Ideas 2006

by Rob Horning

9 December 2006


Even though there’s something artificial and reifying about these kind of packages, I still recommend reading the entire special section on the year in ideas in this week’s NY Times Magazine. It’s essentially a list of insights and memes and piquant research findings from the past 12 months, the sorts of things you probably are already half familiar with if you spend much time reading blogs, only cataloged and alphabetized. Here’s a sampling:

1. Cohabitation can harm women’s health: The gist of this is that women adopt unhealthy male eating habits over the long run. Is this evidence of how deeply our culture inculcates the female imperative to submit? It seems to suggest how women compromise by default in order to sustain traditional relationships.

2. “Digital Maoism”—this is a phrase coined by computer scientist named Jaron Lanier, who from the illustration looks to be a white guy with dreadlocks (This, I must admit, makes me question his judgment and discount his theory.) He is skeptical about the power of the Internet to aggregate the wisdom of users into infallible products and predictions, which would seem to make him a skeptic of markets and hayekian spontaneous order. But because things like Wikipedia tout their open format but are actually managed by a small group of contributors, this phenomenon is presumed to resemble China’s approach: talk about collectives while concentrating power in the hands of a few. But those who maintain Wikipedia are self-selecting, they don’t hold on to what dubious power they may have by anything other than their own effort. They aren’t oppressing or silencing other people who want to contribute. Yes the propaganda surrounding “the wisdom of crowds” can be overstated, but it seems we are in little danger of forgetting the contribution of the individual—if anything, capitalist society fetishizes individualism and propagates the “great man” theory of causation and history (cf, the fundamental attribution error). There are two different processes at work—the first process has individuals coming up with ideas they think may be useful, which prompts the second process, using the Internet to distribute the idea and subject it to the collective modification of those out there with any investment in the idea. The Internet expedites the aggregation of useful ideas, and the knowledge that one’s ideas will much more likely become useful for a greater number of people much more rapidly provides individuals with incentive to concentrate more on innovation. It matches thinkers with the audience capable of helping them sharpen that thinking. If this is Maoism, I’m for it.

3. Eyes of Honesty: the title the editors devised for this one is a little portentous, but it refers to psychology researchers in England finding that even a picture of watching eyes was enough to encourage people to obey the honor system at a beverage stand. Perhaps they might have called it the Big Brother effect, or the pretend panopticon or something. With the ubiquity of surveillance cameras and whatnot out there, someone virtually is watching us all the time. But with the newfangled attention economy, perhaps in our eagerness to display ourselves in hopes of being watched, we forget this. It seems as though our awareness of surveillance is always shifting dialectically in relation to our exhibitionism; the more we want to be seen, the less we realize we are already being observed and vice versa. This would allow rampant narcissism to coincide with conformity without the ideas necessarily colliding. A related idea from the list: “sousveillance”—being watched from below, using cell-phone cameras to capture truth and speak it to power, as the saying goes.

4. The Hidden-Fee Economy: I blogged about this before but I can’t find the link. A paper by Laibson and Gabaix offered an explanation for the sort of hidden fees that are encrusted to rental cars and hotel rooms and electronics products and cell phones and whatnot. Because this kind of pricing selects for shortsighted customers who supply the fattest profit margin for services, there’s little to gain by trying to educate how competitors are taking advantage of them. If you educate the customers, the profit margins go down for everyone in the sector. This helps explain why advertising cannot be considered to be more informative than misleading, and why heightened skepticism is always warranted: It’s in a business sector’s best interest to embark on a de facto collaboration to befuddle us.

5. Hyperopia: A word coined to describe our being too preoccupied with long run consequences and thus neglecting our urge to indulge in the moment. In the long run, we’ll actually look back fondly on our hedonism as peak experiences. It’s the short run impact of guilt (which doesn’t last long) that makes us err on the side of prudence and circumspection. This corresponds with the gist of happiness research that suggests risk aversion and endowment effects makes us overly conservative to our own detriment. It’s actually hard work being impulsive, which suggests useful life skills can be learned from occasional casual gambling.

6. Negativity Friendships: I’m a pretty negative person, so this cheered me—social psychologists found that its the negative opinions that friends share that make them close. This may be why people are loath to express negative opinions; they want to preserve boundaries and not let people into that sphere of intimacy where “real” opinions are shared. This has a reinforcing effect; negative opinions likely seem more real as they are relatively rarer and riskier, they yield no immediate benefits (no one likes to network and hobnob with cynics and naysayers) and suggest a long-term strategy of deep friendship. A negative opinion about someone else has no use value other than inviting a conspiracy of intimacy.

7. Smart elevators: I know these are supposed to save energy and all, but entering a buttonless elevator seems creepy to me. It reminds you how dependent you are when you’re commuting into the sky and reminds us of the disturbing trade-off of autonomy for efficiency. It’s wasteful when individuals have full control of how they transport themselves (see Northern Virginia traffic, for example) but few would voluntarily surrender the convenience of control for a gain in public good.


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