I remember exactly where I was standing when I got the call.

My wife had gone into the hospital for a checkup on our first pregnancy.

As soon as I heard her voice I knew something was wrong.

She said I needed to get to the hospital right away.

I spun around to run to the hospital which was over a mile away and remembered how far away it was.

I spun around again to run home to my truck, which was a half mile away.

For what felt like an eternity I stood there, in the middle of a major campus walkway, unable to decide what to do.

Eventually I realized I couldn’t do the math at the time, and went for the truck in case I needed it.

Our son was born a week later but spent the first 2 months of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Both he and my wife are wonderful now.

Traumatic events are commonly synonymous with dramatic changes and revelations of personal values. Most know someone who was diagnosed by cancer, involved in an accident, tragic loss, or some other traumatic event that helped them discover a new way of being. Many turn to religion, family, community, and sometimes work during these times for support. During the event the afflicted realize a new focus on the importance of living, increased stress, and a struggle to come up with new ways of being. This also happens at the societal level with revolutions. I know now, from this book, that these are all drivers of phase change. Our brains go through a state of neural plasticity as we try to make sense of our new reality.

During our ordeal, I was fortunate enough to be reading a book on a taxonomy of human values called Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change by Don Beck and Stephen Cowan. Had I not been in my stressed state, I may not have been able to wire in the content as truly understanding and valuing the values of others is hard. I don’t recommend going through such lengths the next time you’re trying to learn something.

Spiral v-Memes

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, social psychologist Dr. Clare Graves at Union College in New York, was trying to come up with an epistemological theory. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Dr. Graves wanted to determine whether there was a minimum distinguishable set or sets of values that people used to understand their realities. He developed an extensive questionnaire that gathered responses to many fundamentally different questions (the methods are described in two books “The Never Ending Quest: Clare Graves Explores Human Nature,” and “Levels of Human Existence”). With a large collection of responses, Graves then gave the surveys to random student assistants and asked them to sort them into as few distinguishable categories as possible, and then he’d go away. Reliably, for several years, the students sorted the surveys into a similar seven groups, or levels as he called them. As is often the tragic case, Graves died early in life of cancer and his graduate students (Beck and Cowan) were left to formalize the theory into what are known today as Spiral value or v-Memes.

The levels closely follow human history, regardless of the culture and where it emerged on the planet, and you’ll likely notice connections to the Roman Empire, the Foundation Trilogy, and other classic stories. The first six levels are summarized as:

1-Survival: Cavemen and toddlers–with basic survival needs met they can start to think about friends.

2-Tribal: Gangs, families, and high school students–preserve the clan first and aggregate knowledge through fables.

3-Authoritarian: Genghis Khan and bad bosses–vanquish challenges to subjective and arbitrary control in the never-ending pursuit of more power.

4-Legalistic: Government and unions–enforce standardized rules to prevent abuse of authority.

5-Performance: Business tycoons and athletes–master the rules and go beyond to maximize metrics and innovate for success.

6-Communitarian: Sustainable cooperatives–if everyone takes, there will be nothing left to share.

Notice the Darwinian evolution between individual memes (1,3,5) and collective memes (2,4,6) with lower memes forming the foundation for higher memes. Individuals are often a complex combination of memes, evolving throughout their lives, and will load certain meme sets based on situation — this was called a meme stack by Beck and Cowan. These levels are also orthogonal — they operate totally out of plane to the prior values. After Level 6 the spiral repeats itself indefinitely with orders of magnitude increasing influence. For example, instead of worrying about individual survival, Level 7-System/Integrative is driven to facilitate the survival of all of the diverse participants within the memetic system, analogous to game preserve managers and master educator-mentors. Said differently, Level 7 works to keep a healthy balance among the memes in both individual and system levels. There are more levels, it’s an opened ended spiral that can evolve into the future. Much akin to Richard Dawkins definition of meme — the propagation of ideas and information through society similar to the genetics of Darwinian evolution — the point of a v-Meme is to create more of itself.

Much more about v-Memes can be found on one of my colleagues’ blogs. A couple of points to note — epistemological theories are not something you can  really prove or disprove from a legalistic/scientific, right wrong experiment. The theory itself shows that is just one of many ways. However researchers are starting to model the survival-tribal evolution using thermodynamic principles. A neat part about Spiral v-Memes, which may require an extensive read and time in order to fully understand, is that the corresponding structures for how each meme flows information and resources between members increases in complexity as you go up in levels. It follows the increasing complexity of society. From my experience teaching thermodynamics, and specifically statistical thermodynamics, I knew this was also very similar to how atoms and molecules behave with increasing temperature.

The Energies of Values

Developing the current equations for hydrogen  thermodynamic properties required me to understand the hydrogen molecule on many levels:

  1. the most basic quantum spin flips in solid hydrogen near absolute zero,
  2. translational motion with change in phase from solid to liquid and gas,
  3. the rise in heat capacity as the molecules begin rotating, then vibrating, and
  4. excitation of electronic energy modes.

As temperatures approach that of a star, the molecules form plasmas, dance in magneto-hydrodynamic flows, and dissociate or fuse into stardust. This progression is analogous to the Spiral v-Meme progression as shown in the figure below developed by Chuck Pezeshki and I. The figure loosely connects regions of the brain with forms of empathy, Spiral v-Meme structures, and statistical energy modes:

  1. Survival/Brain Stem-Automatic/Mirroring Empathy/Quantized: A person concerned with survival is primarily in fight or flight mode and not likely capable of rational thought (as I discovered). This behavior often presents itself as a binary flip or mirroring behavior.
  2. Tribal-Authoritarian/Limbic/Emotional Empathy/Translational: A person now recognizes and contextualizes emotions beyond eat or be eaten or good versus bad. The emotional response is linear associated with the recognition (there there, let’s hug), which is very similar mathematically to translational energy modes in molecules that are just a function of temperature.
  3. Legalistic-Performance-Communitarian/Neocortex Automatic/Rational Empathy/Ro-vibrational: We now have the emergence of multiple states of being that exist at discrete energy modes defined by a statistical distribution among states and a non-linear trend in bulk properties. People now decide when or when not, and how to be empathic.
  4. Systemic/Neocortex Executive/Conscious Empathy/Ensemble: We are now aware of and know what and how all of the below states are required in appropriate distributions. A new influx of resources/temperature causes a cascade of activity in many ways. We are now aware of the potential empathy states of others and deliberately use this knowledge to structure environments and exchanges.

Each of these categories are like buckets of increasing capacity as we go down the list. Once one bucket is full, the next starts filling. The internal energy in thermodynamics u is mathematically related to the heat capacity by:

Cv = du/dT|v

In other words the capacity is equal to the change in energy, u, divided by the change in temperature, T, at constant density, v. It takes a du amount of energy to change the temperature dT amount. Hence the section on derivative properties later in the book. If someone is functioning in a lower v-Meme, they have little capacity, Cv, for an issue and it will require a huge change in resources (T) to change their values (u). As they move up the v-Meme levels in complexity, it takes a relatively smaller amount of resources to have an appreciable affect on their values (they have more accessible), and hence have more capacity for the issue.

In traditional thermodynamic space, there is no direct measurement instrument for internal energy (u). It’s what’s known as a fundamental property that all other properties are related to via derivatives. While we can measure heat capacity directly for a substance, we haven’t figured out ways to measure this property directly for social systems. This presents a key challenge for numerically modeling states with social thermodynamics:

How do we quantify the minimum amount of energy it takes to jump from a survival state to a tribal state, or any one v-Meme to another?

My guess is the minimum number of lines of code that are required to program the value are relate-able to the jump in energy. It’s easy to code fight or flight, mirror or not, up or down. Much harder to code a legalistic set of procedures, and much harder yet to code performance based innovation. I’m going to develop guess values for these parameters later to start quantifying the differences.

The Thermodynamics of Values and Work

When I was a junior in high school, my mom wanted to know what my summer plans were. I told her my plan was to lift weights and do football drills with fishing and mowing lawns on the side. She was not amused, “Football won’t help you pay for college. You need to get to work, make some money, and start studying.” Later that day my dad quietly told me I had a long life of work ahead of me and I should spend the summer having fun. Six months later I had a full-ride scholarship to play football.

Go no further than the 2016 Rihanna pop song ‘Work’: “He said me haffi work, work, work, work, work, work” — the monotone repetition of ‘work’ says it all. Our cultural expectation of work in America is controversial. Work is key to our national economy, personal income, and a prime source of our happiness or depression given the percentage it consumes of our daily lives. At the same time there are few to no physical guides for how we should be most effective at work aside from working harder. The more we understand when we work, and what we should work on, the better we’ll all be.

Work is a cornerstone physical concept of thermodynamics. Hence it is a natural outcome of our social thermodynamics framework. This role leads to new insights on the emerging area of ‘agency’: when you decide to take action to produce a particular effect. The framework also shows how different people will work to produce different outcomes and provides physical limits on how much work is possible. Here we go!

Work and Thermodynamics

Classical thermodynamics was invented at the dawn of the industrial revolution to explain the mechanical power production from steam and other engines. The first law of thermodynamics, also known as an energy balance, is the mathematical expression of this work. Here is the energy balance I teach in thermodynamics for analyzing a system:

Energy_into = Energy_out + ΔEnergy_stored

The energy flow into a system is equal to the energy flow out of a system plus the change in energy stored within the system. Expanding these terms while neglecting kinetic and potential energy:

Q_in + W_in + m_flow (u_in + P_in v_in) = Q_out + W_out + m_flow (u_out + P_out v_out) + (u_final + P_final v_final) – (u_initial + P_initial v_initial)

Where Q is the heat (information), W is work, m is mass flow (people/agents), u is internal energy of the fluid (values), P is pressure of the fluid (stress), v is specific volume of the fluid (inverse of density). For a given amount of heat a given amount of work is possible subject to the changing properties of the fluid in the system. Often this equation is simplified further until:

W_out = m_flow [(u_in + P_in v_in) – (u_out + P_out v_out)]

Which says you will do work on something when you have the people (m_flow), values you need bestow onto something (u_in – u_out), and are under pressure that will be relieved by doing so (P_in v_in – P_out v_out). You can also derive equations that show how much work you have to put into a person to raise their values (See this discussion on heat capacity).

All of this math says that if you see a problem, have values/knowledge that you know will solve it, and feel some pressure/stress to do something, you’ll get to work. This doesn’t mean your work will be received well or that you’ll be effective. That’s coming in a moment. First we need a way to relate values relative to one another.

How different values do different work

We’ve all been there before. We see a problem, we know a solution, we do a bunch of work ‘solving’ the problem, only to have the solution rejected, and our hard work wasted. You’ve likely been on the flip side too. You need work done, someone proposes a solution, and you have no idea what they are talking about. Generally, different value systems do different work. Values come in many different forms and systems. To make this problem somewhat tractable I use the Spiral v-Meme value taxonomy. Here’s a summary of what each v-Meme values and how they’ll work to achieve those values:

  1. Survival: If it gets you fed, sheltered, and not suffering you’ll work on it and nothing else. Most don’t see this as a useful form of work as it affects little but the person trying to survive. For example, many can’t understand why homeless people don’t just get a job not realizing the incredible difficulty caring about anything other than survival.
  2. Tribal: If one of your tribe is in trouble you’ll work to protect them and the clan. It’s all in the family here and nobody else. Laws are foreign. Science is magic. If it gets the family/clan/gang the resources to get to the next day, you’ll do it.
  3. Authoritarian: If it increases your power/control over others you’ll work on it. Consistency? Nope. Quality is foreign and arbitrary. It’s all about you in that moment.
  4. Legalistic: If it preserves or increases the sanctity of the rules/standards everyone is following you’ll work on it. And so must everyone/everything else. Nobody is special here,,, except the person who is legally determined to be so.”Why are you following the recipe when you’ve done it a 100 times — because we always follow the recipe.” It’s all about whether everyone is safely following the rules.
  5. Performance: If it gives you a new ability that’s valued or impressive to others you’ll work on it. If you’ve been there, done that — not so much. You care a lot about efficiency and quality. With so many new things to work on in the world you don’t have time to waste! But it’s all about you and your ability to work.
  6. Community: If it increases the connections and sustainability of the community you’ll work on it. Unless it’s being consumed by one of the lower memes, then you won’t. It’s going to take a lot of talking to get the community behind this. But hey, whatever helps the community.
  7. Systemic: If you see the system is in imbalance of the above, you’ll work on whatever is necessary to restore a natural harmony in the system.

We could keep going. Remember these levels are nested layers. You can down-select but up-selection is hard. Most approach a problem with a v-Meme stack that is a composite of several levels. Work by a level more than 2 removed from the current/desired level just becomes too alien or subtle to have noticeable effect. Also notice that there is a hierarchy here. A systemic person can work on any of the lower vMemes, but it’s difficult to imagine a person in a survival state suddenly mastering the performance based principles of lean manufacturing.

As exemplar: I chose to work on my physical fitness that summer in high-school because I knew I had the performance metrics to play at another level, which would be a more efficient way to pay for college than the traditional/legalistic approach my mom wanted me to take.

To really quantify work we need to figure out the fundamental changes in real energy units required to move from one value system/structure to the next — which won’t be an easy problem to solve.

A new understanding of ‘agency’

The National Science Foundation and other organization are currently trying to develop/scaffold ‘agency’: when you take action to produce a particular effect. This is especially important in STEM majors where often societal problems are left un-remedied despite having known solutions due to a lack of agency. Agency has also been shown to be a key factor in retention of women in STEM majors. Much of this comes down to metacognition — or thinking/imagining yourself in the role you are seeking to become. Obviously, experience is key here. If you’ve done it before, it’s much easier to imagine yourself doing it again, and you have the values that you know will work for the situation. See how work works with values in many ways? You’ve got to have many value systems reinforced by experience and pressure/stress to become agentic.

Availability of work in social space

How effective you are at producing work is known in thermodynamics as ‘Availability’ or ‘Exergy’. Just because there is the potential to do work doesn’t guarantee you’ll be effective. The example I use in class is rubbing my hands together. I can do work rubbing my hands together to produce 5 Watts of heat. Can I do as much with that 5 Watts of heat from rubbing my hands together as 5 Watts of heat from a fusion energy machine? Not even close. The 5 Watts from that fusion energy machine could break down molecule chains, weld tungsten, or just about fuse or bond anything. I’d be lucky to bond bread dough rubbing my hands together. Moreover, if I’m careful not to waste it, I could transfer the 5 watts from my fusion reactor to a lower temperature and safely add 5 Watts of heat to my hands. The temperature (resources) that the heat (information) is provided at plays a key role in the number of ways and efficiency that work can be done. Is this starting to relate to the v-Meme hierarchy above?

Here’s an equation for calculating the availability/exergy of work:

X_in = X_out + X_destroyed + ΔX_stored

Unlike pure energy, our potential to do work can be wasted or destroyed, if we do nothing or act foolishly. Here’s what each Exergy term equates to:

X = m_flow [(u – u_0) + (Pv – P_0 v_0) – T_0 (s-s_0)]

There are two important introductions here, the first is the dead state (denoted with the 0). The dead state is usually the pressure and temperature at which all gradients to produce work are minimized, and the system is dead in terms of it’s ability to do work. The second introduction is the  entropy/empathy term. You can see here that the availability of work is counterbalanced by the empathy production. If it’s going to take a large change in empathy to get others to where they need to be to solve the problem, you’re not going to get a lot of work done. Another way to write this incorporates the Carnot efficiency (maximum theoretical efficiency possible) of the process into the exergy equation. As the temperature (resources) you are working from approaches the dead state temperature, your efficiency approaches zero in classical thermodynamics. At this point, you’re not doing much work and are just generating an increased understanding of everyone you are working with.

This is all relative to the v-Meme level above that the problem exists at. With more resources (T) and empathy (s), you have more v-Memes you can access. But to be effective in working on a problem solution, you need to work from a value level more advanced than the level that created the problem. You generally can’t use more legalistic governance to solve problems with legalistic governance. Hence Einstein’s famous quote: Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. Now we have math that explains why. Sure you can spend energy and resources trying, you just won’t be efficient or effective because there simply isn’t work available to be done with the current value sets.

The economist Robert Ayres has written several books connecting economics with thermodynamics. In his 2010 book, “The Economic Growth Engine: How Energy and Work Drive Material Prosperity” he makes direct connections between economic limits to growth and the laws of thermodynamics. The connection is clear, the more energy you have behind the values you are trying to act on, provided the values are an advance, the more wealth you can generate.

A 1st Law of Humanity

Having a value taxonomy like Spiral v-Memes is key to understanding how the complexity of society continues to increase. Moreover, it’s easier to see how we as humans take agency, exert energy, and act on values.

One of my mentors once told me, “fatigue is the frustration of energy.” Inserting this caveat in, fatigue is likely the frustration of values, which can be modeled as energy modes. The key challenge is doing the math to quantify the values in social space.

And if your work really is work, work, work, work, work, work, as Rihanna suggests and she well knows, the machines are coming. Time to work for change. There must be more to the world than this. Thank goodness there is a second law of thermodynamics.