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Intellectual obesity

Reposted from blue collar space:

A useful method for analyzing complex systems is to find pressures and follow what things flow naturally through the system under that pressure. I tried to do this with RPGs once with limited success — I still think it’s viable, but it needs more brain-juice than I am currently willing to apply to it. For one thing, it’s not clear there’s a pay-off in yet another RPG analysis method. That’s already example one: there is insufficient reward pressure to move my motivation through the effort clog to complete that analysis. There are more pipes and valves than that, but that’s the cheap analysis, considering apparently dominant elements.

The more pipes and valves in the system, the less likely it is that you can simplify in ways you want to. So, that’s fair warning for the rest of this very casually written article.

One pressure system we deal with all the time is the one that determines what we eat. In our society there is an almost infinite choice of food. We can buy incredibly high quality ingredients and work all day to prepare them at one end of the spectrum. We can also drive past a window and grab 8 cheeseburgers for 10 bucks. Zoom! We can also do practically everything in between including, I suppose, stop eating altogether.

The pressures that are interesting to me here are time and money. These are dominant pressures for most people today, I think, though certainly not the only ones. But when you consider a single parent working too hard for too little money, it is easy to see how huge volumes of very conveniently obtained cheap food are a path of least resistance through a pressurized system. In order to divert this path you need to fabricate pressures: invent an ethical pressure to feed your children very well or a vanity pressure to reduce your weight. And while these pressures do exist, for a lot of people their natural levels are well below the time and money pressures and so they need to fabricate an elevation in them.

I don’t mean fabricate in any negative sense. I suspect (and try to act as though) most ethical pressures we feel are to some extent invented by us. And that’s a good thing. That’s a use of intellectual power that we should all approve of highly. Abstract benefits like “freedom” and “truth” and “honesty” can all do with a little elevation in pressure, and inventing it is no crime. The natural level of pressure is, after all, that experienced by cows. Everything over that level is intellectual, and intellectual pressure is invention. We are inventors and it is ourselves we invent. Non-stop.

So that’s how you get fat. Well, it’s one way, anyway. The lowest pressure path through the pressurized system absent any or adequate counter-pressures you invent is to eat lots of cheap easy food. Bang zoom fat. And that time pressure is also keeping you from exercising (and cash pressure if you have invented a need for a gym) unless you choose work that involves exercise. There’s another pressure that keeps us from doing that, though we can also blame robots.

Part of why this happens is our hard-on for choice. With an incredibly broad spectrum to choose from, the possibility that some of those will be both detrimental and low-pressure paths increases. Worse, low-pressure paths with low cost to deploy will be profit bonanzas, and consequently when that niche is discovered, it will become highly populated. The result may or may not be nutritious, but as that is generally a low pressure on the consumer, it will not be a priority for the provider. If it can go it will. Fast food nutrition is an accident unless it is serving an elevated nutrition pressure. Or another pressure (say, legislative).

This all happens because no matter how much we enjoy being thinking, creating, loving humans, the system by which we move goods and services is a mere beast with very simple pressures and a very low motive to invent others. Most humans will not invite you into their home and deliberately serve you the fastest cheapest food they can get their hands on.

But all that is by way of example because there is another place with similar pressures that I think is more destructive in the long run. Entertainment.

First, though, I’ll suggest that there is no such thing as entertainment. Whether we’re enjoying it or not (and think really hard about enjoyment, because I think it’s a remarkable elastic concept), all the time we are conscious we are gathering and processing information, and this intellectual exercise is occasionally applied to “entertainment”, which is distinguished by not much more than colour. We are information processing machines with the leisure to gather in a remarkable range of inputs and do whatever we wish with them as raw material. The cynical might say that the primary output is recitation by the water cooler.

You have a lot of pressures on you with respect to entertainment. Time is sort of one, but effort might be more appropriate. We generally avoid effort unless there is a pay off and the pay off of entertainment is largely perceived to be immediate, so it’s not worth a ton of effort. You don’t invest in it, generally.

You have a lot of choice in entertainment (especially if I define it as any information input and processing that you enjoy, whatever “enjoy” means). This suggests, then, that there are sources of entertainment that are busy optimizing to maximize your enjoyment while minimizing your effort. Counter-pressures include legality, embarrassment, and cost, of course.

When people don’t have a lot of choice in entertainment but have no time pressure, I suspect they consume whatever they have because my feeling is that information processing is not just what we do, it’s something we have to keep doing. A craving or an urge or an addiction — whatever, it’s more powerful than sex by far. If you are locked in a cell with a ball and two books, eventually you will likely read those books no matter what they contain. You may even read them over and over and over. Given no choice, you will process whatever information you have.

Given infinite choice and no fabricated pressures, you will consume the least effort, most enjoyable information. And part of reduction of effort is reducing the effort to process it as well as effort to acquire it. And this is how you get fat. Choice creates a profit motive to find the most useless information for you to enjoy processing.

The only way to avoid this is to lock yourself in a cell with a really good book you have always wished you’d read.

Actually, there are better ways: fabricated pressures. And this is where the current fetish for anti-intellectually makes me extremely angry. Because yes, a taste for Russian literature is a fabricated thing. It is not as easy or as “enjoyable” as Family Guy until you fabricate that pressure. The same goes for a taste for expensive whiskey — it is easier and more “enjoyable” to drink spiked lemonade. You have to invent a pressure that makes it worth your while to spend more energy processing that information than you could otherwise spend.

And part of the backlash against intellectualism is the suspicion that it’s fabricated. That we invent a need for many kinds of difficult thinking and tasting. And the reflex in the intellectual community is to insist that it is a natural need when it patently is not.

We need, therefore, to embrace this fabrication. Our morality is a fabrication but we can agree that it is a good thing to believe murder is not okay. Fabricating pressures lets us work harder at what we need to do well: process information. And working harder makes us stronger.

We want to be strong, right? Intellectually? No one prides themselves in being stupid.1 And so I offer that the fabrication of a pressure to choose more difficult entertainment is as worth your while as fabricating a pressure to eat well or to exercise more. You do have to invent it, though.

Fortunately, you are uniquely equipped to do so.


  1. Actually I can think of several counter-examples to this but none flattering.

via Intellectual obesity.


One comment for “Intellectual obesity”

  1. While your language is a little post-modern for someone like me, I agree with your basic premise. The artificial pressures which we create in our lives are what motivate us to rise above mediocrity. There is so much to do in life that requires us to rise above our present circumstances, and there are so many things to think about which cannot be conceived by a weak, or “simple,” mind.

    Thanks for giving me something interesting to think about, and presenting a new paradigm for me to process.

    Posted by Justin | June 25, 2011, 8:39 pm

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