2016-08-31

Authenticity Versus The Package-Deal

For this post, I am indebted to my sister for helping me clarify my thoughts.

One of the reasons I’ve kept up my blog over the years is because it enables me to build upon thoughts that have occurred to me before. It’s difficult to keep track of all the things you may have thought in the past, and work toward some kind of philosophical end product. Some people try, and it leads them only into endless philosophical explorations of the inherent contradictory nature of things. This isn’t an intellectual failure, it’s a byproduct of the way we choose to think of things. Look at things differently, and you can potentially solve your problem. (Assuming that that’s what you’re really interested in.)

To wit, an important piece advice for those who keep repeating the same mistake over and over again is to “write your story toward an ending.” An analogous recommendation for people and thinkers who keep getting hung up on the twists and turns of logic, and nuance, and language, and context is to start writing toward a specific theory of something. Your theory will certainly be imperfect, but you will succeed in actually improving the quality of your thoughts, and that’s worth something – if not to the world, at least to yourself. You can (and hopefully will) always make incremental improvements as you go.

Or, by analogy: You’ll never finish a drive from St. Louis to Nashville if you spend all your time muddling through the irreconcilability of the quantum and Newtonian physics required to get there. Get a car and a map and plan your journey; you might not find a unified field theory, but you’ll certainly get to Nashville.

What you are about to read builds on much of what I’ve written before. I’ve mentioned that the way a question is asked can influence a person’s reaction to that question. I’ve also written the following:

In today's world, we are inundated with gurus, marketing campaigns, media lies, and government propaganda. We regurgitate the spin we hear in our private conversations. We buy into the quick-fixes and the grading-on-a-curve and the false demonization of innocent scapegoats. All the while, we leave ourselves hungry for authenticity.

To understand what I will say below, one has to keep these things in mind: First, that framing can influence our thinking, positively or negatively, but always negatively to the extent that framing takes us further away from objective reality; Second, the ubiquitous marketing, political messaging, branding, and packaging we encounter everywhere we go has a tendency to wrap our lives in this kind of framing unless we actively resolve to ignore those messages.

Are you with me so far? Then, let’s begin.

The Urge To Compartmentalize

One of the reasons I ran afoul of the Sweet Talkers is that their rather extensive knowledge of academic philosophical theory – and my lack thereof – often made it impossible for me to present an idea to them without their having to re-frame that idea in the context of existing academic philosophy. It’s a reasonable inclination, and in fact invaluable when placing my ideas in that context improves the accuracy of my intended meaning. Sometimes, though, they just got it wrong. I’d try to say something, they’d compare it to a rather different idea, then start arguing against that different idea. When I’d object that this was not the idea I was actually talking about, they would throw up their hands in exasperation, saying, “Then I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

They were right, they didn’t know what I was talking about. It would have helped if I could have re-framed my idea in the context of academic philosophical theory, but I simply don’t have that knowledge. I’d like to have it, and so I keep reading and learning new stuff, but that doesn’t mean I should just stop trying to express my own ideas in the meantime, nor should it mean that I shouldn’t try to talk to anyone else about those ideas. Thus, another way around our impasse could have come from them: Rather than actively working to re-frame my ideas and get them wrong, they could have just listened, asked questions, and come to an understanding of those ideas outside the context of academic philosophy. I’m not clever enough to come up with totally new ideas, but if it’s going to take years of work to find out who else might have expressed the same idea, it may be quicker and easier for everyone to just pretend that it’s a new idea, and try to think through it that way, instead.

This is contrary to human nature. It’s only natural to compare new things to things we’ve seen before and draw comparisons and assumptions based on their similarity. That makes thinking more effective in a lot of cases, but it involves shutting out a lot of the data and honing in on only that which has proven to matter in the past. As Kevin Ashton writes:
Like quarterbacks, radiologists are experts in seeing things quickly. What is invisible to us is obvious to them. They can diagnose a disease after looking at a chest X-ray for a fifth of a second, the time it takes to make a single voluntary eye movement. As they become more trained, they move their eyes less until all they have to do is glance at a few locations for a few moments to find the information they need.
 This is called “selective attention.” It is a hallmark of expertise.
The bottom line is that expert-level human thinking is hard-wired to shut out certain data on grounds that this data has proven to be extraneous in the past. We bald apes have evolved to do this, it’s simply innate. Not only that, it works really well for us. The only problem is that whenever the stuff we’re ignoring turns out to be legitimately relevant, we make mistakes.

You might be a Sweet Talker, an expert in philosophical thought who has experienced good results from re-framing arguments in terms of what has been written previously. But the day you meet a Ryan who doesn’t tend to express thoughts that map well to existing patterns, you’ll misinterpret what’s being said.

This is an example, but it’s not the whole story. The point here is that humans like to detect patterns in the data we survey; we’re not usually very good at looking at a blob of data and quickly identifying relevant missing factors.

Framing: The Magic Of Marketing

Considering the fact that people detect seen patterns and ignore any data that is either missing or historically uninteresting, it comes as no surprise that the marketeers have learned to exploit this for their own gain.

A good example of this is the classic Miller Lite ad campaign that revolved around the phrase “Tastes great! Less Filling!” At a certain point in the nearly 20-year-long campaign, the television commercials ended up being a “debate” of sorts, with one set of characters arguing that Miller Lite was the best beer because it “tastes great,” and a second set of characters arguing that, on the contrary, Miller Lite was the best beer because it was “less filling.” The viewer is in on the gag: this is heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. No matter which side we take, we reach the same conclusion that Miller Lite is the best beer.

There’s nothing subtle about this, and that was by design. But marketing departments have done this sort of thing countless times. Batman vs. Superman is a debate that centers around the two most popular DC Comics characters; no matter which one you prefer, DC Comics sells more units. The cynic would even argue that modern political commentary revolves around a debate against Democrats and Republicans, whose actually implemented policies are more or less the same; i.e. the system doesn’t want to give you a real choice, they want to make sure that you think your choice is  meaningful.

This is what The Last Psychiatrist means when he says that the media doesn’t teach you what to think, it teaches you how to think. Teaching you what to think would involve an old-fashioned ad campaign like the one for Miller Lite, where the message is clear: We want you to buy Miller Lite. Teaching you how to think involves creating an arousal within you that can logically only be filled by implied product. TLP’s go-to example was the Dove beauty sketch ad campaign, but once you have a handle on the basic concept, you see it everywhere. They don’t sell you a product anymore, they sell you a lifestyle. The product just happens to be prominently displayed in the same frame as the people living the lifestyle, so the viewer concludes that the one goes with the other.

That’s why the frame is so important. If the product isn’t in the frame, then we don’t associate it to the lifestyle.

But make no mistake, this is a grift, and not always an obvious one. A far more subtle example of how marketeers use framing to manipulate you is the “compare models” link on a car manufacturer’s website. The appeal to you of such a thing is that you get to see all the specifications of a few products lined up side-by-side so that you can make a comparison across products. The con involved here is that it is the manufacturer that determines which specifications you get to compare. So you start with something like, say, engine horsepower. More power is better, right? Car A has more horsepower than Car B, so Car A must be better than Car B. Notice that this determination is made in your mind automatically, absent any context of how you will use horsepower in your day-to-day driving. The grift is complete when, while comparing two cars, you notice that they are roughly the same, but Car B gives you twice the horsepower for only $5000 more in additional cost. That’s a tiny incremental increase in your monthly car payment, and yet it’s holy crap – twice the horsepower!

So you spend an extra $5000 and double your horsepower without any real understanding of how much horsepower you actually need. Even though this feels like “making decisions on the margin,” this is actually the opposite of what classically trained economists do. What you ought to be doing is minimizing cost subject to a list of constraints. The best car for you is the one that costs the least amount of money, but still meets all your own personal requirements. You don’t really have a requirement for “double the horsepower.” You have a requirement for only a certain amount of engine power. Buying more power than you want is a waste of your money.

That thought never occurred to you when you started comparing car specifications, which is exactly the point of giving you the comparison in the first place.

The Frames Are Everywhere

Whether it’s beer, philosophy, or high-horsepower engines (sounds like a pretty great Friday night, actually…), our perspectives are constantly being shaped and altered by framing. To a great extent, this is unavoidable, but the reason I’m writing about it today is because, absent any strong effort our part, true authenticity is undermined by the framing through which we live our lives.

Think, for example, about your personal sense of clothing style. You might gravitate toward a particular “look” that you feel is “you,” but go anywhere in public and you will soon see that there are far fewer fashion “styles” than there are individuals. How individual is your sense of style, really? More to the point, how authentic is it? If all your fashion sense says about you is that you are one of a large mass of people your age and in your same geographic reason who gravitate to similar kinds of shirts, then we’re not really talking about an authentic expression of your personal style. It’s not authentic self-expression, it’s branding.

Broadly speaking, the food you tend to eat is probably similar, which explains why restaurants are categorized by “type of food.” You always know roughly what you’re going to get. Not all hamburgers are created equal, but if you go to a hamburger joint, it’s safe to say you’ll encounter few surprises on the menu. Some restaurants specialize in offering a few surprises, but even those restaurants adhere to some kind of predictable format. Only rarely do we discover a restaurant that offers an authentically unique menu.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to follow a particular fashion trend, and always looking for authenticity in food would be totally exhausting. Not every action we ever take in life is a call to authenticity.  I list these examples only to highlight how ubiquitous the frames are. If you’re not aware of them, then you might spend a lot of time trying every Mexican restaurant you can find, looking for one that offers something unique. You might find one, eventually, but it’s much more efficient to simply ask yourself whether you just want a burrito tonight, or whether what would really make you happy this evening is to find something new in the burrito game.

That’s what we’re after when we pursue authenticity. We’re not looking to avoid all branding, we’re simply pausing to be mindful of our desires. The first step is to just identify what makes you happy. If you’re a Hamburger Guy, then going to a Michelin-rated hotspot won’t satisfy your needs.

But the second step is where things get really interesting. That’s when you stop seeing yourself as a Hamburger Guy, or as someone who follows Michelin ratings, and you just close your eyes in a quiet room and think about what you feel like eating. Forget about the advertisements, forget about food “styles,” forget about the imagery, and just follow your taste buds. What are they telling you?

It’s Not Easy, But It’s Worth It

This level of mindfulness – pausing to shut out prior narratives and make a deeper inquisition about your needs – is actually very easy. It’s something we all do when we research things we know very little about.

If you’ve never been interested in gardening before, and you decide to look into what it takes to make a nice garden in your back yard, you’ll likely be less swayed by branded gardening products and formal schools of thought than you will be twenty years later, when you’ve become fully invested in gardening as a hobby. Initially, you’ll be searching for information on the stuff you need for gardening. You guess you might need a shovel, and some seeds, and some fertilizer, and some water… the guy at the hardware store might successfully talk you into a particular shovel, but your mind won’t automatically go there. You’ll probably ask the guy, “Okay, but what makes this shovel better than that cheaper one over there?” Maybe the galvanized metal on the more expensive shovel is important to you in your gardening hobby. Or maybe the cheaper shovel is all you need. When you first start out, you’re not interested in the aspiratioinal shovel, you’re only interested in the one that will do what you need done. That’s authenticity.

But we’re not beginners forever (or at least, hopefully not). Over time, we gain expertise, and that means we start to engage in precisely the kind of “selective attention” Kevin Ashton was telling us about. Supposing we actually do end up liking the galvanized metal shovel better, then the next time we see shovels for sale, we might think, “P’shah, who’d buy that one? It’s not even galvanized…” You might even get caught up in replacing all your garden implements with properly galvanized ones. To be sure, your gardening accessories will all have a consistent look and feel, but will this actually make your garden grow better? What end are you serving when you buy this stuff? If the end is to have the best gardening products, then have at it, but if your end is to have the tastiest tomatoes you’ve ever eaten or to enjoy the satisfaction of working the soil of your own land then my advice is to focus on that and forget about the shovel per se.

As it is with gardening, so it is with life. Being properly mindful of our activities helps us come to an understanding of what really makes us happy. Serving our own personal happiness the best we can is the real goal here. The things we buy, the things we wear, the books we read, are only in the service of that happiness.

I think Sweet Talkers would have been happier interacting with me if they had put their purpose in philosophical inquiry in mind when they talked things out with me, rather than just fitting the discussion to a particular form and pulling the trigger. The conversation certainly would have been more authentic.

I think you will be happier in your own life if you make your own personal desires and objectives the focal point of your actions. If you’re not getting the results you want, that might mean that you need to change your actions, not just the stuff you take action against. Change your verbs, not your direct objects. If you want to drive a screw, you have to stop hammering and start screwing.

That, to me, is what authenticity is all about.