Let's Make Things Boring

I talk a lot about interestingness in this newsletter. The idea of pursuing the direction of maximal interestingness was a key principle in the Season 1 essays. But it recently struck me that the opposed principle -- pursuing the direction of maximal boringness -- is an equally profound idea. There is no contradiction here. As Niels Bohr said, "the opposite of every great truth is also a great truth."

As you enter resolution-making season, for yourself, but especially for any organizations whose missions you might have a role in shaping, I'd like to offer up a candidate resolution for you in 2019: _Let's make things boring. _

The opposed principle is more familiar and seems more obviously like a good one: Let's make things interesting. We are more commonly in a rut-like situation with a need to shake things up. But the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. You can adopt both resolutions at once: make some things more interesting, and other things more boring.

Enough has been said about how to make things interesting, so let's talk about how to make things boring, where, why, and especially, when: why 2019 is a good year for this particular resolution.

The Box Factory, running gag/motif of "boringness" in The Simpsons (first appearance, Episode 93, 1993)

1/ I want to evangelize a 2019 resolution, especially for organizations: "let's make things boring".

2/ The guiding principle is the idea, "The opposite of every great truth is also a great truth" -- Niels Bohr.

3/ "You learn most in direction of maximal interestingness" is a great truth, and the driver of innovation. But "You learn most in direction of maximal boringness" is also a great truth, and the driver of sustainability at scale.

4/ The Axios newsletter today has this line about the latest bit of exhausting Trumpery out of Washington, DC: "The bottom line: Norms and precedents are boring. The lack of them is interesting, but almost always at a severe cost."

5/ Arguing for norms might seem a bit conservative, reactionary, and Chesterton Fencish, but it needn't be. Making things boring is (for instance) the basic challenge of scaling an innovative technology.

6/ Seth Godin once said something like "a technology becomes socially interesting when it becomes technologically boring." Making an interesting technology boring tends to make engineering reputations.

7/ If you're running a company with engineering and marketing challenges, you can't make the marketing interesting until you make the engineering boring. And you can't make the engineering interesting again till the marketing gets boring enough to drive a firehose of cash.

8/ On the more philosophical end, there's that line from A. N. Whitehead. "civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them." Making things boring is about locking in progress.

9/ We focus a lot on the abuse/discarding of norms these days, with the lament, "this is not normal." You make things interesting by flouting old norms. You make things boring by installing new norms.

10/ Cults and alt realities rise to prominence by being interesting, but establish themselves as "normal" for the long term by deliberately becoming boring. That's the "institutional" in institutional religion. As I tweeted once, "normalcy is merely the majority sect of magical thinking."

11/ If you stop at flouting/breaking old norms, you'll vanish like a flash flood leaving no trace behind. Old norms will just come creeping back. Chesterton's fence will rebuild itself.

12/ Why? People lack imagination. In the absence of a new norm, they'll revert to an old norm. That's a good thing. Old norms backstop half-assed experiments in novelty that fail or are abandoned.

13/ The other half of the equation, "normalizing" new things, can be the scary part when the things that people are seeking to normalize seem cruel, unjust, or awful in some way. You do not want "be cruel to children and animals" to be a new societal "norm."

14/ But we often conflate being in a numb/jaded/exhausted/burnt out state due to repeated trauma or transgression with "normalizing" things that shouldn't be normalized. Numbness is not "normalization."

15/ The joke "the beatings will continue until morale improves" gets at why mere repetition of a transgression of an old norm to exhaust the capacity to respond is (fortunately) not a way to install a new norm. You can't beat generativity and growth out of people.

16/ A real norm is self-enforcing without much coercive energy. If "beating" is needed, it's not a norm, it's a negatively incentivized behavior. A real norm gets installed in our superegos. The incentives are internal. The carrots and sticks are inside our heads.

17/ We feel guilt and/or shame at transgressing it even if nobody is watching, let alone beating us. If we are tempted into transgression, we have the decency to at least try and cover it up. That's a good thing, even though it can seem like condoning hypocrisy.

18/ The presence of hypocrisy around a norm in a society shows it still has power. That there are consequences to breaking it. Not just legal ones, or shaming by others, but internal consequences we inflict on ourselves, via guilt.

19/ The Trump era has numbed us to a lot of things, but it hasn't actually normalized any awful new behaviors that weren't already normalized. So far, "this is not normal" hasn't been a necessary chant, even though it has been a common one. That's the good news.

20/ There's been a few wannabe ugly-new-norm-normalizers in the Trump crowd (such as Stephen Miller) but they've had low impact at the norms level outside of regulatory hacks/de-institutionalization efforts. Good things they destroy can be rebuilt.

21/ Fortunately for our collective sanity, it still isn't "normal" to be cruel to children. Pussy-grabbing hasn't replaced hand-shaking as a way for men to greet women socially. Despite all the reactionary moral panic around the #metoo movement, men and women haven't actually stopped hooking up, dating, or getting married.

22/ To make things boring is to look for areas in need of norms, and working to install them. In 2019, we especially need "make it boring" efforts in the cultural sphere (though of course, by all means pursue it in other areas too). Every culture war dumpster fire is an opportunity for an imaginative effort to install a new norm.

23/ So as you look for opportunities to make things boring in 2019, look at where there are dumpster fires, charged emotions, flaming conflicts, etc. The immediate goal is to put out the fires. The long-term goal is to make things less flammable. A good norm makes it easier to be good than evil, for your value of "good" and "evil."

24/ Here is a brilliant example of a kindergarten teacher working imaginatively to install a better norm around consent and bodily autonomy in children. She simply has the children pick their preferred morning greeting out of 4 options (a hug, a high-five, a little dance, or a handshake) as they enter class. That's an A+.

25/ Contrast this with the unimaginative moral-panic mongering in this case of a mom pretending her adult son in the Navy is too scared to date because of fear of harassment accusations (the son later stridently disavowed his mother's claims). That's an F.

26/ There's an obvious playbook to installing good norms and making new behaviors normal, boring, and most importantly, not-shameful. The only tricky ingredient is imagination. Yes, like the kindergarten teacher above, you need imagination to make things boring, oddly enough.

27/ You can't do it to all behaviors. A pre-normalization reasonableness test applies. This is a good thing. We humans -- well most of us -- do have an innate sense of when a behavior we're being encouraged to adopt is cruel, unfair, or self-serving, and if not, are able to see it when pointed out. We're not morons.

28/ Despite all the pearl-clutching moral panic around #metoo for instance, nobody I know thinks the theatrical Mike Pence norm of never meeting with women 1 on 1 or in private is a good one. It's a sort of injured conservative martyrdom virtue signaling via a strawman norm.

29/ It fails the reasonableness test on multiple levels. It's unfair to women to be excluded from productive opportunities for 1:1 interaction or private conversations. It's toxic to embed the belief that all men are potential harassers into the environment. And worst of all: it doesn't actually solve the problem. Sexual harassers will find a way.

30/ It's idiotic to design a norm around worst-case expectations ("corner cases make bad law" applies to norm design as well). Not surprisingly, the reports of the norm being adopted are mostly emerging from sectors that already have an awful reputation for sexism, like finance.

31/ But assuming you have an idea for a norm that seems reasonable (good test: run it by a representative set of the people who would actually have to adopt it), there's a design-and-installation playbook of sorts, with 8 basic rules. Here they are:

8 Rules for Designing and Installing Norms

  1. Make it unskilled: it should be no extra mental effort to practice the norm

  2. Make it self-reinforcing: it should be habit forming

  3. Automate it: let machines do the difficult parts where possible

  4. Take heroism/villainy out of it: his is a crucial thing, nobody wants to be a hero or risk being called a villain every day.

  5. Make it visible and imitable: norms don't spread through lecturing, they spread through imitation. The visibility implies there should be no shame to it, which "bad" candidate norms will generally fail. Imitability means seeing it done should be enough to figure out how to do it, even if you're neurotypically disadvantaged when it comes to picking up on social cues.

  6. Make it microkarmic: 1 recycled can = 1 whuffie of feeling good about it even if nobody sees you do it. This simply means mild short-term positive reinforcement.

  7. Unbrand it: turn secret handshakes into ordinary ones. You don't get premium extra points for recycling soda cans when everybody does. Behaving a certain way shouldn't mark you as a member of a special club.

  8. Uncode it: the virtue signaling value of a good norm should be zero. Norms aren't and shouldn't be currencies. The behavior should not "signal" that you profess/practice an exceptional, saintly virtue. It should not become a way for saints to connect in mutual admiration.

32/ If you successfully do these 8 things, it will become part of background social infrastructure that is self-regulating, self-socializing etc. It will also drain the culture-war energy out of the behavior and any counter-behaviors. Suck the air out, starve the dumpster fire flames.

33/ Remember, ultimately, "making things boring" is about making it easier to be good than bad. That's all a norm really is. A way for civilization to advance by making it less effort to behave in more advanced ways. It's not an attempt to limit or constrain your behavior. It's a mechanism to enable more advanced behaviors.

Sidebar for New Readers

I think I'm overdue for one of my occasional re-introduce-myself sidebars for the benefit of new readers. Now is a good time, since we seem to have had one of our occasional mysterious sudden influxes of new subscribers. About 136 new readers added since last week, putting us over 5700 now. So those of you who decide to stick around... welcome aboard. Those of you who don't, I hereby break up with you first.

You can find the archives here, and the link is always at the bottom of every mailing. There have been over 90 issues so far, and I've forgotten what I wrote in half of them, so you may find I occasionally repeat or contradict myself.

As you may or may not know, this is a weekly newsletter associated with the Breaking Smart site, where I publish in-depth seasonal essay collections on technology and society. Season 1, published in 2015, was on software eating the world and is available in English, French, and German. Season 2 will hopefully be out this year.

This weekly newsletter features more off-the-cuff thoughts in tweetstorm, short essay, or notebook entry form. But it's primarily an excuse for me to practice my iPad+Pencil drawing skills, so make sure you set your email to 'display images'.

You can also find my writings on other topics (and lots of other writers) on the blog I founded and edit, ribbonfarm, and my shitposting on twitter at @vgr. Stalkery types can find out more about my shady past on my main biography site, venkateshrao.com.

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