Tuesday, July 18, 2017

But I Do Know...

About a year and a half ago, I came across a post on Seth Godin's blog, entitled "For those unwilling to think deeply..." It rubbed me the wrong way, because it felt like someone who should know better taking pot shots at people who knew less than he did, and blaming them for their circumstances. And the American tendency to snipe at one another has always bothered me, even though I fully understand that the tribalism at the heart of it is never going to go away.

Being deeply knowledgeable about how electricity, democracy or irrational decision making works, when your paycheck depends on you knowing other things - but none of those things, is a luxury good. Because even though we don't have a market in "emotional labor," in that you can't simply go out and pay someone else to perform it for you, it's not without its costs. And I think that this is another way in which Mr. Godin's post irritates me, and illustrates one of the things that bothers me about the way we relate to one another: the not having access to a given luxury is itself a character flaw - being "unwilling to think deeply..." rather than a marker of a certain kind of poverty. And so we see no need to share that luxury with others.

Now, here I will admit to thinking that Americans are often more willing to plead poverty than perhaps we should be. But in some ways, I think that it is true that we can be impoverished in ways that don't often occur to us. The world is a very big place, and there is a lot to learn about it. But in order to do that, you have to have time that you aren't devoting to other things. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf noted this several years ago when he related to readers that he understands things that non-news junkies are unaware of. Not because he is smarter than they are, or more willing to think deeply about things. But because it's what he does for a living, and so he's doing deep dives into these questions when other people are working at whatever it is that puts a roof over their heads.

There are a lot of things that I don't understand about the world, because, in the end, I don't need to understand them. When I run into missionaries, and tell them that I don't believe in deities, the follow-up question tends to be "Well, where do you think that everything came from?" Rather than fall back on the Big Bang, I simply shrug and admit to not knowing, and note that I don't really have a reason to know. I wasn't there to see it for myself, and I have other things to do than spend the time to really understand what the science says about the topic. I can manage my day-to-day life without being able to definitively answer the question, and I'm okay with that. And there are a lot of topics that fall into that same category. And as much as I love to listen to Dan Ariely talk about the topic, I don't have anything more than a superficial understanding of the irrationality of most mundane decision making. I am, to quote Mr. Godin, unwilling to devote the time and energy. This is not because I am content to be a cog in a machine that I don't understand. (Although in the end, I am content with that - because I don't have the mental horsepower to be a cutting-edge astrophysicist, and as a result, I am a cog in an unrelentingly vast machine that I can barely make heads or tails of, let alone actually understand. I can barely manage to come up with a why to describe gravity that doesn't rely on the action of gravity itself to illustrate it. Put the word "quantum" in front of anything, and my eyes glaze over.) But to be anything more than a cog in the machines I do understand, I have to be continuously learning about them. Knowing Agile software development practices and rituals, as shaky as I am with that knowledge, serves me in much better stead than a deep understanding of the workings of electricity, because I spent 13 months working in a place that used Agile for some of their development work. And none as an electrical engineer.And I don't believe that I am the only person in that situation.

This is the entire reason for the human development of division of labor - that different people do different things. And in the process, they become really, really good at them, and pretty much suck at everything else. So I don't understand human irrationality, instead, I let Dan Ariely understand it, and try my best to keep up when he's explaining it.

Because I don't have the luxury of being able to do the work needed to have that knowledge firsthand. And portraying that as a character flaw won't change that fact.

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