Thursday, April 20, 2017

Narrower, Deeper, More Experienced - Giga speculation on a byte of evidence

An interesting observation from Arnold Kling in Narrower, Deeper, Older.
My central claim here is that the nature of engagement has changed over the past fifty years, in these three ways:
1. Narrower. There are fewer people casually engaged.

2. Deeper. Those who are engaged are more committed and have deeper knowledge.

3. Older. For any interest that has been around for a long time, the demographics of those interested now skews older.
For example, consider the game of bridge. A social bridge game is four friends getting together in someone’s house to play. A bridge tournament is many strangers competing against one another in a large room. In high school and college, I played a lot of social bridge. In college, I also played some tournament bridge. I then stopped playing for decades.

Fifty years ago, I believe that there were more social bridge players than tournament players. Today, it is closer to the reverse.

When I tried to get back into tournament bridge a few years ago, I found that the “barrier to entry” had gotten much higher. Players expect you to know a plethora of new tactics, which in bridge are known as “conventions.”

The other point to notice was that the median age of players at the tournament seemed to be about 70. Not many young people are willing to get past the barrier to entry.
I want to mull on that but it is an intriguing observation and instinctively feels right.

Some random considerations in response to Kling's hypothesis.
When I was young, it seems to me that children had many passing recreational hobbies. Stamp collecting, baseball card collecting, various local/neighborhood/communal sports such as pick-up basketball or baseball, star-gazing, etc. You got a lot of shallow knowledge about many things but usually delved deeply into one or two domains. Seeing my kids grow up there seems much less of this highly individualized, localized, informal activity. Schools in particular, but with parental support as well, seem to be driving kids to concentrate in a few narrow areas where they can stand-out. This is great for college applications but ruinous for general knowledge.

If you change the terminology just a bit to Narrower, Deeper, More Experienced this maps to Productivity Through Specialization. Is our pursuit of excellence and productivity shaping our behaviors in such a fashion that we forego amateurism for excellence and by so doing self-select ourselves into narrower, deeper, more experienced?

Does the feeling of increasing societal fragmentation and isolation perhaps arise from the fact that narrower, deeper, more experienced effectively, as Kling observes, creates barriers to entry? Is the range of things you can't participate in increasing because of increasing professionalism even of hobbies?

Is the apparent growing divide between the entitled cognitive elite and everyone else perhaps in some small part attributable to the fact that high barriers to entry are more detrimental to those of lower capabilities than those more gifted? If you have higher social, cultural, cognitive capability, perhaps the increasing exclusion of people is not visible. Even with the higher barriers to entry, you are able to indulge in as many activities as you have time for without realizing that others, less able, don't have the choice to participate because they can't pass the higher barrier?

If we are indeed passing from an environment of enthusiastic amateurs to dedicated experts, does this have a detrimental effect on the antifragility of society (Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb)? If there are higher barriers to entry which reduce the number of participants (in any given field and participants across many fields), one outcome is that the quality of performance likely goes up and perhaps the cost comes down (specialization). At the same time, if the higher barriers are restricting participation to a smaller and smaller segment of the population, then likely you have fewer points of commonality among the general populace (shared experiences being beneficial to interaction and mutual respect) and the populace as a whole becomes less capable. As an example, has there been a decline in the number of people sufficiently experienced in swimming to perform a basic rescue because, perhaps, fewer people are spending time doing casual swimming? Casual carpentry, casual electrical work, casual observational science, etc. - all of them create basic competencies that are collectively beneficial if many people have them, even if those competencies aren't elite.
The disappearance of broad but shallow capabilities might make society much more fragile.
That's a lot of speculation off of an anecdotal observation but I suspect Kling is on to something. I am up for a return to causal amateurism and even the old Lyceum Movement.

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