What is collective consciousness and why does it matter?

I scheduled this post to go live as a showtime, then realized I wasn’t sure if “consciousness” is the right way to even frame this, but I let it go live anyway. In some sense it could be called “sanity”, but that has its own challenging connotations. I use both terms sort of synonymously below; I might decide later that yet a third word is better. There’s also a lot more that I can—and will—say about this!

I figure collective consciousness can be summarized as the capacity for a group of people to:

  • see the world clearly together, integrating their individual perspectives into a larger whole
  • have a shared train of thought that finds and makes sense of what is relevant
  • make and enact decisions together in ways that adequately incorporate all information and careabouts that all members have

(Jordan Hall’s 3 facets of sovereignty: perception, sensemaking and agency.)

I like to say “Utopia is when everyone just does what they feel like doing, and the situation is such that that everyone doing what they feel like doing results in everyone’s needs getting met.” On a smaller group, a sane We is when everyone in the We does what they feel like in the context of the We, and they are sufficiently coherently attuned to each other and the whole such that each member’s needs/careabouts get met.

In some sense, obviously, if there existed an X such that if you supported the X it would cause everything you want to be achieved better than you could manage on your own, you’d want to support the X. Obviously, from the X’s perspective, it would want to support the individuals’ wants/needs/etc to get met so that they have more capacity to continue supporting it supporting them supporting it [ad infinitum]. This is the upward spiral, and it’s made out of attending to how to create win-wins on whatever scale.

There can’t, as far as I can tell, exist such an X that is fully outside the individual(s) it is supporting. In order for it to actually satisfy what you actually care about, consistently and ongoingly, it needs a direct feedback loop into what you care about, which may not be what you can specify in advance. The system gives you what you need/want, not what you think you need/want, in the same way that you do this for yourself when you’re on top of things. Like if you eat something and it doesn’t satisfy you, you get something else, because you can tell. (This is related to goodhart and to the AI alignment puzzle).

Fortunately, as far as I can tell, we can learn to form We systems that are capable of meeting this challenge. They are composed of ourselves as individuals, paying attention to ourselves, each other and the whole in particular ways. Such a We can exist in an ongoing long-term explicit committed way (eg a marriage) or one-off task-based unremarkable ad hoc way (eg a group gathers to get someone’s car unstuck, then disappears) or something in between (eg some people who meet out on deep playa at burning man and decide to be buddies for the rest of the day).

What does it feel like?

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Malcolm’s 100× vision (3 layers)

“There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.”
— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Artwork by DALL·E 2 with my prompt: “illustration of a group of humans forming a collaborative ecstatic superorganism”.
I created the graphic with the Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quotation overlaid.

Last year, I was inspired by a fellow friend and consciousness-evolution-furtherer, who sent a screenshot of his “100× vision” in a newsletter. I replied “I feel dared by you doing that to do something similar myself.” A couple months later, I finally wrote something up. At the time it felt too big and scary to post anywhere, but perhaps I’ve grown, or just gotten more comfortable with it, or shared it with enough people who responded positively… because I now feel pretty easeful about posting it to my blog.

I’ve written some adjacent-possible visions. This one is about 10-15 years into the future—sometime in the 2030s—and is written as if I wrote it then, in the present tense, describing what I see when I look around at my life. It’s not a complete description of what I want—it’s actually very abstract and is designed to be a sort of generic placeholder vision that many people would also find themselves wanting. A friend recently challenged me to make an actual personal vision, so I’ve now done that too and it’s called “Malcolm’s bespoke personal selfish vision” but that I’m also not ready to publish. Wants can be very vulnerable!

Without further ado: here’s what I see from an imagined place in the 2030s:


I’m deeply embedded in beautiful, bountiful, brilliant collaborative human superintelligence on many scales, of which I’ll highlight 3 below. I’m not the leader on any of these scales – to some extent because there is no single leader but also because inasmuch as there is, that’s not what I’m called to do. But I was one of the major figures getting it all off the ground years ago, because I knew I needed all of this to exist in order to be thriving this much… I wouldn’t settle for anything less, and nobody else was already simply doing it in a way I could join, so I Sourced some of it.

Since precisely *what* we’re all working on at this point is highly contingent and path-dependent on both what else has happened and is happening in the world, as well as on who’s involved, and I’m writing this from a trans-timeline perspective that’s independent of those details, I can’t specify in detail what projects we’re working on, but I can describe the rough structure of things as they look right now in 2035.

inner scale: collective brain

I’m part of a slowly growing group of 10-20 people who are profoundly in sync and able to actually think as well as… it’s hard to put it but something like “as well as a single human could if it had 10-20x as many neurons”. Another analogy might be “a five year old is to an adult as an adult is to this collective brain”. We’re able to solve problems better than almost any individual could (except given specific expertise). Individual wisdom is integrated—the group is wise about anything that any individual in the group is wise about.

We have been and are ongoingly achieving this through a combination of…

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The meta-protocol for human trust-building

A protocol is a set of behaviors and expectations for interaction, whether explicit, such as Non-Violent Communication, or just the unspoken cultural norms of any social group. Shared protocols can dramatically increase people’s ability to collaborate and trust each other. But trying to get everyone to operate the same way is imperial, like trying to get everyone to speak the same language, and thus generates a ton of resistance if you try it.

The meta-protocol is the translation process, the dance by which trust is built between and within people. The meta-protocol is actually relevant even if two people think they’re already following the same protocol, because inasmuch as that protocol is inadequate… 

  • not able to be used for a particular situation
  • ambiguous and understood differently by each person
  • a person isn’t fully bought into the protocol as stated thus is unable to consistently use it

…the meta-protocol is what allows them to notice that and iteratively improve whatever they’re doing and patch those gaps. (Such patches might produce a new ongoing implicit or explicit protocol, or not.)

No matter how perfect a hypothetical protocol might be, it’s impossible to systematically address everything that arises in the complex experience of being human together. There will be gaps, including during the learning process for how people can come to use a protocol consistently. The meta-protocol is whatever fully and completely answers the question of “well, then what do you do in the meantime, or when those gaps occur?”

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Fractal Home

I’ve just moved into a new home (just north of Victoria, BC), and it seemed like a good time to publish a piece of writing I drafted in January about the nature of Home.

In the terms of my previous blog post, it could be summarized as something like “Home is where you have non-naive meta-trust”.

Naturally, people really really want this sense of Home, although they may think it’s impossible, theoretically or just pragmatically. In general, most people don’t have environments where they have deep meta-trust, and don’t have a workable roadmap towards creating such environments. But it’s possible, given enough shared attention and an adequate toolkit, to co-create this sense of Home.

And, moreover, the process of a group consciously co-creating Home can itself produce the feeling of relief that being Home produces, [[in the meantime]], if everyone feels a sense that the group is doing its best to take into consideration the careabouts of each group member—before it has actually solved all the problems. This is a collective version of what Mark Lippmann calls the “Handledness is Already Success” principle.

When I use the word “need” or “want” or “careabout” or “desire” in this piece of writing, I’m pointing at, fundamentally, a cybernetic control system set point. What makes something a need, vs a want, might be essentially, as my friend Catherio put it: “if this goes unmet, I will make substantial changes to my life”. These careabouts include things on every level from psychological safety & self-actualization & meaning, to food & water & shelter… and probably stuff Maslow forget to mention!

I am Home to the extent that (and in the ways that)

  1. I can relax knowing that the systems around me aren’t going to subvert my needs & wants (whether malevolently or carelessly) and will in general support them.
  2. I feel, and am, empowered to make changes to the situation in order to care for my needs.

This applies to any context, not just to a house. In particular, it can also apply to a group of people or a relationship. So I’m not talking about “home” as contrasted with “work” and “third places” here.

This applies to all sorts of meta dimensions but it’s also very concrete:

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Letter to my younger self, who has just been sent to his room

On behalf of the universe: there’s been a mistake. You weren’t meant to be sent here, to your room.

I’m highlighting the mistaken nature of this situation because what I want to tell you is: you’re free. But I don’t want to be your rescuer, you see. In order for you to really be free of this room, in your mind not just your body, you’ll need to be free of the meaning of it, which means coming to understand why you were never meant to be sent here in the first place.

In saying you’re free, I’m not saying, “you’re good—it doesn’t matter what you did that resulted in you being sent to your room.” There’s probably some sort of conversation that needs to happen, because whatever you did affected other people in ways that you need to understand, and I think you’d want to do something different if you could understand both those impacts and also understand what prompted you to do what you did in the first place. Also, other people need to understand what impacts they had on you! All of that needs to be talked about, in order for everyone to have a good time now and in the future.

And… in saying “there’s still a further conversation that needs to happen,” I’m not saying, “you’re bad—you can’t relax or feel good until we have that further conversation.” You don’t need to stress about it. You didn’t do anything wrong. We want to have this conversation in a way that feels good for you, and for everyone.

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Lecturing & Learning: Emotional Coherence Case Study

This post is adapted from notes to myself plus a bit of context I added for some friends I shared the notes with. It’s a cool example of how gradually making an unconscious pattern more conscious can lead to transformational insight, and the specific pattern also seems like one that’s likely to resonate for a lot of other people with similar experiences to mine. I’m willing to bet that other people who’ve interacted with me a lot directly are familiar with this pattern as it shows up in me—and I’d be interested to hear about that!

For the last week or so, my partner Sarah and I have been doing a lot of active noticing a particular tone I sometimes have, which Sarah hates, and she described it as being lectured. It took many months of work on both our parts for her to be able to articulate the feeling so clearly as “lectured” and for me to be able to acknowledge that there’s something there even though I wasn’t sure what or why. While I could tell it didn’t work (because it made Sarah defensive) I didn’t initially have any intrinsic motivation to speak any differently. More on that work and on motivation to change, below.

Anyway, since we’ve gotten a better handle on that, I’ve gotten a lot better at noticing when I’m doing the Lecturing thing, often via Sarah making a 🤨 face at me, but sometimes from my own stance or tone. As I’ve been integrating that unconscious drive, I’ve started often interrupting myself midsentence, something like “So you see, it’s really important… (S: 🤨) …that I lecture you about this. You need a lecture.”

And speaking that explicitly defuses a lot of the tension, which has already been great. Yesterday some additional integration happened, via gentle prompting from Sarah. She was saying something and I was suddenly experiencing an immense urge. I had enough mental space to hold that urge, and I strained to speak: “It. Is. So. Hard. For. Me. To. Not. Lecture. You. Right now.” I started to try to convey something about my experience of that to her, and she very gently and groundedly suggested “is there something you might want to do for yourself, first?”

I tuned into that part of me and it voiced internally “why are you so fucking stupid?!?

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A Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision

Originally written October 19th, 2020 as a few tweetstorms—slight edits here. My vision has evolved since then, but this remains a beautiful piece of it and I’ve been linking lots of people to it in google doc form so I figured I might as well post it to my blog.

Wanting to write about the larger meta-vision I have that inspired me to make this move (to Sam—first green section below). Initially wrote this in response to Andy Matuschak’s response “Y’all, this attitude is rad”, but wanted it to be a top-level thread because it’s important and stands on its own.

Hey @SamHBarton, I’m checking out lifewrite.today and it’s reminding me of my app complice.co (eg “Today Page”) and I had a brief moment of “oh no” before “wait, there’s so much space for other explorations!” and anyway what I want to say is:

How can I help?

screenshot of LifeWrite landing page

Because I realized that the default scenario with something like this is that it doesn’t even really get off the ground, and that would be sad 😕

So like I’ve done with various other entrepreneurs (including Conor White-Sullivan!) would love to explore & help you realize your vision here 🚀

Also shoutout to Beeminder / Daniel Reeves for helping encourage this cooperative philosophy with eg the post Startups Not Eating Each Other Like Cannibalistic Dogs. They helped mentor me+Complice from the very outset, which evolved into mutual advising & mutually profitable app integrations.

Making this move, of saying “how can I help?” to a would-be competitor, is inspired for me in part by tapping into what for me is the answer to “what can I do that releases energy rather than requiring energy?” and finding the answer being something on the design/vision/strategy level that every company needs.

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Relationship Panarchy

“Relationship Panarchy” is a term that I coined to talk about a model of relationships, that can function both as a lens through which any relationship dynamic can be viewed (including retrospectively) or can function as an explicit intentional way-of-operating. Actually operating in accordance with this view is something that no humans I know are yet masters of, but there are an increasing number of us trying. So to some extent, at this phase it can function as a kind of placeholder, similar to how “Game B” is a placeholder for “whatever transcends and outcompetes the Game A cultural operating system that has been running the show for 10,000 years”. And, like Game B, we can say a few things about it even while it’s in the process of coming into view.

The one-sentence summary is “Relationship Panarchy is a model of relationships that’s like Relationship Anarchy, but instead of being individualist, it’s oriented to caring for the whole systems that support the relationships and people in them.”


So: there’s this concept “polyamory”. For some people, it tends to come with a bunch of structure implied, such as “primary partners” and terms like “metamour”. For others, it’s basically a synonym for “non-monogamy”.

“Non-monogamy” is able, by being a negation, to imply less structure, but it isn’t sufficiently general because:

  1. it doesn’t allow for Game B operating-system relationship configurations that read as monogamy on the old map because they involve two people being sexually exclusive
  2. it still over-emphasizes romantic relationships as primary, by negating them

One model that seems to be more open-ended is known as “Relationship Anarchy”. From Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (sometimes abbreviated RA) is the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon. If a relationship anarchist has multiple intimate partners, it might be considered as a form of non-monogamy, but distinguishes itself by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between sexual, romantic, or platonic relationships.

Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic, platonic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, or ‘in an open relationship’.

I really liked this idea for awhile, but eventually I realized that the imagery of anarchy as such evokes a rather individualist orientation to relationships, to a degree that from my perspective is not only undesirable but technically not even possible. Autonomy is important, and so is connectedness, and the two are not at odds but fundamentally made of each other. Each limit creates new freedoms and each freedom creates new limits.

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Laughter and Dominance: 5-year reflection on againstness training

It’s now been five years since I first attended a CFAR workshop. I wrote a 3-year retrospective 2 years ago. Today I want to reflect on one specific aspect of the workshop: the Againstness Training.

In addition to the 5 year mark, this is also timely because I just heard from the instructor, Val, that after lots of evolution in how it was taught, this class has finally been fully replaced, by one called Presence.

The Againstness Training was an activity designed to practice the skill of de-escalating your internal stress systems, in the face of something scary you’re attempting to do.

I had a friend record a video of my training exercise, which has proven to be a very fruitful decision, as I’ve been able to reflect on that video as part of getting more context for where I am now. Here’s the video. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching! If you have, I recommend you nonetheless watch the first 2 minutes or so as context for what I’m going to say, below:

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Dispel your justification-monkey with a “HWA!”

Justification—ie a normative explanation, as opposed to a causal one—is sometimes necessary. But, for many of us, it’s necessary much less often than we feel it is.

The reason we justify more often than we need to is that we live in fear of judgment, from years having to explain to authorities (parents, teachers, bosses, cops (for some people)) why things went differently than they “should have”. This skill is necessary to avoid punishment from those authorities.

We often offer justifications before they’re even asked for: “Wait I can explain—”

With friends, though, or in a healthy romantic partnership, or with people that we have a solid working relationship with, it is quite apparent that this flinch towards justification is actually in the way of being able to effectively work together. It is:

  • unhelpful for actually understanding what happened (since it’s a form of motivated cognition)
  • an obstacle to feeling safe with each other
  • a costly waste of time & attention

And yet we keep feeling the urge to justify. So what to do instead? How to re-route that habit in a way that builds trust within the relationships where justification isn’t required? How to indicate to our conversational partners that we aren’t demanding that they justify?

There are lots of ways to do this—here’s one. » read the rest of this entry »

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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