Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know

Third in a sequence. Earlier posts:

  1. “I can tell for myself”: how direct knowing is different from knowing because you took someone’s word for it.
  2. How did you forget to tell for yourself?: nobody can take this knowing from you, but they can get you out of touch with it, and here are dozens of examples of ways that happens.

This post continues the “why isn’t everybody already in touch with what they can tell for themselves?” question and highlights how in addition to all of the little moments named in the previous post, many cultures have a more background pressure against knowing what you know.


A lot of contexts require everybody, to greater or lesser degrees, to diminish either our sense of “I can tell for myself” or our honesty—where by honesty I don’t just mean “not lying” but “saying what seems true and most relevant”. In these contexts, if we name what is obvious to us, what happens is some mix of:

  • others ignore or deny it (or its relevance)
  • we get punished (socially or materially)
  • we get removed from the context

Consider the child who highlights hypocrisy in their parents or teachers, or the institutional whistleblower, or the challenge of highlighting the baselessness (let alone falseness) of assertions being made by politicians or religious leaders, or a domineering boss at work (whether the claims are about the work itself or about society). And of course in extremely oppressive regimes, saying the obvious gets people killed. And I don’t want to say these are the same, or equally bad, but they have similarities.

What do we tend to do when we’re in oppressive contexts?

If we can leave to a better alternative, and the stakes are high, we tend to leave. Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote The Body Keeps the Score, has said “healing from trauma amounts to learning that it’s okay to know what you know and feel what you feel.” Part of why a lot of trauma occurs in childhood is that we don’t have the option (psychologically or physically) to leave. If we’re in an environment where we aren’t allowed to know what we know, and we have an option to go to one where we can, this tends to be better for us. It can be scary to leave an unhealthy relationship (even if it’s just warring blindspots, not abuse) but once we take the plunge, things do often lighten up. Part of why people stay stuck though is that there may not be a better option, and even if there is it can be hard to imagine.

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How did you forget to tell for yourself?

I can tell for myself” is the kind of knowing that nobody can take away from you.

Nobody can take it from you, but they can get you to hide it from yourself. They can put pressure on you to cover up your own knowings—pressure that’s particularly hard to withstand when you’re relatively powerless, as a kid is. This pressure can come from the threat of force or punishment, or simply the pain of not being able to have a shared experience of reality with caregivers if you know what you know and they don’t allow such a knowing.

Ideally, we integrate others’ word with our own sense of things, and smoothly navigate between using the two in a way that serves us and them. Others would point out where they can see that we’re confused about our own knowings, and we’d reorient, look again, and come to a new sense of things that’s integrated with everything else.

But, if you’re reading this, you were probably raised in a culture that, as part of its very way of organizing civilization over the past millennia, relied on getting you to take others’ word for it even when you could tell that something about what they you being told was off… to the point that you probably learned that your own knowing was suspect or invalid, at least in some domains.

Did you cover up your natural sense of appetite, with politeness, when parents or grandparents said “You haven’t eaten enough! You have to finish what’s on your plate.”? Did you cover up your natural sense of thirst when parents or teachers said “No, you don’t need a drink right now.”? Did you forget how to listen to the building pressure in your lower abdomen, in the face of a “You don’t have to pee! You just went!”?

Did you override your sense of relevance and honesty when someone said “You can’t say that!”? Maybe someone close to you said “You didn’t see that!” or “you didn’t hear that!” or “that didn’t happen!” — as a command, not a joke… did that make it harder to listen to your own senses or vision or hearing? Not altogether, but in situations where you could tell others wouldn’t like you to know what you know. Did someone say “Come on, you know I would never lie to you,” twisting your own sense of trust in others’ honesty and dishonesty, around the reality that you did not, in fact, know that, and (since this was coming up at all) may have been doubting it?

AI-generated digital art, with the prompt: a kid in a classroom, wearing a blindfold with eyes printed on it, and ear protection with ear icons printed on them
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“I can tell for myself”

There’s a capacity for knowing, that every human being has, that as a society we’re out of touch with in many important domains. It’s the knowing that comes from trusting our own experience and understanding. It’s not incidental that we’re out of touch with it—our societies are largely organized around this fact. But we could organize a different kind of society where everyone is in touch with it. It’s not easy or straightforward, but it seems to me to be both possible and worthwhile.

There are various fancy terms for this kind of direct-knowing—eg “self-trust” or “trust in one’s own experience” or “wise knowing” or “gnosis”—but in this piece of writing I will speak of it in plain language: “I can tell for myself”. This phrasing is cumbersome but concrete, and forces me to be very clear about what I’m talking about rather than letting the idea float off into some vague attribute one “has” or “doesn’t have”, or some accomplishment or attainment, like “awakeness”. It’s also particularly useful for contrasting it with a different kind of knowing we can call “taking someone’s word for it”. It could also be “received knowing”. I’m particularly interested in what happens when what we can tell for ourselves seems in conflict with what someone else says, and problems that occur when we override what we can tell for ourselves by taking someone else’s word, which I’ll get into in a future piece.

All of this is part of a project you could refer to as “descriptivist epistemology”. Epistemology is the study of how we know things. Much of epistemology is sort of external and prescriptivist: it is the study of “how people should go about knowing things”. Descriptivist Epistemology instead asks: how do we actually go about knowing things? There’s a thing it feels like to know something. Where does that come from? Sometimes we discover that things we knew before, we would now consider incorrect, not because the world has changed but because we’ve learned something or matured in some way. When and why does that happen? And when someone’s very way of knowing evolves, how does it evolve? In what sense did we nonetheless “know” something that was in some sense untrue? How is this different from simply “being misled” or “being confused”?

In order to explore all of those questions, let’s first, explore, concretely and intuitively, the kinds of things that we can know for ourselves, where we don’t have to take someone’s word for it.

Examples of situations where “I can tell for myself”

Here’s a wide sampling but still totally incomplete list of some examples of different kinds of direct-knowing:

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Talking about myself

Opening this doc to write, I went to title this blank page “my tendency to talk about myself” but that in a nutshell highlights precisely what it is that I’m noticing and want to point at.

I’ve been writing for the last 3 hours, a few posts about the spiritual dimensions of my to-do list app business, and I’ve noticed that some of my thoughts that I’m writing are drifting towards talking about myself. And I’m struck by how different talking about myself is from talking as myself, ie sharing my experience.

I’m noticing a draw towards making generalizations about myself—about what’s salient to me, about what matters to me, about how I seem to be in the world, my tendencies or personality or soul… in contrast, presumably, with other people. Telling the reader “this is how I am”, as if they can’t observe for themselves. “This is how to see me.”

I’m watching myself navigate this as I write this piece as well. The previous paragraph initially began “I’m noticing I’m drawn towards” which is ambiguous—it can read both as simply a thing that is happening but also as a general timeless statement about what I’m like. It’s not as strong as “my tendency” but it’s there.

I can think of lots of examples of my writing which doesn’t do this—writing that talks about how things seem to me, and maybe some stories, and maybe some generalizations about the world, but doesn’t try to tell the reader who I am—and also some that does. And I don’t think it’s inherently problematic. In my previous post “Whose job is this?” I actually open specifically with “It occurs to me, in the shower, that a lot of my life is preoccupied by this question. It’s a good theme, for Malcolm Ocean.” The post is an attempt to reveal my soul to the world, where by “my soul” I mean “my particular manner of doing relevance realization”, and it does so in part by describing how I seem to me to be.

But it’s incuriating me today to notice myself ending up in talking-about-myself mode by accident.

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“Whose job is this?”

It occurs to me, in the shower, that a lot of my life is preoccupied by this question. It’s a good theme, for Malcolm Ocean. Whose job is this?

My “what if it were good tho?” YouTube series and website is about the role of design: how each day, people are pulling their hair trying to workably interface with systems, wasting hours of their life, and feeling stupid or ashamed because they can’t figure it out, when in many of these cases an extra couple of minutes’ thought on the part of the person who designed it or made it would have made the whole experience so smooth it would have gone as unnoticed as the operation of the differential gearing in your car that makes turns not result in wheels skipping on the ground as the outer one needs to travel further than the inner one. That guy just works! That problem is so solved most people never even realize it was ever a problem.

My app, Intend, is about the question of what you want to do with your life: about consciously choosing what your job is. It’s also about figuring out what to do right now, in light of the larger things you want to do, and differentiating something someone else wants you to do from something you want to do, so you don’t accidentally live somebody else’s vision for your life instead of yours. Moreover, it helps keep you from being saddled with dozens or hundreds of stale tasks merely because past-you vaguely thought they were a good idea or at least worth putting on a list.

My work in communication, trust, and the human meta-protocol, is about teasing apart the nuances of exactly who is responsible for what. Some of that has been focused around creating post-blame cultures, and I’ve recently come to a new impression that what blame is (aside from “the thing that comes before punishment”) that I could summarize as “a type of explanation for why something went wrong that assigns responsibility crudely rather than precisely and accurately-by-all-parties’-accounts”. In other words, it gets the “whose job is this?” question wrong, and people can tell.

My mum told me that as a kid I had a very keen sense for justice and injustice, and this feels related to how I think about the design stuff as well as other questions. My ethical journey over the last years has involved a lot of investigation of questions around what things are my job, and what things are not my job, and how to tell the difference. And how to catch my breath, and how to reconcile the fears I’ve had of not trying hard enough. And how to tell when the messages about how to be a good person are crazy.

“You had one job!”

As I said, my longstanding beef with bad design can be seen as frustration at designers and builders not doing their job. I say “builders” because some of them don’t even realize that part of their job includes design. My partner, Jess, just shared with me a perfect case study of this. She’d been having trouble getting her psych crisis non-profit registered for some California government thing, because the form needed her number from some other registration, but when she put in the number the form said it was invalid (with no further clues). She tried a different browser, tried a bunch of other numbers from the document that had the supposed number, called the people who had given her the number to make sure it was the right one given that it wasn’t super well-labeled, and I even tried poking at the javascript on the page to turn off the validation altogether, but nothing worked.

A couple weeks later she texted me:

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The superegos have gone crazy

File this one under Evolution of Consciousness studies.

I’ve been working on a new theory inspired by Andrew Cutler’s Snake Cult of Consciousness article and Eve Theory of Consciousness articles, about the evolving relationship between what you could call id, ego, and superego. I’m honestly not particularly stoked about those terms, for lots of reasons, but they do seem to roughly map onto the thing that I’m looking at, so here we go.

This post also relates to some other thinking I’ve been doing over the last few years about how egos are necessary for managing your attention & care in relation to external systems that might co-opt your attention & care if you’re too open. 

Here’s part of the post in a tweet:

Andrew writes:

In Freudian terms, we had an animal id for millions of years. We then evolved a super-ego, the simulated view of society in our head. Implicitly, there was a node resolving conflicts between these competing interests: a subconscious ego. A fateful encounter with snake venom allowed someone to perceive this process and she could not unsee it. Henceforth, she perceived and identified with her ego, the agent tasked with navigating the tribe’s moral code. Or in the parlance of the time, she “became as the gods, knowing good and evil.”

That is, the Fall, from a nondual mode to one dualistically separated from an experience of flow with god-ness. Ouch. The transition from the first memetic operating system to the second.

What are we talking about with id, ego, and superego. First thing to know is that those terms made a lot more sense before they were translated from German into Latin. In Freud’s original work, they were “Es, Ich, & Über-Ich”—the it, the I, and the over-I. Now admittedly “I” is a bit unwieldy, visually and acoustically, but the translation to latin made these notions seem very weird and foreign and reified, rather than natural parts of our experience.

At any rate! It is also helpful to have these other words for them for various reasons now. Here’s my take:

  • The id layer is your navigating system that is shared with animals, which can be modelled in part as a cybernetic system composed of a hierarchical network of control systems. You have a bunch of needs which include things like hunger, thirst, physical security, dignity, not to be in pain, etc. You also have a sense of what you personally-selfily care about in the abstract, which is not exactly shared with animals but is still intrinsic to you in some sense (although of course informed by what you have learned from others).
  • The superego layer is what others expect of you. Social expectations. Your model of the social contract. It has many types. I’m not sure exactly how to carve them up but here’s a sketch:
    • The maxims you learn from your parents and culture growing up, even if you’re in a context where nobody else expects that of you
      • (Note that some behaviors you learn might also be better understood as skills or strategies, not expectations)
    • A particular agreement that you make with somebody, for instance to show up at a particular time or complete some sort of assignment
      • Possibly stuff ends up in the superego layer if you promise it to yourself, because you have a maxim that something like “keep promises”
        • Also shit is weird and fractal so who the fuck knows maybe internal parts have expectations of each other that we capitulate these dynamic idfk
    • A loyalty that you have to prioritizing somebody else’s needs in general, whether that is your kid, your parent, your partner, your boss, your employee, your co-worker, your friend, or any other role. There is a sense that you are expected to “be a good husband/friend/etc” and a sense of what that means
      • This is partially informed by the person themselves and partially informed by your sense of what will be good for them which is based on larger social expectations (such as my dad thinking it was necessary to fulfill his role as my dad by telling me to cut my hair)
    • A relationship that you have with a large-scale memetic structure, like a religion or a social movement or a community with certain norms, which generates a sense of what’s important and how to behave.
    • If you’re in the kitchen with someone and they make a grunt, and you come over, notice they’re holding something in each hand and in their mouth, and help them open the cabinet so they can put something in, as they were nonverbally requesting, this is probably somewhat on the superego layer as well.
    • Probably others! If commenting, feel free to use the suggest feature to add new bullets.
      • (Everything is loopy so now I’m noticing how my invitation to you to do that affects your affordances on a superego level at least slightly)
  • The ego is what mediates between all of these—whether effectively or ineffectively. If society wants one thing from you and your inner desires want something else, the ego is what has to deal with that problem.
    • pre-Fall, this was happening implicitly and in a flowy way
    • since the Fall, it’s been characterized by self-consciousness

The rest of this post will be exploring some of the implications of this model for the evolution of consciousness, as I see it. I’m sure I’ll see more within a few months, so I wanted to share these now while they’re fresh.

Conflict between superegos

The genesis of this post came while I was visiting an old dear friend in another city and staying at an airbnb a short walk from his place. We were talking about the Snake Cult model and some related ones, and as the night got on we started talking about whether he might go home briefly, in part to pick some stuff up and in part to see his partner. And we were kind of feeling into what made sense, and then we noticed that there was a tension in him between a sense of wanting to be a good husband (by connecting with his partner, tucking them in, and helping them de-stress before bed, especially given that their work is stressful at the moment) and wanting to be a good friend (by continuing to hang out with me, uninterrupted).

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dropping balms

did I ask you to read this? did you come here because someone sent you?

I don’t pretend to understand

except when I do

there’s not an ounce of joy in these fingers

the stiffness sticks, waiting for movement moment

one thumb down, one thumb up

die

live

context-consciousness creating self-consciousness, as the soul waffles between speaking an utterance that will float away on the breeze and be lost to clouds… and articulating new Canon for The Book

if I write a book, it may out-live me

if I write a book, it may kill me a little

not the hours spent writing it, though they will surely be gone

but the artifact itself, static in a changing world

tens of thousands of copies—hundreds of thousands if I’m lucky

—of words attributable to me, uneditable

they’d better be good!

but, unless I go mad, they can’t be as good as my new understandings months or years or decades hence

and yet I saw a book get a new edition with so many additions its lost its life too

director’s cuts that preview to laughs

the author is dead

the work is alive

the work is not in the words, it’s in the dance

it’s in the remixes, not just the mashups that show up cited but in the tickling of axons and dendrites in each person who reads it

you know what I mean?

who cares if you know what I mean? why do they care?

I ask because I care: it seems to me that in the absence of some specific caring, we can’t even begin to answer the question of whether you know what I mean

the faucet, having sputtered at first, has begun to flow

and so I depart

Evolution of Consciousness one-pager

  • I’ve been getting increasingly excited about conceiving of a field of study called “the evolution of consciousness”. I’ve seen a lot of people writing and thinking into this field, some of whom seem to be aware of the larger field and others who are just exploring a piece of it. As I see it, it’s necessarily also the study of evolution in general—not just biological evolution but:
    • cultural/memetic evolution
    • pre-biological physical evolution
    • thinking as an evolutionary process (which can be framed in terms of relevance realization)
    • evolution as a tautology: the fact that wherever you look you’ll tend to see mostly the sorts of things that are better at sticking around and/or making more things like themselves
  • It’s also necessarily the study of what happens when evolution becomes aware of itself. As Tom Atlee’s Co-Intelligence Institute puts it:
    • > we are evolution — or at least one significant facet of it — becoming conscious of itself. Across many domains of society, life and spirituality, we are in the process of birthing ourselves as conscious evolution.
  • The field draws on cogsci and other “scientific” sources, on history & religious texts, philosophy, and also draws from wisdom traditions like Buddhism and Christian mysticism.
  • Necessarily, as a study of consciousness, most research in this field is aware that it’s not just third-person research but first-person: the study not of how things are but of how they seem, and the study of the “seeming” process itself and our relationship to it (and how changes in our relationship to it change it, as part of that evolution). There is no place outside consciousness from which we can study consciousness.
    • My particular research (the “Non-Naive Trust Dance”) focuses on inter/co-seeming; on the process by which things that seem one way to me and seem a different way to you can come to be seen in some shared way by us, together… and what gets in the way of that.
  • Anyway, a rough sketch of the evolution of consciousness (so far!) as I see it:
    • at some point in the past, our ancestors were not consciousness of their own consciousness. they lived as much in flow with the dao as cats and lizards
    • then they developed language and memes, but (I suspect) these memes were at first entirely un-self-conscious and there were no double-binds (and perhaps in some sense no lies)
    • then, perhaps through biological evolution but more likely through transformational ritual that may have involved snake venom and apples, we developed recursive self-awareness
    • thus, from previous unquestioned oneness emerged dualism: the ego, which was previously a mediating layer between the id (animal urges) and superego (social expectations) became aware of itself and started identifying with itself and seeing itself as separate from others, and became aware of its choices and of the option to “be selfish” or “be altruistic”
    • at this point, a new kind of evolution started occurring among the superegos/memeplexes, to incorporate deception, shame, & blame to control large groups into behaving in coordinated ways (outcompeting groups that were unable to do this). “anti-rational memes” in DD’s terms
    • in parallel, various mystical traditions emerged for helping people re-access an experience of nonduality, but they were never able to be mainstream as they were too in conflict with the societal structures of the day. also some tried/try to go back to pre-consciousness modes.
    • phenomena like the scientific revolution shifted peoples’ relationships to their memes, creating an attitude of “we can figure it out for ourselves rather than take things from authority” (though modernity threw many babies out with bathwater in rejecting traditional wisdom)
    • at present, many people from many angles are exploring how to live in conscious relationship to memes/superegos, and build a new recursively-self-aware yet ALSO nondual society 

Malcolm, explain the Non-Naive Trust Dance right fucking now, in one breath, standing on one foot

My friend Visa challenged his friends to explain their thing rapid-fire style, and specifically DM’d me to ask me to do one on my Non-Naive Trust Dance framework. So I’ll write a 6th introduction or whatever this is now, and try to get all the way through the basics to the depths in about 15 minutes of nonstop writing.

  • trust sure is important. it would be nice* if we knew the laws of trust-physics: in general what works and what doesn’t work for building trust. (* tbh it might be necessary for humanity’s survival)
  • it’s tempting to try to build perpetual motion machines w/ trust (assuming trust in order to build trust) but this is impossible with the laws of trust-physics. but it seems possible (& awesome) to build engines!
  • obviously trust-building is contextual. eg, in a tense meeting in Dune, a desert-dweller spits as a sign of respect (releasing precious water) and nearly gets killed when that’s interpreted as a sign of disrespect.
  • so what can be said about trust-building in general? well, one of the most important things that CAN be said is that it’s extremely contextual!! and a remarkable amount follows from this, eg:
    • the only way to build trust with someone is by doing something that builds trust with them. however, they may seem to want you to do something that’s abhorrent or senseless to you, which you refuse to do. somehow what needs to be found is something that works for both/all parties. there is a remarkable open space of possibilities here if we can get out of the trap of being frustrated that our first attempts didn’t work as we’d hoped
  • notice that the bolded line above is a self-evident statement; a tautology; something that’s true by definition. this is not a coincidence, because self-evident statements are another basis for building trust since anyone can confirm them for themselves (although of course we may have different interpretations of what the implications are, and that can get tricky)
  • the central tautology to NNTD is “you can’t trust what you can’t trust” (this is kind of the same one as the previous). inherent to this idea is the reality, not quite a tautology but also pretty self-evident once you consider it, that different people trust differently. (different parts of people trust differently too).
  • thus [me trusting something] and [you not trusting something] is not a contradiction in the slightest.
  • what do I even mean by trust? a few lenses:
    • trust as an unquestioning attitude (from C. Thi Nguyen’s paper of that title)
    • trust as “what truth feels like in first person”
  • we could describe naive trust as being an unquestioning attitude that comes from ignoring some sort of warning signs in order to deliberately adopt an unquestioning stance, and non-naive trust as an unquestioning attitude that comes from an absence of any warning signs, or having investigated the warning signs and discerned to one’s own integrated relaxed satisfaction that they’re not a big deal (or that one could handle the situation if the issue did occur)
  • when I use “trust” I’m generally referring to non-naive trust, since naive trust is fake & flimsy
  • I generally think in terms of trusting situations more than trusting “people”
  • there is a logic to (non-naive) trust and how it scales up:
    • if I trust a situation (eg this salesperson to not be scamming us) and you don’t trust it, then we don’t trust it
    • if I trust it and you trust it, but we don’t trust that each other trusts it, then we still don’t trust it
    • if we have common-knowledge of our trust, then we trust it
  • there’s a thing it feels like for this sync-up to occur
    • as an example, have you ever made a decision and there’s a clear sense of “yes this is obviously what we want”?
    • by contrast, have you ever made a decision and you’re left feeling either that something you care about wasn’t adequately incorporated into the tradeoff process, OR you feel like someone else isn’t actually totally satisfied with it?
  • in general, trust-building works via respecting that distrust contains the wisdom that allows trust to be non-naive (ie sane & robust) and finding a way to respect & dance with it, vs trying to bypass it. quoth Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
  • since trust ~= subjective truth, this process is literally perceiving the world together

Whew! Not quite one breath or one foot, but it was all in one go and it did fit on one page. It took more like 20 minutes though.

For slightly more uhhh edited introductions to NNTD or elaborations, you can check out these posts:

alpha-test my template: How To Gently Blindly Touch the Elephant In the Room Together

Or more straightforwardly:

“how to give feedback to somebody about something that you’re noticing going on for them, where you suspect that if you try to acknowledge it they’ll get defensive/evasive & deny it”

One of the core principles of my Non-Naive Trust Dance framework is that it’s impossible to codify loving communication—that any attempt to do so, taken too seriously, will end up getting weaponized.

Having said that, maybe if we don’t take ourselves too seriously, it would be helpful to have a template for a particularly difficult kind of conversation: broaching the subject about something you’re noticing, where you expect that by default what will happen is that you won’t even be able to get acknowledgement that the something exists. This can be crazy-making. I often call it “blindspot feedback” although for most people that phrase carries connotations that usually make people extra defensive rather than more able to orient and listen carefully.

To see more about how I think about this, you can read this twitter thread:

But I want the template to stand alone, so I’m not going to give much more preamble before offering it to you. The intent is that this template will help people bridge that very first tricky step of even managing to acknowledge that one person is seeing something that the other person might not be seeing, and having that be okay.

Why “alpha-testing”?

I’m calling this alpha-testing not beta-testing because while I know the principles underlying this template are sound, and I’ve tested the moves in my own tough conversations and while facilitating for others… as of this initial publication the template itself has been used zero times, so I don’t want to pretend that it itself is well-honed.

So I’d like to collect lots of perspectives, of what people think of the template just from looking at it, and of how conversations go when you try to use the template for them.

The template

Without further ado, here’s a link to the template.

I’d love if you gave me your thoughts while you read it. To do that, make a copy, name it “Yourname’s copy of Template” then highlight sections and leave comments on them, then give comment access to me (use my gmail if you have it, or malcolm @ this domain). That would be very helpful. Even just little things like “ohhhh, cool” or “I don’t get why you’d say this” or “would it work to rephrase this like X, or would that be missing something important?”

To try it out, make a copy, then fill it out, and do what you want with it. Then, if you’d like to help me iterate on it or would otherwise like your experience of using it seen by me, fill out this form and let me know how it worked for you (or didn’t).

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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