New Modality Catalyst:
Michael Garfield, paleontologist-futurist
Michael Garfield is a "paleontologist-futurist" – a multimedia artist whose provocative work grounds conversations about the future in a study of Big History. Here’s more about this NewMo Catalyst.
What’s your quick bio?
After fourteen years as a public speaker and multimedia performer on the trail of a new unifying theory to explain major evolutionary transitions (including the one we're all participating in), I now split my time between:
- hosting the Future Fossils Podcast (fun fact: the guest for episode 130 was Lydia Laurenson, founder of The New Modality),
- performing as a singer-songwriter/avant-guitarist,
- and managing social media for the Santa Fe Institute, an independent research center that focuses on the science of complex systems.
What’s a specific project that you’re excited about right now?
At the moment, I'm especially excited about the new Complexity Podcast, which I host and produce at the Santa Fe Institute. It's an opportunity to have profound and personal conversations with world-leading scientists about research and issues of global significance. I love getting my foot in the door and then jamming it open to let other people into the party, and this podcast is probably my biggest victory to date in this regard.
What is a cultural phenomenon, experiment, or moment that has inspired you in the past?
I was tracking blockchain very closely for several years, consulted on some distributed ledger startups, and even taught some courses online about the philosophical and psychological dimensions of blockchain and cryptocurrency. From the point of view of natural history, this particular technological innovation is an exciting modern instance of the kind of radiative diversification Earth saw during the Cambrian Explosion, an evolutionary period roughly 540 million years ago when dozens of new body plans erupted into being in an extremely short span of time, and ecosystems were utterly transformed. The possibilities of this kind of sweeping disruption are both thrilling, and also kind of terrifying.
I was never an evangelist and was deeply concerned by people who seemed hell-bent on decentralizing everything, or who believed it would be easy to upset the incumbent economic order. But nonetheless, it's exciting to live through a time when we have such a ripe opportunity to establish new ways of being in society. And it's obvious that 21st century economies are too complex and dependent on vast externalities, and that we need better forms of accounting and more ways to recognize and reward currently invisible forms of value creation.
“The more I learn about networks and how network effects lead to condensation of wealth and power, the more worried I get that we're chasing what we think of as good things into truly awful situations.”
What's a current cultural edge you're excited to see people pushing?
Epistemic non-monogamy. I've been studying and practicing methodological pluralism for almost fifteen years and get bored listening to people argue over whose possessing ideology should be the only species in the ecosystem.
It's refreshing and relieving every time I witness someone fluidly wielding science, art, philosophy, psychology, etc. as lenses that allow us to triangulate and understand a deep and intricate reality no single discipline can adequately navigate. Transdisciplinary inquiry and practice that brings together people into social molecules is hot. I'm looking forward to more human meta-organisms, and less stupid siloed bickering.
What’s your biggest, most out-there dream of a better world?
The dream I cherish and guard, but also question, is one in which we've figured out how to make society anything other than a pyramid scheme. The more I learn about networks and how network effects lead to condensation of wealth and power, the more worried I get that we're chasing what we think of as good things into truly awful situations.
Economies of scale lead to monopolies and actively inhibit innovation... how can we balance trends toward convenience with countermeasures ensuring fairness and justice and a resilient, creative society that works better for everyone?
I often catch myself thinking it comes through more comprehensive and modular forms of accounting, more fractal governance, incentivized wisdom, and so on. But getting there from here seems to always involve getting ourselves trapped in some ratcheting thermodynamic process that undercuts the whole project. So really, my most out-there dream of a better world is that we find a new airtight, rigorous, believable worldview that convinces the scientists and satisfies the artists and satisfies the religions with its elegant clarity, and we can disabuse ourselves of our own foolishness without requiring a planetary catastrophe to initiate us.
If you could put out a PSA to the entire world asking for help with one thing, what would you ask for? And if someone is able to help with that, then how can they reach you?
Help me get Future Fossils Podcast out there. This is my best effort at being a good ancestor, by making as many meaningful conversations freely available as possible. I've never had an advertising budget or promotional assistance, beyond word of mouth, and know it could be helping many more of us than it has been so far.
What are your favorite links that will help our audience learn about you, your life, your work, and your values?
Complexity Podcast (for the Santa Fe Institute)
I'm on Twitter
I have some art and criticism on YouTube
And you can support my independent work on Patreon.
New Modality Catalysts
The New Modality is about experiments in culture — and the people who do those experiments. NewMo Catalysts are people who do things we admire and want to celebrate. They also help us stay accountable to our values. To learn more about NewMo Catalysts (or nominate someone to be a Catalyst), check out the Catalyst FAQ.
This profile was edited by Katie MacBride. Katie is a writer and co-founder of Anxy magazine. More about Katie at her NewMo profile
The information in our Catalyst profiles usually comes directly from the subjects, and we usually don't fact-check them. You can learn more about The New Modality's fact-checking and epistemological ideas by reading the page about our process for truth and transparency.