Monday, July 28, 2014

Sitting Quietly In A Room Alone: It's The Boredom, Stupid!

Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein
By now I'm sure you've heard about those recent studies that found many people would rather give themselves painful shocks than sit quietly doing nothing. Reading about this research in the popular press, I was like "Can you say Rorschach Test?" It's like everyone who encountered the basic facts had their own spin on how to interpret what happened.

The facts are roughly these: when told to sit quietly alone for 6 to 15 minutes, almost everyone found the experience unpleasant, and many people -- in one case 12 of 18 men and 6 of 24 women gave themselves painful electric shocks rather than just sitting there.

The conclusion in the abstract for the actual scholarly paper says simply, "Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative."

OK, I admit to being a little bit surprised about the shocks -- but really, is it really news that people find it hard to sit quietly doing nothing? Almost no one ever does this by choice, when people do manage it it's a whole special activity called "meditation," and people who regularly ponder things just in their own minds for long periods of time are considered strange and even sinister. So: how is this a surprise?

After all, it's only been like three-hundred and fifty years since Pascal said that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

But everyone had their own ideas about the significance of the findings.

The Guardian, and some of the researchers quoted, seemed to emphasize the "being alone with your own thoughts" aspect of the whole thing -- as if it were the thoughts people were having that bothered them, as if people just use activities to avoid thinking about things.

This makes no sense to me. People are constantly thinking about things -- I mean, it's not like brooding and worrying are nineteenth-century activities.  The fact that people want to brood and worry while pacing, listening to stuff, and texting doesn't mean they're not brooding.

Many Guardian commentators wanted to pile on the whole "Kids Today! They Can't Think!" ridiculousness. Yeah -- I'm sure you guys all sit around alone contemplating the mysteries of quantum mechanics all day.

Predictably, The New York Times linked the whole thing up to the OMG modern society is so BUSY we have no time to THINK we're always RUSHING AROUND! As if we're the first generation in the history of the universe that spends a lot of time doing things and talking to other people.

Personally I was astonished that no one mentioned boredom. Isn't it just boring to sit alone with your thoughts doing nothing? I spend a lot of time thinking about things, but I'm almost always reading, typing, writing, talking, listening, drawing, or doing something other thinking-associated activity. Often I'm also doing other activities, like drinking coffee, or looking out the window, at the same time.

The fact that I almost never just sit quietly alone in a room thinking about things doesn't mean I don't contemplate. I contemplate all the fucking time -- I'm a philosopher; I'm stuffed to overflowing with contemplation.

The fact that I almost never just sit quietly alone in a room thinking about things is because sitting quietly alone in a room is BORING.

It might seem like this boredom hypothesis is less exciting or revolutionary than the "people can't be alone with their thoughts" hypothesis, but in my view that's not the case. Because the fact that boredom can make people crazy and self-destructive is a profound and unreckoned with truth.

Often our modern western theory of people sneaks in an assumption that beyond basic needs what people want is best described as pleasure or happiness. It depends on what you mean by those things, of course -- but given the depth of the hatred of boredom, it seems to me that pleasure and happiness are barely scratching the surface.

Interestingly, the Guardian subheadline for the story says "Report from psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities tackles question of why most of us find it so hard to do nothing."

But as far as I can tell the report does nothing of the kind. The report tells us HOW EXTREMELY most of us find it so hard to do nothing, but it tells us nothing about WHY most of us find it so hard to do nothing.

In that area, we haven't really made any progress-- we're just back with Pascal, observing the human condition. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Economics Imperialism And Its Discontents: Altruism Edition

Family, by Mary Cassatt [Public domain], via Wikimedia  Commons
 As we've observed before, economists are famous for their calculated pose of mystification when it comes to activities we all recognize as ordinary parts of human life -- you know, like caring, playing fair, voting, etc. etc.

And it's not news that one of our human aspects that doesn't fit obviously into the economic toolbox is altruism. The economic agent is self-interested. Altruist people are other-interested. It's a real poser.

You might think that the differences doesn't matter much because economic modeling is about what we do in marketplaces, and in markets people pretty much are self-interested, or something like that. I'm a little skeptical myself -- but it doesn't even matter, because this easy-going, commonsensical answer isn't even the one people seem to be going with.

No -- instead we have "economics imperialism," which self-consciously attempts to use economic methodology to analyze all aspects of human life -- crime, family life, love, sex, you name it. It's "imperialism" because it's intended to colonize the other social-explanatory disciplines, like sociology. The idea of "economics imperialism" is to use the economic model of human behavior to explain and understand everything. Or, as the NYTimes "Economix blog used to say, "Explaining the Science of Everyday Life."

Before we get to the main point, let me just say briefly that the the epistemic and explanatory difficulties seem to me to be vast. Just for starters, consider this. The economic approach is supposed to be "scientific," relying on human behavior and observables and avoiding analysis of murky subjectives like mental states etc. But how is this supposed to work in explanation? Suppose someone does a surprising thing. How can you know whether a) they were behaving irrationally in trying to satisfy an unsurprising set of preferences or whether b) they were behaving rationally in trying to get to satisfy a surprising set of preferences? You always have one equation and two unknowns.

But whatever. Our theme for today is something different, to do with the massaging of preferences so they can be both self-interested and altruistic. You might think "altruism" means caring for others at your own expense. But in his canonical work on the economics of family life, Gary Becker proposes a definition in terms of utility functions: altruism is when one person is made better off by another person being made better off. E. g., a parent's altruism for a child is understood as the parent having some set of preferences such that when the kid does better the parent is more satisfied and thus better off. So -- as we get to below -- it's not really caring "at you own expense" at all.

You might put it by saying that "self-interested" doesn't mean "selfish": A's preference for B to prosper is "self-interested" in the sense that A will do better when B does, but it's not selfish, because it is, in some sense, other-directed.

So far so good. Becker goes on to derive a huge range of "theorems" based on his approach -- like the "Rotten Kid Theorem," which posits that an altruistic parent will (should?) structure incentives in the family to make selfish kids behave in ways that do not harm the interests of other family members. For example, if you promise to apportion your inheritance to your kids in accordance with their needs, siblings will be incentivized to help one another out  -- lest they get left out of the will because all the money went to the brother who never finished school and lives in a cardboard box or whatever.


1) In Becker's approach, every family situation considered consists of one altruist and a bunch of selfish kids. That is, there is no way to model a family with more than one altruist, which means there is no way to even talk about any of the vast number of life contexts in which there are two or more adults who care about one another.

There's a reason for this. As I said, the book is full of theorems. If you have more than one altruist you have multiple interdependent utility functions, and all the cool-looking and intimidating math stops working.

At one point Becker suggests a "wife" could be modeled as one of the "selfish children," but you don't even need this level of ridiculousness to see the problem: the whole thing rests on avoiding the state of affairs many people most desire, of equal persons in a loving and reciprocal home.

2) If an altruist gives something up in order for their target to prosper, you might think the altruist is worse off and the recipient is better off. But in Becker-land, you'd be mistaken! Indeed, since they're both acting in accordance with their preferences, how can you deny they're both better off? That would violate some fundamental economic assumption or other of what economic "well-being" is. 

Becker says the altruist is better off in the sense of receiving "psychic income" for her pains. It's a funny choice, no? You got the car, but I got the "psychic income," so ... we're good, right?

It's weirdest if you imagine it among equal adults who live on intimate terms. If one is altruistic and the other is a selfish bloodsucking vampire, there's no problem with the distribution of goods: they each got what they preferred, after all. According to the model, things are working efficiently and thus well.

3) You know how sometimes when there's a nicer business that tries to do a little altruism or do-gooderism or at least exhibit a bare and basic kind of community spirit, and it's surrounded by bigger and meaner businesses that take a more cut-throat, remorseless attitude, and the nicer business ends up having to take its little business lunchbox and go home?

Well as I reckon, if you use the economic model to analyze interpersonal altruism, you're going to get the same result. Imagine you're the baby bear of altruisism -- just right! -- but you're surrounded by bloodsuckers -- the "ticks" of modern society, if you will. Every time you engage with these people, you'll get a little more psychic income and they'll get a little more ... whatever selfish and self-oriented actual thing they want is. Money -- or food, or attention, health, prestige, etc.

Where will it end?

I'll tell you where it'll end. Eventually you'll be lying there stuffed full of psychic income, but the cupboard will be bare, and you won't be able to afford antibiotics, and you'll die of some easily preventable disease.

Someone may have tried to tell you that economic theories don't have moral implications. Those people were lying.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Truth And Lying In Fiction And Non-Fiction

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman (formerly thought to be Madame Roland) via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday for the first time I read a David Sedaris story and found myself thinking, "Is that really true?"

Mostly I like David Sedaris. His stories are often funny and sad, and as someone who is frequently amused and sad at the same time, I'm always surprised how few things there are to read that bring the two moods together. Maybe that's why I like Philip Roth so much too -- though maybe Roth is more like "funny and angry" -- a notoriously easier combo to bring off.

Anyway, yesterday I read the story in The New Yorker about how he gets one of those step tracking devices and becomes obsessed with tracking his steps to the point where he changes his existing pick-up-the-garbage-around-town routine from a bike oriented thing to a walking oriented thing and that it now takes him around nine hours a day. He gets up to sixty thousand steps a day, which is twenty-five and a half miles, which is, of course, kind of insane.

I get that he's an obsessive guy -- and I get that one point of the story is how obsessive people can get obsessed with anything to the point where some number tracking some pretty pointless thing can nonetheless come to rule your life. 

But the story is presented in terms of an utterly pointless thing becoming a complete obsession. It's a little hard to believe. There was no connection to something else? Wanting to lose weight or walk more for health? (He does lose weight but that's presented as an afterthought.) It's just a random thing that happens to an otherwise successful middle-aged guy with a nice home and partner there to eat dinner with and talk to?

I don't think he is lying. But I started wondering if there hadn't been something left out, something that would make the story seem less strange, less striking and interesting, if it had been included. Like -- a way the obsession was connected to other things. I even developed the base suspicion that the obsession itself had been exaggerated on grounds that twenty-five and a half miles a day is a story, in a way that five miles a day isn't, really.

It's likely that one reason I had these thoughts has to do to the fact that I took a memoir class recently and for that class wrote some things about my life. For the first time I was giving serious attention to the process that starts with memories and turns them into narrative. 

Frankly, it's a somewhat creepy process. A good story has certain elements that make it interesting and fun to read. A particular narrative arc or structure. Engaging characters. An interesting setting. Memories aren't like that.

And when you put the memory materials into the narrative machine, you don't put in fake stuff, but you do shape the stuff you've got to make the story good. You are telling a particular version of things. Your version has to commit to all kinds of decisions about very murky things like: Did this cause that? What was that person like? Was some moment in your life primarily a turning point, a triumph over adversity, of a piece that came before, evidence of something characteristic,  typical or exception?

To me, this kind of "shaping" felt a whole lot like lying.

The weird thing is -- and I was acutely conscious of this taking the class -- that when you think for even a moment about these decisions, they're the same decisions anyone has to make in describing anything.

I don't care if you're writing a historical narrative or making a theory about things or people or doing a philosophy thing or even just writing a stupid managerial report: you have to figure out, from an endless jumble of random and disconnected facts and make endless decisions about which ones are important and which ones are connected and how to put them all together in a way that's meaningful.

So at some level, it's all just a big fake-out.

In certain ways, non-fiction narrative seems like a special problem. Because if you're crafting real events and facts for a narrative, there are many things that might pressure you into making the narrative be "about" something or other.

For instance, aren't you kind of sick of the "triumph over adversity" and "what I learned" narratives? They're such a big part of modern North American culture. When events and facts are massaged into this narrative, they're extra dangerous, because they're reinforcing an already overly represented idea about life: that yes, sometimes, it is possible to overcome obstacles or change. As they say in "Wag the Dog": "It's a story of loss and redemption!"

If it's non-fiction and it's one of these narratives, you risk being manipulated in a special way, because "oh that story again" allows the response, "But it's true!" When really -- well, you know.

And yet -- the matter seems to me complex. Because there might be times when only a true story will do.

I recently heard someone talking about how stories are used in social science to exemplify how certain theories would explain human behavior -- e. g. Mary found herself in X situation and because she had to compare Y and Z alternatives she used W method and found her answer. The speaker pointed out the ways these stories build in assumptions about human behavior that draw on, rather than challenging, stereotypes -- associated with gender, race, etc.

We use stories in philosophy all the time, to imagine things, carry out thought-experiments, or just give simple examples where real examples are too complicated. And it is so true -- there's a real risk of telling the stories in a way that just builds in an understanding of how the world is.

And I thought to myself that at least stories crafted around actual events and people have fixed points that can't be changed and have to be accommodated. So you can't just say anything that "seems right." There will be recalcitrant facts.

And this, too resonated with my memoir writing experience. You might want to say "X happened." But then you find for X to make sense, you need to explain Y. And then for Y to be comprehensible to the reader, uncomfortable fact Z has to be fit in somehow.

Looking back, that might have been my favorite part of the memoir experience -- you might be massaging reality to fit into a narrative, but reality is right there pushing back at you.

At the end of the David Sedaris story he talks about how his local council is going to name a garbage truck after him, and they call to ask what font he wants used. I found myself with a million questions about this part of the story. People name garbage trucks? Is that just a British thing or is that everywhere? How does that get decided? You really get to choose the font?

It's nice that with a true story there are answers to these questions, even if they're things you'll never know. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Is Culture Snobbery The New Resistance?

When I was a young person in the 80s I remember people talking about how "capitalism consumes everything" and how I was like "Oh, yeah I guess," but I was also sort of like "no it doesn't: what about punk rock? what about me and my friends with our thrift store clothes and bizarre hairstyles? what about protests? what about hanging out, not doing anything?"

Now, I feel like if you wanted to do a school project diorama showcasing the concept "CAPITALISM CONSUMES EVERYTHING," all you'd have to do is slap a giant glass dome over some part of the modern world and you'd be good to go.

Tbh, I didn't really see it coming. But more than ever it feels like resistance is futile. No matter what you do trying to challenge the status quo, the status quo has a way of eating that shit up and spitting it back out as a commodity.

Punk sensibility is now "personal style & branding." Protests feel like the symbol of resistance necessary to buttress the true power of the entrenched. And anything you do on the internet is valuable to someone in the form of data about you -- turning your quietest mood, your nostalgic thought, or your sexy imagining into someone else's dollars.

Plus somehow the internet, which started as the experience of connecting with a handful of other weirdos talking about something no one cares about with no one else paying attention, has become the opposite: a place where nothing really counts unless it's seen, and liked, and favorited, and making good stats.

The "hanging out" of the slacker generation, Gen-X, which was at least nominally anti-establishment and involved actual cafes and actual reading and actual talking to people, seems to have given way to social networking and watching stuff.

I don't know what the answer is but I will say that a quality in myself that I used to think of as conformist I now think of as resistance and it is this: I am a culture snob.

Yeah, that's right. I'm a culture snob. And I'm not ashamed to say it. I don't have a TV. I don't watch any "shows" or do Netflix. I occasionally go to the movies but it's usually high-brow shit like 8 1/2 or other international films. I don't read general interest or fashion magazines and I don't read the Huffington Post and I don't look at TMZ.

I read a lot. I like The New Yorker. I like to go to the opera.

When I was young I was inclined to see these things in the light of establishment activities and I was inclined to be a bit embarrassed by them.

I used to fall all over myself explaining -- and this is true, too -- that one reason I didn't have a TV was that I was a channel flipper, and I would flip channels endlessly, couldn't really stop flipping channels, even as it felt like my life was wasting away.

I used to fall all over myself explaining that I didn't have anything against trashy movies and stupid things -- it was just that I was easily bored and needed a high level of intellectual stimulation all the time not to fall into pits of ennui. Like I had a personality problem.

Well, no more apologizing.

Because while I'm obviously not naive enough to think that actual artistic things and actual literature are somehow outside the capitalism and commodification machine, I do think they offer something "entertainment" often doesn't, and that is the capacity to challenge and disturb you in ways you didn't expect or foresee or maybe didn't think possible.

My reflections on lifehacking last week got me thinking about the opposite of lifehacking, and I thought about that whole "slow food" movement and how there might be a "slow life" movement and that reminded me how many of my activities are, relative to most people, pretty damn slow.

This led me to check out the Wikipedia page on the "Slow Movement." Interestingly, while there's a "slow art" (which looks interesting) and a "slow media," there isn't really a "slow culture" in the sense of what it means to read and listen and look and think about things in general in the old receptive and open-ended way, where you might spend an afternoon reading a novel, or listen to a whole album, all the songs in a row, or whatever.

The Slow Movement seems to take as one of its antagonists things like Twitter, on grounds that OMG 140 characters? But I think that is a mistake. There's nothing wrong with Twitter as long as it doesn't take over your whole life. It's the way these things take over your life, so you can't do anything slow, that's the problem.

I now regard my own ability to sit down and read quietly like a rare and treasured thing that has to be nurtured and kept alive. I'm certainly not going to risk damaging it by, say, allowing push notifications on my phone.

Finally, I'd like to say that as a person who seldom consumes mainstream entertainment media, I'm frankly a little shocked by the scene out there. Isn't there so much sexist crap? Isn't there ridiculous racial stereotyping? Isn't there a lot of nationalism and violence and absurd Good Guys Fight Bad Guys And You're With Us Or Against Us?

Kids? Just say no. Slow it down! Culture snobbery FTW!