Archive for the 'sociality/socialization' Category


March of Civilization

What fascinates me about history is that no matter how far we advance, we’re still, in a sense, in the same place. Of course our technology gets better. We live longer and we’re healthier. I don’t mean we stay the same in that way. What I mean is that no matter how far we come, we still find ourselves in the following situation: some people are on the bottom and some are on top, and problems beset our way of life from all sides. No matter how much we innovate — and don’t get me wrong, we do innovate and in doing so, SOLVE problems — we find ourselves with new problems.

In this post, I tried to give some reasons for this. Now I want to try to sharpen my picture of history a little bit. In that post, I talked about how increases in the scale of thing x, can make it the case that something other than thing x emerges. I tried to use physics as an example, but I don’t know muh about physics, so it felt like a poor example. But now I have a better example.

Nature, at the birth of the universe, consisted of particles. But the universe was so complex, that combinations of particles created something that was itself MORE than just a combination of particles, and that was life. Living things are a different category of type of thing than atoms or whatever. The system of particles in our universe was so complex  that it gave rise to something that was a new category of thing. Before life, there were just particles and more particles, but then “more particles” became “living thing.” This difference is reflected in the difference between biology and physics. But then the complexity of the system flipped to another level again, the level of perception. Perceptual states cannot be reduced to any biological category, because perception necessarily involves REPRESENTATION, which is not a biological category and introduces the idea of fidelity or veridicality. Things again move forward once perception moves to propositional thinking, which involves the manipulation of concepts not tied to the specifics of the organism’s specific situation (we can think about distant planets).

The pattern here is that a complexly interacting system of one type of thing (atoms), manages to flip to a new level of thing (a lizard).

But once we have that pattern in mind, we can see that human society accomplishes that SAME THING, just at a faster and constant rate. I think this is a beautiful explanation of the complexity of human life. Take the internet. It’s a new thing. Of course, it’s LIKE things that came before like the telephone, but it’s also NOT like that thing, it’s something else, it’s own thing. Or take something else. Some early counting systems didn’t have 0, but not we do. It’s not hard to see that introducing zero into mathematics changed the whole trajectory of science and human civilization.

And I think we can now see why humans are always behind, always essentially in the same, existential, place. The reason is that human civilization is UNBELIEVABLY complex and so keeps hopping up the latter of complexity. So, just when we figured out trench warfare in WWI, airplanes come along to give us WWII, which was an entirely different conflict. At the end of WWII, humans invented the atom bomb, which from that moment on introduced an entirely different type of conflict. For proof, note that the strategizing, technological advancement, and conceptual change that accompanied a war that was COLD rather than HOT. (not sure why war metaphors always stand out for me, they resonate with me because of the cliche that militaries are “always fighting the last war.”

So, my claim is that civilization is complex, so dense with information and so beholden to previous jumps in complexity, that the nature of human civilization is jumps in its own complexity. We’re always leapfrogging over ourselves and our brains are always rushing to keep up.


Games and Civilization

I recently read Jane Mcgonigal’s book titled Reality is Broken. Unbelievably, I’ve misplaced my copy and so am without my notes for this short post.

What I want to focus on is a remark that McGonigal makes about scale. Her point is that scale is not what we think it is. It’s natural to think that if five molecules behave a certain way, then fifteen molecules will behave in a similar way, just with more molecules to take into account. The rules get more complex but the rules themselves don’t change.

She talks at points as if physics shows this to be false. That at higher levels of scale, there are new emergent properties that would not be predicted by just taking the laws for a lower scale of interaction and just account for more things. I don’t know about physics and her reference is obscure and offhand, so I can’t speak to that analogy. What I want to do is to think about how civilization fundamentally changes at each stage of it’s evolution so that ideas and rules that were applicable to one part of it at one time are no longer applicable at a later part or later time.

Applicable is a vague word, but I mainly mean that solutions for certain social problems become unworkable as things change. It’s hard for me to find an example that makes the case once and for all. But take a broad view. The ways of organizing a small society, like a tribe or a clan, involve face to face problem solving, kinship relations, a very uncomplicated economy, etc. When you move from this, to something different, like a city-state, a lot of things don’t work. For example, justice requires the codification of laws, division of labor (to a meager extent), and full time political offices.

Humankind, in my mind, seems to be incapable, just horribly incapable, of keeping up with the pace of our living, of our own society. I’m tempted to think the root cause is our two systems of thinking. Humor me. We have an intuitive system of thought that rushes to judgment. See Daniel Kahnemann for more evidence, but at root, we like fatty foods, sex, we automatically approve of our own action, we see the concerns of others as less important, again ETC. We can combat all these tendencies, but it isn’t easy, and I think that these individual cognitive facts are mirrored in the way society works. Society is great at getting better music, sexier celebrities, cooler cars, gadgets, more power for the powerful. These things take care of themselves and no one, in the history of the world, has had to focus on making sure the powerful can defend themselves. No one needs to worry that the present is shortchanging itself in order to help the future. In fact, global warming shows us that we are obsessed with the present and may, organizationally, be unable to deal with what’s coming. It seems it will always be privileged.

There are other examples. The phrase “we’re always fighting the last war” is instructive. Even war, one of the most important concerns of a modern state, always lags behind. It’s partly incompetence and partly complexity. Who would have guessed that the U.S. traditional military dominance would result in people willing to blow themselves up. We’re always fighting the last war, and we’re always solving the last problem. In other words, I think we’re always woefully behind what our intuitive, automatic, unthinking societal forces create. We created the internet and it has huge legal implications. It changes how we gather intelligence, how privacy works, what IP is, and what property rules are applicable. We are way behind in addressing these issues in terms of clear thinking. We’re waiting to catch up.

One more example. We’re worried about what violent video games are doing to children. Some analogize this to the effects of TV or rap lyrics. Yes and no. If we think the analogy is perfect, then we will be fighting the last war. What I mean is that we will think that video games effect people in the same way as violent movies or lyrics. But it’s subtly different. For proof, just look at the fact that school shooters who are influenced by video games often kill themselves, whereas people from the TV generation didn’t usually suicide after their crimes. There are probably deeper differences. The right thing to do would be to adjust our social science, tweak our thinking, and come up with a new way to respond that involved reducing bullying, increasing mental health services, possibly gun control or at least better enforcement of laws we already have. We wont’ do any of those things. We may slowly adjust all of those things in the next 15 to 20 years. But for now, we can only crawl forward.

McGonigal’s point is that we’re facing a new scale to human problems. The instantaneously massive. Problems that cross geographic boundaries, social science disciplines, and defy easy solutions. To solve these problems, we must become more collaborative on a new scale. And here McGonigal really has a point. Wikipedia is a massive reproduction and systemization of human knowledge. It can be improved, but it’s already very good. She has examples about how game players can help fold proteins and create massive edifices of functionality and knowledge. Knowledge that is alive with it’s own use and pregnant with it’s own application. Her example is video games like world of warcraft in which the players have an entire economy, solve collective world problems, and develop idioms, ways of interacting, and codes of conduct — the micro rules that make all societies run but are almost impossible to catch in a sentence, a law, or a movement. This is a good point and she may be right that we need to evolve better, more massive, more complete systems of cooperation.

My one criticism though is that more and more coordination will only get us so far. Beyond coordination is genuine cooperation, valuing, and striving. We have to pick our priorities, seize decisively on mistakes and errors, and work to improve things as we see them. None of this can be accomplished by mere world-of-warcraftization. World of warcraft takes place within a somewhat free liberal society, and it is those values that make it playable, and our games will replicate the flawed, never-quite-there sickness of human civilization until we solve the problem of values first.

Of course, we will never solve the problem of values. They will always be in flux and being contested, and this is exactly what makes life so enjoyable. The game we play with each other when we try to build a company, raise a family, or paint a picture is INFINITELY complex. Some games get boring because you learn their internal logic and you become tired with the repetition. Human life though, FOR THE VERY REASON THAT WE CAN NEVER SOLVE IT COMPLETELY, is always fresh and new. It’s always challenging us and we usually feel like meeting that challenge.



Marriage: the oldest casualty of western civilization?

In my last post, I talked about how western civilization has seen institutions that put harsh restrictions on people replaced with looser restrictions. I don’t know any good exceptions to this trend, and I wanted to reiterate one additional example that is also very stark and instructive.

Take marriage. At the beginning, marriage was an extremely sacred and powerful social institution. In Europe, it was for a long time controlled by the church which had enormous power over those who ignored its dictates. This had to do with rights that a man had over his wife, who got property from the marriage, and also who inherited the name of the family. Even nobles were largely bound by these dictates. Henry IV had to create his own church to twist out of his marriage commitments.

As time went on though, the requirements softened in a variety of ways. Women began a painstaking campaign for equality within the marriage structure. Furthermore, divorce became easier, the penalties for infidelity less, and arranged marriages became less prevalent. All of these developments continued to the present day. For example as late as 1963, interracial marriages were forbidden in Virginia. More or less though, today, there is a high degree of choice that infuses the marriage institution. People can marry and divorce as they see fit and the stigmatization for being a “bastard” is as far as I know, quite low (though the effect of such a thing on the prospects of the bastards is still quite disastrous). There are STILL laws against adultery in the U.S. (it’s a court martial offense in the military and some states still have laws against it) but the penalties are very small and cases are rarely brought and prosecuted. Adultery is deemed to disrupt the social order in particularly egregious case or when some other angle intersects.

Then of course there is the issue of whether homosexual marriages will be allowed. I think it’s safe to say the day will come. Young people are hugely supportive of gay marriage (when the older generation dies off the issue will be largely dead I predict) and the whole force of European history seems to say that greater choice and flexibility will come, one way or another, into the institution.

What fewer people appreciate is that even as gay marriage is on the horizon of being accepted, it seems that marriage in general is on a slow decline. Less people are getting married, more people are getting divorced, and I’ve heard many people in my generation struggling to understand why it needs to have the social sanction and backing that it does.  The view (not yet in wide circulation, but growing) is something like this: If you’re with someone, then you’re with someone and if they know it, then why does anyone else need to know or care? Love, more than ever, more than class, more than a labor arrangements (women in the kitchen, men at work), religion, and government, is the arbiter of marriage. But as that happens, it seems that marriage will need to be reformulated again to survive. My point is just that the more reformulations it endures, the less urgent it becomes.

I’ll reiterate the point I made in my last point. If marriage continues on its trend to become less and less important, then we may see the end of one of the first and seemingly most powerful social institutions ever created. After something like 2000 years (at LEAST), we would have a conclusive case of society, over the long term, transforming one of the most fundamental human instincts toward a very radically new expression. Just as biologists look over history to understand the evolutionary arch of a species or ecosystem, it might very interesting for sociologists and historians to think broadly about what characteristics of our civilization created, and then over such a long time, destroyed, marriage as a social form.


What Counts as Normal?

Society has a huge number of rules and practices that it maintains as normal. For those who fall on the “normal” side of any one category, it’s very hard to appreciate the other side as well as the arbitrariness of such distinctions. It’s also hard to appreciate how such automatic judgments are a pain the in ass for people who have to deal with them.

I’ll skip examples of racism and sexism because they have become connected to so many other struggles and issues that people cannot think about them cleanly without significant effort (I mean that on both sides, left and right). People have become so psychologically invested in these categories and the fate of debates about who and what is more or less racist and sexist that it’s not a good place to begin theorizing about these topics, but rather a place to conclude, after some insight has been developed in a different sphere.

I’ll give one general example of what I’m talking about and then one from my life.

One example involves being single in one’s old age (or just, past 35). FIrst, think back to 200 years ago when a girl who wasn’t married by her 18th birthday would be barraged with questions that are all based on theme of “why aren’t you married yet?” In this way, “normalcy” is a way that society legitimizes an endless series of requests for justification. In every social situation, one must stand ready to justify oneself. “I haven’t found the right person yet,” “I want to build my career a little bit first,” and etc. This is true, in today’s world, for both men and women. Someone who is not married, after a certain time, is believed to be defective in any number of ways, emotionally, physically, etc. Social situations evolve to tip-toe around this subtle difference while continuously re-investigating it as one probes an open wound. At a wedding for an example, you’re likely to hear this remark, said in innocence, but nevertheless backed by a whole battery of societal interest: “O Jim, I didn’t know where to seat you since you’re single, so I put you with the young people.” Or, faux concern, “Jim, since you’re single, I made sure to rearrange all the tables to accommodate you.”

The key though is to note that the single person constantly needs to justify themselves whereas the married person DOES NOT. Why? Many people leap into marriage mistakenly, or endure abusive relationships, or plain just get bored with each other. I think there is a lot of value to being married, but there is ALSO a lot of value to being single.

In my personal life, I hear people ask me why I’ve decided to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and further, why I’ve also decided to get a law degree. They say “that’s so much school!” Others are harsher still, taking whatever cracks they have stored up about academia or law. I let them say their comments them out and then politely try to explain why I’m interested in these things that I’ve made enormous sacrifice to pursue.

Philosophy especially is ABnormal, just as many other possible professions are, but certain careers are not seen as abnormal and do not stand in need of justification, because society shelters these activities and protects challenges to them with an arsenal of propaganda, subtle pressure, and just blindness to the diversity of human pursuits. For example, someone who is trying to get a job in finance or is working in business doesn’t need to justify themselves in any typical conversation that I’ve been in. I think business is very valuable and I’m always very impressed with people who have the skills to succeed at it. But the question is: why is business in any less need of justification than philosophy or something else? Someone might say something like “wow 8 years of school is a lot of time to delay before going to the real world.” But one could just as easily ask “8 years of working at a company? That’s a long time taking orders before becoming more fully independent or free-thinking.” I don’t actually believe that criticism of business, but there are costs and benefits to all professions. Why does taking on the burdens and benefits of a corporate career get a free pass in terms of justification? The answer I think is that people think that it’s natural and proper to try and get money, whereas thinking deeply about obscure questions has no value.

The trickiest thing about it all is that a request for justification need not be hostile. One of the nicest things you can say to someone, I believe, is to honestly ask someone why they are interested in something. “Why do you want to be botanist?” said with an honest curiosity is one way of expressing respect for the choices that people make and the dedication that’s needed to do just about anything of consequence.

But, and this is the key, societal judgments of normalcy ask for justification in a hostile and dismissive manner. There is nothing genuine about some of the people I’ve met casually at different events who mouth the words “why are you interested in that,” but they have no interest in the answer and it is understood in the conversation at large (especially if the convo involves several other people) common way that no answer would make very much sense.

But that’s the way of things. People are interested in what they’re interested and have VERY LITTLE capacity to entertain alternative viewpoints, interests, or ideas.


Nietzsche and Red Bull

Nietzsche predicted that European / Western culture was on the verge of losing its energy and dynamism because of the way that it related to pain and to the experience of life. He predicted a wide-ranging decline in the politics, art, and leadership of european life due to the acceptance of pleasure as the leading principle guiding society combined with a stultifying egalitarianism.

Given this prediction, I think it’s interesting to think about energy drinks. Coffee has existed since time immemorial, but a more recent phenomenon is energy drinks. Looking at this short update shows that the market for highly caffeinated beverages is growing by a lot each year.

But why do people need so much energy though? Historically, it seems very out of place. Think about the brutality of medieval europe or the industrial revolution. People sometime worked 20 hour shifts in cramped conditions with little light or air and of course no safety regulations. Shouldn’t it be the case that THOSE people needed “energy” more than the modern person.

What this leads me to wonder is a conjecture that I think fits with some other transitions in modern life, which is that perhaps we are just becoming more bored with things. Our search for more wealth, more luxury, and more entertainment…does it betray that in a deep sense we might be boring our collective culture to death. How many times will Hollywood reboot the same movie franchise before we start to seriously consider the possibility that as life becomes more easier, healthier, and more secure, it also becomes more boring? Do we need energy to get through our days because though we have easily available water, air conditioning, and cars, we are fatter, less focused, and more easily distracted?

Is it fair to think of our time in history as one in which we need energy, quite literally, just to get through our days. 


Cargo Cults

My dad mentioned to me the other day that he had read an article that had used the phrase “cargo cult” metaphorically, so he looked up and then after he told me about it, I looked it up too.

The short summary is really fascinating and should really be kept in mind by anyone who thinks about the nature of religions, society at large, the history of scientific explanation, and also consumer societies.

During WWII, the U.S. and Japan had to fly a lot of materiel to remote locations in the Pacific. It was very common for these two powers to have to set up a base of operations on these islands by building runways and then flying in jeeps, metal, and other machines. The cultures that were already existent on those island then interpreted these results, quite literally, as manna from heaven. They could not see the factories that built the planes and tanks and other machines and so saw them as just dropping out of the sky.

So, cults of worship grew up around appeasing the gods and trying to get them to drop more cargo (wikipedia says it well, as always). These cults involved the priests and religious figures building runways and worshipping by running around with guns at the ready (like soldiers) as well as wearing headphones (like aircraft communications officers). These groups never came to internalize the explanation that the planes were pieces of technology and that other technology exists elsewhere that made them.

In terms of religion, what separates from religions from cults (cargo or otherwise). Cargo cults show that religious practices are deep-seated human activities, but that they can be misguided and may not have a connection with the truth. Now, major religions may be true (not taking a stand on that), but if some of them turn out not to be, would they still, by virtue of their rich practices and historical influence, be anything other than cults? I tried to think of some answers, and one was that maybe true religions occupy themselves with the proper conduct of human beings vis a vis others that take other human beings as basically valuable, whereas cults do not. Suicide cults for example take human conduct to be important, only instrumentally, as a way to attract aliens or to get to another plane of existence (I don’t think that organized religions do the latter, but they could be accused of that if you’re cynical). Cargo cults take action to be important only insofar as it helps you GET THE CARGO. Christianity on the other hand, whatever else you want to say about it, does concern how one should act on the assumption that it matters, in itself, what kind of life you live. I have no idea if this categorization is sustainable, but I throw it out.

In terms of society, I think remote societies, far from our urban, individualistic, technological world, are fascinating insights into the basic building blocks of society writ large. Here’s an analogy. Cognitive psychologists have learned a lot about perception and brain processing from optical illusions. We learn about regular vision from looking at ways it can go haywire. The same thing goes for societies. However, be aware, I don’t think that, by and large, traditional societies are “haywire” societies, or that they are defective as societies. I do think though that it’s very hard to analyze “society” at large without becoming intimately familiar with societies that challenge the assumptions that one’s own society take for granted. For example, the west takes science for granted (or does it/ It’s actually very interesting to think about the ways in which science is ridiculed, sidelined or misunderstood) and so the idea that these peoples would or could not entertain the idea that planes transport things that were MADE elsewhere.

In terms of consumer societies, Marx thought that capitalism obscured the true source of all production: human labor. Goods appear almost as found objects, or as Manna from heaven, when in fact there is an elaborate social web of production and relations of control among various people. In that way, capitalism, according to Marx, is a gigantic cargo cult. However, other philosophers have thought that in fact Communism is a cargo cult, in that the USSR tried to imitate the prosperity of the U.S. by imitating things that are just the surface of the capitalist cornucopia. For example, the USSR tried to make a lot of steel, thinking that because the U.S. made a lot of steel, steel was key to prosperity. When in reality, it was the innovation behind the capitalistic system.

In terms of the way that science evolved, it’s also very interesting, because it shows how much human beings had to FIGHT to make science a reality. Why not just believe that fire is it’s own thing rather than the result of burning fuel of various type. Science taught us to mistrust our instincts about explanations for things and in that way DEMYSTIFIED the world by ridding it of magic. The cargo cult is just a dramatic example of that. We can construct a simple explanation for things landing in foreign countries even though there are people who leap to the belief that such objects come out of NOWHERE.

Just shockingly interesting.


Social networks are dehumanizing

I strongly believe this. I wouldn’t leap to this conclusion on the basis of this one study, but it’s fascinating to me. I think solitude and time to be with oneself is critical to making ethical choices.

Someone I once interviewed made their most courageous moral decision after going to an abbey for three days taking a temporary vow of silence. Not talking to anyone.

Also, whether you agree with or not, take a moment to appreciate what it would mean if social networks were dehumanizing. We are entering into the greatest “sociality” experiment in human history, where EVERYTHING is made social. Things could get quite bad.