Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Eight Million Visits

If milestones mean something to you, here’s a new one. There is a lot it doesn’t catch, but the Sitemeter widget on this blog has been here from the very start, and it at least gives a consistent measure of traffic. And according to it, we’ve now had eight million visits here at OvercomingBias.com.

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Why Prefer Potential?

Movies that win Oscars seem to gain more viewers as a result. But it also seems that on the whole people are a lot more eager to watch Oscar nominated movies before the Oscar winners are announced. After the show, people think less about movies and more about other things. Which is odd – a burst of info comes out about which movies are good, and in response people get less interested in watching movies. If getting info about movie quality makes people like movies less, that might explain why movie execs were so keen to kill movie prediction markets. But it still leaves us with the basic puzzle: why don’t people like info on movie quality?

Actually, this is part of a much bigger puzzle. Regarding basketball players, leaders, job candidates, comedians, grad school admissions, restaurant reviews and paintings, we actually prefer to choose people described as having the potential to achieve certain things, compared to people who actually achieve those same things:

When people seek to impress others, they often do so by highlighting individual achievements. Despite the intuitive appeal of this strategy, we demonstrate that people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others. Indeed, compared with references to achievement (e.g., “this person has won an award for his work”), references to potential (e.g., “this person could win an award for his work”) appear to stimulate greater interest and processing, which can translate into more favorable reactions. This tendency creates a phenomenon whereby the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing. We document this preference for potential in laboratory and field experiments, using targets ranging from athletes to comedians to graduate school applicants and measures ranging from salary allocations to online ad clicks to admission decisions. …

Although participants recognized that the individual with achievement was more objectively impressive on paper, they showed a general preference for potential in their hiring decisions and assessments of future success. …

We ruled out a pro-youth bias, an extremity effect, and believability or credibility perceptions as viable alternative accounts for our findings.  (more; HT Tyler)

Weird! These authors even found this effect for paintings themselves, and not just for painters. They do convincingly argue that a proximate cause is interest and deeper reasoning caused by the uncertainty, but I find it hard to see those as ultimate causes. Why are we more interested in reasoning about potential rather than achievement?

Katja Grace suggested one plausible theory to me: we hope or expect to get a better price on things with good potential, relative to good achievement. This can make some sense of our preference for potential in hiring or grad school admissions; the candidates who have actually achieved may demand more in compensation, or be more likely to reject our offer.

It might also make more sense for paintings and basketball, if we were planning to buy the painting or hire the player. But a simple price effect makes less sense if you are not going to buy the painting or hire the player, but just be a fan. This also makes less sense for movies, comedians, restaurants; few of us ever buy these things whole. We instead pay to rent them, and we don’t get better prices there if we buy potential.

The Oscars suggest a related idea: what we want is social credit for anticipating fashion. That is, we want credit for being early in evaluating things highly that others will later evaluate highly. We want to able to brag (indirectly of course) that we saw quality first. Which is plausible. But it suggests that fashion is a surprisingly big part of our lives – desires to be first in fashion drives a lot more of our behavior that we like to admit.

In fact, this seems a good test probe – let’s test this effect in many more areas of life. Areas where potential matters more than achievement are good candidates for areas where fashion matters a lot to us.

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Ian Morris on Foragers, Farmers, Industry, & Ems

The book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris will be published March 22. As I don’t see any other reviews on the web, it seems I get to be the first. This is from the publisher’s blurb:

Most people in the world today think democracy and gender equality are good, and that violence and wealth inequality are bad. But most people who lived during the 10,000 years before the nineteenth century thought just the opposite. … Fundamental long-term changes in values, Morris argues, are driven by the most basic force of all: energy. Humans have found three main ways to get the energy they need—from foraging, farming, and fossil fuels. Each energy source sets strict limits on what kinds of societies can succeed, and each kind of society rewards specific values. … The ongoing revolution in energy capture means that our most cherished values are very likely to turn out—at some point fairly soon—not to be useful any more.

I’m delighted that, like me, Morris divides human history into three great eras of foraging, farming, and industry. Furthermore, Morris suggests that a new era may start by 2082, perhaps based on brain emulations of the entire human population. He notes that these different past eras have been associated with dramatically different values, and suggests that the next era will also have very different values. So far remarkably similar to what I’ve been saying here for years!

Morris resists the idea that some eras have correct values while others have incorrect values. Instead he sees each era’s values as adapted to the environment of that era, i.e., to its technical methods of production and survival. Morris also sees the modes of energy production as central and even defining of those environments. Which is why he calls our industry era the “fossil fuel” era.

Morris does little to argue for the centrality of energy production tech in era environments. He doesn’t identify possible alternative centrality concepts with which to compare his view, nor does he offer evidence that might distinguish his energy-centrality from other views. Instead, Morris seems content to just assume energy centrality. While this stance didn’t at all persuade me of energy centrality, nothing anything else in his book seems to actually depend on this claim. So I’m happy to just set it aside, and focus on other issues.

Morris’s most interesting claim is that values during each era were adapted in great detail to the environments of those eras. And Morris fills up most of his book with details on both the environments and values of past eras. Enough details to make it clear that different eras did in fact have distinctively different environments and values. There are in fact typical forager environments, typical forager values, and so on for farming and industry. Yes there are exceptions, but that doesn’t invalidate the basic patterns.

However, Morris actually doesn’t try very hard to give specific explanations matching the specific features of each typical environment to specific features of each typical value set. It seems that his belief in strong adaptation of values to environments isn’t much based on such specific matches. Instead, Morris mainly just seems to be very impressed by how consistently different were the environments and values of each era. It is as if he reasons “why would all the farming values be like each other, and yet so different from foraging values, if not for being adaptations to the new distinct farming environment?”

Now I do pretty much accept this story regarding the foraging and farming eras. But this is because those eras lasted so very long, and we can see so much selection among units that could plausibly produce this adaptation. Foragers and farmers were both literally dirt poor, and so it didn’t take that much of a relative advantage to kill off one group and replace it with another. Foragers lasted for many thousands of generations, long enough to create enormous variance in the success of specific lineages and specific local cultures. And while the farming era lasted only a few hundred generations, we can see in history wave after wave after wave of cultures being displaced by other cultures, via war and famine and much else.

But while it is hard to deny great selection of cultures, including their values, during the foraging and farming eras, the case for selection seems to me to be far weaker for our industry era. Industry has seen less than a dozen generations of humans, and most of them are today rich enough to suffer little selection from insufficient material wealth. Yes, we have seen terrible wars, but they have been small and rare enough to impose only very mild selection pressures.

Now we do more plausibly see a lot of selection in industry era work and organization practices. Enough firms are born and die fast enough to accumulate a lot of selection pressure. In addition, to a modest degree firms can copy the practices at more successful firms, and so adapt without dying. And all this can plausibly explain a great many particular changes in the physical and social technologies used by such firms.

However, the “values” that Morris has in mind as being adapted to each era are grand things like favoring democracy, open markets, gender equality, and rule of law, and disfavoring violence, slavery, and wealth-inequality. The World Values Survey has tracked changes in such values and found that they are not much attributable to more successful nations displacing other nations, or even more successful people replacing others within a nation.

Instead the literature on cultural value change suggests that it is the same people who are changing their values over time, and that this change is caused to a substantial extent by increasing wealth. This does not look like selection at all, but looks instead like the revealing of a common internal conditionality in human values. Because our values are conditional on our wealth, they naturally move toward the industry-era value set as we get rich. My guess here is that we are reverting to forager era values, at least outside of work, as we less feel the strength of farmer-era pressures like fear, religion, and conformity.

In his book, Morris does mention that some people have challenged his claim that industry values are adapted by pointing to our low and falling industry era fertility rates, which seem very hard to understand as adaptive behavior. In response, Morris points out that we haven’t seen the long term effects of that low fertility yet, and notes that the low fertility rich might still win in the future by becoming highly copied brain emulations. But even if that ends up happening, it seems hard to see low industry fertility as an adaptation designed to produce that outcome.

But even if I disagree with Morris about the causes of industry era value changes, I can still agree that the values of the next era are likely to be quite different from industry era values, and that those values would be well adapted to that next era. While I’m not sure what reasons Morris would offer for that claim, my reasons are specific to my analysis of the details of a new era based on brain emulations.

In my analysis, wages fall to subsistence levels, margins of survival are slim, and competition is strong. That should plausibly reverse industry era changes due to increasing wealth per person, and create a lot of selection. In addition, greatly increased brain emulation speeds allow many generations of changes to happen in short clock times, allowing for more variation and selection of individuals and practices.

In sum, Morris gets an awful lot right about history, and about the future. I just wish he had attended a bit more to the details of how values get selected, and which values are in fact adaptive in which environments.

Added 9a: I gave no direct quotes because the book copy I have forbids that.

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Old Prof Vices, Virtues

Tyler on “How bad is age discrimination in academia?”:

I believe it is very bad, although I do not have data.

I started my Ph.D. at the age of 34, and Tyler hired me here at GMU at the age of 40. So by my lights Tyler deserves credit for overcoming the age bias. Tyler doesn’t discuss why this bias might exist, but a Stanford history prof explained his theory to me when I was in my early 30s talking to him about a possible PhD. He said that older students are known for working harder and better, but also for being less pliable: they have more of their own ideas about what is interesting and important.

I think that fits with what I’ve heard from others, and have seen for myself, including in myself. People complain that academia builds too little on “real world” experience, and that disciplines are too insular. And older students help with that. But in fact the incentive for each prof in picking students isn’t to solve the wider problems with academia. It is instead to expand an empire by creating intellectual clones of him or herself. And for that selfish goal, older students are worse. My mentors likely feel this way about me, that I worked hard and did interesting stuff, but I was not a good investment for expanding their legacy.

Interestingly this explanation is somewhat the opposite of the usual excuses for age bias in Silicon Valley. There the usual story is that older people won’t take as many risks, and that they aren’t as creative. But the complaint about older Ph.D.s is exactly that they take too many risks, and that they are too creative. If only they would just do what they are told, and copy their mentors, then their hard work and experience could be more valued.

I find it hard to believe that older workers change their nature this much between tech and academia. Something doesn’t add up here. And for what its worth, I’ve been personally far more impressed by the tech startups I’ve known that are staffed by older folks.

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Meaning Via Work Or Play?

Our culture celebrates variety and change. People who move from small towns to big cities often go on and on about how those small towns were hells where nothing happened and the ignorant locals liked it that way. Sophisticated city folks love to visibly embrace change and variety, bragging about their new clothes, gadgets, and exotic vacations.

Some tell themselves that this taste for variety is the natural human state. Yet kids have to be taught to like variety. Kids start out wanting to watch the same movies over and over, not wanting to try out new food dishes, and not wanting to move to new homes or neighborhoods. Also, as anyone trying to push a work reorg can tell you, adults don’t actually like to change their jobs much. And people tend to be pretty stressed on those exotic vacations; what they like is to brag about them before and after.

Similarly, our culture celebrates leisure relative to work. Most of our fiction is set in leisure, and we tell ourselves that kids naturally want to play, and must be forced to work. But in fact foragers don’t push their kids to work; adults wait until kids beg to be allowed to follow adults around and be taught how to do adult jobs. Furthermore, kids today worldwide actually like the meaning and autonomy that comes from mundane work:

[Mexico City’s] Centro Santa Fe mall [is] one of the largest in Latin America. … At one end of the mall is KidZania, a theme park for children that opened fifteen years ago, and has since spread to cities in a dozen other countries, including Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, and Istanbul. …

KidZania gives children between the ages of four and fourteen the chance to enact the roles of grownups in a lavishly realized, scaled-down world. … Children can work on a car assembly line, or move furniture, or put out a fake fire with real water. … Children receive a check for fifty kidzos upon arriving at KidZania, and can supplement that with the “salary” they earn for participating in an activity. The most popular of them, like training to be a pilot on a simplified flight simulator, are not as remunerative as the less popular, like being a dentist. (You peer inside a dummy’s mouth.) Children can spend their kidzos … at the mini city’s department store, which bears the name of a regional chain and is stocked with covetable trinkets. …

In Mexico, kids tend to spend their kidzos immediately after earning them; in Japan, it is difficult to persuade children to part with their kidzos at all. … “What they love most, on the second or third visit, is their independence. … Even if you go to Disneyland, you are guided—you are supposed to walk a typical way.” (more)

Here are some results from a 2002 paper on work vs. leisure, from a survey of 1942 Israelis in the years 1981 and 1993:

People can be divided by whether work or leisure is more important and central to their lives. Those who see leisure as more central see work as less central and vice versa. Leisure orientation has increased over time, and is more common among women, the young, and the unmarried. High school graduates are more leisure-oriented, compared to those with both more and less education.

Money is just as important to both types, and both feel equally entitled or not to a job. Leisure-oriented people are less satisfied with their job, and they feel less intrinsic rewards from work and more such rewards from leisure. They care more about interpersonal relations at work, they feel less obligated to work to contribute to society, and they work fewer hours.

I recently watched two acclaimed movies, Still Alice and The Wind Rises, about people with strong work orientations. Such characters seemed quite human and sympathetic to me. And The Profit, a reality show about a guy who saves failing small businesses, is my favorite tv show in years.

If, as I suspect, the future will be much more competitive and push more people back to a work orientation, you might lament that to the extent you have strongly internalized modern cultural values. But I don’t think you can plausibly claim that because of this such future folk would be any less human than you, more self-deceived than you, or that they’d see their world as a hell. Beware too easily projecting your values onto others.

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Am I A Moralist?

Imagine that a “musicalist” is someone who makes good and persuasive musical arguments. One might define this broadly, by saying that any act is musical if it influences the physical world so as to change the distribution of sound, as most sound has musical elements. Here anyone who makes good and persuasive arguments that influence physical acts is a good “musicalist.”

Or one might try to define “musicalist” more narrowly, by requiring that the acts argued for have an especially strong effect on the especially musical aspects of the physical world, that musical concepts and premises often be central to the arguments. Far fewer people would be see as good “musicalists” here.

The concept of “moralist” can also be defined broadly or narrowly. Defined broadly, a “moralist” might be anyone who makes good and persuasive arguments about acts for which anyone thinks moral considerations to be relevant. This could be because the acts influence morally-relevant outcomes, or because the acts are encouraged or discouraged by some moral rules.

Defining narrowly, however, one might require that the acts influenced have especially strong moral impacts, and that moral concepts and premises often be central to the arguments. Far fewer people are good “moralists” by this definition.

Bryan Caplan recently praised me as a “moralist”:

Robin … excels as a moralist – in three distinct ways.

Robin often constructs sound original moral arguments.  His arguments against cuckoldry and for cryonics are just two that come to mind.  Yes, part of his project is to understand why most people are forgiving of cuckoldry and hostile to cryonics.  But the punchline is that the standard moral position on these issue is indefensible.

Second, Robin’s moral arguments actually persuade people.  I’ve met many of his acolytes in person, and see vastly more online.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that Robin’s moral arguments persuade most readers.  Any moral philosopher will tell you that changing minds is like pulling teeth.  My point is that Robin has probably changed the moral convictions of hundreds.  And that’s hundreds more than most moralists have changed.

Third, Robin takes some classical virtues far beyond the point of prudence.  Consider his legendary candor.

I accept (and am grateful for) Bryan’s praise relative to a broad interpretation of “moralist.” Yes, I try to create good and persuasive arguments on many topics relevant to actions, and according to many concepts of morality most acts have substantial moral impact. Since moral considerations are so ubiquitous, most anyone who is a good arguer must also be a good moralist.

But what if we define “moralist” narrowly, so that the acts must be unusually potent morally, and the concepts and premises invoked must be explicitly moral ones? In this case, I don’t see that I qualify, since I don’t focus much on especially moral concepts, premises, rules, or consequences.

Bryan gave two examples, and his readers gave two more. Here are quick summaries:

  • I argue that cryonics might work, that it only needs a >~5% of working to make sense, and that your wanting to do it triggers abandonment feelings in others exactly because they think you think it might work.
  • I argue that with simple precautions betting on terror acts won’t cause terror acts, but could help to predict and prevent such attacks.
  • I argue that the kinds of inequality we talk most about are only a small fraction of all inequality, but we talk about them most because they can justify us grabbing stuff that is more easily grabbed.
  • I argue that cuckoldry (which results in kids) causes many men great emotional and preference harm, plausibly comparable to the harm women get from being raped.

I agree that these arguments address actions about which many people have moral feelings. But I don’t see myself as focused on moral concepts or premises; I see my discussions as focused on other issues.

Yes, most people have moral wants. These aren’t all or even most of what people want, but moral considerations do influence what people (including me) want. Yes, these moral wants are relevant for many acts. But people disagree about the weight and even direction that moral considerations push on many of these acts, and I don’t see myself as especially good at or interested taking sides in arguments about such weights and directions. I instead mostly seek other simple robust considerations to influence beliefs and wants about acts.

Bryan seems to think that my being a good moralist by his lights argues against my “dealism” focus on identifying social policies that can get most everyone more of what they want, instead of taking sides in defined moral battles, wherein opposing sides make conflicting and often uncompromising demands. It seems to me that I in fact do work better by not aligning myself clearly with particular sides of established tug-o-wars, but instead seeking considerations that can appeal broadly to people on both sides of existing conflicts.

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Blockchain Bingo

Two weeks ago I was on a three person half hour panel on “Bitcoin and the Future” at an O’Reilly Radar Summit on Bitcoin & the Blockchain. I was honored to be invited, but worried as I had not been tracking the field much. I read up a bit, and listened carefully to previous sessions. And I’ve been continuing to ponder and read for the last two weeks. There are many technical details here, and they matter. Even so, it seems I should try to say something; here goes.

A possible conversation between a blockchain enthusiast and newbie:

“Bitcoin is electronic money! It is made from blockchains, which are electronic ledgers that can also support many kinds of electronic contracts and trades.”

“But we already have money, and ledgers. And electronic versions. In fact, bank ledgers were one of the first computer applications.”

“Yes, but blockchain ledgers are decentralized. Sure, compared to ordinary computer ledgers, blockchain ledgers take millions or more times the computing power. But blockchains have no central org to trust. Instead, you trust the whole system.”

“Is this whole system in fact more more trustworthy that the usual bank ledger system today?”

“Not in practice so far, at least not for most people. But it might be in the future, if we experiment with enough different approaches, and if enough people use the better approaches, to induce enough supporting infrastructure efforts.”

“If someone steals my credit card today, a central org of a credit card firm usually takes responsibility and fixes that. Here I’d be on my own, right?”

“Yes, but credit card firms charge you way too much for such services.”

“And without central orgs, doesn’t it get much harder to regulate financial services?”

“Yes, but you don’t want all those regulations. For example, blockchains make anonymous money holdings and contracts easier. So you could evade taxes, and laws that restrict bets and drug buys.”

“Couldn’t we just pass new laws to allow such evasions, if we didn’t want the social protections they provide? And couldn’t we just buy cheaper financial services, if we didn’t want the private protections that standard services now provide?”

“You’re talking as if government and financial service markets are efficient. They aren’t. Financial firms have a chokehold on finance, and they squeeze us for their gain, not ours. They have captured government regulators, who mostly work to tighten the noose, instead of helping the rest of us.”

“OK, imagine we do create cheaper decentralized systems of finance where evasion of regulation is easier. If this system is used in ways we don’t like, we won’t be able to do much to stop that besides informal social pressure, or trying to crudely shut down the whole system, right? There’d be no one driving the train.”

“Yes, exactly! That is the dream, and it might just be possible, if enough of us work for it.”

“But even if I want change, shouldn’t I be scared of change this lumpy? This is all or nothing. We don’t get to see the all before we try, and once we get it then its mostly too late to reverse.”

“Yes, but the powers-that-be can and do block most incremental changes. It is disruptive revolution, or nothing. To the barricades!”

I see five main issues regarding blockchain enthusiasm:

  • Technical Obstacles. Many technical obstacles remain, to designing systems that are general, cheap, secure, robust, and scaleable. You are more enthusiastic if you think these obstacles can be more easily overcome.
  • Bad Finance & Regulation. The more corrupt and wasteful you think that finance and financial regulation are today, the more you’ll want to throw the dice to get something new.
  • Lumpy Change. The more you want change, but would rather go slow and gradual, so we can back off if we don’t like what we see, the less you’ll want to throw these lumpy dice.
  • Standards Coordination. Many equilibria are possible here, depending on exactly which technical features are in the main standards. The worse you think we are at such coordination, the less you want to roll these dice.
  • Risk Aversion. The more you think regulations protect us from terrible dark demons waiting in the shadows, the less you’ll want a big unknown hard-to-change-or-regulate world.

Me, I’d throw the dice. But then I’d really like more bets to be feasible, and I’ve known some people working in this area for decades. However, I can’t at all see blaming you if you feel different; this really is a tough call.

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Fashion Excuses

Imagine a woman who bought expensive new dresses every few months, new dresses that matched the latest dress fashions. But she denied that she personally cared about fashion. Instead, she said:

  • “New dresses are just better. For example, new materials are better.”
  • “My body changes fast, so my dresses must change fast to match.”
  • “Clothes should match culture. It’s not right to wear pre-Ferguson dresses after Ferguson.”
  • “I really like variety; anything even a bit different than before is great.”
  • “As a professional dress-maker, I must keep close track of fashion.”
  • “To bond better with others who track fashion, I do so also.”

Some of these explanations might be true for some people. But overall they are not very believable explanations for why most people track dress fashion. More believable are:

  • “I want people to see I have the time and money to track fashion.”
  • “I want people to stare at my body, and new fashions catch eyes.”
  • “I want people to see that I can guess beforehand what will be big new fashions. This shows my good judgement and social connections.”

While these reasons are more believable, they are not the sort of reasons that people like to admit.

Now consider people who focus more on more recently discussed “fashionable” topics in tech, academia, social trends, policy debates, media, blogs, etc. Such people can have many possible reasons for their focus. But as with the dresses example above, some of these reasons are ugly, being ones we don’t tend to like to admit. Which tends to bias us toward offering other prettier sorts of reasons, to the extent that we can make them seem to fit.

Thus if we notice that we are tending to focus on more recently fashionable topics, we should suspect that we have not fully admitted to ourselves that we actually do so in part because of ugly reasons. Which should lower our estimates of the contribution of prettier reasons. So, compared to what we thought:

  • things aren’t improving as fast,
  • we less need to adapt topics to changes in us or in society,
  • we don’t actually like topic variety as much,
  • we are less producers, and more consumers, and
  • we care less about bonding with others.

Instead you should suspect that you follow topic fashions more because:

  • You want people to see you have the time, education, and smarts needed to track topic fashions.
  • You want people to notice your wit and intelligence, which you display as you track topic fashions.
  • You want people to see that you can guess beforehand what will be big new fashions, to show your good judgement and social connections.

If we are built to hide ugly motives, and substitute pretty ones, we should suspect that our actual motives are uglier than we think.

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Placebos Show Care

I’ve suggested that the main function of medicine is to show that we care. I’ve suggested that we spend a lot on medicine to signal our care, and that this can explain the placebo effect, wherein the mere appearance of care increases health. Some apparently confirming evidence:

Parkinson’s Disease patients secretly treated with a placebo instead of their regular medication performed better when told they were receiving a more expensive version of the “drug,” … While most people think of a placebo as a sugar pill that replaces a real medication, the impact more commonly comes from “the engagement between patients and clinicians,” in particular the way doctors create expectations that their efforts will help, Kaptchuk said. That includes a good relationship between doctor and patient; certain medical rituals, such as taking blood pressure and a medical history; and the “color, shape, number and cost” of the placebo drug. (more; the study)

Now this study is hardly definitive – it had only twelve subjects, and the placebo difference is only significant at the 3.4% level. But I guess that it will be verified in larger trials.

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Industry-Era Action Stories

This semester I teach graduate industrial organization. And while preparing, it occurred to me that if our stories adapted fast to our changing world, many and perhaps most action stories today would be about industrial organization, i.e., about firms competing over industries. The fact that most action stories today are not about this is a sad commentary on how slowly our stories adapt to our world. Let me explain.

Action stories are about conflict; people fight over big things at stake. Stories about one-on-one physical fights or chases come come from deep in our animal background. Related stories have conflicts within a couple who might mate. Similar stories about physical fights, chases, or love polygons among small groups come from nearly as far back. An animal fight story can have one animal notice and then run from another, with a climactic battle where one animal wins and the other goes away.

While such stories can happen for most any animal, it takes humans to have stories where tools are used to fight, hide, or chase. And it takes humans to have language to coordinates acts, to share info, and to deceive. And also to have social norms drive the coalition politics fights. Stories about humans can have villains deceiving others about their social norms violations, while good people use language and tools to coordinate to uncover and oppose villain crimes. Most crime and superhero stories fit well here.

Farmers told stories with all these same forager elements. But farmers also added new elements, such as overt inequality and classes, and stable locations, property and trade. Farmers also had larger social groups like clans, towns, and empires, and powerful moralizing gods. Farmer action stories often have wars, wherein large groups identified by their towns or clans, and led by elites, violently attack the known property, places, or elites of other large groups, with the just side often supported by moralizing gods.

The world of industry has also added new elements to our world, such as ideology, schools, firms, cities, fast travel and communication, and complex machine tools. And the stories we tell during the industry era certain do often include many of these new elements. But the core conflicts in our stories haven’t changed that much; we still love chases, fights, villains, and wars. Yet the core conflicts in our world have changed.

The world of animals was greatly shaped by chases and fights. But even though most of us are rarely involved in such things, we still love chase and fight stories. The world of foragers was greatly shaped by efforts to identify and oppose villains. But even though most of us rarely do that, we love crime and superhero stories. The world of farmers was greatly shaped by wars, and we still love war stories, even though wars happen and matter a lot less now.

Today the big fights that most shape our world are not the fights that dominate our action stories: fist fights, catching criminals, and wars between nations. While those mattered greatly in past eras, the fights that matter most today are arguably fights between firms over industries. The products and services we see, the cities where we congregate, and the people who are rich, are determined much more by which firms tried what in their battles to win customer allegiance.

Thus fights between firms are the great fight stories of today, in the sense of the being the large scale fights that most shape our world. And while during past eras the main stories told during those eras adapted to be about the main fights that shaped those eras, during out industry era we have not yet adapted industry-era stories to be about industry-era fights.

Few novels or movies tell the story of firms struggling to win customers. Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.

If colleges taught courses detailing the methods of war, many young men would eagerly take them, and be quite engaged. But when we instead teach courses on industrial organization, i.e., on the many ways in which firms compete for customers, far fewer students take them, and their interest is more muted. Industry-era tastes for stories have not caught up with the industry-era reality that today these are the great conflicts that shape our world.

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