Stuck on the Social Plateau

I’m always amused when I see somebody whose relationship status is set to “It’s Complicated.” More often than not, “It’s Complicated” is a code phrase, a way of covering for a situation that’s actually quite simple. For instance: “I have two girlfriends, but I can’t say that out loud.” It’s not complicated, but it’s gratifying to cover yourself in that label. It makes something shallow sound deep.

We live in a time beset with many troubles: political, economic, racial, climatic. It’s tempting to come up with many complex theories about how these troubles came about, but ultimately, it’s not that complicated. Our most urgent and difficult problems stem from tribalism. People under stress draw back, aligning with their tribal ingroup and rejecting any threatening outgroups. This built-in human tendency makes it easy for demagogues to stir up righteous anger, blaming outgroups for every kind of trouble. Nationalism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious intolerance, they all emerge from this deeply human tribal impulse.

This leads to some interesting questions: where did this tribalism come from? How did it evolve in the first place? Why is it so hard to override or rewire? I found excellent answers to these questions in the book The Human Swarm by Mark Moffett. In it, Moffett tackles the problem of how the first human societies originally formed. By societies, he means the big coordinated populations that granted us unstoppable power as a species, that gave us the keys to the planet.

It may seem at first that the key to forming societies is cooperation. But many animals cooperate, and in any event, social structure depends on managing not only cooperation but also conflict within your ingroup. Instead, the key element is identity. Small social groups, like troops of chimpanzees, depend on identity in the sense of recognizing individual members. This is useful, but to scale up to the level of cities and societies, you need to be able to identify your ingroup comrades without actually knowing them. Humans’ big brains became exquisitely skilled at identifying an array of social markers like skin color, language and accent, customs and cultural norms. This is the crucial skill that lets you build economies and armies. I can trust you because you’re like me.

This came to me as a great revelation, because the tribal emphasis on identity that causes us so much trouble now is exactly the thing that made us dominant. The thing that made us strong is now chewing us up, like a kind of autoimmune disease. Tribalism isn’t a quirky side effect. It’s a tent-pole for our species. It will be a hard habit to break.

I think we are sitting at an evolutionary plateau, a social plateau that, thousands of years ago represented an extraordinary advance and break with the past. But now we’re stuck, in need of another extraordinary advance. Must we always require adversarial outgroups to create functioning societies? Or can we find a new, more tolerant social cornerstone to build on? Can we shift our emphasis from tribe to planet? As a planetary megasociety, we have reached the edge of the petri dish. We are now poisoning ourselves with literal pollution and with the ideological pollution of identity-obsessed tribalism. We haven’t changed much yet, which is cause for pessimism. On the other hand, the dangers we face are now so stark that we must change or perish. That’s how evolution works. The scare will do us good. I’ll call that optimism.

Euclidea: Winning Geometry

In the future, everything will be gamified. That’s the premise of my favorite dystopian video, Hyper-Reality. At times it may seem like we’re headed down that path, but in practice, a lot of life is pretty resistant to gamification. Life kind of sucks that way.


It’s not like it’s going to be possible to turn your math homework into a fun game. Or is it? I was intrigued this weekend to see that an app called Euclidea was a top puzzle game in Apple’s App Store. Euclidea is based on proving propositions in Euclidean geometry. The fact that they turned Euclid’s Elements into a highly rated iPad game reeled me in. I downloaded it. Sure enough, it’s pretty great. Can it deliver on the notion of being fun while helping you actually get better at geometry? I think it can.

For each level, you’re given a proposition to demonstrate (“Construct the tangent line through a point on a circle”). Your job is not only to provide the necessary demonstration, but to do it in optimal ways. This can be tricky. I was pleased with myself for solving one of the problems easily enough: inscribe a square inside a circle. But then they had the temerity to assert that my solution was bloated. In fact, you could find the solution with exactly seven elementary steps: either using a compass or a straightedge, but nothing else. Or so they said. I convinced myself that this was impossible.

Fortunately, I know how to play (cheat at) games in the modern age. YouTube will always tell you what you need to know, and after I beat my head against the problem for a while, I gave in. This video did the trick. Sometimes you cheat and you feel bad. I could have figured that out if I wasn’t so lazy. But sometimes you cheat and you realize that you’ve been schooled in something altogether new, something you were never going to discover on your own. This was one of those situations. I was impressed. Spoiler: Here’s what my screen looked like after I cheated.

Seven magic steps I never would have found without YouTube

This raises a question: if it’s so easy to cheat, if YouTube is always one click away, then who will bother to learn? This is exactly why gamification becomes so important. It gives you the story, the motivation to pay attention to the cheat video when it finally comes. On my own, I didn’t find the optimal solution to the inscribed square problem, but I watched carefully and was amazed when I finally saw it demonstrated. No other pedagogical approach would have glued me in place quite so thoroughly. I call this cheating your way to mastery. It’s a real thing, and it works. More than that, it’s a prominent feature of our age. Remember, the problem isn’t cheating. The problem is being sufficiently motivated to learn.

Incidentally, the idea of using modern graphics and UI to explore planar geometry has been around for a long time. One good example is the Geometer’s Sketchpad. Sadly, it was acquired by a textbook company, so it was promoted as an instructional tool rather than an explorational game. It never achieved the widespread audience it deserved. I hope Euclidea will go farther.