Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cultural Coordination Games

In game theory, a coordination game is one in which the players can achieve gains only by making consistent and coordinated decisions, and they have multiple stable "solutions" (Nash equilibria). That is to say, if everybody ends up doing the same thing, everyone wins, although there are multiple outcomes; all that matters is that everyone ends up doing the same thing.

The history of commercial electronics is rife with coordination games: in the early phases of a new technology, if there are competing standards, there is a race between manufacturers to win early market share. People bought a few more VHS recorders than Betamax, so the studios made a few more movies, so people bought a few more VHS cetera. Losing this coordination game was quite costly for Sony. Sony's Blu-Ray format won the DVD coordination game two decades later (last year), because competitor Toshiba learned from Sony's sunk-cost mistake and proactively withdrew HD DVD from the race. Video game programmers have explained to me that much the same strategy is at work with game consoles. A similar coordination game is probably coming in the near future with the cell phone protocol used in the Americas vs Europe, with many predicting that Europe's will win.

A coordination game the outcome of which is certainly affecting you as you read this is the one in the 1980s between Apple and IBM. IBM licensed its format to other companies, like HP and Compaq; Apple did not. I don't know the history of why IBM chose to do this and whether it was because they were so clever as to see the outcome - that so many more computers would be produced, and so much more software written, for their platform, that they would end up with >90% of the market. (Given the increasing popularity of mobile convergence devices we'll see if that's true in 20 years.) But it's also not hard to see how, in the early 1980s, it would have seemed a little scary to decide to outlicense your format and operating system. Mac fanatics, spare me your rant about how superior Macs are - granting for the sake of argument that this is true, and observing that PCs maintain their vast-majority share, it only reinforces how important coordination games are.

Not everything in commerce is subject to coordination games: it's hard to make an argument as to how this would affect soft drinks, for example. But the phenomenon is certainly not restricted to commerce, either. The classic example is language. From the seventeenth century through the mid-twentieth, French was the received language of diplomacy, but this has changed in the twentieth as a result of Anglo-American influence in the age of capitalism. If you're a native English-speaker, you probably welcome this development.

I welcome it not for ease of communication, but because of the spread of values. Have you ever read about a familiar historical episode in a different language than your own? It comes across differently than what you'd read before, doesn't it? Far from assuming that this is always the result of propaganda or conscious rhetoric, I think it's a simple result of writers filtering events through their own set of values - which can differ greatly between languages. Languages carry with them a freight of proverbs, literature, and most importantly values, and these are largely segregated within each mother tongue, at least in the near-term, even in the twenty-first century.

Viewed in this way, in the twentieth century our species entered into a crucial period - one where we began coordination games of both political systems as well as individual values. The two are tightly linked; the responsibilities of democracy cannot be set on top of a culture whose members are used to totalitarianism, as the United States is learning to its chagrin in Iraq. Democracies coordinate well with each other, but not with dictatorships (which often do not coordinate well with each other; hence why large wars with big alliances favor democracies.) No doubt economics, technology and politics will cause the connections between far-flung civilizations to wax and wane as the centuries pass, but the underlying connections between them - and the values that are increasingly diffusing to humans around the world will be here to stay.

At this point I'm tempted to start classifying - democracies on one hand, and theocracies, political dictatorships, and undeveloped countries with uneducated populations on the other. But this only blurs the point that there are a number of memes that threaten a positive outcome for democracy in this all-important coordination game, many of them very old and relying on well-known and -exploited short circuits in human cognition. It is up to us - and the next several generations in the democratic world - to assure that the open society is VHS and not Betmax.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

1980s Cultural Artifacts

Once (in about 2002) I looked at a gallery of annual beauty contest winners - I wish I could dig up this specific contest to link to it, but I think any long-running beauty contest would serve the same purpose. I was curious to watch the gradual shift toward old fashions, and they didn't start to look "off" or out-of-date to me until I got back to about 1991. This kind of pattern-recognition-through-unintentional time lapse has produced far less trivial observations. Charles Darwin supposedly was influenced by the long hallway of a manor-dwelling friend of his; along this hallway were pictures of his illustrious friend's ancestors back through the generations, each of them posing with their hunting dog. The dogs were supposedly of the same breed, but their appearance changed noticeably over time. (Note that by the preceding comparison I do not intend any unflattering comparisons, but rather just to generalize the principle.)

This is my excuse for having adding Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City to my Netflix queue out of curiosity. I graduated from high school in 1992 so the worlds these movies showed (if they really existed at all) would have passed before my time. In a way, I was more curious about the subtle differences between the world now and the world just before I reached adulthood. Of course there are the obvious fashion and technology differences (big hair and payphones), but I thought it was worth summarizing my reactions.

Even minor differences are somehow more jarring in a color movie with relatively recent model cars than they are in a black and white movie. Similarly, a friend once told me she hated reading Austen and the Brontes because she can somewhat identify with their protagonettes, whose self-restricting attitudes seem unnecessary and pointless, but the characters and the world they live in is familiar enough that she can't help but evaluate them as modern women. Reading about the wives of Roman senators isn't nearly as frustrating, because they seem too alien to be evaluated as peers. Critics can't stop talking about the smoking in Madmen. Try reading any novel that takes place in an office in the 1950s; all they do is smoke. Try reading business magazines from the late-80s or mid-90s (every article seems to reduce to one message: paranoia about Japan taking over the world).

The other subtle cultural differences that jumped out at me:

1) The role of women. When I watch movies from the 1940s, I'm not so shocked that women have three possible portrayals (secretaries, wives, or sluts), but in recent films I find it more jarring. Granted, perhaps these two films are not good reflections of what women were actually doing in the mid-1980s, but the women the main characters meet while they're socializing show no sign of pursuing any career aspiration other than modeling. Bright Lights, Big City at least has female coworkers. If it hasn't already been done, maybe there's a media studies project in tracking the career ambitions of supporting female characters over time, starting in 1980. As an aside, if you've ever hosted visitors from an Asian company at an official event, it jumps out at you immediately that there are no female officers or project leaders - they're still secretaries. I personally find this uncomfortable in the same way that I'm uncomfortable getting my shoes polished at an airport in the American South by a black shoeshiner.

2) The treatment of homosexuality. In Less Than Zero, Robert Downey Jr.'s character is turned into a gay prostitute in order to pay off drug debts. While today we would still say that forced sex work of any kind is immoral, there was a clear effort to equate homosexuality with a general decadence and nihilism that seemed strange, watching it in 2009. Bright Lights also has a scene where Michael J. Fox stumbles upon two women kissing who invite him in for the fun, and he reacts with confusion and distaste, rather than the strong interest that many straight American males would likely show today.

3) Coworker etiquette. In Bright Lights, Michael J. Fox's coworker hugs him when he's fired; he was obviously hesitant about it, and the hug is seen later to be connected to this coworker's romantic attraction to him. In 2009, this seemed very prudish and strandoffish.

I've often speculated that the 1980s, when I did most of my growing up (ages 5-15) were a conservative island between the 70s and 90s, because all the hippies and partiers now were old enough to have full-time jobs, but hadn't had kids yet. By the early 90s, that changed, and Reagan's morning in America was over.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dressing for Success: Signaling and Savings Rates

Small Company Culture

I like small biotech companies (less than 100 headcount) better than big ones. There are consistent differences in culture between the two types. One of them is that dress tends to be more informal at smaller companies.

Why would this be? Simple. Chances are that at the small company, everyone has some interaction with everyone else, and is able to form an opinion of competence and character based on repeated interactions. If one morning I come in with a nice suit on, no one would be impressed, because they know I'm the same slob as yesterday. On the other hand, at the bigger company employees are constantly encountering unfamiliar people, and are forced to draw conclusions based quick first impressions. The chance that your nice clothes will actually make a difference is consequently greater. The danger is that you've now moved to an evaluation based on cheaper signaling, but you have to work with the limited information you have.

Therefore, More Signalling In Big Cities

The analogy to small towns and big cities is obvious, although outside work, signals are typically intended to convey wealth and prestige rather than competence. In a large city, the vast majority of people you encounter every day are strangers, even the ones your interact with. In a small town many or most people know each other through extensive prior contact, so cheap signalling (through fashion, jewelry, or other displays of wealth) is useless. This may explain why people living in poor neighborhoods will buy expensive cars (that lots of people will see, and draw conclusions based on them), rather than saving money to move out of the poor neighborhood. Conversely, walk through a very high-end neighborhood. You won't see a lot of Lamborghinis or Aston-Martins. You will see newer model Volvos and BMWs: safe, reliable cars, because the owners care less than middle- or lower-class drivers (proportionate to their wealth) about trying to signal status.

Ethnic Admixture Makes Signaling More Difficult

The phenomenon of conspicuous consumption identified by Thorstein Veblen tends to take specific forms: sometimes it's how many horses you can bring into a marriage (post-contact Lakota), sometimes how much gold you can give away to guests (medieval Germans in the Nibelungenlied), sometimes how many canoes you can give to visiting diplomats (Pacific Northwest natives). Restricting conspicuous consumption to certain channels like this makes it easier for everyone to signal each other: you don't have to tally up a pile of diverse possessions to determine how rich the chief's new son-in-law is, you just have to count horses.

In the industrialized world, freedom of movement ensures two things: first, that people of different ethnic communities will reside in the same cities, and second, that people of different communities will eventually mix in business, socially, and romantically. Consequently signalling becomes a problem: more subtle carriers of information give way to more garish and explicit means of communicating status or intention. Anecdotally, Americans are more likely to wear clothing with writing on it than citizens of other countries (garish, explicit signalling instead of subtle cues from style and quality of dress). In addition, those pre-defined channels for conspicuous consumption signals are not the same for Anglo-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese or Iranians. If that particular combination makes you think of Los Angeles, that's because I had Los Angeles in mind when I wrote this post.

The study to do would be to establish a measurement for "bling", establish a statistical measurement for ethnic intermingling (intermarriage between first-generation ethnic community members?) and look for a correlation between the two across multiple cities. If a relationship can be shown, this can partly explain Americans' historically poor savings rates relative to ethnically homogenous countries in Europe and Asia. One suggestion to encourage saving and improve rates in the U.S. is to devise costly (i.e., inseparable and therefore reliable) signifiers of savings so that signalled wealth and prestige is pinned to individual savings rates.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Detroit: American Tikal

(Update: there have emerged a few journalists and photographers who consider these shots of Detroit not only "ruin porn" but also inaccurate. For this viewpoint go here.) For other ruin porn about the Midwest in general, try Troy Paiva's Lost America.

Pictures of Mayan cities are a combination of Tikal and Yaxha (taken by me).
Images of Detroit taken from Time photo essay and Viceland.
Originally I was going to do this with Detroit against pictures of Chernobyl as it looks today, but there wasn't enough of a contrast.