Liminal thinking at scale

My short 2009 review1 of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline includes this Kevin Kelly quote that continues to resonate for me:

Kevin Kelly calls the book “a short course on how to change your mind intelligently” — in this case, about cities, nuclear power, and genetic and planetary engineering. These are all things that Steward Brand once regarded with suspicion but now sees as crucial tools for a sustainable world.

In Changeable minds I wrote about a touchstone question that I now sometimes ask people:

What’s something you believed deeply, for a long time, and then changed your mind about?

It’s a hard question for any of us to answer, but as Dave Gray and Wael Ghonim have recently reminded me, it matters more and more that we try. Here’s a useful picture I grabbed from Gray’s screencast on what he calls liminal thinking:

The idea is that I’m standing in the bubble on the left, atop an unconscious pyramid of belief formation. You are standing in the bubble on the right, atop your own unconscious pyramid. And our two pyramids rest on different regions of an underlying reality. How can we engage in productive discourse?

Gray says it requires two tricky maneuvers. First I need to shine a light down into the unconscious fog, climb down my own “ladder of inference,” and reflect on how my own experience of reality informs my own beliefs. Then, he says, I need to take that flashlight, walk over to your pyramid, and climb up your ladder of inference. “Liminal thinking,” he tweeted the other day, “is the art of creating change by understanding, shaping, and reframing beliefs.”

I’ll surely read his book when it comes out. But since I already agree with the principles and practices it espouses, I don’t expect a mind-changing outcome. It’s clear that Dave Gray and I stand on mostly-overlapping belief pyramids. What would motivate somebody not in that bubble to want to cross the chasm to a very different pyramid?

Wael Ghonim’s latest TED talk suggests an intriguing possibility. He’s now given two such talks. The first, in 2011, was a stirring tribute to social media’s role in fomenting the Arab Spring. (Ghonim created the pivotal We are all Khaled Said Facebook page.) In 2016 the Arab Spring seems a distant memory, and Ghonim entitled his latest talk Let’s design social media that drives real change. Here’s the key takeaway for me:

There’s a lot of debate today on how to combat online harassment and fight trolls. This is so important. No one could argue against that. But we need to also think about how to design social media experiences that promote civility and reward thoughtfulness. I know for a fact if I write a post that is more sensational, more one-sided, sometimes angry and aggressive, I get to have more people see that post. I will get more attention.

But what if we put more focus on quality? What is more important: the total number of readers of a post you write, or who are the people who have impact that read what you write? Couldn’t we just give people more incentives to engage in conversations, rather than just broadcasting opinions all the time? Or reward people for reading and responding to views that they disagree with? And also, make it socially acceptable that we change our minds, or probably even reward that?

I suspect that relatively few of us already are liminal thinkers, or are willing and able to learn and apply the principles and practices. Can we imagine, and build, a social media platform that encourages liminal thinking at scale? That’s an idea worth sharing.

1 When I revisited that post today, I was also intrigued by this:

Don’t miss the annotations — a website that reproduces every paragraph that includes citations, links to their sources, and adds updates.

Alas, the link to those annotations — in iCloud, at — has rotted. For me it’s another reminder to prioritize work on the archival capabilities we envision for Hypothesis. We want to archive both your annotations and (where possible) the documents they refer to.

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4 thoughts on “Liminal thinking at scale

  1. I am hoping that some day Wikity and will hook up and “” will be born and live on every cpanel in the known universe and everyone will have a domain of his or her own.

  2. Late to the conversation, but…

    I’m not too keen on the sense of social engineering in this logic, as that never has gone well for society at large… despite the high success rate, given the impetus… but I do look forward to a day when we relearn how to disagree and discuss things civilly (rhetoric) without getting our ‘feelings hurt’ or getting ‘stress chits’ to opt out… and when more of us are self-aware enough to realize when the media is leading us by the nose… and… and…

    okay… thanks for the input. I will be pondering this for a day or two and take a look at the book.

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