Thinking in Social Layers

The Base Social Layer of Our Collective Mania

A reminder that the first Anti-Mimetic Zoom hangout for premium members is this Tuesday, August 10, at 6pm EST.


It’s fashionable to say things like “politics is downstream from culture.” But what does that even mean?

To start with, it usually means that the political systems we get are only as good as the culture out of which they emerge. Consider the technocratic system, which is coming:

I don’t know if Antonio’s line “technology will have to save us” was tweeted in jest or not.( The Internet is a giant disintegrator of collective action—not a facilitator of it, as some assume—due to the mimetic confusion that reigns on it.) Maybe he was just acknowledging what he believes is inevitable: the response to the pandemic has not worked because we’re unable to really take coordinated action effectively (in the words of one friend: a public health policy that requires people to say that it’s not working because 50% of the population are idiots is, by definition, not a good public health policy).

Perhaps technology is the only thing left that is ‘reliable.’

But the real reason I found Antonio’s quip “technology will have to save us” so haunting is because it’s the complete opposite of Martin Heidegger’s famous line, “only a God can save us” [from technology], uttered in 1949 as he looked at the human condition and the world that we were being thrust into.

How did technology go from something we must be saved from to the only thing that can save us?

To understand what’s going on, let’s take a short Heideggarian detour to see what he meant and why it matters—to all of us.

Technology as the Base Layer

Heidegger first articulated his philosophy of technology as part of his lecture “Das Gestell”, or “The Framework” (which would be a great name for a film). This lecture was later adapted into a popular essay commonly known by the title “On the Question Concerning Technology.” He was grappling with a new kind of framework that he believed the modern world was already deeply enmeshed in—even in the mid-twentieth century. Shortly before he did, he gave an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegal in which he was asked what we do in the face of the Gestell, to which he replied “only a god can save us.”

Gestell is a German word—hard to translate—which means something like a ‘cage’, or ‘framework.’ In Heidegger’s usage, it is the all-encompassing environment in which we are all enmeshed, one that is practically impossible to escape.

Technology is the new framework in which humanity has to operate. One way to think of it: Heidegger believed that technology is the new base layer of humanity and social relations, the point from which everything begins. (Of course, base layer is my term, not his. I’m trying to relate this to present-day issues, as you’ll see.)

In other words, all of our relationships are colored and shaped by technology whether we want that to be the case or not. We’re inside the Gestell. We don’t have a choice. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never used a dating app in your entire life: you still approach dating, at some level, with a technical mindset.

All social life is determined by this Gestell, or framework.

Heidegger noticed that this new technological Gestell was marked by unending change: the whole world is filled with transformation, things becoming at all times, nothing stable. (In this way, there is some correlation to Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’).

So enmeshed are we in this technological framework that we see everything, including people, as something to be used—as tools. The very notion of alterity—that which is “other”—is being eliminated in this Gestell. That’s because, in Girardian terms, this Gestell is leading to an annihilation of differences: a crisis of sameness. (I’ve also had a German friend tell me that the word Gestell means something like ‘a perfection, a complete imposition of one thing onto another,’ which gets this point across.)

One clarification: when Heidegger said that it seems like “only a God can save us,” he didn’t mean the deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He was not a believer at this point in his life. Rather he meant something like “fate”, or something that happens to us from the outside—not by our own hand. We are not free to leave the situation we are in by an act of our own will. Every attempt to exit the technological situation is itself technological and further entraps us. It’s like someone attempting to escape quicksand by grabbing handfuls of the quicksand to try to pull themselves out.

So, going back to Antonio’s tweet: technology created the conditions through which we’re incapable of coordinated and collective action, yet better technology is the way out? Of course not.

(Maybe we could just ducttape a Macbook Pro to a tree in the desert and if we all just looked at long enough, like Moses and the seraph serpants, we’d be cured.)

If Antonio is right, we’d better get to work engineering our desires away.
If Hedeigger is right, then we’d better start creating the counter-cultural conditions for whatever this saving ‘event’ may be.

We’ll have to develop a new habit of thinking and develop a new path forward that involves an openness to something different. Different. We can’t, as Lex Fridman has suggested, simply build some new and better social media platform that fosters more love among humans (Remember: that’s what people thought Clubhouse was going to do, if you believed the early hype). This mindset remains a technological solution to a human problem. By definition, love is not love if it’s not free. It cannot be engineered.

That ‘something different’ will certainly not come by way of any of the current Big Tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg, who recently mapped out a new vision of Facebook’s future that sounds eerily similar to the hellscape called the ‘metaverse’ first described in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

The good news: Heidegger was wrong. And so is Zuck. Technology is not the new base layer of reality. It never was, and it never will be. While the transhumanists like Yuval Noah Harari talk about humans “upgrading” themselves into gods, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob laughs in the heavens.

As Harari was writing those words, he was imitating the hundreds of human models that had gone before him—going back to the gnostics and, before them, the pre-Socratic philosophers like Xenophanes who couldn’t escape their own anthropomorphizing even while railing against this tendency in earlier peoples. Thinking of men as technocratic gods is just the latest version of this long human pastime. Notice that even the langauge Harari uses to describe this shift—”upgrading”—is itself taken from the technological world.

The Greeks fashioned gods in their own image. Now we fashion AI in ours. And we expect it to save us.

The form of human imitation changes from time to time (social media has already had a profound effect on the nature of imitation), but human nature doesn’t.

The Base Layer of Social Life: Mimesis

One of the many great things that blockchain technology has done is boost the ability of more people to think in layers. In order to understand it well, you have to. There’s no way around it.

Certain elements of the tech stack can’t work unless they are built upon previous, or more basic, layers.

For instance, here’s one depiction of the different layers we’re dealing with in a blockchain tech stack (I know it’s missing things, but it does the job):

I recently had an excellent chat with the guys at Bankless HQ (on their podcast) about analogous layers of social reality. Specifically, we talked about how we can’t understand memes (or meme stocks) without first understanding mimesis. Memes, in a sense, are only the product of mimesis—because mimesis is a base cultural layer.

The blockchain revolution has forced many of us to rethink everything from the nature of money to information security to political philosophy. It’s like a new lens through which we can gain insights into many of the most fundamental questions of our age, and even humanity itself.

In a way, the most important implications of blockchain technology have nothing to do with blockchains.

Instead, it offers a framework—a way of thinking about social reality. And I believe thinking of social reality in terms of layers is one of its most important contributions.

For example, think about the often superficial usage of the word “capital". Capitalism (one of the most misunderstood terms in the world) is not merely about the accumulation of financial capital.

There are many different layers of capital, without which financial capital isn’t even possible. Here I draw from an excellent book called “Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress” (Basic Books: 2000), to show some of the different forms of capital, the last four of which are all social:

  1. Natural Endowments: location, subsoil, forests, beaches, climate

  2. Financial Resources: savings, international reserves

  3. Humanly Made Capital: buildings, bridges, roads, telecom

  4. Institutional Capital: legal protection of tangible and intangible property, efficient government, firms that maximize value to all stakeholders

  5. Knowledge Resources: international patents, universities, public intellectuals

  6. Human Capital: skills, insights, capabilities of a people

  7. Cultural Capital: not only the explicit articulations of a culture like music, language, and ritual but more importantly the attitudes and values—especially those linked to innovation

(The word ‘capitalism’ is derived from the Latin word caput, meaning “head”—it is a mind-based system that relies on human creativity. This interpretation places it mostly into numbers 3-7 above.)

Of all of these forms of capital, cultural capital is the most important because its the only one that can lead to long-term value creation. In that sense, the rest are all “downstream” from culture (including politics, as we said in the beginning).

Here’s an illustration from a presentation on mimetic theory that I gave at a conference last week showing how we might be able to depict this idea visually. We typically only see what’s above the surface of the water—the price of Bitcoin or ETH (or whatever)—but that price is built upon all of the other forms of capital, without which we’d never have it in the first place.

According to Girard, the most important components of “cultural capital” are the rituals, prohibitions, taboos, and institutions that come from mimesis. They are the things that emerge out of mimetically-driven social processes (most importantly, the scapegoat mechanism)—things which protect us from one another; protect us from authoritarian rule; protect us from collective mania and self-destruction. I’ll be diving into the role of mimesis in a (near) future edition of this newsletter.

Could blockchain technology be what I refer to in Wanting the “third invention”—the social innovation that allows humanity to survive and grow? (The first was the scapegoat mechanism; the second was the market economy, at least as we know it today.) I don’t know. It remains to be seen.

But it’s clear that technology is not the base layer of reality. Technology, we could say, is always downstream from culture. The innovations that we now know as blockchain (and its derivatives, like cryptocurrency) could not have emerged in the wrong cultural conditions. The blockchain exists because certain people created the right conditions—the right counter-cultural, anti-mimetic conditions—and then waited.

Sometimes, that’s the most important thing we can do.