——— OLD ———
Most of us sense something's wrong with social media. A lot of people also say something's wrong with “capitalism”. (I'm using air quotes around capitalism, I’ll be more specific later.) And that something’s wrong with modern politics, liberalism, democracy, education.
People come at these problems from different directions—from climate change, from worries about “coordination failure”, geopolitics...
I came at it through social media.
I started out as an internet optimist. See, in 2008. I worked at Couchsurfing, which was growing fast. So was Meetup.com and Wikipedia. Flashmobs were booming! Anyone remember Improv Everywhere?
It seemed—to me and to others—that the internet was bringing us a better economy. People were working together, on giant projects like Couchsurfing, Wikipedia, and Linux. I was a true believer: Love would be the new motivator. Money would fade away.
So… that was naive. By 2012, I’d sobered up. By then, Facebook’s News Feed and YouTube had not only replaced TV, but had added hours of screen-time per person per day. The “attention economy”. In alarm, with Tristan Harris and others, I cofounded the Center for Humane Tech.
Actually, it wasn’t called “the Center for Humane Tech” at first— it was called “Time Well Spent”. This was part of my proposal to fix the problem. At CouchSurfing, we tried to maximize the amount of meaningful time our users spent with each other, rather than any measure of transactions. Tristan and I thought that, if more people did this—if they maximized “Time Well Spent” instead of “Time Spent”—it might fix social media.
That was still naive..I was young. I thought the problems around me were, technological.
But it goes a lot deeper than that.
- So, in chapter one, I’ll try to say why it is that modern society gets us many things, but not togetherness and meaning.
I think it comes down to a kind of pattern that’s ubiquitous in society — a pattern found in markets, but also in voting, in social media, even in grant applications. A pattern that’s bad for togetherness and meaning.
Then, the next three chapters say what needs to change, to bring back togetherness and meaning.
- In chapter 2, I start with the problem of measuring meaning. As entrepreneurs say, “You make what you measure.” So we need to measure meaning. But how precise can we be about meaning? I'll argue we can be very precise.
- In chapter 3, I’ll build on that. Not only can we be precise about meaning, a kind of entrepreneurship and design can reliably deliver meaning and togetherness. But, it’s not the kind we're used to. It's not mechanism design, not UX design, not lean startup. These are actually bad for meaning. I’ll demo another kind of design, and use it to redesign twitter.
- Finally, in chapter 4, I’ll talk about changing large-scale structures like recommender systems, markets, and social media. I’ll give an example, by redesigning TikTok around a new pattern, and make it better for meaning and togetherness.
Jump to the video
- Before I get into it, please note, this is a lecture more than a Ted talk. I've tried to make it as entertaining as possible, but you should treat it like a lecture. You might want to take notes, pause occasionally, et cetera..
- Also, to keep things short, I’ll save the credits ‘til the end. This talk is based on the work of other philosophers and economists, but you’ll have to wait to see who.
All right, let's get started.
🗑️ Chapter 1 — The Pattern
Piling Up Strangers
In two parts: First, I’ll cover an initial mistake, which we made long ago, which kicked off the decline in spaces. After that initial mistake is clear, I’ll lay out some further events which made the problem even worse.
So, what was that initial mistake?
We made a deal with the devil. A deal that makes funnels and tubes cheaper to organize, but spaces more expensive.
Once upon a time, people were embedded in social networks, informally provide things to each other. They didn’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs or content creators. They just did things with their friends.
- Here’s Margaret. She’s cooking for her two friends. They'll have a dinner party.
- Sandra over here is suggesting a game with two friends.
- William’s writing a poem and organizing a reading.
They are space-makers.
But there are problems with this setup: only Margaret’s friends get to enjoy her cooking. Only Sandra’s friends get to play her game. William has a small audience even if he’s a great poet.
In this early society, none of these offerings are scalable. There’s no competition, so excellent work doesn’t rise to the top. And the whole thing is awfully undemocratic, since everything is open only to friends.
To get out of this situation, we made a deal with the devil.
We reorganized things.
Now we have individual suppliers, individual consumers, and the consumers can find the suppliers they want.
In every case, there's a pile of strangers and there's some kind of professional that spends just a short time with each of them.
Margaret’s now a restaurant owner; Sandra runs a game-playing event; William’s a poet and content creator.
Their offerings are widely available. They serve people at less cost. More people eat delicious food and go to events. Different suppliers in the same category compete. Excellence rises. Margaret’s cooking and Will’s poetry get the acknowledgement they deserve.
We wanted something democratic, scalable, and excellence surfacing. And we got it!
But we paid a high cost.
- We had to give up working with people who know each other. Suddenly the people at dinner are all strangers to one another.
- We gave up spending much time with each customer.
- And we hardened our roles into producer/consumer, creator/fans, etc.
I want to give a name to this new structure.
I'll call it: piling up strangers.
Here’s the essence of the deal we made: it became very easy to put yourself in a queue. That made it a bit harder to come together with friends, to address our deep desires, or to be fluid about roles.
You can see this everywhere:
- When I click this “purchase” button, I put myself in a queue of customers. I give the supplier an incentive to deal with me quickly, without getting to know who I really am. And to keep me in my role.
- It’s the same when I click “interested” on a facebook event. I’m in queue of strangers.
- Or with this “apply now” button.
- Or this “follow” button.
All these things create a pile of strangers, next to one kind of professional.
This is baked deeply into our society, and it makes funnels and tubes cheaper, but makes spaces more expensive.
Remember: in a space, people are together in a non-transactional way. Instead of going after clear goals, they're motivated by sources of meaning.
When spacemakers adopt this pattern, of dealing with piles of strangers, they’re screwed.
- Sandra now has to deal with a pile of strangers. If her games worked best with people who know each other well, well, those are out the window. She probably needs to add intro rounds and get-to-know-each-other warm-ups to her events. And change her marketing: maybe she’ll convince people her events are exclusive, or for “discerning singles” or something like that—so they’re okay with meeting strangers.
- At Margaret's restaurant, she won’t know her customers well. So she’s more likely to serve pizza—which pretty much everyone likes. She won’t make anyone that special dish from their childhood, because she doesn’t have time for that.
- Finally, William used to gather his friends and freestyle together. But, now that he’s a content creator, he has to ask less of his audience. The roles are fixed. He produces, they consume. If he wants to do anything different, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
When you learn to see it, you realize every day we put ourselves in numerous piles. And every time we do that, we make it harder for people to make a space for us. Easier for them to make a funnel or tube.
So, that’s the deal we made. We got a lot out of it—democracy, excellence, and scale—but we traded away our spaces.
If I could change one thing about modern society, I’d change this. I’d make all these buttons do something different:
- something that doesn't place us in a queue,
- that doesn't create these incentives
- something that takes our existing friend groups and social networks into account
- Something that let’s us get at our deeper desires, rather than just serving everyone pizza.
- And something that lets us be more fluid about roles.
It may seem impossible. How can we have the advantages of both — of piling up strangers and of friends only networks? How can we avoid disadvantaging spacemakers like this?
We’d need to do something with the strangers, besides pile them up.
I won’t answer this now. Instead, I’ll spend 20 minutes on it in Chapter 4. But I do think there’s a way to do it. And, if I’m right about that, it means that allllllll the structures that pile up strangers—social media, voting, markets, application processes—all this can be reinvented.
I’ll get to that.
But first, I’ll quickly call out four more things which make it even harder for spacemakers. We need a complete picture of the problem.
Follow-on Effects: Corporate Disdain, Biased Methods
Here’s the first: because corporate people are always dealing with piles of strangers, they see us at our worst.
- They have little time with each of us, and only know about our shallowest needs. They think pizza’s all we want.
- They see us when we’re anonymously scrolling or purchasing, with low commitment, low attention spans, and isolated.
This is why—I think—they sound so sad when they talk about us. They use terms like “eyeballs” and “users” for customers. They write pitiful user stories about us:
“Bob’s a construction worker whose only solace is the bag of Doritos he enjoys on break.”
I call this attitude “corporate disdain”, and it makes it much less likely that corporations will make spaces.
Bias in Practices
Another thing that gets warped is business practices. Because funnel and tube entrepreneurs are mostly the ones succeeding, the “best practices” that are taught to entrepreneurs are best practices for funnels and tubes.
- Your user research, your customer surveys, your product metrics—all this is going to be about measuring for funnels and tubes. How quickly are you getting a customer towards their goals? How many transactions are you driving?
- Or look at the two most popular design methods right now—UX and incentives design—these are “corporate disdain” made into a practice. They’re all about moving people along through funnels, smoothing out their experience, reducing choice, and incentivizing or entertaining them along the way.
So, if you’re a spacemaker, all the processes you inherit will push you to make a funnel.
So, that’s a very big problem.
When I first saw this problem clearly, years ago…
Well, sometimes I wish I’d ignored it. Moved on. I was not really equipped: I didn’t have an academic appointment, or an institution, backing me up.
From time to time, I asked for support—from people and institutions that seemed to be about this stuff. Experts on “tech ethics” or “new economies” or the “meaning crisis”. People who run various nonprofits with aligned missions. Foundations focused on crises in democracy, the social fabric, social capital, trust.
There are so many people and groups where, from their mission statements, it seems like their job should be to solve these problems, or to support people like me, trying to solve them.
But… I didn't get much support. Instead, I spent years in poverty, and living a kind of a small and stressful life. It was really hard.
But somehow, I couldn't let go of the problem. I got obsessed with it.
And I did make some progress, and I’ll go through it in the rest of this talk.
- In the next chapter. I'll take on the grind-set, the trauma, and the corporate disdain. All these can be addressed by developing a shared language of meaning, and by measuring meaning.
- In chapter three, I'll conjure some business methods that work better for space makers.
- In chapter four, I'll take on recommenders and the big boss—an alternative to piling up strangers.
- And in the conclusion, I’ll say a bit about politics.
🗑️ Chapter 2 - Measuring Meaning
A saying in business is “you make what you measure”. What it means is, as businesses grow, they have to summarize information into metrics or reports to make decisions. The CEO gets summarized information like “how many sales did we make in Europe?” or “how many people returned our new product and asked for their money back?”
The larger the business, the more things need to be summarized, like this.
For that reason, the particular numbers that get measured very important.
We want to make spaces. Good spaces. Meaningful space. If we want to do this in a scalable way, we need to be able to measure meaning.
This, it turns out, is currently impossible. That’s why things tend to get meaningless as they scale. This is one way that business methods are biased towards funnels and tubes.
Say you run a bar. You want it to be a good space for people to relax, and connect with friends.
So, you try to measure whether the bar is a good space for that.
- You could measure
how many beers you sell. But you might actually sell more beers if people get less engrossed in their conversations.
- You could measure
how many people come through the door(or how many monthly active bar visitors you have). But that might be more a result of location or marketing, less of a sign of the bar being good for connecting with friends.
The situation gets even worse, if it becomes a network of bars. If you have to run it like people run startups or cities, using a metrics dashboard.
How can you monitor, remotely which bars are good spaces?
Here’s an idea:
smile when they’re relaxed and connecting with friends. You could put up cameras, get a machine learning algorithm doing sentiment analysis, and measure smiles per hour. But the most efficient way to ramp smiles is a funnel that gets people smiling. The local franchise might bring in a comedian to up their score.
Does that make it better for connecting with friends?
The situation gets even worse when bars in the network compete with one another for smiles.
- Things get dystopian: some bars put a drug in the air, to make people smile.
- Other bars make a rule that people who bring non-smiling friends don’t get invited back, or that people who do bring smiling friends get half-price. Now there’s a social expectation of smiling, rather than genuine connections.
- Or the same happens in a more subtle way: maybe there’s a selection effect. People only bring their happiest friends to the bar. It becomes high status to be smiling. The self-help industry gets in gear, with courses on how to be happy at bars.
The core problem here is that “being a good space for people to relax, to connect with friends” is vague. Because it’s vague, we end up finding clearer proxy measures like smiles, or beers, or monthly active visitors. Those new measures are clear, but they don’t correspond exactly to what we really care about. And these proxy measures, since they don’t line up exactly with “being a good space for people to relax, to connect with friends”, end up being manipulable.
Actually, it’s easier to explain this as two kinds of manipulation:
- One happens when our metric is behavioral. Our behavior is never really what matters to us. We can always be forced into behavior, pressured socially, or a funnel can be created to drive behavior in a way that doesn't capture how we want to live.
- But there's another problem. People’s psychologies are also manipulable. Imagine you don't have a behavioral metric, but instead one about a kind of feeling you want people to have, or a goal, or a desire. Say you make that feeling, goal or desire seem pro-social: you create a social norm that says “this is how a good person should be” — like, a good person should want to get fit, should want to be honest, should open up, be vulnerable, be strong.
In the most extreme case, our limbs or bodies could be manipulated. That proves that behavior isn’t what matters. Most of us would not want to live inside a body manipulated — even if it were manipulated to do the right behaviors!
So: behavioral metrics can always be coerced, and they're also never exactly what really matters to us.
Using this tactic you can also manipulate people into non-behavioral things like desires, goals, or feelings.
So we have behavioral manipulation on one hand; psychological manipulation, on the other.
The fact that we call these things manipulation, I believe, indicates that there is something deeper that we really care about, something deeper, that these manipulations pull us away from.
And that that deeper thing must not be behavioral. And it also cannot be a desire, goal, or feeling, since these are manipulable too.
Universe of Meaning
You can also do this with the people around you—talk to them about their feelings, and what's meaningful. You’ll start to glimpse what I call “the universe of meaning”. The space of all values. Everyone's sources of meaning, together.
A key fact, is the collection of all values is smaller than some other collections—like the collection of all goals, or the collection of all preferences. Let me show you what I mean:
Consider the collection of all goals. It includes many far-off goals. Goals like “get rich like Elon Musk”. Or goals people only have because they hope they’ll lead to something good later. Goals like “impress so-and-so at the bar.”
Values aren’t like that. Values cards refer to things you’ve actually paid attention to in choices, and which you found meaning to pay attention to. You’ve already had the experience.
Far-off goals may relate to our values. Maybe we think accomplishing them will bring us closer to our values. For instance, that if you got rich you could finally spend time playing music.
Goals may also provide a context for values. Someone who finds meaning in visual creativity, might set a goal to publish a weekly comic with a friend.
The goal is something they haven’t done yet, and there are infinitely many of them. But the value is something they already know.
Preferences also vastly outnumber values, but for a different reason.
Actually, for two reasons.
First, there are many preferences that are about pleasure but not about about life meaning. Perhaps you loooove chocolate cake, but a life filled with chocolate cake wouldn’t be a meaningful one for you.
Second, you’ll have many preferences that are related to your values, but only connected via a long train of inferences. Maybe you love walking in forests, the way the forest light opens your heart, and you think that, if Trump is elected, the forests will be cut down. So, you prefer Biden to Trump. Your Biden preference is connected to your walking-in-forests heart-open source of meaning, but so are a million other preferences.
So, we can save a ton of time by collecting a person’s sources of meaning instead of their goals or preferences. We cut right to what’s precious and immediate, for them, about being alive. The basic ways of living, choosing, and attending, which they find meaningful. The things they need spaces for.
Chapter 3 - Meaning on Purpose
So, we are surrounded by funnel and tube entrepreneur and designers.
I believe it’s fundamentally different to be a spacemaker.
Let's say you want to make a retreat for scientists. You want your retreat to be meaningful for this value: deep work.
Now, this is one of my values. Working for many years to make something—something which may not even be successful in the end.
The middle of the values card covers what people attend to, when they live by this value. Let’s take a look. They attend to
- Curiosities, inside yourself, your ready for to pursue for months or years with no quick results.
- Research methods that make progress on those curiosities
- framings that open new research directions.
- intellectual ancestors that have been concerned with the same questions in the past
- colleagues in the present you can patiently think together with
- A broader community of people boldly and diligently doing deep work.
- days that are wide open enough for you to pursue your deep work
- and places that are quiet enough.
Now, once you’ve picked a value like this, and a context, like making a retreat, there's three types of thinking you can do, to make your retreat meaningful on purpose, for the value that you picked.
Diagramming Funnels, Tubes, & Spaces
First, you can analyze your retreat out into funnels, tubes and spaces.
Let’s follow an individual participant through the retreat.
- First they apply to participate.
- Then, they're accepted, and they pay for it.
- Sometime later, they arrive on site.
- First there’s a kind of welcoming ceremony.
- Then, they choose the rooms they'll be staying in.
- For the rest of the retreat,
- They spend time in the library, where they do deep work on their own.
- They share tea at tea time, where they connect with potential colleagues, and have deep work conversations.
- And there’s meals and rest.
Once you have a diagram like this one, you can be much clearer about what you’re making.
- For the funnels, be clear about what the goal inside them is. Ideally the hosts and the participants should have the same goal, when they participate in a funnel together.
- For the spaces, each should link to a source of meaning.
- Try to keep the funnel stuff in the funnels. You need to protect the spaces from goals, as well as you can. One thing to look out for is if people are in a space, but later they'll be in a funnel or tube. For instance, here in the welcome area, people haven’t chosen their room yet. Funnel and tube goals often filter forward, so there might be some concern about getting the right room. This can crowd out the values of the space.
So, just dividing things clearly like this can help a lot. It’s especially good to match spaces and sources of meaning. Once you do this, your participants can help you shape each space. You can ask them: is the space good for attending to, and choosing by, what’s on the values card? If not (you can ask) how could it be better?
That’s the heart of the design method I teach.
But there’s more you can do.
People can’t do what’s meaningful to them all the time. They have to balance things that are deeply meaningful with other things that are important.
- One thing that sometimes gets in the way is goals. If we have strong goals in a situation, we're less able to pursue our sources of meaning. Let's say there are funders at the retreat. The scientists really want that funding. So they spend their time not doing deep work, but networking with the funders. That might ruin the vibe in the library and the tea room. It’d be better to invite the funders only for a day—to separate the funding part into its own funnel.
- Another thing that can get in the way is expectations. Or we sometimes call them norms. Perhaps to be polite, scientists feel the need to act interested in the work of everyone around them. They spend all week being interested and polite, instead of doing deep work. To avoid this, you can try to explicitly shape the norms of the space. You can also be on the lookout for structures that would make such norms evolve. For instance, if you have the scientists review each other at the end, and there’s some consequence of those reputation scores, people may feel extra pressure to be polite. So that would interfere with deep work.
Ideally, that could be the first day. Because it’s better to get goals squared away first, before entering spaces. Or maybe you could find another way to protect the space from the goal.
In general, you want to ask: what kinds of goals and norms might crowd out the sources of meaning?
So, that’s two kinds of thinking you can do, to make something meaningful on purpose. Break things into funnels, tubes and spaces. Look for goals and norms that could crowd out values in the spaces.
Using these two kinds of thinking, people can get pretty far. But the real win is from a third kind of thinking. To show it, I have to go deeper into what a value is.
Look closely at this values card, at the middle part. You can see that living by a value doesn’t happen at one moment. Instead, it’s spread out over time. You probably found the curiosities before you found the research methods or colleagues, for instance.
Meaning is not something we experience in an instant—meaning is a realization, an assessment that we have, when we look at our lives, that we were able to attend to what was important to us. Meaning is many moments of choice, woven together through time.
And at each of these points in time, you had to attend to and choose certain things. Some of that attention is meaningful — that’s what goes on the values card. But at each point in time, there are other kinds of, less meaningful attention and choices to make.
I like to use a grid to picture this. In the grid, time goes from left to right. And vertically, we have the different states of attention and choice. In order to attend to something, you need options to attend to, information about each option, and some kind of skill at discerning how to choose. In order to choose something, you often need to finesse an environment or setup to make the choice possible, then take some kind of bold action.
- On a typical day, a scientist doing deep work with a team may need to contemplate their research questions, arrange conversations with colleagues, issues challenges to them, and run experiments they’ve previously devised.
- But before that, they needed to recruit those colleagues for regular talks. They needed to choose colleagues, by learning what their questions were, whether the two of you can have a productive conversation style, learning about their insights and diligence.
- Before that, they had to change their life, so as to live in places and have schedules which afford deep work. They had to devise experiments. They had to assess research methods for which would be helpful for their question.
- They had to discover their deep work questions within themselves. Find out what they’re deepest curiosities were and guess which ones are likely to last. And commit to them.
- And even before that, they needed to network, to show qualifications, and to win some kind of job or grant or something, to be able to have such a long term focus.
To make room for all of those actions, they need skill to arrange their day, and they need to know how to discuss early ideas with colleagues.
They’ll also need information about which colleagues are available.
In order to recruit them as colleagues, they may have had to develop skills themselves, to have thoughtful conversations, to deliver feedback, and to have their own insights.
All this, is what it takes to do deep work. The stuff we put on the values card is the meaningful stuff to attend to and choose by, but behind every meaningful moment is a rich backstory.
Now, any of these things might be hard to do. But if you can’t do them, you won’t be able to do deep work.
For that reason, we call them “hard steps”.
Now, if somebody would find meaning in deep work, but they're not doing deep work, it could be that any of these hard steps were blockers for them.
This is one of two reasons that someone might not be able to do deep work.
- Hard steps often explain why people often can’t live by a value.
- The other reason is crowding out — if people have overriding goals and expectations that are more pressing than deep work.
The mark of a good space, is that—first, goals and expectations don’t get in the way of the value—and second, a good space makes the hard steps easier to take.
Let’s think again about the deep work retreat we want to organize.
- To make it work better, we could do a little workshop about surfacing your deepest questions, and thinking about which ones will last.
- We could have a special daily meeting, where people help each other devise experiments.
- Before they come to the retreat, each participant could submit a description of their perfect kind of day for deep work. The organizers could try to help them live that way.
- In the tea room, everyone could wear a little badge, that says what their deepest questions are. This would help people find their colleagues.
- There could be coaching for delivering feedback.
These ideas may seem obvious—but my experience is that they’re only obvious once you’ve thought through the hard steps!
Application to Twitter
And here’s the best part: once you figure out the hard steps for a source of meaning, they can be applied across contexts.
These same hard steps—the ones that improved our retreat—can be used to improve anything for deep work!
To prove this, I’ll use them to improve Twitter.
This may sound like a joke: Twitter’s short posts and feeds are kind of the opposite of deep work. But it’s not entirely a joke: I actually have found deep work colleagues on Twitter.
And I think Twitter could be better for that.
Here I’ve highlighted some of the relevant hard steps.
So, imagine you’re Andy Matuschak, and you’re using Twitter. You see one of your own tweets, but is has this extra box at the bottom asking—“Hey, has you're thinking evolved on this topic?”
You think, “yeah, it has” so you click the “capture” button and choose some earlier tweets on the same topic. These tweets are precursors to the more recent one. Together, they show a timeline of how your thinking has evolved.
You also pick some twitter users who helped you evolve your thinking, maybe based on who replied to the earlier tweets. Maybe you also type something, about how your thinking changed, and post it!
If Twitter had this, you’d see these “evolution threads” as you scrolled.
I think it would help with all these things:
- Seeing this thread, you’d know some of Andy’s long-term questions. You’d have a sense of his diligence.
- If I get a notification when Andy posts this, I get a sense that I did feedback well, because it evolved Andy’s thinking. And I’d see that these other people did feedback well too, and learn from them.
- Finally, if we see people’s evolution threads as we scroll, we get a longer-term sense of them. And that might lead to more thoughtful conversations.
If twitter had that feature, probably more deep work would happen. Because it addresses some of the hard steps of connecting with colleagues and communities for deep work.
The Bento Box
So in this chapter, I've walked through three ways you can make things meaningful, on purpose.
- First, understand your product as made of funnels, tubes, and spaces. Diagram it out. Know which parts are which.
- Second, make values cards. Know what each space is for. And watch out for how goals and expectations can crowd out those sources of meaning.
- Finally, find out the hard steps. Try to make those things easier.
I've made them into a kind of “bento box”, which can guide you, as you design.
If you use the bento box as you design, you’ll make a space where people can live by their source of meaning. A meaningful space, for the value you picked.
Many people are using this bento box to make more deeply meaningful things.
- Jason Benn is using it to make “the neighborhood”, a physical community of group houses in San Francisco, and an online social network and funding structure that supports it.
- Serj Hunt uses it to make meaningful environments for living and learning.
- Catherine Bui is using it to make dating events.
- Miho Soon is using it to reimagine financial systems
- Ryan Mather used it to make a day planner that helps him and other people live by what's meaningful.
- Wiley Webb used it to make a financial planning app to help people get their families out of poverty.
And there are new stories like this all the time.
These people are making spacemaking into a craft. They are spacemakers.
I believe spacemakers will soon be quite a prestigious group.
Just as neurosurgeons need to take great care while operating on their patient’s brains, spacemakers take a similar care with what gives us meaning in life.
Those who can be trusted to do this—to keep things meaningful—will be honored. They will be put in positions of great responsibility. They will be trusted to repair the institutions that have been destroyed by funnel thinking—trusted to fix the problems with research, with democracy, with education, and so on.
I call forth the spacemakers. It’s your time to shine.
Chapter 4 - Meaning at Scale
So, onto the last chapter!
With values cards, in chapter 2, I showed how we can be more intentional about meaning in our own lives. With hard steps in chapter 3, I showed how we can make meaningful spaces for others.
Imagine if many individuals articulated their values, and many spacemakers made beautiful spaces for them. Imagine a kind of a renaissance of spaces.
Such a renaissance would only go so far, because large-scale systems—like social media, markets, and recommender systems—act by piling up strangers. And because they suffer from what I called “recommender disdain”—the problem where social media recommenders don’t recommend spaces as much we’d benefit from them.
So, at large scales, funnel and tube entrepreneurs will remain more successful than space makers.
That's not my goal. I don't want space makers to be niche. I want them to be the most successful entrepreneurs in the world. I want the latent demand for meaning and togetherness to be completely unlocked.
So, in this last chapter, I want to sketch out an alternative vision for those large scale systems—for social media, for markets, and for recommenders. I want to show that they could be deeply changed.
I should say up front that I don’t have a plan to actually get them changed. To do that, would, I think, require a vast cultural shift. Like, if it became common sense that sources of meaning are what we should organize our lives around, and if the public was demanding a reorganization of economic, political, and technological systems to suit this. Demanding to return spaces to their rightful place.
I know, that might be wishful thinking. But if it were true, we’d have a question, which is, what should those new systems look like. In this chapter, I want to sketch an answer. At least the beginning of one.
- First, I’ll redesign the iOS and Android App Stores. In my redesign, they will still be piling up strangers next to app developers, but at least we’ll avoid recommender disdain.
- Then, second, I’ll redesign TikTok, so it doesn’t pile up strangers.
My hope is just to convince you that such systems could be made.
That’s all pretty exciting. But I think we can do even better. To get into it, let’s go back to chapter 1, when I talked about piling up strangers.
- We have this older way of doing things which I call “friends only”, where you have lasting relationships, you can get at people's deeper needs, and people have flexible roles. This is all good for spaces and space making, but these structures aren't open to strangers, aren’t scalable, and they don't surface excellence through competition.
- Then we have this other structure, which isn't good for spaces, because it doesn't have lasting relationships, doesn't surface deep needs, and people are stuck in roles like creator and consumer. But it is open to strangers, scalable and excellence-surfacing.
What we need is something in the middle.
I cannot stress enough how important this is.
So many structures in our society pile up strangers:
- social media,
- application processes
If we can come up with an alternative structure—that means all of these things get reinvented. A profound societal shift.
So let’s see what we can do.
When I have a problem like this, I often try thinking of something that’s not scalable, but meets the other criteria.
So, we need a social structure where there's lasting relationships, deep possibilities are surfaced, and the roles of creator and consumer are blurred. But it also should be open to strangers, and surface excellence.
Can you think of something like that?
There's more than one answer, but here’s my favorite one.
A breakdance circle.
Also called a “cypher”, this just a circle of breakdancers where one at a time someone goes into the circle and shows off, and everyone cheers them on.
Thinking about what makes a cypher work, I think it's three things.
- First, there's some shared values. It’s good to have technical chops, to find your individual voice, to have a funky style. It’s good to surprise people. To explore within the genre. And so on.
- Second, there's a sense of togetherness. Sure, you could say there are “producers” and “consumers” of dance, but they're in a shared space, developing relationships with each other. They don’t just have transactional / follower kinds of relationships. They are peers, mentors. They know each other’s names. They hang out.
- Finally, within the event there’s a shared mission. Of course, people have individual missions of becoming great breakdancers. But there's a shared, group mission too: coaxing out the best dancer in each person. Egging them on. Bringing the vibe to the next level.
We can compare the collaborative production in a cypher, with what’d happen if these people were just dancing with their closest friends.
- Cyphers are more excellence-surfacing than just dancing with friends,
- and they’re also more open to strangers.
So cyphers have some of the advantages we’re looking for.
But at cyphers, the “consumption” isn’t separate from creation. Everyone’s there together, with the same group mission, and deep possibilities are discovered and pursued: new aesthetic values, new styles, new ways of relating, new ways of jamming.
I’ll show another example. Something more scalable.
Science! Science has a lot in common with breakdance. Look at writing a scientific paper. It travels through a sequence of spaces, each of them is a bit like a breakdance cypher. There are shared values, non-transactional relationships, and a group mission.
- Authoring. Part of writing a paper is bringing together collaborators. Often, a scientific paper is a collaboration between more experienced and less experienced scientists. The paper also gets kind of stamped with the institution you work for, and the principal investigator who heads up your lab.
- Advising. Then you get some advisors. They making sure your paper uses methods which are easily checkable, and common in the field. That you’ve done your background reading. They also check the relationship between your claims and references. Big claims should either be supported directly with data or argument in the paper, or there should be footnotes attached, linking to support from other authors.
- Reviewers. Then it goes to some reviewers. Maybe they check the related work section, to see if you’ve engaged with the field.
- Consumption. Finally, scientific papers are usually consumed in a group. Academics will present a paper in front of their peers at a conference, or in a lab meeting, or in a class. Maybe there it’s acclaimed as groundbreaking, or field-defining.
This as a series of groups. which cover a continuum between production and consumption. Everyone kind of does both, but there’s more production on the left side and more consumption on the right.
As something moves from group to group it's produced, refined, discussed, assessed, annotated, etc. My favorite word for this is—it’s being legitimated. By the time it gets all the way to the right it’s a full-fledged, legitimate, published, scientific paper.
It gets this way by accumulating little labels. Labels like
grounded claims! and
field redefining!. They are assessments of quality, and they have to do with the sources of meaning of scientists.
This whole system scales in an interesting way. It scales in three directions.
- First, there can be many copies of each space here. Many university departments, many collaborator groups, many conferences, reading groups, etc. Each is—ideally—like a little breakdance cypher, but for science, with shared values within each group, and between them.
- Second, science scales in terms of the level of polish required of scientific work. To the left you can have people just starting out, whereas towards the right, you have the principle investigators, journal editors, people who see more polished work.
- And thirdly, the whole pipeline can be duplicated for each field and subfield. They have their own university departments, journals, and everything. Even better, those field-by-field pipelines cross connect, getting the right science to the right scientists.
That structure — and the criteria applied by each group, as they improve or assess a paper — is about surfacing excellence, just like the breakdance circle. Each group can give feedback to the leftward group, and pass it’s best results rightwards.
Also like breakdance,
- there’s a group mission. Scientists are in it for more than themselves. They are in it for science!
- And there are long-term, non-transactional relationships. Each university department, research lab, and publication has a chance to build up long-term collaborations.
Space Train Definition
I want to call this kind of structure — where people in a series of spaces collaborate to get something co-produced, refined, annotated, and discussed — where production and consumption are mingled and social — and where work, proceeding forwards, accumulates these kinds of values-aligned social assessments of excellence. I want to call that structure a space train. Because when I zoom out, to me it looks a bit like a train. A train made of spaces.
And also because. Well. SPACE TRAIN.
Space trains are a third path, between friends-only structures and piling up strangers. In space trains, you’ve got lasting relationships, deep possibilities get surfaced, and roles stay flexible. Plus, they’re open to strangers, excellence-surfacing, and scalable.
If Sandra, William and Margaret, our spacemakers from chapter 1, had scaled their operations inside space trains, they could have all these advantages.
Sandra likes to throw events. She’d be part of a collective of event designers, and would refine her event structure, together with others in that group. When her event is ready for prime time, it wouldn't be Sandra alone who signs off on it. The other members of her group would make some assertions about her event. They’d attest that it creates a vulnerable environment, or it opens up creativity, or that it’s a good space for localism and food. These tags would be based on what Sandra's event refining collective specializes in. The tags would propel the event structure or description forward into another space of values-aligned event curators. Maybe one of them would come to experience Sandra’s event in person. They’d discuss it, provide some more tags, more related to their specialty. That would propel the event into friend groups who like to experience these kinds of events together. They’d become aware of the event structure, and could attend Sandra's event together.
- Sandra doesn’t have relationship rebuilding costs. She can easily onboard people who know each other already. She doesn’t have to do warm up games, or convince people they’ll like a bunch of strangers.
- She can also serve deeper demands. Throughout the space train that her event flowed through, the tags work to point out deeper alignment among producers and consumers. Some of these tags will point to sources of meaning that people in the space train understand themselves as sharing.
- Finally, with this structure, new spacemaking collaborations can form more easily. This can even happen among “consumers”: groups of friends who need an event for a certain source of meaning are well positioned to make their own, if Sandra’s events are booked out, just like a group of scientists is well-positioned to make their own conference.
We can imagine something similar with William’s poetry—using a train of tags and of spaces of poetry appreciation, his poems will find their way to whomever’s hearts they will set a fire.
Space trains can be used in many places.
Application to TikTok
Social media like TikTok has the piles of strangers, creator and fans type of structure.
Let’s redesign it.
First, I’m going to make it clear that I’m in a group. I do the standard up and down swipe to swipe videos. And I can swipe left and right to change groups.
Here, I’m in this “Solace and Wisdom” group, together with this guy, John Green.
In this group, we stitch-respond to people having a hard time.
Before posting, we pass around our drafts. John’s just passed us a draft of his. He talks to a woman who's crying, about the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope”.
I love how John’s done it. So, I select some tags we use in the group to mark out the kinds of excellence we look for in solace and wisdom.
Alternatively, I could have made some suggestions for John, to help him achieve the excellences we’re going for.
But he knocked it out of the park on his first try.
Those tags will make the video appear in other groups. It might even be seen by the woman he stitched with.
OK, now I'm caught up on solace and wisdom.
I want to post something. Let me move the post button over here so we can tell it posts into the group.
Now I can swipe right, to see another group. This is the programming languages and interfaces group, where we demo new programming languages and interface ideas. Oh, Adam Wiggins has something new!
I’ll watch that later. I've got something to share.
Hey guys, I want to give you a little demo of a programming language I invented. It's called habitat. Most programming languages are for one programmer at at time, but in habitat, the members of the chat room work together to set up how the chat behaves for everyone. So it’s more like a multi-user dungeon, if you remember those. But it’s also a bit like prolog or react or swiftui because the chatroom it self is a materialized view of an underlying datastore, and everyone can edit that view. I'll give a little demo. Please send me related works or ideas about how to improve it!”
I hope the other members will refine it with me! Or tag it with the excellences that we care about, here in programming languages and interfaces.
That’s my TikTok redesign. In it, I focused on two of my interests. But the same tagging and sharing interface could work for dance videos, comedy, etc. So long as each group can sync up on values.
I doubt TikTok will make a big change like this. But someone will.
All I want to show here, right now, is that it’s possible to make a social media structure that doesn’t pile up strangers. That creates space trains instead.
Stories pass through groups and accumulate labels. Consumption also takes place in groups. In fact, the distinction between creation and consumption is blurred, just like in a breakdance circle.
So you might be thinking:
If space trains are so great, why aren’t they already the default way that things get done? Why is the default structure of social media, markets, and recommenders one that piles up strangers?
I think there are three main reasons.
First, space trains require that the group inside each space, that they sync up on values. On which types of excellence they want to co-produce, and curate.
Historically, this has been quite hard. It takes communication and introspection. And I said in chapter 1, we’ve lacked a common vocabulary with which to do it.
My hope, is that new technology—like values cards, from chapter 2, and like large language models—can make it much easier to sync up on values.
The second reason, is that space trains are made of spaces. Recently, spaces have been hard to make, so space trains have also been hard to make.
Maybe the bento box, from chapter 3, can help. It made it easier to make that “deep work” science retreat. It can also make it easier to make the spaces in a space train.
Take, collaborators, working on a paper. Ideally, this would be a space for deep work. We can use the middle part of the bento box and look for goals that crowd out deep work.
- Scientists often have to “publish or perish”. To produce many incremental publications—each fairly safe—rather than doing deep work.
- Scientists want roles at a top universities. To do this, they need to accrue citations. That lead to flashy work—work which gets lots of attention—rather than deep work.
So, one thing we’d want in the space train is alternate funding structures, institutional roles, or career trajectories, to reduce these pressures
Ok, let’s look at the hard steps.
- Currently, it’s often hard for scientists to find collaborators with similar deep work questions. People rarely publish their open questions! They also don’t search, together, for rigorous ways to think about them. A venue to share open questions and helpful methods could help.
- Or, locally among collaborating groups, there could be a kind of “method slam” — kind of like a poetry slam — where scientists compete to offer methodological approaches to one another's questions.
Online, it could be a kind of public taxonomy. Like Quora but for questions without answers yet, and promising methods for them.
One can imagine addressing both the crowding out and these hard steps together. What if prestigious awards or positions could come just from asking questions or proposing methods. That could be an alternative to racking up citations, or to pursuing safe, incremental publications.
These changes would be hard to make across all of science, but they’d be pretty easy to attach to one collaborator group, as software infrastructure. And if it was common knowledge that deep work was important for science, and these hard steps were blocking it, there’d be a reason to scale that software, attach funding to it, and so on.
So, that’s two reasons why space trains haven’t already become the default. And with both of them, I see some reason to hope they’ll change.
The third reason I’m a little more stuck on, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable.
- Systems that pile up strangers make it easy to assign credit and resources. It’s simple: the professional on the left should credit and get paid in proportion to the benefits experienced by each of the piled up strangers.
Unfortunately, this assigning of credit, or allocation of payment—this is much harder in space trains. The roles are fuzzier. Everything’s co-produced by one or more groups.
This is related to an interesting set of problem in economics, about allocating resources for public goods or club goods. A nice thing about software-based space trains is that there’s a ton of data about people’s participation and contributions. I guess that data can also be used to assign credit, allocate resources, and route payments, but it’s an open question exactly how to do it.
So, that’s space trains. Space trains are my deeper proposal to repair markets, recommenders, and social media. Currently, they see you mostly alone, mostly interacting with funnels and tubes, and they’re unlikely to learn your sources of meaning. I think space trains would change that.
Space trains are, I hope, also how we can fix democracy, education, science, and art.
In each of those categories, certain values or sources of meaning make the whole system work. One of those values, in science, is deep work. Big advances in science usually involve deep work.
Science has gotten worse for deep work. And for other important values of scientists. A similar decay happened in education, in democracy, and art. In each case, we can draw out the field as a space train, then make each space meaningful for those key values.
That makes things more meaningful for scientists, for politicians, for artists, for educators.
But it also makes those fields more productive.
What we're talking about, is a massive transformation of nearly every aspect of society. We're talking about billions of people changing the vocabulary they use, their ways of relating. We're talking about the redesign of institutions all the way from local businesses to nation states, around meaning and values.
So, this is not a thing that a small group can do.
But every change starts with a small group.
What could a small group do?
Okay, so now we’re entering the realm of strategy. Strategy is hard! Without an absolutely inspired strategy, this project is doomed.
- Without an inspired strategy, a project like this will be co-opted and made meaningless by market forces, just like “design thinking” became a corporate workshop grift; or like “social justice” became a way to sell Hollywood movies, M&Ms, and Pepsi cans; or like “mindfulness” became a way to stave off depression at your bullshit job.
- Without an inspired strategy, a project like this will become a tool of political misdirection, like “environmentalism” became a tool for Big Oil to shut down nuclear; or “effective altruism” became a recruiting tool for the big AI companies; or, to give a more extreme example, how “Communism” became a tool for Stalin.
To defend an idealistic movement against forces like these is really, really hard.
I can’t tell you, yet, how we’ll do it. But there are some plans in the works, and we’re gathering the best strategic thinkers in the world to make those plans better.
Here, in the last few minutes of this talk, I just want to give a little taste of those plans.
So, phase 1 involves building prototypes, and a community with a common vision. This talk begins to sketch that vision. But much more is needed:
- What will meaning-aligned machine learning look like?
- What is meaningful, scalable, social networking?
- What about meaning-aligned communities?
- How, specifically, will we address the problems in education, in science, and so on?
To sketch these things out, we’ll need conferences, meetups, online forums, full of advocates and researchers, working to rebuild society on meaning.
And there’s prototyping to be done:
- Imagine your phone asks you about your most meaningful experiences, and gives you values cards you can use to connect with others and to evaluate opportunities. That’s something we already have working, based on a large-language model.
- We want to use this in an event structure—almost like a church service. Imagine entering a room and seeing everyone’s sources of meaning, floating around on the walls. You can walk around and learn what’s meaningful to the people around you. You can find people with similar sources of meaning and learn about the spaces that support them.
- And there are so many other prototypes we can make.
We can use the same ML model to find the sources of meaning of fictional characters like Aragorn and Frodo, biblical figures like Jesus, social pioneers like Thomas Jefferson.
We can automatically find values from books, from role models, from feelings…
The next phase is one of rapid expansion.
We want to help a million people identify their sources of meaning. To discover which kinds of meaning they’re yearning for. I believe this can be an incredible experience, and that it will unlock tremendous demand. Once people understand what makes their life meaningful, they’ll want to drop the bullshit and focus on the meaning.
By unlocking that demand, we can link those million people into an ecosystem to help them do just that.
What would such an ecosystem include?
- 1000s of spacemakers. People who use the “bento box” to design or to monitor meaningful spaces.
- Novel approaches to AI. There’d be meaning-aligned recommender systems, for these meaning-driven people. There’d be other kinds of AI models, aligned with sources of meaning.
- And I guess this ecosystem would include a marketplace. Something that matches meaning-driven people and spaces that fit them, and allows the exchange of money, but doesn’t turn everything into a funnel.
(Maybe it will use an insurance model, rather than direct payments.)
So, meaning profiles, and an ecosystem. You can view this as a technical shift. But you can also view it as a cultural transformation.
- What are we doing with the profiles? We’re helping people change their self-understanding, to reorient their lives and senses of self around meaning.
- What are we doing with the ecosystem? We’re changing our sense of how a society should work, how businesses and people should fit together, how people and people fit together. What’s sometimes called, the “social imaginary”.
This is a new mythical structure for society. A new story to tell ourselves, about who we are, where we belong, and how we can get along.
My colleague, Ellie Hain, is all about articulating that new myth. She has a talk about that you can watch on our website, rebuildingmeaning.org.
At some point, as this expands, we're going to run into conflicts with business as usual:
- People will want to co-opt our efforts,
- Parts of the consumption economy will be threatened by the emerging meaning economy
- There will be political battles over resources, policies, and attention.
Here, that new social vision will be important. The more people take to it, the harder it is to fake. Also important will be robust metrics and auditing structures, so people can see where the real meaning economy is happening, and where it's being faked. Report cards—like the one I showed in chapter four.
By then, we’ll have in-roads in academia, continuing work I started here to redesign systems like voting and markets around meaning. There will be renowned professors, think tanks, and policy people.
To support this, we will have amassed some economic power. There’s already a school for training spacemakers—the school for social design, and an open source textbook. The school can partner with bootcamps, accelerators and funds. There can be incubators for space-based startups, and a kind of meaning mafia.
This will eventually translate to a broad social and political movement. But… such a movement will need to be more robust against co-option than, say, effective altruism or social justice has been. How can we do that? We don’t have a concrete plan, but there are some unusual techniques for managing status and power in the community, that we’re excited to try.
I have just sketched a hard road ahead. But I believe it’s the hot path to restoring social trust, repairing democracy, science, and education, reducing hustle and ideological warfare, to creating corporations and recommenders and other structures that people can trust with their lives and data. And to creating a society that has less trauma, less manipulation, more meaning and togetherness.
But… can we do it?
You might be the difference between this happening or not.
We need to rapidly build a support network, advisory network, and team.
- We won't get through even the first phase without funding. And that's not something we've had yet. But we need it, to continue. I’d like to continue with this project. Would you like me to continue?
- We also need those strategists, who can find go-to-market and political strategies that avoid co-option. We need the best in the world.
- And for the next phase, we need leaders, people who can build ecosystems and movements, and who’ll bring meaning profiles to millions, quickly.
Here’s two ways you can help:
- First, if you know someone (or are someone) we should work with, contact us — there’s a link at rebuildingmeaning.org.
- Second, help this material spread. There are so many adjacent communities: designers! technologists! ethicists and social scientists! people worried about capitalism, or coordination failure! religious leaders! civic tech people!
Find someone in a relevant group, and ask them: “hey, do you wanna rebuild society on meaning?”