Egregores, Swarms and Apocalyptic Predictions
Is the 'group mind' steering us towards disaster?
This is a short response to a fascinating exploration on the nature of collective consciousness, existential threat, and potential imminent apocalypse, hosted at The Stoa recently.
A couple of months ago on Rebel Wisdom I hosted BJ Campbell to talk about his concept of the 'Egregore', which he believes is something like a group mind mediated by social media. The conversation sparked a lot of responses, on Twitter and elsewhere.
In the same way that an individual neuron relates to the brain, he believes our individual brains are part of a larger structure, a group mind that he's calling the 'Egregore'. We decide whether to share or like something on social media, in the same way that the neuron can simply boost or not boost any signal in the brain, and if we were part of a larger collective entity, then we wouldn't know it, in the same way that the neuron has no concept of the brain.
BJ uses this concept to explain why group behaviour seems coordinated, how when we find out someone's opinion on one thing, we can generally know what they'll think about most other topics. Applied to a topic like Covid, this explains how opinions coalesce into the 'thesis' and 'antithesis' positions that Peter Limberg talked about in his influential essays.
BJ had noticed that several other thinker had been referring to similar phenomena, but often would use different terms. The strategist John Robb for example refers to 'the swarm' when explaining how much international coordination is now seemingly self-directed and autonomous rather than centrally controlled. Patrick Ryan refers to the 'autocult' as a way of explaining how social media has created a market and an enforcement mechanism for decentralised morality.
This conversation at the Stoa brought together these thinkers together with the 'culture hacker' Jordan Hall, to outline the similarities and the differences between their thought.
It's by turns fascinating and terrifying. As Jordan says at the start, they each think that this new phenomenon may be fatal to humanity.
"This particular kind of thing in the contemporary context has as one of its quite likely trajectories that we are all dead, or at least mostly dead, or would prefer to be dead."
They sketch out the swarm/egregore as a new coordination mechanism, decentralised and socially enforced. They are particularly concerned about how it is playing out with Russia and Ukraine.
They all fear that this thing (Egregore/Swarm) will continue to raise the stakes to the point that we may find ourselves in a nuclear exchange, because as John Robb sketches out, it is under no-one's control, and has a characteristic of ratcheting up the moral outrage and reaction, and no obvious way to de-escalate.
"Swarms describe the behaviour and the coordination. Egregore describes the symbolic interface and Autocult describes the mechanics." Patrick Ryan.
Highly recommended to listen to the whole thing. I think their analysis has a lot of signal, and is fundamentally correct in describing the dynamics that are playing out. But I think it might be incomplete.
I've been sitting with this since I listened, and have a framing that might spark some response and consideration. It may not be true, but it's what has settled for me.
I'm tying this to another conversation that I saw on Twitter between a few people informed by the Spiral Dynamics model within Ken Wilber's integral theory. The following will make a lot more sense if you at least have a working model of the relevant value systems involved here.
The dominant structure in the West is Green, postmodern and pluralist. As Wilber sketches out in his (essential) Trump and a Post Truth World, Green started out as a largely positive force of increased respect for a greater diversity of voices, but became increasingly destructive, evaporating into an almost total relativism and nihilism towards any concept of truth or reality.
In this model we can view the conflict in Ukraine as a Russian state animated by power/control, mostly 'Red' in SD terms, all about might makes right, versus Ukraine and the West, with the West operating from a largely Green centre of gravity.
As Integral thinker Robb Smith expressed on Twitter, Putin could only see the weakness of Green, the overreach of identity politics, symbolised by the widespread view that even the US military is now valuing 'pronouns in bio' ahead of basic military competence.
He argued persuasively that Putin had actually underestimated the strength of Green's core values, which is fundamentally a rejection of any kind of coercion or control, and a belief in absolute self-direction and self-definition.
From this perspective, one could argue that the 'swarm'/'Egregore' is how a mature Green response will inevitably show up, decentralised, networked, socially enforced.
The strength of the 'swarm' response to Russia's aggression has genuinely surprised most observers. In his conversation with John Robb, the podcaster and former head of the Santa Fe Institute Jim Rutt argued the counterpoint, that this decentralised swarm could actually be a positive development, a new self-organising punishment mechanism for bad actors like Putin's Russia.
And it seems to have worked, Russia has been effectively cut out of the world economy, and it's happened almost entirely through social pressure. My friend consulted recently with the petroleum giant BP, and saw how they pre-empted any action against Russia and immediately withdrew from the country, writing off massive losses in the process, simply because of the assumed social and reputation cost they assumed would be coming their way. Nearly every other company has done the same, going against their commercial interests in the name of reputation management (and some even genuinely doing the right thing).
Now if John Robb and others are right that this swarm mechanism is maximalist and has no way of moderating itself, and is inevitably leading towards nuclear war then this is, it goes without saying, a Bad Thing.
However, I'm not sure I fully buy into the apocalyptic reading of the four guys on the Stoa.
And I wonder if there is a deeper gender dynamic playing out here. Green is also essentially feminine in character, as we can see if we dial into how it plays out, more networked and relational, more ready to use and to respond to social pressure and emotional appeals. This compares to the very masculine previous stage, Orange, which is based on rationality, centralised control and heirarchy.
My sense, and the guys have every right to criticise my reading here, is that the "swarm" / "egregore" / "autocult" is what this phenomenon would look like from a highly masculine perspective. Threatening, out of control, overly emotional, destructive. I wonder if there is a deeper perspective and a more integrated resolution of the 'egregore' problem that could be teased out, which sees as more than only suspect and dangerous.
The introduction question of gender/sex brings up one of the questions that comes up again and again in the Rebel Wisdom ecosystem, why does it skew so heavily male? While we find many female facilitators and wonderful teachers in many different areas, it's hard to think of female equivalents for the likes of Daniel Schmachtenberger, Ken Wilber or John Vervaeke.
In my view, there is something about the 'galaxy brain' tendency, the attempt to map reality cognitively and with these vast 'theories of everything', that seems to be a very masculine approach. It's something men do more than women. The best of the thinkers we have hosted have also integrated intuition, relationality, emergence and the more 'feminine' qualities, but even so, it's clear that the ecosystem we have been mapping skews heavily male.
And the wider space, especially if you include adjacent communities like the rationalists, has a tendency towards people who are, politely speaking, 'on the spectrum' of autism/aspergers (aspie). This is also unsurprising if you buy into the view of autism put forward by the Cambridge University researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, as a manifestation of the 'extreme male brain'. It's a tendency to systematise, to rationalise and to downgrade emotion in favour of dispassionate analysis.
I include myself in this. A few days ago I asked my mother if she ever thought I might have been on the spectrum myself, and she paused and said yes, that in today's climate I would probably have had a diagnosis.
The other important factor, as Eric Weinstein laid out in 'Glitch in the Matrix 2, the Origin of the Intellectual Dark Web', is that these personality types are crucial and vital for societal health. Things move forward because of the eccentrics and the weirdos, because of the vast variation in capacities that humanity is capable of, and it's important not to evaluate everyone through 'normie' metrics. The entire tech industry is built on these aspie guys, for example.
It's vital that some people are looking at new phenomenon like the swarm/egregore through a suspicious, masculine, and maybe even slightly paranoid frame. They might be right, and if it's as dangerous as they are saying it is then they are right to raise the alarm.
However, I wonder if there might be more to the phenomenon than that, and that there could be a more integrated perspective waiting to emerge.
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