Monday, April 12, 2010

What is it for, then?

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

Marginal Revolution points to an intriguing post at Overcoming Bias, which in turn points to an earlier O.B. post, which in turn points to yet another earlier similar interesting post.

The source articles on O.B. are pretty thick.  Robin Hanson is an academic's academic.  Nice guy, but he doesn't write for normal folks to read.  I'll recap for you:
* Scientists can't figure out why human brains are so large.  One (apparently new) theory is that humans are unconsciously deceptive--we tell ourselves and each other a near constant stream of lies, and we have to have these too big brains in order to encode and decode all of the lies.
* We can think of this dishonesty as sending signals to fool our competitors, like bluffing (a simple example; there are hundreds of other examples.)
* Society is then made up of people who are all being dishonest all the time in little ways.  The net result is that no individual gets what they want.  But as a whole society generally performs fairly well; because the average of all of those little lies is very close to the average of all of the little truths behind the lies.
* If we examine human institutions from the assumption that everyone is signaling and hiding their real desires and/or intentions, then previously confusing situations become clear (or, at least, clearer.)
* The system is vulnerable to truth-tellers.  In large and small situations, truth-tellers can unmask the deceptions and get what they want, over the short-term.  Over the long-term people will return to their comfortable little lies; because their large brains are hard-wired for it.
* Truth-tellers have to be careful.  These messengers tend to get shot.

I love the 'X isn't about Y' poem (rhyming concepts instead of sounds.)  This is how Robin explains it: "When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more."

Identifying and naming the various Z's can be fun and enlightening.  Probably different people have different Z's.  For instance, for one person clothes might really be a signal of their status and/or group membership (business people in suits, or gang members, for instance) and for others clothing might be about hiding their true identity.  Maybe not, though.  That was the best example I could think of, and its a pretty slim distinction.

Then maybe this is a Rorschach test.  How would you fill in these blanks?

Clothes are really about ___________________.
Bedrooms are really about ___________________.
Marriage is really about ___________________.
Talk is really about ___________________.
Laughter is really about ___________________.
Charity is really about ___________________.
Church is really about ___________________.
Art is really about ___________________.
Medicine is really about ___________________.
Consulting is really about ___________________.
School is really about ___________________.
Research is really about ___________________.
Politics is really about ___________________.

That third linked article from O.B. is about what Robin thinks Politics is really about.  Robin thinks that politics are about getting respect.  If that is true then a Manchurian Candidate could focus on a message of respect and win in a landslide.  So this is not necessarily just an academic exercise.  If we know what someone really wants then we can find new and innovative ways to meet that need.

My own answers are pretty cynical.  That probably has something to do with my mood today.  I might revisit this post when I'm feeling happier.

Clothes are really about group membership.
Bedrooms are really about feelings of insecurity.
Marriage is really about loneliness.
Talk is really about emotional connection.
Laughter is really about embarrassment and confusion.
Charity is really about affirming myself.
Church is really about seeking affirmation.
Art is really about communicating unpopular opinions.
Medicine is really about fear.
Consulting is really about covering myself.
School is really about conformity.
Research is really about competition.
Politics is really about stealing money from the public.

Some of these I have thought and felt for a long time.

I have a note taped to my desk that says "The goal of communication is emotional connection.  Fact transmission is only a useful by-product."  I've had it for years.  I can't remember where I got the idea, but I have understood for years that I am too focused on facts and too ignorant of emotional connection.  It's a weakness that I am working on.  Obviously there is much left to do.

I read Steve Martin's biography, Born Standing Up.  Steve goes into great detail about his early experiments in comedy.  He began experimenting with telling jokes that lacked punchlines.  He would just riff from discomfort to confusion and garner laughter from the audience's inability to decide what else to do.  (Of course he explains it much better than that.)

Democracy 2.0 is a flaming critique of the political establishment.  My feelings about politics are well documented.

But I have been struggling with how to communicate Democracy 2.0 for years, too.  I've thought a lot about art as a medium for communicating Democracy 2.0, or as least my critiques of the current system.  I've been thinking about writing fiction as a way to communicate my critiques.

I used to manage a team of consultants.  It's not a secret within the consulting community that people hire consultants as a form of job insurance in case the project fails.  The consultants always take the blame.  Any consultant who attempts to subvert this unwritten rule will find himself/herself off contract and blackballed.

The critique of charity is an old saw.  This was Freud's explanation for charity, if I remember correctly.

My opinion of church will be quite controversial among my friends, and so I feel like a word of explanation is necessary.  There are two types of people in church: believers and non-believers.  Fellowship among believers is essentially a form of affirmative encouragement.  Non-believers seem to be looking for someone to tell them that they are ok.  The word 'encouragement' covers the believers, but not the non-believers.  'Affirmation' covers both groups better.  If you have a better word then I'm all ears.

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