The Mesh Age

From Nothing by Vasily Betin

Part 1 of 2: Over the course of the last few centuries, humanity has spun a colossal mesh. A cocoon of people, artifacts, and digital connections. Together, they wrap our planet in a giant chrysalis. A blanket of uncertainty, if you like. This cocoon is beautiful and deadly. For decades, it has been quietly snuffing out life in a murderous embrace, and we are increasingly desperate to break free. But there is only one way to escape. Metamorphosis. We now live in the Mesh Age. To survive, our civilization needs radical transformation.

We live in primate paradise. Most of us have food and shelter, access to sanitation, clean water, education, and health care. While this is sadly not true for everybody yet, the historical trend is unequivocal. In the year 1800, around 85% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Life expectancy hovered around 30 years. Child mortality was 50%. Slavery was commonplace, children were working in mines, minorities lived in subhuman squalor, and women were second-class citizens. In comparison, today less than 15% of the world population lives in extreme poverty, and that number is steadily decreasing. Between China and India alone, almost 800 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty around the turn of the 21st century. Global life expectancy is now around 72 years, child mortality down to 4.5%. Social and technological progress have brought health, wealth, and wellbeing never before witnessed in human history.

But all is not well in paradise. In the wealthiest pockets of this paradigm of profit and prosperity, there is rot at the core. Many are afflicted with anxiety disorders, feelings of general malaise, or a deep weariness that things are getting worse. The ghost of uncertainty is haunting the dreary mansion of human civilization. Cases of depression and suicide are on the rise, and so are instances of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Substance addiction is steadily increasing. Loneliness afflicts legions of city dwellers, driving a virtual exodus into a digital meta-verse. By contrast, a key indicator of health for the tissue of society is declining. Interpersonal trust. Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff highlights the importance of this metric thus:

Social trust is highly correlated with peaceful collective decision making and civic engagement. In its absence, the authority of shared values and mutual obligations slips away. The void that remains is a loud signal of societal vulnerability. Confusion, uncertainty, and distrust enable power to fill the social void.”⁠ ¹

The proverbial shit has undoubtedly hit the anecdotal fan. In times like these, our last recourse consists in a time-honored tradition. A scape goat must be found. Let the blame-storming begin! Fingers start pointing and readily alight on a variety of topics. It is social media’s race for attention, distorting our behavior by pointing weaponized AI-algorithms at our cognitive vulnerabilities to optimize profit taking. It is neo-liberal capitalism and the myth of eternal growth, extractive economies without regard for the finite substrate they operate in. It is environmental degradation. Air pollution choking cities, industrial fertilizers creating dead-zones on land and in the ocean. It is the anthropocene and the sixth global mass extinction event. It is global warming and climate change.

Do not let the derisive tone of the above paragraph deceive you. Each of the above mentioned issues, left unchecked, has the potential to degrade open societies and, in the latter case, push all of humanity to the brink of extinction. How we deal with these matters in the first half of the twenty-first century decides the fate of the planet for millennia to come. Therefore, I do not take them lightly, and neither should you. Despite the seriousness of the situation, we will not speak of them in great detail beyond this point. Why? For one, they are already discussed by legions of experts more knowledgable than yours truly. Secondly, despite their severity, they are symptoms. I submit that all these manifold symptoms of crisis are connected. They are connected by root causes. Like the treatment of a diseased body, a focus on symptoms only brings temporary relief. The cure lies in identifying — and eradicating — the root cause. I am not the first to point this out. It has been called the meta-crisis, the meaning crisis, and the crisis of sense making.⁠² As I mentioned in the introduction, there is nothing simple about the constellation of threats to human society at the dawn of the twenty-first century. And there is certainly no simple solution — no free-lunch, panacea or silver bullet. However, what I hope to provide is a shift in perspective. A different cognitive framing that allows us to see the problem in a different light. This shift in perspective reveals a growing chasm between the structure of the world increasingly shaped by human activity, and our ability to make sense of it. A disconnect between the world we inhabit, and the thinking tools we use to comprehend it.

To untangle a knot, one must find a point from which to pry it apart. In our case, this point is the realization that, both, humans and the world, have hierarchical layers of complexity. You could say that we live in a stratified reality, and understanding it means separating the layers. Humans are quite literally layered beings. We are like pigs in a blanket. On the inside, we are lips and arseholes and all that weak, watery being in between. On the outside, we are wrapped in layers of, depending on your nationality, bacon or pastry. What I mean to say with this crude analogy is that, more than any creature on this planet, we are biological beings wrapped in the many layers of technology we created. That is both the root cause of our current predicament, and the possible solution. For this to make sense, I have to briefly define what I mean by the word technology. My definition is broad and encompasses three types of technologies humanity has wrapped itself in. That is because we usually focus on the third kind and often forget the importance of the first and second.

The first one is psychotechnology. John Vervaeke⁠ uses this term to describe tools that augment our information processing³. They are socially transmittable practices that enhance our cognition. Thinking tools we use to gain insight and solve complex problems. Language is a psychotechnology. So is literacy, numeracy, and algebra. Also, the ability to mentally zoom in and out of the hierarchical complexity of a situation to gain a system-level understanding. It is also the mindful control of our awareness and attention. The ability to transcend the default cognitive framing of our mind. For example, the subtle distinction between the statement “I am angry” and “I feel angry” is a shift in perspective that enables us to observe our default emotional responses and improve self-control. Psychotechnologies allow us to transcend our biological programming, obtain higher level insights, and supercharge our cognition.

The second type is social technology. This describes methods to organize and coordinate the social interaction of large groups. Greeting people by shaking hands is a social technology. It signals the intention to peacefully interact by showing that no offensive weapon is held in the open palm of your hand. Laws and regulations are social technologies. Democracy is a social technology. So are public monuments and traffic signs. Many social technologies are tacitly inscribed in the cultural context. The display of socio-economic status and behavioral etiquette in groups. Social technologies enable the formation of large societies with shared norms, culture, and established forms of cooperation. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the urban experience is a state of tension, maintained against the instinct to disperse. Social technology is the force counteracting this instinct.

The third type is toolkit technology. This is all technology made of physical tools. I refer to William Brian Arthur’s definition in his book The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves.⁠⁴ He describes technology as a physical phenomenon that is captured and put to use. This is everything from bow and arrow, the printing press, transistor, rocket engine, internet, to the nuclear fusion reactor. Arthur describes each technology as a combination of sub-technologies. Each sub-technology is made of further sub-technologies, and so on. For example, a microscope is made of many parts. Lenses, gears, dials, housing, etc. Each of these components requires further technology to produce, and so on ad infinitum. As such, Arthur describes technology as a constantly evolving toolkit, made of modular building blocks. These blocks are assembled into compound blocks, that themselves create a new module in the toolkit. Humanity has been building a growing toolkit of technology building-blocks, that allows us to build ever more technology, ever faster.

As pigs in a blanket, we are biological beings, living on the thin, biologically active layer that covers our planet. One of many such living beings, we are however, the only ones who wrap themselves in layer upon layer of technology. The clothes we wear are a toolkit technology, the language we speak is a psychotechnology, the laws and norms we obey are a social technology. Since Homo sapiens first appeared, the discovery and diffusion of important new technologies has drastically changed the course of human history several times over. I submit that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves at such a critical junction in human history. We are undergoing a transition, the likes of which our species has never faced before. By my count, this is the fourth, and most drastic transition our species has undergone. I call it the Mesh Age, and to understand it, we need to briefly review the ages that came before.

Shamanic Age

Shaman by TavenerScholar (https://www.deviantart.com/tavenerscholar/gallery)

The first of its kind happened during the Upper Paleolithic, around forty-thousand years ago.⁠⁵ This is when humanity entered the Shamanic Age. Historians will usually point to advances in toolmaking, like the hand axe, or maybe the advanced use of language, to explain this transition. However, the reason early hominids took a fork in the evolutionary path to Homo sapiens is likely another. It is due to the discovery of a new psychotechnology. The altering of consciousness. Despite the New Age vibe of this statement, there is nothing supernatural going on here. Shamans did, and still do, alter their state of consciousness by a variety of methods, like fasting, sleep deprivation, drumming, chanting, dancing, and breathing techniques. Another method is the use of psychoactive substances. What they all have in common is the alteration of neural connectivity in the brain. Studies like the one from Paul Expert at Imperial College London⁠⁶ have shown that functional connectivity in the brain drastically changes under the effect of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. The brain creates new and unexpected neural connections in this non-ordinary state of consciousness.

Left: Normal brain connectivity. Right: Connectivity under psilocybin (by Paul Expert)

Making new connections between disparate parts of our cognitive map is something we often call by a different name. It is the definition of metaphor. A metaphor is the carrying across of meaning from one area to another. It is the key process at the heart of all creativity. It is so embedded in the grammar of our thought, and fundamental to our understanding of the world, that you did not even notice the three metaphors in this very sentence. Embedding — an idea being “in bed”, fundamental — the structural “foundation” of an edifice of thought (another metaphor), and understanding — “standing under” to signify we grasp (yet another metaphor) an idea. It is hard to overstate the importance of this shift. Through their rituals, shamans re-wired their brains, vastly enhancing their cognitive skills!⁠7 In our ancestors, this caused a major shift in cognition that led to the first appearance of art, music, religion, and burial practices. It vastly augmented the abilities of tribal groups to survive and saw the first appearance of projectile weapons, knife blades, and fishing tools. The shamanic ritual also enabled new ways of meaning-making. Meaning-making in the sense of organizing semantic information and connecting it to the world in a relevant manner. The altered state of consciousness does that by creating a pathway to shift one’s perspective away from the default programming of our cognition. In many ways it is the beginning of humanity’s use of abstract thinking and metaphysics.

Agricultural Age

Long Live Labour by PLUSMINUS UNION

The second major transition came about during the Neolithic, roughly twelve-thousand years BP (before present), when the Agricultural Age began. Much is made of the agricultural technology that made this transition possible. Things like techniques for the domestication of animals, and the new toolkit technology of the plow. In my humble opinion, other developments were far more important. Specifically, the emergence of new social technologies, making it possible to coordinate the first large centers of population clustered around fertile agricultural areas. These first complex societies saw the first emergence of a criminal code of law, property rights, and a patriarchal hierarchy based on the concept of divine order. These new technologies were imposed by force and upheld with violence if needed. However, violence is never the source of authority. At the core, authority is derived from legitimacy, and legitimacy, like money and matrimony, is an idea that exists only because a majority of people agree that it does exist. This mechanism works best when subjects internalize it enough to trust a sovereign’s ability to deliver certainty in an uncertain world. A ruler must be capable to ordain the future. In the Agricultural Age, authority learned to bask in glory and dwell in symbolism to provide a unified cosmology and purpose. This was enabled by adaptations to the social technology of mythology. According to Joseph Campbell, the early mythology of the Shamanic age, based on animistic concepts of spirit animals morphed into myths based on The Way of the Seeded Earth.⁠⁸ This made the new relationship of humans with the soil more salient. Myths were saturated with images of a Great Goddess, Mother Earth, usually with an ever-dying, ever-resurrected male consort or son. They focused on the life giving powers of the seasons and the life cycle of crops. But there was yet another dramatic ontological change in the society of the Agricultural Age. Ontological because it relates to an important shift in people’s structure of reality. In his book Humankind, Timothy Morton describes how the Agricultural Age first tore humans apart from the world around them, creating an external entity we now call “nature”. He calls this dramatic event the Severing:

There is an ideology of agricultural social space as such, agriculture as it was conceived in the Fertile Crescent. Agricultural space must be kept together, precisely because of the obvious ways in which, as soon as it starts up, it causes social space to be torn apart: patriarchy, hierarchy, desertification. An underlying aspect of this rip in social space is the Severing, the walling off of human space from the symbiotic real.

The symbiotic real is the biological substrate we live in. We have a symbiotic relationship with it because we rely on it for survival. We are one with it. This dangerous fallacy distorted humanity’s relationship with our life support system. A rip in the tissue of reality that has haunted us ever since.

Axial Age

Laozi riding on an ox. Ming Dynasty.

The third major transition followed on the heals of the most dramatic collapse of civilization the world has ever witnessed.⁠⁹ Just over three thousand years ago, an area spanning from North Africa to Europe and all the way to Western Asia, saw the almost total disintegration of Bronze Age society. Violence erupted. Hundreds of cities were raised to the ground. Many kingdoms disintegrated. Entire cultures vanished forever. This apocalypse ushered in a dark age that lasted centuries. However, from this catastrophe emerged the Axial Age, a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers describing antiquity from the eighth to the third century BCE. According to Jaspers, this era saw new ways of thinking emerge contemporarily around the world. Laozi and Confucius laid the foundations for the most influential schools of thought in China to the present day — Taoism and Confucianism respectively. Jainism and Buddhism emerged in India. Zoroaster introduced the concepts of the devil, as well as heaven and hell in Persia. In ancient Greece the natural philosophers Pytagoras, Thales, and Anaxagoras paved the way for Sokrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In other words, the Axial Age was the birth of philosophy and religion around the world. And again, the roots of this momentous shift are to be found in the dissemination of new psi-tech. The first is alphabetic literacy. Whereas writing systems had existed long before then, these cuneiform or hieroglyphic symbols required years of study to master. They were the exclusive domain of scribes, scholars, and priests. They were a social technology, used for book keeping, inventories, and royal decrees. The arrival of the alphabet on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean changed that. Suddenly, children could be taught twenty to thirty letters with which to read and write anything they wanted. This new psi-tech enhanced the human capacity for fixing ideas on paper (or papyrus) and disseminating them. The other psi-tech that became widespread during that time was numeracy. This is probably due to the emergence of coinage that required a basic grasp of numerals, addition and subtraction. Together, these new abilities spread the ability of people to think in symbols. This is a form of higher abstraction that ultimately leads to meta-cognition. The ability to shift perspective and observe one’s own thought processes. What is the self? What is knowledge, reality, purpose? These questions were asked for the first time due to the new psi-tech available during the Axial Age. They are the questions above mentioned sages, philosophers and prophets wanted to answer. The meta-cognition available to them allowed them to observe their own cognition. For the first time, they saw that we routinely engage in self-deception. That our actions serve the need for vanity, victory, or vindication instead of seeking the truth. Their teachings were methods of self-correction. Ethics intended to counteract our propensity for bullshitting⁠¹⁰ ourselves.

Mesh Age

From Nothing by Vasily Betin

Since the Axial Age, we have continued to develop new psi-tech like calculus, probability, the theory of evolution, general relativity, Markov chains and so forth. We have developed new social technologies, like representative democracy, human rights, the division of power, capitalism, communism to name a few. That, in turn has caused an explosion in toolkit technology. Things like the optical lens, printing press, electricity, combustion engine, jet turbine, CRISPS/Cas9, nuclear fission, the TCP/IP protocol etc. All these developments put together have ushered in the Mesh Age. Mesh because this explosion of technology has covered the entire planet in a composite mesh. A triple mesh of people, artifacts, and digital information. Better healthcare, hygiene and standards of living have increased the population to around eight billion and is expected to peak around 10 billion. This vast population mesh has spawned a vast manufacturing machinery that produces artifacts for consumption, in turn operating a vast network of supply chains criss-crossing the globe. This is best illustrated by an essay written in 1958 by Leonard Read called I, Pencil.⁠¹¹ He tracks the supply chain of a regular pencil and tells its story from the first person perspective. Read traces each component and manufacturing process. The cedar trees from Oregon, the sawmill and drying kiln in California, the graphite from Sri Lanka, the castor oil for the lacquer, the ore mined for the brass ferrule, the rape seed oil used for the rubber eraser, and so on and so forth. There are hundreds of workers involved in the manufacturing and thousands of sub-processes required in production. A mind blowing network of materials and processes, so complex that no one person can fully know it. And that is for a pencil. Now imagine the supply chain of a mobile phone, or automobile. This is the mesh of artifacts. A global network of raw materials, intermediates, components, semi-finished goods, consumer products, and not least, the waste products associated with them. The third aspect of the mesh is digital information. This layer is encircling the earth via the global internet and has become an extension of the human mind. But as Bogna Konior describes, it is more than that:

The internet is a dark forest. The roots grow upwards, the crown reaches downwards: wrapped around the planet, the internet circulates between satellites and underwater cables. The internet is a tangible space, yes, but also a mental expanse. Made for sleepwalking, for a mundane delirium. For sacrificial rituals. People get lost in it by shining light in all the wrong places, exposing too much about themselves, communicating impulsively, recklessly.”⁠¹²

The internet has the potential to empower individuals, radically improve our collective decision-making, remove the central control of institutional gatekeepers, fight corruption through distributed ledgers of public information, replace fiat currencies, and even challenge the sovereignty of nation states. We float in this new amniotic fluid of planetary interconnected-ness. However, the umbilical cord grows not from our abdomen, but into our brain. That means the marketplace viciously competes for our attention by highjacking our limbic system, harvests our likes and preferences as raw material, and sells homogenized prediction products on a futures market for behavioral modification. This happens on an industrial scale, powered by weaponized AI algorithms running on supercomputers. This system is pointed at your brain and has but one purpose. To know you and control you. For this system to function at an optimal level, its agents (read: you and me) must be maximally addicted, confused, and self-deceived.

Over the course of the last few centuries, humanity has spun this colossal mesh. A cocoon of people, artifacts, and digital connections. Together, they wrap our planet in a giant chrysalis. A blanket of uncertainty, if you like. Beautiful and deadly, this cocoon has been quietly snuffing out life in a murderous embrace. We are increasingly desperate to break free. But there is only one way to escape. Metamorphosis. To survive the Mesh Age, our civilization needs radical transformation. The Mesh Age has fundamentally altered the organizational principles of the world. Long periods of stability are giving way to exponential change. Local power hierarchies are being challenged by distributed, self-organizing swarm intelligence. Top-down is making way for bottom-up. Prediction and control is being replaced by uncertainty. Everything is interconnected, interrelated, interdependent. In the next post, we will expose the cracks tearing apart the Mesh Age world, but, to paraphrase an Italian proverb, “not everything that is bad comes to hurt us”. Or in the words of Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything. Look for the cracks. That’s where the light gets through.

1 Zuboff, Shoshana. The age of surveillance capitalism : the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. London: Profile Books, 2019. Print.

2 Timothy Morton, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Jonathan Rowson, Sami Burja, Martin Gurri, John Vervaeke.

3 John Vervaeke: Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLND1JCRq8Vuh3f0P5qjrSdb5eC1ZfZwWJ

4 The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. W. Brian Arthur. Free Press, New York, 2009. 255 pp. ISBN 9781416544050. Allen Lane, London. ISBN 9781846140174.

5 Human hand prints were found on the Tibetan plateau dated 120,000 BC.

6 Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks. G. Petri, P. Expert, F. Turkheimer, R. Carhart-Harris, D. Nutt, P. J. Hellyer and F. Vaccarino. Journal of The Royal Society InterfaceVolume 11, Issue 101. Published:06 December 2014 https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2014.0873

7 David Lewis-Williams — The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Michael Winkelman — Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing

8 Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology

9 Eric Cline. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

10 Harry Frankfurt. On Bullsh*t

11 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/I,_Pencil

12 https://flugschriften.com/2020/03/24/the-dark-forest-theory-of-the-internet-by-bogna-konior/

--

--

--

Designer, innovator, entrepreneur, and writer. Student of uncertainty.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

To work for everyone, the Metaverse must be decentralized

An article of yesterday

At Tesla’s Oct 21, 2020, third-quarter earnings call, Elon Musk — quirky entrepreneur and Tesla’s…

5 Questions Raised about Elon Musk’s — City of the future..

Audi Aicon: the ambitious self-drive concept

The role of exponential technologies in forging future minds.

The Golden Decade Meme — Davos, 2030 and our emerging Planetary Civilization

How can everyone benefit in a new economy with paid jobs for only a few?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alex Dreyer

Alex Dreyer

Designer, innovator, entrepreneur, and writer. Student of uncertainty.

More from Medium

Blessing — The definition. 1.0

Getting In Touch With Myself

The Art of Sincerity

Lessons for Memoir Writers from The Beatles’ Get Back

Beatles records in a record store