Culture, interpretive labor, and tidying one's room

by Benquo2 min read26th Jul 2018No comments

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Past and Future SelvesSocial & Cultural DynamicsInterpretive Labor
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While tidying my room, I felt the onset of the usual cognitive fatigue. But this time, I didn't just want to bounce off the task - I was curious. When I inspected the fatigue, to see what it was made of, it felt similar to when I'm trying to thread a rhetorical needle - for instance, between striking too neutral a tone for anyone to understand the relevance of what I'm saying, and too bold of a tone for my arguments to be taken literally. In short, I was shouldering a heavy burden of interpretive labor.

Why would tidying my room involve interpretive labor? 

It turns out, every item in my room is a sort of crystallized intention, generally past-me. (We've all heard the stories of researchers with messy rooms who somehow knew where everything was, and lost track of everything when someone else committed the violent act of reorganizing the room, thus deindexing it from its owner's mind.) As I decided what to do with an item, I wanted to make sure I didn't lose that information. So, I tried to Aumann with my past self - the true way, the way that filters back into deep models, so that I could pass my past self's ideological turing test. And that's cognitively expensive.

It's generally too aggressive to tidy someone's room without their permission, unless they're in physical danger because of it. But to be unwilling to tidy my own room without getting very clear explicit permission from my past self for every action - or at least checking in - is pathologically nonaggressive.

Once I realized this, it became easier to tidy my room, but the problem is not limited to that. Part of the reason why my cabin retreat was so helpful to me was that it limited my ability to accept social invitations or other bids for my attention. In those cases as well, I don't feel compelled to agree, but I do feel compelled to do enough interpretive labor to understand why this other person thinks I should do a thing.

I know of a few approaches to this problem, none of which seem fully adequate.

One approach is to blithely bulldoze the accumulated intentions of their environment. When people do this with respect to their own prior intentions, they end up too impulsive and disorganized to deal with the complexity of the modern world, and often severely indebted to extractive schemes like credit cards. When they do this with respect to others' intentions, they're inconsiderate and socially oblivious.

Others favor designing general policies for themselves, and then sticking to those policies, perhaps periodically updating them when they see a strong reason to. The downside of this approach is that it's slow to change, and prone to paralysis whenever something comes up that's outside existing policies. The advantage is that on-the-fly interpretive labor is replaced with batch processing, potentially capturing economies of scale and allowing much more efficient coordination with oneself and others over longer timescales.

A third approach is to accept some preexisting traditional way of life that's passed the test of time. This approach means that you have policies covering things you haven't encountered yet, vastly reducing the incidence of analysis paralysis. In addition, you know that a bunch of other people are following the same protocol, lateral coordination is much easier. Policies will also have been tested for working well in conjunction, and not just individually. A downside is that you're limited to the existing menu of options, all of which may be knowably quite suboptimal, and which are quite slow to change. This also doesn't help when you encounter genuinely novel-to-your-culture situations, or problems on scales larger than the one your culture's been tested over.

These three solution classes - impulsivity, policy-generation, and tradition-adherence, are all ones I'm actively exploring. The middle one fits my character the best. But overall this feels like a substantially unsolved problem. One thing I've been exploring in posts like Sabbath hard and go home, and Why I am not a Quaker, is looking at existing traditions for policies I might want to try out, to better explore the space, and so I don't have to wait for a crisis like the need to tidy my room to work out a better policy.

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