Taming The Wild Idea

Foragers distinguish between camp and the wild. In camp, things are safe and comfortable, and people should be pleasant. The wild, in contrast, is dangerous and uncontrolled. In camp, some of us must watch out for intrusions from wild, such as storms, wild animals, or hostile tribes.

Some of us must also periodically venture into the wild, to bring back food and other useful materials. But it is important that whatever we bring back be tamed before it gets here. Don’t bring back live dangerous animals, don’t leave poison berries around camp where people might think they are safe, and leave violent aggressive hunt habits out there in the wild. What happens in the wild, should stay in the wild.

Ideas and concepts can be dangerous and disruptive. Ideas influence the status and attractiveness of people and activities, and who is blamed and credited for what outcomes. For a society vulnerable to social disruption, ideas can be wild.

Today, most of the ideas and concepts that we come across have been tamed. They have long been integrated into our ways of thinking, and we have worked out attitudes and opinions to help us avoid being cut by their sharp edges.

But today we must also deal with a steady stream of new untamed ideas. Some of these are the side effect of ordinary people doing ordinary things. Others come from intellectual explorers, who purposely venture into the wild in search of new ideas. How do we tame such ideas?

We celebrate our intellectual explorers, both those who come back with useful ideas, and those whose useless ideas show off their impressive explorer abilities. But we are also wary of their trophies, just as foragers would be way of a hunter bringing a strange live animal into camp. We want people we trust and respect to tame those ideas before let them flow free in our camp of easily discussed ideas. Wild explorers, who may have “gone native”, can be useful in expeditions, but must remain under the control of more civilized explorers.

I think this helps us understand why universities, some of the most conservative institutions we have, are home to our most celebrated intellectuals. Academic institutions such as universities, academic journals, peer review, etc. seem far from ideal ways to encourage innovative ideas. But they seem like better ways to ensure outsiders that ideas have been safely tamed. The new ideas that academics endorse can be safely quoted and an applied with minimal risk of wild uncontrolled disruption. So when ideas originate among wild untamed academic-outsiders, we prefer to attribute them to the safe academic insiders who tame them.

When we are willing to risk being exposed to wild untamed ideas, we turn less to academics, and more to startup companies, passionate writers, activists, etc. And in our youth, many of us are eager for such exposure, to show that we are no longer children who must stay safely in camp – we are strong and brave enough to venture into the wild.

But when we get children of our own, and feel less a need to show off our derring-do, we prefer tamed idea sources. We prefer to hire kids who got their ideas from universities, not startups or activists. And most prefer their news to come from similarly tamed journalists. We applaud wild ideas, but prefer them tamed.

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  • John

    Well, what do you know, even on this blog I find posts I can agree with.

    Basically, what we can infer is that an important component of the adoption of ideas is signalling. Young people feel less need to signal reliability and conformity and they also get an advantage (specifically fitness advantage, but certain social advantages ceteris paribus also) for going against the flow. As they get older, the payoff of being conventional rises but (more importantly) the risks of going against the flow become greater and the distribution of this type of outcomes heavily skews to the left.

    Meanwhile, part of the reason why you are getting a lot of comments on posts about social issues and relatively less on posts about the future is because your ideas about the future are untamed (I’d say they are also incorrect but that is not relevant here) and most people who read this blog are old enough to be not that interested in them (even after the selection bias). The fact that young people are relatively uninterested in intellectual discourse and generally do not read non-entertainment blogs skews your comment distribution (or at least that is my opinion; obviously I have not bothered with analysing data).

    • rrb

      This seems backwards. Seems that young people, who have no resources and must depend upon others to get a job etc., benefit most from signalling reliability and conformity. As you become older and more established and are regarded as more trustworthy, you can go against the flow while still be taken seriously.
      And as for fitness, I imagine that young people who conform and signal reliability start families earlier. I could be wrong, but I definitely don’t think it’s obvious that being unconventional when young is a fitness advantage.
      Maybe I’d buy that against the flow young and reliability+conformity old was an optimal strategy in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, but not now.

      • John

        I do not think it is backwards at all. First, you fail to consider that it is expected of young people to be unreliable and novel and old people to be conventional and conservative. So, the social penalty for introducing novelties is likely significantly smaller if you are young.

        Besides, “I imagine that young people who conform and signal reliability start families earlier” is irrelevant. What you should look for are fertility rates, not family formation. And I am quite certain that social deviants (especially if their deviation is from norms about what is and is not criminal behaviour) have higher fertility than law-abiding, hard-working,out-of-college kids.

  • vaniver

    How do you justify the claim that universities are conservative? Haven’t they been the fortress of cultural radicals for about a century now?

    • Robert Koslover

      He didn’t mean that they are politically conservative.

  • Taming an idea means proving an idea, making it fit for mass appeal and consumption.

    Unfortunately, today’s collective taste has degenerated to the point where McRib is universally preferred over real pork.

    • William B Swift

      No, it doesn’t mean proving an idea. It means higher status people have approved the idea.

      • If Humphrey Bogart recommends
        Chesterfield Cigarettes
        Fine by me

  • Ari

    Good post but I’ve something to add.

    Everything gets corrupted unless its faced by some verification function. In markets, its competition and preferences. In programming, its testing. In academic publishing, its peer-review (that is only a local maximum). Governments, people, institutions, companies all corrupt eventually. Its caused by entropy, and in humans it shows up as aging.

    Companies like Apple act like startups. I remember that 1-2 engineers made the Safari browser for iPhone while on many other companies such tasks could be done by dozens. One of the reasons its a great company. Most companies etc. get all bureaucratic over time, including academia. Government is better example because it faces less competitive pressure.

    And this is exactly why ideas like prediction markets are amazingly promising. They provide rather universal verification mechanism using combined signal processing capabilities of multiple humans without having to reduce the mechanism (which could be well impossible due to sheer amount of detail).

  • Our double standards abound. Men love strip clubs — even if just a rare, fun event. Yet they would be horrified if their daughter ever entertained such a job.

    The internet has changed the filtering of “wild ideas” — it will be fun to see watching the affect of the village fence collapsing and our herbicides failing.

    • oldoddjobs

      Is it a double standard or just one standard for sexy strangers and another for one’s own daughter?

  • Daniel Dennett has has much the same idea about ‘wild ideas’ – e.g. see his: “Domesticating the wild memes of religion”. He talks about “meme domestication” rather than “idea taming”. Dennett means ‘wild’ in the ecological sense.

  • kodiakbear

    A good read to start the day!

    Thanks Robin.

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  • Nate F

    This is well put. I consider myself an “explorer” in these exact terms. And I realize that self-identifying myself in that way automatically makes me 80% likely to be mentally ill.

    But I really have done some significant exploration over the past 7-8 years (I am 28 now) forgoing personal social interaction (I feel very little need for it, though I love engaging with strangers) in order to spend my time inserting the best scientific research into my mind so that the various ideas can mate. Now that I have some genuinely new information, I am actively trying to find a way to present it in a way that will be accepted and utilized in advantageous ways. My greatest fear is that it will be perverted into a tool for control, marketing or just be outright rejected. The “taming” analogy fits perfectly.

    • oldoddjobs

      Pffft everyone thinks they’re an “explorer” these days. Thanks, internet!

  • Becky Hargrove

    Today, living always in ‘far’ feels unbearably lonely, and yet it has been my path for the past nine years. People I knew still wait for me to return to the old path of the ‘near’ but the near did not contribute to my survival, or the survival of any one else for that matter.

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  • Paul Tiffany

    For me, “going into the wild” evokes the arguments of psychedelic transhumanists.

    I can relate to Nate F, having encouraged dissociation for the sake of uncovering novel ideas. That phase produced many beautiful ideas for start-ups, NPOS, and even a sort of Grand Unified Theory of economics as part of a solution to the Friendliness problem. Now, out of school, I work as a bartender, so as to re-learn what I’d forgotten, to do precisely as the OP suggests, and socialize some of these wild ideas. After about 3 years, I feel I’ve learned a lot about people (at least the drunks).

    Neither embracing the wilderness nor camp has been effective at bridging the two. Yet, while I haven’t yet shifted any paradigms, through both phases, I’ve grown personally .

    Also, McRibs are delicious. They aren’t digested too well though. Reminds me of the diverging concepts of memetics and “internet memes.” Maybe, after we make in vitro meat viable, we can start growing ideas in a vat.

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