right? And so I started charging them a dollar a minute for being late and it stopped real quick. So there was an example where I chose an ideological commitment, which resulted in a norm.
Joe: Yeah exactly.
Jim: I think we’ve probed on this a lot, this has been hugely interesting let’s move on. You coined the term time well spent a concept that has long intrigued me. In fact, I must say I’ve been a little disappointed that it hasn’t propagated further. You know, sometimes I will put down on I do like a movie review or a book review or if I really like it, I’ll put #timewellspent, but that has not spread. Could you tell us a little bit about time well spent, what you mean and where that concept is today?
Joe: Yeah. I coined this with a really specific meaning, which is an alternative to engagement metrics in the tech industry. So most of technology is built around the idea of maximizing time on site or time spent. YouTube wants to get people to watch the most YouTube videos to spend the most time watching YouTube videos, newsfeed for a long time wanted people to spend the most time on newsfeed and this is really bad. Creates a lot of negative externalities and a war for people’s attention, which is ruthless and creates a lot of regret because people regret if they’re manipulated into spending the most time they can on a site, they regret a lot of the time that they spent. And so in 2016 I wanted to show the tech industry what else they could measure and what else they could count as success instead of time spent that would create a better ecosystem.
Joe: And so I coined time well spent to be this other metric, a number that matches roughly the amount of time that people feel was on the margin, a great use of their time on newsfeed or YouTube or whatever. And so this you can also measure with surveys, like interviewing someone about what they did yesterday and saying, “You spent this much time doing this was that a better use of your time than everything else you could have been doing at that time?” And maybe even helping them think about other things that they could have been doing with that time. And if they say, “Holy shit yes, that was the best thing I could be doing,” then you count that towards the number. So I gave a talk called is anything worth maximizing in 2016 that showed how to calculate this number or what to do with the surveys and this talk was quite influential.
Joe: It was adopted at Newsfeed, it was adopted in some of the measurements used at Siri and the iOS app store. Some measurements of some products at Google. So actually this narrow meaning of time well spent was fairly successful in the tech industry at pointing to another number to maximize. It’s difficult because a lot of these companies are advertising based and so when they focus on this number that they want to keep lower, that also maybe reduces the amount of ads they get to show. But in general it’s worth it because there’s some loss in the value of the brand if people regret most of their time with it.
Jim: Yep. That’s interesting. But it may also help the tech companies if it became a more general human tag, time well spent. This was actually time well spent. So all you listeners out there, if you see things you like, review books, talk about going to restaurants or seeing shows. If you really do think it was about the best way you could have spent the time, give it the hashtag time well spent. Let’s see if this thing can break out of the techno sphere and out into the popular sphere. You like that idea or is that a bad idea?
Joe: I like it but I think that one thing that I was missing in that 2016 talk was this analysis that the level of values and getting into the details of how people want to live. Because I think it’s actually pretty hard for a lot of people to do all of that accounting themselves and to decide what is time well spent for them and what’s not. Some people who are like right at the edge of a meaningful life, their life is some days very meaningful and some days they get stuck on YouTube and it’s not. Those people will have a pretty easy time deciding what deserves the time we’ll spent tag, but people that are not quite riding that edge will have a harder time doing the kind of internal accounting, which involves kind of implicitly subtracting the life that you’re actually living from the life that you want to live or that’s most meaningful to you. This kind of subtraction, more people may need some help doing.
Jim: How might one help somebody to make that analysis?
Joe: When talking about social norms, I didn’t talk much about something that in the class we call internalized norms a little bit. So if you had the idea that you want to be a good father or a good entrepreneur, you want to be crushing it, killing it, you want to be productive. Most of these things are not actually people’s values. People think that the way they should be living there’s a mismatch between that and what is really meaningful to them. And often the way people think they should be living, which we call sometimes their internalized norms, would actually be horrible for them. So like if you think for instance that you should always be dieting and doing pushups and working on your side business, maybe that life actually sucks. Like maybe it’s exhausting and you’re starving yourself or whatever and you’ve had these internalized norms which don’t actually map well to what’s meaningful to you.
Joe: And so unless there’s some kind of interview process or someone helps you figure out, well what’s actually meaningful to you? Was watching this YouTube actually meaningful to you or was it like just an example of you kind of performing for yourself? Something about finally being productive. Unless somebody can learn to kind of tease those apart, the algorithm or the hashtag or whatever is going to kind of map to the wrong things in some portion of the population that has strong internalized norms.
Jim: Okay that’s Interesting. I’m not quite sure I totally get it, but I got a sense of where you’re going. Let’s switch a little bit and talk about the thing you talked about a minute or two ago, which is the goddamn incentives that come from advertising supported business models. You know I’ve been involved with the online world building products and companies there since 1980. I was at the source, the very first consumer online service back in the day and we had the advantage I would now say that we charged for our services, right? And we charged a fair amount. People find it hard to believe, but we had basically most of the things on the web today except porn, character mode only 30 characters a second, 10 bucks an hour. It seems outrageously expensive, but it was the only thing like it on earth and the substrates were expensive then.
Jim: However, that made us think about our products in a very different way. We did not want our customers to stay on too long, surprisingly, even though it maximized our revenue because we discovered that if we did and we sent them an $800 bill, they’d quit. Right? So we needed to implicitly or explicitly optimize their time spent versus value received. In this current world where most companies are advertising supported, it’s quite different. At least at the first order, naive level, it’s how long can I keep you online? And maybe some of your recent influences have changed that a little bit but it seems like that’s pretty well baked into an advertising supported model. How much can we really fix an advertising supported ecosystem?
Joe: I’m optimistic on several levels with the big tech companies. Well first let me talk about some of the difficulties. So I think that one of the main reasons why there is so much ad supported tech and social networking especially is because there is a very strong social benefit in the network effects of having like the developing world or the third world on the same platform as the first world. And having kind of one social network, especially in areas like LinkedIn or when Facebook had graph search, when it’s possible to kind of find introductions between people and stuff. There’s this win in having one kind of service that can reach also the poor. And this is pretty hard to do if people are paying for memberships. One way that it can happen is if there are something like so Icloud or Google play services. It’s becoming more and more common for people to pay a monthly fee for their cloud services.
Joe: And these can be different in different countries and they can be much lower in poorer countries so that people can still afford to buy in. And so one optimistic transition is from advertising revenues to kind of a service fee, monthly revenues that are different country to country. Another promising one is to change the way ads work. So right now ads are mostly like conversion is enough to get the ad money. And you can imagine advertising network where the whole pipeline only gets paid if the consumer is really happy with the product or service in the long run. If it becomes like an important part of their life. So they buy a bike and they’re riding it every day, that’s when Google gets paid. If they, sign up for an online service and they’re regularly using it and it becomes an important part of their infrastructure in their life, that’s when Google gets paid.
Joe: And this would lead I think to a very different kind of ad model and ad supported business. These kinds of tech stack companies would migrate towards something more like health insurance model where they’re intermediaries in creating markets that give people good lives or something like that. So I think that there’s some hope in longterm transitions with these tech stack companies. And there’s also some short term hope because most of these companies are kind of flush with cash and so they don’t actually need to maximize their ad revenue. And what we’ve seen with Facebook is they’ve lowered their revenue to switch more towards time well spent away from time spent. They’ve lowered their ad revenue and they’ve also hired something like a third of Facebook now is social issues related sociologists, people that are worried about things like political polarization and bullying and sex trafficking and stuff like that. It’s like a third of their head counts. So this is incredibly big expense.
Joe: And so yeah, I guess what you’re seeing is these companies aren’t maximizing profit or revenue at all right now. And so that sort of means that it doesn’t matter so much what the business model is so long as it’s in a couple orders of magnitude capable of paying the bills. Yeah.
Jim: I don’t know if that’s true cause we do know that the stock price of a company is the present discounted value of its future cash flows. And I would be quite surprised if even Zuck who has total control of his company doesn’t pay some attention to his stock price, which is by definition the integral of his future cash flows discounted by some reasonable discount rate.
Joe: Sort of, I mean so he has to tell a story to keep his shareholders happy and the story has to go something like we have to reduce our revenue to keep our brand good. We have to hire these sociologists, otherwise we’re going to get broken up by Elizabeth Warren. He has to tell a story that he’s making the best business decision and it has to be convincing to shareholders otherwise there’s legal ramifications even for him. But I don’t know, like with these big tech companies, their share price is not so closely tied to like a straight accounting and also like I said, they’re flush with cash so they-
Jim: Yeah they certainly don’t have to, I just pulled the chart up and Facebook’s revenue’s up every year and it’s quarterly revenues are also on a trend line. There’s some seasonality in it and has been forever, but I see no sign that they’re pulling back on growing their revenue even as their user base starts to stabilize, at least in the rich world. So I’m not sure I see any empirical sign that that hypothesis is true.
Joe: Maybe I can send you links to press releases and shareholder calls after the podcast. There were specific points in time in late 2016 mid 2017 where projections were adjusted downwards, things like that. They have a lot of control, one of the advantages that Facebook has, Google has the same kind of thing is there’s a lot of knobs they can tweak to change how much money they make every quarter just by inserting slightly more ads on the newsfeed.
Joe: And so they can kind of cover up losses in one area with gains in another. And they’ve done this to kind of manufacture a smoother curve than they otherwise have.
Jim: And we know why they play those games, I’ve been the guy on those earnings calls it’s kind of very interesting. One of the things I find interesting about Facebook is for a substantial period of time, their average revenue has stayed about $2 per active user a month, which I find pretty interesting, right? They’re actually making a big profit, $2 a month per active user, which indicates to me that a paid model isn’t that unfeasible. I mean, there aren’t too many people in the world who can’t afford $2 a month. I mean there are some for sure, but in certainly is a couple of billion people in the world that could afford to pay that. And we have all these complaints about Facebook, many of which or all of which would go away if there were many of which would go away if there were no advertising and time online supported incentives and for two bucks we could be out of that.
Joe: Yeah, I think it’s kind of unrealistic for two reasons. One is that it’s this commitment that Facebook has to the developing world, but again like maybe through other modifications to the model that could be worked around. They are looking at a couple different, so they have a payments revenue model growing through messenger and distinct Libra that they launched and they have a kind of eCommerce thing called marketplace. And these things are kind of slowly growing with the possibility that at some point they disrupt the main advertising business model. But the other thing is that people at Facebook are convinced that a lot of their ad business is beneficial. A lot of it is small businesses that are connecting with communities and consumers that wouldn’t find otherwise or whatever. I think the interesting question is maybe just not like what other business models should Facebook have, but how can you address those benefits in the developing world with regard to the benefits of advertising?
Joe: Can you do that in a way that doesn’t have any of the drawbacks that the current setup has? And I’m optimistic in that area and the solution to that might be called advertising or it might be something that’s so different from advertising that we wouldn’t call it the same thing, but it’s still some kind of discovery process of businesses and things like that.
Jim: Yeah, and it is a good point that, say Facebook advertising is actually really good for certain kinds of small businesses. And the time I got deepest into Facebook advertising was sort of, Facebook came on after I’d retired from business, so I never had to deal with it in my own businesses. But it helped my daughter and some friends of hers launch a music festival and I became internet marketing guy for it. And I quickly found that by far the best was Facebook. For a few hundred bucks we could drive quite significant ticket purchase for our very obscure brand new startup music festival. And there would have probably been no other way to have done that in the past. So there was Facebook’s existence actually allowed a startup business to occur.
Joe: Yeah. So if you can figure out how to have that kind of benefit and not be other costs, I think I would be very interested and I think probably many people at Facebook would be very interested.
Jim: I might give that little thought. Another very interesting comment I saw on one of your webpages is that social software is different from laws and social conventions you said. It guides us much more strictly through certain actions in ways of relating. And as a result we have less of a chance to pursue our own values. As you said in practice laws can’t structure social life that tightly, even in the worst dictatorships. As law something like for instance, Twitter code would be impossible to enforce, but it’s software it’s impossible not to comply. I don’t know why I never had that thought before, but I love reading that and that is so very true, could you say a little bit about that?
Joe: Sure. Although I think you kind of, that was the best quote. Yeah. I think this is a characteristic of how we’ve learned to design social software now and I hope that it will change. And I even have some experiments in this regard. I have a chat room software called Habitat or Bonobo that I made a couple of years ago. That’s a chat room that you can change the rules when you’re in. So you can say like, I don’t know if some of your listeners might remember IRC or Slack has the same kind of thing, there’s these slash commands where you type a forward slash and then the message that you write has like a special meaning. In this chat room that I made this Habitat thing you could say, okay slash and then you could type a rule that’s like, okay, everybody who’s in the chat room now has to have a profile photo.
Joe: And then you could do a different slash command and say something like people can only talk to each other once they’ve liked each other’s profile photos. And so now you’re kind of like building something more like Tinder. And then somebody else comes in and they clone it and they take away the profile photo rule or whatever. And this becomes a little bit more like how law or social interaction works, where there’s some flexibility and people can say, “Oh, I don’t want to do it that way.” But because of the division between programmers and users, maybe because of the structure of user interfaces where it’s usually like kind of a forum. Like even when you’re typing in Twitter, Facebook, there’s this box and you can only type certain things in a box and use a button.
Joe: So there’s very little flexibility and then you can only respond in certain ways. You can reply or you can retweet, you can favorite or heart or whatever. So our social directors are very, very structured by the visual structure of user interface, which presents certain options and by this weird division of labor between the programmers and the users.
Jim: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ve, for instance, thought about some low light features that might be available that kind of reminded me of that, which is, for instance, one of the problems we see on some of these social media platforms are things closely related to social media, is that people hog the bandwidth. You’ll see one person just posting over and over and over again. I always thought it’d be cool to have a thread posting regulator. So if I start a thread, I can say, okay, we have a rule on this thread that no one can post more than twice a day. But wouldn’t that be interesting for instance?
Joe: yeah. This is one of the things if people were running Habitat, I mean I just made it as a kind of a demo, so nobody’s actually using it, but it actually already supports that kind of slash command rule. So if you imagine some kind of future where everybody’s running the software, then that becomes just a trivial experiment. It’s for anybody to run in whatever chat room they care about.
Jim: That’s really interesting that we talk a lot, we have been here and other places people talk about it even more are the harms that social media can be causing. What about the good? I mean I still think that despite some of the bads, the good still outweigh the bad. I mean what are your thoughts on that and how do we go about getting more of the good?
Joe: Yeah. I also think that there’s a lot of good, one way to see it is that there’s been a succession of different media cultures in the modern world, including kind of pamphlets and newspapers and then radio and television and now social media. And really different, I don’t know, optimalities and visions for society seem to go with each. One way to think about it is we might be trying to get back to some of the benefits of pamphlets and newsletters now after recovering from a very different kind of alignment in mass media. And so I guess I see current social media like Twitter as having some amazing attributes where people are finding each other communities are forming. There is something like the public debate or public sphere that existed in the 1700s that was responsible for the formation of so many nation States and things.
Joe: There’s very intellectual discourses that are happening between people that would normally never be connected, that are happening mostly on Twitter. And this is beautiful and also in blogs, but this is mostly drowned out by a bunch of other stuff that’s happening that takes for instance, politics and brings it also in a really negative direction. But I kind of have a hunch that actually if we subtract out some of the negative things, what will be left is a flowering of a kind of public discourse and public sphere that hasn’t existed since before mass media.
Jim: Yeah, I think one good example that I know it’s true, my own behavior on Facebook in particular is at least my sense, I wonder if you have better data than I, I don’t have any data I just have experience, is that more and more of the conversation on Facebook is happening in groups rather than out in the public newsfeed. And a lot of these groups are really good you know, for instance I’m involved quite a bit in the game B Facebook group and another one called rally point alpha and both of those groups are extraordinarily good, I think. And I know there are hundreds, thousands, probably of other good groups out there in Facebook and Facebook finally is now starting to invest a little bit in the group’s toolkit. For a long time they put all their effort into pages which are much less interesting in many ways. Any thoughts on how Facebook finally putting more emphasis on groups and probably many people spending more time in groups is changing the nature of how social media impacts us.
Joe: Yeah, I do have even data, so you’re right it’s not just you. There’s a massive Exodus in the direction of groups on Facebook and not just on Facebook but in other places there’s a massive movement into a more private forum and Facebook is betting on this. The reason that they’ve been investing more in groups it’s a couple of reasons. One is some of the people at Facebook groups went through our human systems classes and some of the new features like the mentorship features in groups come from people that were inspired by our classes to bring groups in a better direction. But some of the reason that Facebook’s investing in groups is just because of this and because they see a future for Facebook that’s almost entirely groups, so where newsfeed doesn’t really have posts in it anymore, but newsfeed is just a remix of all of the best group posts for groups that you’re in. This is kind of where Facebook is heading is like merging messenger threads together with groups and getting rid of things that aren’t groups.
Jim: Interesting. Of course that’s the Reddit model, that’s where Reddit was all groups where they call subreddits and then the front page and a couple of different variations on the front page or to nothing but ranked extracts from the groups.
Joe: Yeah, Facebook is doing exactly the same thing and there’s things that are good about this, but also things that are a little bit kind of a letdown. I mean, I think it’s a kind of a failure to create a public space and it doesn’t really address some of the issues that have emerged, like the sort of polarization issues instead it hides them. And so yeah, we’ll see how it works out, but I’m not entirely optimistic about it.
Jim: Now you mentioned polarization now this is one of my favorite little topics and I’m going to be writing an essay on this fairly soon. And I think it may be that people have misdiagnosed this polarization issue to some degree at least. One of the things I am positing is that the online world more generally and probably social media has been one of the bigger, but not the only impact on this, have opened up what’s called the Overton Window in politics at the analog can apply in other domains. The Overton Window in politics is the definition of the space in which a reasonable person might have some beliefs, right? And or even an unreasonable person, let’s call it a population of people. Historically, particularly in the era of mass media, say up through early nineties the Overton Window and politics was pretty damn narrow.
Jim: It kind of on one extreme, Barry Goldwater on the other extreme, George McGovern, which from all possible ways of doing politics is extraordinarily narrow. Today, we have a much wider set of political views being considered and talked about and some of them very different from the status quo. We have people like Antifa on one extreme we have you know, proper tarions, we have the dark enlightenment. The number of political ideas has widened a lot, which has the effect that there are more people out on the extremes. And even though I’m going to give you a more tangible example, cause I know it’s one that people worry about a lot and maybe this tells me we should be worried about it some, but maybe less than we think and that’s racism.
Jim: If you look at the general social science survey, which is a beautiful study that’s been going on for 40 years by any reasonable measure, racism has been declining in our society at a quite steady rate for the last 40 or 50 years and continues to do so. So we probably have less racists in our society this year than we did last. However, if we open up the equivalent of the Overton window on racism, it may well mean we have many more extreme racists right now. You know, those willing to kill or engage in racially motivated assault. So this broad tendency of the network meme space to open up the range of beliefs means that we can have both more extreme racists, at the same time we have less total racists. I think this mechanism is happening in many domains.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I guess the way I think of it is that the Overton window is a mass media concept, which doesn’t apply either before radio and television or after when people can communicate in more small groups in peer-to-peer and so on. And so there was sort of two deeper issues that the mass media Overton window kind of structure served, which now that we don’t have an Overton window, we have these open questions about how can we possibly do these things? One is political legitimization and the other is social control. So there was a way in pre-radio and television in the age of pamphlets and newspapers, there was not really an Overton window, there was a crazy mix of different views from like Henry George to Mark’s to whatever, right? Like there was a huge range in what kinds of political views were being put forward.
Joe: But there was kind of a small elite people like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and so on that could pick and choose and present things as viable and have kind of a public show, a conversation that reduced this huge range into something that could form the basis for say governmental changes. So now we’re back in a situation where we have this huge range of discourse but we no longer have this clear idea, this like small elite that can filter it all for us. And so one question is like, well how would we do that now? And another question which comes up with this thing that you brought up about racism is about social control. Like one way to control a large population is to have them all watch the same things and get kind of the same culture through their eyeballs, through television and sitcoms and stuff like that.
Joe: And if you know or have these like four channels that are deciding what American culture is, we would need another way to do some kind of social control to make sure that we’re not having these like bioterrorist cells or racist cells that could cause like a lot of problems for everyone. So yeah, I don’t see it as like a wider Overton window, it’s like the Overton window is just gone now and that leaves us with certain problems because the Overton window was solving some of those problems and now it’s not there.
Jim: Yep. Oh first let me push back a little bit on the idea of the Overton window is gone or that it didn’t used to exist. I would suggest it’s more useful to think that it’s a curve that its shape has changed. At any given time there’s always a central tendency and most the majority of people have a relatively narrow range of beliefs and that’s still true today, right? Most people’s beliefs fall within the Goldwater, McGovern or maybe a little Ron Paul to Bernie Sanders window, but the tails have gotten much wider. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about it rather than saying the Overton window has disappeared.
Jim: But it was also true in 1970 right? That the height of the mass media age, there were Trotskyists and there were American Nazis, right? In 1970 they were just a very much smaller number than they are now. So if we think about the Overton window is not a sharp window, but rather a curve drawn on a distribution, we can think about it as widening and the tails getting thicker in our current time. I think that’s a much more useful way to think about that.
Joe: Maybe, I don’t know. I think to really go into this, which we probably shouldn’t do right now, we would have to look at times outside of America and times in the more distant past. Look at like the variation of political beliefs in 15th century, Italy and Spain and France or something. And was there any kind of force that was creating kind of a bell shape or something? Was there any kind of unifying overarching structure? My sense is that before there was mass media, there wasn’t much there to do this shaping function.
Jim: Well, there was the Catholic church of course and it had a big impact on what discourse was considered reasonable and what wasn’t including in the political realm. For instance, until the Catholic church lost its power in the reformation, there were no absolute monarchs in Europe. The monarchy was constrained by the rules of the Catholic church essentially. But anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Let me address your second point, which is what will take the place of Walter Cronkite? I think you had to make a short form version of that and I suggest it’s already happening and it’s going to be fractal. Which is there aren’t going to be any single spokesman, rather they’re going to be people who say things at various levels of scale. Let’s look at this space, podcasting. Podcasting is now getting to be pretty damn powerful at its highest end.
Jim: Guy Like Joe Rogan has more listeners to his episode, than the number one show on Fox News, right? And Joe therefore is a pretty interesting broadcast point to millions of people. And in podcast land we have a curve, a small number of people in the millions, a larger but still not real large number of people in the hundreds of thousands. And then you have sort of middle and fish like me who have maybe 10,000 listeners but growing, but growing. And then you have a huge tail of people that have a few hundred to a thousand listeners and we influence each other. Right? You know, I don’t tend to listen to Joe Rogan that much, but I do listen to Sam Harris and Eric Weinstein and some of the others. And I imagine some of them listen to me. So you know, we have this new emergent bottom up set of broadcast points that don’t naturally tend to produce two or three solo broadcast points that everybody else has to dance to the tune of. Rather we have a fractal structure with some having bigger audiences, some having smaller, but the information flows go both ways.
Joe: Sure. Yeah. I mean I think that’s true. One of the things that happens in this media landscape over and over again is some kind of optimistic new setup emerges and people have a lot of kind of utopian hopes for it. And then the economic incentives or kind of viewership or click bait incentives kick in and the thing transforms fairly radically and becomes kind of dystopic and manipulative. And I don’t really have a view of the podcast ecosystem and what kind of incentives might restructure it yet, but I’m always a little bit wary when I don’t have a view.
Jim: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point. It’s funny, I just got enough traffic that I’m now starting to get inbound calls from advertising networks and so far I’ve said, “Nope, I’m not going to do any advertising until I get a little bigger and when I do I’m only going to do personally curated advertising. Only products I use and believe in.”
Joe: Sounds good. I think I’m not so worried about you. I think you’ll do a good job Jim, but I’m not sure that the biggest or I mean Alex Jones would be kind of a good example, right? Of some incentives that might not be the best and I worry that maybe that’s actually just a taster that we haven’t actually seen what a real podcast native manipulative media looks like yet. My hunch is that and it comes down to this thing about values and preferences and all the stuff that we were talking about towards the beginning of the show. My hunch is that unless there are very specific checks to incentive systems that involve keeping things meaningful, that we tend to get into trouble. And that’s the largest story in capitalism not just in social media.
Jim: Yeah that’s very difficult, people, especially in a free society, people react to their local incentives. Right? And if for instance, it turns out, I should’ve jumped in on this when you said that, well maybe Google only gets paid if people love six months later the bicycle they bought on Google. I say, I don’t think that seems very realistic to me. If I’m a person who manufacturers bicycles and advertise them on Google, I’m happy to pay Google when people buy the bicycles. I don’t really give a shit if they like them six months later, I mean I do give a shit for my brand equity, but in terms of the atomic transaction between me, the bike manufacturer and Google, I’m going to pay them when they sell stuff.
Joe: You could do something with Escrow I mean just if it’s about… Like, I think that there is an example here with Google pioneered a conversion based advertising instead of display based advertising. So they already made this decision to get paid later than they would have and less than they would have because it aligned them better with users and maybe Google or maybe some other company that disrupts Google could make this decision in an even bigger way. And yes, it involves a like immediate term loss, but in the long run what happens is there’s a kind of a virtuous cycle where customers know that if they see an ad on this new platform, there’s no incentive for this ad to be manipulating them in any way. The ads on that new platform would be kind of this gold standard of like, “Holy shit, these are all things that everybody in the whole pipeline thinks would like really add to my life. I’m going to be a lot less scared of clicking on those ads.”
Jim: Interesting. I now start to see it. At first I said, “Ah, Joe’s smoking that wacky tobacky again, that’s just some hippie shit.” Right? But now that when you present it that way, it actually makes some sense. It reminds me a little bit of my friend Jordan Greenhall used to work around some things called ethical marketing that had some of those attributes where you know if a domain claimed it was an ethical marketer and you could be sure that the incentives were correct. You know, the idea that you proposed, which at first struck me as unworkable, I’m now willing to at least grant some time to think about. I like that so thank you for that.
Joe: Sure. Yeah. This is an area where I would like to support research. I think it’s something that’s really important that hasn’t been cracked yet and that our organization, Human Systems is kind of well-positioned maybe to network the right people together to make it happen.
Jim: Yeah and as you know, I’m interested in research so we should continue that conversation. Unfortunately, we’re almost out of time here. Goddamn time flies when you’re having a good time. You know, I still have two pages worth of topics to talk about, maybe we’ll have to get you back on, but let’s see. Lets hit a couple of things before we go I got a few more minutes.
Joe: Yeah sure.
Jim: A little thing, that’s the kind of thing that people in our audience are interested in is I noticed that you use Notion software. Some of the pages that I read while I was researching for the show had been created in Notion and I was recently tipped to Notion by a very interesting young man I had lunch with and I’ve started using it a little bit. Are you still using Notion and do you have good things, bad things, mixed things to say about it?
Joe: Oh yeah Notion is great. I think it’s to some extent what the web should have been and that it’s a little closer to Zanado and kind of Ted Nelson older web goals, man of our Bush, this kind of stuff. There’s a lot of other things that it’s missing that would be great. Some of the things, there’s a competitor to notion called Rome has maybe some more of these older web features, but a little less visual polish. Yeah, I mean Notion is a kind of a Wiki and it incorporates lightweight aspects of databases. And this is a kind of media structure which makes it very easy to prototype things in a group.
Joe: You can keep, let’s say you have a set of games or practices or recommendations for teams or something and you keep them as a list for a while and then later it becomes harder to search for them and then you just make a little database in the same page and drag them into sales and the database and now it’s a little easier you can filter and search and you can put fields on them and stuff like that. So this is a very good kind of platform for slowly evolving and making things more sophisticated in the way that you do in any kind of startup. And it lets us collaborate with a large group of people slowly making things more formal as we go.
Jim: Yeah, I liked what I’d call the fractal nature to it, which is that a base can be used just as a personal productivity manager and content manager, kind of a cross between Trello and Evernote, which are two tools I’ve historically used. And then it’s also got it looks like good tools for small groups. I haven’t used it in that mode yet, but I probably will be soon. And then it has capability for larger groups, kind of nested small groups, and then it has the ability to reach out to the wider world through its Wiki web publishing aspects. So I found that to be the weakest part so far. So for instance, really annoys me that the URLs for your publications are ugly [inaudible 01:16:26] America strings rather than a nice clean hierarchy of URLs like you’d have in WordPress, right?
Joe: Sure yeah.
Jim: You can build a nice canonical, well-designed URL tree in Notion you can’t. Though I noticed on the bulletin boards people are asking for that. So maybe sometime in the future. So anyway, yeah let’s give Notion a little bit of a call out. That’s notion.sl check it out. Next little quick topic, turtleocracy is something you talk about. Tell us about that.
Joe: Oh yeah, I’m really excited about turtleocracy it’s one of the things that I’ve kind of co-invented it. I feel like it might be one of the big ones in the long run and it’s brand new, like it’s only existed for three or four months. Turtleocracy is an organizational structure but built around questions instead of project. So in any organization you have this question about like who works for who and what are they in charge of and how do reporting relationships work and how the roles work and how does budgeting flow through the organization? Usually downward, like this division has this budget and this division has this budget. And turtleocracy is a way of doing all of that but based not around the idea of like different people being responsible for metrics or for getting things done, but different people being responsible for looking into deep questions in an experimental and open minded way.
Joe: So it’s kind of an org structure that’s maybe especially relevant and maybe has been especially missing in areas like research labs. Like if you look at the history of Xerox PARC or Bell Labs, there’s often almost like just a missing org structure or something, which is something like you just find good people and resource them and hopefully they do good work . Without like a good way of… Everything that’s important in that recipe is kind of left to the reader as an exercise. How do you find the good people? How much resources do you give them? Like, all this is just kind of hand waved away. And so turtleocracy is kind of like obviously relevant in that part, but it turns out to be relevant not just with regard to research labs, but in other areas like startups, advisory boards, academia. Where there have been often deep unanswered questions like in advisory boards for instance or in corporate boards. Often there’s a nonprofit or a company which has a mission, but what actually does make a difference in the mission is often a very deep question.
Joe: Like for world wildlife foundation, what will actually save the animals? This turns out to be like super deep strategic question that involves global economics and climate change and like a million different things. It’s a research question. Their mission statement is a research question and yet there’s no real org structure that supports that aspect of world wildlife foundation. So they just have to kind of punt and the CEO makes a decision about the strategy and there’s no more questioning about the strategies and strategies for now until it maybe becomes an obviously bad strategy later, then maybe they make a new decision because there’s no way to organize that area of work. And it’s similar in academia where often people are isolated because there’s no way to organize their work together. And so turtleocracy is a solution to all these kinds of things by creating a lot of check-ins and structure and relationships between people with different kinds of related questions, stuff like that.
Jim: Do we have a pointer to a write up of turtleocracy?
Joe: Yeah, I can send you a link after the show.
Jim: Okay. We will put it up on the website as always. And I think maybe I did post on Twitter anybody got a question for Joe Edelman and the number one light question you might’ve just answered it which is, what does a small group practice that is applicable in nearly any context and reliably delivers good things like insight, connectedness and innovation? Sounds like turtleocracy might be that.
Joe: Well turtleocracy is an org structure so it’s kind of for larger, but there’s a couple of games that we have. So I want to mention three games. We have a kind of a room scale version of turtleocracy, which we call the turtling game or turtles rule. This is a game it’s very, very simple, the game is just that everything you say you have to make a turtle gesture or a rabbit gesture or a bird gesture or a mushroom gesture before you say it. So if you make a turtle gesture, you’re saying something you’re curious about. Usually you’re asking a question. It’s something that you don’t know the answer to. If you’re making a rabbit gesture, you’re saying that you have an idea. If you’re making a bird gesture, which is usually like flapping wings, rabbit gesture’s like you make the ears, you know with your fingers in your head.
Joe: Bird gesture is like flap your wings that means like, “Oh I’m actually an expert about this. I know what the best practice is I know what the answer is. And a mushroom is like a clarifying question or like how are you feeling? Or some kind of more infrastructural interjection. And so you have to constantly track to play this game which mode you’re in. Are you being curious? Are you having an idea? Are you an expert? Are you being infrastructure? And this is really good for people because it turns out that they’re always pretending to be curious when they actually have an idea. Or they’re not claiming expertise when they have it or there’s all sorts of different kinds of places where people do kind of a subterfuge or even confused in themselves about what their deep questions are.
Joe: And the other rule of this game is just that everybody else works for the turtles. That’s why it’s called turtles rule. So if you have an idea or if you’re an expert, you’re only encouraged really to contribute your idea or your expertise if it relates to a deep question that somebody else in the group has. And this creates a really beautiful kind of conversation that clarifies a lot about what people really care about and where they’re curious and open.
Jim: Wow, I really like that a lot. And make sure you send me the URL so we can post it on our episode page and people can go find it. Cause that sounds like wonderful work. And it sounds like you’re doing a lot of good things here @human-systems.org. Any final things you’d like to tell our audience about that you’re working on?
Joe: Yeah, I guess I’ll pitch joining our turtleocracy or taking our classes. So if you design social systems, which include things like social networks like we’ve be talking about, but also systems like schools or events or public policies or places like unemployment offices, workplaces. If you design these kinds of things, these are places where people can either live by their values or not where norms or ideological commitments might take over. If you design that kind of environment, you would maybe benefit from taking our class HS 1O1 which we’ll also send a link to. People who take the class, as I mentioned earlier end up designing radically different environments than they would have without all of this talk about how norms evolve and values and so on.
Joe: So we’re also doing research about, wider social transformation on a whole bunch of different levels. And I’ll put a link to our turtleocracy. So there’s different, there can be multiple turtleocracies. Turtleocracy is an org structure, but our turtleocracy is all about how to redesign all the social systems of the world to work well with people’s values and well for life meaning. And so that includes this sort of entire stack going from things like how to redesign markets and capitalism and national democracies down to like how to redesign small organizations, workplaces, community living. This whole kind of vertical stack corporations is a kind of research project that we’re helping to organize and we would love help.
Jim: Oh, that’s a minor little project redesign, capitalism, democracy, how corporations work, et cetera. I like it.
Joe: Thank you. Yeah, I’m kind of ambitious.
Jim: I love it. Well, thank you Joe. This has been an amazingly good and deep and wide-ranging conversation. You know, I definitely over guessed how many topics we’d get to cause they were so interesting we spent a lot of time on each one. I’d love to have you back on another time to talk about some of these other things on my list, but this has been great and I certainly urge people to check out these links.
Joe: Cool. Yeah, it’s been really fun. Thanks Jim.
Jim: Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mahler at modernspacemusic.com.