Sometimes I think that if I were much more famous, female and in Hollywood instead of the penny theater circuit that is the blogosphere, I’d be Greta Garbo. Constantly insisting that I want to be left alone while at the same time being drawn to a kind of work that is intrinsically public and social. Simultaneously inviting attention and withdrawing from it.
Which I suppose is why ruminations on the key tensions of being a self-proclaimed introvert, in a role that seems better suited to extroverts, occupies so much bandwidth on this blog. That’s the theme of this third installment in my ongoing series of introductory sequences to ribbonfarm (here are the first two). This is the longest of the sequences, at 21 posts, and also has the most commentary. So here you go. I hope this will be useful to both new and old readers.
Future of Work The Human Condition
This sequence probably represents the single biggest category of writing on ribbonfarm. It originally started out with several posts on the Future of Work theme, which was a popular blogosphere bandwagon around 2007-08, when I was still half-heartedly trying various bandwagons on for size.
Though I had a few modest hits in that category, it took me a couple of years to realize that I was fundamentally not interested in the subject of work per se. I was primarily interested in work as a lens into the human condition.
Once I realized that, the writing in this category got a lot more fluid, and I got off the bandwagon. I still use work as the primary approach vector, rather than relationships or family, since I think in the modern human condition, work is the most basic (and unavoidable) piece of the puzzle.
The best tweet-sized description of the human condition I’ve encountered is due to personality psychologist Robert Hogan: getting along and getting ahead. To this I like to add the instinct towards self-exile and perverse (for our species) seeking out of solitude: getting away.
So I’ve divided the selections into three corresponding sections. Here’s the sequence. There’s a little more commentary at the end.
- The Crucible Effect and the Scarcity of Collective Attention
- The Calculus of Grit
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor
- The Turpentine Effect
- The World is Small and Life is Long
- My Experiments with Introductions
- Extroverts, Introverts, Aspies and Codies
- Impro by Keith Johnstone
- Your Evil Twins and How to Find Them
- Bargaining with your Right Brain
- The Tragedy of Wiio’s Law
- The Allegory of the Stage
- The Missing Folkways of Globalization
- On Going Feral
- On Seeing Like a Cat
- How to Take a Walk
- The Blue Tunnel
- How Do You Run Away from Home?
- On Being an Illegible Person
- The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche
- The Stream Map of the World
Triumph and Tragedy
Since I am not a credentialed social scientist, but frequently stomp rudely into areas where academic social scientists rule, a few words of warning and contextualization are in order.
The warning first. It should be clear that my approach to these subjects is nothing like the academic approach. It is amateurish, speculative, fanciful (occasionally bordering on the literary or mystical) and resolutely narrative-driven. Empiricism plays second fiddle to conceptualization, if it is present at all. And this at a time when narrative is becoming a dirty word in mainstream intellectual culture. If you like any of the ideas in the posts above, you would probably be well advised to hide or disguise the fact that you’ve gone shopping in an intellectually disreputable snake-oil marketplace.
Surprisingly though, I don’t think those are the most important differences between the way I approach these subjects and the way academics do. Criticism I get is more often due to my overall philosophical stance rather than my lack of credentials or non-empiricist snake-oil methods.
I approach these themes with a sort of tragic-realist philosophical stance, while the academic world is going through a seriously positivist phase that is marked by extreme self-confidence and optimism about its own future potential for somehow “fixing the world.” At least for a chosen few.
Social scientists are going through a period of extreme belief in their own views and methods. This is most true of behavioral economics, which exhibits an attitude that borders on triumphalism. The attitude appears to have spilled over to the rest of the social sciences. Thanks to tools and concepts like social graphs, fMRI mapping and so forth, a great mathematization, quantification and apparent empiricization of the social sciences is now underway. Freud and Jung are in the doghouse. There is a good chance that Shakespeare and Dostoevsky will follow.
This is not a new kind of attitude, but the last time we saw this kind of social science triumphalism, it was derivative. The triumphalism of late 19th century engineering triggered a wave of High Modernist social engineering in its wake that lasted till around 1970. That project failed across the world and social scientists quickly abandoned the engineers and turned into severe critics overnight (talk about fair weather friends). But social scientists today have found a native vein of confidence to mine. They are now rushing in boldly where engineers fear to tread.
It is rather ironic that much of the confidence stems from discoveries made by the Gotcha Science of cognitive biases. In case it isn’t obvious, the irony is that revelations about the building blocks of the tragic DNA of the human condition have been pressed into service within a fundamentally bright-sided narrative. This narrative (though the believers deny that there is one) is based on the premise that cataloging and neutralizing biases will eventually leave behind a rationally empiricist core of perfectible humanity, free of deluded narratives. One educational magic bullet per major bias. The associated sociological grand narrative is about separating the world of the Chosen Ones from the world of the Deluded Masses, and using some sort of Libertarian Paternalism as the basis for the former to benevolently govern the latter without their being aware of it.
I suppose it is this sort of overweening patronizing attitude that leads me to occasionally troll the Chosen Ones by triggering completely pointless Batman vs. Joker Evil Twin debates.
Sometimes I feel like going to a behavioral economics conference and yelling out from the audience, “you’re reading the evidence wrong you morons, it is
turtles biases and narratives all the way down; we should be learning to live with and through them, not fighting them!”
Unlike the woman who yelled the original line at an astronomer in the apocryphal story, I think I’d be right. In this case, anthropocentric thinking lies in believing that there is a Golden Universal Turing Machine Running the Perfect Linux Distro at the bottom. There is no good reason to believe that natural selection designed us as perfect (or perfectible) cores wrapped in a mantle of biases and narrative patterns.
In my more mean-spirited and uncharitable moments, I like to think of Biasocial Science as an enterprise driven by the grand-daddy of all biases: the bias towards believing that cataloging biases advances our understanding of the human condition in a fundamental way that can enable the construction and enactment of a progressive “Ascent of Quantified Man” narrative.
Oh well, I am probably going to be proved wrong. I seem to have a talent for championing lost causes. Anyway, that warning and contextualization riff aside, go ahead and dive in. You’ve been warned of the dangers.