Max Borders is a futurist who believes humanity is already building systems that will “underthrow” great centers of power. He believes that decentralization holds great promise. This decentralization will revolutionize we live and interact with eachother.
Was the movement in to hierarchy part of human nature? What is holacracy? What is the social singularity?
00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:11 Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Max Borders, who’s Executive Director of Social Evolution and Co‐founder of the Future Frontiers conference and festival. He’s the author of The Social Singularity: How Decentralization Will Allow Us to Transcend Politics, Create Global Prosperity and Avoid the Robot Apocalypse. Welcome to the show, Max.
00:31 Max Borders: Thanks for having me.
00:32 Aaron Powell: Your book is an argument that the future will be decentralized, so maybe we can start with you giving us a quick sketch of the kind of centralization you think we need to move away from.
00:43 Max Borders: Yeah, and I think for this audience, some of that is a bit intuitive, but let me try to break it down a little bit because maybe some of it isn’t. It’s thinking of it in terms of hierarchy, hierarchy being a stage of development for human beings. We used to live in tribal bands, and then we developed hierarchies in order to make certain kinds of decisions as groups. That usually involved someone strong or clever at the top of the hierarchy, making a decision on behalf of the group, but that usually amounted to some sort of benefit to the group, and so in that sense, hierarchies, though they tend to involve a certain level of planning, are also evolved phenomena when taken in the sweep of history.
01:29 Max Borders: But we’ve gotten to a point in our technological development through both market exchanges as well as different kinds of technologies that allow us to collaborate and lateralize our behavior that it’s becoming increasingly clear that we don’t really need hierarchies in order to collaborate or even make decisions together. And so, if you think of the biggest, most obvious hierarchy are governments, and governments involve this sort of domination or ruler‐ruled relationship that we’re all familiar with. But this is also true for corporations and in corporations, it’s almost an article of faith that if you don’t take orders from the boss or execute some task that you’re going to be fired or otherwise marginalized in terms of your career.
02:22 Max Borders: So that kind of hierarchy is at play too, it’s just the threat matrix is slightly different in a corporation, but it’s more or less the same configuration, it’s the Taylorite firm or the government hierarchy that we’re familiar with today. And so really, this book is an exploration on how to change that, the relationship between ruler and ruled to shift power, as it were, to lateralize relationships so that we can do things as human beings together, without hierarchy.
02:54 Trevor Burrus: Was the movement into hierarchy, would you categorize that as part of human nature, and if it is part of human nature, then do we have to change human nature to move out of it?
03:05 Max Borders: That’s a really great question, and I’m not an expert on lobster hierarchies, but I will say that, yeah, I think to some degree, it is part of our human nature to defer to hierarchies. And I discuss this to a very great degree in an upcoming book that’s not yet published, but for our purposes today, I think the way of saying it is, there are lots of competing instincts in us as human beings, all of which are evolved. Deference to hierarchy or the desire to be or the urge to be in control is certainly an evolved instinct on the part of many human beings. To use a crude metaphor, think of us as having some dials or rheostats on us, and one of those rheostats might be hierarchy, another of those rheostats might be equality or egalitarianism, and yet another might be independence or autonomy. And to some degree, we are cut out as human beings with different dialing matrices on each of us. The aggregate effect of that in societies is to some degree, differences in the way the society emerges, but taken in the great sweep of history, we’re really at the close of the age of hierarchy, it’s been with us for a while.
04:39 Max Borders: Really, with the age of agriculture, settled agriculture, hierarchy became much easier to maintain and really hierarchies held sway over most human arrangements compared to the Paleolithic period, where people functioned more in hunter gatherer clans, for example. Those were flatter. Certainly there were some clan kings in those little groups, but basically these massive hierarchies on the scale of something like Greece or Rome, really, that’s much more recent in the sweep of human history. And even today with our constitutional republics, there’s still this sort of hierarchical aspect of it baked in. And even though we have checks on, or at least we’re supposed to have checks on the power of hierarchies, they’re still hierarchies to some degree. It’s sort of taken as an article of faith that this is how we make decisions by virtue of consensus or majoritarian rule or whatever, but answering the question, who is to make decisions on our behalf. But that’s changing. And that’s really what I wanted to explore in the book.
05:52 Aaron Powell: Hierarchies are entrenched special interests, right, like a hierarchy has a person or people at the top, and that person or those people benefit greatly from being at the top of the hierarchy. Decentralization would strip them of that power, and so you’ve got… They clearly would not want to move towards a decentralized world, and at the same time, the kind of quintessential hierarchical organizations that you’ve mentioned, government and large firms, are quite powerful, they’re certainly much more powerful than you and I. So what does the process of moving to decentralization look like, because I can imagine it would be great if we got there, but the most powerful people have the most invested in not getting there.
06:42 Max Borders: Yeah. So there are two ways to look at this kind of transition. I guess you can say that one would be an endogenous force and one would be an exogenous force, okay. Let’s start with the endogenous force. Hierarchies are… I think you’re right in that the relationship between the subordinate nodes, and I’m speaking in terms of nodes to get people to imagine a kind of chart in your head, nodes in a kind of cascading arrangement, where there’s one node at the top making decisions on behalf of the many, but of course, as the complexity of information in that hierarchy grows, so also does the hierarchy. So you need to delegate power down to satraps or governors, and on through there to lieutenants, and so on down to the rank and file, to the peripheries of, or to the bottom of the hierarchy.
07:42 Max Borders: When you have that kind of situation where form is driven by function, the function of the hierarchy is to reckon with information. And when complexity gets to a kind of inflection point that the hierarchy, that any given node in the network is no longer able to process that information, you get hierarchical breakdown, or you get a transition of some sort. So in complexity science, there’s a really good complexity scientist named Yaneer Bar‐Yam, who really has done a great job of describing this process, when you have information flows in a hierarchical system, that there are limits based on the processing power of any given node. And of course, up to that inflection point, that’s why you get really smart people at the top of the hierarchy, really smart and really powerful people, because they are best able to process that information and look out for their interests, seen in the way you put it.
08:46 Max Borders: But there’s even a limit to that. And at some point, the inability for a hierarchical arrangement to process and delegate decision‐making or process information has a critical limit, and once you reach that limit, either the hierarchy has to change, or it has to die. And so that’s really the endogenous process. But there’s also this whole thing, and listeners may be familiar with the old public choice theorist, Mancur Olson, who described this process of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. And if you’re not familiar with that, the idea really is that it’s kind of… When you have lobbyists accreting around some hierarchical arrangements, whether that be a law or some bureaucratic process or some government regulation, it’s really hard to un‐entrench them.
09:46 Max Borders: And the reason for that is because any given person in the wider economy or in society has not only very little interest, but almost like, it’s impossible to know what all of these special interests are up to and what they’re doing. So a mohair subsidy, most people, if you ask them about dismantling mohair subsidies, wouldn’t even know what mohair is, much less that it needs to be dismantled. So there’s an information disconnect there, but there’s also a very high cost of gaining that knowledge as any given voter in society. So Mancur Olson really described this concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, and he really said that the rise and fall of these great hierarchical civilizations happens when that the process, concentrated benefits, dispersed costs, overwhelms the system and it eventually decays. And maybe this happened in Rome, maybe this happened in Greece; of course, there was also war, that factors in. But more or less, this is the Olsonian logic, and I think there’s something to it.
10:53 Max Borders: But here’s the interesting thing. When you can lateralize relationships and make decisions together more rapidly, using technologies that are just coming online, it really starts us to invert that dynamic. So all of a sudden, concentrated benefits and dispersed costs are concentrated costs of enforcement and dispersed benefits. So the classic example now, and I say classic now, because Uber’s been with us for a while, is Uber. Uber came along, operated in this really interesting legal gray area, and said, well, what if people could give each other rides and have, they have a rating system, they have security checks internally, and all of a sudden there were all these problems solved. But that was a real challenge to a cardalized medallion system on the part of taxis.
11:51 Max Borders: Well, suddenly that technology, that massive constituency of people who were suddenly taking rides in cars, because nobody knew what to say about the status of Uber, much less of hitch‐hiking in this way, there was suddenly this inversion. It became really costly for municipalities and governments to enforce the prior system, which was the taxi medallion cartel. And so now we have Uber, now we have Lyft, now we all have all these other competitors, and really, a very different way of organizing that feature of society. Unfortunately, that’s just one example, and we need more examples of this, but it does demonstrate that you can invert that process of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.
12:40 Trevor Burrus: There seem to be some hierarchies that are good, they’re not all bad, the firm is then the classic one and you discussed it a little bit, but there’s a reason for that hierarchy as articulated by Ronald Coase, for example, that they have to deal with transaction costs. Does this technology kind of obviate that classic nature of the firm issue?
13:03 Max Borders: Yeah, yeah, it does. It does to a degree. Now, and that’s why we have to continue. When you look at the transaction costs idea of this, it doesn’t make any sense from some ideological perspective to say that a hierarchy is inherently bad or somehow morally bankrupt, because if we’re trying to organize people to some end, to some telos, which might just be to make a profit and earn some money together, create value for customers and so on, it may be that the hierarchy is the best way to do that, to pay for people to show up, to take orders and to have a unitary decision‐making made by some person who’s really good at making decisions. But you’re right, with networking technologies, we reduce those costs to a very great degree, those coordination costs and those transaction costs. Suddenly you can have, if you like, markets within the firm.
14:06 Max Borders: But the other side of that is a different form of hierarchy, and so when I say hierarchy in terms of the corporation or in terms of the government, what I’m really speaking to is a formalized hierarchy, but there are hierarchies of competence that exist in fluid and dynamic networks, even if those networks are at the protocol level egalitarian. So let me just unpack that for a minute, ’cause I think you make a really great point, Trevor, and that’s that hierarchies can exist for a reason and they can be quite healthy. You might think, for example, that… Let’s take Michael Jordan in the 1982 National Championship basketball team from the North Carolina Tar Heels. That team, in terms of Michael Jordan, I think at the time I was a freshman or a sophomore, he certainly wasn’t one of the top dogs on the team, but he was quite a good player and he was an emerging player at that time. He happened to get this final basket to win the National Championship. And then after that, the following year, really became a star player for Carolina, and then of course, when he went into the NBA, his presence, his hierarchical advantage, if you like, came by virtue of his competence, his ability to get balls in baskets, he really was a greater hub in the wider network in terms of getting the ball, because people wanted to win, so the likelihood that he was gonna get the ball into the basket was increased when in that network you got the ball to him.
15:55 Max Borders: So that might have been instruction from a coach, okay, get the ball to Michael, and that’s hierarchical, but sometimes it’s just like, hey, there’s Michael and he’s open, chances are he’s gonna get the basket, let’s get the ball to him, and I get an assist. Those kind of dynamics are not always formalized hierarchies, sometimes it’s just like, hey, if you want the best, if you wanna listen to a great podcast, let’s choose Aaron and Trevor’s podcasts because they do such a fantastic job and listeners flock to you by choice. So the extent to which your podcast kicks other podcasts’ ass, asses, is by virtue of your competence. And so these kind of hierarchies can exist in healthy ways, even in these kind of flatter networks or, even better, in holacratic organizations, which we can talk about later if you like.
16:51 Aaron Powell: How does that scale? So take the basketball example or the which podcast we’re gonna listen to, those are both small scale in terms of the number of people, there’s not… It’s you deciding among a selection of podcasts or it’s a handful of players on a basketball court. And the goal is very clear, it’s to, in the basketball example, it’s to win the basketball game by at the end of the game having more points than the opponent, and so there’s no ambiguity there. And the method of getting there is very clear and the way you measure it is very clear. But in, say, a large firm, so let’s take Apple computer. Like Apple computer, you can say their goal is to make as much money as they possibly can, but how you get there is incredibly complex. There are thousands or tens of thousands of people, all of them have their own interests, and so I can imagine it becoming very messy, and there’s lots of opportunities for individual people or nodes in the network to put their interests first, but then obfuscate how much good or harm that’s doing for the ultimate goal, ’cause you can always argue the reason we didn’t sell this product was not because we didn’t sell as many products, it’s not because I screwed up, but it’s because tastes in the market changed or someone else screwed up, or all sorts of other random features, so it’s hard, it’s hard to know and it makes it hard even to judge competence.
18:28 Trevor Burrus: So does this kind of non‐hierarchical system work on the small scale, but run into problems when you’re dealing with anything that’s large and complicated?
18:40 Max Borders: I think it depends. I think there’s a lot about context that will determine the answer to that question in any given case. I think sometimes small‐scale organizations can function much better as hierarchies, where you have a driven, intelligent founder who wants to get the ball rolling as an understanding of what he or she wants to do, a vision, and also has the benefit of being good at execution. One of those rare species of entrepreneur, usually you have to have either two people, like a Jobs and a Woz together, so one’s about execution and another’s about vision. But in certain circumstances, you can have someone who’s really talented at both. But that person with a small organization, sometimes they can run rings around a group that’s trying to launch with something like holacracy, it’s really at that… And I will say, however, that sometimes it’s also really good to have these more dynamic network structures at small scales too, so it just depends.
19:53 Max Borders: It’s really when we’re talking about scaling. Usually when we think of scaling, we think in terms of an organization like a firm, we think in terms of delegation, and that’s how most hierarchies scale. But very often you get these hybrid models, and I think… I would guess that a company like Apple probably employs some of the hybrids, so certain features of the firm are networked, certain features of the firm are hierarchical, and you have this overall mission. Firms are more or less teleological in their orientation, whereas societies, on the other hand, are non‐teleological. That’s to say, societies don’t have goals.
20:36 Max Borders: Apple has a goal of selling you their wonderful hardware products, getting you to use them, that’s at least enough of a mission that we can say that Apple is a teleological‐based phenomenon. But internal to their organization, they may have R&D departments that have a lot of latitude, they may have times that they set aside, for example, similar to Google, where they have their 20% time and allow them to do more independent or collaborative endeavors that aren’t really for some task that’s handed down from management. But these hybrid… This hybridization is really, I think, an artifact of the fact that these massive corporations have to scale, and when you start to strain the limits of any individual node in the network in terms of information problems, you’re gonna have to start seeing these hybrids. So one of the most promising, I think, and I wanna give a shout‐out to Brian Robertson, who’s a good friend of mine. He established HolacracyOne, which is a company that has no management hierarchy. I should also give a big shout‐out to Chris Rufer, who I worked very closely with, for Morning Star Packing Company. Morning Star Packing Company is another firm.
21:58 Max Borders: So these two guys in very different ways approach the problem of scale with some form or other of self‐management. Chris’s is very streamlined, very simple set of protocols, and it’s much more organic in the way it’s instituted internally, but it’s successful. Morning Star Packing Company is a billion dollar plus net worth company, as far as I can tell, and Chris has been an amazing mentor to me in explaining how this works, helping me understand the rules behind it and his operating philosophy.
22:33 Trevor Burrus: You said holacratic, so that’s a holacratic firm?
22:39 Max Borders: I’ve mentioned these two firms just because I happen to know two different ways of going about it. Morning Star’s self‐management is its own thing, it’s not holacratic. Brian Robertson’s HolacracyOne is a consulting firm that helps other organizations become holacratic. So where Chris deals in self‐management, he has it internal to his company that deals with making tomato products. The likelihood that you have one of his products in your tomato sauce or ketchup is very high, any given time you do it. He’s not a consultant for that, but in… But holacracy is a certain type of self‐management where Brian or his team will go into a company and help them adopt a very specific kind of self‐management called holacracy.
23:27 Max Borders: So let me talk a little bit just about holacracy for a moment, because that really goes to your point about scale, and it also goes to your point about finding a mechanism in which these hierarchies of competence can emerge and are not formalized. With holacracy, you basically have a set‐up where everybody has a role and they subdivide themselves into these things called circles or holons, if you like, holon being the three‐dimensional understanding of this. If you put it on a 2Dchart, it’s a circle. But these holons have these inter‐relationships, sort of like the organs in a body, and organs in the body have to talk to… These organs in our bodies have a set of relationships relatively to each other, but one doesn’t… There’s not a hierarchy of one over the other, not in any real appreciable degree. Human beings are self‐organizing systems.
24:35 Max Borders: What holacracy does is introduces a set of protocols to make organizations more self‐organizing and people have, for lack of a better way of putting it, property rights over certain spheres of activities, and then they are encouraged to process what holacracy practitioners called tensions, which is if something is wrong, let’s figure out how to fix it and propose that to the group, to the group being maybe a holon or a circle, and there might be super circles that address even larger scale problems. But it functions very much like the common law internal to an organization in such a way that it’s not a deliberative body that makes a decision and hands it down to the rank and file, it is constantly churning in an evolutionary fashion to process the tensions and constantly improve the organization. And that’s enormously scalable because circles of accountability and talent are responsible for handling the specific problems that are relevant to those circles, not management. That’s a really complicated description, and it’s hard as hell to do on a podcast, but I wanna encourage listeners to look at holacracy in the structure of these organizations, because they really are able to bring talent and to bear on problems, localized problems, applying local knowledge.
26:04 Aaron Powell: How does this all work in the context then of the ultimate hierarchy of government, if we’re gonna decentralize government. Does it just mean moving to essentially 100% direct democracy?
26:17 Max Borders: Oh, goodness, I wouldn’t want to do that at all. I have an allergy to the D word that I hope I won’t offend anyone listening, but… No, I think, to ask that question is to… Well, let me put it this way. To answer that question, I’d have to say it all depends. The whole premise behind decentralization is that there’s some… Whether that comes by virtue of the law or whether it comes by virtue of technological innovation, there’s some means of exiting this system, okay. When you can exit a system and start something new in parallel, you have the shoots or bud of an experiment that could be better than the one you left, than the system you left. So the idea behind decentralization is just how can we launch a thousand experiments in governance and see what works.
27:25 Max Borders: And so thinking about this as some end state, some ideological end state, which by the way, I’ve spent my whole life doing as a self‐identified libertarian, and I really, honestly, to think this way and write this book had to disabuse myself of it in some ways. The ideology behind it might be something more like, something like to the extent that we want human flourishing and we don’t want to harm others, what can we do? But beyond that, so that might be my ideological prior, but beyond that, I’m not saying that there’s this end state that has to be achieved and fashioned through some sort of protocol planning, it really is going to be a series of experiments that land on something like holacracy that might be giving new opportunities in governance, like free cities, seasteading or special economic zones, or even what is known as polyarchy, which is overlapping jurisdictions, some jurisdiction might govern things on the ground like roads or police forces or whatever in different fashion.
28:41 Max Borders: And other, which we might call cloud governance, might be those things that don’t require a jurisdiction at all, and polyarchy is really a way of unpacking this idea or asking the question, why can’t we choose our own governance structures, why is it by virtue of birth or landing on a certain patch of soil that we have to abide by the legal regime that is an artifact of conquest, why is it that we can’t have markets in governance and adjudicate between those markets through mechanisms like the common law. Asking those questions really causes people to disabuse themselves of this idea that we’re ever gonna have another constitutional moment, or that some simple revolution is going to just make everything okay, or we’re gonna elect the right person and we’re gonna implement some beautiful libertarian or X, Y, Z utopia.
29:44 Max Borders: Instead, it’s really thinking in experimental terms about alternatives to governance that allow people to flood as constituents rapidly in such a way that flips the concentrated benefits, dispersed costs dynamics to something more decentralized. That is sort of the way forward, and it’s a complicated way of thinking, but I think when we get there, we’re gonna start to see the world in a different way, instead of what is my ideal conception of the political good, how can I be entrepreneurial or innovative along some dimension to make governance changes that benefit the many.
30:33 Trevor Burrus: It seems that one of the aspects of this that has been undermining hierarchies to some extent is diversity, and maybe this is not exogenous to the hierarchical structure we have, but just diversity of people. People are more diverse now in terms of their access, top 40 radio is not as big as it used to be, big hit movies and television shows are not as big, people have their own news feeds, does that sort of, that aspect of humanity, does that make it even more important or make it even more likely or possible that we could move into the decentralized world because it’s harder and harder maybe for us to live together?
31:14 Max Borders: That is a concern to me, and I have to admit that, but I wanna hold out hope for that. And let me just reflect that question back to make sure I got it. Your concern is that given the high degree of diversity, there could be a kind of social fracturing going on, but the upside of that social fracturing is that we may get decentralization of some sort. I have this, how shall we say, this, it’s sentiment and philosophy both, that there is a balance, and I still love my old Robert Nozick. Robert Nozick, his work, but Part Three of Anarchy, State and Utopia, if you’re familiar with that, or the section in philosophical explanations, when he describes this process called organic unity, and Nozick described two axes, and I’m gonna get to the ideological part of this in a minute, but he described two axes, x and y, one is diversity, and one is unity.
32:18 Max Borders: And so the cosmopolitan in me wants to say, yes, I think that this applies, this general framework applies to the many, and the way we achieve peace is to tolerate diversity to a point. But the degree to which we are not unified in that toleration is the point where we might end up crossing over into war or into the kind of social fracturing that is anti‐social or un‐social at best, anti‐social at worst. That balance between unity and diversity, organic unity, is really an important feature of my thinking, but I will say that when people in California or Texas respectively start saying that they want to secede from the United States, I don’t really have a problem with that.
33:11 Max Borders: I think at a certain point, secession can be healthy and as long as they don’t put up trade barriers and go to war, that feels okay to me, that level of secession. I agree with you, Trevor. I read a piece of yours I thought it was really great about the anti‐federalists and just how right they were in their, the way they predicted so much of the *** that’s going on right now, everything from the public choice problems to the social fracturing. And really the anti‐federalists deserve a second look, and yet everybody’s going to see Hamilton on Broadway, so I’m not sure what to say about that, except maybe there’s another New Yorker, Yates, that we need to look at his work over Hamilton and really dig into that. The work of quote‐unquote Brutus.
34:03 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, Lin‐Manuel Miranda can write a musical about Yates.
34:08 Max Borders: That would be great. There’s this other dude from New York, he’s kinda interesting. But really, I am comfortable with secession and the idea of separatist movements to some degree. The problem with secession and separatism is there is a stigma surrounding them, because usually whenever you hear secession, you think of the South, and when you think of separatism, you think white, and that causes a sort of allergic reaction and taboo instinct on people’s parts. But secession really is just the manifestation of some right of exit, some way of trying to establish a new system because the constituents in the old system, or a great number of them, are unhappy with that old system. It is acknowledging self‐determination, which quite curiously is in the UN Charter, I think.
35:13 Max Borders: So I want to go back to this idea of organic unity and say a peaceful cosmopolitan means of social fracturing, kind of is what decentralization is, it allows people to put their ideological experiments in action, and if they don’t work, well, so much for your ideology. And that meta scheme is pluralism and decentralization, that’s really what I’m trying to get at, and that’s a hard thing to communicate to people who are used to functioning at the level of just policy or at the level of just ideology.
35:48 Aaron Powell: This seems like a good opportunity to pivot to the cultural discussion in your book, because… Which I found tremendously rich and insightful in the ways that technology and culture as you argue are kind of in this feedback loop and influencing each other, and decentralization won’t just mean that our organizations look different, but that our daily lives and culture and even potentially values look different. And maybe the way to get to that conversation is to just ask about the title of your book, what is the social singularity?
36:32 Max Borders: Oh, wow. Thank you for that. And that’s a complex question, so I wanna take it… Let me take the last part of the question first. The social singularity is a theoretical point, just as the technological singularity is a point where beyond which the machines wake up, where Moore’s Law proceeds forward into the future, and there’s a point beyond which the processing power and the network capability of machines means these machines are smarter than humans or more capable in some way, and that is generally known, at least in sci‐fi parlance, as the singularity… The technological singularity.
37:14 Max Borders: What I’m proposing with this book is there will be a point beyond which… And this is really the inflection point between hierarchy and network in some ways, but on the scale of society, that we’re going to be able to lateralize our relationships to such a degree and have consensus mechanisms that are so diverse and useful that we really no longer need to function in sort of monopolistic hierarchies, and that we will be able to migrate in and out of systems much more readily based on the power of network effects, collaboration and other means that allow for an emergent order that isn’t so planned as hierarchical arrangements are.
38:03 Max Borders: That’s really the functional essence of the social singularity, but as you put it in the first part of the question, there really is this concomitant or co‐evolved cultural aspect to this, which is how do we… The question, the answer to the question, how will we need to treat each other in order for this to work, and or if we were to start treating each other this way, can we drive the process of decentralization. And this… And Aaron, I wanna credit this to you in our offline conversations, I think you and I are really aligned on this idea that some of the ancient practices of the wisdom traditions can culturally inform the social singularity.
38:51 Max Borders: We didn’t talk about specifically, about the social singularity aspect of this, but particularly about just the way we treat each other. When you’re in a situation in which you have a kind of moral community that hangs together on a set of protocols, and your reputation is at stake, we can go back to the Uber example. When people get into an Uber, more or less, now of course, there are exceptions, and there are people who are assholes who get into Ubers and there are Uber drivers who are assholes, but relative to the taxi state of affairs, the protocols of Uber, the rules of the game, the institutions inside the Uber universe, really encourage people to be nice to one another, because they’re gonna get rated.
39:39 Max Borders: And after a time, it just becomes sort of habitual to just be nice to your Uber driver and for your Uber driver to be nice to you. This interplay between the rules of Uber and our being nice to one another in an Uber can have lasting social effects. I use an example in the book of between East and West Berlin. Dana Raley and his team at Duke did a study on these kinds of phenomena with East Germany and West Germany, and what they found was that the institutional framework of West Germany, which was primarily entrepreneurship and markets, was different, of course, from that of East or West Germany, which is bureaucratic allocation of resources in a socialist system.
40:30 Max Borders: And what they found was that the people who had grown up in East Germany versus those who had grown up in West Germany had very different ways of playing a certain kind of game, and what they found was this, with this certain game, it was easy to lie and cheat to win, and they found overwhelmingly that those who grew up under the socialist hierarchy of East Germany were actually more likely to cheat or to lie in this game. And that was really the object of the inquiry, and what that showed is that then, at least by correlation, was that most likely the explanation for that is when you have repeated interactions with people in market situations, it benefits you to be nice and to play fair, whereas if you’re having to stomp on someone’s neck to get ahead in a bureaucratic hierarchy, lying and cheating is the best way to become at the top of the hierarchy.
41:33 Max Borders: And so that both of those cultural norms infuse those societies, but I think it can work the other way around because the institutions are what they are, and it seems like the culture in those societies emerged as a by‐product of those institutions. But I think it can work in the other way around too, and this goes to our common interest in Buddhism, Aaron, when you have… There’s actually… This in particular is the story of, I think more of Hindus or of the yogis in the forest. There is a commentator on the Yoga Sutras who is speaking of ahimsa and satya, which are two of the Yamas in the Yoga Sutras, okay, Yamas being these, just like these, hey, this is how we should act. We might call them virtues.
42:25 Max Borders: But the first one is ahimsa, which sounds pretty much like, hey, don’t hurt other people, don’t harm others, which our audience is familiar with. And the second one is satya, is, hey, be a person of integrity, honor your word and live in truth, okay. And just with those two things, the monks in the forest said this particular yogi who was commenting on the Yoga Sutras, that the yogis in the forest created such a condition of peace that even the animals were quiet and stopped fighting, that… And this is a metaphor, this is a myth, but that the cow and the tiger would drink from the same pond. But the idea here is that when you discipline yourself through some sort of practice, some sort of cultural practice, and surround yourself with other people who do the same, you can really start to change behavior as people see that you radiate this light of culture, that being around you is much more present than being around some alpha or toxic personality that doesn’t practice ahimsa in thought, word and deed.
43:35 Max Borders: So I really think that this idea of cultivating culture and writing good rules or writing good protocols, that both of these things can work in a vacillating tandem to hasten the social singularity. I hope that answers your question.
43:54 Trevor Burrus: I think it’s sort of similar or what I was going to ask, but you put it in a sort of more metaphorical sense, but is it sort of like saying in, say, 1200, when the world was ruled by monarchies, the average citizen had a cultural disposition and personality disposition to maybe that wouldn’t be friendly at that time to democracy and liberalism as a general rule. Like that you would have… Liberalism requires, in the small L sense, a liberal sensibility to some extent about how you tolerate other people, so it actually comes from personality traits and norms that are socially adopted. And so we’ve done a pretty good job, maybe not so much in recent years, of developing liberal people to have liberal sensibilities in the Western world, but you’re sort of saying we need to go further if we’re going to break down these hierarchies and move to lateral relationships in the social singularity where we cultivate even more self‐governance and respectful personality types and traits and values in order to sort of evolve to the next level where maybe we don’t need these powerful hierarchies anymore. Is that kind of an accurate sort of way where you’re going there?
45:06 Max Borders: Yeah, and really, I only touch on it in The Social Singularity in a few places. I do, I definitely spend some time on that point in a couple of places in that book. In the new book, I really want to put this at the center to some degree, this very point, because I think it’s through this idea of disposing oneself through practice that we can become better… You know, who has an opportunity every day to write a set of protocols that are gonna change the way people behave and are going to reconstitute the social fabric in some way? It’s not as easy a thing as it sounds, and so we have to ask ourselves, what do we actually have power over.
45:54 Max Borders: And the answer is two things, well, we might… Some of us might have power over the way we organize our firms or organizations, and we can institute new rules and protocols that can help us become more profitable, but also it can help us become more humane and help people who work with us become happier and more peaceful. There’s also, as you allude to, this power of control over oneself and really creating cultural norms through one’s own behavior and attention to one’s own behavior, that if we go into the world with a peaceful mien, and I don’t mean that we go into a classroom and have a trigger warning, that’s not at all what I wanna get at, because that’s not really the point, it’s more about just a general mien of action and behavior towards other people in terms of respecting some of these ancient virtues.
47:02 Max Borders: And there are a whole set of virtues from all kinds of traditions that have been with us for millennia, we just have to listen to them, so both of those things are in our, can be in our immediate sphere of control. And it’s through practice and through practices and protocols at the local level that eventually, I believe, sort of expanding like a slime mold, these invisible forces of culture and much more visible forces of rules will begin to reconstitute the way human beings relate to one another.
47:46 Aaron Powell: The last several years have felt pretty grim. We certainly don’t seem to be acting more in accord with virtues about how we ought to treat each other with dignity and respect and live well together, and at the same time, we’ve seen the rise on the right of populism; on the left of a hard left progressivism, both of which very much push against decentralization and towards aggregating more power to the few to make decisions for the rest of us. And the situation just seems to keep getting more and more tense. So in light of all that, it’s been, I think, two years since this book was published, are you still optimistic that we can get to the world that you describe?
48:37 Max Borders: My optimism and my pessimism run together as ying‐yang, I guess you can say. And here’s what I mean. The next book I’m working on, and I hate to mention it so many times in the podcast because people can’t buy it, but also because it’s like, hey, I can’t even take a look at what he’s talking about, I just have to take him on faith, but the premise of the book is that we are headed towards collapse, essentially, that there are all of these drivers or ways in which the United States is breaking down, America as both a concept and as a hierarchical structure, whose foundation is government power and government largesse, that this is breaking down.
49:27 Max Borders: And so the pessimist in me says this breaking down, the social fracturing is happening because there’s so much at stake with respect to who gets to have the power, who gets to hold the ring, and this clamoring for the ring, this clamoring for this single conception of the good, this monolithic conception of everything over everyone causes us to tribalize to some degree. I know there are other forces at play, but that’s the main one in many respects. And so when you consider all of these ways in which we’re breaking down both to get the ring of power and those who have the power just making decisions on everyone’s behalf that are dangerous and eventually catastrophic because the system is so anti‐fragile, we’re going to have some sort of collapse.
50:27 Max Borders: The optimist in me says, after collapse, which is the tentative name of the book, we’re going to have something closer to what you might read in The Social Singularity. I hope that we can avoid something so catastrophic as collapse of the United States government and of society at large, but I’m just not so sure we’re headed that way. So even if this is a metaphorical trope or device for framing what I would like to see in terms of a more idealized state of affairs where we treat each other more peacefully and where we have a much more decentralized state of affairs, I am concerned, to say the least, about the direction that the country is heading in, and I am optimistic that afterwards we’ll have to turn to each other as a human community at some point in order to be a phoenix from the flames.
51:28 Max Borders: So that is probably not a very satisfying answer to the question of whether I’m optimistic about the social singularity, but I will say this, even if there isn’t a collapse, the trajectory of lateralization through our technological means may make it so that it happens much more in Uber‐like fashion where there wasn’t any kind of real collapse that happened through the Uberization of the ride economy. So that’s one possible world in the future. But the other possible world is one in which all of these phenomena are bound up in each other and cause a system‐wide and catastrophic failure, and how protracted that failure is, how much it’s a steep and deep collapse versus a sort of malaise or stagflation and social stagnation, I can’t say.
52:36 Max Borders: That being said, there are a lot of really scary things going on, and I don’t want to be hyperbolic about these, because I do think that when you look at stuff like what’s going on in Portland, where people are trying to burn the city down and there’s all this street violence or sort of the rise of the alt‐right and of the sort of reactionary right, and some of the sort of crazy conspiracy theories going on there, this could be sort of foreshadowing something much worse, and I am concerned about it, but I also don’t want to fall into the trap of availability heuristics, because there are sensational things that transmit through the media and cause us to believe that the world’s going to hell in a hand‐basket, when actually it’s… Things are just okay.
53:41 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.