Thursday, January 12, 2012

You stand now at the bottom of this blog.

As I woke up this morning I realized two things: (a) if I do not feed the blog something soon it will wither away into nothingness, and (b) I have nothing at all to say. This is a desperate situation that calls for desperate measures. Therefore you are about to see me stoop to something low, far lower than I have ever stooped before. I am going to write about pet peeves.

Yes, it's that bad. Still, I seem to be writing, don't I, and I'll bet when I finish writing I'll push that big button that says "publish post." Oh dear. Here we go.

The meek.

Whoever said "the meek shall inherit the earth" was not meek. If they had been meek, they would have known that if the meek did inherit the earth we would say "No, no, you take it" and hand it right back. Or maybe they weren't meek and they did know that.

I am genetically meek, and as a child I loved it when they said this in church. I thought it was a promise. It was only a few years ago that I realized the whole thing was a colossal bait and switch, a trick, a lie.

It's like the trick I used to play on my son when he was two and we had been in the toy store for longer than I could stand. I would say politely, "How many more minutes do you need before we go?" I said this knowing full well that the biggest number he knew existed at that time was eight. So he would say he needed eight minutes, which is to say an infinite span of time. I would then carefully mark out eight minutes on my cell phone, then show him that the requested eight minutes had passed, at which time he would reluctantly go along with what had after all been his own choice. The thing is, I only asked him how long he needed because I knew he would always say "eight." Later when he learned about bigger numbers and could have kept me in the toy store for longer, I stopped asking that particular question.

Similarly, the trick of the you-get-the-earth deal is that they only offer it to you if they are pretty sure you will give it back. There was never really a plan to hand it over, not for real. If you are meek, now you know about this too. Plan accordingly.

Birthday cards.

Are you old enough to have received any of those funny-but-not-really birthday cards that tell you how horrible it is that you are a year older? Do you find, as I do, that they get more irritating every year?

All mid-life crises rest on the critical and sometimes erroneous assumption that they are situated in the middle of one's life. I made the opposite mistake. In my early twenties I developed the idea that I would probably not live past thirty, not because I was doomed but because I was too wonderful for this sub-par world. (Oh yes I did.) When I turned thirty I had to figure out what to do next. The only logical thing was to see every extra year as a bonus. Today when people ask how old I am and I'm part of the way through a year, I round up, just like I did when I was eight and three quarters. It's all extra.

This must be what irks me about the "poor you, you lived another year" cards. When we are children everyone congratulates us on our birthdays and helps us round up, but later everyone pities us and helps us round down. But shouldn't the congratulations get bigger and bigger? If you flipped a coin and it came up heads a hundred times, wouldn't that get more and more amazing? It's only if you knew it was going to come up heads a hundred times that you would count how many times were left. My advice is: don't pretend you know, and it's all extra.

Social network analysis.

I have a love/hate relationship with social network analysis. I like the idea of studying social networks in principle, but every time I read a SNA paper I end up feeling insulted and misrepresented. I now understand why.

What happened was, I went to a meeting several months ago. It was about social network analysis. On getting to the meeting place at the required time, I entered the room and found about thirty or forty people milling around. I did what I always do at meetings: I hugged the wall and watched people. (If you want to invite me to a meeting, make it a three-day meeting. On the third day I will talk.) As I stood there clutching my protective coffee cup, my first thought was, "Wow, all these people know each other already! Am I the only one here who doesn't know everybody? How strange." People were engaged in lively chatter in small groups all over the room. After a few more minutes of watching I suddenly realized that nobody actually knew anybody. All the conversations consisted of people saying, "Hi, I'm so-and-so from such-and-such, who are you?" These people weren't at ease because they knew each other; they were at ease because they liked talking to strangers. They were social.

It was at this moment that I understood why I love yet hate SNA. The people who study social networks are social. They have to be, because if you are not social SNA is a continual insult. My social networks are the size of spiders, not webs. Every SNA paper says one thing to me: failure. The strength of weak ties: the weakness of my life. The importance of hubs: I will never be one. The importance of tipping points: I miss them all. Measures of connectedness: guaranteed low. Failure.

But I also realized another thing: this cannot be good for SNA. People use SNA to try to understand and predict the behavior of everyone, not just the social people. If only social people study social networks, SNA can never be completely useful because it will always contain a limiting bias. It would be as if only men studied women (which was once true, come to think of it).

What SNA needs is a complement: NSNA, or the study of the social networks of the non-social. If there were a NSNA it would contain many elements of interest to the non-social, elements invisible to the social. To begin with, it would not map only human networks: it would map networks of meaning.

For example, take my pond. I love my pond. Year round, I try to visit my pond at least once a week. In the summers (after bug season) I lie next to my pond, and we have long intense conversations about life, the universe and everything. I consider it a family-level obligation to watch its tadpoles hatch in the spring, clear out post-storm debris, and slide on its ice in the winter. I take pictures of my pond in all its moods. In some respects my pond is one of my best friends. It is a hub in my network of meaning. Many other elements of my social network are not people (or not people anymore): they are dead authors, ancient heroes, fictional characters, dogs, trees, gardens, streams, sculptures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was my best friend for a few years in my twenties.

No SNA survey would ever map any of these connections, because they would only ask me about people. To the non-social this is a ludicrous exercise, like trying to understand people by cataloguing their socks. We non-social people don't connect to people much, but we still connect, and it's still social. People who say they want to study social connections and only ask about connections to people seem to me to be looking for their keys under the lamp-post, where the light seems to be -- to them. We see by the light of a different moon.

Why does this matter? Why should anybody care what the non-social do? Because we non-social people still do things, and those things still impact other people. If your work is about understanding how and why people do things that impact other people, maybe you should think about that.

Upward social comparison.

Social comparison theory studies how people evaluate their own lives by comparing themselves to others. Everyone knows that one of the reasons people keep spending too much and getting themselves into debt situations is that they are trying to "keep up with the Joneses." One of the problems today, as everyone also knows, is that due to television the Joneses are fictional creations that can never be kept up with.

So I was thinking, why don't the television people create a lot of shows about poor people, and we'll all compare ourselves with them, and we'll look around and see all the great stuff we have, and be less inclined to buy more? And that will help us all prosper more, because as everyone knows there are two ways to be rich: to have more and to want less.

But then I realized: if people stopped buying more, the advertisers who fund the television shows would be unhappy. And then there could be no more television shows. So television has a built-in requirement to induce people to socially compare up rather than down. It's a perceived-needs-amplification device. If we compare television to the storytelling of old, I don't think it had that upward-comparison bias to it. At least it doesn't seem to in the historical reenactments of the storytelling of old I've seen on television.

The question I end up with is: is there any way to flip the switch on the thing? Don't worry, I don't expect an answer.

There. The blog has been fed. We must now wait and see whether the pet peeves have killed the blog or revived it. Even poison can heal in the correct proportion.


Indy said...

Love the idea of NSNA... and the idea of a museum (or in my own case, one particular painting in a museum) as a node in an NS life sound absolutely spot on.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Indy, thanks for the comment. It is nice to hear I am not insane (or not insane alone :).

Forgot to say in the post that David Abrams, in his (really fun) book _The Spell of the Sensuous_, explores how the belief that connecting to living people is the only thing that matters is a new thing. In earlier times connecting to humans long dead, non-human living beings, and places and forces of nature was considered just as "social" as connecting to living people. If somebody had created SNA ten thousand years ago, or even two hundred years ago, it would probably not have been as limited in its scope as it is today. And I'll just bet that NSNA would come up with some interesting stuff even today. Who knows?