Divergentism

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Lexicon

Divergentism is the idea that people are able to hear each other less as they age, and that information ubiquity paradoxically accelerates this process, so that technologically advancing societies grow more divergentist over historical time scales. The more everybody can know, the less everybody can see or hear each other. I first outlined this idea in a December 2015 post, Can You Hear Me Now? Rather appropriately, that post reads a little weird and hard to understand now, because the title and core metaphor comes from a Verizon ad that was airing on television at the time.

Here is how I described the idea then:

Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else

The opposed, much more natural idea, is convergentism. In my experience, this is the view most people actually hold:

Most people are convergentists by default. They believe that if reasonable people share an increasing number of explicit beliefs, they must necessarily converge to similar conclusions about most things. A more romantic version rests on the notion of continuously deepening relationships based on unspoken bonds between people. 

In the 6+ years since I first blogged the idea, it has turned into one of my conceptual pillars, so I figured it was time to put down a short, canonical account of it. Here is a whiteboard sketch of the idea. The x-axis is time, interpreted as either historical time or individual life-time, and the y axis is something like size of collective belief space. The cone represents the divergence.

The core idea remains the same, but I’ve added two corollaries:

First, the divergentism/convergentism dichotomy applies to societies at large, and individual psyches as well, not just the intersubjective level between atomic individuals.

At the societal level, societies understand each other less and less with increasing information ubiquity, at any level of aggregation you might consider, from packs to nations. You might get random spooky entanglements, but by default, society is divergentist. The social universe expands.

This idea is consistent with one in Hitchhiker’s Guide, that the discovery of the Babel Fish, by removing all translation barriers to communication, sparked an era of bloody wars. But conflict in my theory is merely the precursor to a more profound universal mutual disengagement.

Second, At the sub-individual level, where you consider the non-atomicity of the psyche, things are more complex, and I’m fairly sure the psyche by default is not divergentist. It is convergentist. A divergentist psyche is one characterized by a sort of progressive fragmentation of self-hood. A simple example is when you read something you wrote 10 years ago and it feels like it was written by a stranger. Or when somebody quotes something you wrote at you, and you don’t recognize it.

As a thought experiment, imagine you could have different versions of you, at different ages, all together. How much would you agree about things? How well would you understand each other? How easily could you reach consensus on things. Like say all versions of you needed to pick a restaurant to get dinner after the All-Yous conference. Would it be easy or hard? How about a book to read together?

I think I’m a psyche-level divergentist, but I think most people are not. Most people grow more integrated over time, not less. In fact, increasing disaggregation of the psyche is usually treated as a mental illness, though I think there is a healthy way to do it.

So to summarize the 3 laws of divergentism:

  1. Most societies diverge epistemically at all scales of aggregation over historical time scales
  2. Most social graphs get increasingly disconnected over societal time scales
  3. Most individuals get increasingly integrated over a lifetime, but some have divergent psyches

I am most confident about the second assertion.

Divergentism is both an idea you can believe or disbelieve, and a basis for an ideological doctrine (hence the –ism) that you can subscribe to or reject. You could capture both aspects with this simple statement: Humans diverge at all levels of thought-space, from the sub-individual to species, and this is a good thing. The doctrine part is the last clause.

If you are a divergentist, you hold that the social-cognitive universe is expanding towards an epistemic heat death of universal solipsism, and you are at peace with this thought. You explain contemporary social phenomena in light of this thought. For example, political polarization is just an anxious resistance to divergence forces. Subculturalization and atomization are a natural consequence of it.

Locally, there may be reversals of this tendency, even in very late historical stages. These manifest as what I call mutualism vortices, which are a bit like islands of low entropy in a universe winding down to a heat death. Dissipative structures of shared knowing and meaning. But overall, everything is divergent. But they become progressively rarer, just as there is an infinite number of primes, but they get rarer as you go down the number line.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Nice one, and broadly generally observed. Some parts were a little complicated for me but maybe I should read it again.

    Where would you depict occurrences of topical convergentism facilitated by presence of a non changing anchor (e.g: concept of God, or nation etc)
    Or scenarios of intergenerational convergentism that sometimes gets better with time (as I age, I understand senior citizen’s past actions better and that I understand and listen several decades after I’ve heard them, and agree with some of them to go back and say, ah! Now I see the point)

    Or have I got your essay understood incorrectly?

  2. > A divergentist psyche is one characterized by a sort of progressive fragmentation of self-hood. A simple example is when you read something you wrote 10 years ago and it feels like it was written by a stranger. Or when somebody quotes something you wrote at you, and you don’t recognize it.

    mood

    we suspect that convergence in psyche is an evolved and also socially reinforced mechanism. divergent psyche can complicate things in a way that clearly has utility in some situations, but can make life more difficult in others. divergent psyche seems to be well supported by having somewhat convergent social groups with some social connections with convergent psyches, as the eccentric can receive some support and provide valuable ideas.

    as entities with divergent psyche, we tend to suspect that convergences is a limitation on the state space that can be explored… a convenient, safe limitation but a limitation nonetheless. perhaps this is a bias.

  3. This has resonated with a couple of ideas (muuuch less mature than yours) that have come to my mind over the past years: First, the knowledge gap that started as a technological-generational thing (“old people” didn’t know about tech / “young people” did) but which I feel has become more universal: for almost every topic, the knowledge gap between those who know and those who don’t know is widening.

    The other aspect that reinforces this is the acceleration of new information (both discovered and invented). The most extreme case I know of is the world of web development. Trying to keep up with all the new frameworks, languages, IDEs, .. is exhausting, feels inhuman. Other parts of society are not as extreme as this, but the feeling is that everything is going in that direction.

    Thanks for the posts.

  4. Kevin Merlini says

    Another interesting element is comparing *actual divergence* with *perceived divergence* at the societal level. In the US for example, we find that there is a widening “perception gap” among differing ideological groups. I.e. democrats believe that republicans hold more extreme views on different issues than they actually do, and vice versa. This page has an interesting overview of the phenomena: https://perceptiongap.us/

  5. “Over time, choice isolates us. We have fewer communal experiences and that makes us feel alienated and alone. It seems crazy to equate freedom with loneliness.” -Chuck Klosterman

  6. Divergentism is driven by transparency & low friction of communication/expression. Without knowing that you share the same ideas, lots of people can happy being ignorantly the same.

    Once the Babelfish was invented, everyone discovered that other annoying people had the same ideas. Some fought like you said, but others rushed to spread part. The dimensionality of the idea space thus increased, and people started diverging. Flight is the other adaptive response to the mimetic crisis.

  7. Made me think of the council of wells: https://arrow.fandom.com/wiki/Council_of_Wells
    So I took an internal vote and we disagree. :)

  8. What is the categorical distinction between divergentism and the axiom that greater variability in beliefs results in less shared agreement? Why is it a function of time, rather than a function of the two variables that result in divergentism (ratio of shared beliefs to non-shared beliefs)? What patterns or predictions are observed with changes to divergentism velocity, acceleration, and jerk (e.g. Entrepreneurs-Are-The-New-Labor style analysis of Divergentism)? And why is divergentism a “good thing” – explanatory utility, or something else? I’m made of questions right now.

  9. There is a certain melancholy to the idea of divergence, which lacks the hopeful aspects of escape. But maybe it should be imagined in a combination with a more horrific scenario where everyone is fettered at a round table and everyone is screaming and babbling in their own frequencies. Despite of this there are waves of conformity and emotional synchronization, which represent much of the psychic life of the captives.

  10. The ‘different versions of you’ examples make the divergentist/convergentist distinction sound slightly reminiscent of Galen Strawson’s episodic/diachronic, though only on the personal scale.

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