Just a few years from now in 2027 will begin the 100th anniversary of a series of discoveries in physics and mathematics which describe limits on human — or any! — knowledge and ability. This decade-long centenary is a carrier wave which will be loaded with opportunities in the form of various celebrations, panels, writings, and more, a predictable series of opportunities to accelerate the broader Western culture’s understanding of limits. I believe that fully establishing this understanding in our worldview would dramatically improve the odds for humanity, and the living systems we depend, to survive our current conflicts & crises and thrive going forward.

The cover of Douglas Hofstadter's book, Godel, Escher, Bach. Two intricately carved blocks hang suspended above one another. Lights shining through them cast shadows of a G and E to the left, an E and G to the right, and a shadow B below from a light shining directly down through both blocks.
The cover of Douglas Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach

First, credit where credit is due — it was from Douglas Hofstadter that I learned to see these limitative theorems as a set. He brought them together for all of us in his 1979 book, Gödel, Escher, Bach:

All the limitative Theorems of metamathematics and the theory of computation suggest that once the ability to represent your own structure has reached a certain critical point, that is the kiss of death: it guarantees that you can never represent yourself totally. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Church’s Undecidability Theorem, Turing’s Halting Problem, Turski’s Truth Theorem — all have the flavour of some ancient fairy tale which warns you that ‘To seek self-knowledge is to embark on a journey which … will always be incomplete, cannot be charted on a map, will never halt, cannot be described.’

Part II, Chapter XX (p. 697), Gödel, Escher, Bach

In the late 1920s & 1930s, there were a series of discoveries in physics, and mathematics & logic, which ended any hope for a single, coherent model which could explain everything – even in theory. Before these discoveries, many science-minded folks imagined that once we found our ultimate goal of an all-encompassing model, only limits in our ability to measure things would keep our predictions from being perfect. After these discoveries, all such hope was lost. (As with nearly all things, there are detractors from this interpretation. Some of them are worth engaging — after all, we can never be fully certain we are right. ;-)

The most well-known and first of these discoveries was Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a result coming out of quantum physics in 1927, which says that at any given moment, the more precisely you know a particle’s position, the less precisely you can know its velocity (speed + direction). And vice-versa — the better you know something’s velocity, the more uncertainty there will be in your measurements about its location. That is, Heisenberg proved that it is impossible, not just in practice but in theory, to have complete knowledge of these two seemingly simple attributes.

Less well-known is the next, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems of 1931, which establish that any sufficiently complex model (what he means by “complex” notably includes any model which includes the model within itself) cannot be both complete and accurate. That is, if it is 100% accurate then it will be incomplete, unable to describe some aspects of the system. Or, if it is 100% complete, addressing every aspect of the system, then some of its statements about that system will turn out to be incorrect. (I’m using theory and model more or less interchangeably here. The second theorem Gödel developed that year established that a theory that is self-consistent cannot even prove its own consistency.)

Timeline (and please let me know of others!):

1927 – Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle
1931 – Gödel’s incompleteness theorems
1933 – Tarski’s undefinability theorem
1936 – Church’s undecidability theorem, and Turing’s halting problem

I suggest that, even if only indirectly, the implications of this shift in understanding have been unfolding across academia (and society more generally) over the past century in manifold ways. Without having conducted a thorough search for such, I would count Margaret Mead’s work as a cultural anthropologist, and specifically her influence on the emergence of second-order cybernetics in the 1960s, notably delivering a presentation on the “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” at the First Annual Cybernetics Symposium of the American Society of Cybernetics. Also consider reflexive awareness emerging more broadly in social sciences in the 1980s, with anthropologists for example considering how their presence affects studies they are undertaking, and turning their critical eye to their own methodologies.

More recently, the replication crisis has shaken first the social sciences, as attempts to reproduce many lauded studies of the past failed to replicate their finding. Those from the hard sciences may have initially chuckled and shaken their heads, only to see the crisis extend to their own fields as experimenters attempted and sometimes failed to replicate their “well-established” findings as well. I would expect further research to turn up quite a few more pearls of related developments strung all through the past century.

Why do I see it as a big deal how quickly and deeply we incorporate uncertainty into the foundations of our world view? I believe it gives us a better chance to have effective working understandings of any situation. It brings openness and humility, which are both key to learning. And we have a lot of learning to do, indeed an endless amount. I’m far from being the only one with this take on things. Being able to hold one’s understandings (or “paradigms”) lightly is Donella Meadows’ highest leverage point. And Tom Atlee and the Co-Intelligence Institute understand it as perhaps the most important truth, which applies in all situations: “There’s more to it than that.”

If you would like to do something with this upcoming decade-long carrier wave, please reach out! It’s not too early to start doing research on who has events or is likely to have big events in 2027. Or if this stirs anything in you at all, I’d love to read it. You can comment publicly below or on Mastodon (or twttr), or email me privately at johnca@ourpla.net.


Dear mayor and city councilors,

Thank you for your time & attention to this issue.

I remember the 1970s oil crisis, when oil prices spiked, we sat in cars in long lines for gas, and America had a sudden and profound interest in energy independence and clean energy. Even as a kid it was pretty obvious that pollution was bad, and that we had alternatives. I was excited about the future I would be growing up into when I read articles about electric cars, and saw that the president had put solar water heating panels up on the White House roof. (By this time, the fossil fuel companies had done research that convinced them that global warming was real, but they chose to keep that research private.)

I was very disappointed when the next president chose to take down those solar water heating panels. Why would he do that? Fossil fuel prices had come back down, and many people seemed okay with the increasing pollution that burning more fossil fuels brings.

By the end of the 1980s, I had graduated from college and was working at Technical Education Research Center, formatting and laying out climate science pilot curricula for middle and high school students. I and my co-workers watched James Hansen’s testimony to Congress on climate change with great interest. The data he presented was very concerning, and convincing, and we were glad to see there was bipartisan interest to take action. By 1992, George H. W. Bush signed the UN Convention on Climate Change and it appeared that major change would be coming soon.

People playing golf while the hillside behind them is engulfed in flames.

But rather than supporting and joining in any effort for change, fossil fuel companies chose propaganda. They hired the Heartland Institute, the same organization who had successfully produced confusion to delay action on tobacco smoking, to do the same for global warming. It worked. Another decade lost, as one party chose to go along with the lies and obfuscation. (By this time, fossil fuel companies had also chosen to actively prepare for how to continue their extraction and distribution in a future of significantly rising temperatures, which internally they were certain was coming.)

By the early 2000s, they had even convinced climate activists like Bill McKibben that natural gas was a good thing, a “bridge fuel” we could choose that was better than oil or coal. (I was fooled too!) While it is true that the methane in natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, it is also a much worse greenhouse gas than CO2. And there is so much leakage in systems of methane extraction, storage, and distribution that its warming effect on our climate is frequently found to be just as bad as coal. Fossil fuel companies could have been pro-active in responding to this, but instead they chose to continue lying, obfuscating, and dragging their feet, even as the evidence became clearer and clearer. (Remember BP’s expensive 2000 ad campaign rebranding themselves as “Beyond Petroleum,” while they continued to extract the stuff full speed?)

Given all of the choices that fossil fuel companies have made over the decades, I hope you will forgive me if I do not trust a thing they say which is not well supported by independent experts. If they had not made all of those choices to actively confuse the public, then publicly available, widely trusted information would by now have convinced the overwhelming majority of people to choose electricity for cooking & heating, and this legislation would have been unnecessary.

Instead we live in this world, where these companies have done nothing but sow confusion and doubt. It is entirely reasonable for you to have been pretty sure of your vote even before hearing the testimony and evidence of the past few months. Ending methane in new construction is not some radical new idea out of left field. Rather it is, along with all of the other work you have been doing to reduce greenhouse gases, decades overdue.

Thank you again for your time.

John Abbe
Ward 4
Eugene, Oregon

Until recently I occasionally would note that, “I never met a meta I didn’t like.” Going meta is such an important practice to me that I introduced it twice in our process of developing the Group Works deck, because the first time around it got renamed and then changed meaning beyond recognition under the new name — which is in a sense actually affirming of its power. The second time I introduced it, it stuck, even if the heart description does not fit my understanding perfectly. For me, it is very much centered on the shift “from content to process.”

== == ==

The metaverse of Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams, as in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, is not just a virtual 3-D world with believably-rendered faces. It is the 3-D world. Everyone just has to be in it, and land ownership in the novel was a very, very big deal. The company that owned the metaverse was bigger than any tech company in our world. This is what Zuckerberg wants — to capture part of the free market, become a rentier over some critical bottleneck of the World Wide Web, so that he and his company might have an endless profit stream.

We escaped that dystopian future when AOL, CompuServer et al joined the Internet one by one. Thank goodness! I laughed when I got what Stephenson was suggesting, because it was ridiculous to believe that it could happen. The Internet was already so multifarious in 1992 I couldn’t believe that we would let it happen.

I should not have been so sure. We have allowed social media and everything app companies to enclose far too much of our online activities. Fortunately, there are so many layers and options of independence — email and DNS come to mind — that even behemoths like Facebook and Google remain vulnerable, as the current rise of Mastodon and the fediverse suggest. The odds are looking okay to preserve what remains of and grow out the online commons — collectively ours, “if we can keep it.”

(Especially to the degree the ad markets are in a big bubble. Surely this is what Facebook fears, and why they’re placing big bets on finding another, more solid way of locking up future profits.)

Twitter has peaked. The shareholders got paid handsomely, showing yet again that in a ‘well-functioning’ capitalism – by many people’s definition – capitalists can benefit from the destruction of what they nominally are stewarding. (See too many owners of rented housing, and forest & mine land-owners.) In this case showing that public assembly spaces in particular ought not be entrusted to capitalists, even relatively benevolent ones such as the previous ownership which was certainly very imperfect, but did moderation better than FB, TikTok et al. They still sold out to make a buck.

Musk will reinvent it as something, no one knows what, or how ‘big’ it will be five or ten years from now. Maybe he’ll make a ton of money. Maybe Twitter will still be very influential in some circles. And many networks & communities who do not yet have a home elsewhere ought to be supported whatever that looks like. But a critical mass of technologists (including Tim Bray), activists (including a major upcoming instance for climate justice activists), academics, journalists (and journalists), maybe not yet businesses (fine with me so far), but some governments (and electeds), and cat lovers have already set up alternatives or are considering or preparing moves. Twitter is on a rapid track to being less central to the web, and I doubt there is anything that can turn that around. (Advertisers are pausing or pulling out. The head of Apple’s app store closed his Twitter account. If they drop the app, Twitter’s value and income instantly drop substantially.)

The independent web is buzzing as it has not for almost 20 years. I have heard this spontaneously in my own head multiple times, and have heard the same from many geeks I have not been in touch with in a while as we run into each other on Mastodon, formerly-quiet mailing lists, etc. I’m not sure what else Musk could have done that would have been more effective in achieving this outcome.

a Mastodon mascot (laughing while holding a phone)
A Mastodon mascot, by dopatwo.
Free software – more about rights

If Zuckerberg and the TikTok folks would do some of their more obviously evil things right about now that would be super-helpful (kidding not kidding). Tumblr is joining the Fediverse (the open system Mastodon is part of), Flickr is considering it, a better Mastodon plug-in is in development for WordPress (open software which runs ~40% of the web by some measures), and the for-profit WordPress.com which hosts many WordPress sites is Tumblr’s owner, so they are likely to join as well if Tumblr’s experiment works out. (They are also capitalists ultimately, but as part of the Fediverse if/when they go full evil it will be far less disruptive because people can copy their blogs elsewhere. Just like it’s hard to disrupt email – even if GMail went down, email would continue.)

The Mastodon commons is buzzing with technical considerations (scaling, security, interface challenges, inefficiencies as things stand, how federation really works, etc.) and substantial moderation issues, and there have been & will be many more missteps and outright fails ahead but I see enough positive developments I feel very hopeful. You will hear about many alternatives over the next while if you have not already. My hot takes (largely standing on the shoulders of the giants I follow): Post – ew, Hive Social – yuck!, CounterSocial – no, Cohost – okay that one actually may be interesting, and many others most of which are too different to be even be very relevant (e.g., Discord). But the way things are looking now, micro-blogging is sliding toward the Fediverse and Mastodon. The last time I felt this positive about technology might have been when I first found wiki.

Feel free to comment, would love to hear your perspective even if you are trying to change my view. :-)

Mastodon has been around for a few years now, so the timing was pretty good for it to handle the recent inflow of participants from Twitter. I think of the occasional outages as the flood comes in as a feature, it will help new users not to expect perfection. Sounds like info security folks and a lot of other techies have really moved on now, plus a critical mass of journalists (also see newsie.social ) and academics (still looking for good lists of academics, if you have any share ’em!). EDIT: list of lists of academics

And thank goodness, because the Fediverse – Mastodon and some other services – is an actual commons, owned collectively by everyone who runs a server. Public conversation there is real public conversation, it’s not happening in a mall and it is not distorted by profit-focused management or moderation. If people you’re following or who are following you on Twitter have accounts on Mastodon, you can easily find & follow all of them using Fedifinder or Debirdify.

There are more good resources at https://fedi.tips/ and I may post more here, certainly will toot on Mastodon itself (And tweet on the birdsite!) I am @SlowEnough@mastodon.social and will likely add another account or two soonish. This is one of Mastodon’s strengths is that you can participate from multiple servers!

This is all very promising but it’s important to remember that most people and groups are not moving over quickly en masse, and this is one of the reasons for at least some of us who are setting up on Mastodon to stick around and support people around the world and in various subcultures who will be on Twitter for a while. The for-profit service is still a critical pseudo-public forum right now, and even if it deteriorates “quickly” it is likely to remain an important social space for years. Ethan Zuckerman made this point well in this thread. (via the ever-wonderful Nancy White@nancywhite). Zuckerman also pointed to crossposter.masto.donte.com.br and moa.party, two tools which you can set up and they will pass tweets & toots back and forth between your accounts.

My introduction to Buddhism was Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught. The part that stuck with me the most, about both Buddhism and religion in general is that it does not have to be dogmatic, there does not have to be anything which is “taken as gospel.” I know that is often not how things are in practice in Buddhist circles, but it stuck in my head that Buddha talked about trying what he said out and seeing for ourselves.

Love these whimsical dwarves. And no, I don’t believe Buddha went to Kelaniya. copyright 2015 Denish C

Despite never yet finding a full sangam, I personally have gotten a lot from the little I understand & practice of Buddhism. I see how imperfect Buddhist (and most) institutions are, how destructive many of them can be. I think it helps to have a healthy skepticism of any powers that be. (I’ve likewise gotten a lot from devotees of nonviolence, although it as well can fail when it becomes naive or dogmatic. Fortunately it has devotees who are neither. The nonviolent resistance in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia has been inspiring. On the flip side I do not begrudge anyone keeping an eye on excesses from “my” side – I live in the USA.)

The best critics of Buddhism I’m aware of are from within Buddhism itself, which has had countless reform movements. I don’t recall enough to say where to start, I got a ~half-hour overview of the religion’s mainline reform movements across South Asia through history from a monk long ago. Each region and tradition has its critics.

Vajra Chandrasekara is an author in Sri Lanka who has both read deeply on Buddhism in general, and is familiar with Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy and institutions. He’s also pointed me to others’ helpful critiques. Here’s a thread of his on being unbuddhist. EDIT: Honestly, he seems far more concerned about the damage from Buddhist violence than Buddhist pacifism.

Someone asked on r/Buddhism about critics of pacifism, I wrote this and decided I wanted it here as well.

A blizzard of scarcities and plentitudes of confession, of contrition, of defiance, denial, anger, guilt, sorrow, despair, rage anxiety impatience silent & noisy desperation, and, exhaustion.

And then, somehow, Contact:

A moment’s peace,
a dynamic peace,
a peace of many wholes and
a whole of many pieces
in play,

It’s just that sometimes I forget that I love you.

Overlooking the reminders surrounding me,
or missing their meaning (as I was taught),
I sit as if alone.

As if gravity itself is insufficient evidence of our bonds.

We are all drawn together.

These were my mom’s.

…there is love.

cropped from Luke Hayfield’s photo, copyright 2010

I need to fall in love.

Blog Stats

  • 876 hits
June 2023
This is a test. This is only a test. Had this been a real life you would not have been told where to go and what to do.