Inspired by (and borrowing heavily from) the great essay by Aaron Lewis, “The Garden of Forking Memes”, I decided to propose an explanation, of the trends that seem to be undermining democracies, how most of us are being attracted to simple premises that seem to explain everything (or charismactic leaders with all the (right) answers), and some ideas on how to mend our ways. I will try to write a second article with more and more detailed ideas on how to adapt and find better ways to vote and organize.
First, a caveat. Like George Cox said “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. This by no means is a complete explanation, shouldn’t have all the answers, it will probably be very uninformed and unoriginal, and it’d be best to consider it a drunk man’s rambling at a friend’s house (I actually wrote the first draft on a plane, before falling asleep). It also applies to many things in modern life, I just chose populism and democracies.
Having said that, let’s begin.
The garden of shared narratives
Before the internet, it was easier for the dominant power (political, religious, cultural, military, etc) to preserve or force a “main timeline” or narrative. “Kings rule and decide for the people”, “work hard and pay taxes”, “act like this or be doomed in the afterlife”, etc.
These overarching narratives and myths are the very powerful tools humans have to coordinate large groups. They are more than enough for us to be the most dominant species on the planet and even destroy it if we don’t manage them correctly.
Traditionally, the powers that be didn’t have much problems controlling and enforcing a dominant narrative, as they usually controlled most of the resources. Much like cultivating or nurturing a single-species garden, these groups would control ideas and worldviews seamlessly. Or at least the gardens didn’t overgrow, making them “useless”. They had the means of control or the asymmetries of information to weed out any invasive species and maintain a good balance. It wasn’t a perfect garden, nothing human is perfect, but it was effective. Having one dominant narrative meant we had one shared past, shaping a shared future, holding groups together, and working quasi-coordinated.
Good narratives are a direct consequence of conscious forgiving. Like any garden plant, stories need trimming, you have to remove the pests, and nurture them in the right direction. Good stories are usually the ones that more concisely capture the point. “Forgetfulness is a feature, not a bug”, that allows us to focus on the valuable lessons of the past. This process happens at an individual level as well as the collective level, with knowledge transfer between different generations focusing on the best stories and narratives.
If you want a better and deeper context, check out Aaron’s essay.
Perfect Memory Machine
What happens when we can’t forget? Ted Chiang explores this brilliantly in his short-story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”. It tells two parallel stories, one about a tribe fundamentally changing how they see the past, going from a consensus-driven forgetful history, to a less forgiving past thanks to writing. The other one is about a father having to face dark memories, and its consequences, thanks to perfect memory machines. Ted proposes that just like written language re-wired our brains, changing how we remembered the past, perfect memory machines will also require different understandings of ourselves and the world.
Thing is, we already have a perfect memory machine: the internet. It’s already reshaping our thoughts, culture, and how our shared myths and narratives work. It turns them into an infinite garden, with infinite space and infinite species. And after some years of sort of getting used to it, we get perfect memory money! Which is more profoundly impacting how we think, organize, and live our lives.
This results in no longer having a main narrative, there are infinite paths, infinite avenues for growth, and infinite perspectives. It alters how we perceive the past, the present and the future. We’re no longer even bound to our time-space continuum. I can travel to the past, I can go to anywhere in the world, talk to random strangers, and transact with anyone without leaving my house nor any centralized authority vetting the process. There is no single shared narrative, there are infinite options to choose. Why choose one, when you can have a multiverse? Why have one group of friends, when you can find different people to enjoy your many varied tastes with?
weird way to map your daily media consumption is to think about how much time you’ve traveled. e.g. tiktok in the morning plus mozart in the eve is a 200+ year span— AZL (@aaronzlewis) January 19, 2020
would be interesting to see charts that show the most commonly “visited” eras by profession or geographic region pic.twitter.com/wSZaPO9Oxr
Traditional institutions (in the broadest sense) are playing catch-up. Traditional ways of transferring knowledge are becoming obsolete. The last time my grandma said something authoritative about her “times”, I just googled and proved her wrong in seconds (not really, I didn’t say anything to her, I love her too much). Companies and celebrities are being cancelled because we don’t forget (we struggle to forgive too); no one is free of guilt in the age of the internet, but also everyone is innocent, there is no truth.
Institutions that relied heavily on the power of a dominant narrative, like centralized religions, are struggling. The financial markets have been disrupted for a a while now, fundamentals mean nothing when there’s a narrative that stocks will go up forever, narratives assigning value to bankrupt companies, and narratives of central banks as the ultimate safety net for markets. A resourceful person in a developing country can get a remote job and improve their life ten fold, without moving.
The scary thing about the internet, this perfect memory device / time travel machine, is not the hyper growth of our garden. The scary thing is that no one is wrong, nor right, there is no real truth, and yet everything is true.
A broken clock is right twice a day; an infinite clock is always right and always wrong. Just like after a big earthquake, our ground has been shaken and inevitably changed the landscape, forever.
In this new landscape of infinite mirrors the fear we might be pointless apes that grew too smart, that nothing really matters, is fully exposed.
The answers to existencial angst
In this desolation we look for comfort. Some people seek refuge in ancient wisdom to accept the hard facts. Others wish for doomsdays, refuge themselves in echo chambers, or follow strong charismatic leaders that seem to have all the answers. Humans grew up being used to always having a dominant narrative, now with infinite narratives destroying the flow of time-space we are going delusional.
On the other hand, our (captured) memory machines are programmed not only to help us remember, but also to stay confused long enough to find a place where we feel at home and never want to leave, cared for by robots, paid for by our clicks and shopping sprees.
It is not surprising then to see the rise of charismatic leaders and institutions promising all the answers, all the truths, and the existence of a “main timeline”.
They’re welcomed voices for the suffering, the ones struggling to adapt to a desolate new reality, or more like an exposed hard truth. It’s still easier to believe someone else’s comforting narrative than to try to create your own or just accept reality.
I already said traditional institutions are struggling and this rant is specifically about populism. Democracies are being disrupted by the infinite narratives, governments are struggling more than ever to maintain “control”. Even if you win an election, there will be some narrative(s) out there that say otherwise.
“I have not facts, but also no doubt about this” – Someone on the Internet
My country Chile has struggled with recent social revolutions that seem to have spawned endless violence. Radical and not so radical groups have their own niche narratives preventing them from accepting the other. We’re not used to having more than the two traditional narratives, heroes and villains, and it shows. We have problems everywhere and instead of working to fix them we work to defeat our many opposing groups (better, narratives). If an idea doesn’t fit into my niche narrative, it’s terrible and should be banned. Despite ongoing negotiations to write a new constitution, violent groups continue to destroy and sack, no other narrative fitting their extremist views. Instead of evolving, we want to disrupt everything, instead of finding common places, we polarize.
It might be accentuated by the pandemic, but I believe it was only accelerated. It was bound to happen.
Rewiring our brains
We’re living in a garden where there are no bad, good, right, or wrong ideas; where every plant species is nurtured and able to find their own place to grow. This has made us go temporarily insane, we’re not used to so many concurrent timelines, and we tend to seek easy answers.
How do we fight this? How do we move forward? I have no concrete idea, but I have hope for the future. With the internet we have created powerful tools that can help us free ourselves and also create narratives that can save our minds. Internet native generations are also proof we’re evolving our minds to adjust, albeit not always in the right direction nor speed.
More interestingly, for this essay at least, is the question “how do we save democracy?”
Majority voting is dying. With perfect memory machines, losing an election is something you can’t forget; with infinite narratives, something you don’t even need to accept.
How can you have an effective government with people opposing every idea you have? How can you deal with so many opposing narratives and actually get something done? You either go the “yes man” way, doing whatever the “people” are saying, or the dictatorial way and do whatever you want. Either option, your government will suck and make no one happier or better.
We should move towards two main ideas, put together: rough consensus and voting with your wallet. This is not original, more like a remix of ideas. But, we already know everything is a remix.
First, let’s explore what rough consensus is, by enumerating examples of what it’s not. It’s not a majority voting rallied by a charismatic leader. It’s not a tit-for-tat trade, where you vote for someone who will vote for you in the future. It’s not majority voting that leaves a minority unhappy with the results. It’s not a popularity contest.
Rough consensus is a tool focused on addressing the issues people might have about something. It’s about listening to strong opposition, not passive agreement. You can achieve rough consensus with four people in favor and hundreds against, if all issues have been addressed, taken into account, and decided on the relevant trade offs needed to move forward.
We all know life is not black or white, but shades of gray. There are no silver bullets, we have to make decisions with little to no information and hope we foresaw any issues. Rough consensus is a tool to make group decisions under these assumptions. Some ideas will work, others will fail, before trying them out we should hear if there are any issues we can work out or just accept, and then just deploy. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns for everything, we should at least address the first ones before trying something out.
Our governments should move towards rough consensus. We have all the tools and an infinite library to consult to be able to raise any informed issue about anything. Ask people their opinions about ideas, not by asking if they agree with them, but to raise reasonable issues. Ask elected officials not to vote, but to use rough consensus to make better decisions. Ask governments to have to use rough consensus with the opposition to be able to start their terms. We already have great institutions at work, albeit crippled by our new infinite understanding. Let’s update them to make use of our infinite potential.
You might be thinking “Yeah, sounds reasonable, Guillermo, but how do you prevent trolls from sabotaging the process?” or “you’re stupid, Guillermo”. Either way, if you have read so far joke’s on you or you will hear (read) me out :).
Rough consensus is all about addressing reasonable objections or issues about something and then acting upon the trade offs of decisions. Who defines “reasonable” though? In an infinite narrative world, there are infinite reasonable issues, regardless of your personal opinion about them. Some people are willing to contradict themselves, deny their own mortality, or do crazy shit just to prove a point. How do you deal with those people and still take advantage of rough consensus? By making people put their money where their mouths are.
If you see someone doubting about something or advocating an idea, ask them if they’d be willing to pay for it. Ask your “climate conscious” friend if he’d be willing to pay to offset any emissions he’s not able to reduce. Ask your everyday troll to pay or stake his savings (link a arweave Reddit) to be able to post their opinion online. Ask your politician to allocate a part of his salary to fund or defund a specific project. Most likely, they’d just laugh at you. A few of them might be convinced enough to actually put their money where their mouths are.
I bet you can see where I’m headed: paying to vote or raise issues about something. If you’re sure about an idea, you should be able to allocate some money into it. It doesn’t matter how much, thanks to mechanisms like quadratic funding, as long as it’s meaningful for you, it will have an impact. This leads to much more purposeful and thoughtful actions. And better voting.
Add to that liquid votes, where you can withdraw your support AFTER the fact, and then you’re invincible (or at least hard to defeat).
We already have the technology to do this. We have the internet and the internet money, we already have the infinite narratives, we already have the resources. We just need to act, start little by little, evolving our current institutions, using our new reality for us, not against us.
We have created a space where there is no free speech, there is responsible speech. This allows us to have better conversations, discouraging bad actors, and incentivizing us to think and act better.
“You have no rights on-chain, only responsibilities” crypto wanderer
Where to start? Start by putting your own money where your mouth is. Think about something you care deeply about, and fund it. There are infinite tools for this, like gitcoin and local ongs around you. If you’re worried about climate, offset your emissions, take the Koywe Pledge or just be more conscious about the impact you have.
I’ll try to write a follow up essay to dream about the future, but I’m as optimistic as my idealistic upbringing can take me. We have tools, we have technology, and we have ideas to change, to evolve the world. For the better.
“Don’t fight the system. Just abandon it” old Chyperpunk proverb
Final note: This essay is largely inspired by my experience at KERNEL, an 8 week fellowship to learn, build, and collaboratively build a new web: web3. If you’re interested, let me know, applications are open.