The Nouveau Old

(Warning: Broad generalizations ahead.)

David’s parable frightened me. How many of the older adults in my life may be writing their life to a similar script? Surely the details would be different: some other, more Baby Boomer-associated value running unchecked?

I recalled parts of this Long Now talk from a few years ago. The speaker, Ken Dychtwarld, claimed that Americans effectively “vote their age”: 30% of 30 year olds vote, as do 50% of 50 year olds and 70% of 70 year olds. The United States is enduring a gerontocratic lurch as the Baby Boomers age. Our culture and our institutions are still accustomed to treating the elderly as weaker and scarcer than they actually are (or will be).

Dychtwarld notes:  “In the US, the old used to be the poorest segment of society. Now they’re the richest. For instance, they buy 80% of luxury travel. So why are they still getting discounts? […] The old do the least volunteering of any age group, and for every 11 cents that children get from government, the old demand and get a dollar.”

The Baby Boomers have enjoyed a special kind of primacy in our politics and culture due largely to their sheer mass.  One Randall Munroe quote that stuck in my mind was that “An ‘American Tradition’ is anything that happened to a Baby Boomer twice”.  Their childhoods are immortalized as the idyllic ’50s in the public imagination. Their adolescent rebellion was the tremendous social phenomenon of the 60’s. As the decades wore on, Superbowl’s were hosted primarily by beer companies, and then increasingly by Viagra. Last year the Boomers were dethroned as the largest age group in the civilian population, though if Ray Kurzweil has his way the Boomer story never really ends. But of course it will.

It mostly remains to be seen what kind of “Elderly” the Boomers will become, but I don’t suspect it will fit the current cultural mold of what the elderly are like, how they behave, or what they value.

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Being a Good Person

“Living a Good Life” is a formidable phrase.  “Being a Good Person” is a gentler way to put it, maybe- the operative words are more obvious to me, anyway. If it’s a lossy translation, I’d at least have to work out why.

The problem with [the phrase] “Being a Good Person” is that its familiarity breeds an unwarranted illusion of clarity, too. What is a person? Why should persons (or, er, “people”) be good? And how?

Kevin Simler at Melting Asphalt recently wrote a great piece on his view of “personhood” that I advocate.

When I think about human social interactions, I often think about specific relationships and the roles that they entail: husband and wife, citizen and representative, superhero and sidekick, BFFs. But today I want to talk about the most generic relationship — the one that exists between any two members of a society. What is the nature of that relationship? As an implicit social contract, what are its expectations and obligations?

I think it makes sense to call this generic social contract “personhood,” and those who abide by it “persons.”

[…]

The idea of a “person” that I’m going to use today is most similar to the idea of a “lady” or “gentleman” — without the gender connotations, obviously, but in the same sense of being a label or status earned through proper behavior (which then creates an obligation for others to treat us nicely in return).

There are several reasons that I like this conception of Personhood. Personhood here is transactive and iterative, like the definition of “species” is in my previous post, and reminiscent of the logic of art appreciation in an earlier thread of this blog. It is sufficiently detailed, actionable, and “measurable” (if not precisely). Personhood is metaphysically lean- no magical priors. Personhood is not an essence. Personhood is a social invention that serves a purpose. You can be more or less of a person. Some rituals and games require a mask, or some other exception to the stipulations of personhood. An individual’s personhood can be adjusted, or perceived differently from different parties. Non-human agents may apply for varying degrees of personhood.

If “Good” means adequate or preferable, a Good Person is one whose social interface is nearly always considered appropriate: a human that you’d have difficulty considering as the noisy sack of meat that (s)he is.  To paraphrase another great article by Simler: Through considerate and well-designed interfaces, “good software” tries to convince you that it is more than an application on some complex arrangement of silicon, so that you might trust to interact with it. Through considerate and well-designed behavior (i.e. etiquette), “good people” ought to convince you that they are more than the product of some complex arrangement of carbon, so that you might trust to interact with them.

This is a godless and unflattering view of the civilizing process, but I think that is a merit of this perspective. This view doesn’t disqualify questions of the rules of interaction, but I feel that this view does allow me a level of grounding. Living well is (at least?) living socially and pro-socially.

Only the Variation is Real

Increasingly, I don’t see institutions as enjoying a different ontological status than the processes and entities that comprise them.

This is my undercooked contribution to the chicken-egg discussion of values/habits and institutions that came up here and here. I am on board with the broad thesis that Adam presents here. Mostly what I’m presenting below is a kind of alternative vocabulary, a result of my different corpus than you guys. Sorry- I’ll learn your language in time.

A species, I hope you’ll agree, is not a platonic, idealized form that individual creatures attempt to actualize. The Aristotelian approach is also too typological: A species is not a class of which individual creatures are instantiations or examples. Ernst Mayr, self-proclaimed ‘population thinker’ and perhaps the father of the modern definition of the species:

The ultimate conclusions of the population thinker and the typologist are precisely the opposite. For the typologist the type (eidos) is real and the variation an illusion, while for the populationist, the type (the average) is an abstraction and only the variation is real. No two ways of looking at nature could be more different.

Mayr’s ultimate definition of a species has little to do with apparent morphology or external categorization, instead relying on the relation between individual creatures- the capability to interbreed.

Individual creatures are also assemblages of smaller, arguably independent organisms and processes. The literal idea of an essence of a species or an individual or an institution doesn’t strike me as a very convincing concept except as a shorthand (and as it is said, “all non-trivial abstractions are leaky”).

Obviously an institution’s current habits or structural constraints can be spoken of, but I think we often make too much of it.  When we change our social environment we change ourselves, but one part of this process does not clearly precede the other. We respond to what we can, more-or-less blindly, and what works is propagated. I do not think that ideas and technologies are so cleanly delineated that one can be said to be causal in any strict way.

The United States of America is comprised of states(!) and also can annex and hold some level of dominion over those states. This is a clean and easy-to-understand interplay between a broader system and its components. That’s how we would teach the kids. But there are also a formidable contingent of exceptions and general weirdness that warp our conception of this idealized relationship: Washington DC, Puerto Rico, the various not-quite-foreign-but-not-quite-domestic Native American reservations, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa (where inhabitants are only US nationals), The Howland, Navassa, Wake, Jarvis, and Baker Islands, the Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, the Midway Islands, Serranilla and Bajo Nuevo Bank… these entities are only partially integrated into the American political assemblage, and several of them are more populous than many of our states. It’s far from a clear cut business.

Anyway, I’m rambling a bit already.

Like my last/first post, it might seem that I’m coming off bleak and obscurantist. I sure hope not but I could see that. Speaking of virtues and the like are unnatural to me, but I’ll read up and try to engage appropriately. I’ll be clearer in future posts. (Or maybe not.)

“Comparative Ideological Studies”

I heard this wonderful episode of the podcast “99% Invisible” recently. It was about the problem of communicating across ten thousand years, to tell our distant descendants that “This Area Is Insanely Radioactive, Go Away”. In truth, even a ten-thousand year scope is irresponsible, since we all now understand that the material will be pretty unsafe for the next 250,000 years.

The speakers make the salient point that Shakespearean English is roughly 400 years old, or 4% of the time we’re trying to span. The “English” of Beowulf is 10% the distance they’re trying to shout over. Languages and common symbols drift away in the 10k year time-span. Nothing human is anchored down at that scale. Any foreboding landmark we can construct can become an attraction (or an undecipherable mess). Any repulsive obstacle can become an attractive challenge or an irrelevant nothing.

One especially curious solution was to genetically engineer some cats to become “living Geiger counters”, changing color in the presence of high-radiation, and then singing songs and telling stories whose moral was simply, “If the cats change color, run away.” The men who came up with this theory argued that culture itself was the only technology that could span that kind of time. If the simple heuristic that “cats should not change color” could be preserved over time, the people of the future do not need to understand the “why”. Let me be clear- it’s a silly solution. Still, thought provoking I think.

This long-temporal-distance communication problem has been itching me lately. I’ve been reading Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication, which nominally is about the problems of cultural exchange with extraterrestrials. [Full PDF courtesy of NASA.gov, here]. The big analogy, though, is with another kind of one-way limited-context communication: between human cultures separated by millennia. (I put up some early notes on my home-blog here, on trying to eke meaning out of Egyptian, Mayan, and North American artifacts).

One of the obvious benefits of “comparative studies” is that it can help to suggest what properties might be more generalizable and which are more contingent or local to the entities in question. From our distance and our own distinct cultural differences, we can make generalizations of other cultures that they themselves might not have seen as contingent or even worth comment. We might call these hidden premises “Unknown Knowns”, to fill out the missing quadrant of that infamous Rumsfeld quote.

We all float in a soup of communally-understood symbols and stories and ideologies that we might occasionally mistake for self-evident. Those who have never attempted their own “ideological comparative studies”- those who haven’t engaged with titled and demarcated Philosophies- may have a harder time distinguishing what is unique or contentious or inconsistent or “recent” in their own worldview, but they aren’t necessarily without a worldview. Those who choose not to engage with the minds of others are missing out on powerful tools of a kind of metacognition.

I apologize if this is a trite point. I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.

 


Hi all, I’m Chris, and I’m looking forward to more great conversation here. I have a low-activity Twitter as careid0, and I scribble madness at www.fogbanking.com. My perennial interests are decision-making, human-computer interaction, organizations, and games studies. I’m a consultant on weekdays and a game developer on weekends.