Rhizomatic Meta-Learning I: A Portal to Maximal Interestingness

I have a friend who’s studying art in London. She draws lines on walls and puts bananas in concrete, amongst other things. A while ago, we got to talking about her projects and how she chooses what to do next, and how others she’s studying with do the same. It turns out that, in the world of art, there’s always a desire to use your art to make comments about art.

The first example that arises to an uninformed mind like my own is Marcel Duchamp’s Foundation, which was a porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt”. When I imagine people going to see such a piece in a gallery, I imagine them crooning, “That’s so meta.” For some reason, I also imagine those words being said in the voice of a hyped-up American undergrad. I have no explanation for that.

Continuing with the idea of meta-art—art that is about art itself—I was also interested to learn that people had “contributed” to replicas of Duchamp’s Foundation. How exactly? Well, performance artists—an occupation which itself raises the question of “WTF is art anyway?”—urinated in it. Some respond to art with critique, some respond with analysis and a search for implicit, or hidden, meaning and messages; artists respond with bodily fluids. 

(Again, I have a voice in my head that reacts to such “contributions”. Rather than the voice of an over-excited undergrad, I hear the studied, self-conscious tones of an established, respected, blazer-and-jeans-wearing art critic: “Too meta.”)

Art isn’t the only domain which has a tendency to drift towards meta-ness. My own craft, writing, is rife with it. Check out my archive; I myself have written many times about writing and creating. I’ve read books about writing and storytelling too. There’s also a countless number of novels about novels.

For example David Chapman, creator of the absorbing Meaningness—a “hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it”—discusses the novel, Boomeritis. The post, I seem to be a fiction, begins:

“It’s the perfect postmodern nightmare. You wake up to discover that you are the anti-hero character in a novel. Worse, it is a famously badly written novel. It is, in fact, an endlessly long philosophical diatribe pretending to be a novel. And it uses all the tiresome technical tricks of postmodern fiction. It is convolutedly self-referential; a novel about a novel that is an endlessly long philosophical diatribe pretending to be a novel about a novel about…”

Some other domains with a high degree of meta-ness? Entrepreneurship, undoubtedly. There’s whole armies of people who get rich (or try to) by teaching you how to get rich. I suppose business in general is the same. There’s countless businesses whose primary business is to teach you how to do business better. The domain of critical thinking also has meta-ness in abundance. Sites I visit haphazardly, like Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street, often feature pieces that compel you to think about how you think and decide, and a lot of books on my shelves could fall under this umbrella of meta-cognition.

Another example of meta-ness is the domain I want to explore with this series: meta-learning. Essentially, when you get into meta-learning, you’re discovering how best you and others learn, and why. But why would you want to know that? Well…

The main assumption that the meta-learning thought space teaches is that those who understand their own learning process can learn better. If you imagine life as a zero-sum game, as a Darwinian scrap for the right to continue existing where only the best/strongest/smartest survive, it’s obvious why meta-learning has such appeal; it gives you an advantage over other entities. It increases your chances of victory over adversary X. And if you see life as non-zero-suman infinite game, where you play to keep playing, as opposed to a finite game, where you play to win—it’s still an attractive idea to explore. If you better understand how you learn, it doesn’t so much give you higher chances of winning as make it easier to unlock more interesting games to participate in. 

With an infinite game orientation, meta-learning becomes a portal to maximal interestingness; it allows you to get into more interesting places and spaces, more quickly. But this is also where meta-learning falls down. It’s easy to understand how you learn about simple topics and skills. But what about complex ones? Popular and established models of meta-learning break down when you throw some complexity at them, or attempt to use them to grok domains with high amounts of interdependency. We need a new way of thinking about meta-learning in complex domains—“That’s so meta” says the undergrad—and that’s what I’m going to explore with this series.