A theory has only the alternative of being right or wrong. A model has a third possibility: it may be right, but irrelevant.Manfred Eigen, quoted in The Handbook of Organizational Economics, by Robert Gibbons and John Roberts (2012)
I bought a stereo. WOW, two speakers! Wild….so I’m listening to this thing, and then I heard the quad system, with the four speakers? And I said, “This is it, this is great.” So I got rid of the stereo, and got the quad. This was the sound I was looking for.
But I listened to it a couple days, and I said, “Hey, this sounds like shit.” So I went out and got the Dodecaphonic, with twelve speakers, and uh, this was more to my liking…for a while.
But the year gets pretty sophisticated pretty fast, so I got rid of that and got the Milliphonic, the thousand speakers. And I’m listening to it, and I say “Hey, this sounds like shit, too!” The other was shit one, this is shit two.
So finally I got the Googolphonic, the uh, highest number of speakers before infinity…”this sounds like shit.”
So I said “Hey, maybe it’s the needle!”
Steve Martin, from Comedy is Not Pretty! (1979)
Millions. Tens of millions. I don’t know, maybe hundreds of millions of people have watched the same five-second video on cable news, on social media or broken down frame-by-frame in print media these last few days. You know the video I’m talking about. And that stupid Jim Acosta microphone video is the best evidence so far for the thing we call the Widening Gyre.
Why? Y’all, this is a video. Not a third-hand story. Not words, subject to interpretation, intonation and context. Not a memory that gets sorted differently by different minds with different related experiences. Not some kind of analysis, subject to different paths of logic or basic priors. It is a digital imprint of a thing that really happened in a particular way.
And America can’t agree on what their own eyes are telling their brains took place.
Just take a moment to consider how incredible that is.
But even that is not the surprising part, at least not for anyone who has been following along in our discussion of memes, and the tangible influence they exert on the human brain. The shocking part is that, even when faced with the absurdity that a hundred million otherwise sensible people could watch a video and come away with conclusions that coincidentally fell directly in line with their political preferences, our reaction is not to step away and ask ourselves, “What on earth is happening to us? Is my brain broken?” Nope. Our reaction is to double down. Our reaction is to go buy more speakers.
What does going googolphonic look like?
It looks like three days of competing debates about how much force was exerted by Jim Acosta’s descending hand, and whether one party sped up a video to make it look more forceful, and whether another party slowed down the video to make it look more innocent. It looks like video editing experts weighing in on whether some form of lossy compression might be responsible for cutting out a couple frames. It looks like New York Times asking a different digital forensics expert…More speakers!
Hey, maybe it’s the needle.
There’s a problem with our models. There’s a problem with our models for engaging with others individually. There’s a problem with our models for engaging with political society more broadly. There’s a problem with our portfolio construction models and our models for thinking about new investments. The problem with all of them is that we spend all our time thinking, worrying and debating about whether our model is right or wrong, which is fair enough. But we usually forget that there’s a third option: they might be irrelevant.
That doesn’t mean that the things we’re discussing are themselves irrelevant. Some of them may be critically important. But the fact that an underlying issue is critically important doesn’t mean that a model which throws more speakers at it is the answer. Good investors are familiar with this problem. Extraordinary analysis of an investment may present conclusions that are unequivocally right and true. And yet, if those facts don’t end up mattering to the price of the investment, or if you can’t convince the client or portfolio manager to buy the thing, you haven’t done a damn thing.
It’s the same with anything else. Millions of Americans are preparing to do their duty for their tribe at the table this Thanksgiving. Oh, they know they won’t change anyone’s mind. They know it’ll just make everyone miserable. They know everyone will go home more convinced of their prior views than before. But we just can’t resist the Rage Engagement, and as long as everyone goes home knowing that we won (they won’t) and thinking that we were right (they didn’t), that’s…well, that’ll eventually lead to all of our society’s problems being solved. And we’ll have made ourselves feel pretty darn good in the process.
As the music around us gets worse and worse, we will be more and more tempted to add speakers to see if it gets better. If I can just do a bit more to prove that my side has more upstanding people and that the other side is more corrupt and evil, everyone will finally see and understand! Society’s problems will be solved!
In each of those engagements, we may have the right of it. The whole world isn’t relative, and it’s worth remembering that truth and reality are things. There are plenty of corrupt monsters, condescending jerks and bigots, all of whom you have full blessing to provide instructions on where they can stick it. But maybe, just maybe, when we come across an issue that looks plain as day, and 50% of the world sees it one way and 50% sees it another, as we’re lathering up for one more fight, we can take at least a moment to step back and consider: maybe there’s some abstraction clouding my perception of this that I need to be more aware of. Maybe there’s some abstraction or narrative impacting this other person’s perception that I need to be more empathetic to. Maybe I can worry less about feeling right and worry more about getting the outcome that I prefer.
Maybe what I need isn’t more speakers.
Maybe it’s the needle.