Trust, Time, and Coordinating Our Shared Future
This is the fifth installment of a long form essay — or short book — outlining my macro perspective on how the emerging crypto ecosystem fits within the greater context of biological, cultural, and economic evolution. I intend to initially publish each installment separately. Afterward, I’ll release the content in its entirety, with additional notes and research materials, in e-book form.
Adam Smith never could have anticipated the rise of cryptocurrency, but crypto will change capitalism as we know it…hackernoon.com
Otherwise, strap in, because this installment is quite the long and winding ride.
Down the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
Trust and integrity occupy esteemed positions within the pantheon of human values. And yet — much like the concept of money — we rarely pause to consider their fundamental meaning. Within each of our minds resides a deeply ingrained sense of what it means to trust someone, even if we can’t precisely articulate what that embodied sensation means. After all, it’s a feeling we get from certain people, and not others. Furthermore, most feel capable of identifying those who possess integrity, regardless of whether they have themselves obtained a PhD in ethics. Again, it’s a capacity we humans understand intuitively — pre-linguistically, even.
And while we feel comfortable casually employing these terms to describe those around us, we don’t often associate the concepts of trust and integrity with time itself. Here we find another instance in which the essential function of a concept so deeply supports the structure of our lived reality that it becomes more or less invisible to the mind’s eye. But this invisibility does not suit our needs; rather, we must exhume and consciously examine these concepts of trust and integrity. It is our responsibility — as explorers of human values and their representation — to articulate and discuss the ever-evolving relationship between time, trust, and integrity, as it is the bedrock upon which all other complex human interactions rest.
So then, what is trust? Toward what category of human relationships does the word point? I submit that trust is the luxury of believing — without enforcement — that another person will accurately represent both their future behavioral intent and the details of their prior behavioral path through time. A lack of trust implies the opposite: a belief that someone will misrepresent either their future intent or past behavior. Beyond interpersonal trust, we use the word integrity to describe those who prove themselves worthy of our trust — i.e. trust-worthy— despite encounters in which their immediate incentives tempt them to act otherwise. For example, if the friend you’ve entrusted to pick up your groceries instead takes a visit to the local betting parlor and spends your grocery money betting on horse races, it’s unlikely you’ll trust them to handle the task again. This is because, despite their claim that they intended to bring about a future state of reality in which you might cook dinner, they were unable to resist deviating from the path to which they’d committed — they were unable to resist their own temptations. In this sense, integrity demonstrates a continual resistance to temptations that violate the bonds of trust. With these definitions in mind, let’s consider the roles that trust, integrity, and time play within the economic domain.
If we scale the individual traits of trust and integrity up to the level of a society, we may further clarify their relationship to time. As discussed in Part 2, consider the small scale societies who long ago began to externalize their mental representations of value. These groups encoded records of important events into formats capable of symbolizing and signaling value within the shared domain, outside the individual mind. They invented symbolic systems such as shell trading, quipu knots, or the creation of jewelry in order to increase their overall coherence — to extend their capacity to balance the group’s collective agency against the provision of greater individual autonomy. This generative tension between collective agency and individual autonomy increases the adaptive capacity of a society, balanced precariously upon the fulcrum of its integrity. Our externalized symbols of value therefore bear a great burden, and yet they cannot function without trust. This is because trust and integrity underlie a group’s capacity to believe in the validity of its shared representations of past and future. But when members of a group begin to corrupt the trust placed in these symbols through a lack of integrity, value symbols lose their power to facilitate coherence. If no one believes in the veracity of the symbolized past, no one will use the symbols in question to plan for the future.
Trust as Temporal Map
In other words, high levels of trust and integrity within a society allow its members to have faith in the fidelity of its temporal map. Each member can trust the validity of information concerning past events, even if they did not personally experience said events, and may therefore leverage the collectively-held temporal map to coordinate plans for the future. With their trustworthy map in hand, the plans of a high-integrity society aren’t further complicated — beyond nature’s entropy — by intentional lies and deceit. It is hard to overstate the value of this capacity, which is why we’ve embedded the intuitive knowledge of such states deeply within our language of cooperation: for example, to be on the same page essentially defines what it means to possess a shared temporal map within a given social context. In an otherwise unpredictable world, trust and integrity increase the fidelity, predictability, and stability of complex social systems across time. These factors confer upon societies capable of sustaining high levels of trust and integrity a powerful adaptive advantage. Simply put, trust is the most powerful natural resource.
Unfortunately, maintenance of a high-integrity temporal map proves fundamentally challenging. As the map improves, increasing society’s collective economic potential, the short-term value of exploiting trust also increases. The more that others work to create coherent social value, the greater the temptation grows to enjoy the benefits of said value without personally bearing the opportunity costs of contribution. This is known as the free-rider problem, and is usually discussed in terms of a group’s economic inefficiencies or its inability to manage localized negative externalities. And while those frames remain valid, I believe the problem’s roots go far deeper, and seem most adequately conceptualized at the level of time itself.
Through the temporal lens, we see that tension between individually and collectively optimal behaviors emerges out of mismatches between the priorities of their respective temporal horizons. In other words, different layers of our emergent reality have adapted to different time preferences, each symmetric with the environmental considerations of their respective layer. What is good for the individual today may not be good for the group next week, and vice versa. To complicate this picture further, at any given moment the needs and intuitions of the collective and its individuals may differ, and it remains unclear which layer’s preferences should take precedence. Thus we experiment using our actions, and record results that prove useful across time. Yet if these results are to flourish and bear fruit across time, we must trust the tools we’ve used to record past outcomes.
As we dive deeper into these concepts, it will become increasingly necessary grasp this problem of temporal tension intuitively. Thus to aid in constructing an intuition regarding nested temporal tension, let us more closely examine the evolutionary origins of its layered structure. As a baseline, let us establish a few such layers within which someone living in 2018 might find themselves embedded. Here, we examine a rough caricature of a U.S. citizen’s temporal nesting:
- The average employment tenure is 3–5 years.
- The average marriage lasts 10–15 years.
- The average American lifespan is ~80 years.
- The United States is pushing 250 years since its inception.
- The origins of Western society trace back approximately 2,500 years.
- Large scale civilizations date back at least 10,000 years.
- Humanity itself is 300,000 years old.
- Our primate ancestors entered the scene millions of years ago.
Let’s assume that each of these temporal categories represents a layer of coherent social organization, and that each layer imposes unique behavioral constraints upon those nested within it. For example, most Americans have hair because Americans are primates, and with hair comes an assortment of behavioral constraints. Due to these constraints — and in combination with other path-dependencies — most Americans use shampoo. Therefore if civilization had emerged from dolphin pods rather than chimp troops, it’s unlikely we’d have a shampoo industry. Obviously shampoo use represents a trivial example, but one may readily imagine how a multitude of non-trivial constraints might emerge as a consequence of our specific temporal embedding. But at the moment we shall explore the dynamics of this process rather than specific examples and counterfactuals. To that end, imagine that as this nested structure of constraints interacts with and adapts to evolutionary pressures, the layers that survive increasingly reflect a dynamic stability driven by the tension between collective agency and individual autonomy within and across differentiated evolutionary time horizons.
Upon closer examination of such a structure, one might notice that as we move up our list, from long time intervals to short, we also move away from generally stable patterns and toward increasingly dynamic — or fragile — evolutionary experiments. To wit, thousands of individual Americans die each day, yet the deeper layers from which individuals emerge remain coherent. This nesting of the dynamic individual within stable collectives also implies that as we emerge as individuals, we carry within us a fractal imprinting of patterns from within the deeper layers of collective coherence. Furthermore, we may remain agnostic as to whether we imprint these patterns biologically using the medium of DNA, or culturally through the medium of language. It is the patterns that matter, not necessarily the carrier substrates upon which the patterns travel through time. In other words, as individuals we are comprised of deeply-nested interacting patterns — layered behavioral precipitates — encoded across time by stable collectives that predate and constrain our present behavior. Somewhat counterintuitively, this implies that individuals are simultaneously the most constrained layer within the system, and also the only layer from which novel patterns may emerge.
Temporal Resonance and Bio-Cultural Encoding
To better understand how this process of nested imprinting impacts behavior, imagine each human as a musical instrument comprised of many nested cognitive layers — a Russian nesting doll of cognition, so to speak. As one moves inward toward the core of this neurologically abstracted doll, each cognitive layer corresponds to a nested layer of coherent social organization whose stability has retained its integrity across increasingly long periods of time. At the surface, a song stuck in one’s head. At the core, one’s capacity to breathe. It’s somewhat like a guitar, in which the thicker gauge strings generate longer wavelengths capable of traveling further through time and space. These low notes also feel deeper to us, subjectively.
Extending the musical metaphor a touch further: in the same manner a guitar string will vibrate when its own frequency is played by another device, cognitive layers within the nested evolutionary doll will resonate when they encounter corresponding environmental contexts. Such a correspondence implies a conservation of symmetry between a cognitive structure within one’s brain and a meaningful environmental feature of either oneself or one’s ancestry. Yet because that resonant symmetry may have been encoded millennia ago, under different evolutionary pressures, it may present as dissonant within contemporary reality. The modern relationship with food demonstrates one such example: armies of PhDs and marketers spend entire careers producing products and messages designed to co-opt a deep evolutionary resonance in the name of driving present and future sales — diabetes be damned. Of course, these resonant symmetries do not possess clear lines of delineation, and are therefore notoriously difficult to isolate. As one travels back in time, we see that each nested layer intertwines with many others, emerging out of the densely interconnected evolutionary depths. Eventually these paths blur together into our biological encodings, leaving us to reverse engineer their paths of causal contribution to higher order structures and behaviors.
Point being, as one dives deeper into this nesting doll, the layers resonate in an increasingly universal manner. For example: regardless of one’s native tongue, we all require food and water, and carry with us the cognitive mechanisms necessary to pursue their regular provision. Slightly above this layer lies another which drives us to pursue reproduction by way of sex (regardless of whether you believe that’s what you’re doing when having sex). In fact, as we travel into the depths of this structure it becomes quite difficult to separate the fundamentally biological from what we consider culturally mediated. Still, the fundamental pattern holds: each stabilized layer of this evolutionary structure represents its own tripartite tension between the behavior of individual organisms, the collectives to which they belong, and the deeper layers constraining individual and collective behavior within the layer in question. It is in this sense that we may view such nested layers as their own evolutionary personas — each adapted to a specific set of needs — all cooperating and competing with their neighbors for the right to align an individual’s immanent behavior in accordance with the temporal chords to which their needs resonate.
The above dynamics trace a form of multi-level lineage selection. And though still under scientific debate, I side with researchers such as E.O. Wilson, James Shapiro, and Bret Weinstein in the belief that bio-culturally encoded mechanisms of lineage selection are at work within and between all of these temporal scales — in addition to a plethora of scales beyond those listed. According to Wilson’s work on Dual Inheritance Theory, interlaced layers of coherent behavioral potential respond to changes within the adaptive landscape by generating novel behavioral responses. In response to the specific nature of one’s environment, a recursive symphony of genes and culture combinatorially generates a distribution of behavioral patterns; these patterns represent the adaptive hypotheses of culture with which we’re intimately familiar. The capacity of any given adaptive hypothesis to remain coherent then governs its persistence through time. In this manner, the cultural recombination of adaptive traits remains possible because deep within us, each previous layer encoded by the interactions between genetics and culture remains primed for engagement. Each layered persona stands at the ready, waiting to be summoned to the behavioral fore by environmental triggers whose patterns resonate with its unique perceptual frequency.
This nested framework illuminates why the free-rider problem, and collective action problems more generally, demonstrate conflicts of interest between behavioral patterns adapted to different time horizons. For example, deep biological patterns sensitive to scarcity and short-term survival dominate the minds of those who can barely make ends meet, while those with greater financial security possess the freedom to direct their conscious energy toward stabilizing the fragile higher-order cultural patterns necessary for actualizing humanity’s collective behavioral potential across greater spatiotemporal scales. Through this lens we may view the contradictory incentives that emerge between members of a group, and those that emerge within one’s own mind, as manifestations of the same mechanism-independent phenomena at different time scales. Individuals leverage their temporal maps to weigh the behavioral consequences of competing internal personae, and collectives manage the behavioral desires of their individuals similarly. This phenomena serves to maintain temporal coherence within one’s own mind, as well as within the social systems to which an individual contributes.
Therefore by breaking bonds of interpersonal trust, one erodes not only their own temporal map, but also those of every collective layer in which they’re embedded. This erosion reduces overall adaptive capacity in proportion to one’s centrality within the collective — a polarizing political figure, for example, possesses a high erosion quotient due to relatively low trust and high centrality. Without sufficient coherence, new adaptive layers cannot emerge, and the system risks regression to older patterns of stable coherence. Conversely, too high a degree of coherence trends toward a rigid determinism incapable of adaptation. These dynamics also apply geo-politically. For example, we may view the threat of nuclear war as a game in which individual nation states attempt to establish a shared temporal map. And at that scale, radical decoherence means knocking our species back to pre-civilizational levels of coherence — if we survive at all.
Temporal Dissonance and Decoherence Risk
Note that each collectively coherent layer we add — though maximally fragile with respect to its newly stabilized temporal coherence — extends the individual’s capacity to consciously represent both past and future. For example, the bio-cultural layer at which chimps collectively cohere retains integrity across millions of years, though the temporal map of a single chimp pales in comparison to that of a human. This is because chimps lack the many additional layers of social and technological coherence that humanity has generated and stabilized throughout its evolutionary journey. In addition to extending the scope and resolution of our temporal map, it appears that adding a new layer of cultural coherence also accelerates the Cycle of Coherent Intensification (CoCI). But this process doesn’t occur everywhere at once, and localized acceleration means that the expanding temporal map isn’t equally accessible between or even within our varied human societies. As William Gibson famously noted:
“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”
Given that temporal maps must emerge as coherent structures, and that these structures extend the phenomenological lens through which we perceive time itself, this quote may be interpreted literally, rather than figuratively.
Furthermore, the centralized acceleration and intensification of our most recent coherence modes leave in their wake layers of partially-activated modes from our developmental past. In many ways we remain chimps that learned how to split atoms. And these more primitive modes of social coherence struggle for survival in today’s domestic and geopolitical realities in the same way that deep-seated evolutionary desires for fat and sugar struggle to dominate our personal behavior given the smell of pizza or sight of cake. Others have observed this phenomenon, and developed frameworks that sought to articulate its processual dynamics. One such framework was Clare Graves’ Double Helical Model of Bio-Psycho-Social Evolution, later rebranded as Spiral Dynamics. Graves — over 60 years ago — theorized as to how these layered modalities might evolve and interact as the tension between individuals and the collectives to which they belonged played itself out across increasingly complex layers of emergent stability. Unfortunately, such theories have only recently entered the collective consciousness, and remain both scientifically and culturally fringe. Perhaps this reflects such theories’ deeply processual, rather than reductive, nature. After all, we are quite familiar with the hyper-reductive framework of Abraham Maslow, who was Graves’ contemporary, collaborator, and friend. It would seem that some ideas emerge so far ahead of their time that those with whom the ideas resonate find themselves both in too short supply, and too sparsely distributed to establish coherence around the idea itself. In this respect, the Internet appears to lower humanity’s barrier to coherence, for better or worse.
In any case, given even a cursory degree of thought, it’s obvious that contemporary humanity comprises societies and individuals operating within vastly different modes of temporal coherence. For example, nations with stable governance, robust economies, and low levels of debt earn the privilege of long-term planning. Conversely, much like the petty thieves mentioned earlier, nations with unstable governments, fragile economies, and high levels of debt tend to act upon foreshortened temporal horizons. This perspectival conflict introduces volatility in the same way cars traveling at vastly different speeds on a highway increases the probability of accidents. These dynamics hold regardless of whether we’re discussing monetary policy or the psychology of driving — to the extent the incentive landscapes of two behavioral modes differ, they’ll produce dissonance as they come into contact. On a highway, this dissonance means accidents. In society, it typically means inter-group conflict of one form or another.
This temporal interference compounds the limitations of monetary signal granularity discussed in Part 4, as players within a given game must now coordinate actions along two dimensions: an agreed upon representation of value in the present, plus an additional dimension concerning value in relation to the players’ independently held temporal maps. From this vantage point, we may begin to see how volatility and conflict emerge in proportion to the complexity of these dimensions. Issues such as wealth disparity, in addition to the inflationary hamster-wheel that is Keynesian economics, demonstrate two macro factors that reduce both the fidelity and extension of the temporal maps held by a proportion of the population. Of course, countless factors exist across other scales. And as the emergent fidelity of these maps diverges — particularly within a democratic society — interference patterns arise.
Consider the issue of climate change through this lens. Changes to our climate play out across generational timeframes, with diffuse consequences. Those with no savings and little economic opportunity in the present possess few — if any — incentives to act in the long-term interest of a global society 100 years hence. This will remain true regardless of how vociferously one attempts to demonize the target’s moral intuitions, and flows from the essential fact that those using truncated temporal maps to guide their choices will not resonate as strongly with appeals to the future as will those in possession of the time and resources to meditate upon the interdependent nature of humanity’s shared future. Even more concerning is the fact that the pattern seems fractal. That is to say, even within the category of individuals with a low enough time preference to meaningfully consider the problem, different interpretations arise with respect to the issue’s temporal urgency relative to other priorities. And as we see within our political landscape, such fractal schisms generate endless conflict. Furthermore, when these temporal interference patterns pile high enough, the resulting friction generates psychological frustration, mutates into resentment, and surfaces as violence. If left unaddressed, this violence can rapidly exceed the design specs of our current paradigm’s coordinative capacity, and the entire structure will begin to shudder and de-cohere, threatening collapse.
At our peril, we amplify this emergent volatility via communication platforms and economic incentives that target our scarcity-oriented biological triggers, increasingly anchoring us to the immediacy of the present moment. Yet a laundry list of companies intentionally engineer psychological cues — intended to concentrate wealth over quarterly time horizons — that erode and subsume our delicate mechanisms for long-term coordination, resonating primarily with short-term incentives. Of course, to the degree such short-term patterns dominate the minds of individuals, they will work at cross-purposes to any attempt at establishing long-term modes of inter-agent cooperation and coherence. In this arena, Facebook’s inadvertent complicity in destabilizing the political domain jumps to mind, but they are by no means the only exemplar.
At the macro scale, our nation’s hyper-consumptive economic orientation also generates temporal interference between short and long-term national interests in the form of rapidly growing debt obligations. In this manner we sacrifice the nation’s future capacity for sovereign action upon the altar of short-term corporate KPIs. And thus the nation’s surging desire to act in service of its sovereign long-term interests conflicts not only with the immediate interests of its foreign debtors, but also with those of its own corporations. For these reasons it’s not unreasonable to view the US Dollar as the world’s largest CDO — a ticking time-bomb upon the global financial-incentives landscape, collateralized primarily by the trust placed in the US government’s future behavior by other sovereign actors. And so long as we cannot reconcile these patterns of interference, this bomb’s fuse will remain lit.
Maintaining Coherence: Humanity’s Behavioral Immune System
Without sufficiently capable mechanisms for temporal coordination, this interference erodes coherence from the outside in, beginning with the newest and most delicate of cooperative structures. As these positive-sum structures erode, a growing proportion of zero-sum interactions distort and shrink our collectively-held temporal maps. In other words, without the right tools to help us coordinate flows of value across time, we decay toward irreducible conflict. And if left unresolved across time, even the smallest of conflicts will attract energy and resources away from what should be seen as infinitely playable games. These flies in the game-theoretic ointment will increasingly anchor other players’ frames of reference down to the domain of finitude. And within the temporal confines of finite games, focus converges upon the finality of winning, externalities be damned. Therefore, so long as we prioritize those games framed by nation states, or by corporate self-interest, the upper limits of our evolution will remain bound by the eventual dissonance of their zero-sum nature. And make no mistake: the volatile sparks cast off by this macro-scale dissonance are quite capable of igniting the kindling upon which we’ve constructed the munitions warehouse that is twenty-first century humanity.
Yet within each individual and every collective also resides the potential to coordinate and compete in ways that minimize interference, to courageously model behaviors that enable us to extend the integrity of our temporal maps, and to discover patterns of interaction that increase humanity’s fundamental adaptive capacity across time. But because the Nash equilibria remain so intractable at the low-resolution level of abstract national and economic interests, we must seed these infinite games of positive-sum reward bottom up. In order to demonstrate their resilience and regenerative capacity, we must first inoculate these patterns at small scales. We must inject them into the cellular matrix of creative culture, where the delayed immunological response of the body politic provides more room for experimentation. Eventually, as these novel patterns of interaction evolve and grow — and as they formally embed themselves within a scalable technological substrate — so too will grow their capacity to displace and dissolve the social institutions incapable of adaptation, in which we find ourselves presently embedded.
Here, one may begin to see where crypto fits into the picture. In addition to increasing the granularity of the systems we use to represent value in the moment, we must also improve the tools we use to communicate and coordinate value between different layers of temporal coherence. In other words, it would be tragic to improve the resolution of our adaptive signal only to drown in the noise of our temporal interference patterns. Furthermore, it’s imperative that we accomplish this coordination in a distributed manner that simultaneously improves humanity’s collective coherence while also increasing individual autonomy and freedom. But before we dive into how decentralized economic structures can balance both of these needs, it’s necessary to possess a basic understanding of how human societies have attempted to mitigate problems of temporal coherence thus far.
As humanity scaled the size and complexity of its societies, two primary strategies emerged to offset the zero-sum temptations capable of eroding the fidelity of its shared temporal maps.
- First, we developed socially-sanctioned tools and processes for punishing those whose actions violate the bonds of trust which comprise the integral structure of a society. Collectives therefore restrain, harm, or expel individuals who exploit the trust and integrity of our societies in proportion to the severity of their actions.
- Second, we encoded cultural values within mythological, religious, and philosophical narratives. Across millennia, these cultural mechanisms helped emerging human civilizations maintain their collective integrity by subtly shaping the behavioral possibility space of a given society’s individuals.
And while the strategies of punishment and cultural parameterization differ in their implementation, they represent two sides of the same coin. They are both defense mechanisms leveraged by the collective organism to prevent the disintegration of its temporal map at the hands of its own membership. After all, the coherent collective must protect the map with which its individuals coordinate their cooperative and competitive socio-economic games — it must maintain the integrity of those processes that comprise its own metabolic activity. If the emergent collective fails in this imperative, it not only risks its own decoherence (civilizational collapse), it also dramatically reduces the survivability of the individuals that comprise its “cells”. From this perspective, the protection of the temporal map via institutional and cultural mechanisms works very much like a behavioral immune system. It is an immune system that seeks to protect the integrity of the collective organism from the growth of memetic infections capable of altering the behavior of its membership in ways that threaten incapacitation or death. As one might imagine, such infections generally come in the form of short-term optimizing individual and group behaviors that undermine the meta-organism’s long-term adaptive capacity.
Yet it’s no simple task to discriminate between the actions of a criminal and those of a hero, to discern between behavioral patterns that fundamentally threaten a society’s coherence, and those that cause short-term instability but eventually increase its overall adaptive capacity. In order to navigate the ambiguity between fundamentally threatening behaviors and those that act more like vaccines, civilizations have favored centralizing this discriminatory responsibility. We bestowed this power upon shamans, royals, lords, judges, and other authority figures, eventually enshrining them within our social institutions. These core members of society formed the brain of our broader social nervous systems. In service of the collective’s overall coherence and growth — consciously or otherwise — it became their job to establish explicit behavioral rules and to prune back emergent aspects of culture they deemed threatening. Thus the sum total of their choices, accumulated across time, gave rise to the many and varied crystallizations of legal and cultural canon we observe throughout modern civilizations.
If formal institutions act as society’s brain, our stories represent its gut — a far older and more visceral form of intelligence whose signals resonate deeply throughout the consciousness of the collective. As a complement to brain-like centralized structures, cultural narratives encode our experiential familiarity with centralized hierarchy as a universal feature of civilization. This makes sense from the emergent perspective, as we work from what we know; and given the deeply embedded nature of hierarchal structure within our evolutionary roots, we know it well. In addition to this evolutionary intuition, human cultures have increasingly represented the significance of hierarchical social organization symbolically. Broadly speaking, our stories of shared values reflect both the strengths and the weaknesses of humanity’s tendency toward hierarchical emergence. And of course, these stories tend to feed back into formal institutions, much like the gut and brain parameterize one another’s behavior. Thus within a temporally coherent society, the wisdom of culturally embedded stories will guide decisions concerning the acceptability of novel behaviors. In this way a hierarchy literally re-in-forces the integrity of a society’s temporal map, top-down, while also incorporating the cultural information that flows — narratively encoded — bottom-up. The internally held map of the hierarchy stands as canon, while its stories reflect the experiential lessons learned as the civilization invariably encounters destabilizing cultural experiences at the intersection of canon and novel complexity. This tension eventually generates the preconditions necessary to formally update the hierarchy’s canonical map, and begin the cyclical process anew.
But as civilizations scale, the surface area at the bottom of the hierarchy (i.e. periphery) grows, and central authorities must therefore begin to incorporate a greater degree of bottom-up signal processing within their formalized structures of governance. After all, what good are nerve endings if the brain constantly ignores their inputs? As children quickly learn, it helps to listen to one’s hand when it sends word of hot pans and sundry sharp objects, as by definition such nerve endings possess more direct contact with external reality than does the brain itself. In short, one ignores them at their own peril.
Of course, a single nerve ending does not possess the entire picture, and the story it tells must be understood within the context established by the entire nervous system. Perhaps the pain’s source is friction from a rope, at the end of which your child hangs precariously over a cliff. In such a case, you’d obviously attempt to endure the pain while pursuing a solution to the problem at a higher level than simply letting go of the rope. Though ultimately, while one may need to selectively ignore signals from a specific set of sensory inputs in order to act in favor of higher-priority interests, it remains the case that accurate sensory maps allow for higher quality choices. Thus, while it may introduce short-term pain or disorientation, we must strive to innervate and integrate the perspectives of those most directly exposed to the effects of centralized decisions. Else — as individuals and as an emergent collective — we risk a solipsistic decoupling from our own essential being-in-the-world.
Early in the process of humanity’s dramatization of its own social structure, authority figures occupied the divine pinnacle of the narrative hierarchy. The top-down authority of these god-kings was absolute. Thy hand shall grasp the pan, whether thou likest it or not! But such claims to divinity weakened across time, as did the absolute centrality of authority. Both have proven maladaptive given the increasing complexity of our autopoietically generated environment. Thus as civilizations grew, their hierarchies spread across space and time. This spatiotemporal distribution forced central authorities to pursue and execute their intents peripherally, through increasingly complex bureaucratic extensions (e.g. Roman and Mongol empires). But because instability increases in proportion to the mismatch between the complexity of hierarchical societies and the adaptive capacity of their toolsets, and because that complexity almost invariably exceeds the capacity of over-centralized management structures, humanity painstakingly began to invest in modes of increasingly decentralized political governance: democracies and republics.
And though democracies and republics were a massive step forward, given that they formally acknowledged the value of decentralization, they remain quite centralized when measured against the exponential growth of socio-technological complexity we observe today. In fact, one might argue that they’re the most centralized possible forms of systematic political decentralization. By this I mean that although such forms of governance instantiate formal mechanisms of bottom-up information flow in the form of voting, they do so in a manner that retains a high degree of formally codified hierarchical structure. One may verify this by simply noticing the fact that local structures of governance are generally superseded by increasingly abstracted domains of political and economic organization — with each additional strata reducing the number of meaningful actors — that culminate in a tiny fraction of centralized nodes through which the majority of political, social, and economic capital flow.
The Limits of Emergent Coordination
In response to mounting complexity, the democratic and republican paradigms that emerged — first in Greece and Rome, then once again in France and the United States — represented humanity’s first attempt to articulate the principles of autopoiesis as they apply to hierarchies of governance. These initial experiments allowed for the fine-tuning of top-down control mechanisms, informed by a minimum viable incorporation of bottom-up feedback. Yet despite formalizing a degree of bottom-up calibration, these new governance structures adhered to a fundamentally centralized template. Their essential nature remained that of the singular, large-scale pyramid. However, this is not to say that such limitations evidence cynicism on behalf of their framers. To those who first conceptualized such systems, the notion of formally enshrining the capacity for information to flow from the bottom of the hierarchy to its top in a manner capable of determining the top’s structural composition was radical beyond belief. Yet here we sit, centuries later, and the introduction of more direct forms of bottom-up control still feels radical. Why should this remain the case?
This pattern of top-down behavioral parameterization persists because — absent top-down enforcement — we have not yet discovered forms of explicit bottom-up governance capable of scaling apace the growth of human civilization. To the extent we’ve managed to scale them, systems exemplifying un-enforced self-organization have trended toward decoherence when conflict emerges within their boundaries, and have therefore required some degree of top-down stabilization to contain points of emergent decoherence before spiraling out of control. Furthermore, this bottom-up turbulence threatens the stability of the superordinate frame within which it arises, and upon whose capacity for stabilization its birth relied.
From where, then, do these points of conflict emerge? A complete answer would extend beyond the scope of this essay, but in light of our earlier exploration of temporal maps, we may leverage the shorthand of conflict as an emergent pattern of temporal interference. As historical factors place more individuals within a shared spatiotemporal context, each individual’s temporal map increasingly superimposes upon the maps held by their neighbors. Thus, absent a corresponding evolution of the systems with which we achieve interpersonal coherence, interference patterns emerge. As these patterns emerge within a society, they at first manifest perceptually as conflicting incentives and desires within each individual’s respective phenomenological frame. But eventually, if the individuals and groups within a system fail to generate sufficiently capable coherence mechanisms, these subjectively experienced interference patterns will erupt as objective — i.e. intersubjectively observable — patterns of behavioral conflict.
This goes some distance toward explaining why the Internet — contrary to initial utopian beliefs — appears to have increased the degree of short-term interpersonal and inter-group conflict experienced by the average user. Without warning we’ve placed a significant fraction of humanity within a shared phenomenological frame, and have only just begun to observe the many resultant sources of emergent interference. As Thomas Friedman famously observed, our increased technological connectivity has flattened the world. Yet the world’s people — and their respective temporal maps — remain high dimensional, and thus poorly adapted to this technological flatland.
In other words, conflict emerges from the fundamental fact that we remain phenomenologically distinct from one another in time and space while dependent upon the same life-sustaining energy flows. Across time, this fundamental separation between humans gives rise to perspectival divergence, and therefore — so long as we retain some degree of individuality — some amount of emergent interference remains inevitable. Because each temporal map acts as a differentiated lens through which its owner makes sense and meaning of the world, fundamental challenges and tradeoffs arise when we attempt to coordinate incentives across increasingly diverse and numerous temporal maps. In cases where those involved cannot themselves reach a coherent resolution, human collectives appear to have converged upon two general-case solutions that allow for asymmetric resolution states in which one perspective supersedes the other:
- First, those who embody disparate maps may directly appeal to force itself, as physical violence. Let us call this strategy direct conflict. Think bar fights, armed robberies, duels, and warfare. Of course, direct conflict is immediately destabilizing, and usually the less scalable of the two resolution paths.
- Second, and more recently, those embroiled in dispute may delegate the resolution of their conflict to a set of actors or rituals operating within a superordinate temporal map — or put slightly differently, they may delegate the resolution process to an actor or system acknowledged by both parties as holding legitimate authority over an encapsulating phenomenological frame. Let us call this strategy abstracted conflict.
If pursued exclusively, direct conflict seeds a violent downward spiral into the kind of vigilantism and virulent feuding capable of inflaming an entire society. If such a behavioral virus spreads beyond the collective’s capacity for resolution, its spiraling side-effects may trigger a more generalized decoherence. As this occurs, the collective organism will regress down the CoCI to a previous coherence state of sufficient stability to break the fall, much like a net would catch a falling trapeze artist after an otherwise fatal mistake. Except in the case of decoherence-driven regression, it’s possible to rip through quite a few nets before returning to stability within a layer of sufficient integrity to break the fall. Furthermore there exists no guarantee that this novel stability will appear familiar to inhabitants habituated to the heights of complexity from which they’ve descended. Humanity perpetually documents its fear of such regressions, as evidenced by our menagerie of apocalyptic artifacts.
The abstraction of conflict within social systems possesses a richer and more nuanced history, as well as more potentially adaptive outcomes. We may trace the heritage of abstracted conflict back to hunter-gatherer tribes in which intra and inter-tribal disputes were delegated to tribe elders, or shamanic rituals whose purpose it was to de-fuse — or perhaps more accurately: biochemically diffuse — the emergent interference pattern of direct conflict. It is no exaggeration to state that such processes form the deeply embedded cultural roots of the more visible legal structures governing conflict resolution within and between both contemporary individuals and the nation states to which they belong.
Similar to the dynamic interplay between centralization and decentralization, the reciprocal flows between these two behavioral poles of dispute resolution catalyze a cycle in which new layers of abstract conflict resolution give rise to new forms of direct conflict, eventually laddering up into the abstractions that govern our contemporary reality. Yet if such conflict-driven cycles exist as processual axioms within our behavioral phase space, it seems preferable that we privilege the domain of abstracted conflict. This follows from the fact that the capacity for increasingly sophisticated conflict abstraction confers upon collectives the possibility of greater internal coherence, which if persisted increases their adaptive capacity. Each emergent locus of abstract authority acts as a top-down containment field, limiting the bottom-up propagation of costly direct conflicts. These social containment fields dampen runaway positive feedback loops seeded by individuals or groups incapable of autonomous conflict resolution, who in their failure to resolve local interference generate direct conflict within and between the social substrata of the collective intelligence writ large. Thus top-down containment — in its healthy form — serves to stabilize and eventually heal sources of potential decoherence, allowing for further refinement, growth, and overall development of the collective in question.
But while this pattern of abstract containment possesses the capacity to sustain large-scale coherence, it also exhibits a potentially fatal Achilles’ heel: to whom do actors within the highest frame of authority turn when they find themselves in need of containment? What happens when tribe leaders, monarchs, supreme courts, or nation states end up applying disparate temporal maps to overlapping spatiotemporal domains? War, of course. And so, while direct conflict corrodes proximate coherence — potentially triggering regressive decoherence — abstracted conflict resolution introduces the potential for direct conflicts of increasingly destructive capacity between entities operating within the highest domains of abstraction.
And there’s the rub: coherent systems always find themselves trapped between two potentially catastrophic outcomes. Their dynamic stability rests precariously upon a knife’s edge, balanced between the proverbial rock of direct conflict’s unresolved descent into feudal decoherence, and the hard place of existential risks entailed by the escalation of conflict abstraction beyond a society’s outermost containment mechanisms. A coherent collective must forever navigate the tension between conflict-prone limitations of individuals, and the often incommensurate incentives of higher-order abstract collectives who conflict with less frequency, but greater potential for existential catastrophe. Through this lens we may view governance mechanisms as the set of intersubjective technologies with which we attempt to stabilize emergent interference patterns across time. Thus government is merely a historically-contingent label we place upon that which manages the generative tension between our perspectival incongruities concerning the appropriate scale of conflict abstraction.
While exploring this tension between different scales of spatiotemporal abstraction, it’s important to note that those who leverage the power of abstraction may not do so with arbitrary temporal resolution; the dynamical constraints of the abstract system guiding top-down action guarantees a certain slowdown of response in relation to the stimuli of progressively granular domains. Not coincidentally, we observe this same pattern within nested biological systems. For example, it requires on the order of 300 milliseconds for a human brain to perceive an event, let alone react to it. Yet in that same amount of time, a ribosome within the body can synthesize two or more complex proteins (a nontrivial task whose simulation requires immense computational resources).
This temporal dilation stems from the layered accumulation of time costs associated with coordinating the many concrete behaviors required to materially enact the goals of a coherent abstract collective. Consider for a moment that humans came to compare goal-oriented tasks of non-trivial complexity to “herding cats”. That we aphoristically encode such processual patterns signifies our deep interest in the relationship between the behavioral predictability of concrete individuals and the time-energy — i.e. power — required to successfully coordinate behavior in service of shared goals. Our understanding of these dynamics remains low resolution, but for our purposes we may encapsulate this goal-oriented accumulation of time costs as the temporal distance between a given layer of abstraction and the layer at which it must implement concrete actions in pursuit of actualized intent.
Furthermore we must measure this temporal distance in loops, not lines. In order for a goal-oriented system to accomplish anything at all, information must flow unbroken across temporal loops of varying lengths. To comprehend these loops, consider their processually necessary steps: first, a given layer of abstraction must detect and perceive a pattern within its sensorium. Next, it must interpret this pattern using its internal sensemaking systems, and project said interpretation upon the relevant maps of meaning. Finally, it must converge upon an appropriate mapping between preferred future states and available actions, then bind said mapping to a model of its own contextually-constrained capacities such that there exists a nonzero probability of accomplishing the task in question. To further complicate matters, as its actions feed back into and alter the original environment, they generate new behavioral patterns, beginning the cycle anew. This cyclical flow across stages of sensation, sensemaking, decision, and action — reasonably approximated by Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop––binds the temporal resolution of “awareness” at a given spatiotemporal scale to the length of the temporal loops in question. As a rule of thumb: the greater the degree of abstraction over a complex domain, the greater the temporal distance between sensation and action (i.e. degree of coherent nested abstraction ≈ temporal scale).
For example, the POTUS is responsible for the actions of the United States as abstract nation state. And in the same manner that large ships require more time to steer than do small ships, so too do massive groups of hierarchically coordinated human beings require more time to steer than their smaller and more tightly-coordinated counterparts. This is why, from the perspective of individuals or comparatively small groups, abstract coherence mechanisms adapted to extended spatiotemporal scales (e.g. governments) will appear to navigate decision-spaces more slowly than preferred. These conflicting temporal preferences trace back to the fact that the observers’ own coherence mechanisms — in contrast to those of the layers within which they find themselves nested — possess symmetry with abbreviated temporal contexts. My apologies to those who constantly profess their frustration with the government’s slow pace of change, but the problem appears more an issue of physics than politics.
Enforced Coherence: A Leaky Abstraction
As previously described, such patterns of temporal interference between layers of nested abstraction introduce decoherence risk, and therefore incentivize the use of stabilizing force by the higher-order, slower-moving systems of abstraction. Of course, from the perspective of the higher-order abstraction, the force in question appears justifiable. Furthermore, those acting on behalf of the abstract structure will tend to believe they must apply force in service of maintaining coherence. From their top-down vantage point it will appear as if the abstraction in question must constrain by force the faster-moving, higher-resolution, yet frequently shorter-sighted emergent components comprising its integral structure. After all, it is this abstraction to which the stewards of the status quo generally bind their identity; in fact, the outermost abstraction’s very survival depends upon the tendency of individuals to internalize such identity-bindings. What becomes of a president whose country de-coheres, or a parent whose identity as such is threatened by their family’s fragmentation? We experience dissolution of the abstract frames with which we identify as a form of death, and therefore reflexively seek to preserve their integrity. Thus by force — a synonym for the imposition of intent — “states” constrain the behavior of their citizens, “parents” constrain the behavior of their children, and “brains” constrain the behavior of their host bodies in service of cohering the abstract layer with which they identify most closely.
These inter-layer tensions cut to the core of why complex societies lean upon the use of force in service of growth. Through the lens of conflict abstraction, we may observe that the use of force frequently flows from the short-term needs of those who seek to synthesize — either atop or within the present stack — a more capable layer of coherent complexity. But in order for this candidate layer to stabilize and persist across time, it must increase the system’s overall adaptive capacity in one of three ways:
- It may inspire a bottom-up realignment of the voluntary behavioral patterns that seed direct conflict.
- It may generate a top-down force powerful enough to contain the decoherence risks associated with conflicts between individuals or groups nested within its boundaries.
- It may experiment with novel combinations of the two previous options.
Due to the extreme difficulty of bottom-up realignment — to the extent they incorporate this strategy whatsoever — most candidate solutions lean heavily upon top-down force. This is necessarily the case when we attempt to scale top-down systems whose constituents possess a relatively low degree of temporal coherence, as the higher-order plans of those managing the abstract layer will never come to fruition absent mechanisms for enforcing compliance across ever-smaller scales. Friction then builds as the complexity of the domain in question grows, leading many to believe that they must backstop intent with force, either to inspire autonomous conflict resolution, or to transform costly direct conflicts into abstracted conflicts which can be resolved at a lower cost within the abstract coherence layer’s moral economy of scale. These dynamics imply an inverse relationship between the use of force and the health of the bottom-up coherence mechanisms within a society: namely, as bottom-up mechanisms like cultural norms, shared temporal maps, and trustworthy markets of value exchange begin to decohere, the temptation to exert top-down force in service of preserving higher-order abstractions increases rapidly.
And because decoherence-inducing conflict boils down to temporal interference, the converse also applies. When individuals within a system increase their own capacity to unify their temporal maps in service of autonomous conflict resolution, they also reduce the energy required to abstract and resolve any remaining conflict, therefore reducing the perceived need for top-down force in service of maintaining coherence. Put slightly differently: to the extent a society builds its capacity to consensually cohere its many nested temporal maps bottom-up, it reduces the higher-order temptation of the collective to exert top-down force in service of re-cohering failing patterns of once-emergent value.
This inverse relationship between the demand for top-down force and the levels of emergent coherence implies that:
- We may reduce the immediate need for abstract force by relaxing growth, as growth introduces novel complexity, and complexity strains existing coherence mechanisms via the increased difficulty of bottom-up temporal map resolution. Though this approach carries with it the risk of descent into prior modes of direct conflict as a scarcity mindset begins to dominate the phenomenological landscape.
Or, preferably, that:
- We may reduce the need for abstract force by seeding, stabilizing, and scaling techno-cultural patterns of bottom-up coherence capable of retaining their integrity as complexity grows.
Eventually the use of force bottoms out in the imposition of a higher-order abstraction’s preferences upon individuals. Through this lens we may see why large institutions in our contemporary landscape — many of whom lack organic coherence mechanisms such as interpersonal trust or shared culture— lean so heavily upon force in service of maintaining predictable operations. For example, consider the high baseline of enforced discipline required by the military, or the generally antagonistic attitude toward organized labor held by those whose economic success hinges upon the behavioral predictability of workers in close contact with mission-critical processes.
But how far down does this pattern extend? To see, let’s penetrate deeper into the social stack and examine the dynamics of a family unit through this same lens. Family members exist in a state of constant interpersonal negotiation, balancing the benefits of a coherent family unit against the needs and contributions of its individual members across time. And within this evolving filial space, we see the same fractal pattern emerge: the center of abstractive authority resides with parents, top-down, at birth. Then, as children demonstrate their increased capacity to maintain psychological (internal) and behavioral (external) coherence across time, their parents transfer to them an increasing degree of authority to enact their unique perspectives within the family membrane; as they mature, children can be trusted with greater burdens of responsibility both within and increasingly outside the family membrane. More broadly, as children develop their capacity to navigate the interpersonal space of trust and integrity, their budding grasp of bottom-up coherence mechanisms allows for the relaxation of top-down parental authority and their constructive participation within higher-order social abstractions.
As these examples demonstrate — from nation state to family unit — certain behavioral patterns tend to arise between individuals and the abstract collectives to which they belong, regardless of scale or degree of abstraction. Yet even if we achieve stable coherence within each layer, we have not guaranteed the stability of the system as a whole. This is because each layer communicates with many other layers, comprising a larger cybernetic context. The actions within each layer constantly feed back into layers above and below, changing their behavior, which in turn alters the behavior of those layers’ neighbors, and so on. In other words, even if one layer converges to stable coherence, its path toward stability may lead to decoherence within another layer, or may itself be impacted by processes occurring elsewhere in the nested adaptive structure. Targeting cross-scale coherence — to the extent it’s possible — therefore requires both context-sensitive and globally integrative approaches, given each of the layers in question may exhibit wildly disparate needs at any given moment, and that alterations to a given layer will ripple through other layers in myriad unpredictable ways. And yet somehow, despite the obvious heterogeneity and unfathomable complexity of the cybernetic network of layers that shape our individual and collective behavior, we’ve come to believe in mono-mythic political narratives that confidently assert:
“My one-dimensional party symbol is not only entirely qualified, but is definitively more qualified than your one-dimensional party symbol! For what, you ask? Everything! We are more qualified to solve every task, at every layer of this emergent structure, across all fathomable time scales!”
— A Not-Insignificant Proportion of the Voting Public
Of course the voting public doesn’t actually say this, but it’s certainly what our generally invariant partisan allegiances imply. Then again, limited menu items and the structure of the menu itself tightly constrain our breadth of choice. This expression of political sentiment along one dimension — as converged upon by a two-party system — reflects only the roughest contours of our evolutionarily-conserved psychological traits. As we saw in Part 4, this low-resolution partisan approach becomes increasingly absurd in proportion to the spatiotemporal scale and complexity of the system in question, and will trend toward destabilizing levels of polarity (i.e. direct conflict) across time.
Supposing one person’s temporal map proves insufficient to solve all individual problems, why should one party’s temporal map contain within it a representation of reality sufficient to solve all problems across all layers? Yet we persist in applying over-generalized abstractions to an increasingly complex domain. Much like an impatient consumer who fails to read their IKEA instructions, preferring instead to force the square peg of reality into the round hole of their own limited mental model, the management of our society — when acting upon insufficiently resolved abstractions — requires ever-increasing levels of top-down enforcement to maintain an increasingly tenuous illusion of coherence. And it’s with this observation that we return to our temporally-resolved definition of trust:
Trust is the luxury of believing — without enforcement — that another person will accurately represent both their future behavioral intent and the details of their prior behavioral path through time.
The fundamental problem with which humanity grapples is one of multi-level coherence within and across spatiotemporal scales. Much like the Russian nesting doll of the individual mind, we live within a temporally-nested structure of social, political, and economic tensions that simultaneously enable and constrain our actions as both individuals and as members of collective abstractions. In coherence, these evolving layers and tensions may form patterns of emergent self-organization and collective intelligence. But as we’ve seen, the internal logic of abstractive enforcement introduces a problem that we can no longer afford, given that direct conflicts at the highest levels of social abstraction now represent an existential threat to humanity itself. This leaves only one viable long-term option: we must work to improve the mechanisms that facilitate the bottom-up flourishing of interpersonal and inter-collective trust. By creating more powerful tools for reconciling our temporal maps, we may dramatically reduce the kinds of temporal interference that manifest as direct conflict. Luckily — and despite the fetishization of trustlessness within the crypto community — this is precisely what the impending wave of so-called trustless infrastructure promises to provide.
Trust, Encoded: The Game-Theoretic Warp-drive of Coherence
Perched upon the experimental horizon of decentralized technologies, more than a few voices sing verses promoting the concept of trustless interactions. As the song goes, by providing behavioral guarantees at the level of decentralized infrastructure, we may enter into transactions with other actors without either trusting that counterparty directly, or relying upon a trusted third party. In the terminology we’ve outlined, this idea of trustlessness maps to the resolution of transactions and disputes without resorting to the use of either direct conflict or a superordinate (i.e. centralized) layer of abstraction.
And while I agree that such technologies will prove immensely valuable in their capacity to help us more sustainably cohere across and between our multiplicity of incongruent temporal maps, it’s imperative that we not describe this pattern as trustless. To call it trustless confuses the removal of trust from all systems undergirding our interpersonal relationships — an impossible feat — with the technological encapsulation of existing trust mechanisms that shape flows of value across the economic landscape. Our earlier definition of trust clarifies this point, as so-called trustless technologies do not obviate humanity’s need to represent intersubjective perspectives concerning past events and coordinate future behavioral intentions. In other words, we’re still dealing with the problem of coherence amongst potentially conflicting temporal maps.
These two perspectival paths — namely trustlessness as such versus the coordination of codified trust — lead to meaningfully different futures. Due to the path-dependent nature of evolutionary systems, confusing the target at which we aim carries the risk of inadvertently mutilating technologies birthed from today’s embryonic milieu such that their scars will remain with us for generations to come. Given the stakes, it is crucial to meditate upon the knowledge that our investment and selection criterion can act either as sources of long-term nourishment and care, or as implements for thoughtless mutilation in the name of short-term, centralized interests. And because support and selection criterion compare perceptions of current reality to aspirational goals, aiming for trustlessness first biases investment incentives up front, then distorts the selection criteria of contributors, early adopters, and later investors across time.
This point is abstract, but essential to grasp: we are not dispensing with trust; we are subsuming our current modes of establishing and leveraging trust within a technological base layer, upon which we may build human trust networks of greater adaptive capacity. This technological process resembles a collective form of the cognitive process known as chunking. For those unfamiliar with this term, chunking describes a behavioral pattern that accelerates the acquisition of new cognitive skills. To grossly oversimplify how it works: as we learn new skills within a given domain, we compress networks of related information into abstract chunks, thus reducing the cognitive load required to access and leverage previously chunked capacities and freeing up energy in the form of working memory and attention. Chunking compresses information whose comprehension previously required explicit consideration into the domain of implicit understanding. This frees up conscious attention, which we may then direct toward building greater capacities atop our previously compressed patterns of understanding. Researchers observed the most popular example of this phenomenon amongst chess masters, who over time compressed the many dimensions of domain-specific knowledge — knowledge relied upon explicitly by novices — into a space of subconscious intuition, thus freeing up explicit cognitive energy for increasingly strategic considerations during gameplay.
Similarly, the higher-order process of collectively chunking trust mechanisms by encoding them into decentralized and highly accessible networks allows for a leveling-up of humanity’s capacity to act as a self-organizing collective intelligence. More precisely, these nascent tools allow humanity to better solve a pernicious yet widespread category of game-theoretic sticking points known as Newcomb-like problems. As described in the linked article, Newcomb-like problems arise in decision theory when:
You would not be in a position to enjoy a larger benefit unless you would cause a harm to yourself within particular outcome branches (including bad ones).
In this conundrum, we hear echoes of Part Four’s description of Courageous Sacrifice: to succeed in the long-term, we must at times be willing to incur personal costs in the short term, despite our immediate perception of their irrationality. To more fully understand this problem, imagine the following scenario:
The Bridge Conundrum
You’ve spent the last 3 days lost in the Cambodian wilderness with a good friend. Late on the second day, tired and starving, the two of you decide to steal some python eggs for a bit of sustenance. Now, momma python is coming for revenge. You began with a bit of a head start, but somehow this freakishly vengeful snake’s been gaining on you. And unfortunately, you’ve just stumbled upon a canyon that’s too wide to cross unaided. After quickly exploring the ledge, you find a location with a shoddy-looking rope bridge strung across the span. There’s a sign across the canyon whose markings seem important, but it’s too far away to make out any words from this side of the canyon.
The span is made of dilapidated-looking rope and wood; it definitely doesn’t look like it can hold the weight of two people, so you and your friend decide that because you’re a bit lighter and quicker on your feet, you will attempt to cross first with a small portion of the eggs. After all, if you don’t cross the bridge, the snake will eventually catch and eat you both. Holding your breath, you begin to cross the bridge…
After a few close calls and much ominous creaking, you approach the end of the bridge and can now read the sign on the other side. Its message is — to say the least — sobering:
This bridge suffers from Newcomb’s Curse,
If any more wish to cross, apart from the first,
They must sacrifice a hand by placing it into the purse,
Else all will satisfy Mother Nature’s thirst.
P.S. No turning back
Apart from being a terrible poet, the author seems also to have been something of a sadist. As you gaze back hesitantly at your friend, you see that this is not likely to be a joke. Though you didn’t notice it earlier, a weathered satchel-like object hangs from the far side of the bridge’s handrails, conveniently positioned near your friend’s right hand.
What to do?
Do you read your friend the message? Do you tell them what will happen if they place their hand in the bag? If they believe you, they might be willing to sacrifice their hand in service of your mutual escape. Of course they’ll lose a hand, but you’ll both escape the snake with your lives, not to mention all its eggs, intact. However, if your friend for any reason thinks you’re lying, they’ll likely attempt to cross the bridge, perhaps resulting in the untimely demise of you both. Quite the dilemma.
But what if you lie to them? Rather than accurately communicate what you’ve learned, you might tell your friend that the poem requires them to fetch something from the purse in order to cross the bridge. How clever you are! They’d of course suffer quite the surprise at the loss of their hand. Furthermore, absent foreknowledge of the relevant context, they’d likely use (and therefore lose) their preferred hand. But on the bright side, it would mostly eliminate the probability that they’d decide either not to cross, or attempt to cross without making the appropriate sacrifice. In the first case you’d be out a friend and some eggs, and in the latter you’d both lose everything — two outcomes you’d rather avoid.
Of course if you do lie, and your (once) friend still decides to cross the bridge after losing their hand, you’ll have demolished your trust for one another. Perhaps they’ll forgive you, but probably not. And even if you both manage to stick together, somehow avoiding a lethal feud, what if you stumble across another situation similar this one, but with the roles reversed? You’d no longer trust your friend to provide accurate information regarding their past experiences or intended future behaviors. In other words, neither of you would externally represent your internally held temporal maps with fidelity, thus decohering your once coherent shared map, and reducing the probability that either of you might exit the ordeal alive.
So, dear reader, what do you do? The ideal scenario — in which your friend voluntarily sacrifices a hand for your mutual long-term benefit — requires trust and integrity of sufficient magnitude to resist naively rational strategies that select short-term certainties over long-term possibilities. After all, from a purely rational perspective such as Causal Decision Theory, it makes no sense for your friend to bear the certain loss of a hand, given that your accurate communication of the sign’s message is merely a probability, not a certainty. Instead, to attain the ideal outcome you must voluntarily subjugate your individual rationality to the higher-order meta-rationality that emerges out of trust’s tendency to cohere shared temporal maps, thus bestowing upon your two-person assemblage the capacity to guide both individuals toward long-term positive sum outcomes. This emergent perspective demonstrates a superordinate rationality capable of leveraging the fact that, assuming the coherent two-person assemblage can meet its greater energy needs, two brains, four legs, and three hands provides a superlinear advantage over one brain, two legs, and 2 hands when exploring unknown and potentially hostile territory. Of course this coherent assemblage would still prefer to walk away with all limbs intact, but that option was off the table the moment you crossed the bridge and read the sign. And as the sign said, in the game of life there’s no turning back; you’re already all in.
While the allegory above may appear contrived, that perception — though understandable — fails to appreciate the story’s isomorphic mapping to the essential game-theoretic tension governing humanity’s emergent social and economic landscapes. As this excellent series explains, a majority of human interactions meet the underlying criterion of Newcomb-like games. In other words, the majority of social interactions possess the same fundamental constraints as our allegory.
Those constraints are:
- The option to voluntarily assume a certain short-term cost in favor of a greater — though uncertain — long-term benefit.
- An information asymmetry favoring the person establishing the decision context.
- A mechanism by which this information asymmetry may be known to logically (though not causally) influence the decider’s choice.
Furthermore, by leveraging the concept of temporal maps, we may extend the relevance of these criterion beyond the initial game-theoretic problem’s boundaries. This is because most interpretations of Newcomb’s paradox — including the essay series linked above — assume that one must actually leak information about their future probable behavior into the environment as a precondition for the emergence of Newcomb-like games. In other words, it’s usually assumed that someone must gain new information about you, specifically, to place you within a Newcomb-like game. But as the scenario above shows, any information asymmetry that one gains as a function of path-dependent exploration may set the stage for a Newcomb-like paradox. This insight obtains so long as the actor who gains an information advantage — in other words the actor in possession of the higher resolution temporal map — also possesses sufficient knowledge concerning the information-disadvantaged actor to behaviorally leverage the novel spatiotemporal information. This also leaves the advantaged actor with a choice: they may use their advantage either in service of their own proximate self-interest, or in service of the higher-order advantage of the coherent two-person assemblage, placing proximate self-interest in deference to the assemblage’s greater future potential.
As is likely obvious to those who play strategy games, knowledge derived from map exploration may generate information asymmetries with respect to a third party without said knowledge pertaining specifically to the person in question. Simply put, one may gain an asymmetric advantage over others through any acquisition of broadly applicable knowledge that remains unknown to the players with whom one interacts. Therefore individuated and temporally-extended learning alone is sufficient to seed the emergence of Newcomb-like games, so long as what is learned to some degree constrains the possibility-space of the information-disadvantaged actor. This deep game-theoretic truth is likely why humanity’s increasingly self-conscious observation of its own behavior gave rise to such aphoristic encodings as knowledge is power. If we define power as a position of greater game-theoretic leverage — or yet more precisely the capacity to efficiently perform game-theoretic work — we see that the higher fidelity and more extended one’s knowledge of the temporal map, the greater one’s capacity to place other players into either advantaged or disadvantaged positions within the socially mediated set of Newcomb-like games.
This game-theoretic nesting seems inescapable, but is that so? Given that we each travel fundamentally asymmetric and disjoint paths through spacetime, and furthermore that we’ve just demonstrated how such asymmetries give rise to Newcomb-like games, it follows that we must at all times find ourselves nested within a continuously evolving set of Newcomb-like games. Presumably these games possess a degree of symmetry with the differentiated spatiotemporal scales of social coherence that we encountered in our earlier discussion of temporal resonance and bio-cultural encoding. In fact, this fractal nesting of Newcomb-like games — played across an infinitude of spatiotemporal layers and parameterized by the need for coherence between individual agents and the collective assemblages to which inter-agent interactions give rise — might be the best possible description of our social landscape. But while these observations appear to reinforce the game-theoretic nesting’s inescapability, they also leave open a back door. This back door, while falling short of providing total escape, does yield a degree of transcendence beyond the present nesting within which we find ourselves embedded. In fact we have already encountered this backdoor; it is courageous short-term sacrifice in service of greater long-term coherence.
Let’s pause here and take a minute to revisit the primary implication of our earlier narrative: the purely rational decision making of individuals — absent clues concerning future states — often precludes collectives from achieving the most desirable outcomes. This is because such strategies often damage trust, reducing each individual’s capacity to meaningfully pair their unique (i.e. perspectival) temporal map with those of others, thus reducing the emergent collective’s overall capacity to act as a coherent assemblage. Conversely, if trust is maintained and enough individuals voluntarily act out the courageous sacrifice, it becomes possible to escape the limiting pull of the attractors governing the game-theoretic topology of the coherence-layer at which an individual proximately acts. In this manner, trust-contingent cooperation reveals itself as a tool that allows multi-agent assemblages to reach escape velocity with respect to sub-optimal game-theoretic singularities.
This insight becomes even more obvious when paired with the insights of other game-theoretic concepts, such as Nash Equilibria and Pareto Optimal states. For those unfamiliar, these two frameworks describe outcomes of iterated games in which the behavioral strategies of individuals settle into a fixed patterns because players either possess no proximate incentive to change their strategy, or because a change to their present strategy adversely effects other players in a zero-sum manner, respectively. But these suboptimal strategies have something else in common: their inability to discover more capable behavioral strategies derives from assumptions of non-cooperation. As we all understand intuitively, have explicitly laid out above, and have culturally encoded within mythopoetic storytelling amongst other creative art forms, cooperation allows us to solve a class of existential problems that would otherwise prove intractable for individuals. The poet John Donne’s timeless meditation upon humanity’s cooperative interdependence expressed this sentiment eloquently:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
“No Man is an Island” — John Donne, 1624
We disparage and ignore the adaptive potential of humanity’s cooperative capacity at our peril. That much seems obvious. Yet it’s somewhat less obvious how cooperation serves to solve the game-theoretic issues outlined above, specifically with respect to the specific Newcomb-like problems humanity faces today. Here is where our new definition of trust as the capacity to generate shared temporal maps becomes quite useful. This is because continued cooperation depends upon trust. And trust, as we’ve seen, is the ability to share temporal maps absent the cost of enforcement. In effect, cooperation is the process by which we minimize the cost of combining and resolving incongruities between temporal maps, thus extending the capacity of the maps previously held by all parties. Remember, the primary reason purely rational decision making precludes optimal outcomes is because it cannot sacrifice the certainty of the present for the potential of the future. Its logic often fails to account for the fact that what appears rational given one’s immediate and singular perspective often proves rather irrational if viewed through a broader temporal lens and paired with the temporal maps of others. A rational decision maker operating with the limited information of the present cannot know for certain that making an apparently rational decision today will prevent them from attaining better outcomes in the future. But what if they could?
And in fact, through effective cooperation, they (and we) can. In a very real sense — for those holding abbreviated maps — cooperation is a lot like gaining the power to peer into the future. And as we saw in the bridge conundrum above: for those holding extended maps of high-fidelity, cooperation provides the key to unlocking the best possible global outcomes. At the risk of putting too fine a point on this concept, let us further flesh out the dynamics in question. Consider a situation in which Alice and Bob play a game requiring iterated decisions. Let Alice’s map be of magnitude 8 — meaning she can see 8 steps ahead in the decision tree — while Bob’s map is only of magnitude 3. For reference, this scenario concretely exemplifies the concept of information asymmetry encountered earlier in the abstract. Now imagine that Alice sees, given her extended map, that in order to reach a decision point at step 7 that allows both parties to access a greater outcome, Bob must make a seemingly irrational sacrificial choice at step 3. From an omniscient observer’s perspective, it’s in both parties’ interest for Alice to convince Bob to take one for the team at step 3 such that they may both benefit at step 7. But how does Bob know that Alice can be trusted? Perhaps if Bob agrees to take the hit at step 3, Alice will be able to take all the winnings, leaving Bob and his family to starve. Yet what if we gave Alice a tool that allowed her to guarantee — with absolute certainty — that she is telling the truth, and to promise that she will play a fair game between steps 3 and 7, or else sacrifice a significant portion of her wealth to Bob? In this manner she could share her temporal map with Bob, alleviating the information asymmetry, and opening the door to a form of cooperation whose likelihood was quite improbable without such a technology in place. By leveraging this cooperative tool, Alice and Bob gain access to the previously inaccessible possibility set containing the most desirable outcomes.
Within the domain of informal human interaction, we call this capacity for map-sharing trust, which allows for effective cooperation across time. But much like the process of interpersonal coherence outlined in Part 2, our capacity for direct trust is limited to the degree we begin to hold different path-dependent perspectives, and we must therefore develop technologies to assist in our efforts to externalize this fundamental human capacity. We must build tools to help us scale our capacity for trust, thus increasing our net capacity for coherent cooperation. Having reframed trust in terms of temporal map sharing, we may now see that in addition to increasing the resolution of value representation, cryptoeconomic systems can serve to extend humanity’s degree of coherent cooperation across time by way of encoding previously unstable trust mechanisms into a provably trustworthy base layer. Of course, this represents an opportunity of almost unspeakably immense value.
We will cover the full scope of how the cryptoeconomic toolkit achieves this value in the next installment, but a high-level outline looks something like this:
- By mapping — in an emergent and self-organizing fashion — observed reality to the encoded trust layer via oracular inputs and provably honest negotiation protocols.
- By introducing the capacity to cheaply communicate and guarantee — via reduced enforcement, transaction, and coordination costs — promises pertaining to future behavior, conditional upon observed reality.
- By increasing visibility into the flow of value across temporal frames, allowing for novel economic gameplay to emerge upon the encoded trust layer, therefore extending both the resolution and temporally integrative capacity of our shared temporal maps.
- By guaranteeing context-sensitive atomicity, in which we may guarantee sequences of intersubjectively-contingent economic behaviors to execute in their entirety, or not at all, thus reducing risk that otherwise compounds across iterated execution, as observers respond to actors who initiate sequences of economic gameplay based on the those observers’ own asymmetric information advantages.
Thus, by delegating the enforcement of trust coherence to a mathematically sound and operationally distributed base layer — outside the formal reach of manipulation by over-centralized entities — the cryptoeconomic tools under development today promise to dramatically lower the cost of temporal coordination between the multiplicity of emerging value perspectives within our self-organizing collecting intelligences. So long as we avoid self-termination, we may continue to bear witness to a behavioral phase change whose ramifications will appear to posterity as a creative explosion rivaled in magnitude only by Life’s emergence upon Earth. The comparison is not arbitrary. I say this because Life’s origin represents the same pattern, simply at a smaller spatiotemporal scale. 3.5 billion years ago, the emergence of enzymes both opened and primed the space of possibilities for the emergence of complex autocatalytic sets whose processes could be variably — yet also predictably — up and down-regulated with respect to inter-agent interactions. In time, this gave rise to complex cell structures capable of self-replication and differentiation, in a runaway process of bio-diverse creation we now call evolution. And as we shall see in the next installment, cryptoeconomic primitives allow for us to harness these same patterns at the scale of humanity itself.
Just as enzymatic regulation rapidly inflated the possibility space of multi-polymer interactions — allowing for previously impossible structures to emerge — so too will the cryptoeconomic capacity to establish and manage our temporal maps of value expand humanity’s economic possibility space. Crucially, this expansion of possible economic structures opens the door to anti-rivalrous outcomes capable of simultaneously accelerating the economic trajectory of those presently impoverished, while also extending the economic opportunities available to those operating at the vanguard of innovation and wealth. While not a panacea, these upgraded capacities provide powerful new tools when it comes to coordinating the actions of human collectives who might otherwise find themselves stuck orbiting intractable Nash Equilibria, unable to cooperate with sufficient efficacy to make meaningful progress on the world’s most intractable collective action problems. In this manner, the evolving cryptoeconomic toolset holds the potential to operate much like a game-theoretic “warp-drive”, allowing for the bending of proximate incentive spacetime such that it becomes possible to escape dead-end behavioral attractors and move toward increasingly coherent states of human interaction.
Put slightly differently, the tools in question will serve as humanity’s most powerful temporal coherence mechanisms, will allow for the overall extension of shared temporal maps across greater time scales, and will open new horizons of possibility for planning and coordinating a shared future previously unimaginable to even our most recent ancestors.
Let us recognize and appreciate this opportunity. Let us internalize the magnitude of its responsibility. But most of all, in honor of our ancestors’ many courageous sacrifices, let our own actions make them proud — that we might live prosperously and peacefully today, and for millennia to come.
You made it to the end! Thanks for reading! I understand that this installment was quite the long haul, but if you’ve found the content valuable, please take a second to clap for this article and follow me on Medium so you don’t miss out on the next installment. There, we’ll further unpack how the present developmental trends within cryptocurrency relate to the concepts introduced in parts IV and V.
If you use Twitter, you can find me @mattpirkowski.
I’m also now producing videos on YouTube, and releasing more frequently is one of my goals for 2019 and beyond.