The Melancholy of Subculture Society

Internet links small groups, helping dissolve big groups; good, bad? But a bit sad.
sociology, psychology, criticism, cats, insight-porn
2009-01-122019-02-05 finished certainty: possible importance: 9

If you crack open some of the mustier books about the Inter­net—you know the ones I’m talk­ing about, the ones which invoke and dis­cuss the sex­ual trans­gress­ing of —one of the few still rel­e­vant crit­i­cisms is the con­cern that the Inter­net by unit­ing small groups will divide larger ones.

Surfing alone

You may remem­ber this as the the­sis applied to the Inter­net; it got some trac­tion in the late 1990s. The basic idea is: elec­tronic enter­tain­ment devices grows in sophis­ti­ca­tion and inex­pen­sive­ness as the years pass, until by the 1980s and 1990s, they have spread across the globe and have devoured mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren; these devices are more per­ni­cious than tra­di­tional geeky fares inas­much as they are often best pur­sued solo. Spend­ing months mas­ter­ing Super Mario Bros—all alone—is a bad way to grow up nor­mal.

And then there were none

The 4 or 5 per­son party (with a ) gives way to the clas­sic arcade with its heated duels and one­ups­man­ship; the arcade gives way to the flick­er­ing con­sole in the bed­room with one play­ing —alone. The increased graph­i­cal real­ism, the more ergonomic con­trollers, the intro­duc­tion of gen­uinely chal­leng­ing AI tech­niques… Trend after trend was ren­der­ing a human oppo­nent unnec­es­sary. And gamer after gamer was now play­ing alone.

Per­haps, the critic says, the rise of the Inter­net has ame­lio­rated that dis­tress­ing trend—the trends favored no con­nec­tiv­ity at first, but then there was finally enough sur­plus com­put­ing power and band­width for mas­sive con­nec­tiv­ity to become the order of the day.

It is much more sat­is­fac­tory and social to play s on your PC than sin­gle-­player RPGS, much more sat­is­fac­tory to kill human play­ers in Halo matches than alien AIs. The machines finally con­nect humans to humans, not human to machine. We’re forced to learn some basic social skills, to main­tain some con­nec­tions. We’re no longer retreat­ing into our lit­tle cocoons, inter­act­ing with no humans.

Welcome to the N.H.K.!

But, the critic con­tin­ues, things still are not well. We are still alien­ated from one anoth­er. The rise of the con­nected machines still facil­i­tates with­drawal and iso­la­tion. It presents the specter of the —the per­son who ceases to exist in the phys­i­cal realm as much as pos­si­ble. It is a Japan­ese term, of course. They are 5 years fur­ther in our future than we are (or per­haps one should say, were?). writes, back in 2001 (see also his short essay):

The Japan­ese seem to the rest of us to live sev­eral mea­sur­able clicks down the time line. The Japan­ese are the ulti­mate Early Adopters, and the sort of fic­tion I write behooves me to pay seri­ous heed to that. If you believe, as I do, that all cul­tural change is essen­tially tech­no­log­i­cally dri­ven, you pay atten­tion to the Japan­ese. They’ve been doing it for more than a cen­tury now, and they really do have a head start on the rest of us, if only in terms of what we used to call ‘’ (but which is now sim­ply the one con­stant in all our lives).

Gib­son also dis­cusses the ‘Mobile Girl’ and text mes­sag­ing; that cul­ture began really show­ing up in Amer­ica around 20051, Twit­ter etc. You can do any­thing with a cell­phone: order food, do your job, read & write nov­els, main­tain a lively ‘social’ life, engage in social sta­tus envy (‘She has a smaller phone, and a larger col­lec­tion of col­lectibles on her cell­phone strap! OMG!’)… Which is just another way of say­ing ‘You can do any­thing with­out see­ing peo­ple, just by writ­ing dig­i­tal mes­sages’. (And this in a coun­try with one of the most undig­i­ti­z­able writ­ing sys­tems in exis­tence!2 Lan­guages are not cre­ated equal3.)

The hikiko­mori with­draws from all per­sonal con­tact. The hikiko­mori does not hang out at the local pub, swill­ing down the brewskis as every­one cheers on the home team. The hikiko­mori is not gos­sip­ing at the rotary club nor with the Lions or mum­mers or Vet­er­ans or Knights. hikiko­moris do none of that. They aren’t work­ing, they aren’t hang­ing out with friends.

“The para­dox­i­cal soli­tude and omnipo­tence of the otaku, the new cen­tu­ry’s ulti­mate enthu­si­ast: the glory and ter­ror inher­ent of the absolute nar­row­ing of per­sonal band­width.”

William Gib­son, (TATE 2002)

So what are they doing with their 16 wak­ing hours a day?

Opting out

“But it’s bet­ter for us not to know the kinds of sac­ri­fices the pro­fes­sion­al-­grade ath­lete has made to get so very good at one par­tic­u­lar thing…the actual facts of the sac­ri­fices repel us when we see them: bas­ket­ball geniuses who can­not read, sprint­ers who dope them­selves, defen­sive tack­les who shoot up with bovine hor­mones until they col­lapse or explode. We pre­fer not to con­sider closely the shock­ingly vapid and prim­i­tive com­ments uttered by ath­letes in post­con­test inter­views or to con­sider what impov­er­ish­ments in one’s men­tal life would allow peo­ple actu­ally to think the way great ath­letes seem to think. Note the way ‘up close and per­sonal’ pro­files of pro­fes­sional ath­letes strain so hard to find evi­dence of a rounded human life–out­side inter­ests and activ­i­ties, val­ues beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvi­ous, that most of this strain­ing is farce. It’s farce because the real­i­ties of top-level ath­let­ics today require an early and total com­mit­ment to one area of excel­lence. An ascetic focus. A sub­sump­tion of almost all other fea­tures of human life to one cho­sen tal­ent and pur­suit. A con­sent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very smal­l­…[Ten­nis player Michael] is, in other words, a com­plete man, though in a grotesquely lim­ited way…Al­ready, for Joyce, at twen­ty-t­wo, it’s too late for any­thing else; he’s invested too much, is in too deep. I think he’s both lucky and unlucky. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.”

, “The String The­ory” (July 1996 Esquire)

They’re not pre­oc­cu­pied with our cul­ture—they’re par­tic­i­pat­ing in their own sub­cul­ture. It’s the nat­ural pro­gres­sion of the . They are fight­ing on , or fiercely pur­su­ing their ‘career’, or… There are many sub­cul­tures linked and united by the Inter­net, for good and ill. For every char­i­ta­ble or benev­o­lent sub­cul­ture (eg free soft­ware) there is one of mixed ben­e­fits (World of War­craft), and one out­right harm­ful (ex. of eat­ing dis­or­ders, child pornog­ra­phy).

The point the critic wants to make is that life is short and a game. You lose a third of the day to sleep, another third to mak­ing a liv­ing, and now you’ve lit­tle left. To be really pro­duc­tive, you can’t divide your ener­gies across mul­ti­ple cul­tures—you can’t be truly suc­cess­ful in main­stream cul­ture, and at the same time be able to devote enough effort in the field of, say, , to be called an . A strad­dler takes onto his head the over­head of learn­ing and par­tic­i­pat­ing in both, and receives no ben­e­fits (he will suf­fer socially in the esteem of the ‘nor­mals’, and will be able to achieve lit­tle in his ‘hobby’ due to lack of time and a desire to not go over­board).4

The otaku & hikiko­mori rec­og­nizes this dilemma and he choos­es—to reject nor­mal life! He rejects life in the larger cul­ture for his sub­cul­ture5. It’s a sim­ple mat­ter of ; it’s eas­ier to be a big fish in a small pond than in a large one.6

The bigger screen

“Have you ever woken up from a dream that was so much more pleas­ant than real life that you wish you could fall back to sleep and return to the dream?…­For some, World of War­craft is like a dream they don’t have to wake up from—a world bet­ter than the real world because their efforts are actu­ally reward­ed.”

Half Sig­ma, “Sta­tus, mas­tur­ba­tion, wasted time, and WoW” (2006)

is unique in gam­ing in that we have always played on the same mas­sive server in the same online uni­verse since May 2003 when it first went live. We not only under­stand the harsh penal­ties for fail­ure, but also how longevity and per­sis­tence is rewarded with suc­cess. When you have over 60,000 peo­ple on week­ends deal­ing, schem­ing, and shoot­ing each other it attracts a cer­tain type of gamer. It’s not a quick fix kind of game. We enjoy build­ing things that last, be they vir­tual space­ships or real life friend­ships that together trans­late into mas­sive Empires and endur­ing lega­cies. Those of us who play under­stand that one man really can truly make a dif­fer­ence in our world.”

Mark ‘Seleene’ Heard ( eulo­gy, 2012)

As ever more opt out, the larger cul­ture is dam­aged.7 The cul­ture begins to frag­ment back into pieces. The dis­con­nect can be pro­found; an Amer­i­can anime geek has more in com­mon with a Japan­ese anime geek (who is of a dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ty, a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, a dif­fer­ent reli­gion, a dif­fer­ent lan­guage…) than he does with an Amer­i­can involved in the evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian sub­cul­ture. There is essen­tially no com­mon ground—our 2 coun­try­men prob­a­bly can’t even agree on objec­tive mat­ters like gov­er­nance or evo­lu­tion!

With enough of these gaps, where is ‘Amer­i­can’ or ‘French’ cul­ture? Such cul­tural iden­ti­ties take cen­turies to coa­lesce—France did not speak French until the 1900s (as recounts), and Han China is still digest­ing & assim­i­lat­ing its many minori­ties & out­ly­ing regions. Amer­i­ca, of course, had it easy in start­ing with a small founder pop­u­la­tion which could just exter­mi­nate the natives.

The national iden­tity frag­ments under the assault of bur­geon­ing sub­cul­tures. At last, the critic beholds the nat­ural end­point of this process: the long night­mare of nation­al­ism falls like a weight from the minds of the liv­ing, as the nation becomes some lines on a map, some laws you fol­low. No one par­tic­u­larly cares. The geek thinks, ‘: here, Canada, Lon­don, Japan, Sin­ga­pore—as long as FedEx can reach me and there’s a good Inter­net con­nec­tion, what’s the dif­fer­ence?’ (Nor are the tech­ni­cal­ly-in­clined alone in this.8)

You can test this your­self. Tell your­self —‘The coun­try I live in now is the best coun­try in the world for peo­ple like me; I would be ter­ri­bly unhappy if I was exiled.’ If your men­tal reply goes some­thing like, ‘Why, what’s so spe­cial about the USA? It’s not par­tic­u­larly eco­nom­i­cally or polit­i­cally free, it’s not the only civ­i­lized Eng­lish-s­peak­ing coun­try, it’s not the wealth­i­est9…’, then you are headed down the path of opt­ing out.

This is how the para­dox works: the Inter­net breaks the larger cul­ture by let­ting mem­bers flee to smaller sub­cul­tures. And the crit­ics think this is bad. They like the broader cul­ture10, they agree with about atom­iza­tion and point to exam­ples like South Korea, and deep down, and really bother them. They just plain don’t like those deviants.

But I can get a higher score!

“In the future, every­one will be world-­fa­mous for 15 min­utes.”

Let’s look at another angle.


“Irony has only emer­gency use. Car­ried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”

Lewis Hyde, Alco­hol and Poet­ry: John Berry­man and the Booze Talk­ing11

One can’t opt out of cul­ture. “There is no view from nowhere.” To a great extent, we are our cul­tural arti­fact­s—our pos­ses­sions, our com­plexes of memes, our habits and objects of dis­gust are all cul­tur­al. You are always part of a cul­ture.

Sup­pose there were only 1 world­wide cul­ture, with no sub­cul­tures. The over­rid­ing obses­sion of this cul­ture will be… let’s make it ‘money’. Peo­ple are absolutely obsessed with mon­ey—how it is made, acquired, degrad­ed, etc. More impor­tant­ly, sta­tus is defined just by how much you have earned in your life; in prac­tice, tie-break­ers include how fast you made it, what cir­cum­stances you made it in (ev­ery­one admires a per­son who became a bil­lion­aire in a depres­sion more than a good-­times bil­lion­aire, in the same way we admire the nov­el­ist in the freez­ing gar­ret more than the com­fort­able aca­d­e­mic), and so on.

This isn’t too absurd a sce­nar­io: sub­jects feed on them­selves and develop details and com­plex­ity as effort is invested in them. Money could well absorb the col­lec­tive efforts of 7 bil­lion peo­ple—al­ready many peo­ple act just this way.

But what effect does this have on peo­ple? I can tell you: the aver­age per­son is going to be mis­er­able. If every­one gen­uinely buys into this cul­ture, then they have to be. Their tal­ents at piano play­ing, or cook­ing, or pro­gram­ming, or any form of artistry or schol­arly pur­suit are den­i­grated and count for naught. The world has become too big—it did not use to be so big, peo­ple so 12 of what is going on:

"So­ci­ety is com­posed of per­sons who can­not design, build, repair, or even oper­ate most of the devices upon which their lives depend…In the com­plex­ity of this world peo­ple are con­fronted with extra­or­di­nary events and func­tions that are lit­er­ally unin­tel­li­gi­ble to them. They are unable to give an ade­quate expla­na­tion of man-­made phe­nom­ena in their imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence. They are unable to form a coher­ent, ratio­nal pic­ture of the whole.

Under the cir­cum­stances, all per­sons do, and indeed must, accept a great num­ber of things on faith…Their way of under­stand­ing is basi­cally reli­gious, rather than sci­en­tific; only a small por­tion of one’s every­day expe­ri­ence in the tech­no­log­i­cal soci­ety can be made sci­en­tific…The plight of mem­bers of the tech­no­log­i­cal soci­ety can be com­pared to that of a new­born child. Much of the data that enters its sense does not form coher­ent wholes. There are many things the child can­not under­stand or, after it has learned to speak, can­not suc­cess­fully explain to any­one…C­i­t­i­zens of the mod­ern age in this respect are less for­tu­nate than chil­dren. They never escape a fun­da­men­tal bewil­der­ment in the face of the com­plex world that their senses report. They are not able to orga­nize all or even very much of this into sen­si­ble wholes…."13

You can’t make a mark on it unless there are almost as many ways to make marks as there are per­sons.14

To put it another way: women suf­fer enough from com­par­ing them­selves to media images. If you want a vision of this future, imag­ine every­one being an anorexic teenager who hates her body—­for­ev­er.

We all value social esteem. We need to know some­body thinks well of us. We’re tribal mon­keys; ostracism means death.

: “I’d like to hypoth­e­size one civ­i­liz­ing force, which is the per­cep­tion of mul­ti­ple over­lap­ping hier­ar­chies of sta­tus. I’ve observed this to be help­ful in work deal­ing with reha­bil­i­tat­ing gang mem­bers in Oak­land. When there are mul­ti­ple over­lap­ping hier­ar­chies of sta­tus there is more of a chance of peo­ple not fight­ing their supe­rior within the sta­tus chain. And the more severe the impo­si­tion of the sin­gle hier­ar­chy in peo­ple’s lives, the more likely they are to engage in con­flict with one anoth­er. Part of Amer­i­ca’s suc­cess is the con­fu­sion fac­tor of under­stand­ing how to assess some­body’s sta­tus.”

: “That’s a pro­found obser­va­tion. There are stud­ies show­ing that vio­lence is more com­mon when peo­ple are con­fined to one peck­ing order, and all of their social worth depends on where they are in that hier­ar­chy, whereas if they belong to mul­ti­ple over­lap­ping groups, they can always seek affir­ma­tions of worth else­where. For exam­ple, if I do some­thing stu­pid when I’m dri­ving, and some­one gives me the fin­ger and calls me an ass­hole, it’s not the end of the world: I think to myself, I’m a tenured pro­fes­sor at Har­vard. On the other hand, if sta­tus among men in the street was my only source of worth in life, I might have road rage and pull out a gun. Moder­nity com­prises a lot of things, and it’s hard to tease them apart. But I sus­pect that when you’re not con­fined to a vil­lage or a clan, and you can seek your for­tunes in a wide world, that is a paci­fy­ing force for exactly that rea­son.”15

Think of the peo­ple you know. How many of them can ‘com­pete’ on purely finan­cial grounds? How many can com­pare to the chimps at the top of the finan­cial heap with­out feel­ing like an utter fail­ure, a mis­er­able loser? Not many. I can’t think of any­one I know who would­n’t be at least a lit­tle unhap­py. Some of them are pretty well off, but it’s awfully hard to com­pare with bil­lion­aires in their depart­ment. There’s no way to prove that this ver­sion of sub­cul­tures is the right one (per­haps frag­ment­ing the cul­ture frag­ments the pos­si­ble sta­tus), but when I look at sim­ple mod­els, this ver­sion seems plau­si­ble to me16 and to explain some deep trends like monogamy17.

Subcultures set you free

“If you com­pare your­self with oth­ers, you may become vain or bit­ter, for always there will be greater and lesser per­sons than your­self. Enjoy your achieve­ments as well as your plans. Keep inter­ested in your own career, how­ever hum­ble; it is a real pos­ses­sion in the chang­ing for­tunes of time.”

Max Ehrmann, “

Hav­ing a soci­ety in which an artist can min­gle as social equals with the bil­lion­aire and admit the Nobel sci­en­tists and the phil­an­thropist is fun­da­men­tal to our men­tal health! If I’m a pro­gram­mer, I don’t need to be com­pet­ing with 7 bil­lion peo­ple, and the few hun­dred bil­lion­aires, for self­-es­teem. I can just con­sider the com­put­ing com­mu­ni­ty. Bet­ter yet, I might only have to con­sider the func­tional pro­gram­ming com­mu­ni­ty, or per­haps just the Haskell pro­gram­ming com­mu­ni­ty. Or to take another exam­ple: if I decide to com­mit to the Eng­lish Wikipedia sub­cul­ture, as it were, instead of Amer­i­can cul­ture, I am no longer men­tally deal­ing with 300 mil­lion com­peti­tors and threats; I am deal­ing with just a few thou­sand.18

It is a more man­age­able tribe. It’s closer to the , which still applies online19. Even if I’m on the bot­tom of the Wikipedia heap, that’s fine. As long as I know where I am! I don’t have to be a rich elite to be hap­py; a mas­ter crafts­man is con­tent20, and “a cat may look at a king”.

Leav­ing a cul­ture, and join­ing a sub­cul­ture, is a way for the mon­key mind to cope with the mod­ern world.

Growing up

“Often, I must speak oth­er­wise than I think. That is called diplo­ma­cy.”

Stil­gar, Frank Her­bert’s

I have a the­ory about why so few older peo­ple are hikiko­moris or otaku.

I think that they have suc­cumbed to : they’ve suf­fered through­out their entire life the fear21 & stress of walk­ing down a crowded street and hav­ing no idea who all these peo­ple are, what threat they are22, or how they relate to you, and their minds have been warped to the point that it no longer both­ers them, they’ve sim­ply adapted to the men­tal bur­den23. (As one would expect, young peo­ple are more exhausted by groups24.) The remain­ing men­tal dis­lo­ca­tion is han­dled by exactly those smal­l­-s­cale social orga­ni­za­tions whose pass­ing Put­nam bemoans in Bowl­ing Alone. (This solu­tion is as viable as it ever was. But the young have other options, and are no longer forced into this ancient con­for­mi­ty.)

Stress is an impor­tant issue. You can ask the pri­ma­tol­o­gists, they’ll tell you. Social stress short­ens lives. The mon­keys on the bot­tom of the heap don’t live as long as they should; the hor­mones like dam­age the body25. The ape at the top of the heap may not live par­tic­u­larly long either, but at least he can see his death com­ing. Mad­ness is not asso­ci­ated with the coun­tryside; it is with the city26, per­haps due to stress or low-level infec­tions27.

Special, like everyone else

“I thought that every­one in Japan had to be packed in there. So I turned to my dad and asked him, ‘Do you know how many peo­ple are here right now’? He said since the [base­ball] sta­dium was full, prob­a­bly fifty thou­sand…I was only one lit­tle per­son in that big crowded sta­dium filled with peo­ple, and there were so many peo­ple there, but it was just a hand­ful out of the entire pop­u­la­tion. Up till then, I always thought that I was, I don’t know, kind of a spe­cial per­son. It was fun to be with my fam­i­ly. I had fun with my class­mates. And the school that I was going to, it had just about the most inter­est­ing peo­ple any­where. But that night, I real­ized it was­n’t true. All the stuff we did dur­ing class that I thought was so fun and cool, was prob­a­bly hap­pen­ing just like that in classes in other schools all over Japan. There was noth­ing spe­cial about my school at all.”

(The Melan­choly of Haruhi Suzu­miya)

is par­tic­u­larly tox­ic. If the stress is caused by an unclear and extremely low place in the social order, then mod­ern man will con­stantly suf­fer it, and his health will be impaired by it.

When one con­sid­ers this, it’s clear that seced­ing from the cul­ture at large can have ben­e­fits that the larger cul­ture can never deliv­er. A larger cul­ture can never reduce the num­ber of peo­ple I need to know about to a few hun­dred or thou­sand; it can never give me a intu­itive place in the scheme of things. 7 bil­lion, or even 300 mil­lion, is just too large.

But a sub­cul­ture can deliver that. A sub­cul­ture can know my name, and pat me on the back for an achieve­ment that to a larger cul­ture is incom­pre­hen­si­ble at best and triv­ial or objec­tion­able at worst. A sub­cul­ture can remove that social stress.

And if we were to take it even fur­ther? If we chose a sub­cul­ture that was online, and we never went out­side? Then all the stress would be gone; if one does­n’t walk down the street, one isn’t both­ered by strangers in such close prox­im­i­ty.

“A Winner Is You”

“You are right, Jean­ne, I don’t know how to care about the sal­va­tion of my soul.
Some are called, oth­ers man­age as well as they can.
I accept it, what has befallen me is just.
I don’t pre­tend to the dig­nity of a wise old age.
Untrans­lat­able into words, I chose my home in what is now.”

, “A Con­ver­sa­tion With Jeanne”

To judge by many peo­ple’s revealed pref­er­ences, work is what is most impor­tant to them, yet the com­mon say­ing goes that on one’s deathbed, no one wishes they’d spent more week­ends in the office; is admirable, or hor­ri­ble? Par­tic­u­larly the treat­ment of Jiro’s two sons and his min­i­mal rela­tion­ship with his own wife gives one pause for thought. Speak­ing of Jiro, it’s worth not­ing that the pro­tag­o­nist of world-­fa­mous direc­tor _ is also named Jiro, and speak­ing of Miyaza­ki, there are some inter­est­ing remarks by his son 28:

Hayao Miyaza­ki, to me, is “Zero Marks as a Father, Full Marks as a Direc­tor”. My father was almost never at home. That’s why for me, when I was a child, my mother had to fill the place of my father. My father came home every day in the mid­dle of the night, after I had already gone to sleep. He was always very con­sci­en­tious in this regard—ap­par­ent­ly, no mat­ter how late it was, he always made sure that he came home. But almost every Sat­ur­day and Sun­day he was still at work regard­less. That’s why, from my ear­li­est aware­ness to the present day, I hardly ever had the chance to talk to him. He always came back after I was asleep, and when I left for school at 8 o’clock he was still asleep. That’s why, when I was in ele­men­tary school, before going to school I often used to go and look in the bed­room to see if my father was there or not. My father threw him­self com­pletely into his work. Not only did he not look after the chil­dren, he never did a sin­gle bit of house­work. So my mother did all of that. My mother was also an ani­ma­tor, but when my younger brother was born, just before I started going to ele­men­tary school, my father changed work­places, and his work got even busier than before. So the result was, that in order to bring up the chil­dren, my mother had no choice but to give up being an ani­ma­tor.

For a great artist, one could per­haps jus­tify the costs. But for other peo­ple…?

A phe­nom­e­non in var­i­ous fields is , which is an expo­nen­tial power law for num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions per authors: most pub­lish few, but a few pub­lish many. Simon­ton decades later would for­mu­late the ‘equal-odds rule’ which says that in gen­er­al, no sci­en­tist has a higher bat­ting aver­age than oth­ers do; the out­sized dif­fer­ences in per­for­mance stem from sim­ply the greats pub­lish­ing a great deal. (One thinks of Gauss’s unpub­lished note­books, revealed to con­tain many math­e­mat­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies found by later math­e­mati­cians, when the math­e­mat­i­cal his­to­ri­ans finally went through them all, or of the gems buried in the notes of the Amer­i­can logi­cian Charles Sanders Peirce.) Hence, Lotka’s law extends to the actual dis­cov­er­ies: most make a few, but a few make many more than they should. remarks in Human Accom­plish­ment on the graphs of ‘great’ artists or sci­en­tists (as mea­sured by how many dif­fer­ent text­books or ency­clo­pe­dias thought they were impor­tant enough to men­tion) that they exhibit—no mat­ter how you try to recal­cu­late or adjust them—an extra­or­di­nary imbal­ance with many minor fig­ures and just a few uni­ver­sal fig­ures, as Lotka’s law pre­dicts; this is odd, since the dis­tri­b­u­tion looks noth­ing like a bell curve or “nor­mal dis­tri­b­u­tion” as one would pre­dict if great­ness were based only on IQ or only on hard-­work­ing­ness or only on wealth. Some of this is net­work or Matthew effects, but the sim­plest expla­na­tion is that great­ness requires mul­ti­ple traits: one must be intel­li­gent and hard-­work­ing and not des­per­ately poor and… Many of which are nor­mal dis­tri­b­u­tions or sim­i­lar, and when the require­ments mul­ti­ply out, what is left is a fast-shrink­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion—­like Lotka’s law.

One of the require­ments for great work in any field is that one must be moti­vat­ed—one must think one’s work or the field vitally impor­tant. It’s hard to become a chess grand­mas­ter if one has con­tempt for devot­ing one’s life to study­ing the minu­tia of an arbi­trary set of rules whose mas­tery has no util­ity to any­thing else what­so­ev­er. I believe this may lead to a para­dox of exper­tise, a : those most likely to have achieved world-­class mas­tery of a topic are sys­tem­at­i­cally the most likely to be or badly mis­taken about its val­ue. The “grand­mas­ters” of many fields claim their field is uniquely impor­tant, which of course can­not be true in gen­er­al, or uniquely sat­is­fy­ing to them, which seems improb­a­ble as any per­son can have sam­pled but few of life’s wares. , on the topic of world-­class vio­lin­ists start­ing in very early youth, asks “What are the odds a 6-year-old would know what a 30-year-old wants to do?”

One sees this in chess: var­i­ous chess fig­ures extol its applic­a­bil­ity to finance, with no evi­dence; or claim it is applic­a­ble to pol­i­tics, despite the anal­ogy being ten­u­ous at best and chess infe­rior to games like Go, regard­less; or place their hopes in chess train­ing of chil­dren trans­fer­ring to fac­ul­ties like IQ, despite all such attempts at “far trans­fer”—even far more plau­si­ble ones like early enrich­ment or (most) nutri­tional sup­ple­ments or —fail­ing for the last 60 years and the cited chess stud­ies being either method­olog­i­cally sus­pect or con­tra­dic­to­ry. Is chess really some­thing to spend one’s life on? World chess cham­pion said some­thing inter­est­ing in early 2010:

Carlsen: I have no idea [what my IQ is]. I would­n’t want to know it any­way. It might turn out to be a nasty sur­prise.

SPIEGEL: Why? You are 19 years old and ranked the num­ber one chess player in the world. You must be incred­i­bly clever.

Carlsen: And that’s pre­cisely what would be ter­ri­ble. Of course it is impor­tant for a chess player to be able to con­cen­trate well, but being too intel­li­gent can also be a bur­den. It can get in your way. I am con­vinced that the rea­son the Eng­lish­man never became world cham­pion is that he is too clever for that…At the age of 15, Nunn started study­ing math­e­mat­ics in Oxford; he was the youngest stu­dent in the last 500 years, and at 23 he did a PhD in . He has so incred­i­bly much in his head. Sim­ply too much. His enor­mous pow­ers of under­stand­ing and his con­stant thirst for knowl­edge dis­tracted him from chess.

SPIEGEL: Things are dif­fer­ent in your case?

Carlsen: Right. I am a totally nor­mal guy. My father is con­sid­er­ably more intel­li­gent than I am.

Can we exempt sub­cul­tures from this line of thought? Are those who become “Otak­ings” kings only of fol­ly? This is the curse of knowl­edge: those who know, do not do—and those who do not know, do.

Sympathy for the poor devil

“The secret of is that every­thing on offer there incli­nes, ulti­mate­ly, to the sta­tus, if not the per­fec­tion, of . The brogues, shined lov­ingly enough, for long enough, with those metic­u­lously imported shoe-­care prod­ucts, must ulti­mately become a uni­verse unto them­selves, a con­cep­tual sphere of lus­trous and infi­nite depth.”

“Just as a life, lived silently enough, in suf­fi­cient soli­tude, becomes a dif­fer­ent sort of sphere, no less per­fect.”

Gib­son, “Shiny Balls of Mud”

Soci­ety, looked at objec­tive­ly, has a lot of down­sides29. For any­one who has­n’t already bought into soci­ety, who isn’t per­fectly suited for it, becom­ing a hikiko­mori is a halfway log­i­cal reac­tion. They have their rea­sons, and we can even tie the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions to sci­en­tific results.

If some­one really prefers their sub­cul­ture, which gives them men­tal ease and phys­i­cal health, then what right do the rest have to inter­fere and drag them into the main cul­ture? Large homo­ge­neous cul­tures are accom­plished only with great effort, and much blood­shed of body and mind. Their ben­e­fits are unclear, and the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions trans­par­ently self­-serv­ing. Per­haps we should accept grace­fully the inevitable sun­der­ing of ‘national’ cul­tures, and learn to oper­ate within a truly mul­ti­cul­tural world. Each of us with a niche of our own, on respect­ful (if uncom­pre­hend­ing) terms with all the other sub­cul­tures.

“…I think he’s both lucky and unlucky. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.”

David Fos­ter Wal­lace, “String The­ory”

See Also


Japan and the Internet

The future of tech­nol­ogy isn’t what it used to be—a dis­cus­sion of the col­lapse of Japan­ese influ­ence on tech­nol­ogy & design. Why did Japan­ese com­pa­nies cease to be the admired cut­ting-edge of com­put­er, video game, Inter­net, or smart­phone tech­nol­o­gy, under­per­forms in crit­i­cal areas like soft­ware design (such as pro­gram­ming lan­guages) and is instead one of the last havens of fax machines & fea­ture phones, with pres­ti­gious but largely use­less humanoid robotic pro­grams?

I quoted approv­ingly Gib­son’s old 2000s dic­tum that Japan was fur­ther into the future than the West. This used to be more true than it is, and the dis­crep­ancy started being noted as early as 1998, in Ohsug­a’s “The Bar­ri­ers to Soft­ware Devel­op­ment in Japan”. The prob­lem is the dog which did not bark: there is a curi­ous lack of Japan­ese con­tri­bu­tions in soft­ware tech­nol­o­gy. Japan has a highly edu­cated pop­u­la­tion a good frac­tion of the size of US pop­u­la­tion (127m vs 300m), con­sid­er­able indige­nous R&D capa­bil­ity (al­beit declin­ing), long involve­ment in com­put­ing hard­ware, early dom­i­nance of entire cat­e­gories of con­sumer elec­tron­ics etc. Hence, if all were equal, one would expect some­thing like a third of all major soft­ware pack­ages writ­ten by Japan­ese or Inter­net ser­vices devel­oped by Japan­ese, and so on. Instead, one notices almost a com­plete absence of such Japan­ese con­tri­bu­tions. (To the extent one does­n’t notice this, one is engag­ing in —Japan ought to be pro­duc­ing much glob­ally sell­ing or pop­u­lar soft­ware and its absence is sur­pris­ing30.) In soft­ware, the only major con­tri­bu­tion I know of is the 31; one could argue that would-be FLOSS con­trib­u­tors are “bled off” or par­a­sitized by the Anglos­phere FLOSS com­mu­ni­ties (and are some­how invis­i­ble there), but I am con­tin­u­ally struck by the almost com­plete absence of FLOSS in media & the sur­vival and mas­sive pop­u­lar­ity of closed-­source soft­ware, where this argu­ment should not apply and where FLOSS prac­tices would entirely appro­pri­ate. Web­sites are sim­ply ugly; Oliver Reichen­stein:

OR: Japan­ese web or app design is not com­pa­ra­ble to Japan­ese art, graphic design or archi­tec­ture. I could fill a page explain­ing why. It has to do with the way Japan­ese read, with the cor­po­rate fear of doing some­thing dif­fer­ent, and with the gen­er­ally low level of design for the mass­es. One rea­son why Japan­ese web and app design feels weak is that tech­nol­ogy requires good active and pas­sive knowl­edge of Eng­lish. Eng­lish is the lin­gua franca of con­tem­po­rary web and app devel­op­ment, both of our tools and our dis­course. Even if you mas­ter Eng­lish-based Objec­tive-C or JavaScript, if you are not able to com­mu­ni­cate with the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity of devel­op­ers and design­ers, you miss out on what is desir­able, even what is pos­si­ble. Japan­ese devel­op­ers and design­ers that don’t speak Eng­lish are trapped within the rel­a­tively low level of tech and design that cur­rently reigns in the Japan­ese cor­po­rate world…The aver­age web site, app, adver­tise­ment… it’s usu­ally really badly designed. That might be hard to believe from the out­side, because only the best of the best of Japan­ese design reaches the rest of the world, but with the web it has become more obvi­ous how bad basic design is in Japan. Yes, the stan­dard for Japan­ese design in gen­eral is as low as for Japan­ese web design. Why? Noth­ing is more destruc­tive to good design than group think­ing and col­lec­tive deci­sion mak­ing. Why? As I said, to most peo­ple good design is invis­i­ble. Group deci­sions focus on the vis­i­ble, bad aspects of design.

There have been attempts to jus­tify the exist­ing set of web design prac­tices, but I find them uncon­vinc­ing: this fits a gen­eral trend, has a clear ori­gin in slower com­put­ers & weaker Inter­net of decades ago and attempts to mimic com­pletely dif­fer­ent media like paper, existed in other coun­tries but have been super­seded, are grad­u­ally wan­ing in Japan, anec­dotes from web­site design­ers indi­cate objec­tive infe­ri­or­ity in & , and the prac­tices have not spread world­wide (while rival par­a­digms do seem to be spread­ing or be copied).

The Japan­ese IT indus­try is fairly dys­func­tional, even if its inef­fi­cien­cies result in cute Easter eggs. For exam­ple, the SMS-inspired Inter­net ser­vice cited as inte­gral to the dis­as­ter recov­ery was not a Japan­ese ser­vice, but the Amer­i­can Twit­ter.

In the 1990s and ear­lier, near-­to­tal Japan­ese dom­i­na­tion of con­sumer elec­tron­ics and video games in par­tic­u­lar was sim­ply a fact of life; but in the 2000s, the trends began to reverse (with Nin­tendo par­tic­u­larly slip­ping) and by the 2010s, there is open dis­cus­sion of what once was an insane propo­si­tion: that Japan was not mak­ing good or inno­v­a­tive com­puter or video games and had suc­cumbed to . This may be a con­se­quence of Japan­ese pref­er­ence for video game con­soles over com­puter games (what best-selling Japan­ese com­puter games there are seem to fall into the fam­ily of gen­res), but even if this is not a post hoc expla­na­tion, it is still pass­ing the explana­tory buck: why, then, was there a Japan­ese pref­er­ence for the con­soles in the first place, and why did­n’t the equiv­a­lent huge pop­u­lar­ity of con­soles in Amer­ica or Europe lead to any sim­i­lar dis­ease? Why was the Japan­ese ratio of con­sole:­com­puter above a fatal lim­it, but not also the Amer­i­can or Euro­pean per­cent­ages?

Nor are the dou­jin and FLOSS scenes much bet­ter, as pre­vi­ously men­tioned: games remain always closed-­source and are not dis­trib­uted out­side Japan; West­ern­ers would never tol­er­ate a com­mon ani­ma­tion tool like being only free­ware, and would insist on it being opened—if only to deal with aban­don­ment issues & make bug-­fix­ing and exten­sions eas­i­er. For every major West­ern closed-­source plat­form or tech­nol­o­gy, there is some­one try­ing to make a FLOSS equiv­a­lent, even when the alter­na­tive is non­com­pet­i­tive or the task would seem impos­si­ble (eg. vs Face­book). It’s inter­est­ing to note that the only I have ever heard of being under a CC license (al­beit a highly restric­tive one) is the West­ern . Of the 5 major visual novel engines—ba­sic game infra­struc­ture that cries out for open-­source licens­ing—only 2 are so licensed. I’ve won­dered if there’s a eth­nic or nation­al­ist thing going on here: there has always seemed to be an ambiva­lence in the anime indus­try about sell­ing over­seas (one cre­ator of expressed sur­prise & dis­may that it was pop­u­lar in Amer­ica323334, as did for Evan­ge­lion35), one echoed in other areas like Touhou 36. (In con­trast, I have a hard time even imag­in­ing any Amer­i­can com­pany like Dis­ney hav­ing the slight­est com­punc­tion or con­cern about sell­ing over­seas to non-Amer­i­cans, much less stat­ing their ambiva­lence.)

Japan, while orig­i­nally the leader in cell­phones has for­feited its lead and has been out­com­peted by Finnish and Amer­i­can cell­phones, with sur­pris­ingly low smart­phone adop­tion c. 2011, per­haps related to the con­tin­ued use of fax machines (whose Japan­ese pop­u­lar­ity peaked at around 60% of house­holds 2007–2012); other parts seem trapped in amber—how sur­real to dis­cover in 2020 that Ama­zon.­ sup­ports as a pay­ment method, which in Amer­ica hardly existed in 1990. Gib­son’s arti­cle seems laugh­ably out of date in this age of the iPhone (part 2), but it was true! One could also won­der why Inter­net cafes are in South Korea and an obscure niche in Japan? (Patrick McKen­zie makes mul­ti­ple inter­est­ing remarks on the par­lous state of Japan­ese IT and cell­phones which are too lengthy to quote here.)

Another curi­ous case is the Japan­ese robot­ics indus­try—their walk­ing robots and com­pe­ti­tions have been pre­sented tri­umphantly as the cul­mi­na­tion of Japan­ese tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, but the odd thing is, the R&D pro­grams that pro­duced or are already look­ing quixotic and ill-­fat­ed, re-runs of the . were a very suc­cess­ful field for Japan, but that was decades ago. What robots has Japan pro­duced that were as use­ful as a Room­ba? Why were the robots at the Fukushima plant Amer­i­can? (And then there is the explod­ing field of aer­ial drones and swarms, which Japan seems excluded from. One thinks of Eds­ger W. Dijk­stra—“The ques­tion of whether Machines Can Think… is about as rel­e­vant as the ques­tion of whether Sub­marines Can Swim.” Or walk, as the case may be.)

Japan­ese Inter­net ser­vices restrict them­selves to Japan either by apa­thy or by actively block­ing for­eign IP address via , which may ulti­mately be a recipe for fail­ure. (The South Korean social net­work failed in its attempts to expand inter­na­tion­al­ly, and now its lunch is being eaten by Face­book. YouTube has done a sim­i­lar num­ber on Korean com­peti­tors. The Japan­ese equiv­a­lent to Cyworld, seemed to be fend­ing off Face­book, at least until mid-2012 or so.) Another exam­ple comes from P2P file­shar­ing, which is rarely done for movies or music (in favor of grow­ing CD sales; “many top [K-pop] artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea”); this is not due just to a scle­rotic enter­tain­ment indus­try as we note a sim­i­lar obses­sion with CDs in ama­teur dou­jin cir­cles as well. Curi­ous­ly, Japan­ese geeks who do file­share choose to use //—all of which are closed-­source, employ , Win­dows-on­ly, imple­men­ta­tion-de­fined, are not used out­side Japan, and are known to be inse­cure with mul­ti­ple arrests & NetA­gent claims to have bro­ken Per­fect Dark; from the per­spec­tive of West­ern users, these are all fatal objec­tions and they haven’t used such inse­cure and untrust­wor­thy P2P soft­ware since the days of Nap­ster and Kazaa. Even West­ern porn sites have bet­ter imple­men­ta­tions and con­tents than the Japan­ese sites, though it’s the Japan­ese who pro­duce all their con­tent!

W. David Marx in 2009 listed other strik­ing aspects of the Japan­ese intranet, as it were, in his essay “The Fear… of the Inter­net”; from just one sec­tion, ‘User Trep­i­da­tion’:

  • A total and com­pre­hen­sive refusal of Japan­ese social net­work site users to post real pic­tures of them­selves (and often, real names)
  • An obses­sion with ultra­-­long and com­pli­cated mobile-e­mail addresses as a spam pre­ven­tion mea­sure, despite the fact that its effect may be min­i­mal, espe­cially when weighed against the incon­ve­nience.
  • A lack of user gen­er­ated medi­a—Y­ouTube clips, in par­tic­u­lar—fea­tur­ing Japan­ese faces and real names. Many per­form­ers, despite vir­tu­oso-level skills, wear masks or oth­er­wise obscure faces in their video con­tent. [eg. the entirely masked Nico Nico Orches­tra]
  • The pre­dom­i­nance of anony­mous sites like as the main cor­ri­dors of inter­net cul­ture.
  • Blog writ­ers, who have not estab­lished fame through other media, almost never reveal real names, even when the infor­ma­tion and ser­vice pro­vided is of pro­fes­sional qual­ity and not explic­itly per­son­al. (More on this here.)
  • The local dis­com­fort towards Google Street Map­s—de­bated on some­what cul­tur­al-essen­tial­ist ground­s—­vastly out­weighed the ben­e­fits for the louder sec­tion of Japan­ese users, forc­ing Google to plan a re-shoot of all the streets with a ‘lower angle cam­era’.

I was struck by the point that “News­pa­pers do not offer full con­tent online and quickly erase con­tent lest it become search­able archives.” inas­much as dur­ing my , I had been using an inter­view pub­lished by online, but the entire site van­ished months later in a merger with ; I assumed it would still be avail­able in the , except the IA had blocked access to every sin­gle page ever in the entire domain. More extra­or­di­nar­i­ly, this was not accom­plished via the usual mech­a­nism, imply­ing Mainichi Shim­bun had pri­vately con­tacted the IA to ask for a cus­tom block on the domain!

The com­ments men­tion that the is smaller than it should be com­pared to other suc­cess­ful Wikipedias like the ; and I agree since, despite work­ing on many Eng­lish Wikipedia arti­cles related to Japan like or the arti­cles, I have never found any­thing use­ful on the Japan­ese Wikipedia (read­ing them via ) and fur­ther, my arti­cles have often been bet­ter and more com­pre­hen­sive.

The blog­ger Spike Japan dis­cusses the state of Japan­ese band­width and offers a sim­i­lar list (in reply to the oped “The Myth of Japan’s Fail­ure”):

You can access Aka­mai Tech­nolo­gies’ State of the Inter­net Report by reg­is­ter­ing here. The most recent one that seems to be freely avail­able is for 2011 Q2. Our first les­son is on the use and abuse of sta­tis­tics. That the Japan­ese city with the fastest aver­age Mbps, Shi­mot­suma, ranked 3rd in the world, is a small Tokyo dor­mi­tory com­mu­nity to which very few Japan­ese could point on a map, and that one of the Japan­ese “cities” in the top 50, Marunouchi, is not a city, nor even a ward of Tokyo, but a few blocks of office build­ings clus­tered around Tokyo sta­tion, make it read­ily appar­ent that if you are a lar­gish coun­try for which Aka­mai has a lot of data col­lec­tion points and you have a high­ish aver­age con­nec­tion speed, then of course you are going to dom­i­nate the city rank­ings. For a more truth­ful pic­ture of Inter­net infra­struc­ture, we need to turn to a coun­try-level analy­sis. In 2011 Q2, Japan ranked third for aver­age con­nec­tion speeds, at 8.9Mbps, behind South Korea at 13.8Mbps and Hong Kong at 10.3Mbps. Impres­sive, to be sure, but not quite the pic­ture of global lead­er­ship that insin­u­ates it has. Indeed, the broader the met­ric becomes, the worse the pic­ture looks for Japan: for high broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity (above 5Mbp­s), the Nether­lands ranks first at 68% of all con­nec­tions, Japan ranks 6th, at 55%, and the US 13th at 42%, while for good old-­fash­ioned broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity (above 2Mbp­s), 10 mostly Euro­pean coun­tries have pen­e­tra­tion rates over 90%, the US ranks 35th at 80%, and Japan is actu­ally behind the US, com­ing in 39th place at 76%. What’s more, Japan’s high broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity actu­ally fell 8.9% YoY and its broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity fell 12% YoY, while the rates of almost all other coun­tries surged. Not all that stel­lar a per­for­mance at the broad­est end of the spec­trum, espe­cially given how suited rel­a­tively small, very densely pop­u­lated Japan is to the build-out of broad­band.

…There are hosts of other fas­ci­nat­ing met­rics that show how ten­ta­tive the Japan­ese embrace of the Inter­net has really been: online sales as a per­cent­age of retail sales are far lower in Japan than the devel­oped coun­try aver­age, due to cred­it-­card secu­rity con­cerns (which inter­est­ingly are not shared by the South Kore­an­s), online media time con­sump­tion is lower than it is in South Korea, Chi­na, the US, or the UK, online adver­tis­ing spend­ing as a per­cent­age of total adver­tis­ing spend­ing is like­wise low­er, the money that is spent on adver­tis­ing is more focused on dis­play than on (more sophis­ti­cat­ed) search than else­where, usage rates of social net­work­ing ser­vices such as Face­book are far below those of peer coun­tries, and the Inter­net is used over­whelm­ingly for its old-school fea­tures-news, search, and e-mail-rather than more up-­to-the-minute fea­tures such as online music, online gam­ing, and online bank­ing.

On music: in 2012, “Japan has sur­passed the U.S. as the biggest seller of CDs, vinyl and cas­sette tapes, with 25.4% of global sales, accord­ing to the Record­ing Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion of Japan”.

A Wired writer, inves­ti­gat­ing a rare bright spot in Japan­ese Inter­net cul­ture (“In Search of the Liv­ing, Purring, Singing Heart of the Online Cat-In­dus­trial Com­plex”), writes:

Lest I unfairly ratchet up your col­lec­tive expec­ta­tions: I will never get to pet , and nei­ther will you. Maru’s super­vi­sory doc­u­men­tar­ian is named Mugu­mogu, but beyond that fact, hardly any­thing is known about her. When I write Maru’s US book pub­li­cist-you read that right-it turns out that she knows no more than you or I. The pub­li­cist loops in Maru’s US book edi­tor, who offers to pass along some inter­view ques­tions to Mugu­mogu’s Japan­ese agent, who could have them trans­lat­ed, answered, and sent back. But I have no ques­tions for the human being called Mugu­mogu. My inter­est lies entirely with the cat. I write back to the US edi­tor in my most pro­fes­sional tone, the one in which I don’t sound like some­body who watches cat videos all day, and say that for my pur­poses I need to meet Maru IRL. I am will­ing to sign an IRL NDA. I promise I won’t write a word about Mugu­mogu her­self. I just want 20 or 30 min­utes with that cat. A few days later the pub­li­cist writes back: Impos­si­ble. I’m wel­come to write to the Japan­ese agent, she says, but I should know that not even the agent knows who Mugu­mogu is; her cor­re­spon­dence all goes through Maru’s Japan­ese pub­lish­er, a cer­tain Oku­mu­ra-san, of Tokimeki Pub­lish­ing, a bou­tique out­fit spe­cial­iz­ing in Inter­net cat nya-alls and cof­fee table cel­e­bra­tions of Korean soap operas. I com­mence months of fruit­lessly obse­quious email courtship with Mugu­mogu but ulti­mately to no avail.

All of this ret­i­cence is infu­ri­at­ing. In Amer­ica peo­ple post a video of them­selves whistling “Free Bird” in a tutu and they’re heart­bro­ken if they’re not imme­di­ately invited on The View. It’s dif­fer­ent in Japan, though. There, they haven’t yet cot­toned to the idea that the whole point of the Inter­net is not only that it might make you famous and uni­ver­sally loved but that it might make you famous and uni­ver­sally loved overnight, and for no real rea­son, and that then it would give you fairly pre­cise met­rics for just how famous and loved you were, and for how long. For the Japan­ese, the Inter­net is pri­mar­ily not about self­-pro­mo­tion and expo­sure but about restraint and anonymi­ty.

To help me under­stand this intro­ver­sion—and also in the hope of mak­ing con­tact with some famous Inter­net cat­s—I enlist the assis­tance of David Marx. An Amer­i­can liv­ing in Tokyo, Marx writes a very intel­li­gent, pop­u­lar blog called Néo­japon­isme, which I’d stum­bled upon in my cat-re­lated for­ays. In a par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing post, Marx offers three rea­sons for the Japan­ese cult of online anonymi­ty. The first, which he deems sil­ly, is the fear that crim­i­nals or con men might use per­sonal infor­ma­tion to harm an unwary Inter­net user. The sec­ond one, the fear that col­leagues or bosses might dis­cover per­sonal details that could be prob­lem­atic at work, he con­nects to the Japan­ese cul­tural milieu, where “any sort of ques­tion­able hobby auto­mat­i­cally qual­i­fies as a ‘secret dou­ble life.’” The third rea­son—fear that anony­mous mobs might bash any­one who tried to stand out too aggres­sively online—he con­sid­ers totally legit­i­mate, “in that the Inter­net in Japan so far has been almost exclu­sively about anony­mous mobs mak­ing trou­ble for indi­vid­u­als and indus­try.” (He notes that he once had his own photo posted on a Japan­ese board called Sus­pi­cious For­eign­er­s.) I write Marx a fan email and ask if his the­o­ries might apply to the ques­tion of why the Inter­net chose cats. He replies right away. Not only has he writ­ten about Japan­ese media trends, he works at YouTube. We Skype. “Japan was rel­a­tively late to get­ting on the Inter­net,” he says, “and still lags behind in some ways. But with cat stuff they were always lead­er­s-with cats as their con­duits. Think about it.” I think about it. I’ve been doing very lit­tle but think about it. “Most of the named cats on the Inter­net are Japan­ese,” he observes. It’s an excel­lent point: Those cats on tread­mills and cats on yoga mats and cats being slapped to a Joy Divi­sion sound­track, anony­mous gri­malkins all. But your Marus, your Maos, and your Shi­ronekos—all of them are in Japan…­Marx and I watch a few new cat videos, some of the up-and-­com­ers, those chal­leng­ing or exceed­ing Maru’s pageviews. “An inter­est­ing thing, here in Japan, is that it’s not just the cat part­ners who post cat stuff. It’s every­body.” Soez­i­max, for exam­ple, is an action-­film mak­er, one of the most pop­u­lar part­ners in Japan, with mil­lions of views. But some of his most pop­u­lar videos are the ones he posts of the fights he has with his girl­friend’s vicious cat, Sashim­i-san, who reg­u­larly puts Soez­i­max to rout. He’s the anti-­Maru, the stan­dard­-bearer of uncute Inter­net cat aggres­sion. The videos are slightly alarm­ing, espe­cially when we’re all so used to ano­dyne felin­i­ty. Then Marx brings up Japan’s most pop­u­lar Inter­net come­di­an, who used to post reg­u­lar videos of him­self in a cat café. (In Japan, they have cafés where you go to pet cat­s.) “It’s like”, Marx says, “no mat­ter how suc­cess­ful you are here on the Inter­net on your own terms, it’s de rigueur that you still have to do some­thing with a cat.” In a cul­ture of Inter­net anonymi­ty, bred of island claus­tro­pho­bia and immo­bil­i­ty, the Japan­ese Inter­net cat has become a cru­cial proxy: Peo­ple who feel inhib­ited to do what they want online are express­ing them­selves, cagi­ly, via the ani­mal that only ever does what it wants.

  1. Of course peo­ple were text mes­sag­ing and using cell phones in Amer­ica before 2005; I mean that 2005 is, ±2 years, when they became part of the cul­ture—they became de rigeur, text mes­sag­ing ser­vices began pop­ping up, they became incor­po­rated with ‘’, teenage girls would spend all their time mes­sag­ing each oth­er, etc.↩︎

  2. The Stan­dard, Ver­sion 5.0 (the last pub­lished as a book) runs to 1472 pages. —what most Eng­lish is writ­ten in—is speci­fi­able in a page or two; other pop­u­lar Euro­pean lan­guages take only a few more pages. Alpha­betic scripts like the Korean are sim­i­larly com­pactly spec­i­fied (although hangul’s syl­la­ble com­po­si­tion means that Uni­code has to spec­ify a large alpha­bet—although clearly and def­i­nitely finite—of 11,172 syl­la­bles).

    In con­trast, the desire of the Uni­code devel­op­ers to limit Chinese/Japanese ideograms to 20,940 and then to just 75,960 (so as to not require an extra­or­di­nary num­ber of bits to write such ideograms) resulted in a mul­ti­-decade fes­ter­ing con­tro­versy known as . Said con­tro­versy has also encour­aged the cre­ation of many other encod­ings (Wikipedia lists 8 or 9). An out­sider might con­clude that the com­plex­ity of the Uni­code solu­tion and the fail­ure of any com­peti­tors to defeat it in usage or phe­nom­e­non like “” are indi­ca­tions that the writ­ing sys­tems really truly are not sim­patico with dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. (I will men­tion in pass­ing that O’Reil­ly’s—a pub­lisher known for con­ci­sion and good tech­ni­cal writ­ing—has pub­lished a book on work­ing with CJKV text, CJKV Infor­ma­tion Pro­cess­ing, Sec­ond Edi­tion, which runs 912 pages.) One fas­ci­nat­ing exam­ple of the prob­lems caused is a method for reg­is­ter­ing bank accounts employed by ‘one-click fraud’ oper­a­tors; from “Dis­sect­ing One Click Frauds”:

    Fraud­u­lent bank accounts can be obtained for prices going between 30,000 and 50,000 JPY [ref: “Black mar­ket yamamoto web”] from the black mar­ket…it is rel­a­tively easy to set up fraud­u­lent accounts by tak­ing advan­tage of the Japan­ese writ­ing sys­tem. Bank accounts inter­nally use a pho­netic alpha­bet (), dif­fer­ent from the char­ac­ters used for most names and nouns (). It is thus pos­si­ble to cre­ate ambigu­ous account names. For instance, both the “Bak­ing Club of Shi­rai City” and “Shi­raishi Mit­suko” (a per­son’s name) are pro­nounced exactly the same, and thus would have the same account holder infor­ma­tion. By reg­is­ter­ing as a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion, the fraud­ster may eas­ily bypass most iden­tity checks, and sub­se­quently set up fraud­u­lent trans­fers using the indi­vid­ual name instead. Cre­at­ing an account in this fash­ion would cost much less than 50,000 JPY.

  3. Some peo­ple like to rel­a­tivis­ti­cally argue that all nat­ural lan­guages are equally com­plex and such com­par­isons are mean­ing­less or igno­rant (or racist). This is false. Chil­dren learn dif­fer­ent nat­ural lan­guages at dif­fer­ent rates (eg. Dan­ish vs Croa­t­ian); this has real effects on their edu­ca­tion (why are Esto­nia & Fin­land—with highly sim­i­lar lan­guages & reg­u­lar spelling—ranked so high on , when the wealth­ier & health­ier Swedish-s­peak­ing Finnish minor­ity has lower scores?). To demon­strate with ; Eng­lish has very lit­tle gen­der and when an Anglo­phone learns French, the male/female gen­ders and asso­ci­ated dif­fer­ences in spelling & end­ings may strike him as super­flu­ous com­plex­i­ty. He’s right. The gen­der rules, and specif­i­cally mem­o­riz­ing what gen­der each and every word is, are arbi­trary and con­vey no mean­ing. They are ran­dom—a com­pres­sion algo­rithm would choke on them.

    And we can run a thought exper­i­ment (no need to appeal explic­itly to ); imag­ine a French Prime which is like French but where there is a sec­ond gen­der sys­tem with, say, 20 dif­fer­ent gen­ders (and accom­pa­ny­ing spelling & end­ings), and for each of the 50,000 words in , a decides what gen­der it is. By def­i­n­i­tion, the out­put of the RNG is unpre­dictable & uncom­press­ible. All a Fran­coph­one can do is mem­o­rize 50,000 gen­der indi­ca­tions if they are to speak proper French Prime. Surely French Prime is more com­plex than French—all a French Prime speaker has to do is bliss­fully for­get how many thou­sands of viges­i­mal gen­ders he mem­o­rized. (If this is not intu­itively con­vinc­ing, then let the num­ber of gen­ders go to the 140 of , or 50,000, or how­ever many words there are in a lan­guage; the gen­der rules would be mon­strously com­plex, with no sim­pli­fi­ca­tion any­where in the lan­guage.)↩︎

  4. Con­sider essay :

    And that, I think, is the root of the prob­lem. Nerds serve two mas­ters. They want to be pop­u­lar, cer­tain­ly, but they want even more to be smart. And pop­u­lar­ity is not some­thing you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment of an Amer­i­can sec­ondary school….

    …Nerds don’t real­ize this. They don’t real­ize that it takes work to be pop­u­lar. In gen­er­al, peo­ple out­side some very demand­ing field don’t real­ize the extent to which suc­cess depends on con­stant (though often uncon­scious) effort. For exam­ple, most peo­ple seem to con­sider the abil­ity to draw as some kind of innate qual­i­ty, like being tall. In fact, most peo­ple who “can draw” like draw­ing, and have spent many hours doing it; that’s why they’re good at it. Like­wise, pop­u­lar isn’t just some­thing you are or you aren’t, but some­thing you make your­self.

  5. Henry Far­rell (“For Every New Geek Cul­ture, A Geek Hier­ar­chy”), dis­cussing , agrees with Shirky & me that the Inter­net is low­er­ing the cost of small groups and hence encour­ag­ing their use, but dis­agrees that they can be replace­ments for the larger groups:

    Thus, for exam­ple, when impov­er­ished aca­d­e­mics sneer at the ‘vul­gar’ taste of rich peo­ple, they are semi­-­con­sciously try­ing to improve the exchange rate between the kind of cul­tural cap­i­tal that they have lots of (‘good taste’ as they them­selves define it) and the kind of eco­nomic cap­i­tal that rich peo­ple have lots of (money).

    This helps us think bet­ter about sta­tus rela­tion­ships among groups. You can think of groups as pro­vid­ing their mem­bers with cul­tur­al, social and (some­times) eco­nomic cap­i­tal. But some groups pro­vide more valu­able cap­i­tal than oth­ers. This is to say that the kinds of cap­i­tal that they pro­duce can be exchanged for other kinds of cap­i­tal more read­ily than the kinds of cap­i­tal pro­duced by other groups. Mem­bers of the group of elite World of War­craft play­ers, for exam­ple, is going to have much greater dif­fi­culty in exchang­ing their sta­tus cap­i­tal for eco­nomic cap­i­tal than mem­bers of the group of elite golf play­ers (no mat­ter how good a Night Elf Rogue you are, you are unlikely to make mil­lions from endorse­ments). Sim­i­lar­ly, as Clay says, you are unlikely to get writ­ten up in the New York Times…I sus­pect that there are three major effects [of cheap group­s]…Sec­ond—when the chaos set­tles down into some kind of rel­a­tive sta­bil­i­ty, there will be [ma­jor] changes to the terms of exchange. Some groups will come out much bet­ter than they had been in the past, and some groups much worse off. The com­ing of the Inter­net has improved the rel­a­tive sta­tus of many forms of geek cul­ture—sites like play a very impor­tant cul­tural role. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Inter­net has allowed the net­roots to chal­lenge and par­tially dis­place exist­ing groups (such as the DLC) in the inter­nal peck­ing order of Demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics. Note how­ever that this isn’t an escape from cul­tural hier­ar­chy; it’s a re-order­ing of exist­ing hier­ar­chies of exchange. This re-order­ing may often have attrac­tive fea­tures (more pos­si­bil­i­ties may be more open to a wider vari­ety of indi­vid­u­als than in the pre-ex­ist­ing order), but it’s not fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent in kind to what went before…In the new world that tech­nol­ogy has lib­er­at­ed, every­one can, in effect, cre­ate their own sta­tus hier­ar­chies, where they (be­cause of their mas­tery of cater­pil­lar-­fuzz count­ing, one-di­men­sional chess, Chi­nese Scrab­ble or what­ev­er) are at or near the top. Peo­ple can opt out of sta­tus races where they are likely to lose, and opt in to sta­tus races that they are likely to win. Given a near infin­ity of pos­si­ble sta­tus hier­ar­chies, they can choose the ones that they do well in. But this argu­ment pre­sup­poses that these dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble sta­tus hier­ar­chies are dis­con­nected from each oth­er. The empir­ics seem to me to tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. Peo­ple are aware not only of their sta­tus within par­tic­u­lar groups, but of the rel­a­tive sta­tus of dif­fer­ent groups. Expan­sions in the num­ber of groups does­n’t lead the mem­bers of those new groups to aban­don efforts to fig­ure out the terms of exchange between the groups, or to stop push­ing for terms of exchange that priv­i­lege their group’s cul­tural or social cap­i­tal vis-a-vis that of oth­ers. Pre­cisely the oppo­site is true. For every new geek cul­ture, there is a Geek Hier­ar­chy.

    …Clay may rea­son­ably be more inter­ested in what’s hap­pen­ing in WoW than in pro­fes­sional golf, and get hap­pi­ness from the fact that he’s a good WoW play­er. But he may also find that it is dif­fi­cult to turn his WoW prowess into other kinds of cap­i­tal. If he wants to orga­nize a tour­na­ment of first rank WoW play­ers to raise money for his favorite char­i­ty, he will almost cer­tainly raise far less money than if he were able to recruit first rate pro­fes­sional golfers. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of new groups may com­pli­cate games over rel­a­tive sta­tus, but it surely does­n’t dis­place them.

  6. “My life sucked when I was fif­teen. I was a nobody in the real world. How­ev­er, once I was able to cre­ate my own char­ac­ter in an online uni­verse, I could be any­thing or any­one and progress in the game became imme­di­ate and instantly grat­i­fy­ing. Achiev­ing suc­cess in the real world is a very ardu­ous, long, and some­times risky process. It is hard to explain to a teenage boy that he might have to wait a decade before he will stop feel­ing so inse­cure about his place in life.” —The Way­gook Effect on an “Esti­mated 1.9 Mil­lion Kore­ans With an Inter­net Addic­tion”. West­ern-style school­ing (uni­ver­sal manda­tory age-seg­re­gated insti­tu­tions) seems almost cal­cu­lated to inten­sify this ado­les­cent suf­fer­ing; see also Lord of the Flies, , & Paul Gra­ham’s .↩︎

  7. Japan is again our exam­ple. Spike Japan exam­ined the decline of karaoke, and linked it out to the ‘atom­ized soci­ety’ by way of time sur­veys of Japan­ese cit­i­zens show­ing extra­or­di­nary declines in activ­i­ties like ‘talk­ing with fam­ily’, ‘play­ing sports’, and even declines in activ­i­ties like ‘car­ing for the elderly’.↩︎

  8. Con­sider “The Rise of the New Global Elite”, The Atlantic, whose author edi­to­ri­al­izes:

    What is more rel­e­vant to our times, though, is that the rich of today are also dif­fer­ent from the rich of yes­ter­day. Our light-speed, glob­ally con­nected econ­omy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that con­sists, to a notable degree, of first- and sec­ond-­gen­er­a­tion wealth. Its mem­bers are hard­work­ing, highly edu­cat­ed, jet-set­ting mer­i­to­crats who feel they are the deserv­ing win­ners of a tough, world­wide eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion-and many of them, as a result, have an ambiva­lent atti­tude toward those of us who did­n’t suc­ceed so spec­tac­u­lar­ly. Per­haps most note­wor­thy, they are becom­ing a trans­global com­mu­nity of peers who have more in com­mon with one another than with their coun­try­men back home. Whether they main­tain pri­mary res­i­dences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mum­bai, today’s super-rich are increas­ingly a nation unto them­selves.

  9. Not by national gross of course, which is mean­ing­ful only to gov­ern­ments, but ; that is, on the day-­to-­day basis we live in, the met­ric that actu­ally mat­ters.↩︎

  10. Although any nos­tal­gia for the ‘good old days’ (where every­one watched the same hand­ful of shows on the same 3 TV net­works at the same time after din­ner…) should be tem­pered by the fact that so many peo­ple try des­per­ately to escape it for a sub­cul­ture.↩︎

  11. pg 90; as cited in “Michael Kroger, Over­com­ing Irony: The Cre­ative and Destruc­tive Forces of Chuck Palah­niuk’s Choke↩︎

  12. The par­tic­i­pants in the exper­i­ment come out hav­ing lost weight and improved their health thanks to their nutri­tious (tra­di­tion­al) diet and daily agri­cul­tural labor; but it’s strik­ing that they report their men­tal health to so improved; from sec­tion 7.7 (“Humans as Par­tic­i­pants in Closed Eco­log­i­cal Sys­tems”) of “Liv­ing In Space: Results From Bios­phere 2’s Ini­tial Clo­sure, An Early Test­bed For Closed Eco­log­i­cal Sys­tems On Mars”, Nel­son & Demp­ster 1996 (the for­mer was a par­tic­i­pan­t):

    …A some­what sub­tle but impor­tant result of the two year clo­sure exper­i­ment relates to the human dimen­sion of liv­ing in a small bios­pheric sys­tem. As men­tioned, the design of Bios­phere 2 was moti­vated in part by the recog­ni­tion that cre­at­ing a place of beauty was impor­tant as the sys­tem is not only func­tional life sup­port but effec­tively “the world” for the crew for the time that it is inhab­it­ed. Each of the eight bios­phe­ri­ans of Mis­sion One reported a height­en­ing of aware­ness of their con­nec­tion to this world. It is so small that every action is seen to have an impact—­for bet­ter or worse—on its func­tion­ing. There are no “anony­mous” action­s—the feed­back loops are vir­tu­ally instan­ta­neous. Nor can one mis­take that an action in one part of the sys­tem will not have con­se­quences else­where.

    In a paper writ­ten while still expe­ri­enc­ing the real­ity of life inside Bios­phere 2 (Nel­son and Alling, 1993), two of its crew expressed it thus:

    Our per­sonal expe­ri­ence dur­ing the past nine­teen months within this closed sys­tem has been extremely sat­is­fy­ing. Liv­ing as an inte­gral com­po­nent in our small world, both respon­si­ble for main­tain­ing it and ben­e­fit­ing from its sup­port, has been as reward­ing as it has been chal­leng­ing. It has changed our per­spec­tives on the role of humans in all closed sys­tems, whether they be arti­fi­cial sys­tems like Bios­phere 2 or nat­ural closed sys­tems like Bios­phere 1, our Earth’s bios­phere. We par­tic­i­pate in a part­ner­ship with our bios­phere to enhance its well-be­ing by using our own resources, as well as by call­ing on an exten­sive net­work of sci­en­tists and engi­neers on the out­side and employ­ing tech­nolo­gies designed to assist in cre­at­ing desired envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions. There is a new har­mony in this effort because our daily expe­ri­ence con­firms the fact that we rely on the life sys­tems for sur­vival, and at the same time, the eco­log­i­cal sys­tems depend on our efforts to max­i­mize pro­duc­tion and sus­tain over­all health. In a small closed eco­log­i­cal sys­tem the equa­tion ‘our bios­phere’s health equals our health’ becomes dra­mat­i­cally evi­dent.

  13. Autonomous Tech­nol­o­gy: Tech­nic­s-Out-Of-­Con­trol (1989), Lang­don Win­ner↩︎

  14. Activist , “Sat 16 Jun 2007: Every­one and no one wants to save the world”

    You must sat­isfy your invari­ant instincts or you will be at odds with your own char­ac­ter. It is only when we are not at odds with our basic makeup that we can find life mean­ing­ful. To exer­cise your instinct for sav­ing the world, requires sav­ing what you per­ceive to be the world. Being mod­ern, edu­cated and world­ly, the world you per­ceive is immense and this is dis­em­pow­er­ing com­pared to the val­ley world of your ances­tors where your feel­ings were forged and where sav­ing 10 peo­ple saved 10% of the “world”’s pop­u­la­tion.

    Here lays the dif­fi­culty in actu­al­is­ing your char­ac­ter. Your per­cep­tion is of a world so vast that that you can not envis­age your actions mak­ing a mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence.

  15. “A His­tory of Vio­lence”: Edge Mas­ter Class 2011↩︎

  16. We can expand out this argu­ment more for­mal­ly. Social ‘sta­tus’, what­ever that is (like time, it is hard to define but it is vital and every­one under­stands it), is often con­sid­ered a : “prod­ucts and ser­vices whose value is mostly (if not exclu­sive­ly) a func­tion of their rank­ing in desir­abil­ity by oth­ers, in com­par­i­son to sub­sti­tutes.” If we think of it as a book­shelf, we can see that if we move one book to the left­most spot, we force right­wards all the other books. The shelf may not be full, in which case it’s pos­si­ble for us to move all the books left­wards, but not very much and we quickly use up the gaps. If we want to move the books even more left­wards, there’s noth­ing we can do but destroy the book­case entire­ly. This is unlike many other goods like eco­nomic wealth—we can always ‘grow the pie higher’, as it were. This futil­ity makes social sta­tus seem like a —all we can do is shuf­fle sta­tus around, and not increase it, unlike reg­u­lar eco­nomic sce­nar­ios which can be and often are s. But at least sta­tus is not a —right? This is an impor­tant ques­tion because sta­tus influ­ences all sorts of impor­tant things that one would be hard-­pressed to buy, like increased longevity (civil ser­vice rank, and Nobel prizes if not Oscars)

    One inter­est­ing aspect of money is that while we often use it as a syn­onym for util­ity in dis­cus­sions of (“ offers you a choice between one box and two box­es; the first has a thou­sand dol­lars in it…”), this is not true. Money is a very good approx­i­ma­tion for util­i­ty, in small amounts, but as the amounts increase, each addi­tional increase rep­re­sents less util­ity for the own­er. Your first mil­lion dol­lars makes a huge dif­fer­ence to your hap­pi­ness, your sec­ond mil­lion not so much, and so on. Prob­a­bly Bill Gates did­n’t think about fluc­tu­a­tions of even hun­dreds of mil­lions in his net worth. So when this detail comes up we say things like ‘util­ity is log­a­rith­mic in wealth’ to express the idea that each dol­lar is worth fewer utilons than the pre­vi­ous dol­lar. (See also scope insen­si­tiv­ity and the .) What this means is that you can change the net happiness/utility of a pop­u­la­tion by sim­ply mov­ing dol­lars around. How­ev­er, you could not change the net dol­lars just by mov­ing dol­lars around!

    Imag­ine we have $1000 and 100 peo­ple and the util­ity per dol­lar is your basic nat­ural log. If we gave all $1000 to one per­son, then that per­son has utilons and every­one else has no dol­lars & neg­a­tive infin­ity utilons (they’re very unhappy at pos­sess­ing noth­ing), for a net total of neg­a­tive infin­ity utilons; if we are a lit­tle fairer and give every­one $1 and then the remain­ing $900 to one per­son, he has and every­one else for a net total of 6.8 utilons. If we now give every­one $5, and the remain­ing $500 to one per­son, he has and every­one else for a net total of 165.56—quite an improve­ment! Car­ry­ing this out to the log­i­cal con­clu­sion of every­one get­ting equal amounts ($10), we find our net total has become , and this is as high as it’s pos­si­ble to get our lit­tle pop­u­la­tion.

    As it hap­pens, there’s a lot of evi­dence that peo­ples’ util­ity func­tions are log­a­rith­mic in wealth, and gen­eral global evi­dence that eco­nomic inequal­ity makes peo­ple unhappy and this is a major fac­tor in why the Japan­ese or Scan­di­na­vians are hap­pier than Amer­i­cans, even if they are poorer by many met­rics (see for exam­ple the ). Apply­ing this sim­plis­tic model to pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions in the real world is a lit­tle dif­fi­cult because eco­nomic inequal­ity may con­tribute to eco­nomic growth via pool­ing wealth in a few hands (one might point to Gates’s mega-phil­an­thropy) and pre­serv­ing incen­tives to work like a dog (inas­much as the usual mech­a­nisms for reduc­ing eco­nomic inequal­ity involve forms of and redis­tri­b­u­tion), and eco­nomic growth means in the future there may be even more wealth to dis­trib­ute which could jus­tify fore­go­ing util­ity increases at the present moment.

    Now we go back to sta­tus. We already out­lined how money can be supe­rior to sta­tus; and we just saw how, to max­i­mize util­ity at any par­tic­u­lar time, we want to redis­trib­ute mon­ey. We can’t sim­ply say ‘util­ity is log­a­rith­mic’ in sta­tus because there are no ‘sta­tus-ons’ we can redis­trib­ute like ‘utilons’ or ‘dol­lars’ (although ana­logues have been pro­posed, like SF author soci­ety run­ning on “s”), because sta­tus is more than . (The com­mon dis­tinc­tion in our lan­guage empha­sizes that money is not sta­tus: ‘arriv­iste’, ‘kip’, ‘nou­veau riche’/‘new money’, ‘par­venu’, ‘social climber’, ‘upstart’, etc. One can try to buy sta­tus by dona­tions to insti­tu­tions fre­quented by the rich, but it will cost a bun­dle.) What we can try to do is imag­ine com­par­ing sit­u­a­tions with more or less kinds of sta­tus, and ask how they dif­fer in total util­i­ty.

    Imag­ine our 100 peo­ple again, and imag­ine they have 1 or 2 kinds of sta­tus to choose from. We could call them ‘sci­en­tific’ or ‘artis­tic’ sta­tus—the sci­en­tists don’t care if they are ranked 50 out of the artists or if they are ranked al the way at the top at 100, but they do care if they are the 10 rather than 1 sci­en­tist, and vice-ver­sa. Fur­ther, let’s say it’s pos­si­ble for a per­son to change their mind. Given this set up, it’s pretty clear that none of them is worse off for there being a sec­ond kind of sta­tus, since they can pick whichever sta­tus they have more of. If a per­son dis­cov­ers he’s the artist ranked #5 but sci­en­tist ranked #6, he can switch his per­sonal iden­tity to “artist” and be bet­ter off; if the reverse or he is equal, well, he’s no worse off than before. Since he is as well off or more well off under the sce­nario with 2 kinds of sta­tus, he would pre­fer a sys­tem in which there are 2 kinds of sta­tus. If you ask him whether he would favor three kinds of sta­tus, the same logic applies: if he’s higher on that third one than either of the two, he will switch and be bet­ter off, else he will not switch and not be any worse off. And so on. This works nicely with log­a­rith­mic dis­count­ing: we split our orig­i­nal 1–100 rank­ing into 50–100 and a sec­ond 50–100, and the sums improve: sum (map log ([50..100] ++ [50..100])) → 438.35, which is larger than sum (map log [1..100]) → 363.74.

    One might object that this argu­ment cooks the books by covertly intro­duc­ing entirely new book­cases and then exclaim­ing “now there’s more room to shift books left­wards, because I can put half my books in the left half of the orig­i­nal book­case and the other half in the left half of this new book­case! Amaz­ing!” One is say­ing the right cal­cu­la­tion is sum (map log ([1..50] ++ [1..50])) → 297.

    In a way, we are argu­ing about some­thing pretty pro­found: how do sta­tus hier­ar­chies inter­act in the real world? If a sub­cul­ture splits off, do they cre­ate their own hier­ar­chy where the top dog is as impor­tant as the top dog in the other hier­ar­chy? Does Hayao Miyazaki derive as much util­ity from being the great­est liv­ing anime direc­tor as, say, Steven Spiel­berg or Mar­tin Scors­ese derives from his own direct­ing sta­tus? Wired notes that there are 604,174 Wikipedia arti­cles on liv­ing peo­ple com­pared to ~7 bil­lion liv­ing peo­ple, sug­gest­ing “notable” peo­ple are roughly 1 in 10,000. Mod­ern life seems to creak along well, as far as fame goes, which sug­gests to me that nota­bil­ity could be fur­ther dis­trib­uted.

    My own belief is that these sub­cul­tures start top-­down, not bot­tom up, because no one knows every­thing. If this is so, the argu­ments carry through, and since we can­not redis­trib­ute sta­tus itself, we must do the next best thing: we must cre­ate or per­mit as many kinds of sta­tus as peo­ple desire. Know­ing this, the wise man emp­ties his heart of scorn for oth­ers and refrains from judg­ment.

    In the north­ern ocean there is a fish, called the k’un, I do not know how many thou­sand li in size. This k’un changes into a bird, called the p’eng. Its back is I do not know how many thou­sand li in breadth. When it is moved, it flies, its wings obscur­ing the sky like clouds.

    …A cicada and a young dove laughed, say­ing, “Now, when I fly with all my might, ’tis as much as I can do to get from tree to tree. And some­times I do not reach, but fall to the ground mid­way. What then can be the use of going up ninety thou­sand li to start for the south?”…a lake spar­row laughed, and said: “Pray, what may that crea­ture be going to do? I rise but a few yards in the air and set­tle down again, after fly­ing around among the reeds. That is as much as any one would want to fly. Now, wher­ever can this crea­ture be going to?” Such, indeed, is the dif­fer­ence between small and great.

    …Small knowl­edge has not the com­pass of great knowl­edge any more than a short year has the length of a long year. How can we tell that this is so? The fun­gus plant of a morn­ing knows not the alter­na­tion of day and night. The cicada knows not the alter­na­tion of spring and autumn. Theirs are short years. But in the south of Ch’u there is a min­gling (tree) whose spring and autumn are each of five hun­dred years’ dura­tion. And in for­mer days there was a large tree which had a spring and autumn each of eight thou­sand years. Yet, P’eng Tsu is known for reach­ing a great age and is still, alas! an object of envy to all! —chap­ter 1 of the .

  17. It’s some­thing of a mys­tery why monogamy has thrived over the last mil­len­ni­um—why not allow , , both () or even full blown ? Why restrict free­dom in this regard, restrict it so viciously that soci­ety is will­ing to kill over it? One expla­na­tion I find appeal­ing sug­gests that mar­riage—­sex—­may be an exam­ple of soci­eties encour­ag­ing the for­ma­tion of more-op­ti­mal mul­ti­ple hier­ar­chies of sta­tus as opposed to a sin­gle one. To very broadly gen­er­al­ize, those alter­na­tives seem to boil down to polyg­yny (polyandry being very rare) and polyg­yny seems to cor­re­late with soci­eties where there are few ways to sta­tus but vio­lence & hunt­ing, while monogamy encour­ages males to engage in eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion for mates; rel­e­vant is Roy Baumeis­ter’s 2010 Is There Any­thing Good About Men? (sum­mary), and espe­cially Hen­rich 2012’s review, (em­pha­sis added):

    The anthro­po­log­i­cal record indi­cates that approx­i­mately 85 per cent of human soci­eties have per­mit­ted men to have more than one wife (polyg­y­nous mar­riage), and both empir­i­cal and evo­lu­tion­ary con­sid­er­a­tions sug­gest that large absolute dif­fer­ences in wealth should favour more polyg­y­nous mar­riages. Yet, monog­a­mous mar­riage has spread across Europe, and more recently across the globe, even as absolute wealth dif­fer­ences have expand­ed. Here, we develop and explore the hypoth­e­sis that the norms and insti­tu­tions that com­pose the mod­ern pack­age of monog­a­mous mar­riage have been favoured by cul­tural evo­lu­tion because of their group-ben­e­fi­cial effect­s-pro­mot­ing suc­cess in inter-­group com­pe­ti­tion. In sup­press­ing intra­sex­ual com­pe­ti­tion and reduc­ing the size of the pool of unmar­ried men, nor­ma­tive monogamy reduces crime rates, includ­ing rape, mur­der, assault, rob­bery and fraud, as well as decreas­ing per­sonal abus­es. By assuag­ing the com­pe­ti­tion for younger brides, nor­ma­tive monogamy decreases (i) the spousal age gap, (ii) fer­til­i­ty, and (iii) gen­der inequal­ity. By shift­ing male efforts from seek­ing wives to pater­nal invest­ment, nor­ma­tive monogamy increases sav­ings, child invest­ment and eco­nomic pro­duc­tiv­ity. By increas­ing the relat­ed­ness within house­holds, nor­ma­tive monogamy reduces intra-­house­hold con­flict, lead­ing to lower rates of child neglect, abuse, acci­den­tal death and homi­cide. These pre­dic­tions are tested using con­verg­ing lines of evi­dence from across the human sci­ences.

  18. This point does not seem to be orig­i­nal to me. in “Sex Tips For Geeks: How To Be Sexy” advises the lovelorn geek to acquire:

    Social sta­tus. Now this is where it gets inter­est­ing—be­cause women can detect this even when you aren’t in a con­text where it’s obvi­ous. Being an alpha male in some sta­tus hier­ar­chy changes your body lan­guage, your sex-hor­mone lev­els, and the smell of your sweat. Women home in on men with these traits some­thing fierce—ask any rock star.

    Cathy: “Or ask Eric. His recent noto­ri­ety has def­i­nitely increased the amount of female atten­tion he gets– even from me.”

    But it isn’t that impor­tant to a wom­an’s recep­tors exactly what the sta­tus hier­ar­chy is. It could be any­thing from the neigh­bor­hood bowl­ing league up to the gov­ern­ment of a world super­pow­er. Or it could be the devel­oper com­mu­nity of a well-­known pro­gram. What she smells is suc­cess, not the spe­cific kind of suc­cess. In fact this effect is so impor­tant in human behav­ior that males actu­ally form all kinds of odd sta­tus hier­ar­chies just so they can have a shot at being top of the heap, even when they know in advance that top-of-the-heap won’t con­vey much in the way of power or wealth reward. Clubs and orga­nized hob­bies are like this. The hacker cul­ture itself was purely like this until the late 1990s. At bot­tom, these are all instinc­tively founded on sex­u­al-s­e­lec­tion games.

  19. For exam­ple, the 2011 study looked at >380 mil­lion tweets form­ing >25 mil­lion con­ver­sa­tions, yield­ing an over­all social net­work of >1.7 mil­lion users. They look at a sort of aver­aged met­ric of who users reply to:

    …This quan­tity cor­re­sponds to the aver­age weight per out­go­ing edge of each indi­vid­ual where T rep­re­sents the time win­dow for data aggre­ga­tion. We mea­sure this quan­tity in our data set as shown in Fig­ure 2A. The data shows that this quan­tity reaches a max­i­mum between 100 and 200 friends, in agree­ment with Dun­bar’s pre­dic­tion (see fig­ure 2A). This find­ing sug­gests that even though mod­ern social net­works help us to log all the peo­ple with whom we meet and inter­act, they are unable to over­come the bio­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal con­straints that limit sta­ble social rela­tions. In Fig­ure 2B, we plot kiout the num­ber of rec­i­p­ro­cated con­nec­tions, as a func­tion of the num­ber of the in-de­gree. kiout sat­u­rates between 200 and 300 even though the num­ber of incom­ing con­nec­tions con­tin­ues to increase. This sat­u­ra­tion indi­cates that after this point the sys­tem is in a new regime; new con­nec­tions can be rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed, but at a much smaller rate than before. This can be accounted for by spu­ri­ous exchanges we make with some con­tacts with whom we do not main­tain an active rela­tion­ship.

    A 2011 brain-imag­ing study (“Online social net­work size is reflected in human brain struc­ture”; BBC cov­er­age) finds more direct cor­re­la­tions:

    …The degree to which indi­vid­u­als par­tic­i­pate in these net­works varies sub­stan­tially for rea­sons that are unclear. Here, we show a bio­log­i­cal basis for such vari­abil­ity by demon­strat­ing that quan­ti­ta­tive vari­a­tion in the num­ber of friends an indi­vid­ual declares on a web-based social net­work­ing ser­vice reli­ably pre­dicted grey mat­ter den­sity in the right supe­rior tem­po­ral sul­cus, left mid­dle tem­po­ral gyrus and entorhi­nal cor­tex. Such regions have been pre­vi­ously impli­cated in social per­cep­tion and asso­cia­tive mem­o­ry, respec­tive­ly. We fur­ther show that vari­abil­ity in the size of such online friend­ship net­works was [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nif­i­cantly cor­re­lated with the size of more inti­mate real-­world social groups. How­ev­er, the brain regions we iden­ti­fied were specif­i­cally asso­ci­ated with online social net­work size, whereas the grey mat­ter den­sity of the amyg­dala was cor­re­lated both with online and real-­world social net­work sizes. Taken togeth­er, our find­ings demon­strate that the size of an indi­vid­u­al’s online social net­work is closely linked to focal brain struc­ture impli­cated in social cog­ni­tion.

  20. Skilled blue-­col­lar work­ers often take great pride on their work and seem sat­is­fied with their lives, to the extent of excit­ing envy from white-­col­lar work­ers (eg. , Shop Class as Soul­craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work). A long sec­tion from Class: A Guide Through the Amer­i­can Sta­tus Sys­tem rings true to me:

    The spe­cial anx­i­ety of the high pro­les is fear about loss or reduc­tion of sta­tus: you’re proud to be a mas­ter car­pen­ter, and you want the world to under­stand clearly the dif­fer­ence between you and a labor­er. The spe­cial anx­i­ety of the mid-pro­les is fear of los­ing the job. And of the low pro­les, the gnaw­ing per­cep­tion that you’re prob­a­bly never going to make enough or earn enough free­dom to have and do the things you want. The kind of jobs high­-p­role peo­ple do tempt them to insist that they are really “pro­fes­sion­als,” like “san­i­ta­tion men” in a large city. A mail car­rier tells why he likes his work: “They always say, `Here comes the mail­man.’ . . . I feel it is one of the most respected pro­fes­sions there is through­out the nation.” Prole women who go into nurs­ing never tire of assert­ing how pro­fes­sional they are, and the same is true of their daugh­ters who become air stew­ardess­es, a favorite high­-p­role occu­pa­tion. Although Army offi­cers, because they are all ter­ri­fied of the boss, are prob­a­bly more mid­dle-­class than high­-p­ro­le. they seem the lower the more they insist that they are “pro­fes­sion­als.” and since their dis­grace in Viet­nam. and their sub­se­quent anx­i­ety about their social stand­ing, that insis­tence has grown more mechan­i­cal. An Army wife says, “Some like to speak of doc­tors, lawyers, etc., as pro­fes­sion­als. All [Army] offi­cers are pro­fes­sion­als.” And then, a notable devi­a­tion from log­ic: “Who could be more pro­fes­sional than the man who has ded­i­cated his whole life to the defense of his coun­try?”

    But high pro­les are quite smart, or at least shrewd. Because often their work is not closely super­vised, they have pride and a con­vic­tion of inde­pen­dence, and they feel some con­tempt for those who have not made it as far as they have. They are, as the soci­ol­o­gist E. E. LeMas­ters calls them and titles his book, Blue-­Col­lar Aris­to­crats (1975), and their dis­dain for the mid­dle class is like the aris­to­crat’s from the other direc­tion. One high prole says: “If my boy wants to wear a god­damn neck­tie all his life and bow and scrape to some boss, that’s his right, but by God he should also have the right to earn an hon­est liv­ing with his hands if that is what he likes.” Like other aris­to­crats, says LeMas­ters, these “have gone to the top of their social world and need not expend time or energy on `so­cial climb­ing.’” They are aris­to­cratic in other ways, like their devo­tion to gam­bling and their fond­ness for deer hunt­ing. Indeed, the antlers with which they dec­o­rate their inte­ri­ors give their dwellings in that respect a resem­blance to the lodges of the Scot­tish peer­age. The high prole resem­bles the aris­to­crat too, as notes, in “his propen­sity to make out of games and sports the cen­tral occu­pa­tion of his life,” as well as in his unro­man­tic atti­tude toward women. Since they’re not con­sumed with worry about choos­ing the cor­rect sta­tus emblems, these peo­ple can be remark­ably relaxed and unself-­con­scious. They can do, say, wear, and look like pretty much any­thing they want with­out undue feel­ings of shame, which belong to their bet­ters, the mid­dle class, shame being largely a bour­geois feel­ing. John Calv­in, observes Jilly Coop­er, is the prophet of the mid­dle class, while Karl Marx is the prophet of the pro­les, even if most of them don’t know it.

    …High pro­les are nice. It’s down among the mid- and low pro­les that fea­tures some might find offen­sive begin to show them­selves. These are the peo­ple who feel bit­ter about their work, often because they are closely super­vised and reg­u­lated and gen­er­ally treated like way­ward chil­dren. “It’s just like the Army,” says an autoassem­bly-­plant work­er. “No, it’s worse …. You just about need a pass to piss.” Andrew Lev­i­son, author of The Work­ing-­Class Major­ity (1974), invites us to imag­ine what it would be like to be under the con­stant eye of a fore­man, “a fig­ure who has absolutely no coun­ter­part in mid­dle-­class soci­ety. Salaried pro­fes­sion­als do often have peo­ple above them, but it is impos­si­ble to imag­ine pro­fes­sors or exec­u­tives being required to bring a doc­tor’s note if they are absent a day or hav­ing to jus­tify the num­ber of trips they take to the bath­room.” Mid- and low pro­les are per­ceived to be so because they per­form the role of the vic­tims in that “coer­cive uti­liza­tion of man by man” that Veblen found so objec­tion­able. (Im­pos­ing the coer­cion, instead of hav­ing it imposed on you, is the pre­rog­a­tive of the more for­tu­nate: man­agers, teach­ers, writ­ers, jour­nal­ists, cler­gy, film direc­tors.) The degree of super­vi­sion, indeed, is often a more elo­quent class indi­ca­tor than mere income, which sug­gests that the whole class sys­tem is more a recog­ni­tion of the value of free­dom than a procla­ma­tion of the value of sheer cash. The degree to which your work is over­seen by a supe­rior sug­gests your real class more accu­rately than the amount you take home from it. Thus the rea­son why a high­-school teacher is “lower” than a tenured uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor. The teacher is obliged to file weekly “les­son plans” with a prin­ci­pal super­in­ten­dent, or “cur­ricu­lum coor­di­na­tor,” thus acknowl­edg­ing sub­servience. The pro­fes­sor, on the other hand, reports to no one, and his class is thus high­er, even though the teacher may be smarter, bet­ter-­man­nered and rich­er. (It is in pub­lic schools, the postal ser­vice, and police depart­ments that we meet terms like super­vi­sor and inspec­tor: the prole hunter will need to know no more.) One is a mid- or low prole if one’s servi­tude is con­stantly empha­sized. Occu­pa­tional class depends very largely on doing work for which the con­se­quences of error or fail­ure are dis­tant or remote, or bet­ter, invis­i­ble, rather than imme­di­ately appar­ent to a supe­rior and thus instantly humil­i­at­ing to the per­former…­Con­stantly demeaned at work, the lower sorts of pro­les suf­fer from poor morale. As one woman worker says, “Most of us . . . have jobs that are too small for our spir­it.” A taxi dri­ver in St. Louis defended the Viet­nam War by say­ing, “We can’t be a piti­ful, help­less giant. We gotta show ’em we’re num­ber one.” “Are you num­ber one?” Studs Terkel asked him. Pause. “I’m num­ber noth­in’,” he said.

  21. “The power of lone­ly: What we do bet­ter with­out other peo­ple around” by Leon Ney­fakh, The Boston Globe (2011-03-06)

    And it [soli­tude] can have some coun­ter­in­tu­itive effects: Adam Waytz in the Har­vard psy­chol­ogy depart­ment, one of Caciop­po’s for­mer stu­dents, recently com­pleted a study indi­cat­ing that peo­ple who are socially con­nected with oth­ers can have a hard time iden­ti­fy­ing with peo­ple who are more dis­tant from them. Spend­ing a cer­tain amount of time alone, the study sug­gests, can make us less closed off from oth­ers and more capa­ble of empa­thy—in other words, bet­ter social ani­mals.

    This raises an inter­est­ing thought. What is more destruc­tive of empa­thy than stress—or fear?↩︎

  22. Or, as has been attrib­uted to (Michael J Dee, Con­clu­sions 1917): “the ulti­mate ques­tion between man and man is ‘Can I kill thee, or canst thou kill me?’”↩︎

  23. Ney­fakh 2011:

    Burum found that the par­tic­i­pants who had been told the per­son behind them was doing a dif­fer­ent task—­name­ly, iden­ti­fy­ing sounds rather than look­ing at pic­tures—­did a bet­ter job of remem­ber­ing the pic­tures. In other words, they formed more solid mem­o­ries when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.

    …Bu­rum offers two pos­si­ble the­o­ries to explain what she and Gilbert found in the study. The first invokes a well-­known con­cept from social psy­chol­ogy called “social loaf­ing”, which says that peo­ple tend not to try as hard if they think they can rely on oth­ers to pick up their slack. (If two peo­ple are pulling a rope, for exam­ple, nei­ther will pull quite as hard as they would if they were pulling it alone.) But Burum leans toward a dif­fer­ent expla­na­tion, which is that shar­ing an expe­ri­ence with some­one is inher­ently dis­tract­ing, because it com­pels us to expend energy on imag­in­ing what the other per­son is going through and how they’re react­ing to it.

    “Peo­ple tend to engage quite auto­mat­i­cally with think­ing about the minds of other peo­ple”, Burum said in an inter­view. “We’re mul­ti­task­ing when we’re with other peo­ple in a way that we’re not when we just have an expe­ri­ence by our­selves.”

    Per­haps this explains why see­ing a movie alone feels so rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent than see­ing it with friends: Sit­ting there in the the­ater with nobody next to you, you’re not won­der­ing what any­one else thinks of it; you’re not antic­i­pat­ing the dis­cus­sion that you’ll be hav­ing about it on the way home. All your men­tal energy can be directed at what’s hap­pen­ing on the screen.

  24. To quote again Ney­fakh 2011:

    Teenagers, espe­cial­ly, whose per­son­al­i­ties have not yet fully formed, have been shown to ben­e­fit from time spent apart from oth­ers, in part because it allows for a kind of intro­spec­tion—and free­dom from self­-­con­scious­ness—that strength­ens their sense of iden­ti­ty. Reed Lar­son, a pro­fes­sor of human devel­op­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois, con­ducted a study in the 1990s in which ado­les­cents out­fit­ted with beep­ers were prompted at irreg­u­lar inter­vals to write down answers to ques­tions about who they were with, what they were doing, and how they were feel­ing. Per­haps not sur­pris­ing­ly, he found that when the teens in his sam­ple were alone, they reported feel­ing a lot less self­-­con­scious. “They want to be in their bed­rooms because they want to get away from the gaze of other peo­ple”, he said.

    The teenagers weren’t nec­es­sar­ily hap­pier when they were alone; ado­les­cence, after all, can be a par­tic­u­larly tough time to be sep­a­rated from the group. But Lar­son found some­thing inter­est­ing: On aver­age, the kids in his sam­ple felt bet­ter after they spent some time alone than they did before. Fur­ther­more, he found that kids who spent between 25 and 45% of their non­class time alone tended to have more pos­i­tive emo­tions over the course of the week-­long study than their more socially active peers, were more suc­cess­ful in school and were less likely to self­-re­port depres­sion.

  25. This is a nice exam­ple of “Alger­non’s law”, which is the ‘’ prin­ci­ple applied to biol­ogy and evo­lu­tion. The stress responses gear the body up for freeze-­fight­-or-flight and pro­vide other phys­i­o­log­i­cal boosts; so then why has­n’t evo­lu­tion made this high­-per­for­mance state the default set­ting? Because it comes at the nasty price of one’s long-term health.↩︎

  26. Ian & Joel Gold, “Tweet Me Nice”, The Edge Annual Ques­tion—2010: how is the Inter­net chang­ing the way you think?:

    We come at last to mad­ness. Psy­chi­a­try has known for decades that the mega­lopolis—in­deed a city of any size—breeds psy­chosis. In par­tic­u­lar, schiz­o­phre­nia, the par­a­digm of a purely bio­log­i­cal men­tal ill­ness, becomes more preva­lent as city size increas­es, even when the city is hardly more than a vil­lage. And this is the case not because men­tal ill­ness in gen­eral becomes more com­mon in cities; nor is it true that peo­ple who are psy­chotic tend to drift toward cities or stay in them. In cre­at­ing much larger social groups for our­selves, rang­ing from true friends to near-s­trangers, could we be lay­ing the ground for a path­o­genic vir­tual city in which psy­chosis will be on the rise? Or will Face­book and Twit­ter draw us closer to friends in Aris­totle’s sense who can act as psy­chic pro­phy­laxis against the mad­ness-­mak­ing power of oth­ers? What­ever the effects of the Inter­net on our inner lives, it seems clear that in chang­ing the struc­ture of our outer lives—the lives inter­twined with those of oth­er­s—the Inter­net is likely to be a more potent shaper of our minds than we have begun to imag­ine.

    Poetic enough; here are some hard num­bers about the risk fac­tor of cities from a Euro­pean analy­sis of schiz­o­phre­nia (“Fam­ily his­to­ry, place and sea­son of birth as risk fac­tors for schiz­o­phre­nia in Den­mark: a repli­ca­tion and reanaly­sis”): a capi­tol increases your schiz­o­phre­nia risk by 230% (more than twice!); liv­ing in its sub­urbs ame­lio­rates the risk down to 173%; a city with >100,000 inhab­i­tants brings it down ‘merely’ to 158%, and so on down to a small city of 10–20,000 with an risk increase of 122%. (These num­bers are adjusted for the usual risks like parental age, gen­der, and fam­ily his­tory, but appar­ently not for IQ or socioe­co­nomic sta­tus; in other words, the risk prob­a­bly comes from a gene-en­vi­ron­ment inter­ac­tion which gives rise to schiz­o­phre­ni­a.) A 2010 meta-­analy­sis of 20 pop­u­la­tion sur­veys found a weaker gen­eral asso­ci­a­tion & a stronger one for depres­sion. Causal­ity as always remains unclear: schiz­o­phre­nia is highly her­i­ta­ble and meth­ods more sophis­ti­cated than adjust­ing for fam­ily his­tory sug­gest the causal­ity may be reverse & cities attract fam­i­lies prone to schiz­o­phre­nia (). It is a vexed topic but still inter­est­ing.

    It’s inter­est­ing to note that of the per­se­cu­to­ry, reli­gious, grandiose, and somatic vari­eties of ‘delu­sions’, it is per­se­cu­tory that has increased over the 20th cen­tury in Amer­i­ca; of those vari­eties, which is the one you would expect to be encour­aged by urban envi­ron­ments & crowds?

    If we look at it the other way, we would expect nat­ural set­tings to fos­ter heal­ing or at least men­tal per­for­mance; and that is indeed what we find:

    The for­mer [field study] included wilder­ness back­pack­ing and non­wilder­ness vaca­tion con­di­tions, as well as a con­trol con­di­tion in which par­tic­i­pants con­tin­ued with their daily rou­tines. The lat­ter had urban envi­ron­ment, nat­ural envi­ron­ment, and pas­sive relax­ation con­di­tions. Mul­ti­method assess­ments of restora­tion con­sisted of self­-re­ports of affec­tive states, cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, and, in the lat­ter study, phys­i­o­log­i­cal mea­sures. Con­ver­gent self­-re­port and per­for­mance results obtained in both stud­ies offer evi­dence of greater restora­tive effects aris­ing from expe­ri­ences in nature.

    One fMRI study found increased activ­ity in city-d­wellers when stressed dur­ing puz­zle-­solv­ing; those merely raised in a city showed effects too in related to the amyg­dala (main­stream cov­er­age). Nat­ural light­ing has show many ben­e­fits in hos­pi­tals and schools, which is an inter­est­ing com­men­tary on the insides of all the build­ings in cities. Or con­sider Tay­lor 2009 (New York Times), exper­i­men­tally ver­i­fy­ing sur­vey results:

    17 chil­dren 7 to 12 years old pro­fes­sion­ally diag­nosed with ADHD expe­ri­enced each of three envi­ron­ments-a city park and two other well-kept urban set­tings-via indi­vid­u­ally guided 20-minute walks. Envi­ron­ments were expe­ri­enced 1 week apart, with ran­dom­ized assign­ment to treat­ment order. After each walk, con­cen­tra­tion was mea­sured using Digit Span Back­ward­s…Chil­dren with ADHD con­cen­trated bet­ter after the walk in the park than after the down­town walk (p = 0.0229) or the neigh­bor­hood walk (p = 0.0072). Effect sizes were sub­stan­tial (d = 0.52 and 0.77, respec­tive­ly) and com­pa­ra­ble to those reported for recent for­mu­la­tions of .

    Even small amounts of nature help; Tay­lor et al 2002 “Views of nature and self­-dis­ci­pline: evi­dence from inner city chil­dren” found highly [sta­tis­ti­cal­ly-]sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments in scores of con­cen­tra­tion & self­-dis­ci­pline in girls ran­domly assigned to pub­lic hous­ing with just a few trees rather than none, fol­low­ing up ear­lier stud­ies that found ben­e­fits to con­cen­tra­tion in sim­i­lar ran­dom­ized high­-rise pub­lic hous­ing. (An inter­est­ing corol­lary to the pre­vi­ously cited sur­vey is that a later analy­sis of the same data by the same authors found that the chil­dren “tended to have milder symp­toms if they reg­u­larly played in a green and open envi­ron­ment (such as a soc­cer field or expan­sive lawn) rather than in a green space with lots of trees or an indoor or built out­door set­ting” (Sci­ence Daily descrip­tion). Berman et al 2008 (“The Cog­ni­tive Ben­e­fits of Inter­act­ing With Nature”) found work­ing mem­ory & atten­tion scores improved more after a 50 minute walk in a park than in the sur­round­ing city. Fur­ther read­ing:

    One thinks of the African veldt and “”.)↩︎

  27. sug­gests:

    Sea­sonal and geo­graphic vari­a­tions of men­tal ill­ness sim­i­larly sug­gest infec­tious cau­sa­tion. Schiz­o­phre­nia and severe depres­sion dis­or­ders are about 10% more fre­quent among babies born dur­ing win­ter and spring, when res­pi­ra­tory infec­tions tend to be more com­mon [, 84]. The geo­graphic asso­ci­a­tion of men­tal ill­ness with degree of urban res­i­dency pre­dates 20th-­cen­tury soci­ety and coin­cides with high den­sity liv­ing sit­u­a­tions regard­less of the spe­cific details of the sit­u­a­tion; the asso­ci­a­tion between urban life and men­tal ill­ness thus accords well with infec­tious cau­sa­tion [85, 86].

  28. I am also reminded of some things anime direc­tory Kazuya Tsu­ru­maki said in 2001 (echo­ing Hideaki Anno—who inci­den­tally voice-acted Jiro in The Wind Rises (co­in­ci­dence?)—­com­ment­ing on his own father and the Eva char­ac­ter Gendo Ikar­i):

    Tsu­ru­maki told the Otakon pan­el, “Hon­estly speak­ing, I’m very happy that Amer­i­cans like my work, but the Eva TV series and movies, Kare Kano, and FLCL are basi­cally made for the Japan­ese audi­ences. So when I hear that they are being well received by Amer­i­can audi­ences, I feel very hap­py; but at the same time I feel a lit­tle awk­ward.” When PULP asked him what he meant by that, Tsu­ru­maki said, “For exam­ple, in Eva, I thought Shin­ji’s char­ac­ter would only be under­stood by Japan­ese fans of this gen­er­a­tion. But I was very hap­py—or actu­al­ly, shocked—to find out that his kind of char­ac­ter is also under­stood by Amer­i­cans.” I appre­ci­ated the direc­tor’s implied vote of con­fi­dence in us, but won­dered whether the oft-re­marked-upon Japan­ese sense of cul­tural sin­gu­lar­ism was strong enough to can­cel out the uni­ver­sal fact of youth dis­af­fec­tion, let alone the world­wide report­ing on inci­dents such as the mur­ders at Columbine…­Most of the Gainax shows are also tar­get­ed, Tsu­ru­maki said, for an audi­ence “that tends to be rather weak and has prob­lems with their fam­ily”—and the direc­tors at Gainax are those kind of peo­ple. “A lot of fam­i­lies in Japan a gen­er­a­tion ago—and per­haps even now—had fathers that were worka­holics and never home. They were out of their chil­dren’s’ lives. My own father was like that, and I hardly ever got to asso­ciate with him until quite recent­ly. I’m the same sort of per­son as Hideaki Anno. That prob­a­bly influ­ences the type of anime I cre­ate.”

  29. itself is ques­tion­able; Neolithic farm­ers were much worse off than their hunter-­gath­erer coun­ter­parts, rid­den with dis­ease and with lower nutri­tional stan­dards, and seden­tary vil­lages are asso­ci­ated with reduced lib­er­ty.↩︎

  30. “Samu­rai go soft: Japan’s pref­er­ence for hard­ware over soft­ware is fad­ing”, The Econ­o­mist:

    Japan has long made pop­u­lar video-game soft­ware—just ask the Mario Broth­ers. Yet its com­puter mak­ers have done lit­tle to fos­ter inde­pen­dent soft­ware busi­ness­es. On the con­trary, by bundling pro­grams free with machi­nes, they taught cus­tomers that soft­ware was of lit­tle val­ue, says Kazuyuki Moto­hashi of the Uni­ver­sity of Tokyo. They also locked cus­tomers in, mak­ing it costly and cum­ber­some to switch to rival­s…S­ince 2008 Japan­ese soft­ware firms have lost 20% of their mar­ket val­ue, even as soft­ware firms else­where grew by 15%. In soft­ware spend­ing rel­a­tive to GDP Japan ranks 35th, around the level of Saudi Ara­bia, accord­ing to INSEAD, a busi­ness school…­Japan’s indige­nous soft­ware indus­try faces sev­eral obsta­cles. The coun­try lacks ven­ture cap­i­tal, a vibrant stock mar­ket and angel investors with tech­ni­cal knowl­edge to nur­ture start-ups. And its big, slow firms tend to suf­fo­cate the small fry, says Fujiyo Ishig­uro, the founder of Netyear, an online-­mar­ket­ing soft­ware firm (and one of the few female bosses of a pub­licly-listed com­pany in Japan). For now, hard­ware is king. News­pa­pers cheered when Riken and Fujitsu unveiled the world’s fastest super­com­puter in June. But the shift towards the intan­gi­ble is inevitable, says Ms Ishig­uro.

  31. Ruby’s cre­ator has some inter­est­ing com­ments:

    Zhou: As far as I know most of the main­stream pro­gram­ming lan­guages are from Amer­ica and Europe—though there are Lua from Brazil and Ruby from Japan. You too men­tioned this in your book and you said this feels “lonely”. So what is the cause of this, and what can we do about it?

    Matz: Well, for Lua you can include it in Europe/America too because Brazil is part of South Amer­ica (chuck­les). In the south east­ern Asia region though there is only Ruby, and it is lone­ly. Europe and Amer­ica still remain the most pow­er­ful regions as far as pro­gram­ming lan­guages go. Asia, although has mas­sive pop­u­la­tion, does not com­pete in this regard, that indeed feels lone­ly.

    I am not sure about other coun­tries, but at least in Japan there are many peo­ple work­ing on pro­gram­ming lan­guages, unfor­tu­nately other than Ruby none of them are well known. If more peo­ple are inter­ested in pro­gram­ming and design­ing pro­gram­ming lan­guages, there bound to be one or two that’ll break out, right? There is another hur­dle in Japan—lan­guage. Most Japan­ese peo­ple only speak Japan­ese and they can­not speak Eng­lish well. Fun­nily enough there are pro­gram­ming lan­guages writ­ten entirely in Japan­ese. (Zhou: “In China there also are pro­gram­ming lan­guages writ­ten entirely in Chi­nese.”) In China too? I knew it! No mat­ter how inter­est­ing these pro­gram­ming lan­guages are, they will never influ­ence any­one beyond the ones in their own coun­try.

    On a side note, I once received an email from an Amer­i­can. He said that you are Japan­ese, but Ruby looks like Eng­lish because it’s writ­ten in Eng­lish, why isn’t there any Japan­ese-writ­ten lan­guages? I replied say­ing that there are, you just don’t know them, and even if you did, you would­n’t be able to use them. In Japan, more and more peo­ple are inter­ested in pro­gram­ming, maybe because both online and in my books I always talk about how fun pro­gram­ming can be. Many peo­ple are now tak­ing on the chal­lenge of design­ing new pro­gram­ming lan­guages. Out of these new lan­guages, even only 0.1% of them ever get any suc­cess, I think it’s a win. I don’t know how many peo­ple want to take on the same chal­lenge in Chi­na, Korea and other coun­tries in Asia, but if peo­ple could look beyond “pro­gram­ming lan­guages are cre­ated for us, we just pas­sively accept them”, and think “to cre­ate a new pro­gram­ming lan­guage can also be fun”, then I am sure some of them will suc­ceed.

    Talk­ing about open source pro­jects, not many of them are from Japan, China and Korea, and I think this could be an entry point for many. There are many rea­sons why this is the case though, for exam­ple Eng­lish is hard to learn… (Zhou: “And GitHub is also dif­fi­cult to use?”) Ha ha, is GitHub usable in Chi­na? (Zhou: “It is, it is…”) Oh, that’s not too bad then. But, Chi­na’s Great Fire­wall still has a huge impact, many resources can’t be accessed here, right? (Zhou: “That’s right, for instance the Go pro­gram­ming lan­guage’s web­site is blocked.”) Ah real­ly? Is it because it’s made by Google? [chuck­les] In any case, I think there are still many dif­fi­cul­ties to face. Also, in Japan many pro­gram­mers still spend most of the time at work (to put food on the table), it’s very dif­fi­cult for them to con­tribute to open source pro­jects. Ten years ago nobody cares about open source in Japan, but nowa­days peo­ple start to realise the impor­tance of open source, and the num­ber of open source projects is grow­ing. I believe China will soon fol­low this pat­tern as well, I am look­ing for­ward to it.

    In the begin­ning no one knows what will suc­ceed. When I started with Ruby I could not pos­si­bly have pre­dicted its suc­cess. So I think for a pro­gram­ming lan­guage, tim­ing is really impor­tan­t—and you’ll never know until you tried. I think in China there might also be lan­guages that emerge from the right time that will even­tu­ally be a global suc­cess.

  32. “Lain Men: Yasuyuki Ueda”, Anime Jump!:

    AJ: I’m not sure if I’m get­ting this cor­rect, but in an inter­view with Ani­mer­ica last year, you men­tioned that you weren’t sure you wanted Amer­i­cans to under­stand Lain. What exactly did you mean by that state­ment?

    YU: I talked about this ear­lier in the pan­el… it goes like this. Basi­cal­ly, you have Amer­i­can cul­ture and Japan­ese cul­ture after WWII. Every­one knows that war is ridicu­lous, it comes down to killing peo­ple. But what I hoped to see between Amer­i­can and Japan­ese reac­tions to Lain is a war– a war of ideas… because through con­flict of ideas, you under­stand your­self bet­ter, and you gain insight on the cul­ture of your oppo­nent. I don’t so much want Amer­i­cans to inter­pret Lain exactly as Japan­ese fans do, as I want them to hold on to their own point of view, and in doing so, estab­lish con­flict, and hope­ful­ly, new com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

    AJ: Lain is pop­u­lar in Amer­i­ca. How do you feel about that?

    YU: I’m glad that every­one likes Lain! But at the same time, I kind of won­der, do peo­ple over here really under­stand Lain? The way I per­ceive things, the way Japan­ese view­ers per­ceived Lain would be dif­fer­ent from how Amer­i­cans viewed it. But when I was in L.A., the fans I met seemed so very Japan­ese in their per­cep­tion… and that kind of isn’t what I want­ed, because like I said ear­lier, I wanted there to be a clash between cul­tures. I wanted Amer­i­can fans to see Lain and think, “No! That’s screwed up! That’s so wrong!”

  33. “Panel dis­cus­sion with Yasuyuki Ueda and Yoshi­toshi ABe”, Otakon 2000, Eng:

    Q: there’s a quote in the pro­gram, “this work itself is sort of a cul­tural war against Amer­i­can cul­ture and the Amer­i­can sense of val­ues we adopted after WWII.” my ques­tion is what does he con­sider an Amer­i­can sense of val­ues, since what he con­sid­ers an Amer­i­can sense of val­ues might not nec­es­sar­ily be what we do.

    M(U): OK, so basi­cal­ly, when I was grow­ing up, Amer­i­can cul­ture had a huge impact on the way I am now, and while I find Amer­i­can cul­ture to be very inter­est­ing, there are some things that are very com­plex and hard for me to under­stand, and the way Japan and Amer­ica is now, we’re on good terms, but there are still some things, there’s a com­mu­ni­ca­tion bar­ri­er, that we can’t talk about cer­tain things or we’re not ready to, that we just kind of skirt around the sub­ject of cer­tain taboo issues, if you will, cul­tur­al­ly, and it’s not because we’re avoid­ing them, it’s just that we’re not aware of them because of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion bar­ri­er. I wish we would go fur­ther into that.

  34. “Anime Chat with Lain Cre­ators Ueda & ABe 9PM ET”

    Moderator: <Myu-Myu> to <Moderator>: Ueda-san, in an inter­view, you say that Lain is a form of cul­tural war­fare against Amer­i­can cul­ture and val­ues. What are some exam­ples of cul­tural war­fare employed within the Lain ani­me?

    GERONIMO-U: There is noth­ing in LAIN. no war­fare in LAIN. War­fare can­not be in the art­works [please wait­—there may be mis­trans­la­tion] I wanted to make a cul­tural war. There is no war­fare in the art­work. How­ever I wanted to go against nor­mal rules and stan­dards.

  35. Pulp Mag with :

    Some of the jokes, gags, and ele­ments in are sub­cul­tur­al, and if it was very dif­fi­cult for him to explain some of the ele­ments to the staff, it may be even more so to Amer­i­can­s—or so is his assump­tion. Tsu­ru­maki told the pan­el, “Hon­estly speak­ing, I’m very happy that Amer­i­cans like my work, but the Eva TV series and movies, , and FLCL are basi­cally made for the Japan­ese audi­ences. So when I hear that they are being well received by Amer­i­can audi­ences, I feel very hap­py; but at the same time I feel a lit­tle awk­ward.”

    When PULP asked him what he meant by that, Tsu­ru­maki said, “For exam­ple, in Eva, I thought Shin­ji’s char­ac­ter would only be under­stood by Japan­ese fans of this gen­er­a­tion. But I was very hap­py—or actu­al­ly, shocked—to find out that his kind of char­ac­ter is also under­stood by Amer­i­cans.” I appre­ci­ated the direc­tor’s implied vote of con­fi­dence in us, but won­dered whether the oft-re­marked-upon Japan­ese sense of cul­tural sin­gu­lar­ism was strong enough to can­cel out the uni­ver­sal fact of youth dis­af­fec­tion, let alone the world­wide report­ing on inci­dents such as the mur­ders at Columbine.

  36. A YouTube uploader of dou­jin music received his “sec­ond strike” against his account, and announced that he was ceas­ing activ­i­ty. In his announce­ment, he dis­cussed his com­mu­ni­ca­tion with some Japan­ese dou­jin artists, and I found strik­ing the rea­sons being given by one dou­jin artist for his copy­right cru­sade:

    …As we dis­cussed before Narugami is a bit con­ser­v­a­tive who is unwill­ing to share any dou­jin-re­lated work out­side of the Japan so when I defended myself that I have no choice but to pirate his works since there is no any sin­gle means to buy their works out­side of the Japan and he said that “We don’t want to be exposed abroad because we can­not take respon­si­bil­i­ty. We want to pub­lish them only in Japan.” and also said that “ also thinks the above prob­lem and that Toho should not been pub­lished over­seas.” and what he lastly mailed me was this “If you can­not under­stand it unfor­tu­nate­ly, we would pro­tect our cul­ture and our work by other ways.” So this comes to delet­ing their works from YouTube unfor­tu­nate­ly…