Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The experience ratchet

This is just a few fragments of thought left over from other writings, things I've been pondering lately about stories. It's somewhat related to the "natural storytelling" idea, but not perfectly.

Amazing devices

The first thought is from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which, if you've read some of my previous posts, I finished re-reading lately. One quirky reference kept coming up in the novel that relates to changes in the way we perceive our world today. (To those who are not familiar with The Magic Mountain, it follows a young man who visits a tuberculosis sanitarium in Switzerland and stays for seven years.)

The quirky reference is to some amazing technological devices that Hans Castorp (our young man in the story) encounters at the sanitarium.
In the first social room there were also a few optical gadgets for their amusement: the first, a stereoscopic viewer, the lenses of which you stared at photographs you inserted into it -- a Venetian gondolier for example, in all his bloodless and rigid substantiality; the second, a long, tubelike kaleidoscope that you put up to one eye, and by turning a little ring with one hand, you could conjure up a magical fluctuation of colorful stars and arabesques; and finally, a little rotating drum in which you placed a strip of cinematographic film and then looked through an opening on one side to watch a miller wrestle with a chimney sweep, a schoolmaster paddle a pupil, a tightrope-walker do somersaults, or a farmer and his wife dance a rustic waltz. Laying his chilled hands on his knees, Hans Castorp gazed into each of these apparatuses for a good while.
Let me ask you: When was the last time you gazed into a kaleidoscope for more than a few seconds? And who looks at those sorts of objects today? Two-year-old children? For how long?

What's even more amazing is that Hans Castorp comes back and looks into these gadgets again and again as he settles into the routine of the place.
At four there would be afternoon tea with cake and preserves ... [more descriptions of routine activities] ... and afterward a peep or two into the stereoscopic viewer, the kaleidoscopic tube, or the cinematographic drum. Hans Castorp had the daily schedule down pat....
To our eyes, such an activity seems as nonsensical as spending half an hour a day staring at the spoons and forks in our silverware drawer.

Later in the book, a gramophone arrives to enthusiastic reception:
[T]here was no comparison to those little mechanisms [the optical gadgets] in value, status and rank. This was no childish, monotonous peep show, of which they were all tired and with which no one bothered after his first three weeks here.
Two interesting things here: first, people "bothered with" the optical gadgets for three weeks when we would have discarded them in minutes. Second, the new gramophone is not just a more interesting sensory experience: it's better in rank. Of course this is one of Mann's many ironic chestnuts that make The Magic Mountain such a joy to read, but it's also a telling observation about why our expectations of sensory experience keep ratcheting up. We are seeking value, status and rank.

The rank ratchet

The influence of ranking in human society connects our obsessions with new technology to the celebrity worship phenomenon, to information overload, to internet addiction, and to the popularity of purposeful stories, all of which are the subject of several recent books including Supernormal Stimuli and The Pleasure Trap. And all of this connects to evolution. From an article in the BBC news:
Evolutionary anthropologist Francesco Gill-White from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia told New Scientist; "It makes sense for you to rank individuals according to how successful they are at the behaviours you are trying to copy, because whoever is getting more of what everybody wants is probably using above-average methods."
Rank and status ultimately tie into fitness through sexual selection. We may not be very tied to the number of offspring we have nowadays, but the urge to give our offspring a "better life" is no different than a bird's struggle to provide her fledglings with the best possible probability of raising fit children in turn. Many studies have shown that women still choose carefully, or try to choose carefully in the face of incomplete and distorted information, a man who will support their children well in one way or another. (And vice versa, except that to men care is less important than genetic quality: hence the emphasis on physical beauty.)

The problem is that sexual selection can "run away" to such an extreme that species survival is threatened. This is one of the great puzzles of evolutionary theory, though the puzzling part goes away when you stop thinking evolution has a direction. It comes down to a Faustian bargain: sexual reproduction increases genetic variation to face changing environmental conditions, but it entails a division of labor in bearing offspring. Because females invest more in their offspring than males, they have a greater need to choose mates carefully. So males have a need to compete, and this competition can ratchet up to the point of damaging male fitness. Like mutation and inbreeding, sexual selection is a maladaptive evolutionary process that continues because it's linked to something useful enough to carry it along in spite of its damaging effects. 

So, expectations of both visual and narrative spectacles have been increasing because of three factors: a biological ratchet in which evaluation of mates based on observable features outside the average changes as the average changes; an incentive to make use of such a ratchet; and the ability to make use of the ratchet.
Of course, people have been attempting to influence the behavior of other human beings since before there were human beings. But recently, as we have understood more and more of how people think, the third factor has grown in importance. So, part of the reason our expectations about visual and narrative spectacle keep increasing is that the ratchet is built in. This goes some way towards explaining big fancy houses and cars and clothes ... and stories. Essentially, Avatar is a peacock's tail: a really big, nice one. (So was Titanic, and other blockbusters before that.) Beside Avatar, a kaleidoscope looks like a bit of lint. But a kaleidoscope is still a pretty amazing thing. It's not the experiences that have changed, it's us.

The internet shallows and deep narrative

Another piece that fits in here is the recent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. It talks about how people skim more and read less, get more distracted, and lose our ability to concentrate, as a result of taking in too much information in a shallow way. Of course that matches perfectly what I've been thinking about the reduction in deep narrative dives. I've felt the retreat to the shallows happening myself, though I've fought the beast (more on that later).

Do you play music?

Here's a funny little related pattern I've noticed lately. Recently I've noticed that when people are telling a story and they say "I played some music," they don't actually mean they played some music. They mean they listened to somebody else play some music. I've heard this in conversation enough times to start wondering about it.

So I tried one of my micro-research projects on Google. I compared matches for various mentions of playing and listening in relation to music. To find stories in which people talked about listening to or playing music, I looked for "I was listening to some music" or "I listened to some music" or "I am listening to some music" (people sometimes tell stories in the present tense). Contrasting these with "I was playing some music" (and so on), I get these match counts. (If this image is hard to read, click on it to see it bigger.)

So either everybody out there is playing lots of music, or people are no longer using the words "playing music" to mean making music come out of an instrument. To find out which it was, I skimmed the first few pages of links for each of these, and I found these results. The red bars are how many links actually referred to playing music (yourself), and the blue bars are how many actually referred to listening to music.

Considering that the number of people who say "I was playing some music" when they were not should be zero, that's surprising. So people are definitely telling stories in which playing music does not mean playing music. It doesn't help, of course, that music players have a "play" button. That's the commercial-advantage part of the ratchet: our thinking listening is playing is convenient for those who want to sell us music. (Why doesn't the button say "listen"? Because we are more likely to buy it if we think we are making it happen.)

When I looked for terms that are less likely to come up in stories but more in statements about oneself -- I like to play music, I like playing music -- the pattern changed:

Looking only at "I like playing music," more people say they like listening to music than playing it. Only 16 out of the first 40 pages for this phrase referred to listening to music, so when people said they played music using this phrase they were more likely to mean it -- hence the more accurate count.

For the second phrase, "I like to play music," most of these pages really did refer to people playing instruments. Only 3 out of the first 40 hits on this phrase were actually about listening to music. This evidently is what people say when they really do play music on an instrument. (Most of the first correct-use hits were interviews of and forum posts by band members.)

So when people describe what they do in factual statements, they are not very likely to use "playing music" to slide over into just listening to it. But when people tell stories, they speak of listening as playing. What this says to me is that when people are put on the spot and asked what they actually do, they keep to the literal truth (I play music, or listen to music). But when they tell stories, the literal truth is not so important and statements about the past can blur truth and wouldn't-it-be-nice. Standard storytelling behavior, but indicative of a cultural change about what we do and what we wish we did. Or what we will let ourselves believe we do when we are not being so careful about the facts.

This whole thing makes me wonder if someday we will say we had a thought when what we really mean will be that we heard somebody else's thought. Or we'll say we did something, when what we really mean was that somebody else did it and we heard about it. The bigger-better-faster the things we consume, the smaller-worse-slower become our own actual creations.

That sound you hear is the sound of the ratchet turning.


At this point I am supposed to say how we can turn the ratchet back. I have no answers, but my intuition tells me two things. First, knowledge can be used in many ways. The more we know about how to influence and manipulate people, the more we know about how to detect and avoid manipulation. Watching the ratchet and feeling it turn reduces its power to influence our decisions. Books like Influence are empowering in this regard.

Possibly more important than knowledge are unratcheters. Unratcheters are rich, deep experiences that can support infinite internal expansion without enhancement. They are bigger on the inside than the outside. They are satisfied with themselves, so the bigger-better-faster ratchet has no power over them. When I walk in the woods, for example, I can expand the intensity of my attention a thousand-fold without coming to the end of what is going on before me and around me. Lots of things are internally infinite like this: gardening, cooking, playing an instrument (really playing one), singing, walking, doing yoga, running, having long face-to-face conversations, and so on. Unratcheters are all activities of creation rather than consumption; that's why they never end. Nobody ever gets to the end of playing the violin, but when you come to the end of a violin CD, it's over. Even if you play the CD a thousand times it's still the same CD; it cannot expand internally. If you begin to create something from that CD, maybe incorporate it into your own thoughts or your own music, or even juxtapose it and shape your experiences around it, you start to unratchet. The reason unratcheters unratchet is that they don't build up: they build in.

Here's an example. About two years ago I found out that my nearly daily migraines were being caused by an allergy to sulfur compounds in food. I threw out my normal food, including all of my teas, herbs and spices (all regularly sprayed with sulfite preservatives), and started over. I started growing and harvesting all of my own teas and herbs. I now have between twenty and thirty medicinal herbs in little tins on my kitchen counter, and I assemble teas based on what I feel I need at the time -- digestive soothing, stress relief, a liver tonic, a tasty treat, and so on. I have a wonderful time making and enjoying these concoctions. And there seems to be no end to the depth of this hobby: I learn about new medicinal plants every year, and I try new combinations of herbs constantly. Recently I found out that all food certified as organic by the US Department of Agriculture cannot contain sulfur-based preservatives (because I'm not the only one allergic to them). So it turns out I can just buy organic teas and stop growing, collecting and drying my own. But what a sad, sad thing that would be. It would collapse my expanding unratcheter and return me to the custody of the same ratcheters I've been susceptible to all these years. New and improved! Delicious! Energizing! Calming! Put a Zing in your summer! What a let-down. Having found a new world rich with unexplored landscapes, I have no interest in returning to the old world. That's an unratcheter.

I've been writing about personal unratchers, but is there a societal unratcheter? Maybe. The advertising/marketing genie is out of the bottle, but I wonder if there is a way to benefit commercially from unratcheting. I've certainly bought a lot of books about medicinal plants and medicinal teas in the past few years, and some little tins, and a pretty nice dehydrator. Maybe what people need to do, if they want to market unratcheting, is turn their attention away from providing packaged, limited experiences and towards helping people create their own internally rich experiences. If you sell tea, maybe you should find a way to help people mix their own teas. If you sell music, maybe you should find a way to help people create their own music. Just making it easy to build assemblages of previously indivisible products brings a little more richness inside. Some of this is already happening, from what I've seen. Last winter I put together my own winter-holidays CD of individual pieces of music on It wasn't much of an unratcheter, but it was a start. I predict the age of the unratcheters is coming, and we will love them, and we will all calm down and make more of our own stuff and start enjoying life more. Maybe we'll even start telling more stories of our own. Now wouldn't that be nice.


  1. You might enjoy reading 'Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World'

  2. Thanks T, I've just ordered it. The list of things the author of "Made By Hand" does -- "organic gardening, building a chicken coop, constructing cigar-box guitars, keeping bees, tutoring his daughter" -- is funny, because I'm doing all of that except the bees and guitars. I grew up doing lots of "projects" that involved doing things yourself. Everybody did, or at least everybody I knew. We built stone walls, ran our own neighborhood recycling program, dammed our swimming hole, built and maintained an acre of gardens, canned and froze our own food, built forts and chicken coops and all manner of structures, and perpetually found ways to remodel our 1860s house on a shoestring. That was normal back then. Even now I don't feel "normal" if I'm not building something or helping something grow. What amazes me is that anybody could feel normal when they are NOT doing things. It seems like so many people today, especially kids, only feel normal when they are WATCHing other people do things and say things.

    Recently I saw a shocking advertisement in a magazine: a person in a canoe slowly moving past a giant rock cavern. Over the picture was a large "pause" button. So, being in nature and doing something with your whole body is something you do to pause your REAL life. I see it as just the reverse: the internet and movies and watching other people do stuff is a pause in my real life. It even bothers me how people call it "being in nature" as though it is some special, strange place to be. I just call it being in the world, or being alive. It takes all kinds, I know, and I'm arrogant and narrow-minded, I know that too. And cities can be wonderful places. But I'm sad that life for so many people seems to be getting smaller and smaller, wherever they live. I hope I'm wrong.

    Shop Class as Soulcraft is also on its way. I wanted to take shop class in high school but any idiot knew such a step was social suicide. At least (as far as I know?) that ratio has improved. Thanks for the pointer, T!