I recently read Unflattening Hobbes by Venkatesh Rao. The essay is a good map of the conflict today. A stable fight between all layers of society, which leads to a slow progress of ideas and of thinking.
Society has different layers: from individuals, to packs, tribes and communities. A full-stack conflict is where all these layers are in conflict with each others. Tribes are in conflict with communities (e.g. protests), tribes are in conflict with each other (e.g. culture wars), individuals are in conflict with tribes, and individuals are in conflict with each other (e.g. the pandemic spike in break-ups and divorce).
This conflict is stable as all layers become more entrenched in their position through ideological bubbles. No one really wins and there is little progress in ideas.
As new players join the arena, they find a disorienting and confusing place. It’s hard to know who to believe, as everyone looks right. Should we believe the crew that says that economic growth is needed to lift other from the poor? Or should we believe those who say that the west should stop growing?
It’s natural to tend to gravitate to an ideology and then surround yourself with confirming information. Then, through conflict of others who hold the same ideology you become more entrenched in the position. From street protests trough to Twitter ideological wars, these events just stand to confirm the position.
This situation leads to an infinite game in the sense of James Carse: a game that is no played to win, but played to stay in the game. Stable, endemic conflict.
Not a really fun infinite game to be part of.
Given that I am a pretty deep optimist let’s see what tools we have to make progress away from this conflict to a state of peaceful progress.
Let’s start with science.
One of the most interesting intellectual conflicts in the past decade was over supercooled water.
Let me explain. The question argued was: does water split into two different liquid phases when cooled at really low temperature.
If you cool down water below its freezing point, you can keep it liquid. This is known as supercooled water. In this state, liquid water is very unstable and any disturbance makes it to freeze quickly.
Supercooled water was observed as early as the 1700s, a time when you could start a publication with we had lately one day of a calm and clear frost; and I immediately seized the opportunity, which I missed before, to make experiments relative to the freezing of boiled water. Reading 1700s papers was one of the most entertaining things of writing my literature review of my thesis!
Since water at these temperatures is very unstable, it’s very hard to do experiments in this region. Indeed, to make progress you need to drop droplets of water into the path of a really powerful x-ray laser.
But, you can do computer simulations of very complex models of liquid water. These models allow you to simulate the interactions between atoms and molecules. I spent four years in this very interesting intellectual space developing new algorithms to simulate the motion of the water molecule. We like to describe this as a virtual microscope. A way of using a computer to look at the atomic and molecular world which we cannot access with even the most powerful of microscopes.
Two major intellectual giants of the field, Pablo Debenedetti and David Chandler took on the challenge to see whether our best computer models of liquid water did have a liquid liquid transition.
Debenedetti’s group produced compelling evidence for a transition. At low temperatures, the virtual microscope showed two liquid phases.
Chandler’s group produced compelling evidence against a transition. A liquid-liquid transition could not happen before water froze; freezing just happened too fast.
This is a beautiful case study of how very complex - and well validated - models of a phenomenon can produce completely different answers. Both theories were elegant.
Both theories looked right at first sight. I had many conversations and spent a lot of time thinking about the physics of this tiny region of water’s phase diagram. I felt the rush of discovering something new as I wrote my contribution to this debate and discovered new ways water molecules rearrange.
How did the debate resolve? Through the standard tools of science: replication and experimentation.
The experimental scientists pushed on and at the end of 2020 produced evidence of a liquid liquid phase transition in liquid water.
The modelling story was much more interesting. Chandler’s group made a small mistake in the code early on. From that few lines of code, hidden in what are probably tens of thousands other lines came a heated debate that took seven years to resolve and consumed the minds of some of the brightest scientists on the planet.
I remember having a discussion about this topic at the Liquids 2014 conference which concluded with the following: makes you wonder that some of the brightest minds in the world are fighting over such a small sliver of the phase diagram of water.
How can we resolve these conflicts faster in the future?
And I only half joke.
Science works best when it works in the open. The pandemic showed real time conflict resolution between scientists, backed up by data and open publications. A widely discussed paper on treatments for COVID-19 turned out to be based on falsified data, which was quickly pointed out by scientists on Twitter. Instead of waiting months for peer review or even years to reproduce results, we can have live, in-the-wild peer review!
How do we improve this process of real time updating of our knowledge? The starting mindset is being open minded. Not holding onto beliefs.
Instead, we try to understand the information that we get and link it to pieces of the puzzle that we have in our mind. Realising that neither of us has a complete picture of reality, but through dialogue and open mindedness we can come closer to the truth.
Julia Galef talks about this in her Scout Mindset. Someone who has a warrior mindset holds strongly to a position and seeks to defend it. They protect their beliefs and ignore evidence of why they might be wrong.
On the other hand, a scout surveys the landscape and gathers information. Based on this information, they make a good mental picture, a good map of the intellectual environment.
By doing so, a scout has a better chance of getting closer to the truth. A scout approaches intellectual spaces with curiosity and the intention to gather puzzle pieces that improve our understanding.
My style of thinking and of being is very improvisational. I played improvised theatre at university and have danced Argentine tango for over a decade. I feel deeply the power of co-creation between people - whether it’s a story or a dance, the process is the same and it starts with yes-and as a generating thought. You take in the current perspective of reality, and add to it, being open minded where the movement or the dialogue might take you.
We can do the same with ideas. I call this game idea jazz.
Idea jazz is played between 2-6 players, we start with a theme, such as the one in this essay on conflict and collaboration. There, we each take turns to riff on the theme. To share our pieces of the puzzle. To share our vantage point of the landscape. We are united in the belief that neither of us has a complete picture.
Once played, idea jazz can be transformational. This is how the blind men in the parable can stop fighting whether the elephant is a tree trunk or a snake and start to understand what an elephant might be.
To end this essay, I will share another piece of my puzzle - this time on storytelling.
Conflict is an essential part of western storytelling - the way we tell stories revolves around the Hero’s journey.
However, the Japanese art of Kishōtenketsu tells stories differently. Kishōtenketsu stories don’t have conflict and resolution but contrast and reflection.
We become the stories that we tell.
Maybe if we started to tell more stories filled with contrast, connection and reflection rather than conflict and resolution we could start making more sense of this world and progress towards a closer approximation of the truth.