Seeding a productive culture: a working hypothesis

by Benquo 3 min read18th Oct 201715 comments


This is a compact account of my current working hypothesis for what's wrong with our culture and what needs to be done.

I'm not trying to explain my reasoning fully here - some of this I've already covered, some I plan to cover later. I expect no one to be persuaded by this post - but I hope it's helpful context. And this is just my current best guess, subject to change as I learn more.

There are many subcultures that seem okay, but the dominant, elite, world-ruling culture is a homogenizing, commodifying force. This culture is ultimately self-defeating - it is currently at war with itself and in the process of destroying its own attention - but it is unfortunately the only culture I know of that has the tools to do life-extension research and space travel.

Because the central regime has lost most of its deliberative capacity, persuading it to change is not an option. We need a sustainable alternative.

There are alternative “sustainable” cultures. Some are even growing. Earthship is an example. But the ones that have avoided triggering society’s immune system are mostly not complete in the relevant sense - they're not the sort of thing that make efficient use of the whole accessible universe, for human flourishing. In particular, they seem targeted for static sustainability, not technical or intellectual progress. “Sustainability” is not quite the right term. A culture that is productive, and trying to live, would be closer.

There have been revolutionaries who tried to seize power and reform the whole system at once. This usually ends in either catastrophic failure, or more of the same, unless it is a conservative revolution like the American one. The problem is that optimizing for seizing power can easily destroy the information you might want to preserve about how to do better.

Instead, we need to construct a seed that will grow into the right thing. This seed needs to be sustainable at all levels, not something that will only pay off at the last stage. This is how you avoid failures like revolutionary Communism. It also needs to grow, without being dependent on growth. If you don’t grow, you don’t replace the empire. If you depend on growth, you may not actually be productive, and may instead collapse when you reach the limit of your range.

We need an alternative that does not depend on permanent growth, but knows how to make and retain intellectual and technological progress.

I’m currently trying to think through the attributes of the seed myself, but I’m not going to be enough. So I’m going to see if I can bootstrap my way up to this. I’m hoping that public discourse about the problems of the modern central system will help me find others with the ability to work out what’s needed. I’d like to identify a small number of people - six seems about right - to live in a house together for six months, build shared models, and work out what to do next.

The participants should have already demonstrated ability to participate in the relevant discourse. Thus, my recruiting funnel is also my recruiting filter.

Living in a house together would help us learn to lean into information-sharing norms, as we share in the work of figuring out how to live well together. Things as simple as keeping the house clean would provide a concrete task where we all care about and experience the outcome. Unfortunately, this excludes people who already have their own families and are rooted in different places. I’m open to alternative proposals.

Here’s what I already think about the seed culture. Since there is no guarantee that this will be the last seed culture we ever need, scholarship is a pragmatically important part of this culture, as it will help us hold onto some steering power. Local production and trade are also important, for two reasons. They will directly help us orient our discourse around fundamentally honest shared-production norms, rather than fundamentally extractive shared-consumption norms. And they will help us resist central cultural programming. I am not sure full autarky is necessary, desirable, or even feasible, but local production of housing, child care, basic medical care, and some aspects of food (at least shared quality control of purchases from outside) seems like it would help us avoid some cost-disease traps, freeing up time for leisure.

This seed culture must be benevolent towards outsiders, and cooperate with slightly-distorted copies of itself, but must also put itself first and defend itself from threats, in order to close the feedback loop and limit the ability of the central system to extract things from it.

Because we are looking for something outside of homogenized modernity, we should look to ancient successes for guidance. The Greeks and Israelites are especially interesting, as are the early Chinese, since they all left lasting positive-seeming legacies. The YHWH Memorial blog is an example of the sort of reading of ancient texts that might be helpful for the project.

In the short run, a religion seems like more the sort of thing than a city, mainly because it’s a less overt challenge to the status quo, though having a physical site seems important eventually. But we probably have to learn from just about every paradigm available, because this is gonna be hard.

If you want in on something like this project, the best way is to try to contribute to the public discourse around the issues I've discussed. If you're afraid of saying things that are politically incorrect publicly, you can email me.

In addition to broadcasting my own signal, I'm searching for others. I'm currently driving across the country, looking for subcultures, intellectual communities, and other intentional communities that seem to be doing something interesting on purpose. Let me know if there's somewhere you think I should maybe go. Or, someone I should read. I'd be quite happy to simply support someone else's project, if there's a credible one out there.

This is not the only project that needs to be pursued right now - it's just the one I perceive myself to have a comparative advantage in.