The Law of Cultural Proximity

[Not my area of expertise, but I would be surprised if the core thesis was wrong in a significant way. Probably not as original as I think it is. Based on a previous blog post of mine that went in a very different/weird direction.]

Introduction

Currently, different human cultures have different behavioural norms around all sorts of things. These norms cover all kinds of personal and interpersonal conduct, and extend into different legal systems in countries around the globe. In politics, this is often talked about in the form of the Overton window, which is the set of political positions that are sufficiently “mainstream” in a given culture to be considered electable. Unsurprisingly, different cultures have different Overton windows. For example, Norway and the United States currently have Overton windows that tend to overlap on some policies (the punishment of theft) but perhaps not on others (social welfare).

Shared norms and a stable, well-defined Overton window are important for the stable functioning of society, since they provide the implicit contract and social fabric on which everything else operates. But what exactly is the scope of a “society” for which that is true? We just talked about the differences between Norway and the U.S., but in a very real sense, Norway and the U.S. share “western culture” when placed in comparison with Iran or North Korea. In the other direction, there are many distinct cultures entirely within the U.S. with different norms around things like gun control. The categories were made for man, not man for the categories.

However blurry these lines are, it might be tempting to assume that they get drawn roughly according to geography; it’s certainly reflected in our language (note my use of “western culture” already in this post). But this isn’t quite right: the key factor is actually interactional proximity; it’s just that in a historical setting geographical and interactional proximity were the same thing. Time for an example.

Ooms and Looms

Back in the neolithic era, the tribe of Oom and the tribe of Loom occupied opposite banks of their local river. These two tribes were closely linked in every aspect: geographically, linguistically, economically, and of course, culturally. Because the Ooms and the Looms were forced into interaction on such a regular basis, it was functionally necessary that they shared the same cultural norms in broad strokes. There was still room for minor differences of course, but if one tribe started believing in ritual murder and the other didn’t, that was a short path to disagreement and conflict.

Of course, neolithic tribes sometimes migrated, which is what happened a short time later when the tribe of Pa moved into the region from a distant valley. Compared to the Ooms and the Looms, the Pas were practically alien: they had different customs, different beliefs, and spoke a different language altogether. Unsurprisingly, a great deal of conflict resulted. One day an amorous Oomite threw a walnut towards a Pa, which was of course a common courting ritual among both the Ooms and the Looms. Unfortunately, the Pa saw it as an act of aggression. War quickly followed.

Ultimately, the poor Pa were outnumbered and mostly wiped out. The remaining Pa were assimilated into the culture of their new neighbours, though a few Pa words stuck around in the local dialect. Neolithic life went on.

In this kind of setting, you could predict cultural similarity between two people or groups purely based on geographic proximity. It was possible to have two very different peoples living side by side, but this was ultimately unstable. In the long run, such things resulted in conflict, assimilation, or at best a gradual homogenization as memes were exchanged and selected. But imagine an only-slightly-different world where the river between the Ooms and the Looms was uncrossable; we would have no reason to believe that Oom culture and Loom culture would look anything alike in this case. The law that describes this is the law of cultural proximity:

In the long run, the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact.

More First Contact

Hopefully the law of cultural proximity was fairly self-evident in the original world of neolithic tribes. But over time, trade and technology started playing an increasing role in people’s lives. The neolithic world was simple because interactions between cultures were heavily mediated by geographic proximity, but the advent of long-distance trade started to wear away at that principle. Ooms would travel to distant lands, and they wouldn’t just carry home goods; they would carry snippets of culture too. Suddenly cultures separated by great distances could interact more directly, even if only infrequently. Innovations in transportation (roads, ship design, etc) made travel easier and further increased the level of interaction.

This gradual connecting of the world led to a substantial number of conflicts between distant cultures that wouldn’t have even know about each other in a previous age. The Ooms and the Looms eventually ran into their neighbour the Dooms, who conquered and assimilated them both in order to control their supply of cocoa. The victor of successive conflicts, the Dooms formed an empire, developed new technologies, and expanded their reach even farther afield. On the other side of a once-uncrossable sea, the Dooms met the Petys; they interacted infrequently at first, but over time their cultures homogenized until they were basically indistinguishable from each other.

The Great Connecting

Now fast-forward to modern day and take note of the technical innovations of the last two centuries: the telegraph, the airplane, the radio, the television, the internet. While the prior millennia saw a gradual connecting of the world’s cultures, the last two hundred years have seen a massive step change: the great connecting. On any computer or phone today, I can easily interact with people from one hundred different countries around the globe. Past technologies metaphorically shrank the physical distance between cultures; the internet eliminates that distance entirely.

But now remember the law of cultural proximity: the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact. This law still holds, over the long run. However the internet is new, and the long run is long. We are currently living in a world where wildly different cultures are interacting on an incredibly regular basis via the internet. The result should not be a surprise.

The Future

[This section is much more speculative and less confident than the rest.]

The implications for the future are… interesting. It seems inevitable that in a couple of generations the world will have a much smaller range of cultures than it does today. The process of getting there will be difficult, and sometimes violent, but the result will be a more peaceful planet with fewer international disagreements or “culture wars”. A unified world culture also seems likely to make a unified world government possible. Whether the UN or some other body takes on this role, I expect something in that space to grow increasingly powerful.

While a stable world government seems like it would be nice, homogeneity has its pitfalls. There’s a reason we care about ecological diversity so much.

Of course in the farther future, human culture will fragment again as it spreads into space. The speed of light is a hard limit, and while our first Martian colony will likely stay fairly connected to Earth, our first extra-solar colony will be isolated by sheer distance and will be able to forge its own cultural path. Beyond that, only time will tell.

Extracting Value from Inadequate Equilibria

[Much expanded from my comment here. Pure speculation, but I’m confident that the bones of this make sense, even if it ends up being unrealistic in practice.]

A lot of problems are coordination problems. An easy example that comes to mind is scientific publishing: everybody knows that some journal publishers are charging ridiculous prices relative to what they actually provide, but those journals have momentum. It’s too costly for any individual scientist or university to buck the trend; what we need is coordinated action.

Eliezer Yudkowsky talks about these problems in his sequence Inadequate Equilibria, and proposes off-hand the idea of a Kickstarter for Coordinated Action. While Kickstarter is a great metaphor for understanding the basic principle of “timed-collective-action-threshold-conditional-commitment”, I think it’s ultimately led the discussion of this idea down a less fruitful path because Kickstarter is focused on individuals, and most high-value coordination problems happen at the level of institutions.

Consider journal publishing again. Certainly a sufficient mass of individual scientists could coordinate to switch publishers all at once. But no matter what individual scientists agree to, this is not a complete or perfect solution:

  • Almost no individual scientists are paying directly for these subscriptions – their universities are, often via long-term bulk contracts.
  • University hiring decisions involve people in the HR and finance departments of a university who have no interest in a coordinated “stop publishing in predatory journals” action. They only care about the prestige and credentials of the people they hire. Publications in those journals would still be a strong signal for them.
  • Tenure decisions involve more peer scientists than hiring, but would suffer at least partly from the same issue as hiring.

What’s needed for an action like this isn’t a Kickstarter-style website for scientists to sign up on – it’s coordinated action between universities at an institutional level. Many of the other examples discussed in Inadequate Equilibria fit the same pattern: the problems with healthcare in the U.S. aren’t caused by insufficient coordination between individual doctors, they’re caused by institutional coordination problems between hospitals, the FDA, and government.

(Speaking of government, there’s a whole host of other coordination problems [climate change comes to mind] that would be eminently more solvable if we had a good mechanism for coordinating the various institutions of government between countries. The United Nations is better than nothing, but doesn’t have enough trust or verification/enforcement power to be truly effective.)


The problem with the Kickstarter model is that institutions qua institutions are never going to sign up for an impersonal website and pledge $25 over a 60-day campaign to switch publishing models. The time scale is wrong, the monetary scale is wrong, the commitment level is wrong, the interface is wrong… that’s just not how institutions do business. Universities and hospitals prefer to do business via contracts, and lawyers, and board meetings. Luckily, there’s still value to be extracted here, which means that it should be possible to make a startup out of this anyway; it just won’t look anything like Kickstarter.

Our hypothetical business would employ a small cadre of lawyers, accountants, and domain experts. It would identify opportunities (e.g. journal publishing) and proactively approach the relevant institutions through the proper channels. These institutions would sign crafted, non-trivial contracts bound to the success of the endeavour. The business would provide fulfillment verification and all of the other necessary components, and would act as a trusted third-party. The existence of proper contracts custom-written by dedicated lawyers would let the existing legal system act as an enforcement mechanism. Since the successful execution of these contracts would provide each institution with significant long-term value, the business can fund itself over the long haul by taking a percentage of these savings off the top, just like Kickstarter.

This idea has a lot of obvious problems as well (the required upfront investment, the business implications of having its income depend on one or two major projects each year, the incentives it would have to manufacture problems, etc) but with a proper long-term-focused investor on board it seems like this could turn into something quite useful to humanity as a whole. Implementing it is well outside of my current skillset, but I would love to see what some well-funded entrepreneur with the right legal chops could make of something like this.

Thoughts?

Going Full Walden

[A couple of years ago I was feeling pretty misanthropic and sketched out some ideas for a post which has sat in my drafts folder ever since. It’s suddenly kinda relevant because of the pandemic, so I found the motivation to dust it off and finish it. Enjoy?

No, of course I don’t actually believe any of this. Sheesh.

I feel like this maybe needs a further disclaimer: this is an idea which should not be taken seriously. Treat it as a writing exercise instead. Caveat lector.]

Other people suck. A lot.

Not you of course. You, dear reader, are the exception that proves the rule. But you know who I’m talking about – all those other people you know who are lazy, or inconsiderate, or rude. The ones who promise they’ll do something and then… don’t. The so-called “friends” who are anything but. The people who lie, or cheat, or steal. The “everybody else” in the world you just can’t trust.

It’s enough to make you want to escape civilization entirely, go off on your own in the woods. To be like Thoreau, and find your own personal Walden. After all, we don’t actually need other people do we? Sure our lives right now depend on supply chains and infrastructure and all that jazz, but robots can do most of that now, and yelling at the delivery guy to leave it on the porch doesn’t really count as human interaction. Or something like that.

But enough with the moping about, let’s take an actual look at what it would be like to… oh wait. That’s what we’re already all doing right now, more or less. Social distancing, social isolation, po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Hmm…

Next question then: what are the pros and cons of human interaction in the modern world? Obviously, historically, we really did need each other in a concrete way. Tribes provided food, and shelter, and protection. Going it alone had really bad odds, and it wasn’t typically possible to convince a tribe to support you without you supporting them back in some way. Whether you wanted to or not, you were pretty much forced into taking the bad of the tribe along with the good.

Today, however, we’ve abstracted a lot of that messy need away, behind money, and economics, and the internet. I can make money on Mechanical Turk without ever interacting with a person, and I can spend that money on food (UberEats), shelter (AirBnB), and protection (taxes) the same way. We can truly be homo solitarius. So what would it take to convince you that really, the benefits of other people don’t outweigh the costs? That, from a utilitarian perspective, we should all go Full Walden?

Well to start, other people suck. A lot.

I feel like I’m repeating myself, so let’s skip forward. Even when other people don’t actively suck, they’re still really messy. Human relationships are constantly shifting arenas of politics, dominance hierarchies (insert obligatory ironic lobster metaphor), and game theory, and trying to stay on top of all of that can be exhausting. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you’re working on a project that will really help other people, then imagine how much more time and energy you’ll have for that project when you don’t have other people in your life anymore!

Now, maybe you’re willing to put up with that mess because you think that people, and human relationships, have some intrinsic value. Fine. But people are weird about that. In surveys, people Americans consistently rate family (which typically consists of the other people we’re closest to) as the most important source of meaning in their lives. And yet revealed preferences tell a different story. Americans are working more than ever. Every day they spend eight hours working, three hours on social media, and a measly 37 minutes with their family. Maybe we say they’re valuable, but the way we spend our time doesn’t back that up.

If other people really aren’t that valuable to us, as our revealed preferences would attest, and their suckiness costs us a non-trivial amount of energy and creates risk, then the default position should be that other people are threats. They’re unpredictable, might seriously hurt us, and probably won’t help us much if at all… sounds like the description of a rabid dog, not our ideal of a human being. Going Full Walden starts to seem like a good deal. In this world, we should assume until proven otherwise that interacting with another person will be a net negative. People are dangerous and not useful, and so avoiding them is just a practical way to optimize our time and our lives.

The counter-argument, of course, is that we’re not quite that advanced yet. Sure you can kinda make it work with Mechanical Turk and UberEats and all the rest, but as soon as you have to call a plumber or a doctor, you’re back to dealing with other people. You can get remarkably far with no human contact, but you still can’t get all the way, and if you try then you’ll be woefully underprepared when you do have to enter the real world again. Even Thoreau didn’t spend his two years at Walden completely alone.

And besides, even if it is temporarily optimal to go full Walden, it’s not clear what the psychological implications would be. For better or for worse we seem to have evolved to live in social communities, and total isolation seems to drive people crazy. Weird.

Anywho, this is kinda rambly, seems like a good place to stop.