News & Resources

Aquanow Digital Dives: Moment of Clarity — Vol. 44

February 10, 2023

Tom Morgan’s "At The Tipping Point" tries to make sense of today’s rapidly changing environment by contemplating theories from biology, physics, neuroscience, and more. The essay seeks to uncover observed universal patterns across time, so that an analysis of where we are can inform where we’re going next. As much as possible, I practice a philosophy of understanding rather than predicting. The former is an infinite game while the latter is zero-sum (and I tend to be wrong most of the time). However, labouring to understand what’s currently happening and placing it in some historical context is a helpful approach when trying to arrive at a view of potential outcomes. 

The framework Tom Morgan introduces won’t help an economist forecast interest rates next quarter, but it can provide insights into a future state whose circumstances can motivate our behaviour today. Fundamental to the thesis is the idea that systems generally become more intricate over time through a recurring process: Simplicity → Tension → Synthesis. The final element results in a phase shift from the state prevailing before tension/disruption to something novel and of greater complexity. Importantly, the attainment of synthesis necessitates an entropic breakdown from the prior condition. 

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Psychologists call the state of being in transition “liminality.” The term “limen” comes from the Latin for threshold; it is the edge separating one space from another. Moving between states is often an uncomfortable experience. It can be described as disorientation or even grief. However, that’s not always the case. Many who suffer from addiction describe their “moment of clarity” - when they realize the destructive nature of their behaviour - as blissful. The important takeaway is that some amount of psychological tension is required for progress

Related to the pattern above is the idea of “complexification” or the tendency for phase shifts to demonstrate a progression towards more complex systems. Brett Andersen and John Vervaeke dig deep into these topics across various disciplines, but their discourse gets heavy with necessary jargon. I’ve provided links so the curious reader can explore further. However, we’ll keep things high level and leverage the conclusion that simple arrangements get progressively intricate with the passage of entropic bursts. This assumption isn't too onerous. For example, educational curriculums cover evermore material and schools have undergone significant changes over the years. Humans have progressed from small factions of hunter-gatherers to groups with massive specialization and division of labor. Our records were once only an oral tradition, they then moved to print, digital, online, and now… ChatGPT. 

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Note that, while each subsequent state increases in complexity, elements of prior phases are retained. Progressive junctures are integrations of the prior circumstances and some novel construct. Critically, self-interested actors in prior phases become united along some common objective(s) in the later iterations. For example, cells compete for resources at the individual level, but interact to form organs. 

What is it about tension that motivates distinct groups to organize during a phase shift? A general principle driving higher complexity in nature is that competition begets cooperation at all levels of analysis (Andersen). Concurrence among network participants leads to efficiency and optimization. However, when a hyper-specialized system is jolted, its actors struggle to adapt. They face extinction or integration into some more complex arrangement. This is another example of the awkwardness of liminality which involves a pivot away from zero-sum games to a mutually positive engagement. 

Actors don’t have to stop being selfish. Opponent processing is a feature of biological systems in which different parts of the system work against each other but nevertheless lead to a more functional overall outcome. We can study different parts of our nervous system for a helpful illustration. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, while its parasympathetic cousin has the opposite role of calming you down by preparing your body to “rest and digest.” Their objectives are inherently at odds with each other, but the two structures can come together to help achieve a greater common goal. Remember sitting around watching TV when you had an assignment due? You’re on the couch in full parasympathetic mode until you glance at the clock and get jarred into action. The two systems are in direct opposition, but they’re working for your overall benefit. 

To summarize, we can see instances of the Simplicity → Tension → Synthesis model driving ever-greater complexity through phase shifts. This pattern is observed across the cosmos, to the tiny scale of particles and even beyond physical environments. Each occasion is marked by some bout of chaos and a realignment through cooperation along positive-sum motivations. 

As we discussed last time, a common discourse from plutocrats at Davos centered on the idea that, in the face of macroeconomic weakness, rising costs, technological disruption, widening disparity, and climate change, teamwork should be emphasized over competition. Global leaders discussed the benefits of blockchains at the World Economic Forum, but largely sought to distance themselves from the community that has fostered the technology’s ongoing development. Meanwhile, many in the digital asset ecosystem are opposed to the current world order, notably in financial markets. Both groups are incentivized to tackle the polycrisis, whose global nature necessitates a greater level of coordination. 

Entropy, anyone? We’re experiencing a paradigm shift. It’s going to be awkward, and I predict that the subsequent phase shift is going to involve the existing power structures working in conjunction with the web3 ecosystem. Some of their respective interests will remain divergent, but the integration is inevitable. Today’s incumbents are too deeply seated to be supplanted outright. Digital asset technologies and the communities that incubated them are too powerful to dismiss. Benefits will accrue to those who demonstrate behaviour aligned with the group’s unified objectives and those who display behaviors harmful to the group will be punished. I suspect we’ll see more of the latter and that’s ok, since networks are better off raising the level of their weakest links rather than enhancing their strongest ones. 

Jay-Z’s Moment of Clarity discusses several instances of personal phase shift including breaking through the tension between his socioeconomic background, commercial instincts, and artistic integrity. Notice the positive sum conclusion – the pattern is everywhere!

The music business hate me 'cause the industry ain't make me

Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be making

I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars

They criticize me for it yet they all yell "Holla"

We as rappers must decide what's most important

And I can't help the poor if I'm one of them

So I got rich and gave back 

To me, that's the win-win