Explosive Versus Implosive Cultural Modes

We can define two competing modes within groups and cultures of all sizes: an implosive mode, built on mimesis, and an explosive mode…

Explosive Versus Implosive Cultural Modes

We can define two competing modes within groups and cultures of all sizes: an implosive mode, built on mimesis, and an explosive mode, built on rejection. Both are subject to drift, and both have certain failure modes and risks.

In an implosive (or conservative) cultural mode, individuals behave in the same way as they believe their peers behave. In an explosive (or expansive) cultural mode, individuals behave in ways that they believe their peers do not behave.

The implosive mode may be justified on a rational basis — chesterson’s fence and the precautionary principle describe elements of an implosive mode — but at best the implosive mode keeps a group stuck at a local optimum along all valuable metrics; a conservative society will never grow substantially happier or more effective than it once was. Meanwhile, while the explosive mode can be justified rationally in terms of current action — the idea that “anywhere must be better than here, and anything must be better than this” — even when an explosive society is at peak performance it has a large number of spectacular individual failures. Neither of these modes operate primarily through rational means.

Implosive societies are more vulnerable to external changes — after all, a society whose only mode of norm construction is copying previous norms cannot invent new norms to adapt to rapid changes in material or social conditions. They are also uniquely vulnerable to the deleterious social effects of parasociality: an outsider can influence the norms of a whole community in very specific ways, turning it into a monoculture or even causing a schism between their fans and the rest of the group, without ever themselves identifying with the group. Explosive societies, being diversified and having a tendency to diversify further in response to both social and parasocial relationships, are more stable and explore more of possibility space.

Both implosive and explosive societies are subject to norm drift, even without the influence of parasociality. All social relationships have some degree of asymmetry: a son is more influenced by his father than the other way around, if only because fathers are older so each new experience has less of an impact; because of this asymmetry, which influences accessibility bias when constructing a sense of group norms, the norms we imagine belong to our group are actually warped compared to the arithmetic average of the behaviors of the peers we based that model on. At the same time, these norms can only be based on remembered observable behaviors, so secret or private behaviors are omitted while highly visible or highly memorable behaviors are emphasized. On top of this, most of the groups we identify with are larger than our peer group, and most of us identify with a number of partially overlapping groups to varying degrees. So, whether or not a group is implosive, the actual arithmetic mean behavior of that group is something no group member every does: the center of gravity of every group is always empty.

This norm drift has a much bigger impact on the survival of implosive societies than explosive ones. For instance, if an implosive culture has a norm that being a plumber is a “good job”, many people will become plumbers and the supply of plumbers will balloon, and then either the actual value of being a plumber will stop tracking with the norm or gatekeeping will need to be instated in order to make most people fail to become plumbers. We can see that this sort of pattern has occurred with most historically-lucrative or culturally-important jobs: either the jobs have become professionalized (like doctors and lawyers) or they have become proletarianized as the renumeration drops below the prestige (like novelists, comic book artists, video game developers). Many jobs that became lucrative before unionization stopped being common in the United States in the late 20th century have had a little bit of both: miners, contractors, plumbers, civil engineers, and film industry professionals all have unions or guilds that perform some degree of gatekeeping to keep wages up but have not elevated their average member to elite status, while even the worst doctor or lawyer can expect both a high income and social prestige.

The worse the world is, or the better some local optimum is, the better an implosive society looks: why risk the dangerous outlands when your home town is a utopia? The less we know about the world’s possibility space, the better an explosive society looks: why settle for this crap when there’s something better out there just waiting to be discovered or invented? So, we can identify implosive societies by the character of their self-sustaining propaganda: “we are the best nation in the world”, “everywhere else is a shithole”, “we already know everything that matters, so what’s the point of looking”.

We generally belong to a variety of groups, at varying scales, and each group can be going through an implosive or explosive phase. At the same time, we ourselves can have an implosive or explosive tendency depending on the circumstance. Sometimes this is justified.