A sick information ecology
We’ve had a basis for disinformation for a long time. We’ve had rivalrous dynamics for a long time. The rivalrous dynamics are a basis by which we can get ahead by war and by killing somebody else or lying to them, or ruining the commons. But exponential tech leads, with those same incentives, leads to exponential disinformation, exponential extraction, exponential pollution, exponentially scaled warfare, on a finite playing field that self-destructs.
– Daniel Schmachtenberger, War on Sensemaking
There is a war going on in our current information ecosystem. It is a war of propaganda, emotional manipulation, blatant or unconscious lies. It is nothing new, but is reaching a new intensity as our technology evolves. The result is that it has become harder and harder to make sense of the world, with potentially fatal consequences. If we can’t make sense of the world, neither can we make good decisions or meet the many challenges we face as a species.
Today Facebook and Instagram hire psychologists to get us hooked; our feelings and opinions are used to generate cash for the very few, while creating a state of distraction and chronic addiction for many. Bad actors with with multiple, overlapping motivations pollute the information ecology for political and financial gain. In the market of attention, we are playing zero-sum games that have a few winners and a lot of losers.
In War on Sensemaking, futurist and visionary Daniel Schmachtenberger outlines in forensic detail the dynamics at play in this new information ecology — one in which we are all subsumed. He explores how companies, government, and media take advantage of our distracted and vulnerable state, and how we as individuals can develop the discernment and sensemaking skills necessary to navigate this new reality. Schmachtenberger has an admirable ability to diagnose this issue, while offering epistemological and practical ways to help repair the dark labyrinth of a broken information ecology.
Schmachtenberger describes a terrifying number of zero sum games at play in the world, which combined risk diving humanity off of a cliff. He describes how game theory motivation — or win/loss outcomes — are becoming increasingly unsustainable. On the other hand, civilization can transform itself, for every crisis is simultaneously an opportunity.
While war and resource extraction may have been civilization-building in the past, today they could mean total annihilation of the species. Therefore, the end of game-theory logic is not only a utopian ideal but an existential necessity. Schmachtenberger has dedicated his life to the question: ‘How do we make sense and not war?’ His thesis is that, unless we learn how to do good sense-making and act accordingly, we are in grave existential danger. The next war, as Albert Einstein has told us, is ‘fought with sticks and stones’.
Listening to Schmachtenberger is a joy and a terror. A joy because of his remarkable clarity and the breadth of his knowledge — a terror because of the grim future he outlines for humanity if our sensemaking fails. Never has good sensemaking been more existentially important, and never has it been more important to figure out how to solve seemingly intractable problems. This has been Schmachtenberger’s earnest mission for much of his life.
Moving Beyond Bullshit
Start to create relationships where one of the highest values is truthfulness, with other people that are capable of and want and are committed to that, where people are not only not lying to each other, but endeavouring to not withhold information. That is tremendous intimacy and tremendous vulnerability. See if you can create enough psychological safety with some people to be able to start exploring ‘What does it mean to actually share information honestly, so that we can make sense together?’ Daniel Schmachtenberger
Clear and unbiased truth in our information ecology is seriously limited by the amount of bullshit we consume every day, in part a result of the overwhelming intensity of marketing motives and the conformity demands of our in-group. Furthermore, the intentions of our information sources are as often as not based on clickbait or ideology rather than truth.
Bullshit is not the same as lying. Another Rebel Wisdom guest, John Vervaeke, has drawn on the work of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt to illustrate this. Frankfurt argues that bullshit differs from lying in that a liar knows the truth but is choosing to intentionally mislead. A bullshitter doesn’t care about truth, and is defined by ‘an indifference to how things really are’ — Frankfurt argues that this makes them more dangerous, because while bullshit is occasionally true, it muddies the information ecology so much that it undermines truth itself.
Schmachtenberger, like Frankfurt, outlines the overt and subtle ways that bullshit or propaganda work. He also tells us how we use game theory for basic survival: how we bullshit to get ahead, to protect our own, or out of unconscious habit, sheer entertainment, revenge, or actual malevolence.
Being truthful is an individual and communal effort — it means training, not only cognitive abilities, but empathetic relational ones, and our embodied experience in the world. It also means acknowledging that we don’t always have the answer. Admitting our vulnerable ignorance in the face of overwhelming mixed messages may be a good first step.
Schmachtenberger also makes the point that in order to become a good sensemaker we need ‘stressors’ — demands that push our mind, body, and heart beyond comfort, and beyond the received wisdom we have inherited. It is not enough to passively consume information: we first need to engage actively with with information ecology we live in and start being aware of how we respond to it, where it is coming from, and why it is being used.
This means learning ‘how’ to learn as much as ‘what’ to learn — mere information is not enough. We have information in spades, but this doesn’t equate to wisdom. The wisdom we might need is not only learned in weekend workshops, but in a lifetime of study and practice.
Part of the answer lies in forming teams, communities, and media platforms which are engaged in accountability, integrity, and personal growth. Truthful communication is not created ex nihilo, or in a bubble, but in the context of real, good faith, learning. And learning contexts are the opposite of information bubbles: they require that we stress our system, challenge our assumptions, and learn to go beyond the obvious and the mechanical — to go beyond bullshit.
Game B, Sovereignty, and Rule Omega
The war on sensemaking is relentless, but all hope is not lost. Human beings can always build their sense making muscles and begin to create an alternative civilization model, what Jordan Hall, Jim Rutt, Bonnita Roy and others who work with Schmachtenberger have called ‘Game B civilization’.
An alternative Game B civilization, is not created through idealism, but through hard work and dedication. Game B for Schmachtenberger is not about hippy idealism but the dedicated epistemological and practical work necessary to create a flourishing civilization and avoid disaster. We have to develop what Schmachtenberger (along with Jordan Hall and others) have called ‘sovereignty’.
The first stage of sovereignty is dealing with our own self-deception and neurosis. Sovereignty means we have to ‘become responsibility for our own shit’ and become ‘a light unto ourselves’. This will then help us develop intelligent relationships and communities. A real social, ‘kitchen sink level’ of reality must be cultivated to avoid the dangers of too much abstraction, individualism, and idealism.
As well as personal integrity and coherence, we need to learn to refine our listening capacities. To address this, Jordan Hall and Daniel Schmachtenberger have coined the term Rule Omega.
Rule Omega is simple, but often hard to put into practice. The idea is that every message contains some signal and some noise, and we can train ourselves to distinguish truth and nonsense — to separate the wheat from the chaff. If we disapprove of 95% of a distasteful political rant, for instance, we could train ourselves to hear the 5% that is true.
Rule Omega means learning to recognise the signal within the noise. This requires a certain attunement and generosity towards the other, especially those who think differently than we do. And Rule Omega can only be applied to those who are willing to engage in a different game, and work with each other in good faith.
Furthermore, we desperately need to pay attention to people who are outside of our information bubble or ideological group. A good practice Schmachtenberger suggests we expose ourselves to multiple sources of media on the right and on the left. For example, a liberal could watch Fox News occasionally and a conservative could read The Guardian . A Jordan Peterson acolyte might try reading Marx and studying a bit of feminist intersectionality. God forbid!
The point is to venture into the places that make us uncomfortable, and try to see what part of the truth those ‘enemies’ hold. Sometimes a holy grail of truth is buried under a mountain of lies.
Weapons and Tools
The war going on in the information sphere is a war where every potential tool is made into a weapon. If by war we mean a violent concerted effort to destroy ‘the other side’ in order to gain or maintain territory, we have to acknowledge that a war is taking place in in all of out traditional institutions, including media. But in today’s narrative war, it is not clear who the enemy is. Moreover, even if narrative war is as old as human civilization, the battlefield has changed due to exponential technology and global communication.
In the past the problem may have been ‘too little information’ and transparency, today it is ‘too much information’ — the excess noise and misinformation we ingest daily. And while we have exponential growth in technology and communication, we also have exponential possibilities of self-deception and bullshit.
Certainly there are bad actors and conspiracies to harm us, but there is also the ‘shadow within’. The shadow is the unacknowledged part we play in the destruction of the commons and in the never-ending vicious cycle of narrative war. We need to pay attention to the subtle lies we tell ourselves, as much as the ‘big’ lies that society tells us all the time. The trouble is: we can’t help being involved in destructive game theory logic, to a greater or lesser degree.
We cannot avoid being participants in the information war fully, but again, we can learn to be more truthful. As a helpful insight, Schmachtenberger distinguishes between truth in a factual sense, and ‘being truthful’. Factual truth, statistics, can be weaponized.
One could as easily argue — in the style of Steven Pinker — that the world is in a state of perpetual progress; conversely, one could beat the apocalyptic drum in an Extinction Rebellion rally and shout out on the street corner that the end is nigh. Both sides have facts and truths, but if they are using them as weapons in narrative warfare rather than as productive tools for revealing the truth, the effects could be counterproductive and/or dangerous.
Schmachtenberger argues that, more than ever, we need to co-operate rather than compete, to develop real wisdom and effective communities of sense-making rather than playing the present rivalrous game, which he sees as leading to self termination. We need what he calls ‘anti-rivalrous systems’.
Anti-rivalry is a term invented by the economist Steven Weber which has been popularized lately in certain subcultures of sense-making. To be anti-rivalrous is, in essence, to reward good faith and excellence rather scarcity and dog-eat-dog competition. To consume an anti-rivalrous product or idea is to increase its value for yourself and others.
To illustrate: a rivalrous product like Coca-Cola produces little sustainable value but a lot of addiction, thirst, and scarcity — in the same way Facebook and Instagram provide salient but addictive information like bad nutrition. We get a dopamine hit when we are ‘liked’ and are depressed when we don’t get the attention we think we deserve, and this creates social rivalry that keeps us on a level of childish narcissism. We exhaust our attention this way, just as we exhaust resources through over-extraction.
An anti-rivalrous production shared freely has a very different outcome. Whether it’s a good story, a brilliant computer code, or an intelligent conversation, it will often increase truth value, knowledge, and creativity rather than exhausting the existing resources.
An information immune system
The war on sensemaking means that our very consciousness is constantly attacked, and Schmachtenberger argues that we must sharpen our defenses, or even transform that attack, judo style, into strength and resilience. To become healthy and sane we have to develop an ‘informational immune system’ — to protect our minds from the online onslaught and the right epistemology or sensemaking are key.
There is also the problem of disembodiment, which is rampant in the virtual realm. Because we spend less time in embodied relations with others, we feel less connected to the real world. Schmachtenberger argues that more than ever we must seek offline relationships and to balance our online world with real-world embodied experience, and to spend time cultivating real world relationships. It is hard to make sense of the world if we spend most of our time ‘in the matrix’.
The war on sensemaking is actually a war against the human being, because the human being is in essence a sense-making creature, which is our curse and blessing. The same powers which make us so adaptive and intelligent are the ones that make us vulnerable to self deception, as John Vervaeke has often pointed out in Awakening to the Meaning crisis series.
The dangers of concepts
Daniel Schmachtenberger (and his contemporaries Jordan Hall, Bonnitta Roy, and others) have been working hard to create antibodies to the present existential threats, in the form of practical concepts, such as sensemaking, sovereignty, Game B, and Rule Omega. These neologisms have become memes, are spreading like wildfire in certain subcultures.
The brilliance and utility such formulations should be celebrated; however, the danger remains: what if these positive concepts were themselves weaponized, distorted, ill-used for manipulations of one sort of another?
Actually this has already happened, as Schmachtenberger tells us The War on Sensemaking 2. Weaponization can happen with any concept at all, and on multiple levels.
After introducing Rule Omega with Jordan Hall, Schmachtenberger observed an interesting fact: that the Omega rule could also be weaponized. People have already tried to use this concept for personal benefit, to virtue signal membership in an in-group, to argue for an ideology and in other unconscious or nefarious strategies.
If you study misinformation, it’s not surprising that a good peace-making technique could easily be used in the service of war. Schmachtenberger argues that any concept or good idea can be weaponized for ill, even if it is born of noble intention.
As such it can be dangerous to outsource our sensemaking to concepts — instead we need to embody them in our words and actions. Wrestling with the snake of self-deception and illusion and trying to build a better world in this way is a tough game. But it is the only game worth playing.
Conclusion: Symbiotic Sensemaking
Despite all these challenges, human beings are uniquely created for sensemaking and coherence, which can be seen in the amazing coordination capacities of the human body. Schmachtenberger uses the example of Parallax vision. Our two eyes are separate, but they work together in a symbiotic relationship to the whole vision. Maybe cancer cells are at war with the body as a whole — playing win/lose zero sum games — but healthy cells work in a symphony in service of the higher order function of the body. Schmachtenberger closes ‘War on Sensemaking’ with the following:
The cells are sensemaking and they’re communicating their signalling with each other .. They are all signalling, but they don’t have a game theoretic relationship with each other: they actually have a mutually symbiotic relationship with each other. They are supporting each other’s sensemaking in that way. The lungs obviously do better if the heart’s doing better.
So if we just start to kind of imagine into what type of communication processes or protocols would have to happen between humans that allowed for error correction on any individual’s perceptions, but allowed the true parts of everyone’s perceptions to be separated from the error parts, and then all the true parts could be synthesized at a higher rate of complexity that individuals could do on their own. When we think about the civilisation of the future and the collective intelligence of the future, we can think about it that way.”
You can watch the full film of ‘War of Sensemaking’ on Rebel Wisdom here.
Watch War on Sensemaking II here
War on Sensemaking III, featuring Jamie Wheal, premieres Friday, 24 Jan 2020
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