The Role of Evolutionary Thinking in Modern Culture — An Interview

Evolutionaries eyeRecently I was interviewed for the Journal of Communicative and Integrative Biology, by author Tam Hunt. A preview of the result is below.

The entire interview can be found here.

What is an “evolutionary” and why should we care?

An evolutionary is a broad category for a new type of thinker and way of thinking about the world. An evolutionary is informed by the radical knowledge that we live in a dynamic changing, evolving universe instead of a static, fixed, unchanging one. In discipline after discipline stasis is giving way to change, fixity is giving way to flow, form is giving way to process, as a way to describe reality. That may sound abstract, but when it comes to thinking about things like human psychology and cultural development, this understanding is actually quite important. For example, it makes a differences when we begin to realize that this thing we call “human nature” is neither fixed in time nor fixed genetically in our evolutionary history, but is malleable, adaptable, evolvable (to use that term loosely). Too often we imagine life and reality to be fixed and unchanging. I call this the “spell of solidity.” Evolutionary thinking is breaking that spell. We’re learning so much about how things in nature develop—including us. We’re discovering that the future is more open than we had imagined and my book is an exploration of how this insight is transforming our understanding of what it means to be human.

What is evolutionary spirituality? Is this a truly new set of concepts or do some schools of thought, such as Vedanta or Buddhism, already encompass many of the key ideas?

Evolutionary spirituality is a spiritual perspective based on the knowledge that we live in this evolving cosmos that has gone from hydrogen gas to human beings. In the book, I say that evolutionary spirituality is evolution-inspired, future-oriented, and world-embracing. Most religious traditions, are pre-evolutionary, including Vedanta and Buddhism, and they are not natively oriented this way (though each tradition has exceptions). Of course, nothing is entirely new, and elements of these ideas can certainly be found in the great traditions. Evolutionary spirituality is also a broad term. It varies from more science-based approaches like the “Universe Story” and “Big History” to new forms of philosophy, mysticism and religious theology.

Darwin2At its essence, evolutionary spirituality is about realizing that evolution is not just happening out there in the universe—in nature, or in our biology—but in our own lives and the lives of our communities. It is connected to the choices we are making to develop and grow, to have more integrity, to understand ourselves and our world more deeply, to expand our own awareness and cognition, to reach for richer, more complex and integrated perspectives, to create novelty and beauty, and to contribute in some small way to the further development of human consciousness and culture.

What inspired you to write your book?

I wanted to share these powerful ideas with readers. They can change the way we see ourselves, and the possibilities inherent in life. And they can make us think more deeply about science, technology, cultural differences, and our place in this vast cosmos.

Also, some (not all) of these ideas have flourished in the counterculture. There are some good things about that. But the downside is that they have not yet received some of the rigorous disciplining critique that will allow them to develop further. Thoughtful, interesting books can help to change that.

Who are the most important figures in today’s evolutionary philosophy/spirituality, in your view?

I feature profiles of many of the thinkers that inspired me in the book, and I hope readers will enjoy learning something about all of them. But rather than promote them here, I would prefer to talk about the founders of evolutionary philosophy/spirituality—individuals like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo and Henri Bergson. They were all extraordinary pioneers of this evolutionary perspective. And of course, if we are going to talk about evolution as a transformational idea, than we have to just appreciate at least 2 others—Darwin, whose insights brought evolution into the world as a fully scientific idea. And Hegel, whose evolutionary, or proto-evolutionary philosophy, was foundational to so much that came after, and a sign of the cultural sea change that was beginning in his time.

As I spoke to today’s evolutionaries for the book, these names often surfaced. And there are others as well. An evolutionary may be future-oriented, but this perspective is also about a rich appreciation of the past, of those pioneers whose shoulders we stand on, and whose work we humbly try to take forward in our own time.

Why is the idea of evolution so hard for many people to accept as integral to reality?  Isn’t evolution simply “change” by another name? And isn’t change as obvious as the nose on my face?

I don’t think most people have trouble with evolution. But there are a minority who do. That is mostly because the way in which book_displayevolution was historically introduced into our culture. Almost from the start, evolution was not simply a scientific idea but also an anti-religious idea. In the 19th century, it was a key inflection point in the development of science and in our growing trust of science instead of religion to explain the world to us. And justifiable or not, evolution became historically associated with an atheistic view of the world. Obviously it is still is caught up in that science/religion culture war. Unfortunately, that makes some religious people reflexively reject the idea, not based on its merits or any deep consideration of its truthfulness, but simply based on the assumption that being pro-evolution is inherently the same as being anti-religion, and not even just anti-religion, but anti-meaning, anti-morality, almost anti-human. Of course, I think that’s unfortunate and unnecessary (even if one is religiously inclined) but it’s hard to change these historical narratives once they get started. Over time, I expect this anti-evolution narrative will fade. At least we can hope it will.

To read the entire interview, click here.


A Mario Cuomo Story

In 2004 I was writing my first major long-form journalism piece, a very ambitious 25,000 word article on the nature of peace, war, the politics of non-violence, and how we think about the use of force in society. It would be called “Is God a Pacifist?” and I managed to interview just about every expert I could on the issue. I even wrote a long request to former NY Governor, Mario Cuomo, to ask if I could interview him about the issues involved. I had heard he was a fan of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and wanted to speak to him about the moral issues involved with an eye toward Teilhard’s work. A long shot but what the heck….I wrote a long email. Heard nothing. A month later, I was deep in writing, and I received an email. It was Mario Cuomo himself, apologizing that his assistant had not forwarded him the email (or something like that) and yes, he would very much like to talk about the subject. I was thrilled. We setup an interview and I got to speak with Cuomo for about 30 minutes on Teilhard, cultural evolution, war and peace, ethics, religion, God. He was passionate, informed, engaging, theologically interesting, charismatic. What a treat; what an honor. A real highlight of my early career as a writer and journalist. RIP Mario Cuomo. A remarkable man, and a deep, beautiful, thoughtful, compassionate soul.

You can read an excerpt of that interview with Cuomo here.

The participants gathering in the Murphy House

Tackling Political Polarization: An Unconventional Gathering

Perched on a narrow stretch of the Big Sur Pacific coastline, Esalen Institute is about as far away as you can get from the Washington DC and still be in the same country—geographically, but also politically, culturally, and institutionally. Yet, for a few days in the first week of October, those distances were bridged, and Esalen played host to a carefully curated, invitation-only “conclave” of 24 experts to address the subject of Political Polarization. The result was three days of political and cultural analysis that surprised the insiders, educated the outsiders, engaged both Republicans and Democrats, and left everyone encouraged—not a small achievement when it comes to such a notoriously thorny subject.

“The polarization between the parties exists even when the issue under debate has no ideological content,” explained Brookings Institute scholar Tom Mann on the first morning. And he pointed to a telling statistic: “In the 1960s, 5 percent or so of Democrats and Republicans said they would be unhappy if their child married somebody from the other party. Today, it’s 49 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of Democrats. People today are more unhappy if their child marries someone from another party than someone from another religion.”

Read more…

Breathless in Babylon: Economic Dislocation Never Looked So Good

Zero MarginalA Review of The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin

Declaring the end of capitalism has long been it’s own mini intellectual industry. And with the economic adversity brought on by the Great Recession of 2008, it’s an industry that has seen exponential growth. One of the recent, and more thoughtful, entries into this genre is Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society: the Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons and the Eclipse of Capitalism. “The capitalist era is passing” Rifkin writes on the very first page, “not quickly, but inevitably.” The architect of it’s demise, according to Rifkin, is not so much an alternative system or the public outrage over the 2008 financial crisis, but rather a sort of bug in the very system of capitalist enterprise, one that carries with it the seeds of capitalism’s fall from preeminence.  And that bug has everything to do with technology.

As technology evolves and the information economy becomes increasingly central to overall economic output, marginal costs begin to fall. Marginal cost simply means the amount it costs to produce every additional unit of a product beyond the fixed costs it cost to produce the original unit. In capitalism, profit is made on those margins. But as information technology works it way through the economy, margins collapse. For example, in a wired world, once an original song is recorded and put online, the production cost to sell each additional unit approaches zero. Copies can be made cheaply and easily and distributed anywhere in the blink of an eye. No need to pay a record company or agents. As new technologies improve production processes and reduce distribution costs, those middlemen are cut out, adoption rates scale laterally, and vertically integrated companies of a bygone age get flattened. “The near zero marginal cost phenomenon has already wreaked havoc on the publishing, communications and entertainment industries as more and more information is being made available nearly free to billions of people.” Rikfin writes.

Read more…

The Rise of the High Net Worth Individual (HNWI)


There are times in life and history when economics takes a backseat to other ways of conceiving the human experience. Not today. In second decade of the new millennium, the headlines scream of markets and mayhem, of dramatic wealth and economic disparity, of debt and dislocation, technological transformation and disruption. News shows debate not just political horse races, but economic papers of university professors and the competition to become chairman of the United States Federal Reserve. Ben Bernanke is a practically household name. Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde are two of the most powerful women in the world. “Super” Mario Draghi is a rock star in Europe. Economics, the so-called “dismal science” is having its coming out party. Ideologues are so yesterday. In an era of financial tightrope walking, technocrats, it seems, have all the advantages.

But while central bankers try to steady the economic ship, a number of books inspired by the events of the last decade are seeking to reflect on the longer-term trends, good and bad, of our current economic challenges. Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future was covered in a previous blog. The Plutocrats; The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Cynthia Freeland is another such example. She is a financial journalist attempting to understand the new transnational class of high net worth individuals (HNWI), billionaires and multi-millionaires who have benefited so dramatically from the upheavals of the last decade. Through her pen, we get a glimpse into a world that many of us rarely see, a culture of enormous wealth and privilege, a trans-national social class of HNWI that operate largely free of the constraints of any particular geographical country. Indeed, a HNWI in New York may have much more in common with a HNWI in London than his or her fellow New Yorkers. Ditto for a similar person in Paris, Hong Kong or Mumbai. Untethered by national boundaries, these individuals also hold great power in world affairs and their ascension is worthy of reflection for all of us.


Chrystia Freeland

Despite the seeming implication of the book’s title, Freeland’s book is not a populist credo decrying the rise of the 1% of the 1%. She works to delve into the historical context of today’s plutocratic class, and points out that they are not necessarily the same as the robber barons and aristocrats of another era. Most are self-made and hardworking. Many come from humble circumstances. Many have adopted great charitable works, and embarked upon world-changing social enterprises. But for all of their good intentions, their rise to power has come at the same time as the rest of middle class in the developed world is feeling the economic screws tighten. This has not been, at least in the West, a rising tide that lifts all boats. Income disparity between the rich and everyone else is increasing. In what many are calling a second Gilded Age, the middle class is in danger of being hollowed out, and in the developing world that is a huge concern—not just economically, but politically and socially.

It has not always been this way. Freeland points out that the first industrial revolution transformed the economic landscape in the 19th century, creating wealth at an unprecedented scale. At the same time, it also created a new class of super-wealthy, and inspired the “first coherent political ideology of class warfare”—Marxism. That ideology was strongest in Europe, whose citizens suffered more from the economic dislocations of the time. But Marxism as applied economics was also a dramatic failure. As she points out, the working class, ironically enough, actually fared worst in those countries where Marxism succeeded. It’s a point that can hardly be overstated. In the US and Europe, various kinds of middle ground were found that negotiated the tensions between the dislocations of the market forces and the need to protect and further the gains of the industrial revolution. She calls it a “compromise between the Plutocrats and everyone else” that actually worked—at least for a time. Income disparity declined over much of the 20th century and a rising tide helped make the West eventually become the economic model for the world.

Ironically, it was partially the threat of communism, Freeland suggests, that brought the Plutocratic leaders of industry to the bargaining table during the post-war era. She refers to this time period as the “Treaty of Detroit” a term from MIT researchers Frank Levy and Peter Temin that refers to the contract between the UAW and the big three automakers in 1950. It is also “shorthand to describe the broader set of political, social and economic institutions that were established in the United States during the postwar era: strong unions, high taxes and a high minimum wage.” Freeland points out that this was a “golden age” for the middle class—in the US at least.

In the late 70’s the Treaty of Detroit gave way to the “Washington Consensus”—cutting taxes, reining in unions, globalization, cutting social sending, reforming regulation, privatization—trends that have reflected the last few decades of international politics and certainly are found in both parties in the US. The collapse of communism gave tremendous weight and validation to this approach and it has arguably been critical in helping to lead the economic rise of the rest of the world. Freeland suggests that as the rest of the globalizing world goes through there own version of the 19th century industrial revolution, they are experiencing what is in essence their own Gilded Age, even as the industrialized world is going through a second Gilded Age. And it is the complex interaction between these twin Gilded Ages in the globalizing world economy that is producing the unprecedented rise of a new plutocratic class and raising a host of questions and issues that policy makers will be struggling with for the next decades.

Two points in The Plutocrats particularly stood out in my reading. First, rent-seeking behavior must be actively discouraged. Rent-seeking means that one is achieving wealth almost entirely through political connections. Crony capitalism is another name for similar behavior and its corrosive affect on society hardly needs repeating, though it is easier to complain about than to effectively respond to. Rent-seeking is entirely different than wealth achieved by creating new products, businesses, technologies and market efficiencies. The latter is likely welcome in any economy no matter what billionaires are or are not created in the process. This difference between growing the overall economic pie and appropriating it to oneself through political muscle is everything when it comes to social impact of the plutocratic class.

This leads to a second critical point in Freeland’s analysis, which is that, once established, there is a natural tendency for any plutocratic class to seek to political power. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, energy titan David Koch and financier George Soros are just a few of the examples on different sides of the political spectrum. But legitimate political activity can quickly lead to inappropriate forms of political influence. Freeland is well traveled in this territory. Her first book, Sale of the Century: the Inside Story of the Russian Revolution chronicled the rise of the Russian plutocrats and the way they plundered state resources through political connections. And even if power and wealth is achieved through playing the economic game fairly, once in power, the tendency can be overwhelming to use that power and influence to tilt the rules toward plutocratic favor.  Even a completely meritocratic rise of a plutocratic class can morph into crony capitalism. Indeed, what started out as a legitimate and socially respected rise to wealth and power can lead to the creation of a privileged class whose opportunities dwarf the rest of the society. Americans have always been kind to meritocratic plutocrats, but the antipathy to protected privilege is also deeply felt in this country and can cause all kinds of social and political backlashes. Given the deep relationship between politics and money today, these trends are all the more important to pay attention to.

Freeland’s book is cautionary but not pessimistic. In some ways, the plutocratic class is neither good not bad, but raises a host of issues that society must grapple with. Are these economic transformations merely a balancing out of West vs. East, an inevitable corrective to years of the West’s economic superiority? Are we all, in a sense, slowly meeting in the middle? Or does the rise of income disparity represent a dangerous degradation of our economic system? Or perhaps it is simply the temporary consequence of impersonal and historical economic forces, beyond the reach of even the most able technocrats and policy makers? These are the issues and questions that are naturally raised as she travels through the worlds of the 1%—interviewing, wondering, questioning and seeking answers.

Like Lanier, Freeland points out that many of the great advances of our century have been dependent upon the health of the developed world’s middle class. Problems with the middle class are indicative of problems with modernity itself.  All of us, including the new plutocrats, need to take heed. How do we shape the rise of extraordinary new wealth in the developing world and simultaneously moderate the difficult economic issues facing the developed world—Europe, America, and Japan? How do we accurately diagnose, much less respond effectively to the issues of income inequality, which involve so many factors and are by nature, multi-dimensional and touch upon economic issues, but also sociological, psychological, historical and cultural factors. The Plutocrats provides yet another informational piece of this critical puzzle. Let’s hope at least a few of the best minds of our generations (and the next) are paying attention.

A rising tide that lifts all boats is the dream and the true aspirational potential of modernist capitalism, but we must not assume this beneficent outcome is inevitable. Like generations before, it will be up to enlightened policymakers to make those choices (even if they are choices of restraint) that look far into the future, moderate the political extremes that accompany any Gilded Age, and respond to the desire for life, liberty, fairness and opportunity—for a few and for all.

New Year’s Thoughts

New YearsHappy New Year! Out with 2013, in with the new. Let’s all hope 2014 will be better in all kinds of ways. Maybe the economy will finally get some liftoff. Perhaps those in Washington will finally decide to stop throwing food at each other and solve some problems. I hope that what was for me a year of transition in 2013 could turn into a year of opportunities and new directions in 2014. I wish my readers well in their own transitions, opportunities, and new directions—and I wanted to introduce the year with some tidbits, books, articles, and quotes that have recently captured my interest.


Two Areas of Real Innovation 

It often seems to me that there are two areas of deep and transformative innovation happening right now in our economy. Yes, the tech sector is certainly one of them. That’s the one that most people would point to. It’s amazing what is happening here in the Bay Area where the denizens of Silicon Valley work to change the world and, in some significant ways, actually succeed. Here is a link to a recent article about Google’s new Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil (who was profiled in my book, Evolutionaries).

Ray talking about his favorite subject –the future.


Ray Kurzweil

The other area where tremendous innovation is happening and rapidly changing the world is the energy industry. The US is increasing its oil and gas supply with technologies that are changing the game of oil and gas extraction. That is, in turn, helping our economy, changing the dynamics of world energy, and affecting the cost of energy in big ways, along with reducing our carbon footprint dramatically. (A good link on the subject).

Now, I understand that this is controversial. Many people are deeply worried about the environmental costs of fracking. I’ve heard both sides of the story, including a passionate Christmas defense of the overall ethics of fracking by a family member who is a top expert in the field. I’m not an expert and won’t comment further here, but what is certain is that the technological changes are having a huge effect on the economics of energy, shocking experts, changing the picture of the world economy, and making everyone re-think their assumptions about energy in the 21st century. Those of you who follow me may know that I come from the oil patch, a small town in OK where oil was akin to life, economically speaking, and I have been fascinated for the last few years by how the worldwide energy industry is developing. Given the economic issues facing the US and the world, our utter dependence on relatively cheap and available energy, and the potentially enormous challenges of Climate Change, the subject is critical. Then throw in various thoughts about the world’s oil supply and peak oil (which may have been overplayed in the short term, but are still a concern over the next years and decades) and the need to find ways to switch our energy use away from carbon and toward clean alternatives, and you have a subject that touches all of our lives directly.

Over Christmas I read a fascinating book about Big Oil. Private Empire: Exxon Mobile and American PowerPrivate Empire

This was my vacation reading…all 624 pages. Private Empire is an informative journey through the heart of ExxonMobile over the last few decades and by extension a look at the oil and gas industry. For those of you who are not familiar with Steve Coll, let me say a few words of praise. He is an exhaustive researcher who gives a truly kaleidoscopic view of the subject at hand. Ghost Wars is the other book of his I have read and I would highly recommend it as well. Of course, ExxonMobile is the enemy of environmentalists everywhere, and often demonized as the epitome of a bad corporate actor. The truth, as often happens, is much more complicated. They certainly deserve that reputation in some respects, and the CEO became a poster child for climate change denial in the early years of the century for pushing the company to fund questionable science and anti-Climate Change think tanks, as Coll clearly documents. In doing so, he likely tarnished their corporate brand for a generation. At the same time, one can’t help but come away from Coll’s book impressed by this corporate behemoth. The ExxonMobile he portrays is an extremely complex, fiercely independent, unabashedly arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway highly competent global company that made huge changes to their operations after the Valdez spill, where the book begins. Coll’s book is a remarkable window into the global geopolitics and economics of Big Oil.


Talking about TED

TED talksTED has been around a while now and has become something of a household name. It is one of the key mediums through which ideas spread in our culture. A “TED talk” is now a thing in and of itself. But TED has come under some criticism recently, the most striking perhaps being this article/TEDx talk about TED itself. The quote below is from a blistering Guardian article. These are criticisms that should be paid attention to:

“Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.

One TED speaker said recently, “If you remove this boundary … the only boundary left is our imagination”. Wrong.
If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.”


Biking the Skyway


Envisioning a SkyCycle above the streets of London

Love this idea…Are you listening, San Francisco and Oakland?

 London’s SkyCycle Would Create a Sky-High Transportation Alternative

 “Not only would SkyCycle relieve traffic congestion, but the architects hope it would also bring new life to the underutilized industrial areas next to the railway lines. Like other cities that are building up instead of out, SunCycle would create a new urban space by “vertically layering the city to create new social spaces and amenities on these cycling high streets.”


A Final Quote to Start the New Year (from Karl Popper)

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

“Specialization may be a great temptation for the scientist. For the philosopher, it is the mortal sin.”

Love this. (And thank you Willa Geertsema for finding it). New Year’s resolution: Read more Karl Popper. 


Happy New Year!


Economics and Technology — Heavenly Match or Dangerous Duo?

Who Owns the FutureIn our post Great Recession world, it is difficult to think deeply about the future of culture without considering economics realities. While there are many ways to look at the economic disruptions of the last years, when it comes to understanding the deeper historical forces driving economic events, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier’s quirky and brilliant book, Who Owns the Future, is a revelation. He has thought deeply about the cultural impact of the information economy and the rise of powerful companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. His economic insights are original, his social analysis intriguing and even his more existential considerations are provocative (though that is mostly the subject of his previous book, You are Not a Gadget).

Lanier asks a question that also lurks behind today’s headlines and has never been far from the lips of thoughtful economists. Are middle classes natural? They are part of the lifeblood of capitalism, but are they an inevitable result of the rise of wealth that has accompanied modernism and the industrial revolution? Or are they more tenuous creations, dependent on fortuitous policies and politics, made possible by the wealth that capitalism’s creates, but still dependent on the moderating, shaping influence of human institutions? Lanier writes:

Marx argued that finance was inherently hopeless technology and that market systems will always degrade into the rut of plutocracy. A Keynesian economist would accept that ruts exist but would also add that falling into ruts can be staved off indefinitely with interventions in order to survive…Great wealth is a naturally persistent, generation to generation, as is deep poverty, but a middle-class status has not proven to be stable without a little help. All the examples of long-term stable middle classes we know of relied on Keynesian interventions as well as persistent mechanism like social safety nets to moderate market outcomes.

Lanier worries that the increasing speed of technological change could be tipping that tenuous balance, changing the fundamental equation, destroying middle class jobs in sector after sector of our economy at a rate that far exceeds new job creation.  The argument usually employed is that as certain sectors lose jobs as a result of technological change, new industries are simultaneously created. Buggy whips producers are long gone. Electric car battery factories are on the rise. The once mighty GM went bankrupt a few years ago, but Apple and Google are thriving. Creative destruction is all part of a healthy economy. To impede that process is to restrict the wealth creating mechanism that built modernity. That is all certainly true, but as Lanier points out the social consequences of “creative destruction” may be changing as technology moves forward. Google and Apple employ a small percentage of the people that GM did at its height. And there is concern that an information economy, despite its many significant positives, might not be able to easily sustain the job creation capacity that our industrial economy once did.

Who Owns the Future introduces us to new terms like the idea of a “siren server”. Lanier defines them as “elite computers…on a network…characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion and extreme information asymmetry.” Think Amazon, Google, Facebook, Orbitz. The powerful influence of a siren server can create whole industries all built to work around the preferences of that information node. Entire companies are structured around Google’s search algorithms. Millions moderate their behavior to fit the parameters of Amazon’s preferences. Wal-Mart, he suggests, was siren server from a slightly earlier era.  Their success was driven, not just by the China price, or by small town economics, but by achieving unmatched market efficiencies driven by information asymmetry. Now Amazon is playing that exact game in a new decade, and improving it. Lanier points out that those who own or are very close to siren servers are making most of the great fortunes of our age. We can debate the pros and cons of these informational economic engines, but even the distinction, which he draws out over the course of the book, makes you think about the forces shaping our lives in new ways.


Lanier is also suspicious of “free” economy, pointing out that as more and more services become free, we all benefit, but we also pay a hidden cost. Music is becoming free but musicians, with the exception of celebrities and stars, struggle to make a living. News is free but journalism has suffered greatly. Education looks to be headed the same way. More and more technology companies provide free services and use advertising as their primary business model. Is that sustainable over the long run? Can an information economy built on “free” provide the islands of middle class wealth that have been so essential to the stability of the developed world? Or will the fast-rising waters of massive technological disruption swamp them?

While Lanier’s concerns are many, he is far from a Luddite. The issue for him is not whether we go forward, but how we go forward. Are there ways to best shape outcomes in the information economy in ways that produce not a race to the bottom or a winner take all economy, but the bell curve—some rich, some poor, most in the middle—that is the sign of societal health.

In the developed world, it’s easy to forget that the great advances of our century—social, political and economic—have been dependent upon the health of our unprecedented middle classes. If they begin to falter, the political implications could be far-reaching. The wrath of America’s so-called “Tea Party” and Occupy Wall Street’s activism point to kind of anger that will proliferate if a winner take all system become the norm of our economy. Lanier points out that when it last looked like capitalism might destroy the middle class and create a plutocracy, we developed policies that curtailed the disparities, bolstered the labor movement and also staved off the over-reaction of a socialist revolution—all while encouraging the forward-looking growth of our economy. The information revolution for all its many wonders and opportunities presents new but related challenges to our global policymakers. How do we embrace the future being created in technological hubs around the world while actively promoting the best possible outcomes of those changes? Lanier ‘s work is indispensable in that critical conversation.

Do the Laws of Physics Evolve?

time_rebornI’m happy to se Lee Smolin’s new book making a very interesting point about time. In his new work, Time Reborn, he apparently (haven’t read it yet) makes some radical and interesting statements about the nature of time, and mentions how even the laws of physics might not be final, fixed and immutable, but actually evolve over time.

Now those of you who have read my book, Evolutionaries, will remember this section where I talk about “breaking the spell of solidity” in relationship to way we think about the world around us. I even mentioned this is regards to the laws of physics, not because I wanted to weigh in on matters of physics I know little about, but because 1) It’s a natural question to ask once you start down a robustly evolutionary thought process, and 2) Some important thinkers have already started that inquiry. By “breaking the spell of solidity” I mean making the effort to question whether so many of the things in the physical universe that we think are fixed, immutable, and unchanging are actually that way given are emerging understanding of how so much of what we once thought was fixed, unchanging, or even God-given is natural and evolving. As we start to integrate a deeper understanding of time and evolution into our view of reality, I believe we will be asking this essential question in regards to many issues. In this particular chapter, I was talking mostly about culture and human psychology, and about Ken Wilber’s philosophy, but also gave a nod to Charles Peirce who was one of the first thinkers to deeply incorporate a profoundly developmental view of reality into his thinking. Of course, it should be said that Rupert Sheldrake has been talking about this as well for years, and that was even part of his TED talk that was banned by TEDx scientific censorship team (and subsequently re-instated). But given how much Sheldrake is reviled by many in the scientific community, he is unlikely to get much credit. But Smolin has impeccable credentials in the scientific community and in physics and so his nod to Peirce and his re-imagining of the nature of time should provoke a lot of discussion.

First, here is a quote from my book:

I found it remarkable to discover, in the course of my research, that all the way back in the nineteenth century Peirce was questioning the spell of solidity even as it applied to the most sacred cows of the physical sciences: the laws of nature. For Peirce, the entire universe and all of its forces and creations were subject to evolution. Indeed, Peirce’s work was one of the first to begin to theorize how something as ostensibly absolute as a law might be created through the processes of evolution. Perhaps the laws of nature are not un- changing, applying to everything for all time, he suggested. Perhaps they didn’t pre-date the universe. Perhaps they, too, evolved along with the forms and structures of our cosmos.

Peirce suspected that many of the seemingly fixed structures of our universe are in fact better described as habits—habits that have become so deeply embedded in nature that they behave like laws, fixed and unchangeable. In 1915, the Mid-West Quarterly, a publication of the University of Nebraska, published the following description of Peirce’s ideas as presented in his lectures at Johns Hopkins University.

May not the laws of the universe be the acquired habits of the universe? May there not still be a possibility of the modification of these habits? May there not be the possibility, forever, of the formation of new habits, new laws? May not law be evolved from a primordial chaos, a universe of chance? In the play of chance still apparent may we not see the continual renewal of the life of the universe, a continual renewal of the capacity for habit forming and growth?

Peirce suggested all of this before science had any sense of cosmological evolution, of the deep-time developmental history of our universe. Questions concerning the laws of physics are even more fascinating today, particularly in the context of our current under- standing of Big Bang Theory. Did those laws exist in some timeless void prior to the initial cosmic emergence? Did they pop into existence at the moment of that great conflagration? Were they gifts, perhaps, of a previous universe, a sort of cosmically inherited informational DNA designed to help structure the evolution of our own realm of time and space? When it comes to such issues that get at the heart of our cosmic origins, we still have far more questions than answers.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake is another thinker who has suggested that the laws of nature may not be immutable and eternal but are more like habits. And he points out that most physicists have not thought deeply about these questions in light of our new cosmology. “Although cosmology is now evolutionary,” he writes, “old habits of thought die hard. Most scientists take eternal laws of Nature for granted—not because they have thought about them in the context of the Big Bang, but because they haven’t.” Lately, it seems, a few more physicists have stepped into the breach with interesting speculations about the source of the laws of nature, such as Templeton Prize winner Paul Davies and science writer James Gardner. But wherever such speculations ultimately lead us, what is important for our discussion is that once again the spell of solidity is broken and we can at least begin to consider the possibility that certain characteristics of the universe that seem immutable and unchanging might better be considered as evolutionary—things that develop over time through habitual repetition until they become more and more established. Eventually, in a cognitive illusion that fools us again and again, they seem fixed, eternal and unchanging, when actually they are nothing of the sort.


Now here is Smolin. In his recent interview he states:

 Now some of this is not new. The American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, identified this issue that I’ve just mentioned in the late 19th century.LEE SMOLIN However, his thinking has not influenced most physicists. Indeed, I was thinking about laws evolving before I read Charles Sanders Peirce. But something that he said encapsulates what I think is a very important conclusion that I came to through a painful route. And other people have more recently come to it, which is that the only way to explain how the laws of nature might have been selected is if there’s a dynamical process by which laws can change and evolve in time. And so I’ve been searching to try to identify and make hypotheses about that process where the laws must have changed and evolved in time because the situation we’re in is: Either we become kind of mystics, well, just those are the laws full stop, or we have to explain the laws. And if we want to explain the laws, there needs to be some history, some process of evolution, some dynamics by which laws change.

This is for some people a very surprising idea and it still is a surprising idea in spite of the fact that I’ve been thinking about it since the late 80’s, but if you look back, there are precedents: Dirac, you can find in his writings, a place where Dirac says the laws must have been different earlier in the universe than now; they must have changed. Even Feynman has … I found a video online where Feynman has a great way…and I wish I could do a Feynman Brooklyn accent, it sort of goes: “Here are the laws we say; here are the laws, but how do they get to be that way in time? Maybe physics really has a historical component. ” Because you see, he’s saying physics is different from the other subjects. There is no historical component to physics as there is to biology, genealogy, astrophysics, and so forth. But Feynman ends up saying, “Maybe there is a historical component.” And then in the conversation his interviewer says, “But how do you do it?” And Feynman goes, “Oh, no, it’s much too hard, I can’t think about that.”


I look forward to reading Time Reborn.

Follow the Money!

A Review of Michael Lewis’s Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

The world of Global Finance can be maddeningly frustrating to understand. Unfortunately, its complexity is not matched by its insignificance. Indeed, the effects of decisions and actions in banks, markets and government policy circles around the world are highly consequential. They can easily enrich and impoverish, uplift or condemn, unleash or constrain the peoples of our small planet. As we saw in the recent Great Recession, obscure and only recently invented financial instruments like “Credit Default Swaps” can suddenly become central to vast global economic shifts and changes. And decisions made in Central Banks around our globe can easily trump those made in the Parliaments and Congresses of even our most robust democracies.

Given these realities, we need good guides to this territory of global finances, journalists like Michael Lewis, author of Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. Lewis’s smart, popular style help us cut through the complexity, and even better, tells us the frightening story of what actually happens when entire countries are empowered by easy money, such as happened in first decade or our new millennium.  The author of The Big Short and Moneyball, Lewis is first and foremost a masterful storyteller and his narrative is funny and entertaining amidst his deeply disturbing recounting of the debt fueled hysteria that gripped so many countries in the last decade. His breezy and darkly humorous book is not a full accounting of our economic issues, but rather a travelogue of sorts, a recent tour through the financial disaster zones of the developed West. Like a Weather Channel journalist after big storm, he gives us an on-the-ground perspective of what happened, what was lost, what was learned, and what the future may hold. Through his eyes, we see the impact of the Great Recession on economies of Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany and finally back to the US.

Lewis is hardly the first to point out that one of the unintended consequences of the new Euro Zone was new access to easy (borrowed) money for much of Europe. Countries like Greece, whose currencies were once tied to the budget situation of their own country, were suddenly judged by the Eurozone overall. In practice, that meant they were judged by the pristine budgets of Germany. As crazy as it sounds in retrospect, the Greeks were able to borrow money as if they were the Germans, but spend it as if they were Greeks.  And spend it they did. The result was massive accumulation of debt. And they weren’t alone. The overall theme was repeated across Europe and America with different cultural variations. As Lewis writes:

 The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007…wasn’t just money. It was temptation. It offered entire societies the chcance to reveal aspects of their chracters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire coutnries were told, “the lights are out, you can do whatever you want and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with the money was dark and varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish.

Very few things reveal character like easy money—lots and lots of it. This is true of individuals, but it also true of cultures. And that is perhaps the most fascinating part of Lewis’s book. Through stories, interviews, and he brings us deep into the cultural affects of what happened, and we see the fascinating, bizarre and strange rationalizations that led the Icelanders to think they were savvy investment bankers, the Greeks to think they could just lie to themselves and just about everyone else about the true state of their finances, and the Germans to wake up one day and realize, much to their dismay, that the rest of the world did not relate to money like the Germans. It is an amazing and dismaying journey and Lewis never allows the story to lag or to get bogged down in charts or numbers. The financial facts are thankfully easy to follow, but stories and the people and the cultural insight are what the reader is ultimately left with.

Boomerang is not a story with a simple beginning and ending. Today, the financial unraveling of that debt tsunami is still working its way through the global economy. And economists argue about the cultural costs of things like austerity on the European social fabric, and that easy money presents a moral hazard for the US banking and financial system. What one sees through Lewis’s journalism, however, is not just how economic policy influences cultural behavior but also the opposite: how the qualities of any given national character enormously influence their economic long term success and failure. Ultimately, he tracks the all too human tendency to profit handsomely from the bubble and then to point the fingers at others when the music stops. “Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans,” he writes, “and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.”

Lewis’s last concern is American municipalities, the cities and towns who have spent money with great profligacy in the good times, and are gasping for air not that times have turned tough. They have tied themselves into future pension obligations that are compromising existing budgets. As I read the news in my new hometown of Oakland, CA I see the reality of this every day, in budgetary challenges, for example, which have understaffed and decimated the police dept. in one of the more violent cities in the country.  The nearby San Jose is the city featured in the book. It shows us that the mismanagement of government and of our budgetary policies is not a uniquely federal issue. But Boomerang is not a call for austerity, or for less government, but a call for greater rationality in economic lives, for living within our means, for being less avaricious in the good times, and for the human character and ingenuity needed to struggle through the bad.

Progress or Pessimism: How Should We Think about the Future?

optimistic_pessimisticOver the last eight months, I’ve been traveling a great deal. In the context of a recent book tour, I’ve had the chance to speak to many different groups of people in cities around the United States about the future of consciousness and culture. In those talks, dinner conversations, salon discussions, bookstores Q&As and media interviews, I’ve had a unique opportunity to engage with people from all ages and many walks of life. We’ve pursued questions that get at the heart of the human endeavor, and I’ve appreciated hearing how they think about the big questions—where we’ve come from, where we are going, and what it all means. And among all the different attitudes and ideas about the future I encountered, one thing stood out. I was surprised to find out how many people are quite pessimistic. They express a quiet but real despair about humanity’s potential.

Between the challenges posed by climate change, the economic difficulties of developed and developing nations, the dangerous mix of technology and terrorism, the ongoing poverty and suffering of billions of our fellow humans, and the seeming inability of governments to respond to these significant issues and others, people find themselves losing faith in our collective future. They are pessimistic, not that we could respond to the issues that beset us, but that we will. We may have the ability, but they observe that we lack the political or social will and global solidarity to make the choices necessary to put us on a positive track forward.

If once is an example, twice is a coincidence, and three times or more is a trend, then pessimism is a serious trend out there among many progressives. But what makes this anecdotal observation particularly interesting is that there is another active trend establishing itself on the front pages of our media these days and influencing the edges of our culture as well. Optimism. I see it every day, in books and articles by some of the smartest, best informed, most forward-thinking of our culture’s intelligentsia. There is a resurgence of a kind of unbridled optimism about the possibilities of the future—from “rational optimist” Matt Ridley’s debunking of apocalyptic thinking to Steven Pinker’s assertions that violence has been decreasing throughout history in his bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature, to Steven Johnson’s trumpeting of technology and peer networks in Future Perfect, to Peter Diamandis’ techno-inspired optimism expressed in his book Abundance. These thinkers argue that we simply don’t appreciate how good things are in comparison to how they have been historically, and how much better they are likely to become in the near and far future. They point out how far the modern world has come, how much technology and industry have already transformed human culture for the better, and they allude to new economic, social, and technological revolutions on the horizon. While they vary in tone and content, the overall message stands in stark contrast to the perspectives of so many whom I met on the road this last year. Pessimism is misguided, they tell us. Optimism is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from the trajectory of history.

So how do we negotiate the conundrum of these contradictory conclusions? Should we feel exuberant or terrified about the future? Should we feel encouraged or alarmed by the trends of history? Is optimism or pessimism the rational conclusion of our moment? My own problem is that I identify to some degree with both positions. I find myself embracing the optimist’s convictions while simultaneously being moved by the pessimist’s concerns. Is that a tenable place to stand? Am I being sensible or schizophrenic? Am I trying to have it both ways, or is there a way to integrate these two opposing values?

The Power of Innovation

“Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus,” Matt Ridley writes in his recent Wired article, “doomsayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation.” He is optimismright. There is a longstanding tendency in human behavior to see the world around us as being in decline, no matter when we are living. In so doing, we often fail to see the actual movement of progress, technological and otherwise. We imagine Golden Ages past, when life was simpler, easier, and more peaceful, despite the fact that there is little evidence that such a time ever existed. We forget how much technology and innovation have changed our world and we look to the past through rose-colored glasses. And we also inappropriately project the problems of the present onto the future, forgetting that life is never static and the world is ever in motion, missing the small but significant changes that are improving our world every day. In Future Perfect, Johnson notes that the media tends to focus on the dramatic, bad or good, missing deeper, but less sexy historical narratives of incremental change. “You can always get bandwidth by declaring yourself a utopian. You can always get bandwidth by mourning the downward trend lines for some pressing social issue,” writes Johnson, “But declaring that things are slightly better than they were a year ago…never makes the front page.”

The most famous contemporary example of failing to take into account technological innovation is Paul Erlich and his concerns about the “Population Bomb” in the 1970s. His alarmist writings about human population failed to take into account the kind of technological breakthroughs that have steered us away from the mass calamity and famines he predicted decades ago. In his Wired article, Ridley points to Erlich’s failure again and again, trumpeting the power of innovation over the all-too-human tendency toward apocalypticism. He makes a convincing case that such an approach to the future is rife with irrational conclusions, and out of touch with modernity’s ability to innovate its way out of danger. And he concludes by mentioning climate change in the current list of over-the-top prognostications of future apocalypses.

Defending Modernism

My concern with Ridley’s thinking, and many of the authors I have mentioned here, is not their scholarship or careful research, or even their general conclusions. It is that there is a subtle but powerful agenda behind their work, one that we should surface in order to better understand the context of their thinking. They are defenders of a modernist worldview’s promise of scientific and technological innovation providing material abundance and leading us forward in history. They are attempting to rescue modernity and the values of the Western Enlightenment from the assaults of those who don’t appreciate just how far and how fast human culture has come in the last couple hundred years. These optimists are reminding us that the modernist values of democracy, industrialization, economic prosperity, and techno-futurism have created conditions for human culture that are so positive relative to the past that we actually begin to forget just how messed up the world was before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And I applaud their efforts, albeit with caution.

There is not the time here to fully explain the history of these motives, but suffice to say that much of European and American intellectual scholarship over the last several decades has not been kind to the previous several centuries of human civilization. It has placed many of humanity’s ills at the doorstep of industrialization and held modernity responsible for much of what is wrong with the contemporary human condition. And the idea of progress, so central to the modernist worldview, was all but left for dead after the two World Wars.

Pinker, Ridley, Johnson and others are bucking this trend with a vengeance. They are attempting to provide a rational basis for a sense of progress in history and laying the foundation for a positive futurism. They have debunked significant errors in contemporary thinking about both the past and the future. But it’s this more defensive part of their work that concerns me. Modernity is not without significant problems, and we need to confront them. Pessimistic and apocalyptic thinking may indeed run counter to reality, but that doesn’t mean reality is inherently sunny. Progress, technological or otherwise, can be brutally disruptive if unmanaged by capable hands. We are entering a period in which the global scale of human impact needs a global scale of intelligent response. Optimism can carry with it a concurrent blindness, especially when it’s driven by the need to prove wrong all of those countercultural thinkers who are telling us that capitalism has failed and modernity’s promise is a mirage.

The Middle Way

Today, we face challenges unlike any that humanity has ever dealt with, problems caused by our own incapacity to appreciate the far-reaching consequences, both good and bad, of our technological revolutions. Climate change is just one such problem, and Ridley can’t help but play it down in his article, given how environmentalists have trafficked in exactly the kind of sky-is-falling thinking he is decrying. But we can’t let ideology trump sober science or cause us to turn away from the potential magnitude of the issue. We may not have cause for panic, but that doesn’t mean there is not reason for real concern, not just on climate change but on a whole host of issues. Just because a case can often be overstated doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Just because the environmental movement has tended toward a kind of eco-apocalypticism doesn’t mean that climate change is a paper tiger. Yes, pessimists can often look at history ass-backwards and draw negative conclusions about modernity that are unwarranted, but that doesn’t mean that everything else they say is wrong and can be dismissed as false prophecy. And here is the delicate part: If we’re more concerned about defending modernity than actually embracing the world as it is and the evidence as we find it, we may downplay and dismiss critical issues that need our attention.

I love the energy and data-driven enthusiasm of the optimists and I recommend their work (especially to the pessimists). The message of progress in history is encouraging and so often under-appreciated in today’s cultural climate. But the pessimists should not be summarily dismissed. The specific content of many of their concerns can be embraced, even if we decide not to embrace the context of their fears. I want my optimism to be infused with realism, to be able to stand unflinching in the face of the pessimists concerns, to embrace their legitimate issues even while rejecting all the sky-is-falling rhetoric that has often been the currency of those who are drawing our attention to the problems that confront our society. Ultimately, we can’t be pessimists and optimists at the same time, and given the choice, I far prefer the latter. But there are real dangers to optimism, no less so in the form it travels in today. By recognizing them, we can give others and ourselves justifiable faith in the future while fully confronting the dangers ahead.