Meat Computers with Cultural Programs
I've been looking for the root cause of the converging crisis of civilization for a while now. It's a rather Quixotic quest that has led me down more than a few rabbit holes.

One significant error I committed along the way was to accept an idea popular in evolutionary psychology – that humans are little more than genetically programmed automata. In this worldview the structure of our brain and consequently the behaviour it manifests evolved through natural selection over hundreds of thousands of years. The outcome was a creature that was exquisitely adapted to life on the African veldt.  Unfortunately, the qualities that made us so fit in that environment turned out to be maladaptive in the context of modern industrial civilization. The theory goes on to propose that because so much of our behaviour is hard-wired we can do virtually nothing to alter it. The implication is that we are a tragically flawed species, doomed by our physiology to over-consume, over-compete and over-grow, all in a vain attempt to dominate the world we feel so separate from.

Fortunately, a bit more reading convinced me of the major role that our shared cultural narrative plays in determining how we behave. In this view (one that I first encountered in the writing of Daniel Quinn) if we can simply change the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, we can change the way we interact with the world. This is an attractive idea, because it's a lot easier to change a story than it is to change the structure of our brains. Not only that, there's good evidence we've actually done it a number of times over our history – for example in the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, and the relatively sudden cultural transformation from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Unfortunately, accepting this view of human plasticity still left an outstanding problem. Our brain is in fact evolved, so to at least some extent our behaviour patterns are genetically hard-wired. For instance, our hyperbolic discount function (our tendency to react strongly to immediate, visible threats, but to react much less or not at all to distant, abstract threats) is a real phenomenon rooted in our brain structure. As well, the sense of separation that allows us to view that the world as nothing but a basket of resources for human use is the Faustian price we have paid for the self-awareness that springs from our neocortex.

Any search for root causes has to take both these physical and cultural factors into account. Here is an analogy I believe brings these two determinants of human behaviour into perspective.

I've become convinced that our predicament has been created by a feedback between our evolved brain and our cultural beliefs. Our brain with its hyperbolic discount function, unconscious decision-making and the sense of separation seems to me to be necessary but not sufficient to produce the dilemma we find ourselves trapped in. If the human organism is loosely imagined as a "computer", the brain is the hardware and our cultural beliefs are the software – the programming that the hardware expresses in action. Either one without the other is relatively inert, at least on the larger stage. The hardware has an ability to act autonomously of course, but this is a fairly rudimentary capacity, sort of like the BIOS in a PC. The BIOS can't produce Google Earth or a Total Information Awareness database. You need complex software for that, and this is precisely what "culture" provides.

If we want to change the behaviour of a computer, we load a new program. Despite the fact that the underlying hardware and BIOS are unchanged, the output is radically different. So if the analogy is correct, we can indeed change human behaviour, perhaps radically, by downloading a new cultural narrative, a new myth, a new story of who we are. Given that we can't change our hardware, we work with what we can change – the software.

My choice for a new program is the one hinted at by Paul Hawken's book "Blessed Unrest" and embodied in two million or more small, independent, local organizations around the world – a enormous collection of independent, fully distributed, completely resilient, localized cultural programs that maximize the diversity of human response to the crisis. It's the largest social movement the world has ever seen, though it's still largely unrecognized as such. If anything can improve the odds that something noble from the human experiment might survive the coming change, transition or bottleneck, I believe this is it.  Not coincidentally, so does the Pachamama Alliance and their Awakening the Dreamer initiative which I support enthusiastically.

The coming changes are likely to shatter many of the guardian institutions whose primary role is to keep us running the same old cultural program of domination, exploitation, hierarchy and coercion (those institutions being our governments, corporations, religions, educational institutions and the globalized media). When the hold of those institutions weakens, having the seeds of cultural change already widely scattered will maximize the chance that something different will emerge here and there – that some parts of the global human computer will begin to run different programs. And since the future is inherently unknowable, "different" has at least some small chance of being "better", not just the same or worse.

There are no guarantees, of course. We may yet succumb to flaws in our BIOS. But the fact that the program we're running now is so much more than just a genetically-determined BIOS implies that another program may be possible. The way things are now may not be the only possible way humans can live.

And in the final analysis, what do we have to lose by trying?

April 28, 2009

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