Chapter 14 - The Good, the True and the Beautiful
If it’s not clear to you by now I like to run things. I love dreaming up a concept, organizing a team and bringing it into the world. One of the things I learned much later was that it was important for me to decide going in who was leading and who was following. I got to be a better follower, but given a choice, I wanted to lead for better or worse.
The first three years of Integral Life I directed the Media Department, but I also voiced many opinions along the way about Integral Life as well. Robb Smith and I got into it more than once (he fired me twice) so in 2010 it was somewhat of a surprise when Robb asked me to lead the company. I had a good relationship with Ken and with the remaining staff, so I said yes. Robb was going off to develop a personal development app.
For me this felt a bit like the re-organizing work I had done with interactive media groups in Hollywood. I definitely had my own way of doing things and I set out to get the company aligned for success. Robb was always around, but mostly he let me flesh everything out. I was determined to balance the revenue streams between membership, web courses and conferences. I had a great web editor in Corey Devos on the membership side and that left me free to pay attention to the other revenue streams.
I am not going into a blow by blow of what emerged, but I will suggest to you what I learned. I had been brought on in the beginning to take the Ken Wilber/Integral Life story to a much larger audience than those that just read Ken’s books. I looked at the much bigger personal development audience that Integral Life was a part of and thought we could re-do our pitch to attract more customers. This is where we ran into challenges.
Integral Theory and the map can seem complicated at first. It takes a while to fully grasp its value. Once you do, it’s hard to imagine looking at things any other way, but the question remained... how to communicate with an audience that in a sense hadn’t asked for a whole new meaning making system.
Integral Life had a worldwide community that self-selected to IL through Ken’s writings. They were very experienced in the work and were looking for a web portal community to hang out and explore the deeper meanings with others of the same expertise. On the other hand, we had all these other people who had not read Ken, but we thought might be interested in what the Integral work had to offer. It turned out after 6 years of trying, I learned those two audiences don’t mix. The deep divers did not want the Integral work watered down or simplified, and the newbies looked at the same deep work and mostly said it seems like a lot of work. It wasn’t until 2017 that I began to see a way out of this dilemma, but that was still a ways off.
Hiking in Paradise
Boulder may not have had the ocean, (something I grew up around and loved) but it had mountains and high country to beat the band. From Boulder you could jump on one of many trails and head up the ridge to beautiful sparkling lakes, dramatic rock formations above tree line and wildlife of every variety. It was for me like God’s Half Acre.
Like my Mother, I had always loved to walk and hike. It was a way I could leave stress behind and for a short time immerse myself in something larger. If I had any doubt nature was larger than me I was reminded as I ran from the dark thunder storms that would roll in on little notice, or navigated the narrow trails that traversed across granite or ice faces above deep canyons. All reminded me of my impermanence. After all the stops on my journey, to be here in this beautiful place was a God send.
Boulder was a good place for us to land socially as well. As I went deeper into the Integral community there was always someone in town conjuring up interesting work, particularly at the Integral Center that Jeff Salzman developed.
Jennifer and I were also welcomed into a network of talented boomers with long resumes. Many an afternoon or evening was spent with them in the energetic field of the Republic of Boulder. The flip side of my work was that I was often tired and peopled out by end of day. I expended so much energy running Integral Life, many nights I had no desire to go out to see the latest, greatest thing. This was the paradox for me. I loved creating public projects and yet needed at my core to get quiet. Integral Life Practice helped with that.
All this to say, you can never forget the importance of place. I have lived and worked in extraordinary places all my life that have greatly nurtured and inspired me. Each perfect for the chapter they embraced. Never could I have predicted that Boulder would be this stop. You just keep going until it all makes sense in some way or another.
What Next Conference
As we rolled through 2011 and 2012 approached, I decided with the IL staff and Ken to create a different type of big event that would take place over New Year’s 2012. It would borrow some of the things we did with the Integral Spiritual Experience events, but instead of just focusing on spirituality, it would take a narrative view of the now and future of the world.
The Integral community had grown up quite a bit since I joined. More people were applying an Integral view to any number of subjects and projects. We saw the “What Next” conference as an opportunity for those people to tell us about their “integrally” informed innovations and lead us in workshops exploring their deeper meaning.
The range of the stories covered the spectrum of human endeavor. News, politics, climate change, technology, artificial intelligence, stories we were telling about the future and so much more. We also featured demonstrations of important Integral tools and processes like the Narrative Tradition of the Enneagram and contemplative practice. The event was aptly named… “What Next -The Future of Consciousness, Culture and Technology.”
In keeping some continuity with the last ISE gathering, I designed the conference format with Jeff Salzman, Diane Mucho Hamilton and Terry Patton. They has hosted the last Integral Spiritual Event. Each of them were to take turns facilitating the different presentations, workshops and community celebrations. The four of us worked for months to get the design right.
The other thing we wanted to do was celebrate Ken. His health was always a question in terms of how long he would live. We wanted to celebrate his gifts to all of us and the world as we entered this new cycle.
I had been a part of American Film Institute tributes in Hollywood, The usually honored some director or producer. I thought that format was perfect for what we wanted to do with Ken. I put together a list of Ken’s friends, his collaborators, and folks that had helped him along his journey. The list included noted thought leaders like Father Thomas Keating. Tony Robbins, John Mackey (Whole Foods) and the co-director of the Matrix movies Lana Wachowski just to name a few. They agreed to be at the event live or I traveled to them to pre-record their testimonials. I also put together two short films, one about Ken’s childhood and one about his books.
One result of the What Next conference was this wonderful piece of wall art by German artist Mathias Weitbrecht. It became the basis of my Story Studio work once I left Integral Life…
The other thing that was happening at the same time was Ken’s Biography Project. Since I arrived I had been at Ken to record a fresh version of everything he offered or had learned. Ken’s biggest on-going complaint was that people would take part of his work and start using it in the world, but misrepresent what he meant. This happens to a lot of folks that create an influential body of work. I pitched him on shooting short video clips on his life, his influences, the basics of Integral Theory and some of its applications. That way if anyone wanted to know what he had said or thought, it would be all in one place.
He resisted for 4 years, concerned about the way he looked, but he finally agreed and we set about raising the funds for the project by crowd funding in the Integral community. Crowd funding was a fairly new concept in 2012. Corey deVos and I used the crowd funding service IndiGoGo. We wrote the copy, recorded a video of the two of us explaining the project and launched the campaign right before the What Next conference. We thought the goal of the first phase of the project was to map out a documentary film about Ken. However, we were influenced by the advice that we got from filmmakers like Lana Wachowski and others not to take a traditional approach and do something else.
In that spirit the first thing I designed was a web app that in a sense was a Netflix of Ken.
You could pick a subject like philosophy, or spirituality and then choose video clips where Ken shared much more detail. We raised the money we needed in about a month and that began a 4 year project to record all the pieces with Ken (over 60 hours) on top of everything else we were doing.
Many said the What Next conference was a watershed Integral event. Everyone was in top form and the audience went home buzzing. Even Kermit showed up with my good friend Steve Whitmire of the Muppets.
The conference would greatly influence my storytelling and the development of convergence transmedia projects later that combined films, events and storytelling. It also was something that Jennifer and I did well together.
Gathering the Tribe
In this digital world with all our global connections, it may seem old fashioned to actually gather people face to face. Although I appreciate the convenience of Zoom and other remote meeting programs, I still think there is something important about gathering people in person.
For thousands of years humans have gathered around campfires to tell stories, make plans, celebrate and grieve. There is an intimacy to sharing a common WE space. When I transitioned to a convergence transmedia approach, it included live events in addition to video/film, web programs and social media offerings.
The Integral Institute had a long history of putting on all kinds of events and live workshops. In its heyday, these events were hot tickets as people came from all over the world to see Ken and those thought leaders attracted to his Integral Theory. Integral Life carried on this tradition with the three Integral Spiritual Experiences held at Asilomar Conference Center in Monterey, CA. Going forward I had something more in mind.
This took form in the big What Next event previously described and the What Now event that explored Integral applications across a wide spectrum of activity that were a part of our now and the future stories. It also took form in medium sized gatherings and smaller, more intimate loft events. The first of these events was the Future of Spirituality based on Ken’s book of the same name. FOS explored the future of religion including the traditions, but almost moving beyond them to suggest what more might be included in a global Integral Spirituality.
We also created the Return to the Heart of Christ Consciousness event that explored progressive Christianity in all its forms. You can see the results of that series in the Animating Force –Contemplative Christianity section of the web site.
The Fourth Turning – the future of Buddhism was another event that explored the three eras of the development of Buddhism and suggested a fourth was emerging. These events were always a lot of work, but in the end, they were gatherings of the Integral community I will always remember fondly.
The other event type we pioneered were the Loft Events. For years, those of us fortunate enough to meet with Ken at his loft, wanted to give that experience to others. The idea was they would gather with Ken in Denver at this loft and explore a variety of subjects. I really enjoyed designing and putting on these smaller, more intimate events and they would also set the tone for the Storycatching gatherings I would design later after leaving Integral Life. They included participants from all over the world and special guests like futurist Doug Rushkoff.
Steve Whitmire had been one of the original five Muppet puppeteers led by Jim Henson. When Jim had died unexpectedly Steve took over Kermit. For years through all the television shows and movies, Steve brought Kermit to life. Steve was also a fan of Ken Wilber’s work. When I joined up, Steve was one of the first people I talked to about how to tell the Integral story to a larger audience.
He had gotten permission from Disney to bring Kermit to the What Next conference. His solo pieces and Kermit’s conversation with Ken were hilarious.
Over dinner during the conference Steve and I hatched a plan to use two original Muppet characters that he owned for a short video test telling a portion of the Integral Story. We shot it right down the street from my old haunts at Warner Bros. That day was great fun. The test we did is below...
Viva Las Vegas
At the beginning of 2017 we decided at our “retreat” in Las Vegas to create a new Integral Life web site. It was intended to offer a better member experience and add Integral Life Practice 2.0 to our content offerings.
These Vegas retreats were Robb Smith’s idea. They took me back to the considerable time I spent there doing the Boxing project. We’d had a good year in 2016, so we stayed in a fancy hotel and celebrated at some of the finest restaurants in town.
The Las Vegas I had known in the 90’s had changed. There were many more hotels and lots of foot traffic on the main boulevards. So many more people.
Vegas always represented to me the height of consumer culture. It was brash, crazy and excessive. I always enjoyed dipping my toe in those waters every now and then. As I looked at the families (with small kids) that were in these expensive restaurants, I wondered where their money came from. Or had they put it on the credit card like all good Americans?
We had worked for 8 years by that point to really expand the consumer audience for Integral Life offerings. Integral Life had become the best collection of Integral media and conversations in the world. It had grown some, but not doubled in size as we had hoped. We thought of the new web site as a final attempt at making this happen. We said we would give it two years and then re-access.
This particular trip to Vegas had an added bonus. I connected with my old band mates from Yankee Dollar. I had not seen Liza and Greg since we broke up all those years ago. (almost 50)
Lisa and Greg Circa 1968
Lots of water under the bridge since then, but Greg got a hold of me by email and told me that he and Liza were in Las Vegas, married for 15 years.
Liza and Greg had been an item towards the end of the band, but when we all went our separate ways, Liza went off on her own and Greg went to work in the aerospace industry. They had reconnected some years later and here they were.
We had dinner at Caesars where I had done the Boxing project, so it was a bit of a deju vu. We had a wonderful time that night reminiscing about our creative time together. The band had broken up on less than friendly terms, so it was good to bring that around and appreciate what we had created together in 1968 that lately had gained some notoriety on EBay as “retro”.
Integral Life Practice (ILP)
ILP had been originally developed by Ken and the Institute teachers to help folks live a more Integral Life. It had physical, mental, emotional and spiritual practices you could do on a daily basis. It was based on the concept that if you really wanted to change unwanted habits; you needed to embody those changes not just talk about them. It was a move from cognitive to embodied understanding. The original ILP kit was dated at this point, so I set out to create ILP 2.0 with all of our current teachers including Ken.
ILP Modules were roughly 45 minutes in length and were designed to give you beginning practices on everything from relationships, leadership, mindfulness, yoga, Enneagram etc. It was a great pleasure to work with the teachers I assembled for this short form programming. I really learned a lot from them on a variety of subjects. This work would set me up for a VR application that I would develop later on. You can see some of these programs on the Integral Life web site at: https://integrallife.com/practice/
The Web Courses/Products
One of my contributions when I was running Integral Life was to also develop products we could sell in addition to membership and live events. Most of these were co-developed with other companies or thought leaders. We sold a lot of them.
When It Is Enough
Our mother had lived with the impacts of two different bouts with cancer for 15 years. She had declined, as you might expect, over those years with age. She also had suffered a number of falls that resulted in broken bones and lengthy recovery periods. She kept at it each time, and came back, although somewhat more diminished.
In January of 2017, she fell again. This time when I came out to see her something was different. She was now 93. She told Jane, Bruce and I that she was done. She wanted us to explore ways that she could end her life. Officially, in spite of the cancer, she did not have a terminal diagnosis so she did not qualify for end of life procedures in California. She had been through a period of feeling like this in her last go around with cancer, but this time she insisted we explore the options.
Her request turned out to be the beginning of a journey into the terminal fast world we did not know existed. She mentioned that a friend that lived on her floor had simply stopped eating and drinking. Eventually, you will die, mostly from lack of water. There was no law anywhere that forbids someone doing this. Did not know that at the time.
We got ahold of her friend’s family and they walked us through what they did. A whole world opened up to us on the Internet of people that had taken this route to end their lives. For mother at St. Paul’s it required we get her doctors on board and permission from St. Paul’s. Other than that, there were things we needed to do with her estate, but Bruce had those pretty much handled, so it looked like this approach was possible.
As it became apparent that this route was open to Mother, it brought up all our emotions about her actually doing this. We had all watched her suffer through many bouts on the recovery floor, and didn’t want to see it continue, but this felt so final. She however was steadfast and insistent. She said she didn’t want to be alive in the spring so that meant early March.
I don’t know what I expected. I thought she might change her mind in the midst of us figuring it all out. We had a number of moments where we checked in again with her, but the answer was always the same. “I am ready.” Because I lived the farthest from her, my role was always to provide emotional support. We talked about dying and she had come to a place where she believed she would see all those she loved who had gone before her as she crossed the threshold. This was of comfort to her.
My own connection to this idea was also interesting. I had promised her all those years ago that I would be there for her at the end, and I had always worried that I would get a phone call in Colorado that she had died before I could get there. This way that worry for me dissolved. I would be there through it all.
Over the years my brother and Virginia, living the closest to her, had helped her with all her life issues, business and medical appointments. It was in some ways a thankless job, because Bruce was on point for lots of her anxiety. He did a great job helping her manage. Jane, being the next closest, helped her with everything artistic and female. Food, clothing, her apartment, showers etc. And I would talk to her on the phone about whatever was going on with her emotionally. We all over lapped in these different categories, but now that a plan needed to be hatched, we would need to work together.
The impending death of a parent brings up every emotion for the children. We had been through this with our father, but at the time we were much younger and just did the best we could. Here we were now mature adults with so much more knowledge of everything this entailed. As things on the check list got eliminated, the reality of this event moved closer.
Though it all, Mother, who had so much anxiety about most things, was steadfast in this. She wanted to go. She loved us very much, but we’d had a long run and now she was tired. She did not want to live on the recovery floor full time. There were the details and then there were the emotions. As the date moved closer and the way was cleared, all the rest of it surfaced. What complicated Mother’s timing was that Jane had been through a life threatening bout with breast cancer for the prior two years. She had just into remission in 2016, but her emotions were still raw. This was a lot. Questions of her own mortality surfaced and like all of us on some level, assumed Mother would be around forever.
Death is a subject that we don’t talk about much in this culture. As a result when it shows up, who knows how anyone will react. The traditional religious views, even though mostly abandoned by our family, still were deeply embedded. Was this really suicide? Fortunately, I had done some death and dying work with a Tibetan teacher and had come to some personal understanding of the process that made sense to me. As we got closer Jane really raised the issue of suicide with Bruce and me. She just wasn’t sure this was a good idea. We talked for a while and too her credit, she came to her own understanding (as hard as it was) and was okay with letting Mother go.
The interesting thing about death by starvation is that once you begin you are designated terminal. This means that hospice can officially come in and give you all the necessary drugs for the transition if needed. I think we thought everyone, her doctor and hospice would be more involved, but it turned out they left it to the three of us. That was the way Mother wanted it.
Once the plan was in place for the beginning of March, the issue of how to tell her large network of friends and family arose. She really didn’t want to see anyone, but us, nieces and nephews and a few close friends. Arrangements were made for their visits. Each one brought us closer to the day. She wrote a heartfelt letter to the rest. Through all of it, Mother provided support to all of us. She kept insisting this is what she wanted. To go out in her own way. She was required by law to record a video stating that she was of sound mind to do this. This was the last recording I would do with her.
She wanted to die in her apartment so we brought her hospital bed down from the recovery floor to the living room. She could look out on the view of the city she loved.
Her bedroom was designated for whoever was staying with her through the transition. Jane, Bruce and I divided up the days into 8 hour shifts. One would be overnight. We had heard from other families accounts that the process could take anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks depending on how long her body hung on. The ones that ran longer were more problematic in terms of everyone’s emotions. We hoped for a quick exit for her.
Finally the week came. Monday was designated as the beginning. This meant she would only eat soft foods and liquids over the weekend. She really didn’t do much of either. On the day it officially began we gathered with her and wished her much love for her transition.
Monday passed fairly normally. She seemed glad that one of us was there around the clock. On Tuesday, she made the comment that it seemed to be going faster than she thought. Having read many death accounts, it is reported that there is this sense that the one who is dying gets of their body shutting down.
I was off Tuesday night, but when I came in on Wednesday, she was in a coma. She stared at the ceiling and breathed in a laborious way. She had been so frail when she began there was not much change in her appearance. I remembered my father when his breathing got laborious. There was often a long time between breaths. You would wait to see if another would come and for a while they did. We were not with Dad when he actually died, so we were in new territory here.
Thursday passed uneventfully. On Friday I had the overnight shift. After Bruce and Jane left, she did raise her arms up towards the ceiling like she was reaching for something or someone in the heavens. She had done this once before in the hospital. She did not call out, she just silently raised her arms to heaven and then relaxed.
I sat with her for a while, but about 10pm I went to the bedroom to lie down to watch television. It must have been around midnight, when I heard the strongest voice say to me… “Why are you watching television?” Why indeed. Your mother dying is a once in a lifetime event. I moved to the side of her bed, just as the light outside turned this deep orange. This was partially due to the city lights, but the illumination seemed much more than that. She was very quiet, breathing slowly.
I looked at her and thought what a great circle she had traveled. Here she was, just a couple of miles from where she was born, after all the places she had lived. There was something about that thought that brought up deep emotions for me. I had not cried much about all of this yet, but in that moment, the tears came full force and would not stop.
Although this is what she wanted, the fact she was leaving my life was a source of much sorrow. I don’t know how long the tears went on, but I stayed with her the rest of the night. I was lightly dosing when I stirred around 7am. Something had really changed in her breathing. It was getting softer and softer. I had expected more dramatic changes like we had seen with our Dad, but she just seemed to be peacefully slipping away.
I called Bruce and Jane and told them to come. Whatever was happening, was happening quickly. Around 8 as Jane and Bruce were still on their way, she just stopped breathing. There were a few final pulses in her neck and then she was gone. Jane and Bruce arrived soon after and we hugged and cried. She was gone from her body. Seven days after she had begun. A record time for this type of death. She indeed was ready to go and I was with her as I had promised. Such a gift.
One great thing about doing it the way she wanted is that we were left alone by all official folks. I had wanted to sit with her body awhile after she was gone. It is said in Tibetan teachings that it can be a source of comfort for the soul to have people you love around as they get used to the transition.
We waited the entire day to tell anyone. Finally, we made the call and her plan for her body went into effect. She wanted to be cremated, so the Neptune Society arrived, and suddenly her body was gone. It seemed somewhat surreal. After all the talk and the planning this pivotal event was complete. Sometimes people talk about feeling that the recently deceased hangs out for a while but for me, once she left, she did not linger. Sometime afterwards, my wife Jennifer had a dream with her as a young women dancing to forties big band music in total ecstasy. I would like to think she got a chance to do exactly that.
We had decided we would wait for six months to have her memorial. That gave everyone a chance to sit with her being gone and then come together to share what she meant to us. We did however have a short service for her friends in St. Paul’s Towers.
They had many questions about how her chosen death had gone. We did our best to pass on what we had learned. Here was a whole community at St. Paul’s getting ready to die and this seemed like new information to them as it had been for us.
The memorial came on a bright sunny day six four months later at the Alumni Club at Cal where we’d had her 70th barb fest. It was a wonderful mix of family remembrances from three generations of her family tree. Bruce and family laid out the objects of her life in a beautiful collage. Jane, as usual, prepared wonderful food and drink from their winery. Mother would have loved it.
After thinking about what I would say when it came time, I focused on the two greatest gifts I felt she had given me. First, her courage. In spite of her depression and anxiety at the end about the details of her life, she never wavered. And she did it with such love for us. I thought she showed tremendous courage in all of that.
The second was the gift that she and Dad had given us. In spite of many years of questions (mostly from Dad) about what we were going to do with our lives, they never made me feel bad about whatever choices I made. And some of them were a stretch for them. In interviews I would do with global thought leaders later, there were many stories about having to overcome their parent’s disapproval. These were deeply emotional and traumatic, particularly if it had not been healed before the parents moved on. Whatever drama we had experienced in our core family, that kind of tension had not lingered for me. Such a gift.
Bruce was the executor of her estate and because they had done so much pre-death work, it moved forward steadily. Mother had always thought of herself as not having money. She had wanted badly to pass some on to us like her parents had done with her. In spite of her story, she was not poor either. Patrick and her had prepared for after he was gone, so there was a chunk coming to each of us.
From my standpoint, it came as such a gift. I would payoff our debt (including my loan from her), do some things for my family and have a cushion for the first time in a while. Money is not everything, but having enough is a blessing. Thanks Mom for all it. A lifetime of love and support!
Claytie Creative Muse Emerges
Claytie would come to visit us in Boulder. She had ended up at the prestigious Columbia writing school in New York and began to develop interesting theatrical works. She had always said she wanted to act, but never wanted to do auditions. Thus she had to create her own pieces. It turned out she had a real flair for writing and staging some interesting offerings. The first was an exploration of her visits to senior homes and her conversations with the ladies there.
Her piece got accepted at a number of festivals and won awards. The love of stories we shared really emerged in a number of those interesting expressions for her.
Mother died in March, 2017. There was some aftermath for me. I turned 70 in July of that year and for some reason this was a harder transition than 60 had been. Of course these markers are all in our heads, but at 70 it felt I was much closer to the end than 60. Mother’s death only punctuated this. In addition, this is where I missed my Dad the most who had died early at 59. I really wanted to ask a man with related DNA what to expect of this last chapter. I was now the oldest and I began thinking of my own legacy like I had done with Ken Wilber.
We had a traditional in our Pinger/Riordan family that something is left for the next generations after we go. My grandfather had crafted and written the amazing set of 8 family history books and my mother had created picture albums from the collection she was sitting on. She also did something else. She handed each of us kids a package with things that she was returning to us. In turned out she had kept everything of note. Mine included all my report cards. That read was worth the price of admission. In the dark days of late elementary school and junior high, I read notes on my failing grades that I stared out the window a lot. Possibly dreaming of somewhere else to be. Somewhere that I would eventually arrive at in spades.
Something else was happening. Directing Integral Life was coming to an end for me. I had been doing it for 8 years. We had pretty much completed Ken’s biography, which was my gift to him. Integral Life had not grown as much as we had hoped, so the answer seemed clear. Leave it like it was. It had always been a good media business as long as you kept expenses down.
That left me free to start asking what if. Ken and I had some conversations about it. He was sad to see me stop running the company, but I assured him I would continue to do projects with him. One of the things that had become clear in 2018 to me was the value of the Integral view to projects and the work it informed around the world. More so that just studying the theory. IF I was going to do something on my own that was project related, it would obviously involve stories, but beyond that I just didn’t have a clear view of it.
Our family had also stabilized. Jenny was working and Matt continued to be sober and was looking at the now legal pot biz as a possible place for him. It really suited him. Very relaxed workplace and his knowledge (self-taught) of how it all worked was impressive. I felt free to dream of my own what next. I don’t think it occurred to me that I was really 70. This would come up in surprising ways later.
What Now – Storycatching the Now and Future
2017 had been such a crazy year following the surprise election of Donald Trump in 2016. If anyone had any doubt as to his intentions, he was on a roll and in my mind not good for America OR a more generative world I was trying to make a contribution to. Regardless of who was president however, the questions of income disparity, healthcare, immigration, disruptive technology, religious wars etc were all on the table.
We decided it was time to do our next big conference at the St. Julien Hotel in Boulder and appropriately called it… What Now?
St. Juliens Hotel in Boulder
Jeff Salzman - David Riordan Interview - The Shadow of Technology
Daily Evolver - What NOW Edition
Unlike What Next which was a transition from what we had done before, What Now was completely my design, assisted by Robb and Corey. I used a process I called storycatching that I had developed in my days in Hollywood. It reasoned that if we wanted to know what the future held, you start by collecting the stories we all are telling about that future. Then look at the resistance to their adoption by the mainstream and identify how they might come into influence.
In some ways storycatching was no different for me than doing research for a television show or interactive movie. If you were going to create a dramatic world complete with characters and situations, you had to do the research into the world you were playing in to make it seem real.
I had been interested in the stories we were telling about the future for a while because I had identified an interesting paradox. For the past six years I had interviewed and developed content with some of the best thought leaders in the world. Each had his or her own piece of what I called a more generative culture.
At the same time however, regardless of all this innovative work emerging, most of the stories we were telling in movies, television, video games and social media about the future were dystopian in nature. It seemed like all we could imagine was a sort of corporate feudalism, an extreme world of haves and have nots as what was next. Certainly the election of Donald Trump fueled this meme.
I designed the What Now conference, in a sense, to storycatch the work we all were attracted to and the resistance to its acceptance we were experiencing. Our stellar line up of thought leaders did an excellent job of presenting these stories that I then mapped into an integrated narrative. You can see some of the results in the Projects section under Generative Capitalism of the web site.
My interest in this alternative narrative to the dystopian one was the first clue I had about my what next. The other thing I did in the second half of the 2018, was really reflect on what I had learned in over 10 years of Integral work. Where did I land in all of it? How was it useful to me?
I decided the best way to get at this was to develop a web site to hold examples of what I thought had influenced me. By doing so I was able to examine my narratives and maybe out of all that would come some actual project inspiration. What emerged surprised me. The Integral AQAL model and map is mostly what the Integral Life community focuses on. But for me there was a story before you go there that was the foundation of what I wanted to explore. What was that you ask? The Evolution of Expanding Intelligence.
Re-Visiting the Eden Myths
As I mentioned before I read some of Ken’s early books and I was struck by his third book “Up From Eden.” He had set out to explore the Eden myths that were present in most cultures in the world.
As the story went, Adam and Eve (representatives of humanity) fell from a perfect state into a sinful world because Eve took a bite of the forbidden apple of knowledge. They had FALLEN from a perfect state and their mission now was to atone for their sins and return BACK to heaven.
I had always thought this story of Eve’s transgression was a bit much. Once again women were being blamed for all the trouble. So, God supposedly imbues the two of them with a sense of curiosity and then tells them they can do anything EXCEPT eat from the tree of knowledge. I always thought that was a bit of set up. It was like telling a kid not to push the red button. Of course, it’s the first thing they will do. Second, the “sinful” world they fell into was filled with suffering and pain. What God in his/her right mind would create an existence like that? Unless, there was some other purpose to it.
As Ken explored these myths of the “fall” he realized they did not align with the way the entire Kosmos was expanding. The Kosmos was expanding in complexity (intelligence) and compassion, not falling back to some imagined perfect state. This was the first story of an Integral view that impacted me. If intelligence was expanding every day I reasoned that the purpose of us being here is to make some contribution to all of that. At least it seemed like a much more hopeful story to me than the fall with all its suffering and sin.
In all the things I was bringing forward in my projects, I realized the Evolution of Expanding Intelligence was the common theme I was interested in. And the purpose of the suffering part? TO GROW. In this life it is my experience that we live in creative tension between love and challenges. In those challenges we are forced to grow in an attempt to find our better angels. In this act, we add to the intelligence of this world as well as ourselves. It is still a story that most in the world has not heard, let alone live by. Thus I called my experimental site… The Evolution of Intelligence – Storycatching the Now and Future.
Mid Term Elections 2018 – Vote Common Good
The election of Donald Trump had been a shock to any of us with a progressive viewpoint. The 2018 mid-term elections were our chance to bring the balance of government back to a more constitutional stance. Our system was set up with checks and balances between three branches of government. The executive, the congress and the courts. Trump from the git go demonstrated a contempt for this system and believed himself above the law. Our chance to counter that state of affairs was to win back the majority in the House of Representatives from the Republicans.
During 2018 I looked for a way to get politically involved again. I had not done anything since the 2008 Obama campaign. At the same time, I was continuing with my exploration into “progressive” evangelicals. I had assumed all evangelicals supported Trump, but it turned out there was a fairly large group of pastors and activists that were appalled at what he was doing. I was invited to a retreat with some of these folks and I found them very angry and very political. They had close contacts in the Democratic party and some access to funding.
They decided to do a bus tour of 30 red states in House districts that were deemed flipable. This retreat was in July, so they basically had four months to pull it together. A monumental task. They called the tour “Vote Common Good” and its goal was to swing 5% of the evangelical vote in those districts to vote Democratic for the first time.
I was intrigued. They wanted me to the do the tour media, but I felt that with all the uncertainties the expense of attaching a documentary crew to the tour was not going to be productive. I suggested we produce converence media like event footage, interviews etc. to support a publicity campaign on the web, in print and on television. The whole thing was crazy to do in such a short time frame, but sometimes you just have to go for it.
Everything that could go wrong did. The buses broke down, there was terrible weather through the middle part of the tour and there were some unexpected push back from the progressive community. The tour worked with local candidates in each of the districts and local progressive churches. Although the tour got lots of media attention including international interest, the tour stops themselves did not have the crowds they expected. It turned out one reason for this was that some felt Vote Common Good was too political and some thought it was too religious. Although the tour did get some results, the true mission of converting conservatives to vote democratic was left for the 2020 election.
The tour for me was a kind of dry run of things I was thinking about for the Story Studio TV project in 2019.
Completing the Chapter – Storycatching in a VR world
In the last half of 2018 I was looking ahead into 2019. As of 12/31/2018 I was officially done at Integral Life with the exception of the last course I was producing with Beena Sharma and Barry Johnson on Polarity Management.
I also began focusing on my Story Studio and the VR projects and what needed to be done to bring them into being.
Story Studio TV meant I needed to expand the networks I was a part of to include a much bigger representation of innovation and conscious capitalism groups than just the Integral community. It turned out there were three types of groups each with their own now and future story.
The first was the Re-Gen Network
These were folks who had been involved in sustainability and environmental causes for years. They had done a lot of good work. Recently, they had begun to understand that financial issues had to be included in their warnings and messaging about climate change. However they felt they were getting less and less traction.
The classic polarity on this subject is as follows. If you set up the false choice that it is either the environment or your job, most will pick their job. The changes it would take to slow Climate Change meant a lot of people would lose their jobs in the gas and oil business for example. If that wasn’t addressed, the transition to green energy was less likely unless there was a global crisis. The mantra of this group was… “You save the planet and the people because it is the right thing to do.”
Second, there were those on the opposite side of the future aisle. This group could best be described as Libertarians. This view was very prevalent in tech circles. It held that although there were big challenges ahead, we already had the means to deal with them. It would require no major changes to our business narrative. This view leaned very heavily on the deployment of artificial intelligence as one of the tools that would help solve these problems. That’s why even when you see the major tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon claim to be concerned about the future, they also can’t imagine it will take a change in their business plans to achieve that success. The mantra for this group was… “We Got This.”
The third group, which I found the most interesting, was what I will call the innovation network. Not that the other two did not create and celebrate innovation, but this group did it for a different reason. Like me, they looked at the history of the human race and saw whenever the wealth of the culture was concentrated in too few hands; it didn’t turn out well for anyone. IF the elite continued to squeeze the other 99% of the population, eventually that group would become a mob, light the torches and come after them. They thought that was a moronic way to go. Their mantra was… “Save the planet and the people because it is the smart thing to do. “
Now, these three themes are big generalities and I am not suggesting that what we are considering about the future falls neatly into one of these three baskets, but they are accurate enough to have a conversation.
Of the three groups, the innovation network was the most interested in my storycatching process. They were already putting on future conferences that included thirty somethings and millennials not just boomers. They understood the importance of stories as “predictors” of what would be successful in the future generative wave. They were an energized lot that I looked forward to working with in 2019.
Your Mind Does Not Know the Difference
Virtual Reality (VR) was the other thing that popped up on my 2019 radar. VR had been around since the seventies. I remember putting on a bulky helmet at NASA and walking around in a green vector VR world. Because of my interest in new technology for telling stories, I had followed VR through the decades, but each time it seemed like it was ready to move out of the labs, something happened. That’s why when the latest resurgence of interest began in 2015 I had some skepticism. The reason VR had surfaced its 360 head again was that the technology had come down in price and could offer more. This was classic Moore’s law at work.
Everyone had jumped on the bandwagon, game companies, film studios, investment firms, and mobile phone companies all convinced at last VR was going to be a force in the consumer market. A marketplace for VR production companies opened up again and soon there were entertainment, travel, porn and educational apps to beat the band. Even meditation apps were offered.
I got one of the early headsets that worked off my Android phone and began to look at all this again. I also tried the larger more powerful computer VR systems. Frankly, I was unimpressed in terms of anything that would interest me. Most of the VR programs made use of 360 environments. There was some interaction with this VR world, but after 5 minutes I got bored. There were some game applications that looked interesting, but I was done with shooting things. The travel stuff was interesting in that it could transport you to some virtual destination and give you a feel for it. I didn’t want to do that either. The porn spoke for itself. It would have a huge market eventually. Particularly for men, virtual playmates seemed obvious.
I just didn’t get the renewed excitement until I began looking at what scientists were using VR for in their research labs. The lab at USC was particularly interesting in that they were using a VR combat simulation to treat veterans with PTSD.
This condition was rampant in many survivors of the Iraq and Afghan wars. PTSD can be treated in classic therapy settings, but they found that the addition of watching a combat simulation on a television screen helped the vets desensitize their trauma more effectively. By research standards it was 20% better than just talking about it. The USC lab was pioneering the use of a VR combat simulation that literally put the participant in the middle of the battle simulation. In those moments, their brains didn’t know the difference. They found that these VR simulations were 50% better in desensitizing the trauma than talking about it.
Something else emerged. Soldiers in our culture were expected to be warriors. And warriors are not supposed to feel traumatized. They were supposed to get over whatever they experienced and push on. As a result, there was a stigma about working with a therapist. They felt it was admitting to another human that they were weak. The USC lab addressed this by creating digital therapists driven by a kind of AI logic. These digital therapists could listen and respond to the vet. Although they were no substitute for a real human, this digital path seemed private and safe as a first step that would get them comfortable with a real therapist. All these factors came together to create a powerful experience.
I also started to visit independent artists that were experimenting with VR. I was not so interested in the big commercial houses, but in what the garage startups were doing. In those environs I had my first moments where my brain did know the difference between the VR world and normal reality. It was just moments when this happened, but it was noteworthy.
This led me to think about the VR immersive therapy environment for use in the consumer market. At Integral Life I had developed lots of web courses and ILP modules on all kinds of subjects, but the most popular were the ones that helped folks have better relationships. It was after all a related world and lots of our trauma comes from our relationships, particularly family relationships.
I reasoned this VR “coaching” might be just the thing. There was not anyone else playing with this yet. The adage of “standing in the others shoes” was fundamental to relationship work, and VR offered a way to literally let someone stand in the shoes of another by switching POVs in a relational VR simulation.
I faked my way into the USC lab and met some very interesting researchers that were interested in my idea. I pulled in some of the very talented psychiatrists from the Integral community to help with getting the “coaching” path correct. All of this happened in LA and that brought up something else.
Did I Have the Energy?
I had been out of the fast lane for some time. The Integral Life world and Boulder were tame in comparison. As I got into these networks on the west coast again I found I really had to up my game. Everything moved much faster and although it was not unfamiliar, I wondered if my age and energy was now going to be an issue.
Also, the way people related to me seemed different. As opposed to the bright, young man I was in my 40’s and 50’s I was now 70 and although no one said anything, I could feel something like I felt when I was at the height of my career. I had hired directors and producers in their 60’s to consult on story structures. As much as I really valued their input, I was never serious about them actually working on my projects. At the time I felt they were just too old and out of touch to really contribute. Had I turned into them I wondered? I got no answer, but it began an active inquiry that if I was going to be effective in the bigger media and funding marketplace, I needed to be aware of my age. Maybe I could teach younger folks how to do what I knew to do.
State of Health
One of the other things I also did during 2018 was get a complete health workup across the board. It had been awhile and at the time I didn’t have many complaints other than lower energy. I went to everyone, general, blood panels, colon scans, heart scans, vision, dental etc. I got used to hearing the results with the disclaimer at the beginning of “for your age”. I had some beginning heart disease, but everything else seemed ok.
Artificial and Other Kinds of Intelligence
So, I was looking ahead and making good progress on these independent projects, my health seemed ok and things at home were stabilized. The subject however that I wanted to know more about was artificial intelligence.
If I was interested in what was changing in 2018, AI had to top of the list. It was already influencing so many things with many more on the horizon. I had seen all the movies that depicted some general form of AI running amuck and deciding that humans were unnecessary. This was a fear that was really out there, even from some of our top innovators, like Steven Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Sort of a sorcerer’s apprentice moment when the magic creation goes beyond the sorcerers’ control.
I began a crash course and started reading everything on AI that looked interesting. The results of those first inquiries are in the Multiple Intelligences section of Dispatches.
First, there is not just one form of AI. The general AI in the movies is but one type. There are others that are algorithm based that are already at work in our smart devices and those intrusive home services like Siri. There are also some forms that rely on a merging of a human with technology to create an embedded human. We already do a form of this with artificial limbs. Other than general AI, these types of AI follow our instructions. They do not have the ability yet to learn based on their experience without human operators. That doesn’t mean they can’t get to know you better (think search engines/data that Google collects), but they are not independently intelligent and capable of building the next versions of AI we would know nothing about.
I began to understand the real debate about AI concerns its impact on current culture. There are two frames of thought presently. The first sees the disruptions that AI is already causing in certain job categories as a natural form of progress. They hold that AI developers have no responsibility for the changes AI will bring. It simply will be the next wave and some will be left out.
The other school calls themselves “beneficial AI.” This group includes many of the leading AI researchers in the world. They gathered in 2017 at the same Asilomar Conference grounds we used for spiritual gatherings for Integral Life. At the conference and continuing to this day they have come up with a set of principles to guide AI developers in taking some responsibility for what they are inventing. The most common story out of this group is the concept of universal income. For all those that are displaced by AI, they would receive some amount of income each month to help them live until they can be re-trained.
The other theme to come out of this world was the notion of exploring consciousness. Some proponents like futurist Ray Kurzweil, wanted to upload their human consciousness to a silicon form. It seemed to me they better learn something about how human consciousness manifests.
Consciousness for the longest time has been the purview of spirituality and religion. Now AI seems to be engaging in a different inquiry into what consciousness is for different reasons. David Chalmers, one of the pundits I like, calls it the… “Hard Question.” You can see David and some of the experts in the AI section of Dispatches on the web site. The bottom line at the moment is that we know nothing about consciousness in spite of the advances we have made in brain science. We still sense some force animates us that is not just chemicals and neurons firing, but what thas is, we don’t have a clue.
In terms of the now and future, AI will be a big determinate. When people ask me what I think, I say that it depends on how the benefits of AI are distributed and who will benefit. In the dystopian narrative, AI is only available to the elite and is used to control the masses. This is happening in China already with their digital “loyalty” program that gives each individual a loyalty score based on the data collected from their mobile devices. We have seen this dystopian movie. On the other hand, the more generative narrative sees the amazing benefits of this new creation spread throughout the populace.
One more thought on the evolution of intelligence. We humans hold ourselves for the moment at the top of the intelligence food chain. There is nothing like us on this planet. Just to be reflecting on our situation like this is a unique human trait.
However, we have never created an intelligence that is not human until now. There are those that argue that Homo sapiens may in this time simply be a transition to more machine forms of intelligence. The benefits are obvious. AI does not need food or sleep or health care. It can already process simulations many times faster than us. It does not have all the DNA baggage of the many layers of development that we have gone through, including our mad monkey tendencies to violence.
Particularly as we think about traveling off this planet, it may be some evolved type of human that will do this.
We, at the moment, are not really suited to being in space for long periods of time. Eventually, children born on space stations or in asteroid colonies will not be able to come back to earth because of the heavy gravity. It literally would be too painful for them. And how much of off planet exploration will be done by robots or androids in the future? All questions that will come sooner than later. It’s just not Sci-fi anymore.
When you talk to AI experts about the thing they are the most worried about in the development of AI, it is the concept of the military weaponizing small autonomous drones. Very soon a drone will be programmed to attack a particular person identified by a unique profile. These profiles will be developed from the personal information that is collected from us by Big Tech, For example, AI will be programmed to only attack those of a particular age or religious tradition. These small drones would be released in swarms of hundreds so that they would be impossible to stop.
At the end of 2018 I was deeply pondering all of this in my studio. My age, our future, and what I wanted to do in this next (final?) chapter.
As I surveyed the landscape there was a comfort level about my present state, but you don’t really know what is up ahead. I stood on a beach in SoCal in November 2018 peacefully watching the sun set, satisfied I had a sense of what was coming.
However, in my case there were some major curves coming that would turn my 2019 plans on their head. That is the way of evolution sometimes.