Brent Cooper

Rise of the Emergentsia: Feeling ‘Gobschmacht’ Yet?

All empires collapse but today we are living the first global civilisation and witnessing its collapse in real-time. Daniel Schmachtenberger helps us to understand this ‘phase shift'.


This article is the 2nd in the profile series on the Rise of the Emergentsia, an open-source community of sagacious speakers attuned to a new stage of global evolution. Read Part 1 here.

As indicated in our first essay, the Emergentsia already has many leading lights, not least Daniel Schmachtenberger, who tells mesmerising stories in his talks, drawing from a complexity terminology toolkit. Jonathan Rowson asked me to pinpoint what it was about Schmachtenberger’s thought that is so stimulating, and I came up with the feeling of being ‘gobschmacht,' a pun coined for the experience of being beguiled and astonished by his eloquent packaging of crisis and metamorphosis. Schmachtenberger is a wellspring of Deep Ecology insights (his reading list will blow your mind), but what sets him apart is the substance and tenor of his call to action. 
All empires collapse, but today is the first time there is a global civilisation, and we can witness its collapse in real-time.
In 'Humanity's Phase Shift', Daniel Schmachtenberger opens with the declaration that all empires collapse, but today is the first time there is a global civilisation, and we can witness its collapse in real-time. The difference is also that technology is advancing on an exponential curve, most notably characterised by Moore’s law in computing power, doubling every two years. More specifically, Deloitte consulting describes an innovation renaissance for exponential technologies such as “additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, virtual and augmented reality, alternative energy systems, biotechnology, and digital medicine…” Singularity University also notes the accelerating trends for 2019 include such technologies.

The smartphone in your pocket is a product of exponential technology, and is enmeshed in networks of complicated relations that are also involved in destroying the complex web of life and human relations (see Coltan mining). As such, Schmachtenberger is focused on the existential risks associated with exponential technology.

Heading for collapse, we are not only carrying rivalrous baggage of the past, but exponential technology is multiplying the existential risk - the various human sourced threats to civilisation (climate change, war, AI, etc). However, we have a specific choice before us, between extinction and going through a phase shift. The choice begins with the critical insight that ignorance of existential risk (x-risk) is a multiplier and generator of x-risk. The more we turn a blind eye as a society, the worse it gets. The second major insight is that our capacity for abstraction is our evolutionary programming that we must bootstrap in order to solve the meta-crisis (See recent Emerge podcast for Bonnitta Roy on ‘Six Ways of Going Meta’). 

From the brief post Solving the Generator Functions of Existential Risk (June, 2018), he states “All (human induced) existential and catastrophic risks are symptoms of two underlying generator functions” which can be reduced to two words: 
1) Rivalry (games) 
2) Fragility (systems)

The first point is we need anti-rivalrous game dynamics to replace the current zero-sum competitive games. The second is that we’ve degraded the anti-fragility of complex (eco)systems with our complicated technological and social systems. One key difference between complex and complicated systems is the former has anti-fragility (resilience, regeneration), built in, but we have undermined that to the brink of collapse. 

Aside from sports and friendly competitive games, at the root of all problems is scarcity and the proliferation of win/lose game dynamics, whether it be through statehood, business, or inter-personal conflict. This type of game theory logic has incentives in the short term, especially for the winner, but by definition, if left unchecked, it will self-terminate because we live in a finite system. If self-termination sounds technical, what it means is this: for the first (and perhaps last!) time in human history, we must build a “closed loop system” on a global scale or likely suffer an embarrassing, horrific, and protracted extinction.
Short-term agent interest (whether for profit or ‘security’) is against long-term global wellbeing and peace-building.
The many well known stories of the collapse (see Jared Diamond’s Collapse), it is now happening on a global scale. His thesis that Easter Island civilisation collapsed due to resource depletion is not unreasonable, but is contested by the evidence that European colonists are more likely the culprit. A key meta-problem of human behaviour is that not only does one side lose in win/lose games, but the game is “indirectly causing harm to the commons” (The Generator Functions of X-Risk, Part 1) Furthermore, “we're polluting the information ecology through disinformation," which causes harmful ripple effects. These games and the scarcity it produces are maintained because they benefit certain actors, and yet the entire premise is untenable for a civilisation of our productive and destructive capacity. We are only just beginning to realise such things, and, hopefully, just in time.
Schmachtenberger figures that the $70 trillion in daily global trade externalises great harm all along the supply-chain, from pollution to discontent, exploitation to impoverishment. For instance, Facebook helps create abstract externalities simply through its profit model, as it did contributing to cyber-polarisation and thus the election of Donald Trump (via Cambridge Analytica scandal), thereby increasing regressive policies and, although it is hard to be sure, probably increasing existential-risk by a few orders of magnitude. By some estimates, we are headed in the dark direction of weaponised AI, when we must go in the other direction, of demilitarisation. The military-industrial complex, as much as any actor, is stuck in these ‘multi-polar traps' where short-term agent interest (whether for profit or ‘security’) is against long-term global wellbeing and peace-building. The instrumental and extractive logic of market fundamentalism compounds and perpetuates the problem.
But there are solutions in the form of more common goods and services. A relatable example is the shared nature of shopping carts: enough are available for peak hours, so no individuals need to own one, and the service is provided for a fraction of the cost and impact. This parallels with what is sometimes called ‘library socialism'.  A scaled-up shared-economy future like this may in effect be self-driving towards us now. Eventually companies like Uber and Lyft will be driverless altogether and perhaps cooperatively owned, as we ‘transition from possession of a good to access of a service.' This is part of our civilisational ‘phase shift' akin to birth, or the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly; something completely new. And the first design principle of whatever arises will have to have an anti-rivalrous generator function, in other words: ‘not self-terminating.' In Schmachtenberger’s language, “[a]t all points, the system must vector towards omni-win-win dynamics. (At no points can it incent[ivize] win-lose dynamics.)” Source: New Economics — Foundational Criteria.
Don't be cynical, don't go off on hippie quest; rather actually try to do something to save the planet.
Solving the causes of x-risks relies on our systems of collective intelligence, and ability to scale up so no one is left out. This includes obvious human needs like universal basic income, and the free provision of health care and education. As it stands now there is interpersonal incoherence at the macro level. Social incoherence is itself a generator function of x-risk. Not even ‘naïve techno-optimism' has addressed externalities, nor does it inherently recognise access for all. Ultimately these are ethical/existential questions - of what to do as a civilisation - that we must ask and answer. As Schmachtenberger says, Jesus or aliens aren't going to save us, we need to be the saviours that restrict ourselves to designing an omni-considerate system.

His talk at Emergence (2016) builds up to echoing the sincere mystical trope ‘I am the universe experiencing itself.' In that sense, we are ‘Jesus/ aliens’. We are the crew of spaceship earth, etc. We are emergent beings, in an emergent universe, experiencing an emergency. Self-actualisation based on this realisation is actually necessary and compulsory for everybody to achieve. We are now finally at a new technological possibility of global civilisation, such that we can practically ‘imagine the future in an omni-considerate way,' and thus ‘become an agent for the whole.' In a very mythopoetic way, these are the only logics that will give our lives meaning, while also saving the planet to ensure that we even have lives. 

Human evolution is going through a “discrete phase shift" characterised by three things: 
1) At the social level, we are moving from a differential advantage economy (private, scarcity based), to an economic system where everybody's well-being and incentives are accounted for with no externalities. “It's not communism, or socialism, or capitalism, it something that was not possible before." 
2) At the level of infrastructure; we're moving from linear materials economy abstracting from the earth to create products to turn into trash, to a sustainable closed loop materials economy, where trash is a new resource. 
3) At the level of a super-structural, memetic shift, everyone is seen as facets of one integrated system. All issues are global and existential, threatening the biosphere.

This “phase shift” is truly a new precedent and challenge on a number of levels, Schmachtenberger implores. It means shirking the existing structures, because we should not want to win in a psychopathic system. “When we really start taking that seriously, everything changes." In 25 minutes, he progressively unfolds a series of nested premises, one emergent after the other, from the emergence of evolution to our capacity for abstraction and agency. As if to say QED (‘it is demonstrated’), there is no escaping the logic that we are going through a “phase shift, " whether we like it or not, and that we must each choose to self-actualise towards omni-win dynamics. In a key line he says: “The new strategy is to play to not lose, but not to win either”. 

This is the point at which we realise a different level of choice available, and Schmachtenberger gives his most advanced iteration, explaining that the fundamental decisions and actions to take are;
1) “Stop trying to win at the dying (killing) game,"
2) Don't be cynical, don't go off on hippie quest; rather actually try to do something to save the planet, and;
3) ‘Progressively lean in more' to the uncertain path taking us through the transition, which requires great leaps in self-education and knowledge creation.
The spiritual way through is to do what is inherently right, to align one's own interests with that of the planet.
The three steps are a brilliantly simple heuristic for the complex process of taking “empowered responsibility for being someone who's recognising that you can't just run the instruction manual that was given historically, and the new instruction manual doesn't exist yet." We’re in the “liminal" space between the old paradigm and the emerging new one. To me, to bring about planetary scale systems change peacefully and swiftly is the essence of metamodern theory and practice. But far from being easy, these three steps have to be not only practiced and lived on a daily basis, but built in to our social relations and material conditions.
Science took us out of the dark ages, through its proliferative fractionation of reality, but this new civilisational ethics is what will take us through the end times, by re-integrating reality. “If the system increases coherence, this cannot be weaponised'" because it is self-evidently optimised for mutual benefit, he says in a talk on x-risk (2018). The new design criteria has to have “synergistic satisfiers" and “become a new basin of attraction," leading to innovation surges and levelling up the entire playing field. We can and must “create a prototype of a full stack civilisation that is anti-rivalrous…anti-fragile… and that is auto-propagating" (goes viral) because “that is a path to a post-existential-risk world." 

In closing, Schmachtenberger passionately argues “we must rigorously remove any place where the incentive of an agent is misaligned…" We must create a ‘fractal sovereignty vectoring towards omni-consideration'. The spiritual way through is to do what is inherently right, to align one's own interests with that of the planet. As Bucky Fuller said decades ago and Daniel reminds us today, perhaps we really do face a stark choice: utopia or oblivion. 
Words by Brent Cooper
Brent Cooper is an independent political sociologist, filmmaker, and Executive Director of The Abs-Tract Organization, a research and media project to educate on abstraction, metamodernism, and related topics.