Birth of a Meme: The Rise of Culture Tech
I’ve been tracking emerging trends for a while now, exploring the co-evolution of humanity and our technologies, and building visions of the kinds of futures I’d like to see. Lately, I’ve found myself a bit restless, wondering “what’s next?”
The conferences and gatherings I’m attending are beginning to feel stale, the conversations needing new framings and lenses through which to look at our world and ourselves.
I’ve been on the hunt for a word or phrase that can encompass the essence of what feels important and resonates with me right now.
The search has been prompted by my decision to start a new project — writing my first book. (yay!)
I’ve spent the past few weeks reviewing everything I’ve written so far on the blog, reflecting upon what I’ve observed, what I’ve learned, and identifying the deep values I’ve chosen to serve as a compass and foundation for what is meaningful and significant.
At the same time, I’ve been surveying the landscape to get a sense of what’s being constructed out in the global mind, and see where the two intersect.
The general narrative is that we‘re facing increasing complexity and uncertainty in the world, information overload, distraction, shallowness of critical thought, and a lack of foresight. On the silver lining side, we have an overstock of creativity and imagination, sufficient to level up humanity and change the world and our crumbling systems, if we could only figure out how to unlock and unleash it from our billions of minds.
While some will posit that the ‘solution’ is technological (better algorithms! quantifying trust and reputation! big data! innovation!), I lean to the side that our breakthroughs will occur when we acknowledge and confront our most raw and human issues.
I’m finding that the barriers to our ingenuity are not stemming from a lack of desire, but from a range of cognitive and emotional barriers that have been set in place by most of the systems that surround us and condition us – the media, family and societal expectations, cultural standards, fear in trusting our own intuition, and the ingrained beliefs that any other way of thinking or being could be possible. (to name a few)
These barriers create a rigidity and calcification to how we perceive reality and ourselves, vastly limiting the potential for our inherent genius and heroism to manifest itself.
As I travel across the blogosphere, I notice these sentiments being echoed, in their own language:
In a recent post in HBR, there was a rallying call to the startup community to build companies infused with *purpose* that will bring lasting value to society. A skim of the Management Innovation eXchange reveals posts about embracing one’s inner artist, restoring values at work, and how to mobilize and motivate people. The Innovation Excellence blog categories include ‘build capacity’ and ‘culture & values.’ The most popular talks on TED this month are about happiness, vulnerability, courage and shame, inspirational leadership, and cultivating creativity capacity. Other hot themes out there include storytelling, passion, empathy, play, and design.
After brainstorming a few concepts that might weave together this emerging pattern, I’ve decided to frame it as the rise of culture tech.
:: Culture ::
I found it interesting to discover that the English word “culture” is based upon a term used by Cicero, “cultura animi,” referring to the cultivation of the mind or soul.
In reviewing other origins and definitions, I resonated strongly with the ideas of culture as a pursuit for the highest ideal of human development, the liberation of the mind, and the attainment of freedom through the fullest expression of the unique and authentic self.
The other side of culture, beyond its internal cultivation, is the degree to which it can be communicated and propagated to others.
The American anthropological definition of culture “most commonly refers to the universal human capacity to classify and encode experiences symbolically, and communicate symbolically encoded experiences socially.”
It might then follow that a conscious effort towards cultivating the self, towards independent and critical thinking, towards direct experience, and hence towards wisdom, would then contribute towards the cultivation of human capacity at larger and larger scales.
Neat. So we need to know what we know, embody it, and then pass it on. How?
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” as a description for a “self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.” They’re transmitted from mind to mind through writing, speech, gesture, ritual, or other means which can be imitated, replicated, mutated and implemented.
So how do we build new memes – new units for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices – and transmit them through society, at scale?
This is where technology comes in for an assist.
:: Technology ::
From fire to the wheel to the internet, technology refers to the tools, processes and systems humans discover and develop to get things done.
Its definitions range from “the practical application of knowledge” to “an activity that forms or changes culture.”
This is where I begin to see a gap.
:: The Need for Technologies of Culture ::
We are awash in data, information, and knowledge.
We can search and find just about anything, and now complain about being ‘overloaded’ with it all.
We want machines that can help us sift through the noise and find exactly what we want, or a predictive set of results that are probably what we want, or a serendipitous series of results that might lead to something we didn’t even know we wanted.
This may be fine for parsing and delivering some types of information, but I question what informs the word “practical” in the above definition of “the practical application of knowledge.”
As an era of machine intelligence approaches, I wonder what ‘practical’ decisions they will be making. For instance, what might we do when a global supercomputer does an analysis of our resource allocation, climate, and global population, and sees an unpleasant trajectory for the human species based on current trends. It then decides that the most ‘practical’ thing to do is to manufacture a biological weapon, targeted to a specific race or haplogroup, and remove 5 or so billion people from the planet. (this being the most efficient way to create conditions to restore us to a sustainable situation, in this scenario).
Perhaps an extreme example, but the point is that the power of our technologies are accelerating at a rate faster than the rate at which we’re developing our capacities for the discernment to use them appropriately or to contemplate their longer-term implications.
In this case, the practical application of knowledge would come via wisdom.
Wisdom is defined as “the comprehension of what is true coupled with optimum judgment as to action” — the coordination of “knowledge and experience” and “its deliberate use to improve well being.”
Many quotes about wisdom, whether they be from spiritual texts, philosophers, or public intellectuals, refer to wisdom as coming first and foremost from self-knowledge.
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
~ Tao Te Ching
But how many of us are connected with our authentic selves and know who we really are, know what we fundamentally believe to be true, and why we think so?
How many of us have an experience-based reference point that links our theory to practice, before making a decision?
In trying to ‘save the world,’ how many of us live the example of the external thing we think we are trying to ‘fix?’
My ponderings come from a place of self-inquiry and reflection first. Engaging in the cultivation of my mind, combined with the experiments and testing of evidence-based reality against my ideas, have been my most useful pursuits in my process of seeking more expansive consciousness and sapience.
These practices generally still seem to be siloed in the domains of philosophy, self-help or mental therapy, or when discussed in the context of indigenous wisdom or spirituality, are often discredited or referred to as “woo.”
I, on the other hand, see a convergence of science and spirit. As I track the “discoveries” in neuroscience and brain-mind research, I see information that’s been known by ancient wisdom traditions for thousands of years now being ‘validated’ by science.
I think there is an evolutionary impulse to learn and grow, to express and transform ourselves through creativity and love, and to become multidimensional in our ability to perceive ourselves, the world and existence. I think we can become both more intelligent, and wise. We do have the capacity for greater health and well-being, happiness and compassion.
And I think we can fully participate in this process of bootstrapping ourselves.
Hence, I suggest we look to technologies of culture to help us liberate ourselves from old patterns, and become fully conscious agents and participants in our individual and collective evolutionary development.
:: Culture Tech examples & working definition ::
I started thinking about all this more intensely over the past few months, as I’ve been experimenting with a group of people in building an open enterprise.
We’ve talked about building a skills/resources/superpowers database, as both a shared commons, and as a guide for arranging ourselves into co-creation teams around projects.
We’ve come together face-to-face for small gatherings, workshops, and to collaborate on short-term projects.
Everyone wants to be autonomous and sovereign, yet to also be strongly bonded and committed around a shared vision.
It’s a bit tricky.
Again, it’s not really a technological issue. It’s about learning how to become extraordinarily clear internally on what each of us wants, identifying our core values, being able to articulate our intentions to each other, being capable of setting boundaries around our time and attention, and then being about to build a shared vision together that enables us each to provide and receive value towards getting what we want, while also serving the greater purpose. It’s about continuous feedback, iteration, and mutual support.
I’ve found several people who are building these processes at the team level into a kind of art, which they refer to as “culture hacking.”
The premise is that culture can be treated like software — having a viewpoint, an architecture, an internal structure, and some familiar characteristics:
- ease of use
Reprogram your techniques, practices, commitments and viewpoints, and you reprogram yourself and your culture.
Jim & Michele McCarthy, authors of Software for your Head & the Core Protocols, have engaged me in some great dialogue (and hands on experience!) around the processes they’ve been developing for this kind of cultural design.
Dan Mezick, author of The Culture Game, has also been teaching me a lot about tribal leadership, agile, scrum, and group facilitation. As he put it, “We’re in the business of culture.”
Social scientist Sebastien Paquet has a nice 5 minute Ignite talk back from 2010 about How to Become a Culture Hacker. His blog, Emergent Cities, casts a wide net around networked co-creation, intentions, and birthing new worlds and social movements.
Other colleagues are working on lexicons and shared language for the new economy, on gift circles and share networks, and on frameworks built on foundations of coherence, alignment, resonance, amplification and manifestation.
I’m seeing a leveling up as we move beyond mapping “social graphs,” and move consciously towards mapping intentions, emotions, capacities, worldviews, desires, value creation, gratitude, and energy.
All of this has essentially been leading me to the same place:
There is an urge to redesign human culture, to construct life and work in a way that enables everyone to ‘follow their bliss’ and show up fully in their gifts and experience. We want to experience higher intelligence and capacities, and to choose what represents meaning and significance in life. We want to do it with style, grace, ease, beauty, and simplicity — as art.
But before we can establish our new collective values, and lay down the groundwork for new societies or paradigms, there is a personal healing and self-awareness process as a critical intermediary (or parallel) step.
While this is still a work in process, I’m defining culture tech as follows:
‘the systems, tools, processes and etiquettes designed to cultivate the full expression of the authentic self, liberate collective creativity and imagination, and foster the expansion of universal human capacity’
I’m looking forward to exploring this sweet spot at the intersection of technology, consciousness and culture!
The next few months will be spent in domestic and international travel, doing interviews, and finding inspiring examples of those on the leading edge of culture tech.
As always, feedback is welcome, and thanks for joining me on the journey.
Thanks to the many friends and colleagues for hundreds (if not thousands!) of hours of musings and critical dialogue that informed this post. I don’t claim any ideas here as original or as my own, simply a synthesis of my own reflections and those mirrored in the bubblings of the global mind.