Nothing fits in cages!

27 October 2014
27 Oct 2014
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with a modern smartphone, you’ll be familiar with the ‘shuffle’ function in a music player. It takes a playlist and plays the songs or albums within that list randomly. To no one’s surprise, this feature comes from the original iPod. But from when it was first introduced, Apple has had to tweak the ‘shuffle’ feature to make the playback actually less random. Here’s what happened: Originally, the ‘shuffle’ would have randomly picked any song from the list blindly, in a completely unpredictable order. But that made it inherently possible for the playback to have two, three, or even four consecutive strings of songs in the same album, or by the same artist. That’s just the property of randomness. But nonetheless, customers complained that such repetitions were evidence that the feature was not ‘random enough’. As a result, Apple tweaked the ‘shuffle’ feature in later iterations to avoid playing back related songs in a row, making it less random even as it appeared more so.

Moral of the story: humans are rather skilled at picking up patterns wherever they exist. Sometimes too good. We find patterns where there are none, and that often leads to incorrect reasoning and superstitions. But another by-product of our pattern-seeking tendencies is our endless tendency to simplify everything. We classify, organize, put into folders and sub-folers, alphabetize, label, and record until everything is in small, neat piles that follow established patterns. This has its benefits, but too often, this infinite march towards simplification returns unwanted results, because, as John Green so eloquently put, “Truth Resists Simplicity”.

The most common and harmful example of this oversimplification has to be the “us-versus-them” situation, also known as the “hero-versus-villain” situation*. Take any conflict, real or fictitious, in human history, and you’ll find that in almost every culture, there are examples of simplifying the conflict down to the primitive level of “we are good and innocent, and they are evil an villainous.” We try to define our artificial cages around what we know, and force-fit everything else into either of those two cages. Often this happens because it’s just easier to think about things this way. Take the American Civil War, for example. In the majority of portrayals of the war, the North are the “good guys”, fighting against slavery, and the South are the “bad guys”, fighting for slavery. But the reality has so many more moving parts! Not every single person in the Union agreed to the emancipation, and not every single person of the Confederacy wanted to separate from the North because of slavery. We just carelessly make these simplifications because it’s convenient. The Union were the good guys, the Confederacy were the bad guys, and the Union won the war, so we’re all happy! Eh. Not exactly. Our mental cages are good for one thing and one thing only, and that’s gross oversimplification of a complex situation.

Yet another, more relevant example of our tendency to fit the world into cages is the society’s collective position on gender identity**. Sometimes our mental cages come in threes, fours, or more, but apparently our unconscious mind can’t count too well, so most of the time, we just try to fit things into one of two cages. That’s the situation with most wars and conflicts, but the flawed gender dichotomy is unfortunately not an exception. The society has existed for a long time with two cages for everyone: male and female. But like most things in this world,*** gender identity is not a binary measure. You can’t classify the entire world’s population as either male or female (in terms of gender ID) anymore than you can classify the world into either white or black. From this dangerous oversimplification arises countless obvious problems, many of which derive from the fact that 1) no, the world is not just one of two, it’s a spectrum, you need way more cages than two for that to be even remotely close to correct, and 2) if you put them in cages, you’re setting yourself up for a closed-minded perception of people. In short, we try too frequently to fit the world into a far simpler and dysfunctional mindset than it deserves.

At a more elementary level, we become guilty of these oversimplifications because we neglect to challenge and look beyond what we already know or think we know. While pretending to understand complexity through simplicity may be convenient and even beneficial in some fringe situations, force-fitting the world into cages doesn’t happen without also distorting reality, and that’s the last thing we need when trying to understand anything. The society needs to escape its status quo bias and embrace the complex realities. Always doubt. Never assume that your understanding of the world is the right one, and challenge that notion when chance presents itself. I think that’s a key to solving much of the conflits in today’s world.

* Disney, guilty as charged.

** Please remind me again why a nation that went through years of slavery and racial discrimination and paid for it with real and metaphorical wars alike still doesn’t get that the world is almost never a dichotomy, and that our old world-views sometimes need to be abandoned. I’d love to know.

*** How lucky is it that computers are an exception: they only use zeroes and ones. Oh, wait. quantum computers. Never mind.

Dear idle critics of popular culture

Dieting and education

I share new posts on my newsletter. If you liked this one, you should consider joining the list.

Have a comment or response? You can email me.