Sunday, September 21, 2008

iterated polarisation games

[published this earlier, then wanted to think some more and put it in the drafts folder, got some e-mails from readers so I am posting again so people can comment if they want, though I should still probably think some more. Kevin Connolly, who sent in a wonderful Excel chart a few months ago, said he thought I was misrepresenting DFW: 'As I read it, the most important sentence in Wallace's speech is "The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day." I think he's asking for something more than 'keeping your head down' or swallowing the profoundly unjust and stupid system in which we live.' ]

The Guardian has published an abbreviated version of David Foster Wallace's speech at the graduation ceremony at Kenyon College.

Wallace seems to have had an abiding fear of solipsism all his life; fiction helps the skull-caged mind to believe in other selves. The speech, oddly enough, shows how easy it is to slip back into solipsism even one is trying to believe that other people and their concerns actually matter.

Wallace invites the audience to imagine a long hard day at work, at the end of which you're starving but there's no food at home so you have to go to the store and there are too many people and the lines are too long and then you drive home and there are too many people on the roads... but you can, he says, choose how you look at it:

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way?

DFW thought this way of looking at was our default setting. He proposed an alternative:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible -

Well, hm. Let's just remember that this speech was in part about the importance of being serious about other minds. So let's look at the situation the way another mind would look at it.

The first thing that leaps out is that everyone in a crowded store is inconvenienced by everyone else in the store; everyone in a traffic jam is inconvenienced by the traffic jam.

The second thing that leaps out at this naysayer is the unhelpfulness of the serenity prayer. (Lord, give me the patience to the bear the things I can't change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.) Most of the time, surely, we actually don't know what we can change till we try - it's not a question of wisdom but of, well, a combination of the willingness to have a bash and decent methodology. (Oh Lord, don't give me a Mercedes Benz, just tell me whether I should use a folded-t, or a half-cauchy, or a uniform over the traditional inverse gamma. Please? Pleeeeeeeez?*)

The point being. Look. If crowds and traffic jams are unavoidable, we are definitely best off learning to live with them. But let's just remember, dreaming up improbable scenarios about my fellow shoppers/drivers really only helps one person: me. OK, it may help other people if I would otherwise be swearing or shooting, or if my new -improved unfocused beaming smile makes people feel good; is that really the best I can do? What if there is a solution, something that would make lines in stores move faster, reduce crowds? If there is a solution, a really good solution, surely it will be a successful meme - it will spread through overcrowded grocery stores across the city! the state! the country! the world!

So maybe I have to be driven berserk, maybe I actually have to be a prima donna maddened to distraction by the horror of my local Kroger's or Giant, to be goaded into looking for solutions. Maybe being driven berserk, maybe thinking this is literally a fate worse than death, is a prerequisite for trying to do something.

Suppose I'm stuck shopping at the busiest possible time. It's too late to have laid in supplies at some earlier time. But it's not too late to lay in supplies now. Would it be a good idea to pass up the superficial attraction of the '10 Items or Less' checkout? Say I buy 20 jars of peanut butter, 10 boxes of Ritz crackers, 50 packs of spaghetti, and 50 jars of Barilla's Pesto al Genovese. The spaghetti alone eliminates 49 emergency trips to the store at peak times!

Well, do I actually have enough storage space? I mull this over, dodging the madding crowd, and I realise that bulk-buying will actually enable me to make better use of the couple of cupboards I have at my disposal. Normally, when my cupboards are not bare, there's a lot of unused space above the head height of the jars: I don't want to stack them on top of each other, because it's a hassle to get them out, and then I can't see what's behind the front row. But I can stack 20 jars of peanut butter front to back, from the bottom of the shelf to the top, and I really only need to see the front row/stack. Same with the pesto. Same with the spaghetti. Same with the crackers. Good news.

At this point I become aggrieved. If I subtract a minimum of 49 trips to the store - 49 peak-time trips - I am making the world a better place for my fellow shoppers, who will benefit from my absence from the store on at least 49 occasions. Why is the store encouraging short-term shopping with its '10 Items or Less' line? Why isn't it encouraging people like me? Why don't they have a line for people who are bulk-buying a small number of types of item? 20 jars of Skippy can be rung up in almost the same time as 1. If we were given a shorter queue for buying in quantities of 20 or more, hundreds of people would be slashing dozens of trips to the store off their year. Wouldn't it be to the advantage of the store if more people bought in bulk? Or are they relying on impulse buys? Is it just that they make so much more out of getting people into the store and getting things they didn't mean to buy that they don't want people to make fewer trips?

I don't actually know the answer to the last question. I can see that everyone can't afford to buy in quantity. But it seems to me that I definitely have the power to make my own life less stressful, by the simple expedient of buying 50 jars of my favourite pasta sauce and something simple to put it on. Plus pb & crackers. If everyone who could afford it made their life less stressful in this way, they'd be better off, wouldn't they? So maybe I'm being selfish keeping this 'Hint from Heloise' manqué locked up in my skull? (Should I start a web comic?) Also... if I am really saving myself a minimum of 49 stressful trips to the store, maybe I could dedicate one to making a trip for someone else, someone who doesn't have a car or can't get heavy groceries upstairs (I'm still 48 trips to the store ahead...)? Also...

What if this were standard practice? What if we knew that most people kept supplies of some kind in bulk? We don't know what other people have, we just know that whatever they have, they have a lot of it. What if I knew that about other people in my building? What if I couldn't face a 35th last-minute meal of spaghetti with pesto al genovese, might I not feel more comfortable about knocking on somebody's door and asking if they'd swap anything, anything at all for s w/ p al g? And might I not feel pretty comfortable about occasionally having someone knock on my door and offering a swap? And might most of us feel somewhat comfortable even just asking or being asked for the makings of a simple meal (pasta with sauce or something) when the person asking had nothing to swap and maybe hadn't made it to the ATM? What if we knew most people had a stash of 10+ jars of peanut butter... Might a parent, caught short late at night, not feel more comfortable just knocking on a door and asking for a jar of peanut butter? Or if we live in a bad part of town, if we're nervous of strangers knocking at the door/knocking on strange doors, could we have a communal cupboard with a key to which we all contributed 1/50th of an occasional bulk buy? (This is a question that is likelier to present itself if one starts from the position of having 20 jars of peanut butter, 10 boxes of crackers, 50 packets of spaghetti and 50 jars of pesto al genovese in one's own personal kitchen.)

Well, I'm just going around and around in my head, but the point is, there are things I can do that will tell me more about the world than I already think I know. I can find something out by unilateral action; I can find out more by sharing ideas with my fellow man. And I can start with something that has an extremely high probability of being true: most people hate peak-time grocery shopping, most people hate traffic jams. To me that looks more attractive than making life bearable by inventing highly improbable backstories about the people I run up against in a crowd.

There are some problems that can't be fixed. If I get a million dollars today, I can't go back to the summer of 1996, when I was desperate for £1,000 to finish a book. I can't go back to the summer of 1979, when I was desperate for money to pay for Oxford. But there are problems that can be fixed. Young people who have just finished 4 years of college (US) or 3 years of university (Britain) may not be nicer than they were when they started, but they should be better informed, they should be smarter - they should see many more things that might be fixable than they did when they turned up on Day 1. So, well, hm, it's a bit demoralising that a speech cited for its inspirational qualities should be one that offers acquiescence as the first port of call (nothing to be done, might as well make the best of it).

A general comment. Americans live in a profoundly unjust and deeply stupid social system. Britons live in a profoundly unjust and deeply stupid social system that has the saving grace of a national health service. The French face institutionalised injustice and stupidity; so do the Germans; so do the Italians; we could go on, but let's not. And whenever injustice and stupidity are institutionalised, legitimised, there is enormous pressure on those caught up in the system to make it look good - and, of course, to avoid looking bad by failing to thrive. And humans are able to survive, at least, under astonishingly damaging circumstances.

What this means, unfortunately, is that the collective action of finding ways to survive, of making the system look bearable, makes the system weigh very heavily on those least able to bear it. I think that may mean that we shouldn't necessarily be looking for ways to get to the age of 30, or 50, without wanting to put a bullet through the head. Maybe it's a good thing to find circumstances absolutely unbearable; maybe we shouldn't look away. Maybe paying attention to what I myself find intolerable is a better guide to what is oppressive to others than, say, paying attention to what the system says are reasonable expectations for any individual.

We should note that David Foster Wallace, for all his public acclaim, was caught up in a machine that treats writers with contempt. In an interview with Dave Eggers he spoke once about the immense investment of time and energy involved in publishing a single book; he said this meant that he had to be very selective about the projects he was willing to see into print. So - if other writers had fought harder, if fewer writers had kept their heads down, if someone somewhere had insisted on submitting documents in LaTeX, for example, DFW might have published more books without feeling that his personal requirements were the mark of egocentrism. As might many other writers we haven't happened to hear of. It's hard to see how that wouldn't have been a very good thing.

*To the best of my knowledge, it's rare for this sort of question to be directed to God. Someone did recently fire it off to Andrew Gelman.


Andrew said...

I agree with your Heisenberg-like statement that you don't know what might be doable until you try it. This is related to the flaw in classical decision analysis that assumes that "utilities" exist Platonically, whereas they're more like some sort of Narnia for which each of us is his or her own C. S. Lewis.

As you note, the flaw is inherent in the language itself: "change what you cannot accept" implicitly defines "what you cannot accept" as a measurable quantity. Rephrase in Vegas terms as something like, "Bet on what you will win," and the mistake becomes clear.

But I disagree with you on the food storage issue. Kitchen space is valuable: I like to think of the local supermarket as auxiliary storage. And since we're going to the super every day on the way home from work to pick up celery or whatever, it's no problem to pick up imperishables such as cans of tomato paste or whatever on the way.

Occasionally we've tried your strategy of stocking up with a big run to the supermarket (we do have a bike trailer so can carry a lot if we really want to), but it's not much of a strategy because in a couple weeks we're back to where we were before. Oddly enough, the buy-as-needed approach seems to work better. I've been told that delivery works well too, but we've never gotten organized to do this for anything but bubbly water.

Helen DeWitt said...

Re storage space - maybe you are just better than I am at using what you've got. What I find is that I end up having 50% of my storage space going unused, because I don't want to stack different things on top of each other and then have to unstack to get the one on the bottom out. About 60% of the storage space that does get used isn't used well: anything that is not immediately visible just sits at the back for months, years...

Whereas if I buy a big supply of something I like, I can use the full volume of a bit of shelf-space; I'm not losing information about what I have by hiding some things behind others, I'm not fretting about the hassle of unstacking...

Admittedly, this normally has a negligible effect on how often I go to the store, because these are emergency rations. But DFW was positing a case in which the cupboard is bare, so one is forced to go the store at peak time when tired and hungry - in other words, at a time when outsourcing storage to the store means one has nothing available at home when one wants it.

But also, of course, it's true that I can come up with all kinds of ingenious solutions to my own problems that often turn out not to be anyone else's problem. I really like having five jars of different kind of Dijon mustard in the fridge; I had no idea how comforting it would be, living with the quiet confidence that I would never run out of mustard.

Delivery is good. I keep meaning to do that here and forgetting. The thing is, I do stupid things. I clutter my mind, making the same decision 30 times a month when it only needs to be made once. I think what happens is, it feels as though I am preserving freedom of choice by making 30 decisions, when all I really do is turn the decision into a habit.

Helen DeWitt said...

(Of course, it may be that you and I don't see a trip to the store as the Boschian experience it had the potential to be in the imagination of DFW. I like situations where large numbers of strangers are interacting with each other and don't expect me to do anything. Stores where no one offers to help. Buses, trams, subways, ferries, trains. Train stations, airports. But that's another story.)

Cecilieaux said...

This is an excellent example of why you should trust readers when they ask for something. This was a very appealing essay with much to think about.

My toothache is always worse than a famine in India, except to the Indians.

Kevin said...

Thanks for re-posting the piece; I was glad to be able to read it again. As with the Necker cube or Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit image, I can often feel the shift in perspective Wallace describes between viewing others simply as being-in-my-way, and viewing them as independent sources of agency.

I agree with you that such a shift is insufficient for improvements in the way things work in the world, and certainly it is no substitute for such improvements, but I think the shift Wallace describes is a necessary precondition--particularly if we accept his diagnosis that we begin from a culturally encouraged starting point of near-perfect solipsism.

Anonymous said...

The full transcript of the speech is here for those interested:

Among the many things I think about his speech, it comes off to me as peculiarly personal, as if he's trying to tell himself something he needed to say in front of others so that he could convince himself in reverse order. Solipsism isn't the first and the last problem in my day. In fact, his form of it seems so bizarre to me I'm willing to say it isn't for a large majority of his audience. At the least one, it's not one of the immediate pressing concerns of graduating seniors, and an unusual topic for a commencement address. Seems all the more poignant to know that his advice didn't work out for himself and he never did make it past 50.

- Hassan

Phil said...

I often find myself developing new mental paradigms with which to approach daily life, but I usually find that the mind rebels. It's hard, and probably inadvisable, to force yourself to think a certain way every time you confront a particular situation. I may imagine the improbable background scenarios of my fellow shoppers for a while, but at some point the song over the loudspeaker or the person cutting in line will destroy my attempt at equanimity. Likewise, there are only so many inventive solutions that I can find for the inadequacy of the present system before I become frustrated by their failure to be realized.

At best, such frameworks for thinking have a limited potential for use. The stress I associate with supermarket shopping doesn't derive so much from the experience of a single trip, as from the idea that I will be making basically indifferentiable trips on a periodic basis for THE REST OF MY TERRESTRIAL LIFE. If every time I go to the supermarket I'm forcing myself to achieve some transcendent state of perception or inventiveness, well that just adds another psychological burden to the affair. Because now not only I am having to deal with the necessary banalities of my existence, but I'm forcing myself to make them mean something.

I guess what I'm saying, maybe it's better to find meaning from things you can control, e.g. your relationships, avocations, occupations, and as for the rest embrace the stoicism required by necessity.