Caught in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble

In a Tweet Benedict Evans mentions, “I’m always baffled when people are surprised by charts like this. What do people think the world was like 250 years ago? Isn’t this obvious?”


I replied, “I teach undergrads; it isn’t obvious to most, and most either don’t think about it or rely on TV-based historical fiction,” but that’s too glib; the chart’s demonstration of growing wealth is obvious to people who’ve read a lot of history and who’re immersed in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble, but that’s a small part of the population. Most people don’t really, really think about or study history, and to the extent they think about it at all they rely on hazy, unsourced stereotypes.

I’ve read lots of student papers (and for that matter Internet comments) saying things like, “In the past, [claim here].” Some will even say, “In the old days…” In the margins I will write in reply, “Which years and geographic areas are you thinking about?” When I ask those kinds of questions in class students look at me strangely, like I’ve suddenly demanded they perform gymnastics.

The past really is a foreign country and unless someone has made the effort to learn about it directly, meta-learn how to learn, and learn how the people in a given time period likely thought, it can look like the present but with different clothes. That’s often how it’s presented in TV, movies, and pop fiction (see e.g. “Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels“). To take one obvious example, characters in such TV shows and movies often have modern sexual and religious mores, ignoring that many of the sexual mores and rules of the last ~500 years of European and American history evolved because a) reliable contraception was unavailable or extremely limited, b) a child born to a single woman could end up killing both child and woman due to lack of money and/or food, and c) many STIs that are now treated with a quick antibiotic were death sentences.

In most countries today, people don’t worry about starving to death, so the kind of absolute poverty that’s stunningly declined in the last couple centuries takes a strong imaginative leap to inhabit. People also seem to experience hedonic adaptation, so the many things that make our lives easy and pleasant become invisible (that’s true of me too).

So the average person probably never thinks about what the world was like 250 years ago, and, if they do, they probably don’t have the baseline knowledge necessary to conceptualize and contextualize it properly. Those of us caught in the nerd-o-sphere and researcher bubble, like myself, do. Our sense of “obvious” shifts with the environment we inhabit and the education we’ve had (or the education we’re continuing all the time).

And about that education system. Years ago I used to read tech sites in which self-taught autodidacts would fulminate about the failures of the conventional school system and prophesize about how the liberation of information will remake the educational sector into a free intellectual utopia in which students would learn much faster and at their own pace, leading to peace, harmony, and knowledge; in this world, rather than being bludgeoned by teachers and professors, students would become self-motivated because they’d be unshackled from conventional curriculums. To some extent I believed those criticisms and prophecies. One day we would set students free and they’d joyously learn for the sake of learning.

Then I started teaching and discovered that the conventional school system exists to work on or with the vast majority of the population, which doesn’t give a fig about the joy of knowledge or intrinsic learning or whatever else Internet nerds and PhDs love. The self-taught autodidacts who wrote on Slashdot (back then) and Hacker News or Reddit or blogs today are a distinct minority and at most a couple percent of the total population. Often they were or are poorly served in some ways by the conventional education system, especially because they often have unusual ways of interacting socially.

Now, today, I’ve both taught regular, non-nerd students and read books like Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and I’ve realized why the education system has evolved the way it has. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t study poetry and math and so on. They watch videos on YouTube and TV and play videogames and chat with their friends. Those are all fine activities and I’ve of course done all of them, but the average person doesn’t much engage in systematic skill- and knowledge-building of the sort that dedicated study is (ideally) supposed to do.

In short, the nerds who want to reform the education system are very different than the average student the system is designed to serve, in a way similar to the way the average person in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble is likely very different from the average person, who hardcore nerds may not know or interact with very much.

I’m very much in that nerd-o-sphere and if you’re reading this there’s a high probability you are too. And when I write about undergrads, remember that I’m writing about the top half of the population in terms of motivation, cognition, and tenacity.

Why fiction? Why reading?

When we pick up a decent book, we live not once but twice, and each new book allows us to live again and absorb the thoughts of someone who has absorbed thousands of other people’s thoughts. The book is the most powerful medium yet invented for intellectual stimulation, growth, and change. The bounty is endless and in the contemporary world very cheap. Most, though, reject the gift. Is this not strange?

Pretty much everyone who is deeply interested in reading gets and/or writing gets some version of the utility question that I answered in the first paragraph (and have answered in other places). Each answer has its own idiosyncrasies, but I think they have a common core that revolves around knowledge and pleasure. The issue is on my mind because a friend wrote me to say regarding Asking Anna, “thanks for having thought through that book content and made it available for people like me to read and then not have to do some of the work. I like that.” The crazy thing is that crazy people have been doing this for centuries: packaging many thousands of hours of thinking into works that take only a few hours to read.

That’s true of fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways lately nonfiction has been leading the perceive quality race. But historically fiction has tended to advance the state of the art in prose, with novelists especially leading the charge towards renewing the language. Arguably this tendency has decreased over time, but I’ve never read a great nonfiction writer who didn’t also read fiction, or read a lot of fiction at one point.

Good novelists tend to be obsessed with the quality of their prose in a way fewer nonfiction writers are. Too many nonfiction writers focus on content at the expense of form and beauty; some have been glamored by some of the stupid literary theory that passes for erudition in some academic circles (Katharine Frank’s books, like Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, suffer from this, though she is merely a salient example and far from the only offender).

Fiction tends to train us to attend to language, and books like Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do the same. When one becomes sufficiently attuned to language, poorly written work or even work that is merely competent becomes aggravating, like a song messed by a drunk guitarist.

That’s my short utilitarian defense of fiction, but I read it for pleasure. The history of the West is one in which pleasure is suspect, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition; sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for less-good reasons. That tradition encourages us to make sure that pleasure is always deferred, and that’s the tradition that led to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and hence to the present day. We’re still getting somewhat used to enormous material wealth, at least by historical standards. But pleasure has its own importance, and there is pleasure in the many lives we can choose to live through books. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that so many people do not make the choice.

Every great book is the result of years or decades of studying and experience, distilled into a volume you can read in a few hours. How could you not want that?

The Tiger Mother post (with thoughts from The Great Stagnation)

Everyone online has an opinion about Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother article, otherwise known as the tongue-in-cheek “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The essay says all work and no play makes Jack (and Jill!) a good student. A grad-student friend said she applauds the Tiger Mother and thinks her students are lazy and would be much improved if they’d been raised by Tiger Mothers.

I wonder, though, especially since reading “Mary Gates and Karen Zuckerberg Weren’t Tiger Moms: Is the Amy Chua approach bad for the American economy?” in Slate. The article describes one of the potential “anti-Tiger” positions: Americans might be better at leaving more space for spectacular failure and spectacular success, then reaping the successes. I would add one other point: I went to a Seattle-area high school that was about 25% – 33% Asian and saw a lot of the Tiger Mother causalities, including the ones who are probably now in therapy, the ones who learned to hate learning, and so on. If my parents had been tigers, I don’t think I would’ve turned out so well because I have too wide a rebellious streak and was utterly indifferent to school work of any sort until I was about 16. Now in many ways I’ve superseded the tiger cubs who burned out, at least as measured by conventional measures of status and respect.

I suspect there is no “right” way, and how people turn out is more random than not. Some of the research I’ve seen indicates that parents don’t have as much control over their children’s future as many parents think, although I can’t find any direct links at the moment. See some discussion here and here from Marginal Revolution.

Finally, I think some of the Tiger narrative’s resonance with the larger cultural is linked to the decades-old idea that the U.S. is somehow losing its educational prowess or falling from some educational golden age. But it looks like American Kids Aren’t Getting Dumber; They Were Just Never That Smart. For much of the United States’ history, the smartest thing smart people around the world could do is move to the United States. So lots of smart people came to the U.S. by default. We got lots of dividends from immigration throughout history because the United States’ political institutions worked pretty well when most places were languishing under autocracies; we managed to avoid destroying ourselves, as Europe did during World Wars I and II and Japan did during World War II; we got a lot of smart minorities who fled Germany before World War II; big oceans and good relations with Canada and Mexico protected and continue to protect the U.S. from immediate threats, which means we can spend ludicrous amounts of money on military technology. There are probably others I’m not considering. But, as Cowen points out in The Great Stagnation, the rest of the world has a relatively easy playbook to catching up to the major Western democracies. Now they’re doing so, which means our “smart and ambitious immigrants” advantage might be drying up and making the rest of the world more attractive—and the world is likely to get more competitive, by some definitions of competitive.

So we get fertile soil for Amy Chuas (notice the plural), whose writing can feed the sometimes justified anxiety a lot of people who simply read the news or live in the economy are already feeling. Others are probably just saying, “Do we really need this much materialism?” (see, for example, Stumbling on Happiness), but the answer on the political level appears to be yes. Chua bridges the individual and political whether she realizes it or not, and the potent combination of two make her so attractive both to people of the anti- or pro-Tiger Mother crowd, as well as to the meta commentators like me.

Keith Richards’ Life and what the world used to look like

I skimmed Keith Richards’ memoir Life, which might be of interest to virulent Rolling Stones fans and people interested in how to live despite ingesting massive quantities of poisonous substances in search of altered states (answer: luck). Although most of the memoir is forgettable, this passage stands out because it describes a kind of insanity that feels completely foreign and bizarre to me:

It was 1975, a time of brutality and confrontation. Open season on the Stones had been declared since our last tour, the tour of ’72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels. We had been inciting youth to rebellion, we were corrupting America, and they had ruled never to let us travel in the United States again. It had become, in the time of Nixon, a serious political matter. He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon, who he thought might cost him an election. We, in turn, they told our lawyer officially, were the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world.

Must be gratifying to be the most dangerous rock band in the world. It’s also astonishing to imagine that a rock-and-roll band could marshall this kind of attention; these days, the youth who were rebelling in the 1970s have grown up and assumed the reins of power, such that rock-and-roll has grown up with them, becoming rock-and-roll instead of rock ‘n’ roll.

Now it’s no longer subversive, so we have to turn our attention to other topics, like rap, but even that doesn’t inspire so much fear as Richards says the Stones did; rap is regularly reviewed in the New Yorker. Today, nothing is worse than being square. Almost anything goes. 1975 looks bizarre from the perspective of someone born after it: what was all the fuss about? The real question is what subjects generate all the fuss today that will be the same way in the future. I could generate a list of them but choose not to, per Paul Graham’s “What You Can’t Say,” but I bet regular readers could imagine a few things that might end up on the list.

There are other moments of bizarre provincialism too:

When I was growing up, the idea of leaving England was pretty much remote. My dad did it once, but that was in the army to go to Normandy and get his leg blown off. The idea was totally impossible. You just read about other countries and looked at them on TV, and in National Geographic, the black chicks with their tits hanging out and their long necks. But you never expected to see it. Scraping up the money to get out of England would have been way beyond my capabilities.

Although many people today no doubt feel the same, the rise of deregulated air service makes leaving virtually any industrialized country within the reach of a large proportion of the population. Not everyone, to be sure, but it’s much more normal now than it once was. Many fewer find the idea “totally impossible.” It’s easy, at least for me, to forget what the past was like. I think we all have a tendency to assume that the present is “normal,” along with whatever our situation is, and the past different. Then I read about someone who “never expected to see” a foreign country and remember that the time and place I live in is very different from those others have lived in. Such moments are the most revealing part of Life. The book made it on the New York Times bestseller list. Prediction: a large number of copies hit the used book market within six months. If you want to read the book, wait and snag a used copy cheap, or get it from the library.

The Novel: An Alternative History — Steven Moore

Novels really start when an important technology (the printing press) allows novelists to respond to one another.

Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 is a very alternative history that points even more than most histories of the novel to the question of what defines the genre. But it answers that question with less satisfaction: a novel is any prose work of some length that is what we would now call fiction. But the idea of fiction / nonfiction weren’t particularly well established until the late eighteenth century, as discussed in some of those conventional histories, like The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding and Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott.

Without that epistemological distinction, critics lack the intellectual scaffolding necessary to really talk about fiction: you have a muddle of stuff that people haven’t really figured out how to deal with. In The Disappearance of God, J. Hillis Miller puts it differently: “The change from traditional literature to a modern genre like the novel can be defined as a moving of once objective worlds of myth and romance into the subjective consciousness of man,” but he’s getting at a similar idea: the “objective worlds of myth” turn out not to be as “objective” as they appear, and the “subjective consciousness of man” reevaluates those worlds of myth. We get at distinctions between what’s true and what’s false based on our ability to recognize our own subjective position, which the novel helps us do.

Moore discusses these issues, of course: he notes the standard history I’m espousing and his reasons for doubting it:

And today our best novelists follow in this great tradition [from Defoe, Swift, and Richardson to the 19th Century realists through Joyce and Faulkner to the present]: that is, realistic narratives driven by strong plot and peopled by well-rounded characters struggling with serious ethical issues, conveyed in language anybody can understand.

Wrong. The novel has been around since at least the 4th century BCE […] and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages.

That’s on page three. I’ve responded to the philosophical and intellectual aspects of what I think problematic, but there’s another issue: Moore’s argument ignores the technological history that enabled the novel to occur. I’ll return to my first paragraph.

Without the printing press, it’s wrong-headed to speak of novels. They couldn’t be sufficiently read, distributed, and disseminated, to enable the “speaking to each other” that I think of in fiction. There wasn’t a “creativity revolution” along the lines of the runaway Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century (see, for example, Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, which I discuss at the link). Books didn’t react enough to other books; that’s part of what the novel got going, and this aspect was enabled by the Industrial Revolution and the press. The two are fundamentally linked.

Some works that we would now classify as fiction definitely were written or compiled, as Moore rightly points out, but they didn’t gain the epistemological distinctions that we grant novels until much later, and novels evolved with a mass reading public that could only occur when novels were mass-produced—produced in numbers that allowed them to be read and responded to by other writers. Claiming that early quasi-fiction forms are novels is like saying that a play and a TV show are the same thing because both rely on visual representations of actors who are pretending to be someone else. In some respects, that’s true, but it still misses how form changes function. It misses the insights of Marshall McLuhan.

He almost gets to this issue:

Sorting through the various ancient writings that have come down to us on cuneiform tablets, papyri, scrolls, and ostraca (potsherds or limestone flakes), it is not difficult to find prototypes for literary fiction and what would eventually be called the novel. What’s difficult is sorting prose from poetry, and fiction from mythology and theology.

But the problem of sorting deserves more attention. Until it can be discussed with greater depth, it misses essential features of the genre. Accounts of the novel need to take two major issues into their reading: a technological one and an intellectual one. The technological one, as mentioned, is the invention and improvement of the printing press, without which the sheer labor necessary to produce copies of novels would have prevented many writers from working at all; you can read more about this in Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change The second is the growth of subjectivity and the acknowledgment of subjectivity in fiction, as also discussed above. Without those technological and the intellectual facets, I don’t think you really have novels, at least in the way they’re conceived of in contemporary times.

The other thing I’d like to note is that Moore is doing more a taxonomy than a history: it has brief sections on more than 200 books with relatively little analysis of each book. This lessens the depth of his book and makes it more tedious as we go from culture to culture without a great deal of discussion about what common items link novel to novel. But that’s part of the problem: proto-novels weren’t linked because their authors didn’t know of one another or of what made fiction fiction and nonfiction nonfiction. Moore is left with this basic shape for The Novel: An Alternative History by his material; in short, form undercuts argument. Too bad, because it’s an argument worth paying attention to if for no other reason than its novelty.

The dangers of over-reliance on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, courtesy of Ernest Gellner and Henry Farrell

Primitive man has lived twice: once in and for himself, and the second time for us, in our reconstruction. Inconclusive evidence may oblige him to live such a double life forever. Ever since the principles of our own social order have become a matter of sustained debate, there has been a persistent tendency to invoke the First Man to settle our disputes for us. His vote in the next general election is eagerly solicited. It is not entirely clear why Early Man should possess such authority over our choices.

That’s from Henry Gellner’s Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History. Today, we wouldn’t call the primitive man the primitive man because “primitive” it prejudicial and “people” usually used instead of “man” because it explicitly includes all humans. We would instead call “primitive man” the “pre-agrarian world” or “evolutionary times” and then continue from there. But the point Gellner is making about our habitual “reconstruction” of what that looked like, in large part for the prejudices of the present, is well-taken and worth remembering in the light of books like Sex at Dawn, The Mating Mind, or the entire oeuvre of evolutionary biology and psychology, which have undergone tremendous revision over the past three decades and will no doubt continue to undergo tremendous revision under the next three and beyond.

How we reconstruct that time and “invoke the First Man” should be remembered as a reconstruction and not as the last word; he shouldn’t necessarily “possess such authority over our choices” today, because what was good for people living before agriculture or before the Industrial Revolution may not be good for us now.

It helps to understand the kinds of things that influence us, but we need to be wary of cherry picking evidence to support whatever kinds of social views we already hold.

I’m reading Gellner thanks to Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber.

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