Skinner Layne

Founder & Chairman of Exosphere

US → Chile → Spain

What do you do today?

Today I'm in a transitional period. I founded an organization called “Exosphere” 7 years ago. We have been operating during that period. We are in a transitional period where we stopped our active operations, and we focused exclusively on building out some permanent infrastructure ina form of physical campus because it is an educational institution. We are in this long process now in Spain. I was living in South-America for 11 years, and I just moved to Spain a few months ago. So I am in fundraising and infrastructure building mode.

The other side of my daily life is writing a book. It’s research I've been working on for the last 7 years. It’s a psychological model that I’ve been developing and doing research about. I am writing a sort of the first book that will precede a series of studies that we plan to conduct. These are the main two things that I do today.

How did you get there?

From childhood through the end of university, I have wanted to go into politics. That was my goal. I was going to go to law school and then to politics. I was very active in politics. And then, at the end of the university, I decided that this is not what I was going to do for a variety of reasons. So I went to software startups instead. Then I decided that this was also not as advertised. In 2007 when the yult curving converted to the US bond market, I studied economics, and I said: “OK, then things are about to go very badly, so I sold my stock back to my partners in my first startup and left the country. It was in 2008, so I left before the crisis. Then I went to South-America. There was no startup ecosystem at that time. It sort of started to grow after I was there. So I didn’t go back to startups, and because of my economics background, I mostly did most of the financial part in my startups parted equity work in renewable energy and agriculture projects in South-America. I did that for a few years, and then I decided that was also not what I wanted to keep doing. Then I spend a couple of years in sort of hermitage, living in the mountains more or less in complete isolation. That is what sort of unlocked conclusions that led me to find excess here and go into the path of psychological research and practice. It has been a very long interesting winding journey.

Why do you do what you today?

I think that we have solved almost as many key problems as humanity faces that are purely engineering problems. I think we have almost hit the limit of what we could do with just pure physical engineering of solutions. And now the big problems that we face – some of them have partially technical solutions, for example, there is still a lot of room in biotechnology and medical technology, but other than that I don’t think we have a lot of purely physical world problems. We mostly have psychological, sociological, political problems. I think the reason why we can’t solve a lot of these problems is that we simply don’t have accurate maps of human nature.

In the same way that it’s hard to solve problems in chemistry when you don’t have the periodic table of elements. That foundational level of chemistry allows you to dissolve a lot of problems. I don’t think that we have that in psychology. I also think, objectively, that the last 30 years of psychological research have not been replicable. Less than 40% of psychological studies have been replicable, which is very low. I think the field is completely broken and can’t be fixed inside academia. We need to demedicalize psychology. I think this is one of the big problems – medicalization psychology is just labeling “You are sick!” rather than “You have this set of patterns, and some of these patterns cause problems. Some of them are helpful”. Then solving communication problems between patterns of behavior is the only way we are going to get to the major solutions for climate change and international political situation, global co-operation – a variety of things that if we don’t do them, then life is probably not going to be great for our children and the next generations. Probably even the end of our life-spin. If we just try to keep solving purely technical problems, we will keep making progress, but we keep getting these diminishing returns now. So, we need to build from the ground up the mechanisms to coordinate on a wide scale again, which we have lost in the last 30 years or so. I try to add what I can to build up the capacity for humans to coordinate and solve problems at higher levels of scale.



Where are you going? What’s your vision?

My personal mission and also organizational mission is to build institutions of the next century. All of our current institutions in society are built on social assumptions that are not true now. The church, the state, the university, our schooling system, our medical systems – these are all broken institutions. We don’t have a single functional institution that I can find. The consumerism is the default if you don’t have functional institutions. You just revolt to people optimizing for their own preferences at the margin. This is a certain way to the death of everything because, at the margin, people use more resources than they produce. That is just the way the margin makes sense – to take more than you put out. Those incentive structures have only ever been modulated by institutions. But we don’t have functional ones. And at this point, I really don’t have hope that we are going to fix the ones that we have. I think these are just going to decay more and more. If we haven’t built up from the grassroots new institutions, by the time these completely collapse, we are even more so. I see institution building as the frontier we have to explore to try to figure out how do we build institutions that are relevant and functional and sustainable that is not just going to be wiped out by the next wave of technological change. I think these are problems that require large scale coordination and change in mindset like what is a good life, what do we owe to one another as far as that good life is concerned, how do we organize that, how do we implement these systems to assure this is the outcome and not the status quo which is definitely not optimizing for the good life, not by most people’s definition. My future is continuing to build, and I don’t expect that I would finish. I expect that I have to build something that hands off the process. When I look at the construction cycles of the great architectural buildings of human history – beautiful churches took centuries to build – and I think this is the same with any kind of institution. You need to have intergeneration coordination, which is particularly difficult. And even harder at the age of smartphones that almost try to prevent us from doing anything in time and rising our preference of operation to the immediate second of present and nothing beyond that. That’s what I think my future looks like.

With his broad experience and unique approach Skinner is digging very deep to allow you to see the issue from completely fresh perspective.

Rain Sepp

CEO of askRobin

.Cocoon is a part of

Tartu, Estonia 2020

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