A Problem Well-Stated Is Half-Solved with Daniel Schmachtenberger

June 25, 2021

We’ve explored many different problems on Your Undivided Attention — addiction, disinformation, polarization, climate change, and more. But what if many of these problems are actually symptoms of the same meta-problem, or meta-crisis? And what if a key leverage point for intervening in this meta-crisis is improving our collective capacity to problem-solve?

Our guest Daniel Schmachtenberger guides us through his vision for a new form of global coordination to help us address our global existential challenges. Daniel is a founding member of the Consilience Project, aimed at facilitating new forms of collective intelligence and governance to strengthen open societies. He's also a friend and mentor of Tristan Harris. 

This insight-packed episode introduces key frames we look forward to using in future episodes. For this reason, we highly encourage you to listen to this edited version along with the unedited version.

We also invite you to join Daniel and Tristan at our Podcast Club! It will be on Friday, July 9th from 2-3:30pm PDT / 5-6:30pm EDT. Check here for details.


Daniel Schmachtenberger

Daniel is a founding member of The Consilience Project, aimed at improving public sensemaking and dialogue. The throughline of his interests has to do with ways of improving the health and development of individuals and society, with a virtuous relationship between the two as a goal. Towards these ends, he’s had particular interest in the topics of catastrophic and existential risk, civilization and institutional decay and collapse as well as progress, collective action problems, social organization theories, and the relevant domains in philosophy and science. Motivated by the belief that advancing collective intelligence and capacity is foundational to the integrity of any civilization, and necessary to address the unique risks we currently face given the intersection of globalization and exponential technology, he has spoken publicly on many of these topics, hoping to popularize and deepen important conversations and engage more people in working towards their solutions. Many of these can be found at http://civilizationemerging.com/media/

For more information about The Consilience Project at https://consilienceproject.org/

Episode Highlights

Major Takeaways

  • Many of the problems we face are interrelated, and can therefore be thought of as a meta-problem or meta-crisis. On one hand, if we try to solve problems without accounting for their inter-relatedness, we may create bigger, longer-term problems. For example, if we try to address elephant poaching without accounting for hunger, we may push people to poach even more endangered species, or if we address misinformation through fact-checking, we may exacerbate polarization. On the other hand, if we approach problems in a way that does account for their inter-relatedness, we can solve many problems at once.
  • Daniel talks about generator functions of existential risk — underlying forces that drive many of the problems we face today. Specifically, he outlines three generator functions of existential risk: 
  • ~rivalrous dynamics, manifested by arms races and tragedy of the commons, 
  • ~the subsuming of our substrate, from the degradation of our biosphere to the degradation of our attention, and 
  • ~exponential technology, or technology that exponentially makes better versions of itself. 
  • Daniel says that any civilization that doesn't address these three generator functions will inexorably self-terminate. 
  • Before World War II, risk was locally existential, because individual societies could collapse without affecting other societies. After WWII and with the development of the atomic bomb, risk became globally existential, because it became possible to extinguish all of human civilization.

    In order to manage global existential risk, the superpowers aligned on what Daniel might call the Bretton Woods order — which included the Bretton Woods agreements, the United Nations, and mutually-assured destruction.

    Today, with multiple nuclear countries, non-state actors bearing other catastrophe weapons, and humanity hitting planetary boundaries, we have unmanaged global existential risk. Daniel argues that we need a new form of global coordination in order to manage global existential risk.

  • In the vacuum of what Daniel sees as a failure of our institutions to manage global existential risk, he sees two attractors — two states that we're naturally gravitating towards. Those two attractors are: oppression and chaos. Oppression is characterized by China's model of digital authoritarianism, where the state uses its power to limit the freedom of citizens, while chaos is characterized by regulatory failure in the West, where the state often fails to be an effective check on the market. 

    Daniel argues that we need a third attractor — a force that can manage global existential existential risk without devolving into oppression or chaos. He makes the case that this third attractor must be the people, comprehensively educated and enabled by humane technology. Ultimately, Daniel is calling for a new cultural Enlightenment, that has the emergent wisdom to manage global existential risk and realize a more protopic world.

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