Conversation, Sport and Reductionism

Tim Rogers’ arti­cle, “the eleven most bor­ing con­ver­sa­tions i can’t stop over­hear­ing”, begins inno­cent­ly enough as a minor rant about tedious dis­cus­sions of hot sauce, but grad­u­al­ly becomes an impas­sioned dis­course about tol­er­ance and under­stand­ing, through the lens of every­day con­ver­sa­tion. It’s real­ly good. His final item cov­ers peo­ple who make a very pub­lic point of say­ing they don’t care about sport:

Instead of let­ting me know what you don’t care about, why don’t you let me know what you do care about? If I can’t con­vince you that any­one can like sports and that maybe you just need to think about sports dif­fer­ent­ly, why don’t you just not bring up a con­ver­sa­tion top­ic for the sole rea­son of say­ing it doesn’t inter­est you?

This made me think of two things: first, the clas­sic The Onion arti­cle, Area Man Con­stant­ly Men­tion­ing He Does­n’t Own A Tele­vi­sion. Sec­ond, the peo­ple who say about foot­ball “it’s just a bunch of mil­lion­aires kick­ing a leather sphere around a field!” (or one of the many vari­a­tions there­of).

Well, yes. It’s that. And reli­gion is just a bunch of peo­ple going to an old build­ing and singing songs to an imag­i­nary friend. And birth­day par­ties are just peo­ple giv­ing each oth­er things they prob­a­bly could have got for them­selves and saved a lot of both­er. And cin­e­ma-going is just a bunch of peo­ple sit­ting in a dark room and watch­ing pro­ject­ed images of oth­er peo­ple pre­tend­ing to be some­one else.

Any human social activ­i­ty that is stripped of its accrued mean­ing will— almost with­out exception—appear ridicu­lous. It’s cul­tur­al reduc­tion­ism, and the prac­tice of it doesn’t mean you’re incred­i­bly smart and supe­ri­or, but rather bor­ing and per­haps a bit smug. This quote (from the arti­cle Reduc­tion­ism Under­mines Both Sci­ence and Cul­ture) puts it well:

Reduc­tion­is­tic think­ing leaves lit­tle room for vari­ety, cul­tur­al tra­di­tions, liv­ing urban envi­ron­ments, or reli­gion, thus reduc­ing our world­view to a ster­ile min­i­mal­ism bereft of sev­er­al of the most glo­ri­ous achieve­ments of evolved human civ­i­liza­tion.


The Celts, Art, Identity, Intelligence and Vanity

This week I went to the British Muse­um to see the Celts: Art and Iden­ti­ty exhib­it. It was won­der­ful, a great cura­tion of amaz­ing objects. It fin­ish­es at the end of the month, so I advise you to go if you can.

Some of the objects are over 2,000 years old, yet beau­ti­ful­ly crafted—such as the Great Torc of Snet­tisham, made from 64 fine threads of mixed gold and sil­ver, and mould­ed ter­mi­nals with tiny embossed details ham­mered by hand with great pre­ci­sion.
See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons
We tend to think of our ancient ances­tors as sav­ages, yet as War­ren Ellis remind­ed me through one of his fourth-wall break­ing medieval char­ac­ters in his book, Cré­cy:

These things are going to look prim­i­tive to you, but you have to remem­ber that we’re not stu­pid. We have the same intel­li­gence as you. We sim­ply don’t have the same cumu­la­tive knowl­edge you do. So we apply our intel­li­gence to what we have.

One thing I found very inter­est­ing is that, in Britain at least, the his­tor­i­cal record shows that finds of mir­rors (pol­ished bronze) are fol­lowed short­ly by finds of combs and cos­met­ics. As soon as we were able to see our­selves, we want­ed to look bet­ter. That capac­i­ty to make objects of van­i­ty was always there, but it took a dis­cov­ery to unlock it. This makes me think of the adja­cent pos­si­ble the­o­ry:

The strange and beau­ti­ful truth about the adja­cent pos­si­ble is that its bound­aries grow as you explore them. Each new com­bi­na­tion opens up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of oth­er new com­bi­na­tions.

It also makes me think of ‘self­ie cul­ture’. His­to­ry shows that we always want­ed to show off pic­tures of our­selves, but we didn’t have the tools; paint­ed por­traits were expen­sive and time-con­sum­ing, as was ear­ly film. But afford­able phone cam­eras and online social net­works made the cul­tur­al shift pos­si­ble. It’s not that we’ve sud­den­ly become vain, but that we’ve always desired to be vain and are now able to ful­fil that.


Rating, Reputation, Conformance and Compliance

Chi­na has made obe­di­ence to the State a game. A new tool called Sesame Cred­it gives users a rat­ing based on their com­pli­ance to ‘good behav­iour’, using data from social net­works and con­nect­ed ser­vices:

If you post pic­tures of Tianan­men Square or share a link about the recent stock mar­ket col­lapse, your Sesame Cred­it goes down. Share a link from the state-spon­sored news agency about how good the econ­o­my is doing and your score goes up.

Com­menters in the West pre­dictably see this as an exam­ple of oppres­sive gov­ern­ment, seem­ing­ly with­out the self-aware­ness to know that we are already prac­tis­ing obedience—the dif­fer­ence being that we con­form in order to fit pri­vate ser­vices, not the state.

From eBay to Uber to AirBNB, rat­ing sys­tems are used to cre­ate com­pli­ance to be a ‘good fit’ to the ser­vice. As a user, if your score isn’t high enough, you’re more like­ly to be turned down for a rental or a car jour­ney. As Matt Webb tweet­ed:

The blessed relief of rid­ing in a black cab and know­ing you don’t need to work for that 5* rat­ing from the dri­ver.

But it’s worse for an Uber dri­ver, where if you don’t keep a suf­fi­cient­ly high rat­ing you can lose your job entire­ly. Josh Dzieza’s arti­cle, The Rat­ing Game, describes the prob­lems this cre­ates:

When Judge Edward Chen denied Uber’s motion for sum­ma­ry judge­ment on the Cal­i­for­nia dri­vers’ class action suit, he seized on the idea that rat­ings aren’t just a cus­tomer feed­back tool — they rep­re­sent a new lev­el of mon­i­tor­ing, far more per­va­sive than any watch­ful boss. Cus­tomer rat­ings, Chen wrote, give Uber an “arguably tremen­dous amount of con­trol over the ‘man­ner and means’ of its dri­vers’ per­for­mance.”

This has a huge chill­ing effect: as well as the poten­tial loss of ser­vice or liveli­hood, com­pli­ance forces con­for­mi­ty of per­son­al­i­ty. You have to keep your head down to get on:

Sev­er­al dri­vers said the best way to behave is like a ser­vant. “The ser­vant antic­i­pates needs, does them effort­less­ly, speaks when spo­ken to, and you don’t even notice they’re there,” said a dri­ver in Sacra­men­to.

In the rep­u­ta­tion econ­o­my, the best way to get by is to be bland­ly pleas­ant. As Bret Eas­t­on Ellis put it in Liv­ing in the Cult of Lik­a­bil­i­ty:

The rep­u­ta­tion econ­o­my depends on every­one main­tain­ing a rev­er­en­tial­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, immi­nent­ly prac­ti­cal atti­tude: Keep your mouth shut and your skirt long, be mod­est and don’t have an opin­ion.

In Chi­na, keep­ing a good Sesame Cred­it score will give real world advan­tages — and con­se­quences:

High scores will grant users ben­e­fits “like mak­ing it eas­i­er to get the paper­work you need to trav­el or mak­ing it eas­i­er to get a loan”. There have even been rumours about imple­ment­ing penal­ties for low scores “like slow­er inter­net speeds, or restrict­ing jobs a low scor­ing per­son is allowed to hold.”

At the height of the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the rep­u­ta­tion rank­ing tool Klout, some employ­ers stat­ed a min­i­mum Klout score as a require­ment for apply­ing for a role with their com­pa­ny. That didn’t last, thank­ful­ly, but the Chi­na state are show­ing that it’s an idea that may well make a come­back.

If we don’t imme­di­ate­ly start ques­tion­ing the desir­abil­i­ty of the rep­u­ta­tion econ­o­my, we could end up with a very neg­a­tive sce­nario: at best, a cul­ture of bland con­for­mi­ty; and at worst a sys­tem of mass com­pli­ance.


Blogging The Highlights: Sapiens [Part One]

Ear­li­er this year I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapi­ens: A Brief His­to­ry of Humankind. It is, with­out a doubt, one of the most amaz­ing, eye-open­ing, mind-expand­ing books I’ve ever read. I’ve want­ed for some time to write a review of it, but have been slight­ly daunt­ed by the thought of try­ing to do it jus­tice. Even using quotes from the book to illus­trate the themes, as I’ve done before, faces me with a prob­lem: I’ve high­light­ed so many pas­sages, even edit­ing them to a man­age­able length would be a job in itself.

But I can pre­var­i­cate no longer, so I’m going to attempt a loose review, based around quotes from the book, bro­ken into mul­ti­ple posts. I’ll theme them loose­ly around hap­pi­ness, con­sumerism, and the agri­cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion; and, in this first part, around fic­tions.

Sapi­ens is a book about humankind, but not a hard his­to­ry; it’s about cul­ture, about the sys­tems we’ve evolved to cre­ate this amaz­ing, pow­er­ful, ter­ri­fy­ing glob­al race. Above all, it’s about fic­tions: the sto­ries that we all choose to believe in that define and make pos­si­ble soci­ety and its achieve­ments.

Telling effec­tive sto­ries is not easy. The dif­fi­cul­ty lies not in telling the sto­ry, but in con­vinc­ing every­one else to believe it. Much of his­to­ry revolves around this ques­tion: how does one con­vince mil­lions of peo­ple to believe par­tic­u­lar sto­ries about gods, or nations, or lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty com­pa­nies? Yet when it suc­ceeds, it gives Sapi­ens immense pow­er, because it enables mil­lions of strangers to coop­er­ate and work towards com­mon goals. Just try to imag­ine how dif­fi­cult it would have been to cre­ate states, or church­es, or legal sys­tems if we could speak only about things that real­ly exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

As time has passed, these fic­tions have tak­en on more impor­tance:

Ever since the Cog­ni­tive Rev­o­lu­tion, Sapi­ens have thus been liv­ing in a dual real­i­ty. On the one hand, the objec­tive real­i­ty of rivers, trees and lions; and on the oth­er hand, the imag­ined real­i­ty of gods, nations and cor­po­ra­tions. As time went by, the imag­ined real­i­ty became ever more pow­er­ful, so that today the very sur­vival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imag­ined enti­ties such as the Unit­ed States and Google.

These fic­tions extend even to our laws and rights; bio­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing, we are not all born equal:

If we do not believe in the Chris­t­ian myths about God, cre­ation and souls, what does it mean that all peo­ple are ‘equal’? Evo­lu­tion is based on dif­fer­ence, not on equal­i­ty.

How­ev­er, we choose to believe in nat­ur­al equal­i­ty because it pro­motes sta­bil­i­ty and social order:

We believe in a par­tic­u­lar order not because it is objec­tive­ly true, but because believ­ing in it enables us to coop­er­ate effec­tive­ly and forge a bet­ter soci­ety.

Belief is what enables fic­tions, and fic­tions enable orders:

An imag­ined order can be main­tained only if large seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion – and in par­tic­u­lar large seg­ments of the elite and the secu­ri­ty forces – tru­ly believe in it. Chris­tian­i­ty would not have last­ed 2,000 years if the major­i­ty of bish­ops and priests failed to believe in Christ. The mod­ern eco­nom­ic sys­tem would not have last­ed a sin­gle day if the major­i­ty of investors and bankers failed to believe in cap­i­tal­ism.

The fic­tions shared between groups of peo­ple are passed on through leg­ends: myths and sto­ries, laws and rules. Peo­ple in dif­fer­ent soci­eties cre­at­ed dif­fer­ent leg­ends.

Myths and fic­tions accus­tomed peo­ple, near­ly from the moment of birth, to think in cer­tain ways, to behave in accor­dance with cer­tain stan­dards, to want cer­tain things, and to observe cer­tain rules. They there­by cre­at­ed arti­fi­cial instincts that enabled mil­lions of strangers to coop­er­ate effec­tive­ly. This net­work of arti­fi­cial instincts is called ‘cul­ture’.

Aside: I saw Scott Berkun sum this up with a neat for­mu­la: cul­ture = some ideas > oth­er ideas. But back to Harari. He says that what dri­ves cul­ture is the con­tra­dic­tions of soci­ety: for exam­ple, try­ing to rec­on­cile per­son­al free­dom with the desire for every­one to be equal.

The mod­ern world fails to square lib­er­ty with equal­i­ty. But this is no defect. Such con­tra­dic­tions are an insep­a­ra­ble part of every human cul­ture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, respon­si­ble for the cre­ativ­i­ty and dynamism of our species.

To prop­a­gate cul­ture we had to make it pos­si­ble to store mem­o­ries beyond our genes; this could be in sim­ple shared ideas passed down through gen­er­a­tions:

Human teenagers have no genes for foot­ball. They can nev­er­the­less play the game with com­plete strangers because they have all learned an iden­ti­cal set of ideas about foot­ball. These ideas are entire­ly imag­i­nary, but if every­one shares them, we can all play the game.

The prob­lem with imag­i­nary ideas is that you need to active­ly enforce them:

Hives can be very com­plex social struc­tures, con­tain­ing many dif­fer­ent kinds of work­ers, such as har­vesters, nurs­es and clean­ers. But so far researchers have failed to locate lawyer bees. Bees don’t need lawyers, because there is no dan­ger that they might for­get or vio­late the hive con­sti­tu­tion.

But writ­ten laws and con­sti­tu­tions have had an impact on us:

The most impor­tant impact of script on human his­to­ry is pre­cise­ly this: it has grad­u­al­ly changed the way humans think and view the world. Free asso­ci­a­tion and holis­tic thought have giv­en way to com­part­men­tal­i­sa­tion and bureau­cra­cy.

This is why the study of his­to­ry, and books like Sapi­ens, are so vital:

We study his­to­ry not to know the future but to widen our hori­zons, to under­stand that our present sit­u­a­tion is nei­ther nat­ur­al nor inevitable, and that we con­se­quent­ly have many more pos­si­bil­i­ties before us than we imag­ine.

As I said at the start, I’m going to write a few more posts about Sapiens—but hon­est­ly, just save your­self the trou­ble of read­ing them and buy a copy of the book instead. I high­ly doubt that you’ll regret it.