The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Lene Andersen. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Lene Andersen, an independent futurist, author, philosopher and publisher. And she’s a member of the Club of Rome. How about that? Welcome, Lene.
Lene: Thank you.
Jim: Great to have you here. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.
Lene: So have I.
Jim: Yeah, this should be good. I know our audience is interested in this topic, for sure. We actually had Lene’s co-author of an earlier book, The Nordic Secret, on. That was Tomas Bjorkman. He came on to discuss that book and EP67. Lene was very involved in writing the book. In fact, Tomas said she wrote most of it and that he was more of a consultant. So if you’re interested in more of her thinking, check out EP67 or, better still, read the book, The Nordic Secret.
Jim: Today we’re mostly going to focus on her most recent book, I think it’s her most recent book, Metamodernity. So let’s start with that. Very much in congruence with thinking of other people like the gay and B community and some others, I would suggest that you frame the need for metamodernity as a way to address the meta crisis. And, in fact, I’m going to read some of your words right back at you and I would like you to expand on that a little bit. “We’re approaching a tipping point that will involve some or all of the following, the climate, mass extinction of species, artificial intelligence and a fundamental restructuring of the economy as software, robots and drones are replacing millions of workers in several national economies.”
Jim: I think that comes pretty close to the meta crisis. I would also suggest that runaway inequality and such, also alienation of people from their societies or other things that seem to be approaching a tipping point as well. So talk a little bit about how you see the fact that we’re approaching a tipping point as what brings forth the need for metamodernity.
Lene: Tipping point, in so many places and in so many aspects of our lives and the things that I listed there are just in the, so to speak, physical world and at the grand scale of a global level where we’re talking about, or would you just say this is the meaning-making crisis or the sense-making crisis or the epistemological crisis or the existential crisis, what goes on inside us and how our meaning-making is not matching the outer world the way that it used to. We all grow up in a society that teaches us what is good and bad and what is polite behavior. You go to school and then the teachers and your parents tell you that if you learn this and you study that, then you can get a job and you can buy a house and establish a family and get a life. There are all these things that we grow up with knowing or learn.
Lene: And then for the past 200 years we have lived in the modern world and life has been… There’s been changes and new technologies and we’ve had surprises. There was a man walking on the moon. And then the Berlin Wall came down. There’s been surprises and things happening. But overall, whatever you learned in childhood and in your youth and you took an education, has been useful knowledge. And we have in the West a mixed economy. We have democratic institutions. We have liberal democracy. There’s a way of understanding the society in which we live and we know how to behave within that. And that’s very much related to the technologies of the steam engine and the combustion engine and maybe some of the electronics that came 30 to 40 years ago. But overall, we have been able as adults to understand the world in which we live and provide for ourselves, the vast majority of us. And life has been pretty good.
Lene: And now there are so many changes and there are so many tipping points that we risk facing in the future that one, we need to prepare for them. Two, some of the changes that are already happening are so big that a lot of people simply are losing the foothold in their own life and in their own communities. What you did to survive and thrive five years ago, 10 years ago is not sufficient anymore. So at the very personal level, a lot of people are losing foothold in their own life. At a bigger level, entire communities are losing foothold in the national and global economy if factories close or if jobs move to other countries. At the national level, the technological development. Right now, we’re actually speaking from each our side of the Atlantic and part of our communication in setting up this meeting has been in which time zones are we and so at what time will we be speaking?
Lene: But these technologies and particularly the social media, but also the technologies in the financial sector and just the fact that we all have one or two credit cards and whenever you make a transaction, you buy a, I don’t know, a bottle of milk or a newspaper or whatever you spend your money on, if you pay with your credit card there’s information probably going around the globe just in order to make a transaction of 2 or $3. So the national borders, we do not have sovereign nation states anymore, but our political institutions are behaving as if the nation states are still sovereign nations, but the tech giants and the global financial market does not recognize these boundaries.
Lene: They have to if we got governments that create the right kind of legislation. But if they don’t, then we have tech companies that have bigger influence and more financial, at least, muscle power, but also real technological power to move information and gather information in ways that, okay, then thank God, the states cannot do it. But as individuals, it used to be that our nation states was the biggest legal entity that had any sort of authority over our life or authority over the rules surrounding or guiding our life. But now there are tech giants that are global.
Lene: And in this world a lot of things are changing at the personal level, the community level, the national level, but also at the continental level and then, of course, also at the global level. As we are facing this kind of world, the epistemology, the understanding of the world, the culture that I grew up with simply does not have words for all of this. It doesn’t have concepts for it and it definitely does not have institutions for it. So in order to thrive in this world, in order to be meaning-making in this world and sense-making and in order to provide for yourself in this world, you have to upgrade your understanding of the world. You have to be a human being who is considering other issues than we had to do 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago, particularly if we do want to keep an open liberal democracy as the basis for our life.
Lene: So there are all these things going on. When we talk about politics, when we talk about education, when we talk about job security or when we talk about the pandemic right now, for instance, there are all these things that 10 years ago, many of them, we didn’t even have concepts for. Fifteen years ago Facebook didn’t exist and I guess Wikipedia was barely there either. And 20 years ago the internet was brand new and we were all well, 25 years ago, maybe 28 years ago, we got emails. There all these new things that we’ve had to adapt to all the time. The sum total of all these changes are bringing our civilization, not just our individual lives, but our civilization towards a turning point.
Lene: Then on top of that, or next to that, or making this an even bigger turning point is, of course, the risk of climate change, of mass extinction of species, of you mentioned inequality. The inequality is also a consequence of the technological development and the amount of money being generated in the tech industries and then the financial industries and the way that we have set up the world to create more money. And we have detached that from, I mean, it’s not the central banks that create the money anymore. It’s the private banks. They create the money by creating debt. So there are all these changes, that if you just look at one of them you may be able to understand that, particularly if somebody explains it to you who’s good at explaining stuff.
Lene: But then when you have the sum total of all these changes and they interact at the global level and that affects your country and it affects your local community, and it also affects your personal life and the education that you, I don’t know, got maybe just five or 10 years ago is suddenly useless and you still got a student loan that you cannot pay back, then we’re in a mess. And individuals are in a situation where the resources to cope with this are not sufficient. When you have enough people whose resources to cope with the life in which they live are not sufficient, and there are many of those people, then you start getting an instable society. And people are getting angry and anxious and it’s not a good thing.
Jim: Yeah, indeed. One could maybe cook a lot of that down to two separate forces that interact to produce this meta crisis. One is, as you gave us a nice long list, call it the exponential growth of everything, just the number of varieties of barbecue sauce at the grocery store. When I was first setting up a household, there were three kinds of barbecue sauce in the grocery store. Now there’s over a hundred. Why do we need a hundred kinds of barbecue sauce, God damn it? My wife and I were talking about this not too long ago. Back in 1985, when we were… How old was I then? Thirty-two. We each had one credit card and I had two online log-ins and she had zero. I had one for my office and one for CompuServe. Now I don’t even want to contemplate how many log-ins I have.
Jim: Things like when my father bought his house on the GI Bill in 1955, there was one kind of mortgage, a fixed rate 30-year mortgage period. Take it or leave it. He dropped out of high school after ninth grade. He was this hard working, diligent guy, but I wouldn’t say well-educated, particularly. But he could easily figure out whether it was safe for him to take a 30-year fixed rate mortgage with a fixed monthly payment. And he did. And he did just fine. Could someone like him have dealt with the hyper complex menu of financial options that were available in the United States in 2007? Probably not. Like a lot of other people, he might well have been over his head in terms of complexity and selected a bad kind of mortgage, which could have easily exploded on him.
Jim: But anyway, so all of this exponential growth in both things that we can do, but also then the demands on our cognitive power to figure them out are a gigantic stressor. And then the second, so it’s really two things, exponential growth and complexity. And the other is that we are approaching limits to growth. In the biosphere, in fact, there’s a lot of analysis as we’ve already overshot the long-term carrying capacity of the biosphere and that we are very rapidly reaching points of catastrophic breakdown by the end of this century. Interestingly, our previous mental models of the world, which you called indigenous, pre-modern and modern, really didn’t have any concept of limits. In the indigenous because they didn’t have the capacity to do much. They had no bulldozers, they had no nuclear weapons, et cetera.
Jim: Moderns and the late moderns, we developed unbelievable capability, but we never had the psychological insight that we were rapidly approaching these limits till maybe, at the earliest, 1962 with Silent Spring and then gradually grew into the ’70s in the early days of the environmental movement. But now for at least the 30 or 40% of the world that’s awake, we realize that we’re rapidly approaching either a cliff or a wall, I don’t know how you want to think about it. And that that has to inform everything that we do or we’re just going to smash into that wall at 500 kilometers an hour and it’s going to be an unbelievable mess. Life will not end. Probably humanity won’t even end. But advanced civilization, it could easily fly apart.
Lene: There will be like three or four people and a lot of ants.
Jim: And cockroaches, for sure.
Lene: What you’re mentioning here, and what I write about in the book, Metamodernity, is these cultural codes and you mentioned the indigenous, the pre-modern and the modern. And, of course, the fourth one is the post-modern. What I claim that we need and which I define as metamodernity is that we need a civilization and so at the collective level. But also at the individual level and the way that we understand the world in order to handle this complexity, we need elements of all of those four codes because… So maybe I should just quickly describe what they are about.
Lene: So there’s the prehistoric indigenous culture, which is what relates to being in a hunter-gatherer tribe of maybe just 20 people or 50 people on a daily basis. But that’s where everybody can have eye contact within a short while. You can read body language and see if everybody is thriving. It’s also a very egalitarian society because there aren’t enough people to create a hierarchy. There can be a medicine man or shaman or wise old woman or somebody like that who has more power than everybody else. And, of course, manipulators have always been around, but it’s a very different kind of lifestyle and it’s hunting and gathering. People do not amass wealth and they only have the tools that they can carry around with them.
Lene: So in that respect is also a very egalitarian society and that is typically animistic, so people interpret spirits into nature. In this prehistoric indigenous code, I also put early Stone Age agriculture, so a settled village life with maybe a thousand, 2000 people. But it’s still a community that’s so tiny, small that you know who belongs there. You can easily get a message through to everybody just by word of mouth. The hunter-gatherer period is just 200,000 years of modern human beings with our kind of brain, our mental capabilities, our emotional structure. That is actually the kind of lifestyle that we were created for or that evolution brought forth. And we survived for 200,000 years as hunter-gatherers and so we thrive in that environment.
Lene: We thrive in small communities where we can read body language and have eye contact with everybody. We’re basically born as animists, even to this day. It’s due to education and science that we get rid of our animistic worldview. Five-year-olds have a magic understanding and interpretation of the world that we get rid of with education. Then with agriculture typically came an idea of a mother goddess and that the soil, the earth was a mother that gave birth to the crops. You got a good harvest if you were on good terms with this mother goddess. This is the kind of lifestyle that is deeply meaningful to us.
Lene: It’s deeply meaningful if you have a vegetable garden, if you grow your own food, if you hunt for your own food, if you go fishing. Any kind of food that you grew or caught just tastes better than anything that you bought at the supermarket or even at a farmer’s market where it’s just as fresh. But the fact that you put an effort into bringing this food into your kitchen and to your table, adds something to the meal.
Lene: That is an aspect of being human that a lot of us have forgotten or that we simply cannot fit into our life because you live in a big city and you can’t really go hunting. You can maybe grow some herbs or something in your window, but that’s about it. How often do you get a chance to sit around a fire, for instance? That’s a basic human need, is to be a Stone Age person sitting at a big fire and just telling stories. We’ve lost that and we need to bring that with us. We were built for this. It’s a crucial part of being a human being. So that’s part of what we need to bring with us into the future.
Lene: Then there’s the whole pre-modern era, which is from the Bronze Age and Iron Age. In the Middle East that started, I don’t know, five, six, 8,000 years ago. And there we had, or they had big ring-walled cities with 5,000 people, 10,000 people during the Bronze Age and a hundred thousand people during the Iron Age. It was during this era, so from, I don’t know, five, six, 8,000 years ago and until a thousand years ago that we were actually living in the pre-modern era and where religion was defining how we understood the world. What we know as religion today was both spiritual guidelines and was also the foundation of rule of law by law and actually until 500 years ago, with the beginning of the Renaissance.
Lene: So all that cultural heritage from, what is that? Five, six, 8,000 years has produced aesthetics. It’s produced narrative. It’s produced existential philosophy. It has produced rituals. It has produced ways of connecting people in societies that are so big that everybody cannot know everybody or recognize everybody and where we need what is called imagined communities, where you identify with other people through a shared narrative and a shared sense of fate. Until the emergence of the modern nation state, that shared sense of fate or group belonging, imagined community was, of course, first and foremost, tied up to religion. So if you were a Christian and the other person you met was a Christian, you felt that you could trust that person. Whereas if you met somebody that you knew to be either Muslim or Jewish, it was like, “Ooh, can I trust this person that’s not a Christian?”
Lene: We still have that today. It goes the other way as well. If you’re Jewish and you see some Christian people it’s like, “What kind of worldview does this prison have?” Where you tend to have a bigger sense of trust if people come from the same religion as yourself. We do that with the country, the nation state to this day. Today Americans who probably travel to the rest of the world would be quicker to trust another American than to trust somebody from, I don’t know, France or China, for instance. So we still have the sense of imagined community. That’s a really crucial thing, an ability to identify with complete strangers, millions of strangers, if you just happened to know that they happen to have the same grand narrative as you do. So we got that from the pre-modern era.
Lene: Of course, we also got a lot of power structures. We got rule by law. We got writing. We got the Greek philosophy and we got the patriarchy and tons of stuff. But then the beginning of the modern era was really with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, with movable type, because then very quickly people could share information and they could share contradicting information. Suddenly people had to deal with what is truth? And how do we produce knowledge? Then came the emergence of science with the Enlightenment and this modern era brought us rule of law. It brought us the modern nation state. It gave us democracy, liberal democracy. It gave us capitalism. It also gave us the other ideologies. It gave us liberalism, communism, socialism, libertarianism, conservatism and all other kinds of politically isms.
Lene: Then from, I don’t know, 50 years ago there was this new thing emerging, which is called postmodernism, which is a deconstruction of everything. All of these four isms or modernisms, the prehistoric indigenous, the pre-modern, the modern and the post-modern are cultural codes. They define how we regulate social behavior. It’s a code for what is good behavior and how we understand the world and what we can know about the world. The difference between postmodernism and the three other ones is that both the prehistoric indigenous cultures and the pre-modern cultures and the modern cultures can create, build and sustain communities and societies. They can actually build power structures that allow thousands of people to live peacefully among each other within that community or society that shares the narrative or the power structures. Whereas postmodernism can really only deconstruct the understanding of all the other things. It’s really hard to construct a society on deconstruction, if it’s possible at all.
Lene: By society, I, of course, mean a group of people where you take responsibility for each other and for each other’s wellbeing and where you have to sacrifice some of your own freedoms and benefits and privileges in order for other people to thrive in that society as well. That is also what those moral coats are about. It’s about how can we survive as a society, as a community and what kind of expectations can I have to other people in this community without being too surprised when they actually do what they’re going to do? So postmodernism is different than these other three codes.
Lene: Then the idea of metamodernity is that we can combine the best parts of each of those four codes into a future culture. There should be some guidelines or principles for what is actually a useful element to bring into the future and what are useful elements? And that’s where postmodernism can help us, because it depends on the context. So the tribal, small community, personal relationships, reading body language and having eye contact with everybody and basing collective decisions on just having a conversation among the 20 people in that group. That is okay if the group is only 20 people and if it really is a small tribe, even in a modern sense and the decision-
Lene: A tribe even in a modern sense and the decision only concerns that small tribe. But if you apply this kind of decision-making or power structure to a society of a million or more people, and it’s just still just 20 people who make the decisions and define what the power structures are and what we’re going to do as a collective or what the rules are going to be for everybody, if that’s still just 20 people deciding that for the million or more people, then we call it corruption. Particularly if they harvest favors and resources from the rest of that society because they can use violence to coerce people to give them things or pay them for protection or something like that. So, a metamodern culture would be aware of the different power structures throughout these four cultural codes, and the group sizes throughout these four cultural codes, and what crucial contributions they have each created and given us as part of our collective cultural heritage as a species.
Lene: And this, now it becomes really complex, but it also makes it possible for us to say, “You know what, if you’re education, personal resources, your emotional needs are such that you thrive in a small group and are not yet capable of handling maybe responsibility in a thousand people or 10,000 people entity, it is okay that you navigate according to the prehistoric indigenous moral code.” You just have to understand that the rest of society, the bigger society, their prehistoric indigenous cultural code is not enough. It doesn’t suffice. It cannot regulate a society of a million people.
Lene: But it’s okay if you, as an individual really only feel safe, secure, and comfortable and thrive in these small settings. But then we’ll have to, if you’re going to participate in voting, you have to expand your understanding of what national politics or city politics are about. Of course, everybody’s should have the right to vote. And that is why we need to demand of each other that once we reach the age of 18, at least you have some understanding of what is democracy about, what kind of country are you in, and what are the responsibilities that you have, and what are the limits to your political power, and what are the rules according to which that we can practice this democracy, and go voting, for instance, or run for office or whatever you want to do.
Lene: But my main point with this meta modernity is that there are different power structures depending on different group sizes. And there are different experiences and kinds of knowledge that we have from different periods in the human evolution up to where we are today, and with the many technological and other changes that we’re facing, we need to be open to the fact that not everybody can handle everything at once and all the time together simultaneously. And so we need to be able to have a conversation about where do I feel comfortable right now doing what, and what kind of power structures are okay in which contexts, and who has the education and the systems perspective on different group sizes and infrastructures and power structures in order to be able to make wise decisions on behalf of group sizes of different size? So it’s a different way of looking at civilizations, society, human interaction, power structures, and what is meaningful and what we can grasp and where we feel personally empowered to actually take responsibility and not just freak out and think that things are too overwhelming.
Jim: Very interesting. Let me push back a little bit, a little bit more gently because of the way you’ve made the distinction about postmodernism. Those who’ve listened to the show, know that I’m sort of an anti-post-modernist. And when I talked with Hanzi Freinacht in three episodes about his take on meta modernity, I’ve pushed back harder on him because he basically suggests that the evolution to meta modernity or whatever comes next is through postmodernism. And I’m doubtful, in fact, skeptical and anti-that. And I think you hit it approximately correctly, which is you distinguished postmodernism from the indigenous, the premodern, and the modern, and that it really isn’t a civilization. It’s a set of odd little things, which we can learn for. And I think it’s dangerous to put this progression indigenous, premodern, modern, and post-modern because most of post-modern is bad or unuseful at least
Lene: It’s an analytical tool.
Lene: I mean, so if you have a ruler and a hammer, and so you can use the ruler to figure out where the spike goes in the wall, but you can’t put the spike in the wall with a ruler. You have to use the hammer. I mean, it may be a bad analogy. But I mean, so the other cultural codes are actually the hammers and rulers, and they can measure what to do and they’re also really useful tools for building stuff. But postmodernism is not useful for building stuff. It’s really useful for deconstructing stuff, and for opening up a conversation where if … I mean, I’m European, you’re American, and we sit here on our side of the ocean. And I see some things in the US that you probably don’t see because you’re there, and you see things in Europe that I probably don’t see because I’m here.
Lene: And, postmodernism allows us to make that kind of perspective-taking and having a conversation about this perspective-taking. And that is very useful. And it’s particularly useful when we have social media and there’s a whole world of what is it, 7.6 billion people who are now being increasingly connected around the globe and we have all these different perspectives. And so what modernism is not good at is to switch these perspectives. It’s really good at producing scientific knowledge and having a progression of getting closer and closer and closure to what are the facts about the world as it is.
Lene: But it’s really poor at taking, let’s say the feminist perspective on the world and the conservative perspective on the world and the neoliberal perspective on the world and weighing them against each other and seeing, so the reason why you say this as a feminist is because you see the thing through this lens. But the reason why the other person is saying this from a conservative perspective is because they see it through that lens. And the two of you are really looking at the same thing, but you come with these preconceptions of what is it that you’re looking at. And postmodernism can allow us to have this meta-conversation about who brings in which set of glasses when they’re looking at the world and describing what they’re seeing. But it’s really hard.
Lene: I mean, on all the other cultural codes, you can bring up children. You can bring up children as a hunter-gatherer and telling them what is right and wrong, depending on the culture and the mythologies and the narratives and the knowledge that is within the tribe. And you can bring up children in the premodern world and send them to church or the mosque or the temple or whatever, and there will be a priest telling them what is right and wrong. And you can send modern children to school, and there will be a teacher telling them what is right and wrong. And that is a good thing. And you will have children who understand what the world is like because some adults just told them.
Lene: It may not be the whole truth. It was never the whole truth. But to a seven-year-old mind, that makes total sense because seven-year-olds and even 12-year-olds need to have adults around who represent truth and who represent what it means to be a good person, and to tell them … Well, often they also show it, but they don’t recognize that or admitted what is a bad person. But we are really moral beings from almost the moment when we’re born, so it’s really important that children are surrounded by morally responsible adults who tell them what is right and wrong. And their brains are just going like yummy, yummy, yummy, and now I know what a good person is.
Lene: But then when we come to postmodernism, you have this pedagogical philosophy or the insecure young parents who are like … I mean, they don’t want to indoctrinate their children, or the teachers, I mean, we’re so afraid the teachers are going to indoctrinate children, so they don’t have any personal standpoints, moral standpoints, viewpoints on anything. And so whenever a child asks what’s the right thing to do, the answer is, what do you feel like, and what do you think is the right thing to do? And their brains are not ready for it. And, I think we’re breeding anxiety and confusion in children today.
Lene: And one thing that they particularly do not understand, which is the hallmark of postmodernism is irony. And the only reason why you can handle irony is if you have a really strong core and sense of what is right and wrong and where you’re coming from and what is the right thing to do. Then you can have an ironic attitude towards things and you can shrug your shoulders. And we both know that … I mean, I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that what I just said was a joke, even though I said something that had not been said, ironically, it would have been deeply offensive, for instance. But we can only have that kind of exchange where you know that I know that I know that you know and so forth if we both know what we consider to be truth and what we consider to be the morally right thing to do.
Lene: I mean, a postmodern filmmaker like Quintin Tarantino, I mean, he could only kill all those people in his movies. And we were only laughing because we knew it was morally wrong. The moment that we don’t know that it’s morally wrong to kill all those people, those movies are not funny anymore. So we need the modern world, we need the premodern world, and we need the indigenous world in order to actually have that sense of irony and make it morally right to have that sense of irony that is postmodernism.
Lene: And so I distinguished between metamodernism and meta modernity. And metamodernism is for most of the writers and thinkers and metamodernism that I have encountered so far is just integrating modernism and postmodernism into a new cultural code. There are a couple of thinkers, or at least one who has realized that there was something before modernism that we also need in the future, and all of that is just lumped together as premodernism. But I distinguish between the premodern, which is the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, and then the prehistoric indigenous, which is anything in the Stone Age, really. And I integrate that into a concept of meta modernity that could be a future civilization if we so want. And that, for me, is the big difference between metamodernism and meta modernity.
Lene: I think that metamodernism is too simplistic. I also think it’s predominantly created by a generation that grew up in postmodernism. And so they do not have personal roots and experiences with the premodern culture. And I think that you are, I’m guessing your age to be in your 60s. I’m in my very early 50s. But I suppose that both of us grew up with a lot of premodern content in our childhood and maybe even into adulthood. And we have a personal experience with many of those rituals and moral norms and things coming out of the premodern world, which I mean much of that is still, I mean, tons of it is still present in our culture, but we often experience a cultural conflict between the premodern and the modern in our postmodern society right now.
Jim: Interesting point about our perspectives. Yeah, I’m 66. You guessed pretty close.
Lene: I cheated. I saw it somewhere on YouTube, but that’s okay.
Jim: That’s all right. Anyway, I still do practice, I suppose, premodern even indigenous things. As I’ve talked about on the show before, I’m a farmer, I’m a Hunter. I can butcher a deer in a pinch. I can even butcher a steer or a hog. My wife and I go outside and sometimes have our friends over at least pre-COVID, and let’s say once every couple of weeks, we build a big bonfire out in a fire ring we have, and we just sit there and look at the stars or sing silly songs, drink a little wine.
Lene: There you go. And you’re happy.
Jim: Yeah. And then it’s good. We enjoy it. It’s life. And you know, this is interesting. And again, I want to push back against postmodernism because I really do think if we have to frame postmodernism correctly in our thinking through the way forward, and as you say, one whole school of metamodernism basically incorporates postmodernism. Another one, which we’ll talk about later, I would call it the Nordic, the Hanzi Freinacht thing is skeptical of postmodernism, but nonetheless shows the road going through it. And then your take on it is, hey, let’s be real careful what we choose from postmodernism, what we choose from the other earlier forms. And I think that’s closer to it. I think this conversation is extremely important because as you said, an awful lot of the thinking is grounded in people who are, I would say, suffering from the postmodern condition.
Jim: And here’s how I deconstruct postmodernism actually into five components. And I think this helps me make sense of it. And I’m going to share this and I’d love to get your reaction to it. First, postmodernism was originally an art movement. And in fact, the very first time that as far as I can recall, I heard the word postmodernism was in 1984 in Time magazine when they were discussing the new AT&T building in Midtown Manhattan and they described it as postmodern architecture. This was an era for younger folks when most of the skyscrapers were just plain boxes with very little ornamentation on it, the so-called international style.
Jim: This AT&T building was very expensive, very prime real estate, Midtown Manhattan. And it had this Chippendale ornate top on top of it, on top of what was otherwise a fairly plain box. And this was described as postmodernist, i.e., ironic. Why was there a Chippendale top on a international style skyscraper? But again, you can see where that’s postmodern, right? And then there was a whole school of art. Frankly, I’m kind of old school in the art I like. I like Bach a lot better than I like hip hop. And I like Renaissance painters way better than I like modernist painters, let alone postmodernism.
Jim: Firstly, I find a lot of postmodernist art silly, these art installations so-called, et cetera. But, hey, that’s just me.
Lene: And they don’t know how to paint.
Jim: Yeah, or they don’t know how to paint. In fact, I can still recall my daughter and I, we went as a family to the New Museum in New York. And she at the time was in art school learning the actual skills of being an artist. And she literally broke down and cried looking at the shit that was in this museum. This stuff looked like it was done by a not very talented seven-year-old with colored pencils, right? Well, anyway, again, personal values about art.
Jim: The second part of postmodernism is what Hanzi Freinacht calls postmodern values, and those would include things like tolerance, inclusion, cosmopolitanism. I would push back and say, wait a minute, those are enlightenment values. You go back and you read Voltaire, Diderot, Jefferson, Franklin. They advocated all these things. Now, of course, let’s be honest, the world was full of hypocrisy. And with respect to that, “All men are created equal,” says Thomas Jefferson.
Lene: All white men are created equal, but yes.
Jim: Exactly, while he held 200 slaves, and Abigail Adams, John Adams’ wife wrote Jefferson very passionate letters saying, “You got to include the ladies.” And of course, they did not. So while they were hypocritical, they laid down those values. So I’d say those are not postmodern values. Those are enlightenment values, i.e., mid-modernism. If you think, the modern world runs from, as all like the joke, 1694 February 23rd at 10:00 AM, when the bank of England was established, just to be kind of overly precise. You could call the Enlightenment kind of early mid-modernism and it still needs to be perfected to this day. The women have finally turned the corner, I’d say around 1975 towards something like authentic, full-
Lene: And very much thanks to a medical invention called the pill.
Jim: Absolutely. Without the pill, feminism would be incoherent. But we’re not there yet and there’s still work to be done with respect to other marginalized groups. There’s still work to be done but there’s been a lot of progress. So I would call those values, which are sometimes labeled postmodern, actually, modern that need to be perfected. And we are on the way to do that.
Jim: The third part and this may be controversial, I call the postmodern condition, and that is the people who are suffering from postmodernism, the people who have never killed and butchered a deer, whose life is entirely on social media, in video games, and even worse, they’ve been exposed to a flattened, simplified form of postmodern theory and essentially are ungrounded, have no meta-narrative, everything is information, nothing is real, hyper-skepticism, and nihilism. And that science is just another way of seeing rather than being a unique and different way of seeing.
Jim: I would say in the US that’s maybe 15% of the population and, of course, disproportionately skewed towards the younger side of the population. And these people are really suffering. I mean, they’re highly alienated for goddamn good reason. If you’ve never made a fire for yourself, what the hell kind of person are you, right? You’ve never changed the oil on your car. You wouldn’t have how to change the tire on your car if it had a flat. What kind of life is that? That’s just weird. And I would say that what comes next, and these do incorporate particularly these indigenous elements that you’ve been so eloquently talking about and some from the premodern and the modern that are real, that are grounded, that aren’t in so deeply into the simulation and the [inaudible 00:43:28] or whatever the fuck it’s called that some of these people talk about. You need to be more grounded in the real.
Jim: My fourth part of postmodernism, I call the stance. That’s the critical theory people or the theory-theory people. They’re the ones who kind of cooked up this woke thing that we’re all suffering from here in the United States. It’s probably one to 3% of the population. Almost certainly no more than three. I went through the analysis on, I think the first of my episodes with Hanzi on why that has to be the case. And so that’s a small but important and problematic part of the population.
Jim: And then finally, there’s the tools, such as deconstructionism. I’d estimate, less than 1% of the population in the West actually understands these tools, what they are, and how to use them. And to my mind, the tools, like any tool, your hammer and your ruler can be useful in the appropriate place. And oddly enough, I know how to do deconstructionism, and where that tool is appropriate, I will use it. So I think it’s very important to not consider postmodernism as something we pass through to get to where we go. I would say it’s a branch, hopefully, a stub branch of modernism that produced some bad things like the postmodern condition and the post-modern stance, but generated some useful things like tools such as deconstructionism.
Lene: Yep. And I mean, so if there actually were a postmodern society, it would not last because there is no glue. Everything is distance or nihilism as you said. If I’m just going to take the five aspects here that you mentioned, I mean, yes, it started as an aesthetic movement and we could call it art. But, that is also what metamodernism started as, and it was two Dutch cultural theorists who wrote a manifesto. And they were actually … Because the reason why they explored metamodernism and they actually got it from some, I forgot his name now, that’s embarrassing, who wrote an article in a 1990s about hypermodernism and metamodernism, so the word metamodernism has been around for a while. But the two Dutch cultural theorists, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, in 2008, they were exchange students in the UK.
Lene: And that’s the way I remember the story. If they are listening to this and I’m telling it wrong, they should write you and correct me. But, I think they’re students in London when the financial crisis crash happens. And they’ve grown up in this postmodern culture where you can choose your own path and anything is good. I mean, there’s no moral right and wrong, and anything goes, and you can become anything you want, and the world is open. And suddenly the financial market crashes and they realize that, oops, no, not everything is of the same value, definitely not the same wall value. And there is such a thing as reality. And there are things that actually do matter. You can’t just have nihilistic attitudes towards everything. There are actually things that are important and have deep emotional and existential meaning.
Lene: And so they realized that there’s a lot of stuff from this modern world that we can’t afford to lose, but we still have this kind of erotic distance to everything and we can just shrug our shoulders and joke about it. And so they have this sort of superposition of being, if I’m to use a quantum concept. And, so you live in the superposition of both seriousness, and irony, and of needing intimate and close and honest relationships, and distancing yourself. And I know that feeling because I’m not that old, but I know that feeling of I do both at the same time and I feel both at the same time. And van den Akker and Vermeulen here are very explicit about this being a cultural theory. It’s just an emotion that they have noticed in themselves and their own generation, people around them. And then they start seeing it in the arts, and then they start describing this and it becomes a theory of aesthetics and that’s all it …
Lene: … and it becomes a theory of aesthetics. And that’s all it is. And then there’s some people who start working with this and actually Daniel [Gertz 01:12:03] who’s one of the people behind Hanzi Freinacht[inaudible 00:00:12]. He was the one who found meta modernism, and we corresponded about it. So, I learned that term from him. But the more that I dug into this, the more I realized that it’s not enough to just focus on the modern aspects of the world and the postmodern aspects of the world. There’s all that stuff that came before that. And that’s even deeper and has even deeper existential roots.
Lene: But anyway, so meta modernism started as an art movement as well. And is now being developed by many people. The values, yes, they are modern, the ones that you mentioned there. And then you talked about the condition. And that’s the nihilism and the irony. And you suffer as a human being if you’re expected to not connect deeply, emotionally with anything that has significance and that you cannot have anything of absolute value in your life. Our brains are not built for that. And our emotional systems are not built for that. So we’re going to be anxious and frustrated and angry and afraid and depressed if we cannot have something in our life that is sacred, not necessarily in a standard religious pre-modern meaning of that word, but there has to be something in our life that you simply cannot take that away from me.
Lene: And I think most people have children, I’m not one of them, but most people who have children would say, my children are sacred. Don’t touch my children. And for others, it’s, don’t touch my prophet. Don’t make a drawing of him and definitely do not make a mocking drawing of him. Do not make fun of like sacred texts. Do not make fun of my democracy, my freedoms, my human rights.
Lene: And so if we cannot have something in our life that is sacred and people just keep mocking it, then we suffer as individuals. And then there’s the stance that you mentioned. I think that woke and wokeism is actually a very important concept, but like any ideology or any concept that claims to or wants and claims a monopoly on how we see the world, it won’t work. It’s like if everything has to be conservative, it doesn’t work. If everything has to be socialist, it doesn’t work. If everything has to be the market, it doesn’t work. So if wokeness becomes defining for everything, it’s just going to ruin everything. Like if the market becomes defining for everything, it’s going to ruin everything.
Lene: So we need all these aspects in a meaningful life. And the concept of wokeness, which is really about seeing… I’m a white woman. I know that I have privileges that a black woman doesn’t have. And I don’t have a problem with admitting that. I have a problem with it existing. And in some cases I need to be aware of that, but I don’t have a problem with admitting that there are things in my life that are way easier because I’m white, I’m Scandinavian, I’m graying blonde and I look like somebody who comes out of Europe and has a credit card in the bank. And people generally trust what I say. And there are people who look different and who are not being trusted the way that I’m being trusted. And I’m aware of that. And that affect my life. It also affects other people’s lives. And there are people who are not that fortunate. And I can be aware of that. And I see that as wokeness and I see that as an important part of being an adult in a world where we have so many different kinds of people living around each other and where we need a society to function.
Lene: And the only way that we can build along each other trust and a sense of responsibility and a sense of shared community, imagined community is by having that insight of the way that I look in the background that I have, how has that influenced my role in my society, but also how does that influence the way that other people view me? And I’m among the fortunate people. And I have to deal with that. Others have to deal with another situation. So I’m not against wokeness as such, but I’m against wokeness becoming a cancel culture where only certain people have the right to speak in certain contexts, because then we’re all going to end up stupider than we were in the first place.
Lene: And then there’s the tools and the deconstruction. And yes, that is important. And that is part of what allows us to see the world and its full richness and all the interplays of things that are in our world and that are in our daily life that are in politics and there that are in many places.
Jim: Well, if you don’t mind, let me make one little distinction here about woke and why I put myself in the anti woke category as we said above. Things like inclusion and getting people to an equal place at the table, et cetera, are solid, modern enlightenment values. And I think most good-hearted people support that. But what wokeness goes nuts is, as you say, it starts to build a broken epistemology. Only type person X can talk about topic Y. Even worse, and this is… We did a great interview with James Lindsay on his and Helen Pluckrose’s book, Cynical Theories, where he gets down into the real weeds of how these theories came together and what they about.
Jim: The biggest flaw in sense-making around critical theory and the other related theories post-colonialism weird theory, et cetera, is there hermetically sealed against empiricism. They specifically reject data in the analysis. For instance, they posit that this privilege is over-powering. It’s the dominant structure of society. It structures everything. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Where’s the evidence. Maybe it’s something else, maybe it’s indigenous aspects of, let’s say, black culture that are the biggest thing holding African-Americans back. I don’t actually know. But you can’t just say, well, no, it’s microaggressions. That’s the whole story right there. And be impervious to empiricism. That’s where I think wokeness is brokenness. Is that it not only doesn’t use empiricism and data, but it actively rejects it and describes it as a form of racism. It reminds me a lot of high Catholicism in the late middle ages.
Lene: Absolutely. Yeah. Scholasticism
Jim: Exactly. Where to question it is itself a sin. That’s where woke is broke. Not its goal. Its goal, I agree with. It’s its means that are utterly broken and frankly dangerous in the same sense Maoism is dangerous.
Lene: Yeah. Once it presents itself as the truth, it’s dangerous. But anything that presents itself as the truth where you can’t question anything, it’s dangerous and it’s totalitarian and it’s, yeah, dangerous. But what I would like to also emphasize here is, you can absolutely find woke academics in their fifties and sixties, but it is also a youth movement. And its youth movement among a generation that grew up in post modernism. And so their frame of reference, what we gave them. We’re the old people who gave them a school system within which this managed to evolve. And so if we had had a school system that taught science in a way that every child at the age of 16 knew what molecules and atoms and light waves and all that stuff is. And if they were good at math and we had good math teachers and actually paid the teachers a salary so that… I’m not saying that the teachers aren’t good enough, but it’s like if we really prioritized the schools and the school systems and the education and teaching the arts and the aesthetics and the science and all this stuff, then we wouldn’t have this problem.
Lene: But if we’re just teaching to the test, if we have mediocre school systems, if we have thousands upon thousands of young people leaving school who can barely read and who cannot do math and who have no concept of the natural sciences, or is just this sort of stuff that some boring guy was putting on a Blackboard. And I never got it, but I aced the multiple choice tests because I was lucky that day. Then we’re going to have this kind of problem.
Lene: But if we invested in our children and in our youth with good education with proper schools and with teaching every child to play an instrument for instance, so that they were brought up with the ability to connect with their cultural heritage and to play with others and to listen and to listen in and be part of a group that plays together. And we gave them the extra vocabulary that comes from knowing your cultural heritage and the old hymns and the old folk songs and also the Beatles and music from the eighties and the nineties.
Lene: But if the more culture that you give children, the richer their vocabulary and the more complexity they have in their own head and the better suited they are for handling this wokeness. Because then they actually have conflicting stuff inside their own head and they would have to deal with that. But if we have given them poor education and they haven’t learned science, the basics of science, for instance, no wonder that they just think that it’s a different episteme or a different way of looking at the world that is just as good as what my friend told me on Instagram.
Lene: It’s like, we’re guilty. And we need school systems that can handle this complexity and teach all the knowledge that we gained during modernity and all the aesthetics that we gained during pre-modernity and all of the survival skills and meaning-making circumstances and lighting a fire. I’m a vegetarian, I’ve been so for 26 years. I would be happy not to shoot any animals or fry them. But that connection with nature. And I think we can’t even save the planet unless we love nature and understand that we are a part of that nature and can feel it in our bones.
Lene: So, there’s something that we did not do well enough. And one of the results is wokeness. And it’s a totalitarian kind of wokeness.
Jim: Exactly. I’m just going to do a quick call out here on the intersection between indigenous and complexity. I’ve had one of my favorite guests, Tyson Yunkaporta on, I think, three times on the show now. And he wrote an amazing book called Sand Talk. If you haven’t read it, you should. He’s a Australian Aboriginal person, indigenous person, but he’s also university educated and a lecturer at Australian university who studied complexity science among others.
Jim: And he’s done a very clever move, which is he’s looked at modern civilization and or postmodern civilization with the lens of an indigenous person plus a complexity framework. And it’s quite amazing.
Lene: I would imagine. Yes, absolutely.
Jim: For those interested in how do we look from an indigenous perspective? Read the books Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. I can’t recommend that book enough. It’s quite remarkable. Let’s move on. We’re getting a little short on time here. I actually have a hard stop coming up in about half an hour, which is, let’s switch gears a little bit and you call out that appropriate meaning-making is the best prevention against the frustrations that generally lead to authoritarian ideologies and societal instability.
Jim: Those are your words, and to my mind, and as we just discussed, but let’s talk about the other side too. We’re currently being confronted by authoritarian ideologies of both the left and the right. We have the wokes in their quasi Maoist nightmare. And then we also have these right fascist white supremacist, anti-Semite assholes. I wish the people who are sensible could just get out of the way and let those two fight themselves to the death and preferably kill each other. But if we’re going to not let those two viruses of the left and the right make incursions into the center and to sensible people everywhere, we do need to establish a meaning-making mechanism in society that deals with the these two polls we talked about earlier. One, the ever increasing complexity of our lives and the facts that we’re very rapidly approaching the limits to what mother earth will carry.
Jim: So I’d love to hear some of your thoughts about meaning-making in the current world.
Lene: I think that both of these groups are somehow struggling with the same problem, which is that their understanding of the world does not match the complexity of the world. And if we take the right wing white supremacists first, it’s very… A lot of people in, let’s say, among academics who would just call the losers and fascists and use other kinds of very derogative words about them. And I think that we could benefit tremendously from not understanding fascism as an ideology but a potential that we all have when our meaning-making falls apart.
Lene: So whenever what we use to do, and which used to give good results and allow us to keep a job and provide for a family and live meaningful and productive live and thrive, whenever that stops working, most of us would just keep doing what used to work. And when that increasingly does not produce the wished for results, we’re going to first get frustrated and angry and begin to suffer from anxiety. And then we’re going to dig ourselves deeper and deeper into a black hole of anger and resentment and hatred towards all the people who look as if they’re thriving in this world where I used to know what I was doing, and now I have no freaking clue anymore or I think I have a clue, but the clue doesn’t work.
Lene: So when people lose their foothold in the world that they used to know, they are eventually going to be angry and they’re going to be looking for simple answers. And they’re going to be loving any person who is promising them the past that they knew and where things were working out for them. And so that is why we can’t afford to not have good educational systems. Because everybody needs to, first of all, have a good experience with going to school and finding it meaningful and fun.
Lene: Children come into this world loving to learn. It’s hardwired into our brains that we’re looking for patterns, we’re looking for meaning, we’re looking for love and for adults praising us for being good persons. And we’ll looking for patterns in the world out there in order to be able to predict what comes next. And we love to learn. It gives us a tremendous emotional reward when we learn something and we accomplish something. And it turns out that we did things right and worked out the way that we wanted it to be.
Lene: And you mentioned your father who left high school and then got a job and bought a house. And it used to be that you could actually do that. And a lot of people did that. And then they raised a family and had a very meaningful and productive life. And then they became older. And then they retired and they still had a productive and meaningful life. But you can’t do that anymore. First of all, you have to go at least through college or learn some kind of trade. And then you have to update your education and you have to update it again. And maybe you have to have a completely different education because the profession that you were in was suddenly replaced by robots or AI.
Lene: And so all of these people who many had a really bad experience going to school and were lucky, and they just were happy when they could finally leave the school system and just get a job and earn some money. They suddenly realized that they can’t do that anymore. And then they knew that going to school was horrible and going back, it’s just the last thing they want to do. And thirdly, they don’t like to be called a basket of deplorables and other things.
Lene: And are they losers? Yes, they are losers, but others are winners in the current economy and are making them losers. And those people who are the winners in the current economy need to understand that we cannot afford to have that kind of losers. And it’s morally wrong to have those losers and have that kind of losers in our economy and in our society. We need to create a society where there are no… There are people will lose from time to time. And not everything is rosy and wonderful all the time, but we can’t afford to have people who are losers to the extent that they cannot see a way out of it. And we cannot afford to have people who are being called losers even when they are.
Lene: And so those of us who have the resources and the education, and those of us who, who are creating the new technologies, I’m not one of those, we need to take responsibility and we need to take responsibility for their not being created large groups of losers. Because that is going to destabilize our societies, our economies and peace and prosperity for everybody.
Lene: So, the right wing, whatever kind of supremacists they tell themselves that they are, is really a way of grappling with losing foothold in their own life and trying to come up with a narrative within which they are winners and on top of the world. And even though that narrative may not have any kind of connection to the real world and what they actually are and the way that they live and the prospects that they have in the current society and the current economy, having that narrative about themselves is what holds them together and makes life meaningful and makes them want to get out of their bed in the morning.
Lene: So we have to understand that. And these people are, in one way or the other, people who got lost in the school system or the greater society, one way or the other. And yes, they are losers in the way that they are not the winners in the current society and economy.
Lene: So that’s one problem. Nut their anger and their totalitarian or authoritarian longing, and they’re longing for simple answers, in many ways then reassemble what is going on on the left hand side of the political spectrum, where we have the whatever pseudo Maoist or structurally Maoist, totalitarian, authoritarian way of looking at the world through the lens of wokeness and critical theory and hierarchies of privileges where everything is suddenly reduced to these privileges and hierarchies of privileges.
Lene: And there, I would say we’re facing a young generation who grew up in a predominantly post-modern culture within the modern society and where they were not participating in, let’s call it moral communities, communities of moral values. It can be the Scouts, it can be a church, it can be any kind of strong community where people are focused on what is morally right and wrong. And grow up without that kind of guidance, the world is a very confusing place. And then suddenly there’s a critical theory that tells you that there is an order in things after all. And it’s about power hierarchies. And if we have even, and I know that’s the case in Denmark, but I suspect it might also be the case in the United States and elsewhere, we used to teach history as a narrative. And we used to teach it. So we started on the stone age and then came the bronze age and the iron age just as I told him now, and then came the Renaissance and the enlightenment and modernity and blah, blah, blah. And now we’re here.
Lene: And the US of course, that has been a harder way to teach history because there are so many different cultures that live together. And there’s the whole indigenous American culture that was eradicated. And where there are still consequences to a lot of people in the US today. It’s easier to have that kind of history lessons when it’s a place like Denmark where you can just tell the Danish history from the beginning and the first hunter gatherers when the ice melted and Denmark actually became habitable. And until today. Butt the narrative and the sense of oh, things happened in a certain order. There were things that happened before something else and the later things could not have happened had the first things not happened before that. And it’s not that somebody planned history, it’s not that there is an actual direction in history. It’s not like there’s in that respect order in history. And that it is progressing towards a bigger or higher goal.
Lene: The only thing that you can say is that there’s increasing complexity and from time to time complex systems crash, and then you have the de complexity and maybe even entropy for a while until a new organization emerges. And then you have new complexity. So overall, there’s this inner process and the workings of the world, both in the natural world and in cultures and among people of increasing complexity. And then from time to time that disappears through a crash or war or natural disaster or something. But if the history lessons, the way that we’ve taught history to children has been like, okay, so now we have-
Lene: … that we’ve taught history to children has been like, “Okay, so now we have a month about slavery and colonialism, and then we have two weeks about the indigenous peoples on the American Prairie. And then we have two weeks about the Soviet Union, and then we have something about the Vikings, and then the Chinese Ming Dynasty.” If we teach history like that, then there’s no sense of history unfolding, and there’s no sense of, “Hmm. We’re actually way better off today than we were 50 years ago, at least in the West, and definitely better off than 500 years ago or 800 years ago.” And yes, there is structural racism. And yes, there is structural male chauvinism and other kinds of oppression, but it’s nothing compared to what it was three generations ago. So there is progress. Things are actually better, and it’s not perfect, but it is overall going in the right direction.
Lene: But if you haven’t had any proper education in history, you can’t see that. And so if we just teach these thematic topics of a short period in history and then jump from topic to topic, the only thing that you can actually show the students or the pupils is, “So what was the power structure in the Ming Dynasty? What was the power structure on the American prairie? What was the power structure in the slavery?” And then when you leave school and study something else such as critical theory, that is all you can see in our society and through history. And so I think that we need to have a serious conversation about what is the proper education for the different age groups in our school systems. And how do we create an education that in meaningful ways allow children to connect with their place and the nature where they are, and with indigenous culture?
Lene: And in this respect, I also talk about an indigenous modern American culture, which I guess is what the rest of us benefited from with, for instance, the Marshall Plan. But the American pop culture… I mean, that’s an indigenous American culture, but in modern American, there’s an indigenous American culture before that comes with that place, and with that tradition, and that environment, and that nature. And children need to know that in the place where they are. And then of course, if you have parents or family that migrated, you need to know it from two places or maybe even three places so that you know where you’re coming from and where your family is coming from. And once you have that, and you have a strong sense of that, and it’s part of your character, then when you travel the world and meet other people who have different cultural backgrounds and who look at the world from a different perspective because they have their roots deep down into another culture somewhere else, then it doesn’t feel so dangerous.
Lene: It doesn’t feel so terrifying or anxiety-provoking, because you know where you’re coming from and you can actually meet other cultures, not just with curiosity and openness, but also with the ability to actually share and have a meaningful conversation and learn something. And I think that is where one of the shortcomings of the whole postmodern generation… And it’s not their fault, but that is what we’re up against, and it’s serious. It really is. And it’s really hard to… For instance, with the coronavirus, if people have no idea about what is an atom, what is a molecule, what is a virus, what is a bacteria, what is single-cell life and what is complex life, and you cannot relate those things at the scientific level, talking about a virus just becomes some sort of, “Oh, there’s something dangerous in the air,” and, “Why would I trust a vaccine?” So we are really where we brought ourselves.
Jim: That’s why I refer to Trump as the first postmodern president.
Jim: He just is disconnected from reality. He’s a free floating… Whatever he says is what he says. And he could say A on Monday, B on Tuesday, C on Wednesday, all that contradict each other, and he doesn’t seem to have any tension about it at all. He’s the perfect postmodernist right, and a very dangerous example of how to try to build a society. Let’s now move how to build a society. And one of the things that’s come up in our Game B work quite a bit is the creative tension between two things. I’d love to get your thoughts on this, and you can you address it in the book. You may not use these exact words, but you certainly talk about it, which is at one level, it seems like we need… Well, we certainly need new institutions. The institutions we have are, you say, 30, 50 and 100 years old at best.
Jim: Hell, American Constitution is now, what? 230 years old. And it was a thing of great beauty when it was written. It’s antique today. At the other hand, our institutions have to be built of people, and can we upgrade the capacity of our humans? And I think the answer to that is yes, but we have to be very careful. The idea of creating the new man or the new person has unfortunately been the hallmark of some of the worst totalitarians-
Lene: Exactly. Whenever you want to do with the right thing, it’s like, “Oh, somebody actually tried that and it turned out really horrible.” Yes.
Jim: Yeah. The French Revolution, the Nazis, the Marxists, Leninists, they all got to make a new man. Nonetheless, it seems like if we’re going to have institutions that can really deal with exploding, exponential increase in complexity as we race towards the limits of our planet, make the job easier if we are able to increase the capacity of people. And I’m a skeptical, [in fact 00:06:30] for a long time, and said, whenever I hear a theory, I apply the no new man rule, where if it requires a new man, it’s a bad idea. But I do think now that we can do things through education, through psychotechnologies, getting people more in touch with their inner being, the concept of state. And I’d just love your thoughts on the kind of the co-evolution of human capacity and human institutions as a kind of meta way to think about moving towards what comes next.
Lene: So, two things. One is what goes on or should go on inside the mind of the individual, and the other thing is the institutions. Then of course there’s a third part, which is the culture, the collective culture. So when we address the humans, the individuals, my crucial message would be that instead of talking about a new man, I would say an expansion of the existing man and woman, and third gender, whatever you want to call it. I mean an expansion of what is already there. We can all grow, and everything that you have learned so far has qualities to it. I’m not, we’re not, whatever want to call ourselves, we’re not here to take away anything from you, but we’re here to add stuff to what you already know. And we’re here to add things and meaning and cultural richness and experiences in nature to what you already know.
Lene: And here’s how you get access to it, and that’s then where the new institutions come in, or improvement of the existing institutions. So how do we provide for all of us in our societies access to more knowledge, more culture, more meaning-making, more nature, more going out on the weekends and creating a bonfire? Or maybe we could have Tuesday night as bonfire night, and so everybody will have access to just sitting around a bonfire and saying nothing, looking into the flames and then going home and have a glass of wine, whatever. But we need to figure out ways to enrich people’s lives and add to what is already there. And whenever you start talking about a new man, it’s usually with the idea that the one that’s already there is wrong and we need to eradicate and get rid of him, and then we’re going to get the perfect world.
Lene: And so the other important message is that we’re never going to get a perfect world, but we can do a lot of things a lot better. So that’s one aspect of it. Then there’s the… Okay, let’s take the culture, the collective culture, a culture that had that as a value. And right now, we have focus on economic growth. And one of the reasons we have a constant focus… There are two reasons, actually. One is that we need to pay back the existing debt and interest on that debt, and our system collapses from time to time when we cannot generate enough more money in the system to pay back the debt that’s already there. And I don’t know how we get around that. The other reason is that nation states have decided that GDP and growth in GDP is how we measure whether a state is successful or not, which is a stupid way of measuring the success of a state.
Lene: There is no reason why a growing GDP should be the one thing that tells us whether our country is a success or not. I mean, there are many, many other things that we could measure such as, is everybody a producer and a consumer in the economy? What is the level of inequality? Can everybody provide for themselves in the economy with the existing number of years of free education? Can everybody enter the workforce debt-free? I mean, there’s so many things that could be the measuring stick for a functioning country, and then we chose this one item called GDP and whether it’s growing or not, which of course matches the need for creating more money in the system in order to pay back the debt. So if we had another goal for our society, which might be, is everybody finding life meaningful? I mean, like Bhutan that has a national gross domestic happiness index. And there are many other things that we could measure if we need to measure anything at all.
Lene: So that’s the cultural thing. Can we change the culture so that we simply value something else? Then money and the market and the politics then become politics again, which then takes us to the institutions and the need for… I mean, some of the institutions of the future may be algorithms. I mean, I could easily imagine that there would be some sort of algorithm through which all financial products would have to run in order to check whether they’re doing what they’re claiming that they do. Right now, Facebook, it’s a private company into which we give all our private information of all kinds and they can make analysis on the patterns in what kind of information we provide, and who we know and who we hang out with and who we meet in real life, because they could basically just put facial recognition on all the pictures and figure out who were at the same event if they analyzed all the pictures.
Lene: So a way to control a company like Facebook and what they’re doing with our data would be to run their algorithm through another algorithm and seeing what it actually does. Maybe a future institution is that before I go on Facebook, I log onto this institution’s website that filters some of the content that I meant to upload. It puts a layer of disguise between me and what goes on on Facebook, so I can actually watch what’s going on on Facebook, but Facebook cannot see that I’m the one doing it. See, I’m not the technical kind of person here. But we think of institutions as buildings with people in them and where you fill in papers in order to communicate with them, or you send them an email. But maybe an institution could be an algorithm doing new things that we haven’t had institutions for before.
Lene: And it could also be… All the credit card companies that can track what we buy and details and our consumption patterns, an institution and algorithm could be some kind of filter that just sends the amounts to my credit card company, but the data about where I spent the money stays with me. I mean, there are all kinds of new things that we need in order to protect ourselves against those data collectors. And then there’s the institutions for lifelong learning, for instance, and the what kind of… If we live to be 110 and we need to upgrade our professional skills every, I don’t know, 5 or 10 years, there needs to be another kind of funding for education. Otherwise, we would just either get poorer and poorer education, or create more and more debt.
Lene: And so there has to be another way of making that accessible to people, so we need a different kind of taxation. Maybe we should tax bits, and maybe we should tax square meters in our homes. So if we were to tax bits, we would have to have an algorithm that picked up or measured how many bits we were each using. And maybe it’s just the companies that owns the cables that have to pay the taxes, and then they charge people using the hardware. I don’t know, but it’s just… The old intuitions are not enough. Doesn’t mean that we’re going to get rid of the old institutions. It just means that we need to be creative and figure out what kind of institutions do we need from now on in order to keep sovereign nation states, to have functioning continents, to have healthy and thriving communities within our countries, and to keep political freedom and human rights and all the good stuff.
Lene: It took 200,000 years for our species to get that along with modern medicine that can actually give us the most amazing lives that you or my grandparents could barely even dream about, and definitely not our great grandparents. And then we’re just risking throwing it all away. It’s just so depressing, but there’s hope. I mean, we can choose another path.
Jim: Unfortunately when I use the word institutions, I do use it in this much broader sense. I would include a monetary, for instance. In fact, I invented one, much better than Bitcoin. In fact, if you want to check it out on YouTube, it’s called Dividend Money: An Alternative to Central Banker Managed Fractional Reserve Banking Money, and it attacks exactly the flaw you pointed out, which is our current money is based on debt. My system is not, so it can be done. And I would also say, we should be thinking broadly about all these kinds of functional plumbing in our society. For instance, you pointed out that there’s lots of people who really aren’t interested or competent in thinking about management beyond the Dunbar number, 150 people, while there are other people who do like to think about such things.
Jim: Why not use something like liquid democracy or delegative democracy, where you can delegate your vote to somebody else that you trust that shares values with you, and does know more about the bigger picture, and then they can re-delegate in a kind of recursive fashion. I think it’s worth thinking about those kinds of structural changes and how our democracy works, which gives us the amazing power of direct democracy, and yet lets people mostly delegate their votes who know more and care more about the issues. And whether the actual form of liquid democracy is the correct form or not, it seems to me it’s time to be exploring in institutional design space to address some of these horrible problems that we’re confronting.
Lene: Right. And one of the things that I think we should do is that… I mean, a small country like Denmark… And we have a couple of islands, particularly one that’s kind of away from everything else. I think we should have these zones where we experiment with new institutions, and then you have the rest of the country or the neighboring countries like the EU… If Denmark or Estonia, another tiny country was willing to experiment with a new institution, an institution like the EU would say, “Okay, the rest of are going to cover your ass if this turns out to be just the worst experiment ever and you ruin the country. We’re going to help you out afterwards, but we need to see if this actually works.”
Lene: There’s something interesting. Estonia has made e-Estonia, where anywhere in the world, you can become an e-citizen of Estonia. It doesn’t mean you get an Estonian passport and can actually travel there, but you can get all the online benefits of being a citizen of Estonia, which means you can have a bank account, you can use their courts. There are all kinds of things that you can… Anything that’s online. I don’t know why no other countries have done that, but it’s just brilliant.
Jim: Yeah. A friend of mine is involved with that effort, actually. It is brilliant, and I love the idea of empiricism, experimentation, exploration. The way we’re going to figure out these high dimensional problems is not going to be somebody that figures out 45 dimensions what’s exactly the right answer in all 45 dimensions. It’s got to be by trial, experimentation, informed by theory, but not [inaudible 01:30:55] theory. Well, we’re unfortunately only about halfway through my notes for this episode, as happens fairly often. We got into it deep, which is great, but I think it’s about time to wrap it up. Do you have any final thoughts before we end this show?
Lene: No, nothing that I haven’t said. I mean, I could talk about many more things, but I would say my concluding remark would just be this has been a great pleasure. And I think that we have such rich cultural background, and so much science and so much knowledge as a species and as a civilization that we have all kinds of opportunities ahead of us. And it’s really a choice of raising awareness and education and creating a more open-minded, richer, exploring and curiosity-driven culture, and then the sky’s the limit.
Jim: Well, thank you very much. This has been an incredibly interesting and deep conversation. Those who want to read more, check out Lene Andersen’s book, Metamodernity. Thank you very much.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.