Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.

 

This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.

 

This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”

 

In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.

 

The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

Observation

A couple years ago, one of my good friends wrote a book called Vector Rising under the pen name Cole Carver. The book is a science fiction thriller about a character who is able to see a little bit ahead of normal people. The idea for Carver stemmed from the science behind the way the brain processes motion and images. By the time an image has made its way from the source, through our eyes, and into our head, we are seeing a little bit into the past. We see just a fraction into the past, not a huge amount but a real amount, and our brains make up for this by predicting what is going on around us, especially with any movement, and using that prediction to create what we see.

 

A line from the book reads, “While science depends on experimentation, I’m here today to talk to you about a different core element: observation. If you recall, it’s the first step in our most sacred methodology. Before we make our guesses and r un our tests, we must first figure out what it is we see.” This was dialogue from one character to another, but I think it is actually a great point for all of us in our lives. We assume we know what it is we see around us and we believe the things we observe about the world, but frequently what we see really isn’t really what is happening. Biases can creep into the way we interpret certain events, we can mis-remember things that took place (or didn’t take place), and we can see a dress as a different color than what it really is. Our observations are not always as good as we would believe, and it is important that we think critically about what we see and try to gain as many perspectives on important things as possible.

 

If we start running through the world too quickly and are in too much of a hurry to trust our observations, we risk making mistakes that can have real world consequences. We may see ourselves as infallible and as deserving a new car, a promotion, or a super hot spouse. Our observation is only on the amazing parts of who we are because we have chosen to be blind to reality by hiding away our faults. The guesses we derive from our false sense of self can lead us to make arrogant decisions and to behave in ways that put down other people. This is dangerous not just for ourselves, but for the people we may interact with as well.

 

Ultimately, we should spend less time assuming that we know the world based on what we see, and more time trying to understand if what we see is an accurate reflection of the world. We should be quicker to assume that we don’t see the whole picture, and spend more time trying to broaden our field of view and less time trying to perform experiments that confirm our guesses. Instead of being so certain that we see the world the right way, we should ask others how our views fall short, and we should adjust them to have better observations of what is really taking place in the world.

How to Describe a Norm

What inputs drive what types of behaviors in humans? This is a question I think about at an incredibly basic level all the time, but that I don’t really hear much insightful discussion about in general. We all like to believe we (and everyone else) is in complete conscious control of our thoughts, minds, and decisions all the time, but we know that can’t be true. If you leave someone in a room with a plate of freshly baked cookies in front of them, they will almost invariably eat a cookie, even if they had woken up that day determined not to eat any cookies. If you deprive someone of sleep for a whole day while they travel across the country from Seattle to Orlando with multiple layovers and tired and cranky kids, you are bound to hear a few exasperated yells, even if that person was determined not to yell at their children (or anyone else). At  a certain point, the inputs that make their way into our mind have a big influence on the resulting behaviors that we see in the world.

 

Norms are one way that we establish certain inputs associated with certain behaviors. They help us regulate what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and desired. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The essence of a norm then, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punish and what form the punishment takes.” Norms are guidelines for nudging behaviors by changing the inputs into the minds of individuals.

 

We can applaud, ignore, or punish a behavior to change the likelihood of an action taking place again. If I send out a tweet with terrible insults, and that tweet is re-tweeted and I receive encouragement for speaking out against the people I insulted, I am receiving cues that suggest I should do more of that. If however, I see an old lady walking to the register at the grocery store, and I use my youthful speed to quickly jump in front of her, I am likely to receive angry looks and possibly be forced out of line if a big enough person sees me jump ahead of the little old lady. If the punishment in this situation is embarrassing enough, I likely won’t repeat this behavior the next time I am at the store.

 

Our minds and, consequently it seems, our brains are changed by the norms we use. What is possible in our wold is shaped by how we know other people will respond to what we do. The agency we feel when we think about the world is constrained by the thoughts, looks, and actions of other people. We rarely talk about all the inputs that may change our thinking and decision-making, but it is clear that we operate in a space where many physical and non-physical things can shape what we do, believe, and think. The mind absorbs many inputs and we are not always at liberty to decide how we will respond to those inputs if we are constrained or encouraged by specific norms.

The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed with.

 

A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”

 

The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and politics. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.

 

We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.

 

Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.

The Social Brain Hypothesis

The California redwoods are amazing trees. They stand taller than any other tree, scraping at the sky as they compete among each other for sunlight. The trees can be packed together in a dense manner, all competing for the same light, all pulling massive amounts of water from the ground up enormous heights. What is interesting, however, is that the redwoods are geographically isolated, not stretching out across huge swaths of the continent, but contained within a fairly narrow region. They don’t compete against other species and spread, but mostly compete for sunlight, water, and resources among themselves.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson introduce the redwoods as a way to talk about the Social Brain Hypothesis in humans. The idea that our brilliant brains developed so that we could compete against each other, not because our brains helped us outrun lions or get more food than our primate cousins. The authors write,

 

“The earliest Homo Sapiens lived in small, tight-knit bands of 20 to 50 individuals. These bands were our “groves” or “forests,” in which we competed not for sunlight, but for resources more befitting a primate: food, sex, territory, social status. And we had to earn these things, in part, by outwitting and outshining our rivals.
This is what’s known in the literature as the social brain hypothesis, or sometimes the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. It’s the idea that our ancestors got smart primarily in order to compete against each other in a variety of social and political scenarios.”

 

I find this super interesting because in many ways we are still fighting among each other as if we were part of a small band of 20 to 50 individuals. We live in a world where food is relatively bountiful (for many but certainly not all) in the United States. We live in a world of online dating where finding a mate is more open to more people. Our “territory” today can be more private than ever and online niche communities can give us a new sense of social status that we could not have obtained in the past if we did not conform to the small groups of our high school, family, or work.

 

We seem to be in a place where we can let go of the pressures that the social brain hypothesis put on our early ancestors, but I don’t see people shedding those pressures very often. We can look at what has driven our species to behave the way we do and see that we don’t need to compete in the same way, we can recognize the great possibilities available to us and move in our own direction, but so often we chose to just show off and do more to impress others as if we still lived in those small tribal bands. Rather than branching out, we seem to often retreat back to a group of 20 to 50 and compete internally in a way that wastes resources on our own selfish motives. I think that we should talk more openly about the social brain hypothesis and the ideas that Hanson and Simler present so that we can have a real discussion about how we move forward without pushing everyone to compete for things that we should be able to provide openly with new systems and organizations.

Enjoy What is Inside You

A couple years back I bought a bright green GPS sports watch. I do a lot of running and I like having a nice watch for my workouts, but the watch was a bit more flashy than what I really needed to purchase, and if I am honest with myself, I really don’t need a GPS watch at all if I want to be healthy and enjoy exercising.

 

What the watch reminds me now, is how often we look at things outside of ourselves to define who we are and to make us happy. We look to others to validate who we are and purchases like my watch help us tell others what we want them to see in us. Rather than being content with an activity on our own, we want people to be aware of us doing the activity and we want all kinds of rewards for what we do and who we are.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “rejoice only in that which comes from your own store. And what do I mean by ‘from your own store’? I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you.”

 

Senecas advice is for us to work toward being happy in our own skin, with our own decisions, without needing something external to make us who we are and without needing someone external to approve of who we are. When we cherish designer sunglasses, brag about the functions of our new GPS watch, or take our neighbors on a ride along in our new car, we are using something outside of us to amplify a part of us that we want others to see. Simultaneously we are not satisfied by just ourselves and need something else to display our value. We are not satisfied with our actions and decisions in isolation, and need someone outside of ourselves to applaud us.

 

If we can be more confident in who we are without needing the validation of others, we can have a more steady and stable life. We can enjoy the times we spend with others and enjoy the things we have, but we won’t feel as though we need to define ourselves by things external to us. Those things can become compliments and we can enjoy a few simple things without a constant need for more and better stuff.

Present in Mind and Body

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity.” I am always surprised by how hard it is to actually be present at any given moment. Our minds think far faster than we can talk or do any physical activity. From what I remember from a psychology class in college, our minds can think somewhere around 400 words per minute. We talk at about 200 words per minute when talking quickly and our pulse is much closer to about 60-ish beats per minute when just sitting around relaxed (just off memory so double check those numbers if you are really curious). Our brains are seriously quick, and that gives the mind extra time to jump around outside of our body and outside of our current setting.

 

I started reading the first Harry Potter book as a little break from non-fiction and one of the surprising things about the book is how quickly I detach from the present moment. Throughout the series, which I am now reading as quickly as possible it seems, I have found myself completely unaware of my physical surroundings and I have noticed my mind continually wanders away from the present in a day-dream. I will admit that I have enjoyed the books and the time that has flown by while reading them, but I do find it a little concerning how quickly my mind will jump out of my body into the story and steal away 10 minutes, an hour, or an entire evening in story, absent of the present moment and the things that my mind originally intended to do.

 

Seneca’s quote is about opportunity, and this morning I am reading it more as a quote about intention and doing meaningful things that we want to do. A good quick example to illustrate my thoughts comes from the world of sports. When we really train for something in a serious manner, we know that we have to put in deliberate practice. If we are just trying to stay fit then it is fine to hit the gym with our music, listen to a podcast while lifting weights, or lose ourselves in our thoughts or music while jogging comfortably. However, if we want to train to be a great martial artist, if we want to train to make a free throw when the game is on the line, and if we really want to stick that ski jump landing, then we need to focus on our physical body and what we need to do to perfectly execute our desired sports performance. If we are not also mentally present, then we miss the opportunity to apply ourselves in a serious way.

 

Presence is a sense of awareness of where we are, of the time, and of the opportunities in front of us. This is what the Harry Potter series, while I have enjoyed it, has stolen from me. I am physically present and where I need to be, but my mind has been running at 400 words per minute through a fictional world and magical fantasy. I think it is great to read fiction and get some story exposure in our minds, but we should remember the opportunities we miss if we can’t bring ourselves back to a mental presence. We need to be aware of our physical situation and also our mental situation if we really want to make the most out of the time we have on our planet.

Carelessness

“The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness,” Seneca wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius almost 2,000 years ago. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is a collection of short passages written from Seneca to Lucilius full of interesting reflections on life. His quick quote about carelessness seems to be as fitting as can be for our times today.

 

We live in a time where great possibilities are open to most of us. On a given weekend we can volunteer our time for a meaningful cause, go snowboarding, go to the beach, visit family, or work on an art project, or try to finally get the garage cleaned. Often, however, we might find ourselves in a position where our time slips past us, and our weekends are lost to Netflix and squandered on meaningless activities. I often look forward to the promises of the weekend on Friday with excitement, but end up looking around my place on Sunday night reflecting on everything I planned to do but never managed to get to. We don’t need to pack every minute of our free time with interesting, fun, and engaging activities, but what I feel on some Sunday nights, is the pain of a loss due to carelessness.

 

Much more seriously, our world faces very extreme consequences from global warming as we continue to put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We face dangerous consequences from the  bioaccumulation of plastics in fish and wildlife species that eat our garbage. Millions of people in the deserts of the United States rely on water sources that are becoming depleted, yet water waste from leaks and unwise water usage persist. Our world faces various ecological crises that result more or less from our own carelessness. Just as I feel terrible some Sunday nights about the way I wasted my time during the weekend, we will look back at where we are today and feel extreme regret for the carelessness with which we wasted resources and allowed our planet to degrade.

 

Solving my problem on Sunday nights is not impossible. It just requires that I be more considerate about my time. It requires that I think about what I am doing and why I am doing it to ask myself if there are other things I should be doing and if I am going to look back and be glad that I spent my time engaging with any given activity. With some planning going into the weekend, I can be successful in engaging with the world in a meaningful way on my days away from the office. The same is true for our climate crisis. If we ask ourselves what we are doing and how our actions contribute to the overall sustainability of our planet, we can start to make small changes to live better on our planet. We won’t individually make much of a difference, but collectively we will start to make changes and we can all contribute to a consciousness about the importance of using our resources wisely. That mindset will eventually translate into smart decisions globally to help us mitigate our impact on the way things are going and prevent us from a disgraceful loss of a habitable planet due to our own carelessness.

A Sense of Demotion

Since I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain, I have become really interested in ideas and thoughts about status. We are social creatures living in an interconnected and social world. In order for us to move through this world we need friends, allies, and an ability to impress people around us with our valuable skills, abilities, and knowledge. These social pressures have created an evolutionary reason for why we desire status: the higher our status (historically and ancestrally) the better our chances of passing along our genes.

 

Hanson and Simler argue that as social creatures, direct efforts to raise our status generally don’t work, so we need to raise our status indirectly. When we directly set out to show our dominance by making a lot of money, when we go to the gym and make it explicit that we are doing so to attract the hottest mate, and if we were to admit that we made a large donation just to look good socially, we actually lose status. Instead of being direct about our self-interest and desire to increase our status, we hide our motives behind motives that sound legitimate and are far more admirable. We are making lots of money to provide for our children’s future, we go to the gym to be healthy (again possibly to help improve our children’s lives and not our own), and we made that big donation because we believe in the benefits it will have for other people in society.

 

It is clear from the argument that Hanson and Simler make that much of our behavior is status seeking behavior and that there can be many negative externalities stemming from our status seeking behavior. We will be depressed if we can’t buy a bigger house than our brother-in-law, we may get physically injured by overdoing it at the gym to show off for that hottie, and our large donation to that important sounding cause may be less effective than other less visible means of doing good with our financial resources.

 

These thoughts of status seeking behavior and the dangers of status seeking behavior came to mind this morning as I returned to a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Wright says the following about some of the angst we see in our country and across Europe as society changes:

 

“Some political scholars have chalked up contemporary support for crypto-authoritarians in the early 21st century as the consequence of older, nationalistic people realizing that in an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, young people and immigrants and people who don’t look like them suddenly have as many rights and privileges as they do. Lacking the advantages they’ve had over these other people for their entire lives, they feel as if they’ve been demoted, when in reality, everyone else has been promoted to a status closer to that which these people always enjoyed. This is a misinterpretation of what’s happening, but their feeling of demotion is still very real, and we’ve seen some very tangible consequences of that.”

 

I think that Wright’s analysis is clearly correct but it is hard to say that it is the only factor or the main factor in the world today. I certainly think people should make an effort to get beyond their own status desires, but the point of bringing this quote in is not to write about the evils of some out-group. What I am thinking about as I write this is the importance of recognizing that our own status seeking behavior can be negative for society and the world. We should make an effort to engage with the world in a way that solves problems, recognizing that addressing big problems will raise our status, but not making our status the main reason we are trying to tackle such large problems. We can also recognize that the people Wright criticizes are no different from us, they are looking to maintain and increase their status just a we are. We don’t need to concede to them, but we can better understand the pressures they face and acknowledge that we would likely feel the same way if we were in their shoes and if our own status was being leveled in the same way.

The Trouble with Labels

“The troubling thing about labels is that we very seldom have the exact same definitions for them,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. I am disappointed by how frequently we use labels without giving them much thought. Labels are a necessity and a way to convey a lot of information without having to provide extensive background and definitions for every little thing. Labels are also things we use to signal something about ourselves and they are also something we use to make fun of other people and groups to which we don’t belong. If you are not aware of the labels you use, you are not aware of how frequently you are using them for signaling or just how insulting labels can be to the people you label.

 

Wright continues, “as soon as you decide to watch for them, you realize how many labels we use in every discussion, even beyond the exploratory ones. But it’s worth the effort if you really want to learn, understand, and communicate clearly.” When we use labels haphazardly, we end up talking about different things from our communication partner. My concept of any given label is going to be different from your concept of that label, and even if our ideas are just a little off, what I am saying may not make any sense to you at all. Our conversation could devolve into an argument where we are each trying to argue that something is or is not something else, not realizing that we are both arguing with a different set of definitions for the thing we are arguing about.

 

Beyond just confusing conversation, my biggest fear of labels is that they will become subtle digs and insults at our communication partners. We may throw in a label here or there that we don’t think our interlocutor will recognize, but that will be recognized by other people in our social group. This allows us to make subtle insults at individuals or groups and allows us to talk behind someone’s back, insulting them in a way where we feel superior because they did not even realize that we insulted them. This is typical of the types of arguments we see online, and it is something that has the ability to absolutely destroy productive conversation. It can ruin opportunities to learn and it actively drives us away from becoming a more cohesive society. Recognizing when use labels in this way will help us to have more clear and constructive conversations, and if we can help other people recognize how they use labels, then we can begin to have more productive and rational discussions about the direction our society should move.