Ten Useful Concepts
Drop them into the conversation, all casual like
Vampire Problems. The philosopher L.A. Paul coined this term to describe life choices where you have no real information on what it would feel like to have chosen. Being a vampire might be cool in all sorts of ways but a human cannot imagine what it would be like to be one without having been one. I remember my mother saying to me that she before she had children she found it impossible to imagine what life would be like with them, and after she had them (well, us) she found it impossible to imagine not having had them. Some decisions are like walls between the “you” on either side of them. Vampire Problems are a subset of what Russ Roberts calls Wild Problems - those big life decisions we have to take - like who to marry, whether to have children, where to live - that we only get one or two shots at, with little or no data to go on, yet are expected to get right. Seems unfair somehow.
Legibility. James C. Scott, the great critic of top-down social planning, describes the evolution of the modern state as a process of making a country legible to those who rule it. You take the blind chaos of forests, villages, farms and people, and you turn it into information about landholdings, property, yields, identity. Legibility is good: only when a society is made legible to its rulers can it be governed and improved. But Scott is interested in what can’t be made legible - in all the things that can’t be measured or categorised; in what must be ignored or swept aside in the service of utilitarian goals. For the state, read any large organisation or technological project. Those whose job it is to run the state or corporation assume that what is illegible to the system must be insignificant, so they end up destroying much of what makes life rich and cherishable.
Minus K. As a young man the English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion suffered traumatic experiences in World War One, and afterwards pursued a lifelong interest in how we process strong emotions. Bion believed that ability to reflect on our own emotions is crucial to mental health and clear thinking. But he noted that while people sometimes seek to understand themselves and others, they can also avoid or resist doing so. Under intense stress of some kind, they can seek minus knowledge - Minus K. When an individual is in a state of −K, they actively avoid understanding themselves or those around them, out of fear. That manifests as a denial of reality, and a stubborn refusal to learn from experience. An organisation working under the sign of -K will have a culture of ignorance and wilful blindness.
The Apps-Infrastructure Cycle. We’re used to the idea that infrastructure creates new possibilities for applications but the reverse is even more true. Dani Grant and Nick Grossman argue that the history of new technologies shows that apps beget infrastructure, not the other way around. Light bulbs (the app) were invented before there was an electric grid (the infrastructure). Planes were invented before airports, trains before railways. Build great apps that people need or love and the infrastructure for it will follow. The infrastructure then enables a profusion of new apps, and the cycle repeats. YouTube couldn’t be built in 1995, but it could in 2005 because consumer broadband existed by then - but broadband was built up to serve the first big dot com sites like eBay, Amazon, and AskJeeves. If apps are the prime movers that’s because they meet human needs directly. As Tom Chatfield puts it in his new book, technology is needy - it needs to be needed by human beings in order to develop and endure.
Hotelling’s Law or ‘the principle of minimum differentiation’. The idea of a market is that it provides choices, but in lots of categories all the vendors offer the same product with only minor variations - three near-identical cafés on the same block; cars that all look the same; Coke and Pepsi, Burger King and McDonalds. In 1929, Harold Hotelling, an economist, was the first to try and account for this paradox. Let’s imagine a sunny beach at midday. There are two guys with pushcarts selling soft drinks, one at either end of the beach. Each initially has half the market of beachgoers to themselves. However, one pushcart owner thinks he might be able to win over some customers from the other's half, and so gradually moves towards the beach's center. The other does the same. The competition continues until they end up side by side at the midpoint, each still serving about half the market. Copying your neighbour to win over their customers is a winning, or at least a not-losing, strategy. It’s not that markets don’t reward differentiation - they do - but there are countervailing incentives. The beach scenario is also a kind of model for democracies, especially two-party systems: Hotelling’s law is related to median voter theorem, the idea that in a representative democracy, competing political parties will converge on the median voter. That certainly seems to be a winning strategy in elections. (Centrism, at least the kind I like, might be better labelled Medianism).
The Nirvana Fallacy. No, this has nothing to do with Kurt Cobain. In a 1969 paper the American economist Harold Demsetz distinguished between two approaches to public policy: the “comparative” approach and the “nirvana” approach. The former presents the choice as being between imperfect real world arrangements, the latter between an ideal world and the existing arrangement. This is known as “nirvana fallacy”: the tendency to measure our proposed solutions against a perfect solution which doesn’t exist. In the real world, we often have to choose between the bad and the even worse. But the politician who uses the nirvana fallacy gains an easy rhetorical advantage. He can gesture towards his perfect world, attack the existing state of affairs for not living up to it, and accuse anyone who doesn’t accept the plausibility of perfection as being heartless, cynical or small-minded. The left has a particular weakness for the nirvana fallacy: its condemnations of capitalism or military actions are often made without reference to concrete alternatives, but to some unarticulated idea of, well, nirvana. As Thomas Sowell liked to say, the question is always “Compared to what?”.
Niche Construction. A concept from biology which refers to the process by which organisms modify their own living conditions so that they might survive and thrive. Birds build nests, badgers dig burrows, spiders weave webs. The niche can be seen almost as an extension of the organism itself; Richard Dawkins calls this the extended phenotype. Humans build homes and settlements and cities, and each individual builds what Annie Murphy Paul calls an extended mind: a unique web of physical spaces, objects and relationships through which, along with our own brains, we process the world. Successful artists are skilled niche-builders. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss talks about the process of bricolage, the way an artists will create their own world out of scraps of different materials. The niche shelters them from the mainstream and facilitates the development of a distinctive voice, of idiosyncrasy and weirdness. In Liverpool, Lennon and McCartney developed their own private language made up of Chuck Berry, The Goons, Lewis Carroll and so on. When the Beatles went to Hamburg this niche-building accelerated and intensified (eventually it took over the world). We’re not always very good cultivating our niches. Ad agencies, for instance, used to revel in constructing unique, weird working spaces but now their people work in identical bland offices (or call in from home). The ads are less interesting too.
Pluralistic Ignorance. In social psychology, this refers to situations where everyone in the group is mistaken about what everyone else thinks about an issue. Maybe there’s somebody at work who behaves abusively, but in public at least you go along with what seems to the consensus that his behaviour is acceptable. Actually, everyone thinks it’s abominable but nobody knows that’s what everyone thinks. Everyone just assumes there is a right thing to say or not to say, and go along with it, so they don’t get a chance to find out what people think. Pluralistic ignorance can sustain mass illusions. The fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes is all about this: everyone cheers for the naked guy because they see everyone else cheering for the naked guy. These are coordination problems, and they’re often solved when everyone can see that everyone can see the truth - a situation known as common knowledge. Sometimes it takes a small child or someone with similarly poor social skills - or just very thick skin - to blurt out what everyone already knows, at which point a new information equilibrium can emerge.
The Valéry-Callard Principle. I’ve invented this one but it derives from something the poet and essayist Paul Valéry said: “Our most important thoughts are those which contradict our feelings.” I love this. When you have an emotional or intuitive response to something, your thoughts usually follow in tandem with the emotion (William Wordsworth described thoughts as “representatives of all our past feelings”). But sometimes you have thoughts which diverge from or cut across the emotion. Those thoughts are worth paying special attention to. When I tweeted Valéry’s quote the philosopher Agnes Callard pointed out that it’s also true the other way around - your most important (or interesting) emotions are those which contradict your thoughts. Whenever we find our feelings and thoughts in conflict with each other we should resist the urge to make them march in lockstep and allow the the internal disagreement play out.
The Abilene Paradox. This is about a flaw in group decision-making. If a group makes a decision, that must be because all or most of its members willed that decision, right? Not necessarily. The management writer Jerry Harvey asks us to imagine a family sitting at home in Coleman, Texas, when the father-in-law suggests a drive to Abilene, fifty miles away. The father-in-law doesn’t actually want to go but he thinks the others are bored. The mother says, “Sure” just to be polite. The husband, who really doesn’t fancy the long drive, says “Great idea” because it seems like everyone else wants to go, and…Well, you get the idea: a group can decide on a course of action despite none of its members wanting to take that course of action. It won’t surprise readers of CONFLICTED that I view this as a failure to air disagreements.
After the jump:
- Reader responses to Leslie’s Razors and additional thoughts.
- Some excellent life advice (not from me this time) including something on how to get a pay rise.
- A rattle bag of links to brainfood and beauty. Basically, lots of good stuff. If you’ve been thinking of taking up a paid subscription, now’s the time to trial it. In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you don’t enjoy lots of what you find down there this week, then the Ruffian isn’t for you. But I think you will.