The Theory of Intellectual Market Segmentation

Or something like that.  I actually haven’t gotten as far as naming it, but I have this little idea rattling around in my head the past few days.  It started with the recent post about the word ‘kawaii’.  There was so much that I thought of to say after hitting ‘publish’ that I felt didn’t really warrant an update, so it kept spinning around my mind’s drain but not really going anywhere.  Then I had an interesting conversation about sexual selection, the gist being that, while humans have evolved to be tool wielding creative thinkers, we’ve also evolved a mind that is to a large  extent designed to find mates.  Thus not every aspect of our workings, physical or otherwise, are strictly functional adaptations to nature.  Balladeering does not increase your reproductive success for any reason other than the fact that fertile members of the opposite sex are attracted sexually to either the ballad-writing-and-performing itself or the fame/money/recognition that accompanies it.  I analogized this concept in a song I wrote called Woo woo, which you can find in the sidebar, which, if you’ll indulge my incredible narcissism, goes

We couldn’t be more in love with our chains
in love with the illusions that are springing from our brains
like conceptual peacocks’ tails
like conceptual cotton-pickin’ pointless-ass peacocks’ tails

The inference to be made, obviously, being that the suffix ‘-ass’ and the word ‘cotton pickin” were basically examples of purely social verbal signals, things that don’t really exist outside our minds that we use to color our comments to affect the way people receive what we say, which likely serves no evolutionary function other than to make us more likely to be selected by a mate.  I will leave it to your imagination what kind of potential mate would be attracted by the word ‘cotton-pickin”

Anyway, the point is that, despite what we may like to think, we are not, strictly speaking, evolving to become more intelligent.  We are evolving traits that get passed on to the next generation.  Many of those traits, like the ability to come up with metaphors and vicious verbal barbs, are clearly related to intelligence, and there surely is a certain appeal to being intelligent.  Many people do say that they are attracted to intelligent people.  There may, however, be aspects of that intelligence that are attractive that are not more intelligent than other aspects.  Ferris Beuller is a brilliant, charming slacker.  Bill Gates is a brilliant socially retarded millionaire.  Just being intelligent is clearly not enough.

That said, what I am really thinking about today is a combination of the idea of reification and anecdotization.  Reification, incidentally, means ‘making a thing out of something’.  When you reify a concept, you turn it into something that is defined and much more discussable.  For example, the Koreans have reified the dilemma one faces when sitting around a table where a single cookie remains uneaten and everyone is eying it awkwardly.  They call this phenomenon ‘nundok’ (눈독) or ‘eye poison’, and having thus coined a term around it they are much more free and likely to discuss it than those whose language lacks a single word referring to the concept. I touched on this concept in two posts about reification, as well as in occasional posts about the popularization of the concept of Asperger’s Syndrome.  I wrote about a related concept in a recent post about participatory journalism, the idea of anecdotizing , in which people, usually in marketing or the media, seek to make a topic more accessible by creating a sticky piece of easily transmitted information, either in the form of a factoid (‘Every ounce of tuna that you eat contains the heavy metal consumed by 4,000 smaller fish) or anecdote (‘Morgan Spurlock ate chicken nuggets every day for a month and he needed to have a kidney transplant afterwards’).  It seems obvious that both of these ideas have been around for a long time.  Ben Franklin certainly did a lot for science by flying a  kite in a thunderstorm.  The thing that interests me is the sheer volume of this kind of activity that seems to be going on these days.  I think it can be partially blamed on the glut of social scientists that our world faces.  Each one of them would love to write a book with their sticky little concept’s name in the title.  Marketers are equally to blame.  I translated an interesting article from a Korean newspaper about a new product that promises to banish ‘senior odor’, which that company would obviously like to see become a phrase in common parlance, on the lips of every old person, each one desperate to rid themselves of the affliction.  It worked for ring-around-the-collar and dishpan-hands, after all.

What I think is probably less obvious is the fact that the market for such little trinkety bits of pseudo-knowledge is also exploding.  People nowadays are busy.  They don’t have time to actually know what they’re talking about.  That means they need a way to say what they want to say without actually learning any facts about that subject.  Factoids and anecdotes come in particularly handy for this kind of situation.

How is this different from the past?  People have always spoke in platitudes and repeated the same statistics ad nauseum without regard to whether they were correct or not, right?  Whatever gets the point across, right?

Yes, that is certainly true in terms of politics and most other popular endeavors.  The difference is that in the past people usually wielded these strategic pieces of glibness knowingly.  People knew when they were oversimplifying something for effect, if perhaps those that repeated their memes did not.  Nowadays, people seem unaware of the fact that a blot of information is not a trenchant analysis.  Spurlock seemed pleased with the result of his experiment, pleased enough, at least, to do the film festival circuit with it.  Economists go on the radio and declare their unstated major premise (all human action is rational) as the findings of their studies.  None of them seems to be the least bit wiser that what they’re doing is not adding to but subtracting from the sum total of knowledge in the world by lowering us into a world in which facts, as such, hardly exist at all.

Here’s a perfect example that some.  Not to pick on anybody in particular, because I see this as a society-wide problem, but in a recent post on the Marmot’s Hole describing an article about the sudden explosion of plans to build skyscrapers in Korea the writer disparaged the blustery nature of the bids to build the world’s tallest building by referring to the buildings as ‘architectural phalloi’.  This added exactly nothing to the post, except to remind its readers vaguely that there are some theories of psychology out there somewhere that some people (neither the writer nor, presumably, the reader included) have some knowledge about.  The insertion of the word phallic brought up the mere ghost of a specter of a concept, implying obliquely that the quest to build the world’s tallest building has something to do with sexuality or penis size issues.  I consider this a form of pseudo-thinking, a word, like ‘cotton-pickin”, that gives some kind of flavor and sets a tone but otherwise adds nothing of value to the piece.

The real shame is that this is a completely pervasive thing.  If you listen carefully, you will find that in common conversation with people from around the world, the prime mode of communication is factoids.  Have you ever had a conversation on which someone presented you with a statistic or a ‘scientists said that . . .’ which you knew they had heard that in another conversation and remembered  because it fit into their preconceived beliefs about how the world works?  It’s frustrating to discover that your conversation will follow one of three paths:

  1. You both agree that (pasteurized) milk is [good/bad] for you
  2. You disagree that (pasteurized) milk is [good/bad] and find yourself unable to communicate at all with the other person because neither of you believes the other’s half-remembered statistics
  3. You attempt to question why that person believes that (pasteurized) milk is [good/bad] only to discover that they themselves do not know why they hold their own beliefs, other than that they feel good

This is not anybody’s fault.  People these days live in an intellectual scrum in which whoever pushes the hardest and has the most parrotable soundbites wins.  It would be unrealistic to expect people to behave otherwise.  That is why I recommend that you use this fact about humankind to your advantage.  Try to craft your statements into little bite-sized chunklets of information, discrete packets of readily transmittable thought that it feels good to tell people.  Here are some things that people are guaranteed to repeat to others:

  • [Whatever you are eating right now] is bad for you
  • European people disparage [whatever you’re doing right now].
  • There’s a better/more classy/more exclusive way of doing [whatever you’re doing right now].
  • You know [people from a certain country] don’t really eat/like [product you are consuming that is purportedly from that country].

If you can form the information that you would like to transmit in this format you are guaranteed success.  In all seriousness, however, I do recommend that you give up on trying to appear to know something about everything and also that you learn to listen politely to the things that people say fully aware that most of it is either incomplete, misleading, or not wholly understood by them themselves

In summary, the world is full of people (mostly marketers and academics) who are trying to package what appears to be information but is in fact statements basically free of information content in order to succeed in their chosen profession.  This works because the world is also full of busy people who feel the need to appear to know about and have informed opinions about more things than it is actually feasible for them to know and have informed opinions about.  These people feel the need to do so because they are driven by evolution not to be intelligent but to seem intelligent.  Since an increasing percentage of the population is trying to sell their intelligence as opposed to, say, their athletic prowess or manic sense of humor, this means that this demand for information-y statements is booming at exactly the time when the supply is also soaring.  Your two options for dealing with this situation are to either to exploit this weakness in human intelligence in order to make yourself appear smarter or get your point across or to accept this as a simple and unpleasant fact of life and try to make peace with it in your own way, all the while keeping an eye out for this unfortunate tendency in your fellow human beings and not holding it against them.  Should you choose the latter and wind up feeling the need to vent about it, I recommend starting a blog.


~ by Joe on April 18, 2008.

2 Responses to “The Theory of Intellectual Market Segmentation”

  1. Pundits. My God, you are talking about pundits. Why is it that I should listen to the same guy for an opinion on immigration policy and health care policy? There’s no possible way you can be an expert on the 5 most important political issues of the day. For the most part, like you said, people just take facts or anecdotes and mold them (spin them) to fit their personal ideology.

    I am interested in a lot of things and I like to talk about them on my blog. I try to do a little research before I write. When I want to talk about something that I’m not well versed in though (maybe that’s everything) I back it up with a link to an expert. I’ve said this before, in today’s world, with the wealth/glut of information at our finger tips, knowing where to look for proof/facts/information is more important than having it memorized.

  2. When Tyler Cowen or somebody linked to your article about the people on the train reading “Who Moved My Cheese” and Nietzsche, I read your article about karaoke and bookmarked you to see if you’d be as interesting again later. Well, what you’ve got on the front page, from evolution to salaryman to sympathetic whores, you’ve earned yourself a permanent bookmark. Good stuff!

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