Steps to an ecology of mind
While analyzing a global history databank spanning 10,000 years, Shin, et al found a disconcerting pattern. Civilizations scale until they are overwhelmed by the information environment they create. This is The Information Scaling Threshold.
Throughout the Holocene, societies developed additional layers of administration and more information-rich instruments for managing and recording transactions and events as they grew in population and territory. Yet, while such increases seem inevitable, they are not. Here we use the Seshat database to investigate the development of hundreds of polities, from multiple continents, over thousands of years. We find that sociopolitical development is dominated first by growth in polity scale, then by improvements in information processing and economic systems, and then by further increases in scale. We thus define a Scale Threshold for societies, beyond which growth in information processing becomes paramount, and an Information Threshold, which once crossed facilitates additional growth in scale… We also suggest a mechanism to help explain social collapses with no evident external causes.
(Shin, et al. 2020. Scale and information-processing thresholds in Holocene social evolution)
When a society hits the information scaling threshold, it stalls out. It can’t function until it invents new ways of making sense that can cope with the complexity of the information environment. And societies that don’t pull off this transition? The paper posits they collapse.
We’ve hit an information scaling threshold
The internet has massively increased the complexity of our information environment, but hasn’t yet produced the tools to make sense of it. Old forms of social sensemaking—institutions, universities, democracy, tradition—all seem to be DDOS’d by the new information environment. They can’t keep up!
The cost of forking realities has dropped below the Coasean floor, and there’s little incentive to merge realities. We fractally fragment understandings, then algorithmically amplify the confusion to maximize engagement. The most effective coordination mechanisms left seem to be memes and conspiracy theories.
Philosopher Paul Tillich posits that when social sensemaking fails to keep up with reality, we experience it as a kind of mass neurosis. Everybody has a crisis of meaning at the same time. Life stops making sense. Anyone living through 2016 onward knows that feeling. The Permaweird.
The timing here seems unfortunate. We’re facing planetary challenges: climate change, global pandemics, mass extinctions, increasing geopolitical tension, financial crises, looming nuclear threats… What a time to be hitting the information scaling threshold!
But, then, maybe the information scaling threshold is why we’re experiencing these crises in the first place? As our problems get more complex, our ability to meaningfully coordinate breaks down.
What do we do now? I see three trends that seem like part of the winding path forward.
Thinking with a second brain
Thinking together at Dunbar-scale
Thinking with the network
Each operates at a different order of magnitude in scale. To go beyond the information scaling threshold, we’re going to have to leverage all three.
Thinking with a second brain
How does a system make sense? By constructing a model of its environment. The model is what allows the system to understand changes in the environment, and to adapt. Agency!
If the model is too simple, the system won’t be able to understand or adapt to new environmental states. Its actions will stop making sense. Therefore, the complexity of a sensemaking system must match the complexity of the environment. This is Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety.
If you want to make sense of a complex world, you've got to have an internal system that is equally complex. (Karl Weick)
The internet has increased the complexity of our information environment. To have agency in this environment, we need to become complex too. We’re going to need a second brain!
I suspect this is why we’re seeing a renaissance in tools for thought, digital gardens, Zettelkasten. By offloading a large portion of incoming information into your second brain, you free up bandwidth in your first brain. You might just barely maintain enough variety to navigate our complex environment.
Thinking together at Dunbar-scale
Knowledge production is a group activity, not an individual one.
(Doug Engelbart, 2002. Improving our ability to improve)
Building a second brain is an effective strategy for coping with complexity. At the same time, it is fundamentally single-player, and most of the interesting things we do, we do together. Can we find ways to make meaning together over the internet?
Global social media is an increasingly adversarial environment, full of trolls, mobs, endemic conflicts, harassment, algorithmic spam. A dark forest. But hiding just under the forest floor we can find a warren of small-scale private communities. Discords, slacks, groupchats. Semi-secret spaces that are invite only. The cozyweb.
It turns out people cooperate beautifully in groups of 150 or less (Dunbar’s Number). Perks of being a social species! The cozyweb leans into this instinct by carving out Dunbar-scale spaces, where we can make meaning together.
These cozyweb communities have all of the features that Elinor Ostrom identifies as necessary for governing a commons without tragedy:
Clear boundaries (private)
Managed by locals
Community makes its own rules
Community can monitor behavior
Graduated sanctions for those who violate community rules
Cheap, accessible means of conflict resolution
In a small community, everybody knows everybody, and can keep track of what they do. This makes small groups repeated games, where defectors have trouble getting away with sociopathic behavior. The natural incentive is to cooperate. So Dunbar-scale groups are pretty good at managing themselves bottom-up through subsidiarity.
If we’re looking for a way to start making sense together over the internet, Dunbar-scale social seems like a good place to start exploring. It’s a human-scale internet.
Thinking with the network
The computer is the most extraordinary of humanity’s technological clothing; it's an extension of our central nervous system. Beside it, the wheel is a mere hula-hoop.
When we examine our bloodstreams under a microscope we see there’s one hell of a fight going on. All sorts of microorganisms are chewing each other up. And if we got overly fascinated with our view of our own bloodstreams in the microscope we should start taking sides, which would be fatal. Because the health of our organism depends on the continuance of this battle. What is, in other words, conflict at one level of magnification is harmony at a higher level. Now could it possibly be, therefore, that we… are a state of conflict which can be seen in a larger perspective as a situation of harmony?
(Alan Watts, We as Organism)
Meanwhile, the chaos of the internet does seem to be birthing strange new kinds of collective intelligence. We’re all networked together. This is new! Researcher Simon DeDeo considers it a phase transition in human culture, dividing history into three eras:
The premodern/archaic era, when most information was generated by non-human phenomena like seasons, weather, drought, flood, hail, lightning. “The gods”.
The modern/postmodern era, when most information was broadcast by a small number of information “sellers”, and consumed by a large number of information “buyers”.
The user-generated content era, where most information is produced/consumed by users, in a tight feedback loop between attention allocation and content production/consumption.
The feedback loop between thinking and posting is so tight, the two are basically in superposition. We think/tweet. It’s not clear which way the arrow of causality goes. The tweets think us. At scale, we become a medium for manifesting memes, like synapses in some global social brain.
Sometimes it seems like this brain has a mind of its own. It cues you in to COVID weeks ahead of everyone else. It manifests memestonks and NAFOs.
Some Very Online people started talking about these memetic manifestations as if they were entities, calling them egregores—projections of our collective consciousness on the network.
Egregores are still a nascent phenomena, but they are creatures of networks, so we might make a few educated guesses about how they behave:
Egregores are collective intelligence that emerges from our individual interactions, sort of like how price signals emerge from the individual actions of many market participants. They need continued interaction to survive, and can often be found manifesting around the frontlines of interminable memetic conflicts.
Egregores are complex, because networks are complex. They are nonlinear. They go through long periods of quiet, punctuated by sudden cascades. From a human perspective, they can seem capricious, indifferent to human concerns.
Egregores are extreme, because networks are extreme. They are creatures of long tail distributions.
We shape egregores, but egregores also shape us, through feedback, through preferential attachment, through audience capture, through memes. They reshape the network to better propagate the pattern.
Can we learn to think with our egregores? Maybe?
Egregores often do strange things, but perhaps we’re in the tulip craze phase of social media sensemaking? After all, when markets reached a certain scale, they began exhibiting what seemed like absurd behavior. But this was only the beginning of a phase transition in capitalism. Maybe egregores are like that? The birth pangs of a new kind of collective intelligence?
Different network structures behave in different ways. Maybe it is possible to construct new social networks that generate egregores which are friendly toward humans? Let’s call this the Egregore Alignment Problem.
Speaking of which, there’s also something here about recent AI breakthroughs. Large AI models like GPT-3 or StableDiffusion are almost like crystalized egregores, in the sense that we train them on the public internet.
Both egregores and AIs are intelligences that can only arise when you reach the information complexity of today’s internet. What if the information environment that pushed us into the scaling threshold births intelligences that can help us think beyond, to the next level?
The age of protocols
Meanwhile, the trends above are colliding with a nascent driving force, a shift from closed platforms to open protocols.
Why protocols? Why now? The early-aughts platform playbook is played out. The web2 paradigm is mature, and growth plateauing. We can see this in the shift toward b2b SaaS, which signals the paradigm has run out of consumers. We can also see it in the phase transition happening across web2 social networks.
As growth slows, the relationship with users becomes adversarial. This dynamic has been thrown in sharp relief by Elon’s twitter takeover. Any alpha being unlocked is, so far, through negative-sum arbitrage like provoking a bluecheck culture war between platform users.
The value of ownership and credible exit are now clear. At the same time, self-certifying cryptographic protocols, including IPFS and blockchains are bringing new kinds of decentralization within reach.
If you squint, you might see a future in which large parts of protocols become self-funding and sustaining. User-ownership has become imaginable.
This future is unevenly distributed, but we can see early hints in Mastodon, Farcaster, Mirror. No doubt new forms of centralization will emerge, but it seems like the web2 bundle is ready for a refactor.
A protocol for thought
One thing seems certain: we need to pass beyond the information scaling threshold. This means finding new ways to think together with the internet. And a future where we own our second brains seems brighter than one where we don’t.
This is why we’re building Noosphere, a protocol for thought. It spans all three scales:
Thinking with your second brain. Noosphere is made up of spheres—notebooks that belong to you, secured with keys that only you have access to. Spheres are distributed p2p across IPFS. You can sync them p2p between devices, and access them through any IPFS node. You own your sphere and have credible exit.
Thinking together at Dunbar-scale: Follow friends, and make sense together. Spheres that follow each other can establish decentralized friend-to-friend networks—private p2p pocket universes that function like a groupchat or shared wiki.
Thinking with the network. Every follow is a synapse in your second brain. Follow friends and friendly AI to get updates in your feed. See backlinks from spheres you follow. AI agents help you find related thoughts, forge new connections, go exploring, and bring back ideas you might be interested in.
Most importantly, Noosphere is about ownership. You own your data, your identity, your connections.
We’re at the very earliest stages of this journey. On October 21st, 04:16 UTC, 02022 we took our first steps into the Noosphere, successfully syncing between two devices. It’s a start!
We’ve launched a community Discord for people who are interested in contributing to the Noosphere open source project. Come join!