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.