Fueled by Indifference

Fueled by Indifference

In December of 2021 I was in Las Vegas and on my way back to the airport the GPS took me through a tough part of town. There were numerous homeless people along one stretch and tons of trash strewn across the streets.
 
 
Today I retweeted a picture from Los Angeles with a caption, “Not a third world country, your country.” The picture featured a train pulling shipping containers along a stretch of track completely littered with garbage, boxes, and junk.
 
 
The stretch of Las Vegas I drove through and the picture from LA reflect the indifference in the United States that fuels really awful realities for so many places and lives. Our country is so focused on the individuals that we fail to see our collective responsibilities. We are so prone to thinking about improving the world through our own hard work and efforts to be a good person that we see larger problems that demand collective action and feel helpless. I couldn’t help every homeless person I drove past in Las Vegas, and I can’t clean up the train tracks in LA by myself. The problem is beyond what I could do, so why should I even think about it. It is easier to just blame others for their laziness, lack of morals, or to simply be indifferent.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference.” Harari is writing about human animal consumption, and about the way industrial agriculture operates. He is also critiquing the idea of using animals as a technology for food sources and human nutrition in general. Animals by all means appear to be conscious and have experiences, but we don’t think about it. We are indifferent to their suffering, we ignore the issue, and we go about our lives fueling great harm to animal lives that we consider lesser than human lives.
 
 
Harari’s thoughts on indifference are reflected in the two recent experiences that I shared. In LA, shipping containers on trains are being raided for the goods they contain. Amazon boxes, goods shipped from oversees, and whatever else happens to be in shipping containers are being stolen and the packaging is being tossed about. Our focus on ourselves, our own goods and experiences, and on what we have has put us in a position where we are indifferent to the damage that our personal desires have on the rest of the world. In Las Vegas we enjoy the nightlife of the strip, the shopping and entertainment of the hotels and casinos, and the renowned restaurants. We don’t think about the people who have had tough luck, made bad decisions, or just not been given extra help when they are down. Unless our GPS takes us an unconventional route, we ignore the problems of poverty around such a glitzy city. I am certainly no better than anyone else in these regards.
 
 
 
Somehow we have to find a way to be less indifferent. Somehow we have to find a way to value collective organizations and efforts. Somehow we have to empower institutions that will help us care more about other lives (human and animal) and other places. As I note, it is too hard for any one of us to help the homeless or clean the environment on our own. It is easy to be indifferent, and there are too many bad things and important causes for us to focus on anything in particular. We need to have institutions that further collective action and overcome our individual indifferences. 
The Location of Human Knowledge - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan

The Location of Human Knowledge

“The average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. Individual human hunter-gatherers had to know a lot about their environment, and they were not learning from text books and schools. They were learning by trial and error, by being shown what was edible and what was not edible older members of their tribe, and they had to develop a plethora of skills in order to do all the things necessary for survival.
Humans today are not very likely to be able to weave baskets from reeds (as much as we joke about basket weaving courses for college athletes). They also likely can’t sharpen a flint arrowhead, don’t know what animals are around their location and how to hunt them, and don’t know what wild plants are helpful or harmful. Individually, modern humans don’t seem to have the same regionalized knowledge as the ancient humans that came before them. But today we definitely know far more than the humans before us as a whole.
The difference, Harari explains, is that the location of human knowledge has changed. We no longer all hold the same helpful regional information in our heads. Instead, we have a collective knowledge spread across humanity. Each of us is an expert in our own little niche. For example, I studied political science and Spanish. I know a bit about theories of policy processes, such as the Multiple Streams Framework, and I know a bit about medieval literature from the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand, I don’t really know much about how nuclear submarines work, how my city’s sewage system works, and I don’t really know what migratory birds can be found in the area during the spring versus the fall. Someone else in the collective of human knowledge is an expert in each of those things.
“The human collective,” writes Harari, “knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.” This quote may be a broad overgeneralization, but it is nevertheless interesting and thought provoking. Some of us are incredibly skilled with a variety of things and have a great deal of knowledge about much of the world around us. Others don’t seem to have as much skill, and know more about celebrities than we do about what is happening in the world. Overall, the important thing to consider is that the modern world has seen a shift in the distribution of knowledge. We don’t all have to hold information about our immediate surroundings in our heads, and we don’t all have to be able to produce the things necessary for our survival. Only some humans need to know those things and have the skills to produce the basic necessities for life. The rest of us can then go off and explore different areas and learn different things, constantly increasing the collective human knowledge and skill base, even if we individually seem more narrowly skilled and less immediately knowledgeable compared with our ancient forager ancestors.
Collective Conservatism

Collective Conservatism

Groupthink is one of the most dangerous phenomenon that our world faces today. Families, companies, and governments can all find themselves stuck in groupthink, unable to adapt to a world that no longer fits the model and expectations that drive traditional thinking. When everyone has the same thought processes and members of the group discount the same information while adopting a uniform perspective, the world of possibilities becomes limited.

 

In Nudge, authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about a particular element that is common when groupthink takes hold, collective conservatism. While discussing groups that follow tradition the authors write,

 

“We can see here why many groups fall prey to what is known as collective conservatism: the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new needs arise. Once a practice (like wearing ties) has become established, it is likely to be perpetuated, even if there is no particular basis for it.”

 

In a family household, collective conservatism might take the form of a specific way to fold towels. Perhaps towels had to be folded a certain way to fit a space in a previous house, and the tradition has continued even though towels no longer need to be folded just right for the space. Nothing is really lost by folding towels just so, but it might be time consuming to make sure they are folded in order to fit a constraint that no longer exists.

 

Within companies and governments, however, collective conservatism can be more consequential than the time and effort involved in folding towels. A company that cannot adjust supply chains, cannot adjust a business model in response to competition, and that cannot improve workspaces to meet new employee expectations is likely to be overtaken by a start-up that is more in tune with new social, technological, and cultural business trends. For a government, failures to adjust for technological change and employee motivations are also risks, as are changes in international relations, social needs, and more. Being stuck in a mindset that cannot see the changes and cannot be more responsive can be dangerous because peoples actual lives and needed services and supports could be in jeopardy. Collective conservatism feels safe to those who are in decision-making roles and who know what worked in the past. However, collective conservatism is a form of group think that can lead to inept operations and strategies that can be economically costly and have negative impacts in peoples’ real lives.
Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall Poppy Syndrome

“There is unevenness, you know, when some objects rise conspicuous above others,” Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic.

 

I’m pretty fascinated with a concept that is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome and is often strongly expressed in Australia and New Zealand (so I understand – I haven’t been there myself to experience the culture fist hand). The idea is this:

 

A tall poppy that rises higher than the rest, that stand out above the others, is more likely to be decapitated than any other poppy. The poppy that is taller than the rest is not an admirable and praiseworthy poppy, it is risking itself and is likely to become a target. It is the first to be cut down because it is the most visible and easiest to see. An average poppy among a sea of poppies is likely to be left untouched and unbothered while the towering poppy next door is likely to have its top chopped off.

 

The idea is a warning against our ego and an argument in support of modesty. It is a polar opposite of current conceptions of the American Dream. Rather than standing out, boasting successful achievements, and always trying to have more, Tall Poppy Syndrome sends a message that it is better to do well, but not to do too well. As Seneca says, when some objects conspicuously rise above others, they create unevenness.

 

The potential of unevenness, or inequality, is an argument in favor of Tall Poppy Syndrome. The United States has never embraced a Tall Poppy Syndrome mindset, and instead we have developed a culture that tells us it is best to standout in all that we do. Have bright, fashionable clothing. Drive a fancy sports car. Own a big home to show your wealth and success. Inequality is a feature, not a bug, within the American system.

 

Today that inequality is reaching boiling points. Racial inequality (particularly within in policing and opportunity for advancement) is fueling protests. Increases in economic inequality has heightened tensions in the United States since the 2008 financial crisis. And as long as I can remember, social cohesion has clashed with our desire to stand out and be ourselves, producing visible and difficult cultural conflicts over gay marriage, free speech, and whether it is acceptable to wear baggie jeans.

 

There may be times where Tall Poppy Syndrome is limiting and reduces innovation and GDP growth. But its absence, and an all out push to stand out as an individual, can have its own consequences. Donald Trump doesn’t become president in a society that strongly discourages status seeking behavior via Tall Poppy Syndrome. In a culture that is all about economic success, bragging about attention and popularity, and ostentatious wealth, Trump and everything he represents, can rise to the top without fear of being cut down and outcast.

 

I don’t think Tall Poppy Syndrome is a perfect solution to the challenges America faces today, but I do think we need to limit the extent to which we worship the eccentric, ego driven entrepreneurs who have developed some of our best tools and technologies, and who to this point have represented the pinnacle of American success. Encouraging more settling at a certain point, more efforts to create a rising tide to lift all boats, rather than encouraging the tall poppy, might be necessary for our country to move forward on more even footing.

Language, Rules, Punishment

I studied Spanish during my undergraduate degree and I frequently listen to John McWhorter’s podcast Lexicon Valley. I enjoy thinking about language and I’m sometimes fascinated by the fact that sounds produced by one person can impact so much about the world. The language we have developed can shape so much of how we act and behave and how the world is structured around us.

 

In a short passage Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reflect on humans, the societies we have built, and the roles we have evolved into over thousands of years in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “We are social animals who use language to decide on rules that the whole group must follow, and we use the threat of collective punishment to enforce these rules against even the strongest individuals. And although many rules vary from group to group, there are some – like those prohibiting rape and murder – that are universal to all human cultures.” 

 

Their quote really describes the state that humans have evolved into, but I think it is interesting to consider the role of language in this evolution. A species without a complex language likely would not have been able to develop the complex system of rules that we have adopted. So many of our rules are written down in statutes, laws, and regulations. Without them, following a collective set of rules and developing shared norms and punishments would be next to impossible. Even with a standard written language, we spend tons of time debating the meaning of the language we use to codify rules, and slight changes in understandings of language can change the outcomes that manifest in the real world.

 

Human societies have existed with rules and norms without written language, but the written word allowed us to build corporations, to organize criminal justice systems, and to develop social contracts that hold everything in place. Our language can boost the strongest and most brash demagogues, but it can also provide the spark to organize resistance and topple that same tyrant. Language allows us to take universal understandings of right and wrong and build outward, to create a system of fairness and justice that we can all operate within. Without our language, and without the evolution of our brain to allow for language, we might be doing just fine as small hunter-gatherer tribes, but we certainly would not be able to thrive in huge social societies with collective rules.