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Saturday, March 20, 2010

How to be a high-status blogger (like Robin Hanson)

P1010334-Tit'Fanee 03.02.08...Bizous à vous...!!! by julicath/Cath (pas vraiment présente) from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

Welcome my to highly inflammatory and highly meta post, which I wrote to show-off my high status as a blogger, obviously. I could have made this post more structured and logical, but it would suggest I actually care about my readers, and caring is low status, right? Or is it? (making this sound deeper will definitely make the subject more high status).

So what's Robin Hanson's theory of status? The basics are simple - people have different hierarchical "status" in society, which is based on organization of paleolithic tribes of hunter-gatherers, and before that of primate bands. These monkeys/cavemen/or such would always try to figure out what's whose status in the tribe so they could engage in tribal politics effectively, but people are not cats so they don't come with captions (making silly jokes is high status, I think), so they had to rely on subtle cues - minor differences in behavior between high-status and low-status monkeys. If you acted like a high-status monkey, everyone would assume you're a high-status monkey and treat you accordingly.

Funnily enough, there are even some experiment showing such effects in monkeys. (I could find you a Wikipedia link, but I already told you what caring would signal) The difference is that with monkeys it's pretty easy to figure out what high-status or low-status behavior would be - and quite easy for researchers to fake it - so it's nice testable theory.

But that's not what Hansonian status is about. Meta time! People incorrectly assume that bloggers write because they believe what they're writing to be true! By showing a few examples of popular and yet false blogs <GLaDOS>insert link to a study showing this here</GLaDOS>, we can convincingly demonstrate that bloggers don't write things that are true, but to signal their high status. It doesn't really follow? Well, it doesn't matter - it works well enough for showing off you're smart and high-status, and that's the only thing which counts in life!

That's basically the methodology. And it's not just Robin Hanson, I've seen far too many people on Less Wrong doing the same - without any doubt they're just trying to associate with high status originator this way.

And what are these high and low status signals? Now it gets even more interesting:
  • Anything for which you can make a just-so story that it might have been a high/low status signal in some imaginary primate/Neolithic community, can be treated as high/low status signal without any further evidence
  • Anything which some of people you think are high/low status today seem to be doing, can be treated as high/low status signal, or not, depending on how you feel about it, and regardless of there existing even a correlation.
  • Anything that seems high status might be treated as low status, because obviously only low status person would try so hard
  • Anything that seems low status might be treated as high status, because obviously only high status person could signal that they don't care what others think like that
That is - virtually any behavior can be described as high or low status, depending on how you're feeling on a particular day. Mocking others' theories like that is obviously high status, as some high status people like... let's say Jon Stewart do so. And I don't have to care if other high status people like let's say The Pope don't - or if it might be as common or more among the low status people - such concerns are no part of the Hansonian methodology.

This all has zero predictive power, and no falsifiability whatsoever.

And it doesn't have to be that way. Status theory has a revival after being long forgotten, but it started in late 19th century with Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class. Now I wouldn't advice reading that book - it's the most painful kind of 19th century literature - unfortunately I know of no better more modern versions. (see what I did here? I'm showing off that I've very knowledgeable and can do impressive things like reading difficult books - so high status!)

Veblen's theory - while based on about as much nonsense just-so stories explaining how status came about - was much simpler than Hanson's, and had far more predictive power. Signals according to it are:
  • Spending money on shit you don't need that everyone can see (conspicuous consumption) - high status
  • Wasting time on useless activities in a way that everyone can see (conspicuous leisure) - high status
  • Doing real hard work - low status, and the more real and harder it is, the lower the status (Veblen didn't believe any of business / management really counts as useful work, and I can definitely see his point)
That's about it.

This can actually predict something, right? Look what kind of signals different ways to spend a day would show:
  • Flipping burgers at MacDonalds - really low status, you pollute yourself with menial work
  • Playing Excel accountancy games at the office - still low status, at least you avoid menial work pollution
  • Playing video games - you waste time but mostly privately, so it counts for little; doesn't show you have money to waste - so still pretty low status
  • Going for holidays in some popular destination - shows you have some time to waste, and some money to waste - higher status
  • Going for really expensive holidays like on the Lower Earth Orbit - definitely high status, but could use some more conspicuous leisure
  • Holidays excavating Mayan ruins - not only shows you have loads of money, it also shows you had ridiculous amounts of time to waste to learn something as useless as Mayan archeology - very high status
That's Veblenian logic. Of course there's no research proving any of that, but who cares. At least it predicts something. Hansonian theory could make a just-so story that burger flipping is high status as it shows you control access to food, which must have been very high status in Paleolithic tribal society - just imagine that - someone who could provide the entire tribe with BigMacs would be the instant alpha male of the tribe (not that such wolf terminology has any applicability to human societies, but anyways)! Or alternatively burger flipping might have Hansonian high status by showing that you so totally don't give a shit what others think about you, you're going to flip some burgers, oh yeah! Unfortunately predictive power and falsifiability don't correspond with high status in either of theories (but feel free to make some just-so stories showing that they do).

Now if you think about it - writing such post shows off that I have plenty of time to publicly waste. Which is appropriately meta.


Robin Hanson said...

If you had more experience in the practice of matching theory and data in other areas of social, I would take more seriously your complaint that there is no match in this area.

Alan said...

Thanks, I think you summed up a lot of the reasons why I grew tired of reading OB. It seems like the same formula over and over: 1.) pick an article or study that supports your position 2.) provide a couple quotes 3.) conclude with an opinion with little explanation.