To most people, reading and writing are boring and unimportant

Robin Hanson says: “… folks, late in life, almost never write essays, or books, on ‘what I’ve learned about life.’ It would only take a few pages, and would seem to offer great value to others early in their lives. Why the silence?”

He offers various explanations, like “People don’t want to hear the truth, and they won’t find lies useful, so why bother,” “Young folks already think they know all the answers, so won’t listen,” and “Few care what people will think of them after they are dead.” But he also says, “None of these explanations seem especially satisfactory. What’s going on?” I offered my theory in the comments section but will elaborate on it here: Most people don’t give a shit about writing or ideas. You can observe this from their behavior. People do things that are important to them (like watching TV, making money, or having sex) and don’t do things that aren’t important to them.

Let’s change the question a little: Why doesn’t Robin build furniture, or write vital open-source software, or feed the hungry in his spare time? Those would seem to offer great value to others. Actually, he might do some of this stuff—Robin seems like the sort of fellow with a lot of unusual hobbies and habits—but even if he does some of that stuff, the question becomes why he does that and not some other valuable thing. Maybe he’s doing the value maximizing thing for him, in which case he enjoys it, in which case he keeps doing it. The question and answers become circular and tautological very quickly, but in this case I don’t think “circular” is “wrong.”

To return to the original question about “What I’ve learned about life,” I think that, for most people, writing life lessons, or whatever, would be completely unimportant. Plus, as a corollary to that, writing is really hard for most people. It’s really hard for me, and I do it every day! So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that most people don’t bother doing hard, meaningless things. Starting from scratch in any skill is a challenge. I’d like to learn how to sew, but I don’t even really know how to start (outside of a Google search), and I don’t really have time to begin learning a complex new skill until October 5. So although I’d like clothes that fit better, I don’t want them badly enough to really do something about it and build domain knowledge in that field.

So, given that most people find new skills hard to learn, and find writing unimportant and boring, the better question is: Why do people write, especially blogs? Robin is the outlier, not the hypothetical old person imparting life lessons. You could reduce this question to, “Why isn’t reading and writing important to most people,” and beyond the obvious answer—they can survive and reproduce without them—I don’t have much.

Gwern’s answer in Robin’s comments seems sound to me: “Differing incentives and realities. Old adults give advice to teens which basically assume they can act like old adults; they forget just how painful things like waiting were, and wish away even the most transparently biological realities like shifts in circadian rhythms.” I would add that teens also don’t think they’ll ever be old. They live in the present.

Thinking back over my own life, I’m struck by how few old people have had useful advice for me. For adolescents and young adults, sex is tremendously important, yet few old people give real advice about it, or gave real advice to me; many of them also don’t seem to understand what the modern dating environment is like. In addition, old people might be worried about coming across as lascivious or inappropriate, when they’re really just trying to impart knowledge—I know that I seldom tell my students, for example, what the dating world is actually like.

I’m also really interested in being a writer, and have been for a long time, but very few adults know anything about being a writer. Those who do often don’t know anything about the Internet, which is now inextricably linked with most writers’ writing lives. So the limited advice that old people can offer often doesn’t seem applicable to me.

Perhaps some old people sense this, and sense that many younger people won’t listen to them anyway.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

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