Our survival may depend on it.
[7 minute read].
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a Goethe poem made famous by Disney’s “Fantasia”. It tells the story of a young boy who, after being left alone with his master’s magic, tries to perform a spell that’s beyond his abilities. He animates a broom to do his chores, but he quickly loses control and chaos ensues. The apprentice tries to correct his error by chopping the broom into pieces, but each piece just becomes a new broom. In the end, the master sorcerer returns and puts the world back into order with a more powerful spell.
I am not smart enough to know if a superintelligent A.I. is about to kill us all. But I’m absolutely certain we already have access to a tool that’s awesomely powerful. Last year, researchers deliberately reversed their A.I. for drug discovery to instead target toxicity and bioactivity. In just six hours it had generated forty thousand models of chemical warfare agents and new bioweapons. This was long before any of the exponentially more powerful models had been unleashed on the public.
Are we comfortable putting this godlike technology in the hands of left-brained Silicon Valley apprentices? This is the same group that have repeatedly proven they don’t have a holistic understanding of the consequences of their actions. Social media platforms optimised for engagement have damaged our children and helped fracture society.
The master sorcerer doesn’t walk back into the room, shrug, and give the apprentice more powerful spells.
But what happens if the master isn’t even coming back? What if we’re on our own?
The Menu of Ideas
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
The debate over whether we should “pause” A.I. development is pointless. We’ve never slowed the pace of innovation before, and the current game theory makes it higly unlikely that we’re going to spontaneously cooperate to do it now.
There’s rarely change without a crisis. Luke Skywalker doesn’t leave Tatooine until his aunt and uncle are murdered. Neo doesn’t seek out Morpheus until the agents of The Matrix find and interrogate him. Frodo doesn’t leave the Shire until the ringwraiths come after him. These aren’t just pop culture references; it’s a stage of the Hero’s Journey because it’s such a reliable human trait.
The good news is that crises produce heroes. They turn boys into men. They change mindsets.
One of the most valuable things we can each do is make sure that the “ideas lying around” are as good as possible to make sure the next transition is towards something better.
The collective failure of our institutions means there’s a pivotal role for individuals and private wealth in this time of crisis. There’s a lot we can do to help, and it’s no longer an optional luxury.
A Wisdom Famine
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.”- E.O. Wilson
Who is the wisest public figure you can name?
… Hard, isn’t it?
If something unexpected happens, do we have confidence that our political leaders have the integrity, discernment, speed and tech savvy to respond in unison to a crisis?
Moreover, these new tools are now in everyone’s hands. So we now need to be working on our individual consciousness as urgently as we are evolving our technology.
A central problem in modern society is that we lack a “wisdom school.” Probably because it sounds painfully pretentious.
Our culture rejects the mere idea of “wisdom” as grandiose. But it’s a process not a destination. We need teachers showing us a path we can all walk together.
I’ve spent the last few years cultivating a network of remarkably “wise” people. They are all working towards bringing their meaningful ideas and practices to the attention of wider audiences.
This group is slowly pulling together an entirely new synthesis of science and human meaning. It explains how fundamentally important each of us all are in the grand cosmic picture. It proves the superiority of pursuing positive-sum games. It is surprisingly practical. It’s a vision that I genuinely believe can help change the world.
Each of these people has a piece of a parachute. If we can sew it together while we tumble towards earth, maybe we have a chance of floating to safety rather than splattering on the tarmac.
But they often lack the financial freedom to create or the influence to reach those of us in the mainstream that desperately need their message.
From the scientific & philosophical side, movements like Emergentism, Metamodernism or Neoplatonism sound too elitist and abstract to capture the public imagination. These “sensemaking” communities have yet to have any kind of significant cultural impact.
From the mystical side, new spiritual movements, especially ones with charismatic leaders or hierarchies of consciousness, can rapidly degenerate into cults (see “More Evolved Than You”, below). But even the well-intentioned ones have generated no real mass appeal.
A lot of spiritual people aren’t very effective, and lot of effective people aren’t very spiritual. What’s needed now are hybrids who use a minimum amount of effort to get the maximum amount of result. That is the definition of a sage, or a wise person.
We Need New Institutions.
The Santa Fe Institute is an independent, nonprofit theoretical research organization based around the concept of complexity. It attracted the finest minds of the time across disciplines.
Esalen is a Californian nonprofit focused on alternative methods for exploring human consciousness.
This new “Wisdom School” would combine the best of both worlds. The aplication of complexity science to consciousness. Reductive left hemisphere returned to the guidance of the holistic right.
Science in service of wisdom.
It would be a place where the wisest members of our society can come and work and collaborate.
They would be joined by the world’s finest digital artists and creators. Comedians would be especially welcome, to keep anyone from getting too grandiose. This would create engaging content that could use the tools of the internet for good.
Technology in service of life.
This combination would help synthesize a message that will bridge the intellectual divide and produce content that’s finally digestible by a mass audience.
A committee would select applicants and hopefully prevent it from becoming either a spiritual cult or intellectual ivory tower. It would also be as non-partisan as possible. The ideal king archetype, the hero, doesn’t impose their own values, they provide a safe space for individual emergence. Rather than an elitist finishing-school, the goal would be to produce leaders that help individuals maximise evolution into their own unique niches. Ideally this means it could produce both worthy leaders from all walks of life, as well as the ideas and practices that can return meaning to a despairing world.
It will be imperfect. There are a vast number of things that can go wrong. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. It may not be possible, but it is necessary.
What the World Needs Now
- Patrons with the desire, and capital, to be part of the future.
- Individuals, like you, who amplify and improve these ideas.
The master sorcerer probably isn’t coming home to save us this time. But conflict consistently produces cooperation at ever higher levels. War produces great innovations. The Manhattan Project brought us nuclear power. The idea of a new generation of wise, holistic leaders using these new A.I. tools in service of life fills me with genuine hope. The magic returned to the hands of the master.
Nobody else is doing it, so it has to be us, and it has to be now.
- Essay: Life after Lifestyle (73min read). I was lucky to be sent this stunningly insightful essay by Toby Shorin. Essentially he describes how the consumer economy of the 2020s has been set up to try and produce cultural movements. But this hollow model can be inverted. If the same gift for branding was applied to something fundamentally meaningful, like this emerging worldview, you can use the manipulative tools of late capitalism against itself.
- Stare long enough, and you begin to see the whole: an economy where culture is made in service of brands. To be even more literal: cultural production has become a service industry for the supply chain.
- We are transitioning out of the era of Lifestyle, and into an era where the production of culture is valued—both subjectively and financially—on its own terms. From an era where brands are designed to sell products to an era where brands are designed to be culture, to transform lives, to instill beliefs.
- Podcast: O’Shaughnessy Ventures is Here (1hr 5min): A weird paradox is that the highest-leverage philanthropy model I’ve seen is “patronage” at the level of individuals. You identify curious people working on meaningful problems and you give them a fellowship to create, no strings attached. I have been extremely inspired by Jim O’Shaughnessy’s new venture OSV . He has developed a three-pronged approach to the wisdom problem, using his own private capital. The first part is offering $100,000 fellowships to inspiring creators. His second initiative is a media arm telling hero’s journey style narratives. The third is a more classic Venture Capital (or “Adventure Capital”) division investing in exciting businesses around our societal transition. I hope many people copy him.
- Website: Mapping the Meta-Crisis. Kyle Kowalski at Sloww has performed the invaluable service of mapping many of the emerging communities that have sprung up to help address the meta-crisis. I have also written a brief 10min piece synthesizing the views of the people I have found to be most constructive when it comes to synthesizing a meaningful new worldview.
- Paper: “More Evolved Than You” By Jules Evans (73min read). This provocative paper explores the huge number of potential pitfalls when combining science and spirituality. The central tension is how you talk about individual evolution of consciousness without putting people into power hierarchies dominated by various self-described elites. In my experience people who talk about development hierarchies are always implying they’re at the top of one…
- Esalen “has avoided the cultishness of other human potential movements thanks to two principles: ‘hold your dogmas lightly’ and ‘no one captures the flag’”
- Is it necessary, desirable or scientifically-valid to fasten one’s spirituality onto evolutionary theories? I do not think so. It’s possible to believe in spiritual development without thinking it somehow makes you ‘more evolved’.
Let me know your thoughts, criticisms and ideas!