Category Archives: Interesting Thought

Britain’s unequal cities and the magnetic force of London’s social norms

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at

City Size and Stability

An acquaintance once told me that Germany experiences political stability in part due to the fact that all of its cities are roughly of equal size. I have no way to validate this claim, but Germany’s cities do seem to be noticeably uniform in their population and population density after the top 4. Among the top 4, the largest city, the capital, is double the size of the next largest, while 2,3 and 4 are similar in size to each other.

At some point I became aware of Britain’s “top ten” city sizes and this is the kind of information that my brain likes to keep around. I lived in rank number 8 at the time: Bristol, and now I live in number 1: London.

What is interesting about the U.K.’s city sizes is that the capital, London, is four times larger than the next contender: 8.3 million vs. 2.3 million in Birmingham. After that the city sizes decrease sharply among the top ten. Manchester is 1.7 million, Liverpool 0.8 and so on. My home city of Bristol in rank 8 is only 0.4 and these numbers include a “greater urban area” so they are on the generous side.

This interesting table also lists the “Large Urban Zone” EU rank of these areas. London is number 1, while the next largest area, Birmingham, is rank 21.

On hearing my friend’s anecdote about political stability in Germany, I started to wonder if regions with unequal size cities have more social/political upheaval or strife.

It is sort of common knowledge in the U.K. that London dominates the political and financial landscape of the country, meaning that politicians are unduly influenced by the needs of London and are liable to ignore the needs of the rest of the population. But aside from politicians wearing London-tinted glasses, are there other mechanisms also in play?

Advertising as Signalling

This interesting article about advertising proposes a mechanism for how advertising works. Its thesis is that adverts probably do not overtly or covertly make a consumer have emotions related to a product (“emotional inception”), rather they create a shared social environment where the product is associated with a sign or signal of certain social messages. I recommend reading the article for specific examples, such as Corona being associated with being chill on the beach, so that’s the beer you’ll bring to the barbeque to signal “we are all chill here”.

The article stresses the fact that advertising has to create a potent and enduring social milieu within which to present a consistent social message. This milieu only works if everyone has seen the message, and everyone knows that everyone else has seen the message. Thus, signalling by means of products can begin.

London’s Impact on Advertising

London’s supermassive size has the effect of pulling everything into its orbit. If a company would like to use some kind of creative agency to make an advert, the people they call will be in London.

Now that I’ve lived in London for a while, I noticed that much of UK-produced media is made by people who live in London, using London locations. I recently watched an advert that showed a variety of people in a variety of settings. The urban scenes were in different parts of London with different types of background architecture, but the “rural” or “park” scenes were also in London – the hexagonal black bins and other street furniture were instantly recognisable.

Clearly some London agency had taken the client’s money and shot a “diverse” advert with diverse locations without going any further than Hampstead Heath.

London’s Social Norms

Crucially, I recently noticed that London people also project London social values in their output. The advert mentioned above was quite diverse in terms of the people in the advert: a white same sex couple, an older sikh gentleman jogging, a black family. The ad was trying so hard it was almost painful.

However, for a Londoner, a same sex couple in Trafalgar square, a black family on an urban road and an older sikh man jogging in Hampstead Heath is just normal life. The hammy diversity is only hammy for a Londoner because of trying to jam in different examples of normal people into a short time frame.

The advert lacked poor people, because no-one is very poor in London. London takes racial diversity for granted, as well as sexuality. Engagement in a capitalist economy is also taken for granted in London, because everyone is there to make money, and everyone is succeeding in that. Making money is not inherently bad, since it supports taxes which in turn support infrastructure which supports making more money.

London is ethnically very diverse. London is 49% white British, 58% white (all groups). 37% of London residents were born outside of the UK. This compares to 95% white in the rest of the UK population.

Being a diverse mega-city, politeness in London is an interesting game. There is no way to know which custom should take precedent among diverse people. For example, getting on the bus politely. Whom should you defer to when entering the vehicle? Older people? Women? Men? Children? It amuses me to think that even in say, patriarchal cultures there is no consistency. One culture might deem that women should go first, while another says that women should be at the back of the queue. Most people will defer to elders, but tellingly, only if they have their shit together to board. This shows London’s default social norm: efficiency and speed (which = money).

The only way to keep this city going is with speed and efficiency. If an older person is faffing, it is culturally polite in London to get on before that person, because in the time we’ve wasted deferring to our elders, ten people could have boarded the bus and we’d be underway.

The older person is never left behind, because Londoners are also culturally aware that each person adds more wealth to the whole. This wealth is both cultural and fiscal at the same time. London is so big that it has (paid) roles and niches for absolutely everyone. London understands that diversity is good, not through strength, but through money.

Social Pressure

And these are the values that are translated into advertising. These values make sense in London, but for the rest of the population, which is 95% white, with no financial incentives, they may be having a very negative effect.

If advertising creates a social signalling environment, then a person in a small town or village is being forced to feel that they should welcome and tolerate people who, for them, display disruptive, frightening and dangerous characteristics.

When someone from another culture shows up in a small(ish) community, it is probably better for everyone involved if that person is integrated into community life, ie they are asked to change their behaviours to match their new surroundings (and a link to this idea now eludes me).

However, the opposite message is being broadcast by London-based advertising producers. Cultures should apparently be tolerated and celebrated, not integrated and if a local person thinks that the new person should be restricted or compelled to integrate, they are made to feel racist.

If advertising sets the tone of social interaction, a large part of the UK population is being made to feel social shame. Shame often leads to anger and defiance. Perhaps it has led to backlash voting.

I’m not sure if unequal city sizes generally contributes to social tension rather than harmony, but the mechanism described above could be one more explanation for London’s black hole effect on the rest of the U.K.

End Of Nations: Stage 5 Geography?

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at

The State Of Nations


This post will be engaging with an article in New Scientist called End Of Nations by Debora MacKenzie. The featured image is also copyright New Scientist. The article suggests that nation states are currently ubiquitous, they also seem timeless and inevitable. However nation states are neither natural, nor inevitable. Instead, they  arise from the demand for increasingly complex social behaviours/increasingly complex activities.

“The key factor driving this ideological process, [of creating nations] was an underlying structural one: the development of far-reaching bureaucracies needed to run complex industrialised societies.”

This tallies well with the pages in Meaningness relating to Modernity and the rise of the systemic/stage 4 society. David’s pages state (and I agree) that these notions are academic common knowledge. This article by Mackenzie is an excellent read in terms of demonstrating the academic literature in an easy to digest way. So… go read it.

Still here? Well one takeway from the article is that Nations are currently the largest “container” we have for power. This is not useful when trying to solve global problems.

“… there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.”

So, what is the future?

The article discusses the European Union’s strengths and weaknesses.  The integration of European states to benefit from economies of scale is very positive. However Europe has a problem, because it is just another layer of heirarchy on top of heirarchical nations, and heirarchy might be a bad thing. Nations are a new and uncomfortable idea, so they have to preserve themselves with patriotic fanfare, sports teams and the like, but Europe’s heirarchy layer does not use all the patriotic tricks that nations themselves use to promote national identity, which is probably why everyone hates it, even though the principles of the EU are pretty solid.

The article also points out the global meetings of nations exist but have varying degrees of effectiveness – eg NATO, the UN. However,  the more informal, variable and goal-oriented groups such as the G-numbers (G8, G12) might actually be more effective.

The remainder of the article describes a proposed answer: evolving from heirarchies to networks. “Networks of regions, states and even non-governmental organisations”. Proponents call this neo-medievalism (because the medieval model was much more fuzzy around the edges). “Networked problems require a networked solution” says Anne Marie Slaughter. The article also talks about the possiblity of collapse as a crucible for new things.

I’m sure you’re by now with me thinking that this sounds like grasping towards stage 5 fluidity.

The article concludes that everyone agrees we still need nations, as a “container” of power (you can’t just throw out stage 4) but no-one can really imagine how politics would work in a network. Given that the world is changing and we have global problems, “it’s time to start imagining”.

Imagination Fail

I find this sentiment at the end of an article frustrating.

It reminds me of my frustration with AI movies. They often end at the moment the AI steps out into the real world (Ex Machina) or fall back onto unfulfilling, unrealistic emotional crap (Transcendence). Some tech friends claim we are experiencing a “fiction singularity”, a place where we simply cannot imagine our way beyond a certain point with AIs.

It seems we have a similar block here, imagining our way beyond stage 4 politics, capitalism, etc. Postmodernism is the “stage 4 politics singularity”.

Failures of imagination irritate the shit out of me. It seems like a poor excuse for failing to do something, or for believing something is not possible. If you can’t imagine something, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Try harder! Find imaginative people and ask them! Grrrr.


I believe I am no more imaginative than average but we can’t all just throw our hands up in the air and hope someone else is dealing with it. So, here is an attempt at “imagining” how politics would work in a fluid network, rather than a heirarchy of discrete, nation-sized containers.

Imagine There’s No Countries

City Mayors

It seems obvious to me that large cities should work together in a global way. I imagine the mayors of London, New York and Tokyo could have a lot to say to each other. At the moment I think there is probably some borrowing of knowledge from one city to another, but a global network of cities creating shared goals (such as how to integrate travel between them more efficiently) for everyone’s mutual benefit seems like a good way forward. I think creating carbon emissions goals between major cities could also have as a big an impact as nations could. Luckily, mayors also already have some power.

Regional Networks & Tasks

The same idea could be applied to rural areas – in the UK Prince Charles is really into that sort of thing. I am imagining conferences on farming that are wider than just either: corporates or NGOs or charities or Government departments, but rather mix their participants based on topic, not polital unit.

This also implies the strength harnessed by Kickstarter: organise around tasks/goals. This is where the G-numbers have had success. It is important however that participants have the power to make changes. We could confer temporary task-force power on such people.

Some regions might want to hang out around “not feeling like they are part of their surrounding nation” like the Basque area of Spain and Massachusetts. They could chat about how to make free cities actually work.

Fuzzy boundaries

An idea to get our heads around might be that it is ok for some cities/regions to have more fuzzy boundaries. There are huge back and forth debates about country boundaries and visas, which I’ve only vaguely looked into, but I propose that boundaries can be more flexible than that.

They could be fuzzy for certain things or for certain people but solid for others, such as perhaps creating a global accord for academic visas, but still be more strict on tourist/working/immigration visas. Europe’s national boundaries now work in this way, with open borders for EU residents, while political borders remain in tact.

But boundaries could also be fuzzy only for certain times. Burning Man is an example of laws, cities, resources and boundaries that only exist at certain times of the year.

What are your ideas for stage 5 politics?


Money, part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post, describing my mission to actively move away from using money. This involved being homeless and discovering the opportunities of life without money.

Going back to money

I always knew I would be reintegrating with the “normal” world eventually. After a whole year of being homeless and surviving without money, I was ready to go back.

In discovering rationalism, I had come across some cool techniques for life. Using probabilities and a cost vs benefit analysis I decided to move to London and become a developer. This was calculated as a low-cost high reward strategy for maximum money in minimum time that had a good chance of success.

The ultimate goal was to make time for more philosophical activity in my life. The no-money route is an option to regain some time, but perhaps not enough. The costs are also high: poor physical health, lack of stability (high anxiety). In short, to reach my goals, I had to use money.

Emotional difficulties

Even though my feminist days gave me this advice: “we all are doing what we can to survive under unfair conditions, so it is wrong to criticise others who are performing along the expected lines of society”, I still suffered feelings of horrible guilt and of being a sell out.

I rationally knew that I had come up with a decent plan that might ultimately help me to do more of what I love, an activity which might help people and even contribute to changing the society I find myself in. However the feelings of being a sell-out, of “getting more right-wing as I got older” were strong. It took some years to be more at peace with my choices and even longer to find a framework that might help to describe them.

I also felt uncomfortable  earning (what felt like) an obscene amount of money in comparison to others. Coming from the local government sector gave me a strong sense that the people who do the hardest jobs get paid the least money. I also felt working class guilt, that I was being a traitor for accepting and using middle class salaries, buying myself middle class privileges.

Of course, it was harder for me to remember that my new salary was still below average, well below median and certainly not “obscene” by any measure.


I had to remind myself that it is ok to have money. Life is indeed much easier with money. I think the study about IQ drop when feeling anxiety over money has failed to replicate, like so many others, however the anxiety levels at the low-end of the money scale seem anecdotally extremely large, and are relieved entirely by a modest income. Having modest amounts of money allows for optimism for the future, enables regular excursions outside of the house, enables much easier social relations, allows freedom of travel and greatly improves physical health.

Another aspect of money relates to sharing your money. I can now be honest about my motivations for generosity, is it signalling, is it genuine concern? I now feel ok about exploring those ethics.

One thing is certain, being without money is an excellent way to understand and use it effectively.

Further Truths

It’s expensive to be poor.

This perverse rule was visible everywhere once I recognised it.

The ATMs in poor neighbourhoods always charge for withdrawals, because poor neighbourhoods don’t attract chain banks or other enterprises that provide free cash machines. It’s not worth it, because everyone there is poor.

The converse is also often true: it’s cheap to be rich. Rich people are often invited to free events in the random hope that someone will spend their money eventually on the host’s business. Art galleries have free private views. Overdrafts on wealthy client’s accounts are free, while poor people are penalised for even a £1 overdraft withdrawal. The richer you are, the more free things get offered to you. Of course, money makes more money if you just leave it alone, so the act of simply having some gives you an income on it as well.

Cheating on benefits is much harder than getting a job

Almost nobody does it, so get over it. Of the ones that do, it is our fault as a society for not providing more useful deception games that their skills could be applied to. Either way it is an acceptable loss.



It doesn’t take very long to earn enough money such that survival is covered and all the questions about the meaning of life, and how to spend one’s time, return. For my freelance friends who really do earn obscene money, the problem of what to do every day becomes a real concern. Material benefits lose their charm alarmingly quickly. Boredom is the ultimate problem.

It leads me to wonder if there are groups of people with rich depression, whom we could leverage to do interesting things. It also makes me a proponent of universal benefit, which might be an interim step that will lead us to the idea that we should spend some time shunting around our shared, limited resources and the rest of the time getting together to do interesting things.

Money doesn’t need to be money

For some people (many?) their salary is much more to do with “numbers going up” – the dopamine reward system that video games harness so well, than it is to do with material goods or comfort. For those who are not too interested in the status that material goods bring, the motivation is more to do with the esteem a society holds them in (itself another kind of status).

This had led me to speculate about the possibility of divorcing “currency” – a phrase for the part of money that is a functional system of exchange rather than drag 2,000 eggs to market to swap for a cow – from the insane, imaginary mathematical games people play in financial markets that none the less cause ordinary people to lose their homes.

I recently spoke to a software developer in the finance industry who openly admitted that he engages in creating software that is deliberately difficult to use, so that financial investors feel as though they are actually doing something during their 90 hour work week, rather than admit that they do no better than random chance. His team actively re-writes old software with more complex navigation menus and deliberately obfuscatory usage procedures to supply the illusion that these people do something Very Hard that only Magic Skilled People can do.

I wonder how hard it would really be to round up the entire top several levels of the world financial system and quietly slide them all into an MMO or virtual world, where we tell them they are trading and have won and lost millions of “dollars” when actually we have disconnected them from the currency we use for basic goods, shelter and transport a long time ago.


I used to think capitalism was evil. Now I think it’s just a system.

I think it’s quite amenable to being hacked and changed, which is good. It might be the least bad system so far. It also doesn’t function in a vacuum. Capitalism so far has always operated with, alongside and within several other systems: nation states, governmental organisation systems, political systems, charity systems and particularly “welfare” systems. The welfare side is where we put lots of our human morals, and I now find it strange when people demand moral behaviour from capitalist systems.

There are some who believe that current systems would be improved if allowed to operate with the same rules as a “market”. I think they are correct in some cases, but it would be disastrous in others.

I do think there are aspects to markets/capitalism that mean it has never been a complete or functioning system. For example, natural resources are exploited at no cost, giving the illusion of eternal resources and thus eternal growth. I will be very interested to see how capitalism changes when this loop is closed, such as when governments give natural resource systems legal rights, or with carbon taxes.

I feel optimistic that since capitalism is subject to theories as engines, not as cameras, it will continuously evolve and will no doubt be a useful system in the system tool box for a long time.

Emotionally Dealing With Cheaters

It’s time for some emotional maturity when it comes to agents engaged in systems.

Hawks and Doves

A few decades ago, a couple of scientists applied game theory to evolutionary development. The result was evolutionary game theory and it gave us some neat new ways to understand evolution.

The most famous example of this work is known as “hawks and doves”. The premise is that given a certain set of circumstances, individuals within the same species competing for finite resources may have more than one strategy for obtaining those resources. Divided simplistically, an individual may behave in a “dove”-like fashion ie standing down from conflict (after an initial bluff of force) and sharing resources with other doves it discovers, both of whom are non-violent or a “hawk”-like fashion ie following through on threats of violence and not sharing resources with others. The dove strategy has low costs but also low rewards while the other has high cost but also higher potential reward.

The theorists produced a graph that showed which strategy might be optimal under which conditions. There is an awful lot more to evolutionary game theory however I mention this as an illustrative example.

Depending on the conditions, you have a certain percentage of hawks and doves. The more hawks you have, the more costly it is to be one as you might starve or be killed. The more doves you have, the higher the reward for being a hawk (violent and not sharing) since almost everyone you meet is a dove and will back down. In the high dove scenario, it makes sense for more individuals to become hawks since the rewards are high and the risks very low. Once you have several hawks though, the chances of meeting another hawk are higher and it once again becomes too costly to be one compared to the expected reward. There is a certain balance that appears between the types of strategy. The exact ratios depend on the situation, but what I want to point out is that you always have some hawks.

Social Strategies/Cheaters

Evolutionary game theory goes on to analyse circumstances where individuals within a species co-operate to a certain extent, rather than compete.

Humans often co-operate, and this behaviour is said to be ‘social’. Humans are one of the most socially sophisticated animals on the planet.

In a highly social society there are systems of rules in place and a few different strategies for success. Social systems are typically based on varying degrees of trust, you need to trust that other people will follow the rules and humans have evolved extremely complex skills and heuristics to assess trustworthiness in others.

One strategy in trust based systems is to fake trustworthiness, not abide by the rules, screw people over and reap the benefits. This strategy risks being caught and completely shunned, which may even lead to death. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that is the social equivalent to a hawk.

It seems to be that any social system that has rules based on trust is also open to the possibility of cheating being a viable strategy. In any social game you always have some cheaters.

Stopping Cheaters

Our social evolution has given humans pretty powerful tools to spot a cheater, helping groups to keep cheaters to a minimum. Many of our formal systems also have safeguards to attempt to weed out cheaters.

However, I frequently come across the assumption that it would be ideal to completely eliminate cheaters. This is wrong.

Eliminating cheaters is not possible. All games of any complexity have rules and therefore can be cheated. The more dove-like rule-followers a game has, the greater the rewards are for cheating and so the likelihood of having cheaters in the game increases. I believe that past a certain point you have a power-law situation with cheaters, where the energy expended to detect and remove cheaters grows exponentially the lower the number of cheaters becomes. Eventually, the measures taken to eliminate the cheaters become more injurious for everyone than the harm the cheaters are causing.

A recent example from my life: at a Pride parade of tens of thousands of people a political group of a dozen participants was denied entry, but unofficially they ‘broke in’ at the end of the column and marched anyway. Despite the fact that the organisers had made reasonable efforts to prevent the group from marching that year the outrage was huge, so the following year the organisers implemented a security system requiring all 10,000 people to acquire official wristbands, the parade needed extra staff, security barriers and to change the assembly point and shorten the parade route. The measures far exceeded the harm.

Eliminating cheaters is not necessarily desirable. Cheaters have to develop great skill to cheat, skills that are often prized in general, from thorough attention to detail to ingenuity, innovation and improvisation. In David Chapman’s essay ‘Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths’ the sociopaths – the cheaters – have an important function. They use their skills to market the New Thing made by the Geeks, making money and enriching culture, even if they reap an unfair share of the rewards. Sociopaths in general are quite likely to be cheaters but also quite likely to be very useful, like surgeons.

Emotional maturity

The extreme measures taken to eliminate cheaters seem to be often caused by the emotional pain of being a rule-follower and seeing or knowing that there are cheaters. Cheaters seem to reap great rewards, while the costs of the strategy are less visible. The emotional reaction can blind people to other causes for cheating, such as injustice (which I think may have played a part in the Pride parade example).

This emotional overreaction goes for double when money is involved – the obvious example is rabidity over benefit/welfare cheaters. I think the extra effort expended on trying to prevent cheaters is one of the key reasons that universal benefit works out cheaper.

People also seem to overestimate how many cheaters there are. I would expect any system to be capable of supporting around 10% hawks/cheaters. However from internet reading I’ve done about crimes, false claims about crimes (eg false insurance claims, false rape claims) are around 2%. This seems absurdly low.

The emotional desire to eliminate cheaters is prioritised over the rational knowledge that cheaters are inevitable, exist in low numbers and are even desirable. We need to sort that out because so often the measures to prevent cheaters are worse than the cheaters themselves.



Existing signs of fluidity

Required Reading

Robert Kegan’s personal development framework, summarised here by David Chapman. You might also like to read my earlier thoughts about what Stage 5 or “fluid mode” is, or means, for individuals.

This post will be taking huge liberties with material that is intended to describe personal, cognitive and social development of an individual by applying it to wider societal structures. One of my philosophical itches relates to the fact that scale is important, and different methods are needed at different scales of operation, so I am wary of the pitfalls of taking these liberties.

This, as most of my posts, should be taken as an exercise or thought experiment.

Where we are now

At the moment, society is largely at Stage 4, and has been since the tribal group style typical of Stage 3 began to decline.

Stage 3 society is based on relationships and feelings are paramount. This works well in a tribal group (and still operates in small groups, eg rural villages).

Stage 4 societies use a system to organise and make decisions, with relationships deliberately distanced from decisions, because within this stage, that is more fair. For example, the legal system relies on pre-agreed codes of justice, not the personal relationships of those involved, to make fair decisions.

Systemic organisation has given us almost everything we have in society today, from healthcare to exploring space. But, is there room for more growth?

Many current alternative belief/sanctity doctrines, such as groups with New Age / “hippy” values mourn the loss and call for the return of stage 3-style living. This would be a backward step. The way forward involves synthesising everything learned from stage 3 and stage 4 together.

While wider society does indeed have many successful stage 4 systems that can interact with each other, something more is required to become more like stage 5. Chapman’s description of stage 5 for people is very useful:

You have several such systems, “multiple selves,” none of them entirely coherent, and which have different values—and this is no longer a problem, because you respect all of them.

Society has many systems, but most are still invested in the idea that systems must be entirely coherent and that systems that have different values cannot coexist, be reconciled or demand equal respect at the same time because this would be contradictory. Politics is a great example. All the players must behave as if their chosen team on the political spectrum is inherently, objectively right and the others terribly wrong.

Stage 4 societal systems are interacting with each other in the same way as stage 4 people co-operate: very successfully, coordinating calendars etc, but not yet showing stage 5 fluidity.

This post will submit some ideas for institutions that are exhibiting Stage 5 dynamics.


Kickstarter et al.

Crowd funding seems to have features that are more like stage 5. It involves co-operation from many people who are different from each other, who probably have wildly differing systems of belief and ethics. Differences are no longer very important because the focus is the end goal.

Crowd funding temporarily brings people together around a node point, a common goal, and they will disperse when the goal is achieved. This node point is slicing reality along a different, specific line. The rules for the node are set by the creators and rather than appealing to a broad identity eg “all Democrats” the appeal is much more specific eg “anyone who wants an Alsatian puppy calendar”.

Because the focus is the end goal, the systems that have been leveraged to make it happen are no longer very important, rather they are shown to be tools used to achieve the goal rather than identities for its participants.

Elon Musk

There are some people who appear to be “hacking” systems, in this case capitalism, harvesting rewards and then leveraging the benefits.

It is likely that individuals have done this within companies and governments for centuries but Elon Musk is a visible example with public goals.

He identified that the best way to make money within our current money system – capitalism – is to make money from money (Paypal as a money transfer service).

Once he was one of the top 100 most wealthy people in the world, he turned his attention to other goal-focussed pursuits. The world is probably lucky that he wants to improve the lot of humanity with high-speed travel, space exploration and green energy.

My point with Musk is that, having exploited a stage 4 system he can now work around those systems and above their heads.

Even just a decade ago it was inconceivable that anyone would market an electric car, because the oil industry is too big and powerful. Indeed, a new product must jump through many hoops to come to market, from patents to funding to marketing to market share to fending off legal battles. It was impossible to imagine any company achieving this. What happened instead was a person who sliced reality along different lines.

The gradual rise up a chain of hierarchical systems is not necessary for Musk. Once one has a certain amount of wealth, one can be more or less outside of most of these concerns. His product does not have to get funding or acquire market share any time soon, much less turn a profit. Money can be thrown at lawyers from the oil industry and at marketing. So, Musk managed to just pop out an electric car, seemingly out of nowhere.

By providing a ready-made product, Musk drives change from above back down through some stage 4 systems, like governments, via (for example) demand for new electric infrastructure. In the US, his company has taken over this stage 4 operation.

Further, Musk actively works together with other companies. He is known to sell his electric car components to other car manufacturers relatively cheaply. His company also negotiates long-term investment from them in exchange for these cheap, high quality components or for long term help in their research and development departments. In addition, he allows “good faith” access to patents held by his companies to help other firms advance their technology in his areas of interest.

This to me is stage 5 capitalism. Everyone has their separate companies, their private patents and are technically in competition. But when striving to change the world  (and when money is no longer an issue) the best way to productively move forward is to once again collaborate, share information and support others around specific goals.


Technology developers worldwide (particularly software developers) have for a long time been sharing their work online for free. The work on software does not end at the moment a piece of code is given away, rather many people also actively maintain and debug the software after the fact. This involves a lot of effort and usage of free time.

This seems to have come about due to a combination of good wages in the stage 4 realms that support developers and good will amongst the community. Many developers sympathise with having to write boring code, so libraries have been created such that no-one has to repeat unnecessary labour.

Developers also foster that “for the good of the world” feeling. Open-source software is made available for free to anyone, not just other devs. As software becomes more complex it is increasingly obvious that only collaborative effort will move technology forward. Opensource is an alternative to corporate invention, partly so that life-changing technologies are not owned exclusively by a single company but also partly because such entities are too narrow in their R&D focus.

Summary thoughts

If Chapman is correct about STEM people and stage 4, it is no accident that these three examples are all in STEM fields.

These examples all share something that I feel is very important: goal focus. I believe goal focus flattens out old hierarchies and makes systemic differences less important. These goals also have a certain flavour, to improve the world or to maximise fun. They fill the gaps in capitalism’s goals which are too narrow.

This goal focus is possible because there is another assumption along side it: that we are participating in something that is shared. With Kickstarter it is normally a shared geeky hobby. Elon Musk’s visions assume a shared human race, a shared planet and a shared solar system. Developers exist in a shared community and all hands are needed in software right now so that community also extends to the human race. However this shared environment acknowledges stage 4’s differentiation before building a sense of sharing.

The humanities seem to be straining towards some flatter hierarchies, for example reinventing the system for peer-reviewed papers which would be in line with Foucault’s criticisms of institutional power, however change is still extremely slow.

Can you think of other things that seem to operate on a stage 5 level?


Postmodernist Territory

Cover Photo by James Walshe

Intro: You already know this stuff

Sometimes people feel they don’t grasp Postmodernism because they believe it must be complicated, when in fact many parts of it are “obvious”, “normal” or already part of everyday life. We live in a postmodern world and from the end of high school onwards we have been taught and use postmodern principles. Some people feel they don’t understand Postmodernism because of an absence of a  lengthy explanation of it, they feel it must have long words or difficult concepts. There must be a certain amount of forehead wrinkles and frowning before you can say you Get It when it comes to Postmodernism. Whereas the truth is that no-one explains it at length because there is nothing more to say that you don’t already know from your postmodern life experience. To a postmodern person, Postmodernism really is quite “simple” and its concepts appear to be self-evident.


Postmodernism is the word for thoughts you have as an inevitable result of achieving Modernism.

I highly recommend this essay by Nadia Rodinskaya about the two shifts in intellectual thought that humans have had so far. Seriously, it’s very enlightening and lays the ground for what is said here. Meaningness talks about this in detail too.

Modernism is stage 4 incarnate, all human life systematised and interlocking extremely well. Some systems are so efficient that human actors are no longer needed (eg factories). Urban planning has gone from not existing to common knowledge. Machines and rational efficiencies have been used in every corner of life, not excluding “natural” life eg farming but also eating, sleeping and defecating. Everything has optimised systems to manage processes in increasingly efficient ways. They are entirely invented and maintained by system 4 successes, normally in terms of civic government & services or capitalist concerns – these include banks, trade routes etc as well as business entities.

These projects need not be complete in every domain for the problems of systems to become intellectually apparent. The precursors of Postmodernism in philosophy were writing in the 19th century. In some ways the next 100 years was a project of figuring out what the hell to say but first building a language to say it in. In the 1960s – 80s  the stuff that the Postmodern philosophers were coming out with was pretty great (and their thoughts are precursors to Constructivism in Nadia’s essay).

At first there were a lot of counter arguments that challenged the status quo of how to think about science and the assumptions we have about knowledge. Criticising Modernism.

Then they made up new ideas about knowledge and meaning (and most people don’t know that part).

Part 1: The counter argument

Post-structuralist critique part 1

Some philosophies in the 20th century were about trying to find an underlying structure to human behaviour, just like that which had been found in physics, biology and so on. The most famous was linguistics – trying to find how language is acquired and what rules govern it.  The people who we now call post-structuralists critiqued this idea in two ways. Firstly, they stated that people do not operate according to structures. Secondly, that as people ourselves it is impossible to “get outside” of a human system to have a scientific, “objective” view of human systems.

They did this in a fancy way and Derrida is the leader, and his stuff is really dense. If you’d like to know more about the details of critiquing structures philosophically, he’s your man.

Inherent bias: Feminists smash up social theory, art and psychology.

One of the ways to know that people do not fit nicely into structures is to be someone for whom the structures do not work, people who are squished or erased by “objective” notions of how people are. The most numerous people in this category are women. Feminist writers took apart everything we thought we already knew in the 20th Century.


Susan Sontag’s critique of cameras as phallic, ahistorical, unreality-death-machines in ‘On Photography’ is utterly dark and convincing. If you’d like some Postmodern nihilism, I can’t recommend this enough.


Luce Irigaray’s project was critiquing psychoanalysis. Her books wade in and deconstruct every aspect of psychoanalysis with feminist theory so new and so extreme it’s like a welding torch. In hindsight, Freud was easy pickings for feminists since he based all his theories on men and then sometimes created a ‘mirror image’ for women or just presumed women were the same. Nope.

Irigaray’s alternative feminist psychoanalysis project was a brave and complicated effort, but I think is kind of pointless except as an intellectual exercise because psychoanalysis never had much good to say about women and finally not much good to say about anything after a certain point. It was extremely important but I think more as a step on the path than a Theory of Everything.


I think it was via Luce Irigary that I came across the idea that not only essays and novels but language and sentence construction itself is an imposed patriarchal system. That grammar rules are a too-strict arbitrary system that restricts its user base, creates unnecessary hierarchies and loses richness of meaning in favour of technical rules.

I think that is mostly silly but none the less there is the seed of an important idea in there. Kathy Acker did some extraordinary literary experiments involving stuff like this, so if you’d like a book that makes William Burroughs’ cut-up technique look like child’s play I recommend her work. Lots of sex and blood too.

Female Life

Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was published in the 1940s and still endures as relevant today. It totally nailed the description of female life within and without these structures built by men in the everyday world. If you want a primer for feminist thoughts and only read one book: dip in and out of this one. Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher and because of this book she totally beats Sartre on historical significance and coolness.


All these structures you thought you’d made suck balls and don’t work.

Not rational digression

Just a quick digression: it was only as a result of postmodern thinking that anyone questioned the idea that humans typically act in a rational way. It took until the 1970s before psychology devised experiments that showed that not only are people more governed by their emotions than previously thought but that they actually act really irrationally, all the time, even if you try to help them with the way you devise the test.

The 70s! Think about that. It’s hard to imagine that before that, everyone was presumed to be rational. Well, white men at least. This assumption was key to propping up all the institutions we have. In fact it still is. How to deal with irrational agents operating inside a rational system is still something we are struggling with.

Post-structuralist critique part 2

Ok, so far I’ve only really talked about current structures for humans being flawed. That doesn’t mean the principle of systems is wrong, does it? Well, now for the good stuff: later Postmodern philosophers point out that “scientific” thinking is also just wrong according to its own principles.

This is talked about a lot by Foucault, using a technique he called “archaeology” to compare scientific reasoning, methodology and behaviour over time. He argued that self-proclaimed ‘objective’ systems of thought were constituted entirely from contingent historical and social influences and the changes within disciplines or the invention of new disciplines are all entirely guided by these cultural and accidental influences. In fact, they always have been.

At first he looked at specific areas, like the history of mental illness, then the medical clinic but eventually he did a history of “the human sciences”.

It became increasingly apparent with Foucault that not only was it foolish to apply physics-like principles to systems for human beings but that all science, physics included, is so skewed by cultural sanction as to lose all ability to claim objectivity or to elucidate ‘truth’.

(No arguing with me in the comments before you’ve read some of his work.)


The 4.5 gap

Many people and philosophies get stuck here. Systems seem to have it wrong and the critique of that is quite convincing. This makes systems seem to be interchangeably bad, or in another way to be equally valid. Ethical relativism looms large in particular. Very common in normal postmodern life seems to be the idea that “all opinions are valid”. There seems to be an impasse as to how to judge anything, and whether any meaning is even possible.

Is this the missing stance combination of monist nihilism? We have moved on from stage 4, which tends to favour the division of things into categories because it is a stage of independence and separation. We are moving towards a stage of inclusion (like the previous stage 3), implying a move away from division, but nothing seems to mean anything. Therefore, “all is one” in the sense that old categories do not exist, “all is one” in the sense that all is interchangeable/equivalent and the stance is “nihilist” because this equivalence erases meaning.

The real: a nihilist cul-de-sac

I’m placing this section here because it seems to fit a 4.5 nihilistic train of thought.

Lots of recent postmodern thinkers became caught up in the real, or specifically the absence of it, getting quite attached to the idea that no one can experience the real any more, using words like hyperreal or “real”.

Baudrillard talks about “the absence of negation” ie the negative side of real – “not real” -has gone. “Not real” has been replaced by something different – “artificial”, which is not quite the same. We run around in “artificial” a lot in everyday life and Baudrillard claims that since that is true, we also cannot experience real things any more because “artificial” is not the opposite of real, therefore both “real” and “not real” have become lost to us.

Baudrillard goes on and on with this stuff, but I’m not sure it needs exploring unless you really want to. The Matrix (the film) does in fact explain some of the main concepts pretty well, although Baudrillard is not talking about the ancient “brain in a jar” philosophical problem like The Matrix does.

I surmise that in 2016 we pretty much feel this concept intuitively. We all experience this real-not-real stuff on a day-to-day basis, especially when using the internet, but really it is in all forms of media.

I think Baudriallard was crapping his pants about losing a binary of real/not real and not knowing what will take its place. He seems to fear that humanity will collapse into a void. But, like almost everything, this hyperreal problem is not that scary, we are all basically fine with it in day-to-day life and the void has yet to swallow us. It also has loads of benefits which point towards stage 5 style usages.

Getting unstuck

So, it’s easy to get stuck here in monist nihilism because moving on from here is pretty hard. If not a system to make judgements, then what? What words can I even use? Luckily, philosophers come to the rescue, Thinking Very Hard is what we pay them for after all.

Part 2: What there is instead (the stuff people don’t know)

While it is clear that rational systems clearly don’t cut the mustard it is also clear that everything, especially social systems of persons, is not entirely in chaos. Social norms are in fact surprisingly consistent on the whole, even if they can differ in the details.

When postmodern philosophers discuss this they are pointing out what calls pattern. They have come up with a few ways to talk about the nebulous yet patterned nature of life beyond systems.

Social inscriptions

Simone de Beauvoir not only described female life she also stated that gender was inscribed on a person by societal norms. Social rules can bruise one into conforming, sanctioned behaviour wears down grooves in a person from the outside. This is in contrast to the systemic idea that a personality springs from the inside, representing a unified self that maneuvers rationally within society. De Beauviour said that society both produces and potentially reduces the person. At the time de Beauvoir was not refuting notions of the self, merely adding to the spectrum of representation of the ‘norm’.

Much more recently the philosopher Judith Butler described her notions of the ‘performance’ of gender, where gender is a series of acts that you do rather than a thing that you are.

Each time a performance is accepted by others the information about permissible acts is reinscribed in the person. There is a continuous flowing feedback loop between self and other that is cooperatively reinscribed.

This process can be a powerful force to preserve the status quo, but there is possibility for change in this model since translations from person to person or within groups can gradually evolve new meanings, whether deliberate or accidental. In addition, challenging acts can be performed that may or may not gain acceptance. Art and jokes are places where challenging representations can be enacted.

Society then is seen as a continuous series of interactions, or dance of performative meaning. (We are starting to sound stage 5ish now aren’t we?)

This idea can be applied to any label or role in society as well as gender.

This more general trick of turning a noun (‘identity’) which is solid and fixed into a verb (‘performance of identity’) which is active and changeable is a useful technique for sliding around systemic thinking.


I recommend being pretty stoned when reading Deleuze & Guattari but especially Deleuze. Or do I? All I remember is that they use the word “rhizome” a lot in ‘One Thousand Plateaus’ and seem to be describing both the bifurcation of plant limbs and also the flowing movement of stuff or information around pathways that are both well-trodden and also continuously changing.

(That and the black hole/white wall dichotomy which seems to me  to have the same unknowable message as the film 2001:A Space Odyssey but in overblown fancy French. )

Anyway the rhizome pathways seem quite cool as an idea. For a STEM application: I’ve seen some research talking about networks as a system of nodes that have a certain number of connections. The research involved flows of information, and examining whether the richness of connections that a node has effects that flow.

Power lines

After his analyses of modern systems of thought, Foucault went on to formulate explanations of modern society along different lines than that held by structures. His key ideas were around knowledge and power.

Foucault claimed that, for example, biological sciences are not in the practice of ‘objective study’, they are not uncovering something that was already there, like the rubbing of the gravestone, rather they are bringing into being the object of study. Science creates things that were not previously there by categorising, labelling and cataloguing.

In this way Foucault claims that the Victorians were not disinterested in sex, or prudish about it, rather they were obsessed with it. More cataloguing, category-making and forethought went into sex during this period than any other. The reason they did this was to make efforts to control it.

For Foucault, knowledge and power are inextricably linked. From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

Foucault’s point is rather that, at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know.

By knowing something, it can then be designated as “normal” or “abnormal” or “deviant”. In this way certain things can be sanctioned and other things repudiated. Power structures have evolved to reshape what is considered deviant behaviour, rather than simply punish acts. Foucault more often calls this power relations and describes flows of power around nexus points of knowledge and historical contingency.

He gives examples of these flows, which have influenced each other and sprung up for innocuous reasons but have become sites of power. One example is the examination.

The examination (for example, of students in schools, of patients in hospitals) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normalizing judgment. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth”. It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know or what is the state of their health) and controls their behavior (by forcing them to study or directing them to a course of treatment).

Gutting, Gary, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Here again I believe we have a powerful example of somewhat abstract things flowing around a network of node points with stable yet changing connections and configurations.

Making meaning

Almost all the Postmodern philosophers retreat to aesthetics or art to talk about how to make decisions and how to make meaning. I think they are touching on the same thing that I am talking about when I say “judging” and David at Meaningness is talking about with meta-rationality and meta-systemicity.

They seem to be saying that the decision making process is now closer to ‘aesthetic’ in the sense that it is more a matter of sensibility to make judgements, rather than recourse to objective facts. Some talk about fusing rhetoric with aesthetics, perhaps to show it comes from somewhere. More research needed!

Fluid Mode

It is my view that several Postmodern philosophers have given us a consistent language and concepts with which to grapple past stage 4.5. These concepts slice reality along different lines.

Foucault deals explicitly with boxing things up into categories and labels, and what happens when you do so. He then offers what seems to be a more “zoomed out” view of all these different systems, showing the flows of power and knowledge over, between and around the systems we have created.

Deleuze and Guttari’s rhizomes feel like this too. I think there is so much more to be discovered but the original writing is really dense. I would go for these guys over Zizeck any day of the week though.

Butler has described a continuous and flowing notion of a “self” and a “society”/”other” that is by necessity always a performance (and therefore not necessarily a “true self”) which is always collaborative, is often stable but always slowly changing.

(In an interesting side-note I listened to a lecture of hers which marries the rights of prisoners to the rights of disabled people through the concepts of freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. This is very related to Foucault, whose work focussed on prisons and marginalised groups. It also shows how to bring two unrelated groups together in the same thought process by examining an entirely different axis.)


To conclude: I believe these flowing, changeable things that none the less have pathways, grooves and nodes or nexus points are the metaphorical ideas to move forward with. It is this flowy nature that I use to identify possible fluid mode phenomena, and it was this postmodern background that lead me to think was onto something.



In true stage 5/bisexual/Postmodern fashion, almost all post-structuralist and postmodernist philophers explicitly reject the labels applied to them. Some of them are not even philosophers, which is illustrative of formal categories breaking down in academia, which is itself illustrative of stage 5 thinking being well under way in thought arenas. The overarching placeholder word “theory” is now taken to mean the people and ideas I have mentioned plus many more, who range across disciplines.

Omissions and errors

I have attempted to make a sketch of philosophical postmodernism and have missed out loads of it. Tell me which bits you’d like an expansion on! I may have made errors.


I have yet to figure out proper notes and references, sorry. Below are authors who are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period. These are philosophy based. The ones with stars are the ones I have read. Titles after the names are ones I recommend.

Kathy Acker *
Jean Baudrillard * ‘Simulations’
Judith Butler * ‘Gender Trouble’
Rey Chow
Hélène Cixous
Gilles Deleuze *
Jacques Derrida
Umberto Eco *
John Fiske (media studies)
Michel Foucault * ‘History of Sexuality Vol.1’
Félix Guattari *
René Girard
Luce Irigaray *
Sarah Kofman
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
Jean-François Lyotard *
Jean-Luc Nancy
Avital Ronell

Also mentioned:

Simone De Beauvoir* ‘The Second Sex’