Why did everything take so long?

One of the biggest intuitive mysteries to me is how humanity took so long to do anything.

Humans have been ‘behaviorally modern’ for about 50 thousand years. And apparently didn’t invent, for instance:

This kind of thing seems really weird introspectively, because it is hard to imagine going a whole lifetime in the wilderness without wanting something like rope, or going a whole day wanting something like rope without figuring out how to make something like rope. Yet apparently people went for about a thousand lifetimes without that happening.

Some possible explanations:

  1. Inventions are usually more ingenious than they seem. LiveScience argues that it took so long to invent the wheel because “The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder.” I feel like that would explain why it took a month rather than a day. But a couple of thousand lifetimes?
  2. Knowing what you are looking for is everything. If you sat a person down and said, “look, how do you attach a stationary platform to a rolling thing?” they could figure it out within a few hours, but if you just give them the world, they don’t think about whether a stationary platform attached to a rolling thing would be useful, so “how do you attach a stationary platform to a rolling thing” doesn’t come up as a salient question for a couple of thousand lifetimes.
  3. Having concepts in general is a big deal, and being an early human who had never heard of any invention was a bit like being me when I’m half asleep.
  4. Everything is always mysteriously a thousand times harder than you might think. Consider writing a blog post. Why haven’t I written a blog post in a month?
  5. Others?

Rules of variety

At some point in high school I noticed an interesting thing about my choice of essay topics: it was definitely not allowed to be the same choice of topics that anyone else had.

One reason this seemed strange at the time was that I had never explicitly noticed this constraint or intended it, even though it was doing a lot of work. It was such a deeply assumed part of the basic rules of behavior that I didn’t know it was there.

But it seemed extra strange once I noticed it, because it happened in the context of the rest of my classmates as one blithely ignoring this absolute law of reasonable behavior and all writing about the same hackneyed thing. Which probably wouldn’t have even occurred to me to do if I had set out to write the most surprising essay I could. So, apparently other people didn’t even have this rule, though it seemed so inbuilt in me.

And this wasn’t just a failure to understand the rules of that assignment—I realized then that I had been assuming this constraint for every essay, and um, perhaps everything.

(In retrospect ‘maybe you are trying to be different and other people aren’t’ looks like an obvious explanation for the perplexing fact that I was different and other people weren’t. But I was used to knowing about things I was doing intentionally, and I was only trying to be different in the sense that I currently try not to murder people—it would be so wrong that it doesn’t cross my mind as a possibility. But while unconscious, this is a very effective form of intention.)

Years later, I think other people actually do have this rule, or similar rules. They just vary by topic, and I happened to be unusual on the topic of high school essays. But I think implicit constraints like this are actually pretty common, and usually feel too natural to be noticed, even while they entirely warp our behavior. I don’t mean ‘assumptions that we don’t notice’ in general, but in particular ones about how similar or dissimilar out behavior should be to others. I rarely hear these things spoken of, except to remark when they are broken, without comment on what they actually are or consideration as to whether they should be there.

Some examples of actions I think you would avoid to at least some extent, or make an excuse for:

  • Showing up in the same outfit as someone else
  • Naming your children the same names as your friend’s children
  • Decorating your room exactly the same way as your housemate (a friend of mine actually moved to a different room in the same shared house, leaving his art behind for the appreciative incoming resident, and replacing it with identical art in his new room. This seems widely considered weird.)
  • Using the same unusual adjective multiple times in the same article without it making an intentional point
  • Answering ‘how are you?’ with the same contentful description of your state as the one you just heard, without comment
  • Getting the same unusual car as your colleague
  • Using a turn of phrase that has been used many times before
  • Doing a thing that is trite, hackneyed, cliche, or stale
  • Going on holiday to the same place your friend just did
  • Doing a project that is basically the same as one someone else did, without it being connected to theirs
  • Using the same stylistic touches that others use (e.g. even though xkcd is widely considered good, if I draw comics that look just like xkcd, it would be weird)
  • Copying too many of anyone’s personal habits when you are not trying to flirt weirdly with them
  • Showing up to prom in the same car as someone else

This may all sound pretty unimportant. Ok, society has to support more dress variety than would otherwise be optimal. Worse things happen. But I suspect this also shows up in intellectual activities and strategic decisions. And having random unacknowledged rules driving decisions in those places strikes me as more terrifying.

For instance, discussing how surveyed machine learning researchers expect human-level AI further out now than they did before the recent ML boom, someone pointed out to me that of course people are going to be pessimistic now, because the interesting thinkers a couple of years ago were optimistic, so optimism is now boring. If that person is right that the opinions of a field on a topic as important as how imminently they are bringing about the end of human dominion are mostly determined by the dynamics of fashionable distances in opinion-space, I say we have a problem.

Other places I’d expect to see this:

  • Aversion to working on too close a question to someone else in your vicinity, if you are not working with them
  • Aversion to just straightforwardly agreeing with another intellectual rather than emphasizing differences
  • Aversion to liking things that are too popular (contrarianism)
  • Aversion to strategies that are too popular, even if that doesn’t affect their effectiveness
  • Not discussing topics once they are too commonly discussed, even if they are not resolved.

It’s old news that opinions move according to fashion. So why is this interesting?

First, I think we usually think of this as a pressure for conformity—for a few thought leaders to choose ideas somewhat freely then all the thought sheeple to follow. I’m claiming there are also strong forces for variety. And these don’t just cancel and give us freedom—they lead to a narrow band of appropriate choices. The next step in the dance has to be a certain distance from the last.

Secondly, since opinions following fashion has been pointed out in the past, it is weird to point it out again. But human memory and salience probably require it to be pointed out sometimes, if we are to actually remember it.

I’m not very confident about all this, beyond the more basic observations. But it leads me to an image of culture evolving like a fractal river delta, every piece curling off into several pieces that are the right distance from it and one another. Which is kind of how culture seems.

Multidimensional signaling

What do you infer about a person who has ugly clothing? Probably that they have poor taste (in clothes or subcultures). But it could also be that they are too poor to improve their wardrobe. Or can’t be bothered.

What about someone with poor grades? The obvious inference is that they aren’t so capable at the subject, but it may again be that they can’t be bothered, or that they have more urgent things to do with their time.

And someone who makes clever jokes? Probably that they are smart and naturally funny, but if they had more time or effort to spend on this, it probably helped.

For all kinds of traits that people might try to signal with their behavior, someone can send a better signal if they have more money or time or self-control. Even when the main signal being sent is not usually thought to be about any of those things.

The reason that this interests me: if signals often divide the population into ‘better or richer’ vs. ‘worse or poorer’, I wonder if this would cause us to imagine that being rich is associated with being better, even if the two were entirely independent. (And similarly for wealth in other general-use resources, like self-control and time).

In a simple case, suppose there are just people with pretty clothes (who have good taste, and also the wealth and industriousness to show it) and people with ugly clothes (who either have bad taste, or lack resources or will). Then do observers come to think of ‘rich, go-getter good taste’ type and a ‘poor, lazy, bad taste’ type? Or do they pay more attention to the actual structure of the space, and know for instance that learning that someone really has bad taste does not actually means they are more likely to be lazy or poor?

New Doc 2017-10-15 (1)

A simple example. X marks everyone who don’t signal.

Note that I’m not merely suggesting that a person with more wealth can send signals to look like they are better—that much is clear. I’m suggesting that at a population level, if the wealthier people can’t be distinguished from the better people on some axis, then observers may come to think that the two are associated in general, even if they are not at all.

If so, this would be important, because it would apply in a huge range of cases of signaling. So that the properties of poverty and weak-willedness and such would appear to us to be much worse than they really were.

Signal seeding

What does it say about a person if they never get up before noon?

If they are the first person to exist, it probably says that morning was for some reason a convenient time to sleep.

If they live in parts of modern society, it might say that they are lazy and weak willed.

How did getting up at one time or another come to signal laziness? You still have to get up once per day.

One story I can imagine is that originally there was some weaker reason to get up early. For instance if your work benefited by sunlight, you could get a bit more in. And then since that was a reasonable thing to do, people who didn’t do it looked like they were less good at getting up. Which made getting up early even better thing to do, so that everyone knows that you can.

And then people who had been on the fence before about whether to bother getting up early started to find it worth their while.  Making the remaining noon-sleepers even more weak willed on average. And so it continues, until sleeping until the afternoon strongly suggests laziness.

In general, if an action is a tiny bit good, not doing it can look a tiny bit bad (or stupid, or lazy, or incapable). Which makes it better to do, which makes it look worse to not do it, and so on. And maybe in the end the speck of good that started this disappears, but the value of sending the signal if you can is enough that the equilibrium is stable.

Does this actually happen?

Prosocial manipulation

There is an axis of social calculativeness: whether your speech and social actions were carefully designed for particular outcomes, versus being instinctive responses to the situation.

This is related to an axis of honesty: whether your words represent your actual state. I suppose because the words most likely to produce the best response naively are often not true. Though I’m not sure if this is reliably true: feelings in the moment are often misleading, and honesty is often prudent.

Another axis is selfishness versus pro-socialness: whether your actions are meant to produce good outcomes for you (potentially at the expense of others) or a larger group such as the world.

The calculativeness axis seems widely expected match the selfishness axis well. Manipulative people are bad. I don’t see why they should go together though, in theory. You can say what you feel like in conversation, or say things calculated to achieve goals. Shouldn’t people saying things to achieve goals do so for all kinds of goals, many venerable? In about the same distribution as people doing other things to achieve goals?

A natural question is whether calculated behavior really is reliably selfish, or whether people just feel like it is for some reason. I can think of cases where it isn’t selfish. For instance, a diplomat trying to arrange peace is probably choosing their words very carefully, and with regard to consequences. But it is hard to say how rare those are.

Perhaps we just don’t think of that as being calculative? Or I wonder if we do, and while we like it if peace is arranged, we would still be somewhat wary of a very good diplomat in our own dealings with them. Because even if they are acting for the good of the world, we suspect that it won’t be for our good, if we are the one being calculated about.

After all, we are presumably being led away from whatever our default choice would have been after hearing the person just represent their internal state as came naturally. And moving away from that sounds probably worse, so more likely that manipulation means to exploit us somehow than to secretly help us get an even better outcome. This is closely related to the honesty axis, and would mean ‘manipulative’ doesn’t really imply ‘globally consequentially bad’ so much as ‘dangerous to deal with’.

I am speculating. Are there common positive connotation terms for ‘socially manipulative’ or ‘calculating’? Is that a thing people do?