Rhys' Newsletter #46

David Christian on Big History, $ESSAY, and new research on global values

This newsletter goes out to more than 1,000 ambitious frontier people. If you like it, share it with a friend, support me on Patreon, or apply for my online school, Roote.


Hey you!

Missed ya last week while I was on a writing retreat. He’s a picture of me (not writing) at the nearby Sutro Baths.

Though tbh with the mask, glasses, and hat this could be anyone. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

On the writing front: If you want to hang out and discuss my book, Terra Sapien: The Networked Human Borg, I’m hosting a 60min session at The Stoa on March 11 at 5pm PT. Register here.

1) Podcast this week. #80 David Christian: How Big History Helps Us Understand Our Long Now.

David Christian is a historian who co-founded the Big History Project with Bill Gates. Big History focuses on the evolution of our universe, biological life, and human culture. It’s a fascinating, interdisciplinary field that has helped me reframe modern events in their deeper cosmological context.

Here are some of the highlights from my conversation with David.

First, I ask David for an overview of our universe:

Rhys: Could you give us the one-minute version of how things have evolved since the beginning of time?

David: Oh, a one-minute version?

Rhys: Your time begins now.

David: All of these different stories can be seen as part of one single story—increasing complexity.

The Big History story is a series of threshold crossing points where the universe suddenly generates something new.

Stars are one of the first of these new things. Then stars generate new chemical elements. With new chemical elements, you can create new types of matter.

So you can create planets, for example, which are chemically much more complex than stars. And once you have planets, you have very special environments that are chemically complex enough to create the first living organisms. Then you can tell the story of evolution—how a greater diversity of organisms appeared until eventually, you have human beings.

What is different about humans? Humans can share information in a way that no other organism can. We have, in our heads, huge amounts of information that was put into our heads by other humans. That’s the secret of our success.

I've already cheated, I've taken more than a minute.

Rhys: You’re good, you’re good.

So stars created new elements, which created DNA, which created humans who host cultural information in our heads. Got it.

We then discuss the rise of a global superorganism:

Rhys: Is it helpful to view us as this new Borg?

David: The tendency of many parts of Big History is towards the creation of groups that are so interdependent that eventually, you have to start thinking of them almost as a single organism.

We can see this with humanity. Humans always exist in communities which support each other. They also live in each other's heads because they talk to each other all the time. So what's in my head is not just my stuff. It's human stuff.

It's as if in our brains were already beginning to live inside a superorganism. Since the coming together of one global community in the last few hundred years, this superorganism has become more and more significant.

This leads into the idea of our shared global memesphere:

David: Our minds drive us to think of ourselves as a single individual. But you can ask yourself the question: If, in my lifetime, I had never talked to another human, how much of the stuff in my head now would actually be there?

Almost none of it. In other words, most of the stuff in my mind was not created by me. It was put there by other people through conversation, in school, through reading, through the internet.

I love that question: What percent of your thoughts are “natively” from you? Zero.

Much more in the podcast itself.

2) I liked this $ESSAY from John Palmer on Scissor Labels.

A scissor label is a word that establishes a widely embraced name for a trend without simultaneously establishing a canonical definition.

John gives the example of Hyperpop, a musical genre which we discussed in #26. People get into debates on what is or is not Hyperpop. These debates get represented in memes like the one below. “X is Hyperpop.”

John closes his piece by warning that scissor labels lead to endless debates. (What is the best label for scissor labels? 😂)

I agree. We’ve discussed these kinds of debate a lot in this newsletter. I call them Antifragile Attractors. These topics (memes) suck people into endless internet debates. ContraPoints showed how “trans women are women” is a bad slogan. It sucks people into a debate over “facts” when the actual debate is political. (Contra prefers “trans liberation now.”)

One final note on John’s $ESSAY: it was crowdfunded for $15,000 on Mirror. As a writer/creator myself, I’m excited by all the work that’s happening in the NFT space right now.

We’ll see if I end up writing a $BOOK, not just a book. 😉


1) There’s a new World Values Survey. Yay!

Over three years, this survey interviews 100,000+ folks across 80 countries about their values. They ask questions like: “How important is religion to you?” Or “How much do you value self-expression?”

In order to more easily understand the data, the researchers reduce the answers to two dimensions. The x dimension is Survival Values vs. Self-Expression Values. Do you value Now Me basic needs or Future Me meaning needs? The y dimension is Traditional Values vs. Secular-Rational Values. Is your worldview more bound by religion or not?

We can then map all countries onto those two dimensions. This is called the Inglehart-Welzel map. Here’s the version from 2017:

Countries that are worse off (many African-Islamic countries) emphasize survival and traditional religious values. Well-off countries in Protestant Europe like Sweden emphasize self-expression and secular values. The Confucian countries place emphasis on secular values (they aren’t that religious), but they don’t emphasize the individualism in self-expression values.

Here’s the new 2020 map. What differences do you see? How have world values changed in the last three years?

I created an (artisanal) gif of this transition:

Overall, we can see a “stretching” trend. The country groups are getting further from each other. Looking at specific groups:

  • Protestant Europe and English-Speaking (in yellow) became much more self-expression-y (moved right). We can see this in culture with things like: Burning Man, being yourself, gap years, conscious consumerism, finding a job with your values, and later marriage timelines. These folks are trying to find a “meaningful life”. They’re “climbing the second mountain.”

  • The Confucian countries (in orange) also became more self-expression-y (moved right). China became more individualistic as they continued to embrace capitalism. This makes their One-Party system unsustainable in the long-term. As I mentioned during the Russian protests (#41), self-expression values create a demand for democracy, which then needs to be supplied by the state. In just three years, China’s value on self-expression moved from -1 to 0 (in the scale above). If they’re even at 1 by 2030 (near Spain and Italy), we’ll see more democratic protests.

  • On the other side of the stretching, African-Islamic countries moved down and to the left. There was more scarcity and more emphasis on religion there. The average of those countries moved from (-.5, -1) to (-1, -1.25).

When the next survey comes out (2023), I expect more countries to move to the left (towards survival values) given COVID turmoil. Let’s check back then!

2) This is a hilarious 2min video about how far we still have left to go as a species. The hand sanitizer moment is amazing.

3) The Onion:

4) Babylon Bee: G.I. Joe To Be Replaced With Genderless G.I. Pat




Todrick Hall is a former American Idol semifinalist who makes catchy, queer-adjacent music. The music video below is a funny jam about COVID precautions.

The song above is a remix of one of Hall’s other songs, “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels.” NHHH might be the best dance song in the last 5 years. At 2:00, Todrick starts telling you what to do. Pose, twirl, snap, etc. It’s like the macarena, updated for the 21st century. Definitely pull out the song during your first dance party post-COVID.

Hope you have a good week! Warmth, Rhys

❤️ Thanks to my generous patrons ❤️

Audra Jacobi, Sam Jonas, Patrick Walker, Shira Frank, David Hanna, Benjamin Bratton, Michael Groeneman, Haseeb Qureshi, Jim Rutt, Zoe Harris, David Ernst, Brian Crain, Matt Lindmark, Colin Wielga, Malcolm Ocean, John Lindmark, Collin Brown, Ref Lindmark, James Waugh, Mark Moore, Matt Daley, Peter Rogers, Darrell Duane, Denise Beighley, Scott Levi, Harry Lindmark, Simon de la Rouviere, and Katie Powell.