Arbitrariness Costs

I’ve long held that civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary. The incomprehensible can be scary but the arbitrary tends to be merely exhausting. Unless the stakes are high, such as in paperwork around taxes or passports and visas. Then the exhaustion becomes tinged with anxiety. Either way the steady increase in arbitrariness creates, in the name of progress, a growing ocean of mind-numbing details you just have to know. Or figure out the hard way by reading instructions. Or by brute force trial-and-error. For example:

  1. Which way does the USB cable go in?
  2. Where is the hood button on this rental car?
  3. Which way do you insert the card into the machine?
  4. How do you get to the city from the airport in this city?
  5. You need to get over to the second lane from the left on this exit
  6. The option you need is in that sub-menu
  7. This is how you check-in in this particular airport
  8. This is how you replace this filter in this weird device
  9. This is how you repack an appliance you want to return
  10. This is how you use codes and apps to get a package
  11. Everything to do with health insurance
  12. All technical shopping

Not surprisingly a lot of such knowledge is symmetry-breaking knowledge or raw information about names or numbers. As tech gets more complex, things seem to get more intuitive locally, but overall the arbitrariness keeps going up. The number of YouTube videos explaining arbitrary shit keeps going up.

Automation often pretends to solve arbitrariness but usually just moves it around. Uber makes getting a ride in a new city supposedly easier, but then you have to learn local stupid games the drivers play, weird edge cases, and so on. GPS makes some aspects of driving much easier but when everyone has GPS you get new kinds of arbitrary.

I think arbitrariness costs are an undertheorized variety of transaction costs. I find them particularly exhausting to deal with. Often I’ll forgo a potentially fun new experience because the arbitrariness burden is too high. Arbitrariness neutralizes intelligence and strategic intuitions. It slows you down to the speed of entropy. It creates barriers around value.

There are only two real solutions to arbitrariness burdens: Paying for premium experiences that lower it, or paying flunkeys to deal with them for you (not always possible). Either way, the fact that costly solutions exist shows that the transaction costs of arbitrariness is real. I’m usually willing to pay to not deal with it if I can afford to. For example, I’m always happy to pay for valet parking. Or “expedited” processes. Or luxuries I don’t otherwise care for just to get lowered arbitrariness benefits. Or a human interface.

There’s something not quite right about this tendency of civilization towards exhausting arbitrariness. Maybe AI will fix it by learning all the arbitrariness rather than moving it around. I’m not optimistic. I suspect the so-called meaning crisis is in fact an arbitrariness burden crisis. Things that might otherwise feel meaningful aren’t anymore once wrapped in sufficient arbitrariness.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. > Things that might otherwise feel meaningful aren’t anymore once wrapped in sufficient arbitrariness

    Huh. Can you give an example? My naive assumption was the opposite: it was precisely the arbitrary complexity of rituals (cf Japanese yea ceremony) that gave them meaning.

    • Khushwant Singh says

      I would argue that ritual complexity is not arbitrary costs. They are benefits chosen to create a ‘bottom-up’ meaning as opposed to ‘top-down’(religious, rational) meaning.

      Look up Ted Gioia’s substack post on rituals if you’re interested

    • Gabrielle Depner says

      A thing like the japanese tea ceremony is human and has beauty. It gets honoured and enhanced by the addition of the ritual complexity .

      A thing like finding out what buttons to press in several substack menues or on phone keyboards only to obtain some common service is an insult to human intelligence

  2. Ravi Daithankar says

    Have you noticed some people actually revel in navigating this kind of arbitrariness? For example, my dad. He will legit approach random shit like some kind of one-person game and figuring it out gives him a visible sense of joy! All the things that I actively avoid, even when it puts me at a clear immediate-term disadvantage, seem to energize him. Also, there is a very clear tradeoff in terms of the type of stuff he will pass on, so that he can channel his energy to focus on the arbitrary. I have to admit that irks me big time lol.

    • This is the Jerry archetype from Rick & Morty, and it’s very real. I had a boss at a small print company whose face would visibly light up whenever the crappy garage door broke, or a bolt fell out of one of the presses, because he knew he could disappear for several hours and work on something that felt like a tangible problem.

      • But that’s navigating a breakage, not navigating the arbitrary processes of a novel “solution.” Everyone loves a break from the ordinary because it helps us feel useful, even at the cost of inconvenience or even sacrifice. I struggle to imagine the person who revels in sacrificing time and mental energy to learn the arbitrary processes around a new app (for example).

  3. Rich people seem to understand this principle quite well. For example you rarely see them assembling IKEA furniture. Do you think some of this might be related to our false sense of middle-classdom as discussed in your other works? Businesses are pleased to offer the peasant class luxuries that make them *feel* middle-class, provided they are willing to do some of the work. And modern technology has allowed them to transmute labor into arbitrary virtual steps which might seem meaningless to humans, but help facilitate the robots.
    So we could view Arbitrariness as an alternate robot currency. When you order a sandwich, the sandwich with delivery should really cost $45 dollars. But thanks to the robots, you can get it for $25 if you preform some arbitrary robot tasks, like installing Uber Eats, accepting a free trial, ordering the sandwich, tipping the delivery dude, updating the address, clicking the button, and then cancelling the free trial.

  4. Nitin Nair says

    >>>”Paying for premium experiences that lower arbitrariness burdens” best exemplified by not using Uber but in fact hiring a car and driver for the day whenever feasible

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