The Cultural Network | Episode 7


Hello and welcome to Meta Perspective with Matt and Andy, the show exploring how to think, act, and be in an uncertain and complex world. This is episode number seven.

In this episode, we're continuing our theme of participation, how we engage with the world around us. This time, exploring the role of culture and technology and its impact upon us. At the very end of the last episode we hit upon the idea of a cultural network and us being nodes that exist within it. But what exactly is a cultural network? Well, in this conversation recorded back on June the first, 2021, we explore what it might be, looking at how the exponential rise of technology is influencing culture and how that is shaping us and how we in turn are shaping it.

Looking at this through an agent arena framing, which has been a constant topic of conversation in our series so far, the agent being us as individuals, and the arena being the environments in which we find ourselves, inspired by Professor John Vervaeke’s excellent work. In particular, his YouTube series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.

So let's get to it and I'll catch you on the other side of this episode.


Every episode so far, I always try and do a bit of a recap and I think in the last episode, I really went into detail trying to map the whole journey to date. And I think if I continue to do that all the way through it’s going to become an impossibility and we can't have a half an hour intro every time.

But what I wanted to do is give a brief summary of where we got to in the last episode only. So in our last episode, we were looking at how we participate in groups, looking at how organisational structures might be changing as society becomes more complex, before exploring technology's potential role in how we participate with each other and how we organise ourselves collectively.

We actually looked specifically at blockchain as a network and its ability to decentralise and distribute decision-making and power, which actually led us to a final thought, a kind of metaphorical comparison, or an idea to play with, about another aspect of participation, where I said at the end, an idea that came to mind, or an image that came to mind to me was, in a way we are all nodes on the cultural network.

And then I asked the question, how do we strengthen ourselves? And therefore strengthen the network? To recap on what a node is - a node as a connection point within a network that can send, receive, store or create information. And then Andy, you actually followed up by saying, it's the relationship between those nodes that makes possible the collective power of all the nodes together.

So if we are nodes at the centre of a cultural network, I was thinking we should spend some time discussing and trying to get to grips with the idea of a cultural network and what's happening within it.

But I think I should say before we dive into anything, we've brought this up on the show before, but it's worth saying again, we should bear in mind that metaphors are necessary in sense-making, in making sense of the world, but they're not sufficient. In other words, they have utility, but they also have their limitations. So everything we're going to discuss about this idea of a cultural network and us being nodes on this network should be taken with a pinch of salt and seen as a lens through which we can see the world, but not to be accepted fully. We should just use it as a vehicle to explore an idea and see if it gives us more understanding of the world we're in.

So to get the ball rolling, this is something that you will not be expecting Andy, I'm actually going to do something different to start the show. And I'm going to read you an excerpt from a book that I picked up last week, that is one that I've listened to as an audio book, but never actually picked up and read so the book is ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. Do you know the book?

Andy: I know it, but I haven't read it.


Well, that's actually fantastic, because it's going to be cool to get your reaction to this.

So yeah, like I said, so to get the ball rolling, I have an excerpt of this book to read to you.
And the reason why I want to read this to you, is for me, this kind of opens up a window or a portal into the network, let's say. So for those of you that don't know ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ is a cult classic book written by Robert M. Pirsig, published in 1974. And the book is a fictionalised autobiography of a 17 day journey that Robert Pirsig made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California, along with his son, Chris.

And the bit that I'm going to read is actually right at the beginning of the book and it's the first direct address to the reader and it functions as a cutaway from the opening pages that are spent setting the scene and talking about the differences between journeying in a car versus journeying on a motorbike. So I'm going to get this now, I'm going to read just a little over a page actually, I can't do this in an American accent, so I'll just keep it in my own one…

“What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. Now that we do have some time, and know it, I would like to use that time to talk in some depth about things that seem important. What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua… that’s the only name I can think of for it… like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ”What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and ”best” was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.” - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (page 5)

So that was published in 1974, as I mentioned. So that's nearly 50 years ago. And when I read this, I had to stop and reread it about 10 times because it felt so, for me, so culturally relevant for today. So I just wanted to literally live on the show, get your reaction to that passage and see what comes to mind for you.


It was fascinating listening to that because there's so much that Pirsig was referring to in casting his eyes, I guess, across the cultural landscape back in 1974 and then as you said, we rolled the clock forward nearly 50 years. We see something of that pattern, but accelerated perhaps by an order of magnitude, and there's something very profound in his analysis, which I think is more relevant today than ever, and I guess this really opens up the broad landscape we can explore in our conversation today, that in some ways as we'll probably explore in a bit more depth here, that the speed of change, the scale of change, the amount of stuff going on, the totality of what we might see as culture and its speed and transmission, bring with it the possibility of amazing new futures, but also the speed and scale of it brings with it, the parallel challenge of how do we digest that which is coming at us? And, as he points to, do we substitute novelty and newness and moreness for betterness or are there things that lie at the centre of our culture that actually draw from rich and deep truths and insights bequeathed to us from earlier generations of culture? And to use a phrase we've used before, how do we distil the signal from the noise such that we can draw from our current moment, the best, the richest and the deepest that culture has to offer us to help us in our individual and our shared journey into the future?

There's a lot of noise, there's a lot of distraction, which in and of itself is a distraction but that distraction is not simply one of hijacking our attention as important as that is. It's also hiding from us the possibility to reflect more deeply on the things that are most true and most important and there's a potential de-anchoring of ourselves individually and collectively through too much noise and the inability to discern the signal.

When I was thinking about this conversation, we were going to be having, I was thinking what is culture? And you could say, well, there's culture as we might think about it in the arts, there's political culture, there's business culture - that we've talked about, there are many forms in which we can think about culture. And one of the shortest and pithiest definitions I come across is that ‘culture is meaning in action’. How do we make sense and find meaning in what's happening in this current moment and what's happened in the past and mobilise that in service of action with each other coordinated to take that meaning and turn it into something useful and purposeful? Useful, it may have some utility, but purposeful is what matters to us and how do we mobilise together in pursuit of that? And again I think something we can explore in this conversation.

There's a sense that what happens in the now seems to be the most important. Every generation sees its own story as being the most important and there's always a temptation to relegate history as to the irrelevant, but when it comes to one of the themes of our conversations - individual and collective flourishing - there is arguably, and as I'm getting older and I read more and understand more, I’m more coming to the point of view that there's deep wisdom and insight that comes from our history, our cultural history that has embedded within it, the collective experience and wisdom of previous generations about what works and what doesn't as how we live and commune together for our mutual survival and our mutual thriving, that wisdom mustn't be lost completely in the distraction of what's coming at us from our modern everyday cultures, which we'll explore, as expanding across all frontiers, augmented by technology, at a level never seen before in history.

So we're in a very interesting moment where the new is coming at us almost like a tidal wave and could overwhelm our sense and our ability to distil from the past the real pillars of wisdom that Pirsig was talking about, such that we can take the new and channel that into something that enables us to make sense of what's coming at us in a way that enables us to grasp it, sort of stew in it a little bit, because one of the things that Pirsig is also talking about is pace and speed. And there's also a requirement I think for reflection and our modern society is so fast it doesn't allow us time to reflect, to reflect to sort of draw into sort of marinate in what's happening to make sense of it in a deeper, more profound way that we could then utilise, and take advantage of the new, synthesise it with the old, to come up with something even more rich and more beneficial for us individually and collectively, and therefore there's, in his story, I think a real profound metaphor for our times, which has become ever more relevant. So I think that would be my immediate reaction to what you've just said.


Do you know what? I think on the very first episode that we did, we had a chat about this idea of having to figure out what boxes to put things into, to look at the past and say, well, what is useful from the past that we need to take with us and what do we need to let go of? And one of the problems that we've got is that we often confuse what is valuable and what is superfluous, and just spending time evaluating those things and thinking through the past and thinking about where we're going, collectively and individually, is an exercise that we should all participate in and often think over.

But one of the things that struck me about this passage was its ability to kind of shine a light on the existential situation that we find ourselves in and maybe some of the underlying factors behind that. So the passage that I read reveals a little bit about the existential problems that we find ourselves in now and the passage starts off by talking about how always being in a hurry leads to a kind of shallowness in life. And when I reflect on the first conversation we had, we spoke about how the lockdown slowed everything down and gave us a chance to reflect and confront ourselves and find something new to think on.

And I think to myself, if people were always in a hurry in the sixties and seventies, when this book was written and published, that's only accelerated since then. And he goes on to say that the stream of consciousness is moving ‘faster’ now, but it's ‘broader’ and ‘less deep’ and if it was happening like that then, the stream of consciousness has moved on rapidly. I mean, you could think of the river now as a river rapids, or you could even think of it as a waterfall, that consciousness is falling off a cliff almost, which is obviously with technology and all of the change that we're seeing, something that's completely changing how we see things and what he alludes to when he says that this stream is obliterating his own banks, it’s this idea that there's a sense of alienation, uprootedness, disorientation that comes from this disconnect between the world we're in and ourselves.

And if you think about what we've been speaking about the agent and the arena, us as individuals in the world, we find ourselves in, I think this passage really opens up this understanding of the kind of decoupling that we feel, the separation we feel between us as individuals and the environment that we're acting in and hints at this idea that we're constantly chasing what's new, we're constantly being fed lots of distractions, we're constantly a hundred percent always on with technology. And that leads to us living shallower lives that are ‘less deep’ and ‘more broad’ .

And one of the things that he says in the book just before this passage, the one we've just read, is he gives an example of two different ways of travelling. So one is on the motorbike, which is obviously a massive fan of, and the other is being in a car, and he talks about being in a car, in the compartment of a car, as being in a frame almost, so you're a passive observer of what's going on around you in life, and he talks about when you're on a bike, you're not in the frame, you're in a scene, you're viscerally there. You can feel the wind rushing over your body. You can feel every turn of the bike as you roll through the streets. And he talks about it in such a way that makes you feel like he's connecting and wanting to connect to the arena and to the environment that he’s in.

So I thought that was particularly interesting and I thought where we can maybe go with this idea is talk about if that was happening 50 years ago, how is technology now adding to this feeling of disconnection, this feeling of separation, this feeling of being out of touch with reality? For me it feels like this passage is a portal into the cultural network and the feeling of this disorientation, alienation, disenfranchisement, that may be a lot of us have felt, especially going through 2020 and beyond. So I thought maybe starting there and saying, well, ‘how has technology accelerated and widened this gap between us as individuals and our arena?’ could be an interesting place to go with this.


Yeah, that's a really good idea. There's something very profound in that, which again speaks to some of the things we've been talking about, and what originally struck me when you were giving me that description of what it feels like to be inside a sealed box, watching the world through the window, versus being on the bike and feeling the world rush past your face and being much more connected to it, is this theme of participation we talked about, which is a difference in perspective, a perspective, as we talked about before, of maybe the outside observer looking and observing what looks like the objective world, the world out there,
I’m divorced and separated from it and I'm observing it from a distance, from a place outside it, versus the perspective of I'm inside it, that I am participating inside the world, so what I do and what I feel and what's happening in the world are mutually connected - the world is literally rushing through me and around me - and that's a very different experience to be in the flow of life rather than observing it from the outside.

But it also brings to mind, I’ve been reading and doing some thinking about this, that there is a sense in which I think many people growing up today in the modern world, the digital world, will sense that this is the world, it's always been like this, this is normal human life. And it's very difficult to know how to compare that to anything else, to really know - how is this changing from how it used to be and if you take the step back in time and look at the broader perspective, is there a transition and shift that we can see or discern a pattern that helps us to see what this current moment is giving us? And how do we make sense of that for our own lives today and how that might help us encounter a world that's probably going to get even more chaotic and ‘hyper-stimulised’? .. if there is such a word.

So looking back in history, for literally hundreds of thousands of years, we've been living in small tribal community groups, probably 50 to a 100 at most, more recently in the last 5,000 or 10,000 years, we've had agrarian communities and the arrival of small cities and civilizations and this has grown rapidly in the last couple of centuries to the world we have now where we're sort of connected into large groupings and physical world and now the digital has connected us in a global village. This has been a, if you imagine a curve, very flat one for hundreds of thousands of years, and literally in the last few minutes of human civilization, the curve has rapidly shifted upwards in terms of the amount of connectivity we have to each other and things that others are doing.

So there is something about our human nature that is drawn from that tribal world, which is if you like our default setting, which is how we come into the world that is now trying to grapple with a very different world we've culturally and technologically created in the last, literally last few centuries, which is a shock to our system, how to accommodate something we've never evolved to deal with and I think there's something in that story that portends, I think, some of the struggles that we may be having.

But in that more original tribal way of thinking, and we can still see it in some of the indigenous tribes at the moment, which is what cultural anthropologists are starting to uncover, was this deep sense of not us as individuals competing with each others, but us as a collective who are highly mutually dependent upon each other for survival.

So humans are by definition tribal, we depend upon each other, we have to look for signals in each other, we have developed and cultivated practices, rituals, shared understanding, language, et cetera, that enables us to coordinate and interpret what's going on in the world, find shared stories and meanings and narratives around which we can coordinate our action and share our joy and share our sorrow, share our hopes, share our future and at the centre of that is a real strong sense of home. What it is to be home. Home in my community, held in the arms of those who know me and love me and I depend on, home as in quite often, the sacred homeland, the home in which our ancestors strived, in which they were born in which their spirits reside.

So this whole notion of being at home, belonging somewhere, belonging somewhere that is recognised, that has our stamp in it, that can hold us, give us sanctuary. There's something very profound in that idea of which culture elaborates and builds stories around to make sacred, that idea of home and belonging. And if we fast forward to the modern world, the idea of having a sacred ground, a home, as in community that holds us, is rapidly dissolving in the, face of the modern world with its call for us to be much more mobile - to find work, to see beyond the walls of our local community to a wider world that technology has opened up given us broad access to the whole world.

And there's something fascinating in that contradiction. I think I'm right in saying that, still in the UK, up to 40% of people still live within 10 miles of the place they were born. That's quite fascinating. There's still a large rump of British society that still has this notion of home as something very local and one could possibly see in the rise of populism, a kind of reaction to this overwhelming complexification of the world that's threatening our notion of home and belonging, but the role of technology is to bring to us, well one of the aspects of it, is to bring to us a broader consideration of other things going on beyond that which would normally sit within the boundary of the home or the local community, and the sheer scale of all of that activity, the sheer volume of it, is both holding the potential to expand our horizons, to learn new things, to become into contact with new ways of seeing the world, new culture, new ideas, new forms of entertainment, new science, new everything, but the cost of taking all of that newness in is the potential dissolving of a sense of belonging and so a lot of us, I think, probably feel a little bit more like we're surfing in a world of information and knowledge that leaves us with a sense of rootlessness - there's so much there, which is great, but it's more liquid, it's harder to feel my feet are on solid ground and I know who I am and where I come from, where I'm going and what this all means. It all feels like we're floating in a world of ever more information, more currents of things pulling us and tossing us and calling us, which is profoundly, depending on which orientation you have, exciting or disorienting, or probably a mixture of both.

So how do we find shared meaning? How do we relate to each other when this just seems like it's overwhelming and it's moving so quickly, but the deep truths that Pirsig was talking about, the things that anchor and orient our spirit, our soul, our sense of who we are individually and collectively are being sort of washed away in this current of so much stuff happening?


The thing that's paradoxical about technology is it has two opposing functions. On one side is actually bringing so many people together and connecting people for the first time and enabling people to keep in touch with friends, family, bringing this completely new dimension to communication and creating new ways of having community, lots of incredible things, but it simultaneously a driving force towards atomization. Even if we just think about the year we've all just had and having to work from home. Technology is a tool that connects us virtually, but then at the same time isolates us physically, and you've got these two opposing forces with technology that contradict each other.

So it's really interesting for me because we could spend an entire episode talking about the benefits of technology and how it brings us together and solves a problem while simultaneously we could spend an entirely different episode criticising that and looking at how it affects us and sometimes when I come home after going for a walk, there's a house cat, the cat's sitting at the door, watching the world from outside and just sitting there and it never leaves, it's just looking through the frame of this transparent glass window and seeing the world from outside. And I feel like sometimes that's what technology is doing to us. We've got this frame through which we can see the world, but we can't enter out into it and participate in it.

That's not strictly true, of course, because there's plenty of ways that technology enables us to participate. But the overall sense that I have in this moment is like how Pirsig was talking about what it's like to be in a car versus being on a motorbike. There’s this feeling of, okay, here's the frame and this is how I participate and see the world, but it's not as dynamic and visceral.


Yes there's a couple of things I think come to mind. One is this visceral nature - so, if we look at how we make sense of the world our sense of vision predominates, the most probably important sense, but we also hear the world, we touch the world, we taste the world, we smell the world and all of our senses, give us a more three dimensional experience of being in the world. And for hundreds of thousands of millions of years, if you go right back to earlier forms of life, these are the ways we make sense of the world and make decisions. It's an embodied experience of living and being, and participating and experiencing and we don't really think about that so much in the modern day. There's a sense in which if it's on a screen, you can see something and listen to something that that's, an adequate alternative to the real world of seeing someone.

And there's a lot that the communication experts are saying, which is that when people are in conversation with each other, it may be that the words people are using are possibly only about 10% of what's communicated. It’s the way that you talk. It's the body language that you're using. I believe that there are probably over a hundred groups of muscles in the face, many of which are not there for primary functions of opening your mouth or blinking or whatever sort of more structural functional uses of the face might be, but actually signify little movements that indicate emotional states. So our body language, our movements, our face there's a lot that we discern from our relationship with others and our experience of the world that can only be truly appreciated by having real world encounters as opposed to the simulations that we can get online, so more volume doesn't always equate to better.

And, I was listening to someone the other day, who was saying that, many of us will claim to have, I don't know, 500 Facebook friends or 500 LinkedIn contacts or Instagram followers or whatever it might be and even the language in which those are used as ‘friends’ is illusionary because what is the test of a friend, a friend isn't someone who just likes an occasional post of yours. A friend is someone to whom you can in your engagement with them ‘A’ have some practical, deeper value from that friendship, they may provide you with insights or you may enjoy their company, but there's a subset of those to whom you could share your innermost fears and secrets, and they with you. And in that reciprocity, there's a deeply trusted bond, which means there's someone there to whom the full meaning and tragedy and joy of life can be shared with, and that you can hold each other in your moments of need or in the moments of celebration. And when we think about that it’s those friends who are the most important, the ones that give us most meaning that gives us most joy, that you're most grateful to the world of having when you're struggling and the number of those that we can truly say that we have as the deep friends, you could probably count on the fingers of one hand. And the tragedy is that the research seems to suggest the number of people that we have that are close enough to be in that close friend, sort of soulmate category, is falling and many people report that they haven't got any at all.

So one of the fascinating paradoxes of our current technology mediated world is that we've never had more ‘friends’ but we'd never felt more lonely. And that loneliness as it transpires is one of the greatest drivers of mental health problems, which then lead to physical problems, which is in part leading to a greater rise in young suicides and mental health problems. So we've got all this new technology that affords us great opportunities, but it isn't a substitute for real world relationships. And I think, we're in a sort of child to adolescent relationship with our technology where we haven't really found the optimum mix of what a technology mediated world can provide us. There are certain things that it is extremely good and valuable for, connecting families over large distances, finding out new information, being exposed to new cultural insights and experiences we've never had before, but it can't be, and shouldn't be a substitute completely for real world interactions. So how do we gain the best of both worlds and synthesise them into the most rich and rewarding cultural experience? I think that's something that we're still struggling to find.

Matt: I think that's a really pivotal question because I think you can go all in with technology or you can almost completely reject it and say, look, I'm not going to participate in the online world, or you can say no, I'm going to make the online world the place where I spend the majority of my time, which is reflected by a lot of people spending more and more of their time in virtual environments. But finding that balance and figuring out how technology can be a tool instead of a lifestyle, let's say, something that you can use practically to enhance and augment your life rather than something that's all encompassing and almost uses you rather than you using it, I think is exceptionally important.

And I think one of the dangers with technology is that previously, we've talked about how there's a dynamic coupling between the agent and arena. And now we're kind of saying there's a feeling of being uncoupled from your arena through the acceleration of technology, this distance between us and our ability to participate in the world, which is only widening since Pirsig wrote that book, that's not just continued is continued almost in an exponential way, widening and broadening that gap, which means that we're feeling more and more out of touch with reality and technology kind of gives us this vehicle to spin out alternative realities, right?

We discussed this in terms of how people access information and how that can be deceptive and how it's important to sensemake. But to go back to your example about how people interact with social media and how people have online friends, you can get a breadth of supposed friends online and the appearance of having popularity or the appearance of being happy, or the appearance of X, Y, and Z. But that is an alternate reality that is juxtaposed to the depth of experience of having your close friends by you, of participating more viscerally in the world. And anything it feels to me like technology is giving an illusion, not all the time of course, everything that I'm saying here has to be balanced with the ways that it can be used for good, but it gives us the appearance of us being in touch with reality. ‘Oh, look, I've got lots of people following me’, ‘I'm super popular’, but actually when you take a step back and you look at the actual practical reality of that, that seems to be not there at times. And I think that this gap, this uncoupling of the agent and arena is something that we should definitely think about because as you said, it's reflected in the discourse around mental health. Now, the discourse or the feeling of nihilism that we've spoken about or cynicism in the world, the abandonment of trust in institutions, the feeling of being constantly surrounded by bullshit for example. All of this for me, stems from our interactions where this, like you said, in a nice way, this technology mediated world.


Yes, there’s certain levels of this onion to be unpicked. I think one is our agent and arena framing - so how do we couple with the arena in ways that are most healthy and most rewarding and most meaningful for us as individuals or agents in this framing? And what does that call upon for how we think about the arena and the institutions and organisations operating in the arena, and us if we're working in institutions that operate in the arena, to shape the arena in ways that are most conducive to our individual and collective flourishing?
But if we just for a moment zoom in on the agent, and I think you raised a really important point, that the digital world, or the digital culture, and the offline culture, it's becoming for many people more and more distinctive, separate universes. There's almost like an online culture, a meta culture and an offline meta culture.

And one of the things we talked about before, is this sense of who am I? Because if I'm now straddled across these two worlds, if I am cultivating a persona for my social media to attract the most likes and have the most friends, because I somehow feel that that is me more connected and acknowledged and appreciated, or possibly even envied by the world.
There's a sense in which I'll be cultivating that persona, that sort of digital persona, to fulfil that set of goals. Whereas in my offline world, I can't walk around with a filter on, I am who I am, the clothes I have are the clothes I have, the place where I live is the place where I live and the people who I deal with will see me more for who I am in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world.

And what we're seeing is certainly for younger people who spend more of the time in the digital world, a sense of creating the persona, the digital avatar of who they project themselves to be and work they go to feeding that, that is almost the avatar of themselves is a creation of their own imagination of what they think the virtual world would like about them. So, yes, you only share the greatest things that happen to you, that you put the greatest number of filters to make you look the best. So this sense of which you’re trying to cultivate an aspect of yourself to feed that community can draw you further and further away from perhaps who you really are and a lot of psychologists and psychoanalysts that I'm speaking to are finding more and more young people ending up in their clinics, who essentially,
form a schizophrenic existence, their virtual them, who they spend so much time feeding and cultivating, has become so divorced from who they really are, that they don't know who they really are anymore.

And they're finding it really difficult to find offline relationships ‘A’ because they're not spending enough time there, but ‘B’ because who am I has got utterly confused.

We were talking before about Jung and the sense that there are multiple personalities, you could think about aspects of ourselves as being multiple personalities. One could possibly bring into that field that there's the digital personality that I like to show and exhibit, but is that integrated into a sense of myself that's healthy and whole, because if I've fractured off part of myself, that's no longer who I really am, I am now going to feel deeply uncomfortable, deeply unrooted in who I am to myself and possibly deeply lost, but who I am online and who I am offline is so radically different. They can't be reconciled. And then I'm afraid of meeting people in the real world because they'll see who I really am, not who I was projecting I am, so it will reinforce the desire to stay in the world that feels most comfortable.

So there are many interesting pieces just looking at how as individuals, we manage all these personas, all these calls upon us to be who people want us to be and say, ‘no, who do I want to be?’, ‘What is it to be my true self?’ And how do I engage and relate in the various roles that I have in the now digital world, as well as the offline world that I can be most, truly authentic and sovereign to myself because to lose that sense is to fragment and to fragment is to feel lost and anxious. And I think a lot of people are struggling with finding what that centre of gravity is.


Yeah, it seems to me that when we participate in the cultural network today, we are almost forced by the network to transform our personalities or our individuality into some kind of product to fit the needs of the network. You can see this in really diverse ways as well. So if you think about setting up a LinkedIn profile or trying to present yourself digitally online, in order to attract businesses, clients, or jobs, you have to transform yourself into what you think they would expect or want of you online in order for you to feel that you can accomplish that. So there's lots of your personality that almost gets transformed and commoditised into something that you perceive others want from you.

But then that's also true now in online dating. It's almost exactly the same thing. You're much less likely now, at least speaking from my experience to have a spontaneous, random connection in life, that's come serendipitously. You're more likely to upload this persona of what you perceive, not just who you are, but what other people will like, create that product, put it online. And then when you do happen to meet someone, you have that disconnect that you're talking about between the product, the personality that's been commodified, and the actual real you and all of these things I can only imagine now just contribute more and more to that sense of disorientation.

And what I find particularly relevant about that is that it’s our participation in that network that leads to this effect. It's not just the fact that this is happening because of the way that we see the world it’s because of how the network is shaping that, which goes back to this idea again, that we often speak about, about how this is reciprocal and dynamic, this relationship. When we put something into the world that shapes us and the things in the world in turn shape how we see the world, that, two way relationship there.


Yes, so we touched on this before, but it's probably good to bring it up and you have here that, what aspects of ourselves do we feel called to share or comment or express through our online personas and presentation of ourselves? And we explored before the degree to which the values that we hold in society, give us an orientation of what we think is important and that the cultural water, which we're swimming in, as been heavily influenced by, consumerism, material culture, it's been a huge growth since the end of the second world war. The idea that we make progress through acquisition of things, that's how we acquire status and self-esteem, and the advertising industry is on a brilliant job of making us continually unhappy, that the only way to be happy is to get the next thing to get you to the next level. But as soon as you've achieved that, then the next things come along.

So we're on this kind of eternal escalator of needing more things and more things, and the images projected through our screens that outline what that looks like has been fashion, status, beauty in the presentational form. Consumerism has been held to us as being the most important thing. What is a beautiful woman? The skinny body, the perfect skin, the wonderful hair, the particular shape of the eyes and the nose and now more recently, the shape of the body has become really important, and these ideas of beauty, reinforced by celebrities, that almost act as a metaphor and symbol for this ideal - which in a world where we're feeling more rootless, lots of people get attracted to what celebrity represents and then aspire towards that and compare themselves to those. So we see huge amounts of attention to the physical, we look like, the filters, there's huge amounts of plastic surgery and all sorts of things going on, that really represent the way we've internalised what the external market has told us is good and now we hold that to be true. And we're now trying to optimise ourselves towards that.

So if you take a step back and think about culture as kind of meaning in action, one could look at this and think, well, hold on a minute, is this superficial way of thinking about what's important now been absorbed so much in our minds that we're now preoccupied with trying to fulfil these superficial ideals that we've lost deeper contact with who we are and what really matters and that are online culture, a lot of it, is now hijacked in pursuit of the trivial and the superficial, thinking that that is the most important? And if that analysis is the case that's worrying because ‘A’ it privileges the superficial and the physical over and above that, which is deeper, more profound and more meaningful.

So we're distracted from the deeper meaning and the means for our own individual and collective flourishing to the superficial appearance of things and I think that has a profound implication for us individually and collectively, if we take a step back and say where are we going? Are we able to make sense of this current massively transformational moment of history to capture all the benefits of what this new world will give us, with the wisdom of the old, such that we may end up in a better place, and not just finding ourselves trapped inside a hall of mirrors, inside a matrix that is increasingly seeking to draw out of us the most trivial and superficial aspects of what it is to live, as opposed to ones that are a bit more meaningful and profound, to which are true long-term happiness is ultimately connected.


Yeah, it seems to me that when we spin up these mini alternate universes online we leave ourselves open or prone to self-deception. And when we become aware of that, we become aware of the sense again, like I mentioned at the beginning, that we are out of touch with reality, which leads to a sense, at least the way that I see it, as a sense of not knowing our place in the world, not feeling like we are authentically coupled with who we are and what we're trying to be in the world, and we've spoken in other episodes about what are some of the solutions around that? And I think we said it already, but it starts with being aware and bringing awareness to how we can go astray, we can deceive ourselves with how we interact online, and then looking and searching for better ways to intentionally interact with the forces at play and intentionally interact with the technology that we use.

But what I wanted to bring up, which I'm really interested in before we move any further, on another episode, you and I spent some time talking about how we were brought up.
And I was talking thing about, my generation, me being in my thirties, being brought up with the internet, brought up with the dial-up tone, seeing that shift from analog to digital, but I don't have a very clear understanding of a pre-internet culture and how the world was before things were accelerated by the internet and by the online culture. And considering that the Pirsig passage that we read at the beginning, opens up some of these symptoms that say over decoupling from the arena, the sense of feeling out of touch. I wanted to ask you from your perspective and from your own life, how have you seen culture change as you've gone through this rapidly changing world?

Considering last time, we spoke a little bit about backgrounds and how I was brought up on the cusp of the analog to digital revolution and in your childhood, you were telling us about how you moved from, the small village, right the way into London for the first time and you had your A-Z with you and you were terrified of getting lost. The thing that I'm actually curious about learning or understanding from your perspective is what were the kind of symptoms in culture through your lifetime, pre-internet? What was going on in the culture? How did these problems manifest? Where are they there? What was going on? It'd be really interesting to hear your perspective on that.


Definitely the lack of internet meant that a lot of the problems we've been talking about, about the seduction and the experience of inhabiting the digital world weren't there. But there was a sense that we were in a world that was constructed in a particular way around particular ideas and what was very interesting in those times growing up was the sense that politics, in particular, for example, there was very much a clear divide between, talking about English politics, Labour (the left), Conservative (the right), they had very different visions for society, they represented very different classes in many ways.

So you were brought up in a world where there were quite distinct views of society, but also a sense in which entities, establishments within society, ones that essentially control the arena had a lot of power. It was very much a feeling that as individuals, that you were the recipient of the decisions and actions taken by agents in the arena, you didn't have a voice from which to speak back and therefore there was more of a deference to authority, and this is probably a legacy also from the second world war where the centre, if you like, had taken control to marshal the country's response as a coordinated whole to the war, and then afterwards, the rebuilding it and the creation of institutions, there was a sense in which institutions were held in awe, if not in awe, certainly there were more revered and therefore your place in society was a felt box that constrained and limited your choices.

But as I was saying, within those limited choices you had, there was a lot of freedom to play and enjoy and experience your individual freedom, albeit within these limited constraints. And certainly one of the feelings I sense, perhaps it's more a reflection of what I was going through, and this just came out of the 60’s and 70’s in general, was the sense from within youth culture, that there was a rebellion against the oppressive forces of the older generation, the establishment. There was very much a counter-culture and coming to London you experienced that. There was the era of ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’. Punk was a very popular thing and if you went to a punk gig, there was this sense of anarchy, a kind of total rebellion against all institutional forms and ways of doing things. London at that time was still very much the centre of the fashion industry. So outrageous clothes, outrageous ways of doing things. There was both a deference for authority and an anarchy against it commingling which was a very strange, disturbing time to try and make sense of where you fit into this milieu.

So it felt like things were shifting, things were changing, but they haven't yet changed the institutional structures of the arena. They were there, noise, if you like the bottom strata, starting to rebel against that. And certainly in areas of pop and fashion it was starting to take root. So for me, it was a kind of reckoning, a kind of growing awareness, which is in part, I think, what you do in your sort of late teenage life and early twenties, of becoming more aware of the culture that you're swimming in and the forces that were there in that and where do I fit into this bigger picture?

And suddenly that sort of came into view in a way that I'd never really thought about when I was younger, and it was a very exciting and thrilling and at times, scary place. I mean I was actually at the Brixton riots, I actually went to the riot while it was in full flow and to see total anarchy on the streets and police stations being burnt down, the sense of wildness and fear, it was all part of the milieu of that time. There was also the terror attacks and the IRA. So a very strange period to get your cultural footing in the world. Looking back, perhaps a very rewarding one.

But it also coincided with some interest, this widened interest in other cultures and other identities, and it was my first time I took a couple of backpacking trips around the world into India, to Ecuador, to the amazon jungle, to some other places in the world. And I went there with a curiosity, I went there not just to live in a four or five star place - not that I could afford it - and observe it as a first-world person in that metal box of Pirsig or cocooned in a nice hotel. No, I wanted to go and live in a one-star place. I wanted to muck in with the locals and experience life as it was lived and I found that the most amazing experience, to see how other people saw life, what was important to them, how they lived and laughed and how they danced and what they ate, what they listened to and immersed myself in that. And it was the first time I came super aware and conscious of some beliefs and ways of being in the world that were part of my culture that I'd never seen before, very much like, we’ve used the metaphor before of the goldfish swimming in the water, not seeing the water. Seeing another culture's water and experiencing its difference in the way people saw the world and saw each other.

And then coming back to my own culture was the first time I actually questioned my own culture in a more profound way. Why are we, as English people, so reticent to show our emotions? We're quite cold compared with some of these other cultures that are very warm and embracing. Our relationship to the family seems quite distant, whereas other cultures embody and welcome the family in and look after their elderly and in a very profound and different way. There are many aspects of life that got me aware that culture is something far bigger than just my own encounter with my own life - it's a shaping of the world in which we inhabit - and it got me to think and become much more aware of that.

I think just rolling the clock forward, one of the great things of new technology, and one of the great things of communications and social media, is that we're now able to share each other's experiences. So we can now share and see what others share and see and we now have the opportunity to have a voice, we can speak back, we can publish, we can say what we like and don't like, we can share our experiences with others in ways that then mean that us as a collective have a voice and a collective voice that we can push back and be part of a participatory conversation about what kind of institutions and ways of structuring our culture and way of life do we like or not like, and how can we possibly co-create that with the institutional powers that historically have dominated that conversation?

The question I think rolling it back to a broader thing that we're looking at is - how might that cultural conversation be had in a way that's mutually rewarding in so much that it can enable us to see the signal in the noise and enable that cultural conversation to be one that enhances the quality and flourishing of our society? And not one where we get lost in the bullshit and become nihilistic and confrontational with each other and there's a dance going on here, which is us as individuals making sense and trying to engage in collectively figuring out what is a better way to live, with institutional forces that have agendas that are marshalling technology and AI to shape that conversation and their own interest and therefore, this moment in history mediated by technology is hugely powerful, but it's a contested space that could equally, or more likely, potentially, go wrong.

Especially if we're throwing AI into that and institutional actors have access to AI in a way that we as individuals can't marshal AI in service of our individual and collective interests.
Therefore the meta conversation that we all collectively need to be involved in is what kind of world do we want to bring into being such that this collective conversation about the culture that we have, the culture that we want to bring into being, could be the one that's most fruitful and secure and sustainable and beneficial for us all as we move into this even more technologically powerful future.


From what you said the thing that I want to re-emphasize, a point I really want to hit on, is that technology is also providing a space for us to see and hold multiple perspectives simultaneously in a way that maybe prior to, I mean, you'll have to confirm this for me, maybe prior to, it was harder to do. So now you can have access to diverse ideas, to different cultures or different ways of seeing the world and you can encounter that very frequently online. Yes, it is easy to get trapped in an echo chamber where you can get lost in how you see your world but I think technology has given us the ability to create new realms in which culture can express itself. And that means that we have the ability now to see not just our point of view, we can see many people's points of view and realise that the world is a complex place where we need to hold multiple perspectives.

And of course, like we said at the beginning, there are lots of negatives to technology, but that's one particular thing that I think is super valuable and worth us thinking over, about how we can and should hold multiple different perspectives in a way to help us to see the world and to get back in touch with reality. And in a sense, we were saying before that technology is almost deceiving us and making us feel out of touch, well that's one way that we can get back in touch if we're exploring, searching, and understanding different cultures and other ways of seeing the world.

But this problem with this separation of the agent and arena, this uncoupling, this underlying current that we see from what we read about Pirsig right up until now in our current lives, I have a feeling that it runs so much deeper than just the moment that we are in. And I was thinking when I was thinking about this idea of a cultural network, this thing that we all participate in, we're all parts of, as nodes on it, as a metaphor, I was thinking, what can culture reveal to us about where we're at now?

And you said something really interesting on a previous episode, I can't remember which one that the stories that we tell ourselves now seem to be ones that are apocalyptic in nature, seem to be ones that don't necessarily present a positive vision of the future, and that undercurrent, that thing that's kind of in the cultural zeitgeists now - zeitgeist meaning the spirit of the age, spirit of the times - it seems that we're overwhelmed with this kind of apocalyptic imagery and storytelling about how there is no positive future and I'm wondering if that's connected to this sense of not feeling connected to the world and feeling like there is a gap between us and the environment we live in.

But then when I was thinking about what can culture reveal to us about where we're at? And thinking along the lines of apocalyptic movies, well, what are some of the most famous, most iconic apocalyptic movies? Because I also remember saying when we were talking on the legacy mindsets episode that we should pay attention to the things that hold weight in the public domain. If you remember, I was saying, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is super interesting because it’s managed to keep people's attention intergenerationally. There's an effect there that has some gravitas that is really interesting to explore. So when I was applying that to my thinking around apocalyptic movies, I realised that it didn't just start in the 2010’s or the 2020’s, all of this talk about apocalyptic narratives, probably one of the first ones that really was iconic was ‘Planet of the Apes’, which was released in 1968.

And the sequels of that were released in the 70’s, which completely coincide with when, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ was released and it feels like almost every decade since then, we've had apocalyptic stories that have captured and held the cultural zeitgeist whether that's, ‘The Terminator’ in the 80’s or ‘The Matrix’ in the 90’s yet that's not necessarily completely apocalyptic, but in a way it is because they were living in a completely fabricated world in a post-apocalyptic space.

And then I guess the one from my childhood that maybe isn't as iconic to other generations, but certainly as to mine would be, ‘I am Legend’ with Will Smith. There's a virus that gets released which turns a lot of everyday people into zombies essentially and he is the last person remaining and it's a story exploring that, that I remember had a big effect on me when that came out. But almost feels like every generation has had its own cultural narrative. That's reflecting this idea of a catastrophic future that's ahead. So I wanted to bring up and ask, or at least explore with you this idea of what can culture reveal to us about where we're at, what are the stories that we're telling ourselves revealing to us about where we're at in this moment? And it's not just apocalyptic movies as well. There's, superhero movies that have become popular. There's the rise of the antihero that’s become super popular. There's all of these things happening on the cultural network that speak to us about where we're at as a culture. So I wanted to get your thoughts on that.


It's probably just worth making a point here that taking a step back and looking at art in all its forms more generally, one way of thinking about art is holding a mirror up to our culture to say, who do we think we are? What are the visions we have of ourself? What are the aspirations we think we hold for ourselves? And what are our deepest fears? And throughout history, one could look at art as almost like a reflection of who we thought we were and what we found important. Of course each individual artwork would be a sub piece of that and may go off in different directions. But as a general overview, art says something about who we are, where we think we are, what aspirations and imagination do we have for where we're going and what our fears are.

And as we've developed more powerful technology, as we've started to doubt ourselves, if we started through Freud and then Jung to get the idea, there's a shadow side to us that we're not all naturally oriented and able to enact the good. We have a jealous side, a frightened side, a will to power side of our personalities. Art and especially through movies has been able to play with these ideas, project that onto technology and then through this science fiction say, well, what could happen in the future? And what's really interesting as you say about the apocalyptic side, is that we've seen throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century a shift in thinking about the future from being something that was potentially more positive to something that's super scary and full of fear and destruction and that says something about maybe how society is seeing itself. It's fearful of itself. The fact that there is a shadow side in us that technology is accelerating more rapidly than our capacity to understand and make good use of it and that this is an unfolding story that could end in disaster.

But it wasn't always that way. I remember one of the most influential science fiction stories when I was growing up was the original Star Trek series. And there was a very different vision of the future portrayed. It was one where we had transcended capitalism, we had transcended the fights of ideologies and what the characters on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise reflected if you look back on it was a Japanese, a Russian and an American, and the African-American, even Spock as a symbol of another race yet to be discovered, was this collective that coming together, using multiple perspectives, we could bring the fruits and wisdom of all of life, to bring goodness in our adventure across the universe.

And there was some things supremely optimistic and hopeful in that story, as well as the multiple perspectives of multiple races, there was the human frailty, but the moral what's the right thing do from Captain Kirk and the science and logic of Spock, and even exploring how those two overlapped and that the whole is greater than the sum of parts was the synthesis of multiple perspectives in service of the good, and it was a supremely hopefully set of adventures about where humanity could ultimately get.

And for me growing up that was hugely influential. So as the zeitgeist has changed and the apocalyptic movies have started to come out in an ever greater number it's been a shock. I've seen that my more hopeful and optimistic view of the futures now butting up against a sense in which society is losing faith and confidence in itself and its own powers and that there's dread and terror and fear in the future coming. I don't know what your thoughts and perspectives are and how you've seen that journey or whether it's been more of the negative side as you've entered into the world of the movies later in that story.


My first experience of the Star Trek world was actually The Next Generation. So that was Captain Picard and again, that was a very hopeful, very optimistic vision of the future. We have a group of people representing the best of what humanity could be representing human values in a science fiction narrative and it was hugely inspiring and inspired a vast amount of people, of a show of my generation slightly older, but since then, I've only seen scifi being really a vehicle for exploring the more negative aspects of, the human condition in ways it can go wrong, sometimes in some absolutely fantastic and mesmerising ways. One of the best science fiction TV shows I've ever watched is something called Battlestar Galactica, which is based on the film, but it was actually a TV series where they were exploring the interactions between us as humans and our creations, like technological creations that we make that represent humanity, one of the most interesting science fiction TV series I've ever watched and explores the human condition in such depth and such a nuance. I really enjoyed it.

But if we zoom out and just take a more generic look at culture, at least films that I was brought up watching, they tended to skew more towards that kind of apocalyptic narrative, which gives you this feeling of an impending doom - there's no way out of it. You can't escape it. But counterbalanced to that in the culture now, from what I see, and when I say in the culture, I'm talking just reflected in the movies that we watch and are well known, at least in popular discourse is the whole superhero movie narrative.

That essentially is the typical heroic narrative. Joseph Campbell's hero monomyth, where this hero ventures out into the unknown, overcomes obstacles, saves the day and as you said before on the show brings back the treasure to share with the community, that essential myth dates back thousands of years, that still really exists in the culture. And that captures us, that captures our attention even today. So you can see this kind of juxtaposition between the superhero journey, which is good versus evil, it's about overcoming your fears, having moral integrity, standing up for what you know is right, which is something that captivates us now, you can watch the same story in many different variants over and over again and it's just completely spellbinding. And then you've got the apocalyptic stories which is like, ‘oh man, the world is ruined’ and then the other thing that's come up over my viewing and experience of watching different TV shows and stuff is the introduction of these anti-hero stories where all of a sudden you go from good versus evil to the nuance of the grey zone. Like this grey area where human beings are so much more complex there not 2D anymore.

Two of the biggest ones I can think of that really captivated a lot of people that I know are one ‘Breaking Bad’. I don't know if you know much about ‘Breaking Bad’? It's about a guy called Walter White, who is a science teacher that transforms into a drug Lord called Heisenberg. And it's all about the complexities of that and it completely messes with your mind in terms of how you empathise and understand this person's emotional journey, even though he turns out to be a very bad figure, and then the other story, which I think really captured the cultural moment was ‘Game of Thrones’ based on the books of George R.R. Martin.

And I think part of the appeal to stories like that, at least the beginning of the series, because the end of the series, unfortunately, it doesn't work out as well as it could have, let's say, but the characters are so complex, they're not 2D. Two of the characters that come to mind for me, there's one called ‘Tyrion’, who is extremely complex in terms of good and bad and understanding him, an extremely witty character full of life. And then there's ‘The Hound’, another character that you could say, oh, wow yeah, there's good to him, there’s bad to him. You can't call him a good character or a bad character. There's all of that nuance and complexity and maybe that's explaining where we're at, you know, we're understanding more about human nature, more about what we are like, and it goes beyond the good versus bad narrative, even though that obviously still has huge appeal and it's still really important to us in terms of showing us a universal pattern that has a lot of appeal.

I think we've seen the rise of this complexity in exploring our human nature on the cultural network and that's combined also with these apocalyptic narratives that have actually become more and more and more frequent. If you just went on Wikipedia and typed in ‘apocalyptic movies’ and you saw how many have been released since the 60’s to now the recent decades have seen the most of these apocalyptic stories come to the fore.


Yeah it’s super interesting, one of the characteristics of the Protestant revolution, brought in by Martin Luther, and the spirit of the age that was released from that, was this idea of building heaven on earth and the energy and vitality and the frontier spirit especially of America. The idea that the project was to serve the future, to build that heaven on earth, and that was undertaken in a spirit of possibility that we could bring the best of humanity and the best of our creations in service of building a better world and that whole orientation to the future, which I was brought up in the tail end of, it was still, when I was young, the sense that the future was, a world of possibilities and an exciting place to look forward to as being completely and utterly reversed to a sense of the future is a place we dread - we're going to destroy the planet. We're going to destroy ourselves with technology. AI and robots and Terminator and biological weapons and you name it.

There are existential risks all over the place, and those who study it say yes, there's a lot of truth in that and that maybe these fears are indeed justified and what our apocalyptic movies are doing are sensing that shift that as we talked about in the previous episodes, we are soon arriving at the place where we have the power of gods, but do we have the wisdom and love of gods to know how to use it? Because everywhere we look around, we have self-interest or power acting in service of some small section of society against the rest and you put super powers into that mix and it's not going to end well and we haven't figured out a way collectively serving all of our interests without zero-sum games of more powerful entities, marshalling technology, and support of their ends potentially ending disaster.

But what's interesting, and I think you're right to point this out, it's a really important point, that there is a nuance happening in the account of good versus bad that's new and interesting. So one of the things that was always interesting for me growing up in a world where there was lots of Hollywood movies, a lot of cowboy films, which you don't see so much at the moment, the way that the world was portrayed to us was good versus evil, good guy versus bad guy. Good cop versus criminal, and there'll be a war, a conflict, but the good guy would usually win out in the end and happiness would reign over the earth. And it was a very black and white sense of, good versus evil, but as psychology has revealed to us, and if we talked about, you know, the idea of the shadow, that good and evil runs through the heart of every single person, it's much more nuanced and complex.

There are forces at play in the world, in other groups, but also within our own selves, and as we become more powerful, those forces require a deep reflection on how to bring together those different elements of ourselves, of the complexity of what good and bad actually means in a more complex world. So we do get the antihero or the more complex hero. These ambiguities about what good and evil means is an interesting area of depth and subtlety and nuance that's now coming out through these TV series and through these films. So one way of thinking about the culture is that a lot of modern culture and commoditization of culture has led to a sort of plastification of culture that titillates and entertains, but it doesn't really get to grips with the deep issues of our time and helps reflect back to us where we are and what we should do.

One could argue that the novel played that role historically. It was the Brontë sisters getting us to reflect on our own experience and consciousness and bringing the idea of ‘self-consciousness’ into all of our consciousnesses, through stories that reflect on things in a much deeper way than had typically been talked about. We've got Dostoevsky and his exploration of what it is that lies at the heart of human nature and exploring the good and evil, those subtleties that disappeared from most of mass culture in Western history. But now is reappearing through the form of these series and these films. So there's I think something really valuable and important starting to come through a kind of recognition through these new cultural mediums to explore with greater depth, greater sincerity, nuance, what does good and bad mean individually, collectively? How we engage with a more complex world with exponential technology, these things are starting to be played back to us through cultural idioms and through the imagination of film makers that I think are a really important and welcome part of our society reflecting on itself.


I like what you said about the cultural network being a mirror that reflects back and helps us to see where we're at. And I think just thinking on it, asking ourselves the question of what might that reveal to us about where we're at now is a worthwhile exercise. Bearing in mind of course there are obviously other forces, as you were alluding to earlier, that shape the cultural network that aren't necessarily just emergent, where you've got other forces that, have a financial motive, something as simple as that, that completely shape the narrative of a story and may be strip it out of its depth and commodify it and make it plastic, as you said.

But there are some stories, some films, some ideas that slip through the cracks and when they come out, they're so important to think about and think well.. are the stories that we're telling ourselves, ones that are encouraging and edifying and taking us to a world that we want to be part of? Or are these stories discouraging? Are they disempowering? And I think, we've been trying so far in this conversation to try and understand, if there is one, what this cultural network might be, and we've spoken about ways that we can upload our personalities into it and contribute to it and now we've been talking a little bit about how stories can be brought into our world that reflect to us how we might see ourselves collectively, not necessarily individually, but as a group of people.

So it's really interesting just thinking about what the cultural network is and how it functions. And I know that you and I were particularly keen to actually deep dive a bit more into that and give it a bit more concreteness, because up until now, we've just been discussing different aspects of the cultural network, but this might be a nice place for us to talk a little bit about how our cognition is participatory, and looking at the stories that we share or the systems that we operate in, the networks that we operate in culturally, they seem to be participatory, which is part of the theme of what we've been speaking about and one way to look at this is to look at it through a cognitive scientific lens and again, the work of John Vervaeke comes to mind here because he's been so influential in this way of thinking for me but it's this idea of distributed cognition, but what do we mean by that? What is distributed cognition?

I would think about it like this. It's the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding life, and understanding in general, that process, that cognitive process of thinking is spread out and shared across a group. Almost like having an extended mind, let's say, where everyone comes together to participate in solving problems or understanding the world, that's distributed cognition from the way that I see it.


Yeah, it's a really good point. You know, one of the themes of our conversation is, technology is and has opened up the world to us, we're exposed to more complexity and more possibilities, which bring great excitement and opportunities, but also bring confusion and potential loss of meaning or even threat. So there's.. and I've been guilty of this - I am curious by nature as you've probably guessed - and I'm curious in exploring many themes and many ideas, and I see value in trying to look across different domains of knowledge to see if I can synthesise patterns and understanding that connect things. But sometimes it feels like I'm trying to drink from a fire hose. There's just so much stuff out there that I can't take it all in and if I do I get indigestion. So there's no way I can individually make sense of all of the world in ways that enable me to make all the best decisions for myself and have the most meaningful life. There's just simply too much. So I have to, let’s use a Daniel Schmachtenberger phrase, ‘proxy my sense-making’ to others who are looking at other pieces of this problem or looking at other elements of life in rich and rewarding ways and that in some way our best hope of making sense of a complex world is the ability to draw from the collective insights of multiple people who are earnestly looking at this.

So as we look across the world with all the different things that need to do, both individually and collectively and institutionally and globally, we're going to have to involve collective ways of looking at things to provide the collective intelligence, the collective insight to do the collected meaning-making to inform the collective action.

We can only do this as collectives, and therefore this idea of rather than me using my cognition to understand the world, can we extend that out and use distributed cognition to make sense of what's happening collectively in fields where it's important to do that?

What I've come across as a term that people have been using recently that I hadn't come across before, but it's quite interesting it’s ‘hyper objects’. I thought, what the hell is a hyper object? And I may have not got this definition quite right, because I'm new to this phrase, but the idea of a hyper object, that there are certain things that are really important to us that none of us can experience in its totality as an individual. You know, the idea of an economy, the idea of education, the idea of global warming. These are things that are really important to us, but none of us can walk out the door and confront it and say, I can sense and know what this thing is, it's a concept if you like, it's a meta idea that can only be made sense of collectively. It's not something I individually can understand and its totality, it's a hyper object and these things in our collective world there it's almost like levels of abstraction that we can only see in the collective. They're an emergent property that we can see as a collective, but we can't get a grip on it as an individual, which I think are really important ways that we can use our collective intelligence to undertake collective meaning-making and undertake collective action in service of, our collective flourishing and that the planet as theme in this.

So there's the ‘distributed’, almost like horizontal. But I think one of the interesting things that John Vervaeke and Jordan Peterson in particular have been looking at is, is there a distributed cognition over time? Is there a sense in which our individual lives are so brief and so short, and we've given such a small fragment of the potential range of experiences we could have as a human being about what it is to live well that’s there's no possibility that I could see everything that's important about living well and what Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke are pointing to is that one form of distributed cognition is, and this is really interesting, and I think this is quite revolutionary set of ideas, is that we often look back in our myths and stories from our past, maybe even the religions and the parables contained in it as being, that's all gibberish that our forefathers used to believe in because they didn't have science, they didn't understand the world, so they came up with these things to as kind of an analgesic to protect themselves from the pain of life, but it's all made up gobbledygook because they didn't know any better and we can just now conveniently throw that all in the bin because now we have science and we now know how the world works. We can jettison all of that wisdom because it's irrelevant.

And what Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke are going to hold on a minute, hold on a minute. What is the process by which myths and stories and religions arise? What they are is patterns that people see in that possibly going back to tribal life about the stories of when things worked and when they didn’t. And that those stories are repeated again and again, and distilled and handed down through the generations and probably elaborated with other stories that prove the same point and as Jordan Peterson says that once you get a story that's passed on and elaborated, an added to by multiple experiences through the generations, what you get is an almost distillation of the true essence of what's being revealed through those stories.

It's as he says, it almost becomes meta-true as the story of stories, the things that have worked over time, again and again and again, are refined and passed down through the generations as stories and therefore there's something deeply true and wise. It's a form of distributed cognition, distilled through multiple generations, to arrive at what is most true about what it is to be a good leader, what it is to be a father, what it is to be a mother, what is to be a warrior? Why is an elder important? The wisdom that they bring from experience so they can share with the tribe. These things get distilled and built into stories, and then processed into the gods, which became the, if you like the spirits that inhabited these stories that seem to be eternally true, and therefore symbolised, through the gods synthesised, ultimately into the religions and the parables that come out of that.

So there is therefore deep wisdom about what really matters to us that what aspects of human nature that are bequeathed to us from the distributed cognition of our ancestors, that it's worth not throwing them away immediately, but actually trying to distil from this, that which is most valuable and insightful because that distributed cognition over time reveals to us something important about the essence of what it is to be human and to live well.

And I think as we synthesise all that historical knowledge with all that's new that's coming. I think that's our best chance of making sense of where we are now and where we go in the future, right back to Pirsig comment, there's too much hitting us coming out of the now to be able to discern the signal from the noise, the bullshit from the real, and some of this ancient wisdom handed to us and bequeathed to us a part of those pillars I think he talked about. Our ancestors have already discovered some of the things that are really most important to us in terms of how we might live well. So how can we rescue that and augment it with this new knowledge or help us to use those insights to maybe filter out some of the bullshit, such that we can build our new knowledge onto that ready ourselves for this new age? And that distributed cognition over time, as well as horizontally across multiple actors or a systemic way, I think, in which we could think about collective intelligence and distributed cognition more widely.


It sounds to me like, when we're looking at the cultural network, in regards to the stories that we tell ourselves, there's two ways that you could look at it as a mirror.

There's how things are changing over time, and seeing how the world is changing, that's a really important part of it, so looking at that to reflect where we're at now and where we might be going, but with Vervaeke with I think what he says about myth is that ‘myths are symbolic stories about perennial patterns that are always with us’, and I think what he means by that is, there are certain patterns that exist about human nature that are constant and the stories that we tell each other about human nature are really important and revealing our innermost nature and we should pay attention to that.

So my takeaways from what you're saying is that not only does the cultural network reveal to us how our perceptions are changing of the world, they also can reveal to us if we pay attention to them, who we are and how we operate, and actually discerning the difference between the two is really important because it's hard. It's a hard thing to get to grips with, especially considering that that cultural network can get polluted by other forces, by other things that have a different motive to that pursuit of understanding and knowing ourselves within the network.

The fact that it's participatory and that our thinking and cognition is shared and distributed across different groups of people across different ideas for me is super interesting because it means that what comes out of the network is often emergent. It's almost like each one of us has a fragment or an idea of what we are or how we are living or where we are going and when we coalesce and we bring together our thinking and we unite, all those fragments come together into a coherent whole. So that for me is something that I'm really interested in. It's like when we come together, can we see more than just the part? Can we see the whole?

And then finally the other thing that comes to mind is, yeah, cognition isn't just linked to us participating in the now, it's linked over time. That could be something as simple as you could link your own cognition by journaling and writing down your thoughts today and reading them back tomorrow to influence your future or reading a book like we started, you know, what we've done is we've interacted with the cognition of Pirsig and used that to create a whole podcast story. So cognition is linked over time and our thinking, and that ability is something really special, but we don't often think about the power of that.

And I think the thing that Vervaeke says, that resonated with me when I heard him say this was, “way before the internet networked computers together, culture networked brains together in order to provide some of our most powerful problem solving abilities”. So the question that comes to mind for me is when we come together and we create these distributed cognition networks. If we look at a cultural network as a large network of cognition, what can we do when we come together? And what can we achieve if we're problem solving in concert with other people?

The cultural network and looking at the cultural network as a large network of cognition that is shared throughout society, throughout groups. We can look at it on a grand scale, we can look at it on the most zoomed out level where we can look and try and make abstractions on culture. But as Andy and I have been speaking about on this episode, we have to hold multiple perspectives. Andy and I’s perspectives are limited in terms of our experiences of culture, and other people are going to have their own perspectives and views on what that cultural network’s like and what it reveals to us about the world. So I tend to see it when I'm thinking about distributed cognition, I try and see it on an agentic level, and try and think about it in terms of what could I practically do in my life to spin up or to set up or to create distributed cognition networks in my life that help me to be more agentic, to not just myself, but the people around me and to interact in that way.

And, if you think about this idea of a node as well, that’s operating on this network, as I said at the beginning, a node is that connection point within a network that can send, receive, store and create information. If we think about ourselves as those nodes, how we bring together other nodes and interact with them and share information and create information together and do those kinds of things that our node would do is really important. So to make this practical and take it from the abstract into the real, I have actually set up my own little group with my friends, that is a distributed cognition network, where there's six of us, we all meet once a month and we talk about the challenges that are going on in our lives, what our goals are for the future, what we'd like to achieve through business. And we meet up and we discuss ideas and we all listen to someone speak for 10 to 15 minutes and help them with the problems that they're facing. Try and help remove the obstacles that are in their life, inspire them when they need inspiration and localising the distributed cognition networks and making them practical, you could think of it almost like an accountability team, or squad, you bring each other together, you support each other, and you can do that online. I mean, one of the reasons why I started the group was I was feeling atomized and isolated and I wanted to bring together people that thought differently, but had the same objectives, because obviously having diverse opinions is super important, but wanted to get to the same place.

Bringing those people together and discussing those things and using technology this time as a tool, as a vehicle through which to achieve that for me was super powerful. Of course it would be even more amazing if you could do it in person, but one of the major advantages of technology is that you can find the right people regardless of location, you are location independent. So I know we're kind of wrestling with technology having advantages and disadvantages. The advantage that I found with tech is, okay, I'm going to bring together these people and we're going to meet once a month and we're going to discuss and try and solve our problems together, which should in theory, make us more agentic. And actually that group was one of the biggest pushes for me getting this podcast out there, getting it produced, getting that working. So to take it all the way from the abstract and going straight into a practical way of looking at distributed cognition, I operate with that mental model .

We started this with a passage from a book talking, for me at least, it seemed like the decoupling of us as individuals, that sense of alienation from the world that we're in and the passage ends with saying ‘some channel deepening is called for’ seems called for at least.
And, one of the ways that I think we can do that is through dialogue and through coming together, sharing ideas, supporting each other, thinking about the world in different ways and, holding multiple perspectives like we mentioned, seeing things from different people's worldviews, having that perspectival knowing where you can relate and empathise and understand someone's perspective from a different worldview. And we were speaking in the sense-making episode about how maybe to create those bridges and to understand different ways of seeing the world and these things are so important.

So with a distributed cognition network, what you really want is the wisdom of the group, you want to participate in the marketplace of ideas, you want to have people that challenge your ideas, challenge the way that you see the world, that would quite willingly listen to your ideas and you feel free to speak and say what you feel, to explore those things together.
And for me that's the important thing about a distributed cognition network or coming together in groups. It's about the encouragement of discussing ideas freely and not feeling stifled in the exploration of those ideas and feeling confident to explore them, because there's two types of coming together in groups - there's ones that lead to groupthink, where there's no diversity of thought and everyone's echoing their own sentiments. Then there are other ones where you debate, you challenge each other, you discuss in a really open and loving way and I think that that's something that I would add into the mix at this point, which is worth thinking about.

And ultimately for me, my lens is about how can we improve ourselves and the people closest to us around us. I think that that's something that I feel like it's awesome to foster in our lives, bringing together different groups of people that have different values to learn and to understand them to grow. Yeah and also around common goals, like for my group, for example, it's about how can we improve ourselves? That's our common goal regardless of our backgrounds.


And I think it's great that you have that bigger question, which creates the space for you to explore what that means individually and collectively. So posing the right questions, framing our conversations that open up a space for something to emerge that everyone can contribute towards I think is really, really important.

But secondly, and this is something that all of us struggle with at some point, is the more we think about, the more we’re working things through, we come to some ideas and we want to share those ideas and that's really, really important. But your point about dialogue is really important, it's I will never know all the answers, I can never see all the perspectives, I can't, it's impossible and therefore it is super important to be able to listen, not listen so you're just waiting for yourself to say the next thing, but listen, acutely and intently as to what the other person is saying and what they're bringing to the table and then think about how might my perspective and their perspective and the other's perspectives if we put them on the table and play with them out of that arise or emerge a common understanding that can accommodate those multiple perspectives. So the act of listening, understanding, and synthesising is really, really important.

And out of that will arise deeper friendships, bonding of friendships, deeper understanding, shared sense-making and the possibility for individually and collectively, not being run by existing cultural strings that we've explored in these episodes, often jerking us and dragging us in a particular direction, but to recover our own ability to make sense of who am I? Where am I in my journey? Where do I want to go? And where do I collectively want to go with others who are also thinking about these things? Such that we can start to push back a little bit and open up a space for being, acting and working in the world to create something that's truly and authentically a better way of living, not just following the routines of the culture that we find ourselves in and the morals of our times, but something that's truly in service of ourselves and others and if hundreds, thousands, millions of people are doing that, then this collective sense-making will arise out of that as an emergent property that enables us collectively to start really working through and bringing to bear the sorts of changes that are so needed as this next stage of humanity. The old code has run its course and a new one is needed and it's from us having these conversations that that will manifest itself.


And, to wrap up, on the distributed cognition idea, one of the things that's worth mentioning is if you think about what distributed cognition means, it means our thinking is shared and spread out across a group that applies to so many facets of life. We spoke about organisational structures in the last episode, you can look at an organisation as a distributed cognition engine, you can even think about this show as a distributed cognition engine. We've spoken briefly about the cultural network, or let's say we've only spoken about very specific aspects of it, but understanding how you you, as a listener, that's listening right now understands the cultural network or at least this metaphor, does it relate to you?
Can you see different aspects of this network? Do you think that there's something else to this, another dimension bringing together diverse ways of thinking and adding to the conversation and bringing together. All of these things brings together different fragments and different ways of seeing the picture to try and get to something that's more holistic.

So that's why I think in, the show especially in the intros and outros, we're constantly posing questions and getting people to email us and to contribute because in a way that informs us we're so limited in what our personal perspectives are but the more we can inform each other and bring that together, the more we can begin to see more of the picture that informs things.

So I'm trying to figure out how we can make a really nice wrap up to this. And I think that the question that I said at the beginning of this episode, the end of last episode, and probably the one to think about now is we're speaking about the cultural network. How do we strengthen ourselves and therefore strengthen the network? And one of the things that I think is worth thinking about is still that question and I think we want to explore that. Going forward, how do we participate in that cultural network? How do we make ourselves more agentic, make ourselves more full of self-efficacy and resilience so that when we participate in the arena, we are contributing to that cultural network in a way that edifies it, and doesn't corrupt it? That's something I think that's worth us all contemplating on and I think we'll probably want to continue to try and explore as we move forward.


I agree with you, the challenge of this age is, as we've talked about, more complexity, there's a broader view of a whole world that we've never seen before brought to us by technology that our ability to engage with it using technology is now with us too so what we can see and what we can do has been radically expanded, almost exponentially expanded, which brings us huge opportunities, but huge overwhelm as Pirsig said at the beginning.

So what is most important and most true and most good versus what is the noise that we can easily get distracted or hijacked by is, a unique challenge of this moment in history which is why it's so important at this moment in time to be thinking about these questions. So one thing that it would be good, I think, as you said, is to explore a little bit more depth, how do we get to grips with this?

The complexity, the exponential rise in information, the shift from the offline to online are wave upon wave of overwhelm that Pirsig’s analysis from years ago has been augmented to another order of magnitude and this overwhelm that we are experiencing individually, many of us, is also being experienced at the collective. So our institutions and our way of life is starting to fracture and be unable to carry the load of these times and that what we put forward there, we sort of worked through in this conversation, I think, is that there is no single point of view that can collectively decide everything for it, as much as we might will and like that and as much as we might be drawn to demagogues who claim they can do that, it is through us individually and coming together collectively. If we can unleash the processing power of hundreds of millions of people who all have different perspectives but different value to contribute that the bottom up collective intelligence of us all can yield, If we do that in good faith, and do that with an orientation to wanting the best possible life for ourselves and others, offers the opportunity for a collective network of culture and insight to bring an emergent, new order into being that I think herald's route to the future that we should seriously think about. I can't think of any other way.


I don't actually know what my main takeaways are from this conversation. I think I want to sit with it and think on where we've got to have this. One thing's for sure I'd love to understand more about this metaphor of the cultural network and how we participate in it and what that means and how we might do that, how we might contribute to it. This idea of being a node on the network, this idea that not only do we send, store and receive information, we can create, we can add to the network, there's something empowering about that in terms of how we want to live our lives. And we started this looking at the gap between us as individuals and the world around us and the effects of that, and I think that looking at participation and co-creation in the world could be potentially a path forwards in terms of how we reorientate ourselves and connect ourselves to the world that we find ourselves in, regardless of its complexity and its uncertainty and rapid rapid change.

And I think the question that's on my mind is a question that was posed by Pirsig, which you alluded to again, which is how do we concentrate on what's best rather than what's new and what are the values are built around that that help us to orientate ourselves in a world that seems to be continually becoming more and more confusing and complex and difficult to navigate, and basically using this concept of, this lens of the cultural network, to try and find a meaning within the world that we're situated in. I think that that would be what I will take away from the conversation we've just had.


So that's the end of another episode of Meta Perspective. Where to start with that one? Well, I've definitely had a chance to sit with this episode and to think over what we got to with it.

Randomly one of the things I really wish I'd brought up, when we were talking about Star Trek funnily enough, is the Borg, the cyborg antagonists in The Next Generation that want to assimilate everything using technology into the collective. It would've been a very interesting topic of conversation. But alas that didn't come to my mind when we were talking.

Anyway, we raised quite a few questions there at the end. So instead of doing, raising more of them, I wanted to leave you with my reflections on this conversation a year or so later since it was recorded.

So this idea of a cultural network, especially this conversation. We were really just trying to find its boundaries and explore its contours and figure out if anything, what it would be. And I still think that that's a question that hangs over us, and there's gonna be more work to really drill into it and to define it more succinctly.

However, I think especially in terms of how we participate with it, we can distil some attributes of the network, which I think are worth highlighting again.

So what can we do with the cultural network? How do we participate with it?

Well, we upload our personalities into it. We download stories from it. We participate passively when we consume information and actively when we create content that can be seen and shared by others.

The network reflects back to us our thoughts of who we are, where we're at, and are hopes, fears, our visions for the future. And we each store within us fragments of those reflections or those fundamental questions that we all wrestle with. Our own unique perspectives on the world and life and who we are that are pieces of a bigger picture. And as our thinking is shared and distributed over groups, when we come together, we can participate in solving problems and getting to a better understanding of these questions.

But it's also paradoxical in its nature. It brings us closer together, but it drives us further apart. It connects us virtually, but isolates us physically. It enables us to see and hold multiple different perspectives and worldviews, but it also lets us spin up alternate realities and online avatars that are disconnected from the real world.

So why are there these paradoxes? Well, it seems to me that this cultural network has the ability to reflect, but it also has the ability to distort.

It has the capacity to deceive as well as leave us vulnerable to self deception, like an optical illusion. It gives us the appearance of being in touch with reality, but it can actually drive us further from it. And while this network can give us intimations of what's best, more often than not, we're inundated and overwhelmed with what's new in this hyper-connected, hyper-stimulated, technologically mediated world.

The network augments the superficial and the trivial, leaving us distracted and overwhelmed. The stories that we look to understand the world can be rendered plastic will be driven by agendas that are financially or ideologically motivated. And this influx of information and complexity leaves us feeling alienated and more than anything, out of touch with reality, not connected to the real world, it turns us into spectators looking at the world as observers outside of a car window rather than participants jumping on our motorbikes and immersing ourselves intentionally in the world and that's something to think over.

As always, if you like what we are doing here, the best way to support us is to share an episode with a friend and subscribe to the show. In the show notes on your podcasting app, you'll find links to the things mentioned in this episode and on our website, meta you'll find a full transcript of the episode in case you want to read through anything discussed, and if you want to get in touch with us, you can send us an email to to continue the conversation. That's it from me. Thanks for your time and attention. Until the next time, take care.

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