This is a draft chapter from my book. Introduction here.
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Chapter 1: Meta-Frameworks
Much of this book will focus on our current technosocietal context and how we can shape it for good. However, before making those claims, it’s necessary to propose the lens/perspective/point-of-view that I’m making the claims through. No claim can exist without a framework.
In later chapters, we’ll explore specific frameworks to understand the world. You can think of these as “frameworks to understand reality”. They take “slices of reality” as input and give “understanding” as output. However, we also need to have a framework to think about frameworks themselves. We’ll call this a “meta-framework”. You can think of this as a “meta-framework to understand frameworks”. Instead of realities as input, it takes other frameworks as input (and still gives “understanding” as output).
Why am I discussing this Meta-Framework? Shouldn’t I be talking about existential risks and crypto memes? Am I being too much of an “Abstraction Maximalist”? No. This Meta-Framework is the most important part of this book. Once you are a Meta-Framework Maximalist, the rest will follow.
What is a Meta-Framework?
Ok. So, what exactly do I mean by a “Meta-Framework”? I think the best way to understand it is through Robert Kegan’s 5 stages of human development, a brilliant framework to understand how our minds develop (both in childhood and in adulthood). Stages 1 and 2 are primarily about childhood, so I won’t go into them here. Stages 3–5 concern adult development.
- Stage 3 is called “The Socialized Mind”. At this stage, adults understand the world through their social and institutional contexts (and are not awarethat they’re looking through a lens). As an extreme example, you can think of someone who was born and raised in a cult. Their morals are copiedfrom the cult’s ideology, and their meaning comes from external validation (in the absence of a strong self).
- Stage 4 is called “The Self-Authoring Mind”. At this stage, adults become aware of their socialized lens. They understand that their perception comes through a lens. They reject their socialized context and begin to develop a self identity outside of their environment. However, they primarily think in terms of a single lens and don’t actively consider others’lenses.
- Stage 5 is called “The Self-Transforming Mind”. Stage 5 is Meta-Framework Maximalism. At this stage, adults become aware that their single lens is but one of many lenses to view the world. They actively search out other frameworks of meaning and can hold multiple ideologies at once. They understand the world is not binary.
Let’s get a bit more texture on Stage 5 thinking by unpacking other descriptions of it.
- Developmentally-Driven Organizations and “The Machine”: Kegan first explored these stages in his 1982 book, The Evolving Self. 34 years later, in 2016, he looked at organizations that operate in Stage 5 in his book, An Everyone Culture. He calls these organizations “developmentally-driven organizations” (DDOs) because they are focused on helping their employees learn. The most famous example of a DDO is the hedge fund Bridgewater, which is led by Ray Dalio. At Bridgewater, they debug problems by relentlessly focusing on the metaphor of “the machine” — the system/POV that produced the results. You can use this machine metaphor to push from both Stage 3 to 4 and from Stage 4 to 5. As Kegan writes in An Everyone Culture, “Whereas the machine metaphor forces the socialized mind [Stage 3] to look at the result or outcome (the effect) and step back to the level of the bigger system that produced it (the cause), the same idea can lead the self-authoring mind [Stage 4] to look at (take as object) not onlythe result but also the machine itself. The machine idea can raise the question of your responsibility, not only for systematically producing the result, but also for producing the machine.”
- Fluid Mode: David Chapman calls Stage 5 “Fluid Mode” it implies one’s ability to traverse between perspectives in a liquid manner.
- Omni-Consideration: Daniel Schmachtenberger often speaks about the need for each of us to become omni-considerate, i.e. to see the world notjust through our POV, but through many POVs. If something is positive from my perspective, what does it look like from everyone’s perspective? Are there negative externalities that I’m pushing onto others?
- Binaries vs. Gradients: Stage 5 folks almost always think in terms of gradients, not binaries. They understand the world as a deeply textured, nebulous place with lots of room for interpretation. There are lots of words we can substitute for ”gradient”: dance, tension, balance, dialectic, texture, relationship, non-dualism. And lots of words for “binary” too: contradiction, debate, dichotomy.
- Multi-Scale Thinking: Systems thinkers primarily conceptualize the world in terms of scale. e.g. What does X look like at an individual, group, and societal level? They often call this “multi-scale” or “multi-level” thinking. Interestingly, contradictions often emerge from multi-level thinking that can only be dealt with as a Stage 5 adult. For example, let’s say I want diversity. At the individual level, I can construct an environment with lots of diversity: [cat, dog, eel]. But at the group level, diversity means a variety of group types: some will be homogenous and some heterogeneous. So I’ll have diverse groups with [cat, dog, eel] but also homogenous groups with [cat, cat, cat]. From the individual perspective, [cat, cat, cat] is not diverse! What gives?
To finalize our understanding of these stages, I’d like to give an example from my own life for times I’ve existed in each stage.
- Stage 3: When I was in high school, I’d often use “gay” as derogatory slang. e.g. If I didn’t like something, I’d say “that thing is gay”. This was something that was socialized into me. My high school culture encouraged this kind of language, and I accepted it through osmosis. Once I went to college, I was surrounded by people who thought more about the effect of their language on others, and they broke me from this language pattern. One way to think about this transition from Stage 3 to Stage 4: previously I only knew one reality (my childhood in Denver), but then I was exposed to other realities (college).
- Stage 4: I like to imagine this stage as “ideological identity”. For me, this was a time in my life where I primarily understood the world through a mental lens (not physical, emotional, or spiritual). And I also projected my lens onto others in the world. When I was trying to help my mom with early-onset Alzheimer’s, I primarily tried to do so through mental means: rationality, arguments, etc. But that didn’t work for her (perhaps even biochemically as a result of Alzheimer’s-induced frontal lobe degeneration). Once I met her emotionally and physically, we were able to communicate.
- Stage 5: Probably my favorite example of Stage 5 thinking is when my email was hacked recently. Someone hacked into my email to get into my cryptocurrency account. However, I didn’t have much money in my account and the hacker wrote to me (by sending an email from my email tomy email), “Your a Poor Faggot Lol Just Remember This Lol”. My “traditional” response would be anger and a desire for punishment. Though I definitely had those instincts, I tried as much as possible to take an Omni-Considerate perspective of curiosity. What made that other person want money? Why do they think stealing is ok? What reality were they socialized into?
So this idea of a Meta-Framework — FluidMode/Omni-Consideration/Dialectic — is simply a way of understanding the world by being aware of the ways in which you can understand it. Ask yourself: What stage are you at? How do you balance internal and external validation? How have you been socialized? Have you broken out of that socialization through a strong sense of self-identity? What parts of that identity do you find sacred? How could you be wrong? In which ways are you ideological maximalist? How often do you think from “The Other Side”? How often do you think from the system/machine level? How often do you retrospect on your life? Have you been to therapy?
Why is a Meta-Framework Important?
Now that we’ve understood FluidMode, let’s try to understand its importance. FluidMode is important from two perspectives. First, for our interaction exploring this book between the reader (you) and writer (me). Second, in understanding + making progress in the world itself.
You (Reader) and I (Writer) Relate To Each Other Through FluidMode
As I explore the ideas in this book, I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of them. As we encounter this disagreement, let’s address it through a FluidMode process. e.g. If you feel I’m wrong ask yourself: Why do I disagree? At what level is he wrong? Are his proposed next steps wrong? Is his conclusion wrong? Are his facts wrong? Is he using an inadequate framework? Do we have different goals? Am I experiencing disagreement spiritually or emotionally as well? In addition, when you answer “why do you disagree?”, go a step further and try to see the world from my perspective. Why would I write that? What about my history led me to that conclusion? How might I be right? If we can have this kind of interaction (a frank/curious multi-perspective iterated game), then I think we’ll get further in exploring the world ahead.
Using Fluid Mode to Understand and Make Progress in the World
But this book is just a means to an end — to build a better world. FluidMode is especially important for that. It’s powerful in addressing both macro global systems and human interpersonal relationships.
Applying FluidMode to Macro Global Systems
At a macro level, the world today is an incredibly complex place. There are 7.5 billion people with 7.5 billion unique minds and experiences. There’s an ecosystem with 8.7 million species and a vast array of overlapping atmospheric, geological, and biological feedback systems. There are now almost 4 billion smartphones and over 20 billion IoT devices consuming/creating 45 billion gigabytes of data per day. It’s a lot. Back when we lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, a uni-perspective framework would’ve been effective. But when we’re trying to solve global problems, we need to take a global perspective (or be able to synthesize many sub-global perspectives). This idea is represented in complexity theory as the First Law of Cybernetics, Ashby’s Law, which states, “only complexity can understand and control complexity”. In other words, we can’t use simple 1-dimensional perspectives to understand (and change) our complex world.
Applying FluidMode to Micro Human Systems
In addition to requiring FluidMode for us to match the complexity of the world (by Ashby’s Law), we also need FluidMode to clarify and resolve our polarized interpersonal relationships. Our tech-influenced world incentivizes polarization which is creating massive divides between Us and The Other Side. (Whichever side you may be on, the people on the other side are crazy, right?!?) However, “me vs. you” anger and debate don’t lead to clarity, alignment, or change. Instead, we need to take a curious, patient, and multi-perspective mindset to our conversations. As Kevin Simler says, we need “an exceptionally strong preference for dialectic over debate”. Let’s look at an extreme example of each to see how dialectic can thrive where debate fails.
Debate Fail: Sam Harris and Ezra Klein
On April 9th, 2018, a very sad podcast was released between two leading podcast intellectuals — Sam Harris and Ezra Klein. Sam is one of the “leaders” of what is colloquially called the “Intellectual Dark Web — a group of right-wing-ish folks who are more rationalist and pro-free speech. Ezra is a leader of the “new media social justice warriors”, a group of left-wing-ish folks who focus on lived experiences and carefully choosing language. Sam has 1 million Twitter followers. Ezra has 2.5 million. They’re both smart dudes. However, their podcast together was an utter failure and an example of choosing debate over dialectic.
In it, they spend 2 hours “discussing” identity politics and free speech. After listening, Eric Weinstein called it “An exquisite intellectual trainwreck of an almost-conversation.” In a post-mortem on the podcast, Sam reflected: “It’s one of these pieces of audio that reveals two ostensibly smart and morally serious people talking past each other for hours on end.” It’s truly painful to listen to. Why? Both of them are in debate/attack/defense mode the entire time. Neither asks the other a curious question.
These kinds of debates happen all the time on Facebook. e.g. A 27-comment debate occurs between your right-wing, older, more rural uncle and your left-wing, younger, more urban niece. They unfriend each other. Next year’s Thanksgiving is more awkward. It’s unfortunate. We need to turn those debates into dialectic. However, I get much more sad about the podcast between Sam and Ezra. They are podcast professionals who are supposed to be great at asking questions to give the audience clarity. They are thought leaders in their respective tribes. But damn, even they couldn’t have a curiosity-driven dialectic. This was a disservice to their respective audiences for that episode. But more importantly it shows a bad process — one without FluidMode.
Dialectic Win: Patience with Westboro Baptist Church and the Klu Klux Klan
In the summer of 2016, as my friends on the left increasingly demonized Trump and his supporters, I sought out conversations with The Other Side. I was confused by “those people” and wanted to understand how the hell they believed in Trump. My friends thought I was crazy and thought it was a waste of time. They’d say, “Those people will never understand. They’re a lost cause.”But I’d respond with two success stories of understanding and conversion where members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) renounced their views after years of patient dialogue. If radical extremists of the WBC and KKK could listen and change, then so could their less radical and less extreme comrades.
The first story centers around Megan Phelps-Roper. Her grandfather started the 70-person WBC and she was indoctrinated into its ideology throughout her childhood. Like her 10 siblings, she would picket the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS with signs like “God Hates Fags”. As she grew older, she became WBC’s social media manager and would talk with gays and jews online. Most of these conversations were debate. But in some of them, her counterpart would patiently ask curious questions about her worldview. She formed a relationship over Twitter with a rabbi David Abitbol and they’d converse in-person when Megan protested at Jewish events. She also formed a relationship over the app “Words with Friends” with Chad Fjelland. Over the course of two years, Megan deepened her relationships with David and Chad. They asked each other questions and also pushed each other on their beliefs. Eventually, “in spite of overwhelming grief and terror”, Megan broke all of her family ties and left the church in 2012. Megan married Chad in 2016 and now speaks around the world about her experience. It’s tough to underestimate how scary this experience must’ve been for Megan. Phase shifting up from a deeply socialized Stage 3 is equivalent to saying: “Everything you thought was true isn’t. Everyone you’ve known now rejects you.”
The second story centers around Derek Black, the heir to the U.S. white nationalist throne. His father was the final Grand Wizard of the KKK and his godfather was David Duke. Like Megan, Derek was socialized into his parents’ ideology throughout childhood. By the time he was in high school, Derek emerged as a young leader by starting a white nationalist daily radio show. However, Derek’s socialized context changed when he enrolled at New College of Florida, a left-leaning liberal arts school. When his peers learned about his background, they initially ostracized him for his beliefs. But later, they began to question their process, posting statements like this on a student forum — “Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything…We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights.” One student, Matthew Stevenson, began inviting Derek to weekly Shabbat dinners, even though Derek had previously written statements like, “Jews are NOT white.” “Jews worm their way into power over our society.” However, over the course of two years, Derek became friends with Matthew and the rest of the Shabbat dinner crew. They began to get curious about each others’ beliefs and push Derek to change them. Just after graduation, Derek (like Megan) broke his family ties and renounced his affiliation with white nationalism. Again, it’s tough to underestimate how scary this experience must’ve been for Derek. Phase shifting up from a deeply socialized Stage 3 is equivalent to saying: “Everything you thought was true isn’t. Everyone you’ve known now rejects you.”
The Buddhist teacher Tara Brach ties synthesizes this beautifully: “Imagine you are walking in the woods and you see a small dog sitting by a tree. As you approach, it suddenly lunges at you, teeth bared. You are frightened and angry. But then you notice that one of its legs is caught in a trap. Immediately your mood shifts from anger to concern: You see that the dog’s aggression is coming from vulnerability and pain. This applies to all of us. When we behave in hurtful ways, it is because we are caught in some kind of painful trap. The more we look through the eyes of wisdom at ourselves and each other, the more we cultivate a compassionate heart.”
The stories above show how curiosity-based dialectic leads to clarity, alignment, and progress, while judgment-based debate leads to retrenchment, polarization, and stagnation. I see these human stories as prototypes for our Omni-Considerate future. If we can vector towards #BeCuriousFirst, then we’ll have increased coherence. In addition, FluidMode is needed to shape our increasingly complex macro systems. One final way to think about this: the biggest problems that plague humanity today can be placed in two Meta-Problems: Coordination Problems and Abstract Empathy. Coordination Problems are Macro System existential risks that result from incentive sets with “bad game theory” like a Tragedy of the Commons (climate change) or an Arms Race (nuclear security). Only by thinking from an Omni-Considerate Macro System perspective can we see the underlying game theory and negative externalities that cause these systems. On the other hand, we also have a bunch of Human Systems problems that result from a lack of Abstract Empathy. About 4 million children die each year from mostly preventable causes like diarrhea, while tens of billions of land animals suffer and die each year in factory farms. If we had a deeper sense of Abstract Empathy (i.e. Stage 5 Omni-Consideration), then we’d likely make more decisions that brought happiness instead of suffering. (We’ll discuss these problems in a later chapter when we more deeply analyze our current context.)
Rejecting Meta-Framework Maximalism
There is one final point to make before concluding this chapter. What happens when we apply FluidMode to FluidMode itself? Should we be FluidMode Maximalists, always existing in FluidMode? No. We can’t be binary about using gradients. We need to be fluid about why/how/when we use FluidMode. For example, decisions are binary in nature. Using FluidMode for the decision itself is just waffling. In addition, FluidMode doesn’t mean we fully reject Judgment and embrace Curiosity. All value sets are not equal. We should judge the ones that don’t nourish us. This is especially needed in an age where our traditional value sets (from religion, nation-states, etc.) are being systematically dismantled. Non-judgmentalism correctly vectors us away from a world of discrimination and hate. However, it can go too far. Similarly, diversity/pluralism is often lauded as a virtue in and of itself. Again, this is an overall positive vector for humanity (moving away from a world where power is primarily controlled by rich, white, Western men). But we also need Coherence. We should lean into the tension of Coherent Pluralism.
It’s tempting to look at the problems of today and solve them at the level we find them. e.g. Let’s reject the law that allows U.S. immigration officers to separate young children from their families at the border. That’s important work. But we need to ask why more often. We can go one click deeper and try to solve the gang-controlled violence happening in Central America (that leads to refugees fleeing from violence). Or we can get to deeper root causes (as we will later in this book), like improving developing world health. Or we can go deeper still to the Meta-Problems outlined above: Coordination Problems and Abstract Empathy. However, if we want to solve all the problems (which we do?), then we’ll need to go to the Ultimate Root Cause, which is that we have too many folks who aren’t operating at Stage 5. (An empirical study from the early 90s put us at 1/3: Stage 3, 1/3 Stage 3+4, 1/3 Stage 4, ~5% Stage 4+.) There are many ways to think about the upcoming humanity-scale phase shift (detailed in later chapters), but I think most accurate is as a individual/collective mass shift towards Stage 5 thinking.
This isn’t a call to judge those who exist at Stage 3 or 4. We were socialized into it! Instead, it’s a call to make people aware of these stages, then support each other as we collectively more through them.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I’d recommend:
- For a “rationalist” perspective on this shift, read David Chapman’s piece: “A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse”
- For implementing FluidMode in a company to create a DDO, read Robert Kegan’s book: An Everyone Culture
- For Megan and Derek’s incredible stories where they break out of a socialized context, see the New Yorker piece “Conversion Via Twitter” and the Washington Post piece “The White Flight of Derek Black”.
- For examples of perverse incentives at the macro systemic level, see Slate Star Codex’s “Meditations on Moloch”.
Now that we’ve looked FluidMode as our primary Meta-Framework, let’s try to answer the question: “What is our goal?” i.e. “How can we do the most good in the world?”
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