Refusing to Learn
(Apologies for the late send, the last couple of days got rather away from me and I had to write this today. This email will be correspondingly sketchy and is something of a link post)
A friend recently suggested that my newsletter involved lots of big words and complicated concepts. I replied that I actually don’t think this is true. That’s mostly the notebook blog. The newsletter is largely for explainer posts.
Anyway this letter throws that all out of the window and involves lots of big words and complex concepts, which I will use to theorise my way to a blindingly obvious conclusion, because I promised I would in Overthinking Overthinking:
I was sitting down doing morning pages thinking about what to write about. I started with domesticity and living environments, partly prompted by the flat move, partly by a discussion about a blocked sink in the old flat. Before long I’d pulled in concepts from a book on the nature of classification systems, linked in a book about the evolutionary game theory of gender norms, was thinking back to a previous post I’d written connecting the two up to a book on the early history of grain agriculture and how it lead to the development of the state…
This was, as I’m sure you know given how on brand it is, not a joke.
The books in question are:
Against the Grain by James Scott
Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences by Bowker and Star
The Origins of Unfairness by Cailin O'Connor
All of these books are great and I can highly recommend them. You don’t need to read any of them to understand this post.
This is an abridged collection of the books referenced in my extremely sketchy notebook post The Memetic Domus (this is not a coincidence). There I talk about the generalised notion of Scott’s Domus Complex (“domus” roughly means “home”):
Because not enough people write like mathematicians, Scott never really precisely defines what he means by domus in any easy to extract form, but the condensation of it in these notes is pretty good:
The “domus” is an assemblage, or concatenation of multiple species and environmental features – landscape changes, animal pens, houses, butcher shops, blacksmiths, marketplaces and so on – that are put together in varying proportions. It is multi-dimensional long-term inherited niche construction
Scott talks more broadly about the domus complex as the effect of humanity on the landscape. We don't just produce small, tightly concentrated, domestic units, but we broadly reshape the landscape around us, and have been doing so long before anything recognisable as modern agriculture.
Within this broader domus complex, the domus is more like a local increase in concentration of domestication, but the the domestication of the landscape extends out far beyond where you might naturally think of as being the boundary of human presence. The village is domesticated, certainly, but so are the forests around it where humans hunt, and possibly clear with fire, so are the places where evolution is shaped by human predation, or by escaped domesticated species (plant and animal).
Since then part of my idiolect (“the speech habits peculiar to a particular person”) has included “domus” as meaning this kind of niche of interacting things that change over time and all adapt to each other. This doesn’t have to be quite so literal as an actual domestic habitat, but can often be some more abstract set of things. e.g. a company is usefully thought of as a domus - its employees, assets, procedures, products, customers, etc. all form a complex interacting niche in which each adapts its behaviour to the others and everything fits together (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) in a way that is shaped over time by its interactions with the other.
The domus is constructed because parts of it interact with other parts and each is shaped by its interaction - animals and plants are domesticated, people interact with other people, people build an environment, people shape their behaviour to their environment, etc. Following a term from the book “Classification and its Consequences” I tend to use the word torque for this shaping over time - the metaphorical force that each side of the interaction exerts on the other, bringing it more in line with its needs (in the original context). Over time, torque brings the parts of the domus into a useful alignment with each other.
An important feature of this metaphor is that some parts will move more readily than others. Torque between a flexible and a stiff object will cause the flexible object to shift, and the stiff object to mostly stay unchanged. e.g. a person encountering a bureaucracy is more likely to change their behaviour in response to it than the bureaucratic process is likely to change to accommodate them.
In many contexts this results in what is called a Red King Effect: In many evolutionary contexts, there is actually an advantage to evolving slowly.
Suppose you have some sort of conflict: An interaction where each party “wants” something different, and each can change their behaviour to accommodate the other if necessary, but would much rather the other change theirs. e.g. imagine you have two different norms of conversation (cf. The Church of Interruption) adopted by two now-mingled groups. Each of these norms works fine if everyone adopts it and badly if you mix. Now every conversation exerts torque on the behaviour of the participants to adopt the other’s norms. Eventually, one will likely take over completely.
Which one will that be? Well, it depends on a lot of factors, but all else being equal, the norm whose adherents are more willing to change their behaviour will lose out, because in any given interaction they are more likely to shift over to the recalcitrant norm, so it will tend to grow to dominate over time.
This is an example of people interacting with each other, but you also get this sort of behaviour with other interacting elements. My favourite example of this is John Regehr’s Operant Conditioning by Software Bugs, where he argues that developers tend not to notice bugs in their software because they learn to use the software in a way that isn’t buggy. Why? Well because it’s much easier to change your behaviour than it is to fix a bug, so the torque tends to move you more than it tends to move the bugs.
Anyway, all things brings me to the rather simple conclusion, which is about a literal domus: Your home.
One way this plays out is in the coevolution of your environment and your behaviour. You can change the environment of your home - move things around, KonMari all your stuff, fix problems with it, etc. But this is hard. You can also change your behaviour, by living with things in suboptimal positions, keeping things cluttered, learning workarounds for the problems. This is, comparatively, easy.
The result in any given environment you live in, a disproportionately large proportion of the adaptations between environment and behaviour will be in behaviour. You shape yourself to your environment, rather than the other way around.
There’s a problem with this though: Furniture doesn’t have feelings, you do, and now you’re doing a whole bunch of emotional labour on its behalf.
If learning your environment were free, that would be one thing, but often what we learn is not how to have a perfectly happy stress free environment, instead we learn the problems. I wrote about this before in Cleaning up the fnords in your environment:
A fnord is a thing that you have learned not to see, but that still triggers anxiety. It is not actually harmful in and of itself, except through the power of the emotional associations you have developed with it. The fnord can't actually eat you, but you are sufficiently terrified of it that you have learned to completely ignore its presence.
This is, of course, not how operant conditioning works in reality.
Suppose you have learned not to see the fnords. What would happen if I put my finger on the page where the fnord is and told you there was a fnord there?
Well, you'd get annoyed at me. "Of course there's a fnord there." you'd say "Everyone knows there's a fnord there. Why are you drawing my attention to it?" and then you'd get annoyed with me for having the bad taste to talk about fnords.
This is often how you learn to ignore problems in your environment. They’ve still upset you, but you’ve learned to ignore it, or you’ve learned an annoying workaround that you hardly ever notice that you do.
The solution to this problem? Don’t do that then. If learning the behaviour that conforms to your environment makes your life worse, refuse to learn. Change the environment instead.
One of my goals (which I am currently failing at, work in progress) with the new flat is to avoid this problem by actively looking for and fixing problems in the environment. To avoid the degradation caused by learning the environment by taking note of the things I’m learning to ignore and force them to change instead of me.
This is akin to the approach I suggested in Skirting the edge of disaster: The system will always degrade to right on the edge of whatever state causes it to get fixed, so in order to keep it in a better state you need to move the criteria for what gets fixed. In this case, you need to fix things when they start to cause you to change your behaviour.
How to do this? Not sure yet. Right now I’m just trying to note things that are annoying me in my Morning Pages (see Writing to Understand), and I need to get serious about recurring Unfuck Your Habitat style attention to the mess in the flat, but I’m open to other suggestions if anyone has any.