Chaos Is Not A Ladder—But the Ladder Leads to Chaos.
Yes, Human History Has Developed Through Discernable Stages—But That May Be Changing—If So, Future (Protopian) Society Must Be “Designed for Chaos”
“With a sweet twist of irony, Graeber and Wengrow may have failed to rewrite human history, but inadvertently offered an understanding of our own time—and the future landscapes of cultural evolution.”
How utterly and awfully wrong they are, David Graeber and David Wengrow, in their recent book, The Dawn of Everything—which is widely (and wildly) hailed as nothing less than a rewriting of all-of-human-history-as-we-know-it. It’s somewhat disconcerting how easily and eagerly the intellectual public swallows a book’s conclusions if they are only served with a spoonful of enticing story weaving, numerous examples, and some rebel edge.
Yes, the book is a genuine masterpiece in more manners than can be listed here. But its undeniable merits do not detract anything from how dismally mistaken its core premises are: that society and culture have not developed in discernable stages and that social reality has been freely invented and randomly experimented with throughout history. If only we dared dream—the authors maintain—if only the powers-that-be did not shackle our sociological imagination, we could create the world in a new multiplicity of beautiful social realities.
As nice as all of that sounds, it’s just not how social reality has functioned throughout history. For all the exceptions that the two Davids find to the rule of the large, over-arching, developmental patterns of world history, they forget something very basic: that the cases-in-point are far more numerous, and do not require the turning of every stone of archaeological details to spot. No hunter-gatherer society ever invented an alphabet and started writing books on metaphysics and law, none of the great civilizations of the ancient world ever started something akin to the Scientific Revolution, and never did anyone before the 20th century come up with anything resembling contemporary queer feminism.
Cultural history has in fact developed through discernable stages, through six different meta-memes. These do leave a lot of leeway for human inventiveness—but that ingenuity is always structured along a certain generator function at the core of culture. That’s why, for instance, Egyptian art and architecture looked roughly the same for more than a millennium, or why Precolumbian Mesoamerican artifacts are fairly easily recognizable as such. That’s why each tribal, indigenous society develops its own aesthetic forms and costumes, but they still remain distinct from one another. “Cultural forms”—to use Michel Foucault’s old expression—emerge in discernible patterns.
I return to Graeber and Wengrow in detail in my upcoming book, The 6 Hidden Patterns of History— we shan’t stay on the topic now. Here, I just want to point out the following:
- In equal measure as with which the Davids are mistaken about the past(yes, cultural history really did develop in discernable stages), so they may very well have hit upon an understanding of social reality that correctly describes the future. We may be nearing an inflection point in history where stage theories actually lose their relevance—and in which the sociological imagination truly can design reality; indeed, a situation in which society itself must be “designed for chaos” if it is to survive and thrive.
And yet, paradoxically, this very fact (i.e., that we may, as an emerging planetary system of interconnected cultures, now be stepping off the ladder of stages of cultural development that until now has meaningfully described how history functions) makes the understanding of the developmental stages of society yet more crucial. They help us understand the “order within the chaos”—like in chaos mathematics, the study of how apparent “chaos” emerges from a deterministic order.
With a sweet twist of irony, Graeber and Wengrow may have failed to rewrite human history, but inadvertently offered an understanding of our own time—and the future landscapes of cultural evolution.
My suggestion is that we view the cultural history of humanity as a form of “chaotic system”—as understood by chaos mathematicians. From that vantage point, it can be stated that we are, with yet another ironic twist of fate, determined to develop towards unpredictability—towards “chaos”: i.e., towards a cultural state of affairs sensitive to “initial conditions”. This, incidentally, brings forth the conditions of freedom to shape our culture that Graeber and Wengrow so astutely intuited in their reading of world history. Freedom grows from the barrel of what chaos theorists call “sensitivity to initial conditions”.
The strange fact is that there are incredibly profound and mysteriously detailed similarities between:
- on one hand chaos theory, and
- on the other hand, the theory of the stages of cultural development (the so-called meta-memes, i.e. the overarching patterns-of-patterns within which human cultures have developed.)
To introduce this idea, let me take a proper detour into the basics of chaos theory and one of its key innovators: the physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum. It takes a bit of cognitive weight-lifting, this next part of the article, but I assure you it’s worth the lift.
Feigenbaum’s Constant in Chaos Theory
“Feigenbaum found that, across all different equations of such feedback systems, the ratio between when one bifurcation occurs, and the next one, is constant: it’s 4.669 201 609…”
The Feigenbaum Constant is roughly 4.67. It’s one of those numbers that go on and on into more decimals, like π (Pi) or e—so-called “transcendental numbers”. With a few more decimals, it looks like this:
- 4.669 201 609…
Roughly 4.67, then. What does this number describe?
In 1975, Feigenbaum (and two French scientists, Coullet and Tresser, who made the same discovery pretty much simultaneously) noticed, that there is a pattern to how feedback loop systems shift between phases.
Such systems are based on a feedback mechanism. They all work “fractally”, in that they repeat the same function again and again, on the result of the former iteration. In the 1970s, it was already well known that such systems, mathematically speaking, go from stabilizing on one single number, to stabilizing around an oscillation between two numbers, to an oscillation between four numbers, eight ones, and so on.
If you increase how high the “input variable” is (for example, as in the most classical example, how quickly rabbits breed minus how often they die), “the system” (of numbers of rabbits from year to year) starts behaving differently; it shifts between different “phases”:
- With a low “input variable” (relatively slow breeding), the rabbit population will stabilize as a constant number from year to year, regardless of how many rabbits were there initially. If there were many, they will die off and stabilize; if there were few, they will breed until the same number is reached. The system has a stable attractor point. It’s like a rubber band: after we’ve stretched it (or even tried to compress it), it goes back to one size, one “equilibrium state”. See image below.
Screenshot from Veritasium YouTube channel. The system stabilizes on one and the same value (on the right). The left side plots the different points at which the system stabilizes.
- With a higher input variable, the rabbit population will start oscillating from year to year. When the rabbits become too many, some will die, and when they are few, there will be more opportunities to multiply, becoming many again. But regardless of how many rabbits there were initially, the system will settle on a certain oscillation between two specific values. This is an oscillating attractor point. See image below.
Screenshot from Veritasium YouTube channel. Oscillation on the right, bifurcation on the left. The left side plots the different points at which the system can stabilize, either into a stable attractor point or into an oscillation between two values.
- From there on, if you increase the input variable again (reminder: how quickly the rabbits breed minus how often they die); i.e. if you “supercharge” the system further, the system goes through new phase shifts: settling on oscillating attractor points with 4 values, then 8 values, then 16, onwards. You have “period doubling”. With every phase shift, it doubles, it branches off. That’s why you call each such shift a bifurcation. You need to increase the input variable by less and less for each new bifurcation to emerge. (Bifurcation is not the same as “oscilliation”; a bifurcation is a shift of how the system oscillates once it has hit its attractor point.) See image below.
Screenshot from Veritasium YouTube channel.
- After about seven bifurcations (as you “supercharge” the system more and more), the system’s properties change more fundamentally: It stops settling around an oscillation at all, and enters a state of chaos. Here, the number of rabbits (or whatever else the system describes) begins to vary seemingly erratically from year to year (or other time period described). It appears random (indeed, equations like these are used to simulate randomness when a computer is told to generate a random number). Now, even if, theoretically speaking, this chaos is determined (that is, for a certain value of the input variable, you can calculate the erratic leaps of future rabbit population values for all years to come), in practice it is not determined: Because, even if you change the 100th decimal of the input variable, the system will soon produce radically different values. This is what is meant by “sensitive initial conditions”. This is the whole “butterfly effect” thing we’ve all heard of: the change of one little, itsy, bitsy thing can have dramatic effects on how the system as a whole behaves later down the line. See image below.
Screenshot from Veritasium YouTube channel. As you can see, if you supercharge the system enough, it explodes into chaos.
The example here was about rabbit populations, where you “supercharge the system” by increasing how quickly they breed minus how often they die, but this pattern (one stable attractor, then two, four… until boom, chaos!) has been observed to emerge in fluid dynamics as the temperature increases (that being the “input variable” in this case), in the light sensitivity of eyes in humans and salamanders, in heartbeat fibrillation (where you can then use chaos theory to know how to bring the heart back to a steadier rhythm), the rhythm of dripping faucets has period-doubling with increasing flow rate, until it reaches chaos (yep, try it at home, folks!)…
Like the Golden Ratio, this is one of those seemingly magical patterns of nature. It’s a universal. It’s the stuff of minds blown to cosmic smithereens. It’s a source of that sense of awe that science alone can bring, and which, in its own way, arguably matches the rapture of religious experience.
Now, then, what in this pattern does the Feigenbaum Constant—4.67—describe? Feigenbaum found that, across all different equations of such feedback systems, the ratio between when one bifurcation occurs, and the next one, is constant: it’s 4.669 201 609…
Let me restate that:
- Every new bifurcation comes faster than the last one. How much faster? 4.67 times faster.
That is to say, you only need to increase the “input variable” (rate of rabbit breeding/death, water flow rate, temperature, or whatever) one 4.67th of the amount to reach the next bifurcation. The bifurcations come faster and faster—as you can see in this diagram. That’s what Feigenbaum discovered, making his constant worthier of a tattoo than most symbols.
To the left, Mitchell Feigenbaum, to the right, awesome tattoo suggestion.
But wait a minute—wouldn’t that mean that the period-doubling gets ridiculously rapid after a few doublings?
So, after about seven period-doublings, this dynamic peters off, and the system reaches a new state: chaos!
You climb a ladder of predictable intervals (although the distance between the steps gets shorter each time, the shift that occurs is the same: a doubling of branches), in a predictable universe; one of determined numbers that simply follow from what you have already defined and stated—but the ladder collapses around a certain point, its predictable steps disappearing into infinity.
And you step off the ladder—into chaos.
(If my way of explaining didn’t do it for you—some of which is with my own words and simplifications—you can try this explanation on the Veritasium YouTube channel. It’s wonderful. My own introduction to the topic was via Santa Fe Institute professor Melanie Mitchell’s brilliant book, Complexity.)
Okay—fair enough. There is a universal, tattoo-worthy, pattern out there in the natural sciences that describes the behavior of chaotic systems. What on earth does that have to do with any theory of evolution through stages of cultural history—the so-called meta-memes? And does it suggest anything about the times we live in, anything about what visions of the future we should reasonably be striving towards? And how does it comment upon Geaber and Wengrow’s point of view?
Ladies and gents, esteemed non-binaries—I give you The Three Striking Resemblances Between Chaos Theory and Cultural Evolution.
Are these striking resemblances merely coincidental? You take a look and be the judge.
The Meta-Memes Follow Feigenbaum’s Constant
“It has been noted by many observers that each metameme emerges about five times faster than the last one.”
The seven meta-memes (i.e., the stages of cultural logics or “generator functions” of societies) are, as I discuss in my upcoming book, The 6 Hidden Patterns of History:
- Archaic (I usually don’t count this one, hence speaking of “six patterns”.)
(Hereafter, hyphens are ditched, so I’ll be writing “metamemes”, “postmodern”, etc. That’s how you normally write them; it’s just for a bit extra clarity that they’re first introduced with hyphens.)
Understanding each of these metamemes is a whole discipline of scholarly study in and of itself—or, rather, a trans-disciplinary field. But they can be intuitively understood as a major correction of the old and outdated division of history into Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and so on. They are, more along the lines of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, based around information technology, and how each such form of communication has properties that crystallize as particular societies and civilizations throughout history and geography.
Roughly, it can be stated that each of the metamemes corresponds to a revolution of the communicative technology of society.
- Archaic—Simple spoken language.
- Animist—Abstract spoken language, and images and sculptures that represent what they look like.
- Faustian—Images that represent something else than what they look like: symbols for simple written messages and basic accounting.
- Postfaustian—Writing in abstracted texts, such as literature and algebra.
- Modern—Printed texts (printing press, standardized alphabet and spelling, “codex” books, newspapers, mass distribution).
- Postmodern—Transferred images and sounds (printed images and photographs in magazines, books and newspapers, gramophone records, radio, cinema, television, “simulacra”).
- Metamodern—the Internet, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, and onwards.
The emergence of the Archaic metameme presumably coincides with the appearance of what scholars call “anatomically modern human beings”. (Here “modern” simply refers to “anatomically similar to today”, not in the Modern-with-capital-M in the metamemetic sense “linked to Modern society and its specific way of functioning”.) If these people were like us physiologically, more or less, it means they also had a genetic predisposition for language. Human babies, for instance, begin to “speak” or try to converse long before they’ve learned their first word. Hence, something we could recognize as a spoken language in the specifically human sense likely coincides with the emergence of Homo Sapiens (there are, naturally, many meaningful ways to describe and study non-human animal languages, see e.g. When Animals Speak: Towards an Interspecies Democracy by Eva Meijer).
The date for that emergence keeps getting pushed back with new paleontological or archeological findings. We’ve gone from habitually claiming that it’s 200 000 years ago towards somewhere closer to 250 000, or even 300 000 years ago. The Archaic metameme is thus around 200–300 k old.
The emergence of Animist cultures (in all of their variation and complexity, which indeed seem to have increased over the millennia, today’s tribal hunter-gatherer societies being more distinct and unique than those of, say, the Ice Age) seems to be linked to the so-called “cognitive revolution” of circa 70k to 30k years ago. This coincides with the most significant “recent” wave out of Africa 70k–50k years ago and the emergence of art around 50k years ago. In the archeological records, the appearance of artworks of various kinds, be it carved figurines, cave paintings, or whatnot, is quite sudden and explosive after 50 000 BCE, indicating that some revolutionary cultural and cognitive development had taken place. Within a comparatively short period, a few thousand years that is, the world was teeming with artistic human expression. Hence, I would claim that it’s relatively safe to say that from about 50k years ago you have something that could meaningfully be described as the Animist metameme; a distinct departure from the way humans had lived before.
The following metameme, Faustianism, is linked to settled agricultural civilizations—but not reducible to it. In one form or another, such polytheistic warrior societies cropped up without necessarily being based on agriculture and/or pastoralism. The ruins of Göbekli Tepe in Southeastern Anatolia are a good example of monolithic architecture, a typical Faustian feature, built by hunter-gatherers. The earliest facets of Faustianism thus emerged prior to the agricultural revolution and this metameme is thus about 10k to 12k years old.
Postfaustianism, linked to the emergence of the traditional world religions and major world civilizations of the so-called “axial age”, is about 2.5k–3k years old. This is what is usually referred to as “traditional” or sometimes “premodern” society as we generally imagine the conditions of life in Europe, the Middle East, and China before the industrial revolution.
The Modern metameme emerges, if you dig to its roots, around the mid-1400s in the Italian Renaissance, i.e. between five and six centuries ago.
The Postmodern metameme emerges in the late 19th century (but, of course, comes to dominate society only much later), with a culture saturated with photographic images, and sounds which begin to form a shared layer of the social imagination (think of Marilyn Monroe—poof, we all get similar images, although none of us ever met her, and those images have little to do with the actual person).
The Metamodern metameme seems to be emerging as we speak. It’s the culture of digital society, where new social imaginaries are weaved by the imaginations of the many, for good or bad.
It has been noted by many observers that each metameme emerges about five times faster than the last one. In a very weird way, time (here being the input variable, or at least the one we’re noticing: there may be other some variable that simply increases with the passing of time in human culture), seems to become compressed as it progresses through the universe of cultural evolution.
“About five times”, aye?
Hmm, does it appear to be on the higher end of that (slightly above 5), or on the lower end (somewhat below)? Well, actually it seems to be somewhat below five times faster with each metameme.
But still more than 4.5 times faster…
Could it be… about 4.669 201 609 times faster? About 4.67 times faster?
Seems about right, actually.
But we’ll never know. Defining the metamemes and establishing precisely when fundamental cultural shifts emerged throughout history will never be an exact science and always remain open to different interpretations.
Still, it’s a strong hypothesis that the ratio between the emergence of each of the metamemes somewhat follows Feigenbaum’s constant.
Or to put it yet more briefly: Cultural development seems to follow Feigenbaum’s Constant, thus behaving like the bifurcation diagram I described above.
Like “Period Doublings”, Metamemes Can Be Meaningfully Repeated About 7 Times
“Both the bifurcation diagram and the metamemes seem to meaningfully iterate 7 times, or just a little beyond, before “chaos” ensues.”
In chaos theory, the difference of the “input value” with which you increase the charge of the function so that the phase shifts is thus circa 4.67 times smaller for each step. The period doublings thus occur faster and faster.
In the most famous equation where this is true, the so-called “logistic map” (the model that tracks how many rabbits there are expected to be from year to year), you get the following sequence:
(Remember: the value we’re putting into this equation is how fast the rabbits breed minus how often they die.)
- If you put in a value higher than 1.0, the rabbits don’t just die off, but eventually reach some kind of equilibrium population other than zero.
- The 1st bifurcation happens at the value of 3.0. Once you put in a value equal to or greater than that, the population starts to oscillate between two numbers from year to year.
- 2nd bifurcation (to oscillating between 4 points) happens (this is what Feigenbaum calculated) at 3.44949.
- 3rd bifurcation happens 4.7 times closer to the last one, so around 3.54409.
- 4th one even closer, at 3.564407.
- 5th one, at 3.568759.
- 6th one: 3.569629
- 7th one: 3.569891
- 8th one: 3.569934
- “Infinitieth” one (the omega point): 3.569934…
So, if you increase the input variable in this equation (“the logistic map”) beyond 3.569934…, you hit chaos. This is the breaking point, where this system’s mathematical properties change. Sure, in theory, you can add more decimals in infinity around this point, always doubling the period but never hitting chaos. But that doesn’t seem to be what real-world systems behave like.
Notice the following: Because the distance is about 4.67 times closer to each next bifurcation, the distance between the later bifurcations becomes very small—eventually infinitesimally small, of course.
Beyond the seventh bifurcation, we’re talking small changes of the fourth decimal, and after the 8th bifurcation, you have to go beyond the sixth decimal to even notice the change.
The whole thing seems to collapse before it quite lands on the 8th bifurcation—or just after it.
Now, keep that in mind and think about the following progression of metamemes…
- Archaic: a bit less than 250 000 years ago.
- Animistic: about 50 000 years ago.
- Faustian about 10–12 000 years ago.
- Postfaustian: about 2500–3000 years ago.
- Modern: about 600 years ago.
- Postmodern: about 120–150 years ago.
- Metamodern: emerges within a period of 30+ years, currently ongoing.
- Whatever comes after Metamodern (the suggestions are many out there!)— emerges in about 6–7 years? Begins to sound more than a bit too weird, no?
- A ninth metameme, whatever that might be called, emerges in less than two years (now we’ve entered the realm of the patently absurd).
- A tenth metameme: a few months?
- A few weeks!?
- You get the picture… Soon down to fractions of seconds. Huh?
There is just too much weirdness going down for that pattern to meaningfully hold up—up until the 7th, possibly the 8th, metameme.
Notice that I’m not applying the above model of chaos mathematics to the theory of metamemes: I’m just following the pattern discernable within the shifts of metamemes, historically speaking, to its own respective conclusion. And it seems to meaningfully hold only to the 7th iteration—possibly just a tiny little bit beyond.
It’s not that one logic is pressed upon the other: it’s that both phenomena behave in the same manner— feedback systems that reach a point of chaos on the one hand, and the cultural evolution of human history on the other.
As a brief side note, we may underscore that the metamemes seem to iterate 7 times also when it comes to what I call the layers of social emergence (a theory developed together with Johan Ranefors using his metatheory framework). These are: 1. individual agency, 2. group agency, 3. incorporated group agency (like companies and organizations), 4. systems and platforms, 5. Modern state institutions, 6. transnational cooperation, and 7. planetary coordination of all former layers. This is a longer discussion—suffice to say, at this point, that Metamodernity corresponds to the point where planetary coordination becomes both possible and necessary for all former layers to survive and thrive. I shall write another article on this topic—here it’s just to point out the seeming convergence around 7 metamemes in yet another way. Not more, nor fewer.
Both the bifurcation diagram and the metamemes seem to meaningfully iterate 7 times, or just a little beyond, before “chaos” ensues.
Chaos, in this sense, is anything but a ladder. But cultural development throughout history has followed what looks like a ladder—and that ladder ends mid-air; the ladder leads to chaos.
From this point of view, it appears that Metamodernity is emerging as we speak. Metamodernism is the last of the stages of cultural development (perhaps with a minuscule extra stage added at the very end of it). After that point, in the next few decades, we will need entirely different modes of thinking to properly describe the landscapes of cultural development. Stage theories were true, but they are running obsolete. They describe the past (and Graeber and Wengrow are simply incorrect in their refutation of them); they even describe the present and bring us to this very moment: but they do not meaningfully describe the future.
Please note that metamemes are not time periods: they are deep-seated patterns of information that structure the generation of culture. And so, several different metamemes always co-exist at any one time in history; they always overlap. Today, we still live in a largely Modern world-system, albeit with an influential fringe of Postmodernity. And within the Postmodern strata of societies, Metamodern fringes are cropping up—the fringe of the fringe, which still connects to the most central nodes and thus exerts great influence on the whole. And at the same time, billions of people still gravitate towards the traditional, Postfaustian metameme.
I hold, then, that while metamemes may soon be an obsoleted way of understanding development, it is absolutely crucial to understand the sensibilities, social logic, philosophies, spiritualities, and psychologies of Metamodernism—because this constitutes the starting range of humanity’s taking off into from “cultural history”, into chaos. And given that “sensitive initial conditions” matter when a system hits chaos, small differences can make all the difference.
Be the butterfly at the end of history—the difference that makes a difference.
The fact that we are at the very last stage of cultural development would suggest that cultural history is indeed nearing its “end”—but the opposite kind of end as Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”: not a static state of a predictable institutional order, but an end to all “staticness”, an explosion into unprecedented and unimaginable dynamism, more along the lines of the term the social singularity as intuited by my fellow interpreter of today’s world, Max Borders (who used this term in his book title, The Social Singularity, but filled it with a somewhat different meaning than the one I am proposing here). This state of chaos is unlikely to be meaningfully caught in any one historical narrative—and, in that sense, “history” will be over.
Or—more along the lines of what I have called, in my book The Listening Society, “the boom equation”. If so many things change so rapidly, affecting one another in a gazillion ways, what you get is simply: BOOM!
You just don’t know if it’s fireworks, atom bombs, or both.
At any rate—if this pattern holds, we should be reaching a point in history where “sensitive initial condition” become the rule: and thus Graeber and Wengrow’s anarchist intuition about our great degrees of freedom to invent and create social realities seems to become true. The emergence of virtual reality suggests that this could be the case—along with so many other new ways of technologically recreating lived reality and even biological life itself.
This leaves the question open—how do we wish to use the terms Metamodern/Metamodernity/Metamodernism? Are they simply the last stage of cultural evolution before it is no longer meaningful to speak of such things (and, as Wittgenstein quipped, we thereafter should remain silent on the topic)? Or should we use these terms to denote The Time Between Worlds (as one recent anthology on Metamodernism was titled), a window in which cultural evolution itself shifts gear and direction, and then as a word for the chaotic state-of-affairs that presumably follows? For my part, I think it’s more meaningful to do the latter. Metamodernism is the term for what happens when we jump off the ladder of cultural development, so to speak.
In any case, I hope that we can hereby bury all of these highly understandable but ultimately unfruitful attempts to define metamemes or stages of culture beyond the Metamodern. At most, you can add one stage, and it presumably emerges in the window of a few years, and presumably looks and feels a lot like Metamodernism (see next section, on the third resemblance, to see why).
In parallel to this discussion, it should be noted that many theories on adult development psychology have also described stages of development that correspond to the seven metamemes. With a few exceptions, however, these all tend to start getting eerily weird (and empirically very poorly supported) after whichever stage corresponds to Metamodernism in those models. As such, we can suspect that stage theories are less suited for studying the development of human personalities as well, after a certain point.
It seems as though, after this point, both in cultural and psychological development, the landscape of properties that follows is “out of reach” for a developmental perspective—much like the basic theories of physics only seem to apply to phenomena at certain scales. Some other perspective is needed to understand these fields of potential reality.
Let it be known that Hanzi Freinacht has hereby encouraged all to stop stacking stages on top of Metamodernism and corresponding stages in psychological development. Stage theories break down around this point. Stage-stackers be warned.
All said, cultural history itself appears to be at an end-point, and perhaps something else is beginning. Metamodernity is the phase shift into that new state of affairs.
The question is, of course, if there will be enough stability in the world for us to experiment—or, again, if that BOOM will just blow us off the map.
Still. It’s a thought that is as thrilling as it is terrifying. My suggestion is that we hold hands. And be careful about millenarian cults who prophesize an end of days and salvation for the few faithful (as these are having good days).
Let’s be honest, we can read some signs here, suggest some contours—but we don’t know what it means in practice. We are determined to move towards unpredictability.
Although More Possibilities Arise, the Difference Becomes Smaller and Smaller Between Each Bifurcation/Metameme
“The difference between jungle-roaming hunters and gatherers and the Indus Valley urban civilization is huge. The latter looks, feels, sounds, and smells so differently that birds notice it from miles away. The shift from Postmodernism to Metamodernism requires a master’s degree in the humanities to even detect.”
The third point is a smaller one, but it’s a resemblance nonetheless. As you can see in the bifurcation diagram, every time there is a new bifurcation, you can notice two things:
- The number of possible values within the attractor point doubles (a wider range of possibilities emerges).
- The branching off is smaller with each step, i.e., its values oscillate comparatively closely to wherever the former oscillation broke up. Very simply put: Notice how the first arc you see is big, the next one is smaller, next one smaller yet, and so on.
The same holds true, to a large extent, for how metamemes emerge, evolve, and develop throughout history. Think about it—Animism has been going on for tens of thousands of years and has produced an absolutely stupefying array of cultural forms from all around the world; their masks, rituals, adornments, and crafts looking so vastly different from one another that it mirrors the creativity of nature’s own beauty. As argued in detail in ornithologist Richard O. Prum’s book, Evolution of Beauty, nature itself spirals off into chaotic emergence whenever feedback cycles of sexual/aesthetic selection come online. These selection feedback processes cannot be reduced to mere “fitness” or “strength”—they sometimes work directly counter to the logic of the survival of the fittest (shiny blue, sexy feathers can get you detected and eaten by predators, etc.). Likewise, Animist cultures developed aesthetic variations and uniqueness beyond any later metamemes.
With Animism, you have long stretches of divergence between its different cultural forms (awe-inspiring tribal expressions of human creativity)—but of course, also a fairly limited range of possible memetic combinations that can be created within each of these cultures (no theory of relativity and poststructuralist literary theory, etc.), as compared to later metamemes. (To be more precise: the possible combinations within Animism across the world are indeed infinite, but it’s an infinity that does not include many of the “sets of cultural phenomena” that are possible in later metamemes.)
Compare the great colorful difference between different Animist tribes to Postmodernism and its subsequent shift into Metamodernism. Postmodernism looks about the same across world cultures: its forms are more predictable, even if each individual Postmodernist commands greater freedom of creativity (a seeming paradox, isn’t it?). Then consider the short memetic distance between Postmodernity and Metamodernity: At Metamodernity, with the advent of the Internet, memetic creativity goes into some kind of wild hyperdrive—every person in the world becomes a creator as it were, and here I am, reading and ordering books on the web, creating bridges between culture, history, art, psychology, technology, information and chaos mathematics while speeding to New Retro Waves post-ironic 80’s-style electronica tunes in a flow of sheer digital-magic weirdness—all hooked up to one behemoth of planetary, digital, monoculture (Medium, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Wiki…). But even as the creative potentials are supercharged, every inch of this unhinged Metamodern creativity remains so utterly close to Postmodernism, that the expressions of the two metamemes are in fact indistinguishable from one another to all observers but the specialist experts. And so, Metamodern cultural theorists can tell you that South Park is Postmodern in its cultural DNA, but BoJack Horseman is Metamodern. They’re perfectly right, of course. But nobody else notices—or even cares.
Simply put, just as the shifts between bifurcation points become smaller and smaller in chaos math, so do the shifts between metamemes become subtler and subtler. The difference between jungle-roaming hunters and gatherers and the Indus Valley urban civilization is huge. The latter looks, feels, sounds, and smells so differently that birds notice it from miles away. The shift from Postmodernism to Metamodernism requires a master’s degree in the humanities to even detect.
This third and last resemblance between chaos theory and metamemes is a less central point, but I feel it’s still important. As you can see, it helps us to elucidate the contours of what I am beginning to believe (but it’s still just at the “strong hunch” level) is the path through the rabbit hole at the end of history, leading us into creative chaos.
It’s a strong hypothesis I hold, so to speak, with sincere irony—or with informed naivety.
Some Implications: Protopia Must Surf the Waves of Chaos
If the above line of reasoning, and the similarities observed, are more than a coincidental freak of the digital hive-mind, it follows that we may indeed be approaching some kind of “chaos” as a cultural planetary system.
We must thus collectively become better at managing complexity. We must cultivate institutions, the building blocks of our societies, which can react to the chaotic emergence that we can expect at this mysterious “end of history” we seem to be approaching—likely with hitherto unimaginably wild combinations of wonder and suffering as a result.
In last week’s article, I argued that “Protopia” may be to the Metamodern mind what Utopia has been to the Modern mind. If we take that concept at face value, it would follow that a society is “Protopian” to the degree that its institutions can manage to thrive in conditions of chaos.
This is a larger horizon to explore, naturally. But just to sound the starting gun on this one: What would politics look like, if it were sensitive to chaotic emergence, to sensitive conditions? What would the legal system look like? What would the economy look like?
Here, Graeber and Wengrow’s anarchist optimism seems sharply on point: Not only is “another world possible”. The continuation of the world as we know it—indeed, all of history as we know it—is impossible.
Famous Last Words
“If this “ladder to chaos” hypothesis holds some truth, “the dawn of everything” is not in the distant past, but on the brink of the future, starting right about now.”
As you have seen, I have needed to work by analogy to bring home this argument (that chaos and metamemes are lookalikes)—after all, the models of chaos mathematics describe oscillations between simple numbers (the so-called attractor points), and cultures can hardly be reduced to simple numbers.
But the analogy, I hold (and as readers will hopefully agree), is simply too compelling, and its implications too significant, to be ignored or cast off as a mere curiosity.
Indeed, sociology and social science have always drawn upon analogies from the natural sciences (from the mechanics of early sociology, to the statistics of chemistry, to information-, network-, and complexity- and chaos theory of our days). What I am doing here is no different—but do keep in mind that an analogy is and remains an analogy. The question is not if the analogy is perfect (it is not); the question is only if the analogy helps us to grasp society better than other, alternative modes of thinking. Not, then, if it’s “absolutely correct”, but if it’s “less wrong”.
If any entity such as “culture” is at all connected to the mathematical regularities of the universe, it would make sense that this connection looks more like chaos and fractals, and less than billiard balls or statistical mechanics and chemical reactions. Culture is more likely like something alive, creative, and unpredictable. If nothing else, it’s certainly based on iterations of behaviors, and should thus be a feedback system of sorts—which is what chaos theory describes.
We can thus view society as determined-but-chaotic. It’s not “mechanical” but it still is not entirely arbitrary, detached from the natural world and its laws. I feel, in a manner, that this view strikes a balance between Platonic theorizing (everything follows mathematical forms) and a social, embodied being-in-the-world (the world emerges and exists beyond any static patterns that happen to be described by mathematics). It’s a synthesis, in a way, between flow and stasis.
Even if the resemblances that the analogy highlights would be coincidental, the observations I have made on the side of metamemes still seem to hold up. Think about it—if the metamemes have accelerated through history, will there really continue to be new stages indefinitely, or are we nearing what is some kind of singularity coupled with “the limits to growth”, an inherent ceiling to the dynamic (as environmental scientist Vaclav Smil has claimed all systems are subject to in his book, Growth). Everything in the universe stops growing eventually—because it has to. Here, we thus have a view that seems to synthesize Smil’s sober view of the world with that of the prophets of The Singularity (from Ray Kurzweil’s tech version to Max Borders’ “social” version thereof) who believe in the wonders of exponentially.
We also thereby have a suggested synthesis between “developmentalists” (or stage theorists) on the one hand, and all of those observers who, on the other hand, strongly intuit that we must leave stage theories of cultural development behind to understand our time. Both are right in the light of what has been discussed—just perhaps in ways they themselves didn’t consider. Stage theory does hold up—until it doesn’t.
If this “ladder to chaos” hypothesis holds some truth, “the dawn of everything” (which is the title of Graeber and Wengrow’s new book) is not in the distant past, but on the brink of the future, starting right about now.
I thus invite Metamodernists and Protopians to jump off the cliff, into the unknown, hand in hand. Where the “strong men” of the world promise law and order, the Metamodern ironic prophets make no promises at all. But they extend an invitation—an invitation to step off the ladder of history and to live lives of chaos, as participants and co-creators of culture in the moment it happens.
Beyond history, there is an existential or spiritual calling—into the creativity of the eternal now—as time slows down and new event horizons open.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.