We are a species defined by our tools. Our cognition extends beyond our fingers, branching into the technology we hold and the institutions we build. But everything we wield changes us in turn. If we want to make sense of where we find ourselves in this moment in history, we can begin by exploring the unique relationship we have with what we build. It can show us where we come from, and where we might be headed.
As the US election approaches and COVID forces lockdowns around the world, we cloister inside and spend more time online. And as we do, many are asking how our newest technologies are changing us. Films like ‘The Social Dilemma’ have made mainstream the way in which social media drives tribalism, addiction and polarisation. But while our newest, shiniest tools undoubtedly accentuate our divisions and pollute our information ecology, we can’t lay the blame for our fractured culture at Silicon Valley’s doorstep alone.
To do so would be to deny an aspect of ourselves deeply intertwined with our technology and our souls. So deeply, in fact, that we cannot fix what is broken until we acknowledge it. To do so, we have to step back, to turn our gaze onto the very way we think and navigate reality.
This is no easy task, but a skilfulness known to sages and magicians can help us. It is that of gazing indirectly at what we want to reveal, of seeing by not trying too hard to see. Instead of trying to analyse ourselves, we can play a game.
The game is both simple and complex. You will be presented with two questions. See how many answers you can give to each in one minute.
Question 1: What belongs to you?
Stop reading and see how many things you can list.
Done? Scroll down to reveal the second question.
Question 2: What do you belong to?
Stop reading and see how many things you can list.
Take a moment to compare both of your lists. Which has more answers? What did you notice when you read them? Was one more comfortable than the other?
What’s in a Game?
As you are reading this essay, and reading it in English, the chances are that you found it easier to list answers to the first question. This may be because you are WEIRD. This acronym (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) has been popularised by Harvard psychologist Joseph Henrich and informed the work of scholars like Jonathan Haidt. In his new book ‘The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous’ Henrich performs a kind of reverse anthropology to look at Western psychology and how it arose from our geography and history.
In doing so, I believe he inadvertently sheds light not just on our relationship with social media, but on the cultural fragmentation and the wider crisis of meaning we’re experiencing in the West.
Henrich’s research was inspired when, around a decade ago, he and other scholars began to notice that most published papers in psychology used educated undergraduates in Western countries as samples. As they dug into this imbalance, they uncovered something interesting; people in WEIRD countries are not representative of the psychological make-up of the rest of the world. They are outliers. Henrich explains:
WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. We focus on ourselves — our attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations — over our relationships and social roles. We aim to be “ourselves” across contexts and see inconsistencies in others as hypocrisy rather than flexibility. Like everyone else, we are inclined to go along with our peers and authority figures; but, we are less willing to conform to others when this conflicts with our own beliefs, observations, and preferences. We see ourselves as unique beings, not as nodes in a social network that stretches out through space and back in time. When acting, we prefer a sense of control and the feeling of making our own choices. (‘The WEIRDest People in the World’ p.21)
WEIRD psychology is best understood in relation to cultures that hold different values. It’s important here to point out that WEIRD and other psychologies aren’t better or worse than one another — they are adaptations to particular cultural, geographical and historical realities.
Us and Us
So what are non-WEIRD cultures like? Many of them — including European society before the Protestant Reformation and other cultural shifts — were and still are held together by complex web of familial relationships. Individuals belong to a wider group or land, and enjoy the cohesion of tight, supportive in-groups (though these in-groups often compete with others).
Indeed, the game above was inspired by an experiment conducted by Henrich and his team, which looked at the different ways people respond to the line ‘I am…’ across cultures. WEIRD people tend to select attributes or achievements; ‘ I am strong, I am a scientist, I am caring’. These are things that are yours. In contrast, cultures of tight-knit kin groups like the Maasai and Samburu in rural Kenya answer by referencing their roles and relationships. “I am a mother, I am the brother of my sister”. These are things you belong to.
What I find most fascinating about this research is what it suggests about how WEIRD people perceive belonging. The need to belong is a human universal. But how we meet that need is culturally-informed. And if we want to see what makes us so uniquely susceptible to social media tribalism and polarisation, this is the first piece of the puzzle. But there is more to uncover.
The Nicest Guys in the World
One of the key insights of Henrich’s book is that, perhaps counterintuitively, WEIRD people are more trusting and generous toward strangers than many other cultures. If you live in a society in which your success depends on the web of in-group relationships, obligations and roles, people tend to be more suspicious of those outside the group. It makes sense; outsiders aren’t part of that web of embedded obligations. They don’t face consequences for not playing by your rules, and are therefore riskier to interact with.
WEIRD people are different. Henrich argues that our cultural evolution selected for impersonal prosociality. He explains:
“As life was increasingly defined dealing with nonrelations or strangers, people came to prefer impartial rules and impersonal laws that applied to those in their groups or communities (their cities, guilds, monasteries, etc.) independent of social relationships, tribal identity, or social class.” (‘The Weirdest People in the World’ p. 397)
While we are uncharacteristically focused on ourselves and our own success, we are also more generous to strangers, and more willing to engage with those different to ourselves. This is in part because, instead of trusting our in-group, we outsourced our trust to large institutions — the church or the state, for example — and hoped that, on the whole, others would be following the same rules as us.
Is This Seat Taken?
There is another crucial factor in WEIRD psychology that helps explain our cultural fragmentation. Moving away from allegiance to kin-groups didn’t just lead to increased impersonal prosociality, but also created a culture in which voluntary associations became increasingly important. As people began moving from the countryside to work in the cities, they needed to join other social groups outside of their family or tribe, like a university, a guild, or a political party.
This combination of voluntary association and impersonal pro-sociality reliant on foundational institutions is hugely significant. It isn’t just something we do — it’s who we are, embedded deep in our cultural wiring. And it creates enormous pressure, both on the individual — who must be a sovereign agent in the world and choose where to belong — and on the cohesiveness of our institutions — which must remain trustworthy for our pro-sociality to work. All the multicultural, inclusive values our societies now strive for rely on these.
We can pause here and play another game. It’s a type of hide and seek. Shut your eyes and try to find an institution you deeply trust.
Did you find one? When I play this game I come up short. Most of our institutions have run out of road. They are corrupted by market forces, running on outdated paradigms to meet a chaotic, fast-changing world. More than this, our trust in the meta-institutions that held us together — including the church and the state — is the lowest it’s ever been. This isn’t new information. However, in light of our WEIRD psychology, this erosion isn’t only something happening around us.
It’s happening inside us.
WEIRD but Woke
The strength of our institutions is woven into our psychology. The way we encounter others, the way we move through a multicultural and hyper-mobile world, rely on outsourcing our trust to institutions because we can’t outsource it to tight-knit kin groups.
So what happens when we begin to deconstruct those institutions? This is what we’re seeing now. As postmodern values and critical theory take over the political parties, the media, the entertainment industry, tech companies and HR departments globally, these and other institutions are eating themselves from the inside.
The urge to deconstruct and challenge is a necessary developmental step. It helps us question fixed narratives, for a start. Deconstructing rigid structures brings a necessary flexibility and allows culture to regenerate itself from the margins it was previously ignoring or suppressing, However, it has to be mediated by a transcendent ideal or purpose, and move toward something deeper than perpetual deconstruction.
To make matters more complex, Wokeism, the simulated religion that surrounds this deconstruction, has now become the easiest voluntary association to make in our culture. The rules are simple — all you have to do to belong is to agree with what is ostensibly a reasonable premise (oppression is bad), and learn the lingo that signals you’re a member. It’s a linguistic religion that relies not on action but on words — the policing of them, and the use of the correct ones — so has relatively few barriers to entry.
Wokeism is just one tribe among many filling the vacuum of meaning and belonging left by the decline of religion and trust in the state. Peter Limberg has called these memetic tribes, as they each contain their own value system that they are trying to embed into the world. In the process, they compete with one another for narrative control. The online world has become a battleground of these warring ideological tribes, as well as governments and private companies.
Misinformation abounds as they conduct a total war to control narratives of belonging. The void of meaning in our culture is so deep and our need to fill it so profound that new tribes are forming all the time. Most notably, the strange alliance of the New Age and the far right who have come together around overlapping conspiracy theories — a term now known as Conspirituality and recently popularised by Jules Evans.
Faced with this ideological battleground, as WEIRD individuals we nonetheless have to exercise our voluntary association. It’s built into our cultural wiring. But what happens when we can’t find an institution or group we can outsource our trust to? When the Church no longer fills our spiritual void, the State is corrupted by market forces, universities and the media are in the grip of Wokeism and a virus ravages our supply chains and our way of life, what’s the step forward? What happens when there is nowhere to belong?
I believe we succumb to a very WEIRD kind of madness. We replace genuine human connection and transcendent meaning for voluntary association. Being a Flat Earther, or a Libertarian, becomes core to our identity. It’s a madness driven by a desperate need to belong to anything that’ll have us. And waiting to meet that need are the tech giants, our newest social institutions.
Social media algorithms prey not just on our dopamine systems, but also on our unique penchant to turn to voluntary association to meet our belonging needs. Every click, like and comment is an indicator of your voluntary association. Every Facebook group you join, every event you say ‘maybe’ to. And from this we become segments to be microtargeted by state and corporate actors. It is well documented how effective this micro-targeting is at changing perception, with political parties and foreign state actors spending millions on political disinformation campaigns.
There was a time, perhaps peaking during the Arab Spring, where many believed these new institutions could replace our old ones. Decentralised, democratic institutions fit for the 21st century. This was a conceit shared by many within these tech companies. However, as Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out, what we actually got was a dehumanising and disconnecting social reality that disempowers the individual and communities in the name of profit.
It took us years to lose trust in our financial, medical and governmental systems. It’s taken just a decade or so to lose trust in our tech institutions. Things are speeding up. Chaos abounds, and time is running out.
A Way Forward
Our cultural psychology means we’re particularly susceptible to the pressures of a technologically-driven world and a crisis of meaning. However, it also gifts us with a level of creativity, analytical acuteness and ideals that can help us to transform.
Faced with existential risk to our culture and perhaps even our species, many people are trying to figure out how to build something new. Some, like the adherents of Wokeism, want to do this by deconstructing the old. Traditionalists with modernist values seek a return to strong families and strong government. Others want to revive Christianity, while some want to focus on colonising Mars. Still others argue for a form of what Terence McKenna called the Archaic Revival — a return to our pre-WEIRD connection to the earth, and a revival of value systems that connect us to our niche in the ecosystem.
One of the more sophisticated versions of the ‘change the world’ tribes is the Game B community. It is a hard tribe to define, because by its nature it’s experimental and decentralised. The short description is that they believe our current system (Game A) is structurally unsustainable and headed for collapse. It’s the zero-sum, dog-eat-dog that rewards sociopathy and will ultimately destroy itself. Game B is a more co-operative, sustainable way of being that selects for ‘omni-win’ situations. It is not a utopia you force into being, but a game you play into existence.
I believe all of these tribes are holding some valuable perspectives. Even those who vehemently disagree with one another want to move humanity toward their version of a better world. Often they share a critique of disconnected individualism and call for authentic community, as well as a move from brutal self-reliance to co-operation. Most want to create a reality in which we thrive, but all define thriving based on different developmental values.
But all of them face the same problem: us.
Taking our own Medicine
Like a species of addicts, we know we have to change, but we can’t seem to find a way to do it. This creates a feeling we’re all familiar with: guilt.
Henrich argues that guilt forms a core aspect of WEIRD psychology. It’s different from shame, another human universal. Shame is about what others might think of your behaviour (and particularly strong in kin-based societies). Guilt is the feeling we have when we don’t live up to our own values, and it’s particularly prevalent among WEIRD people.
Understanding the role guilt plays in the various ‘change the world’ tribes can be revealing. To illustrate one aspect of it, I’ll use the example of Medicine, a festival I spoke at this summer. Like many of the groups and movements listed above, Medicine is based on very well-meaning and compassionate foundations. Their website explains:
Medicine is a gathering to inspire authentic connection and regeneration for people and planet… Medicine invites you to come together to share the power of music and ceremony, the coherence and insights of ancestral wisdom, alongside solutions of modern technology and culture. (medicinefestival.com)
During the opening ceremony, the organisers spoke of the necessity of coming back to the land, of listening to indigenous ‘wisdom keepers’, some of whom were on stage. Indigenous was never clearly defined, but in this context it could be defined as those who live on the land their ancestors did, and whose cultures are significantly informed by a relationship to the natural world.
As I watched the opening ceremony, I had a growing sense of unease. Something didn’t sit right. Like the organisers of Medicine, I believe that indigenous wisdom is important, and one of the many perspectives we can integrate into a new ways of being. However, the complexity of integrating indigenous knowledge into a WEIRD value system is significant.
For example, indigenous cultures often have a profound spiritual connection to the land. However, to say ‘I belong to this land’ is anathema to many with a WEIRD psychology — and especially to the multicultural, progressive-minded people who attend Medicine. The land we were on very clearly belonged to the man organising the festival. If I create a deep, reciprocal connection to the land we were standing on, would he let me live on it? If I did, would he own me by extension?
Instead of questions like this being explored, they were bypassed and instead the message was that our way of life, and perhaps even our souls, are broken and we need to heal ourselves by integrating indigenous wisdom. However, ‘indigenous’ cultures are kin-based, designed to operate in complex in-groups with embedded obligations and a sense of belonging to a specific land. Colonialism was the West’s process of forcing our institutions onto these cultures, with disastrous results. If we now attempt to reverse engineer their wisdom to fix our broken souls, do we think that will work any better?
Who we Are
I don’t think we do. Instead, I think we’re playing a game. It’s a game of guilt, a game of gnashing our teeth at our awful impact on the world, asking others for help, and then feeling guilty that we aren’t enough — sustainable enough, woke enough, mindful enough, selfless enough — to take their advice. And it’s a game all about us. It’s a self-focused, neurotic trip into our own WEIRD psychology.
There is another game we can play instead. A game of accepting who we are. Coming back to our own roots, and owning our own authentic ancestral lineage: Indigenous Narcissism.
Our ancestors adapted, sacrificed, lived and died to bring into being the kind of people we are now. Despite the many failings of our culture, it holds tremendous promise. Owning this complexity may be our only way to fix the problems it’s created.
If we want to talk about indigenous wisdom, we need to start with our own. By learning about our grandparents, and their grandparents. By acknowledging the fundamental role Christianity has played in shaping the way you think today, even if you’re an atheist. By recognising that millions of people sacrificed themselves in colossal wars to protect the values that made you who you are.
If we weren’t so terrified of looking at this heritage, we wouldn’t be trying, oh so hard, to bypass it by paying lip-service to someone else’s. And this isn’t just about a small festival in the UK — it happens consistently throughout tribes who want to change the world. We bypass the aspects of ourselves we don’t want to look at by fantasising about what could be.
But if we want to birth a value system radically different to our own that can last, it has to be birthed from truth, not guilt.
The Naughtiest Game
This doesn’t change the fact that our way of life needs radical disruption. WEIRD culture has many shadows and has caused a great deal of harm — to other people, and to the environment. However, it has also given us all the tools we need to regenerate and evolve these value systems. We can hold multiple cultural operating systems within ourselves at the same time, integrate wisdom from the margins, and overcome our own selfishness to achieve truly beautiful things. We are capable of acts of incredible love and sacrifice, of taking the higher ground when it seems impossible to do so, of channelling a deeper wisdom that transforms everything we touch.
But we can’t do any of this by pushing our own cultural heritage into the basement, whether it be our WEIRDNESS, our Christian history, or our colonial past. We can tear down as many statues as we want, but it won’t change the wiring that tells us to do so. Whether we’re strapping on some crystals and harping on about ‘wisdom keepers’ or falling into tech-utopianism or losing ourselves to conspiracy theories, we are engaged in a performative act of psychological bypassing that will lead to nothing useful.
Instead, we can own our shadows and our gifts with courage and dignity. Or, if that sounds a bit intense, we can play a game instead. It’s a game inspired by the great Alan Watts. It can last a minute, or a lifetime. It’s a game of pretend.
Close your eyes, and pretend that you are an utter, irredeemable scoundrel. Absolutely self-interested. Concerned with your own status, your own progress, your own satisfaction. That you only care about helping the vulnerable because it makes you look good and feel good about yourself. Just for a moment, let go of needing to be any different.
Maybe you found the game easy, or maybe it was confronting. Either way, I would suggest that it’s because some part of it rings true. We all hold these shadows — without exception. We are all human beings; no one, not even even so-called enlightened masters, completely transcend their operating system to the degree it’s no longer there. At the end of the day, being an indigenous narcissist is really nothing to feel guilty about.
By owning our shadows, we can move beyond the binary of ‘good world / bad world’ and ‘us / them’ that so many ‘change the world’ tribes fall into. Jim Rutt, one of the main proponents of Game B, often points out that it must be able to compete with and survive the pressures of Game A to work. It can’t just come into being from nothing.
I agree with this, but I’d make a further suggestion. There is no Game A, or Game B. There is a Game A/B; two games that imply one another. Two games that are in a constant back and forth. To navigate them and birth something better, we can embrace an ongoing inquiry into our own WEIRD psychology and how it spreads through everything we do. This includes trying to do things better and feeling guilty when we can’t. It is a process of working with, not against, our independent, competitive natures in order to transcend them.
One Last Game
Undeniably, there is a madness in our way of life that will destroy us if we don’t change. It is driven in part by our WEIRDNESS, our resulting disconnection from the natural world, and our unique indigenous narcissism.
Over the last year I’ve spoken to a number of people to explore different ways of knowing that can help us transform. Again and again, the people I’ve spoken to have talked about humility. Charlotte Du Cann shared how female initiation myths are a descent from the comfort of civilisation down into the wisdom of the earth; getting your hands dirty with the ash of the kitchen fire. Tyson Yunkaporta outlined the incredible complexity of Aboriginal Australian knowledge systems and pointed out that much Aboriginal culture can be seen as a defence against narcissism –the toxic idea that I am better than you. Likewise, Nora Bateson has talked of the traps in our fixation on analytical knowing, which bind us into seeing the systems around us like a circuit board instead of the living, responsive processes that they are.
This is a small sample of some of the wisdom emerging from the edge of culture. There are thousands of heart-felt, intelligent people trying to find creative ways to move forward. We’ve spoken to some of them on Rebel Wisdom, and there are countless more we’ve never encountered. How can we use all of this collective wisdom to reclaim the culture, and the institutions that perpetuate it?
As we explored above, our WEIRD psychology means that the health of our institutions is intricately linked to our own psychological cohesion and our ability to collaborate with others. Instead of deconstructing them, we could try to infect them with wisdom. We can find ways to package our collective wisdom, compassion and longing for change. If you’re reading this and work in a major institution, you’ve probably thought of many ways to do this already.
I believe this is where the focus should be for people in the ‘change the world’ tribes: creating memetic wisdom viruses to spread through institutions, with the intention of forcing them to transform into more anti-fragile, compassionate and sustainable entities. Institutions worth of our trust and fit for the times we live in.
It will not be easy. Many of these institutions are already hosting a new value system; a strange blend of Wokeism, intersectionality and late-stage capitalism. Any wisdom we bring in would need to be like a bacteriophage, a virus that attacks a bacterium. It would need to use the pre-existing terminology of Wokeism to subvert it toward something more generative. It would also need to be able to adapt to Game A dynamics seamlessly, without compromising on the passion and intensity that any truly novel set of ideas must offer to be effective.
It’s a daunting task. But it could be a very fun game to play. In fact, it might be the only game we have left.