Happier with Less Stuff: Escaping the Indulgence Trap

The Indulgence Trap is about the efficacy of efficiency. Energy efficiency is good, right? Sure, but consider: which of these statements is true?

  • Energy efficiency decreases energy use.
  • Energy efficiency increase energy use.

Both statements are true!

If I give you a more fuel-efficient engine, then hooray! The money you saved on gasoline can now be spent on a bigger vehicle. Or maybe, since miles are now cheaper, you’ll spend more time commuting so you can live in a bigger house in the outer suburbs. You’ve been given “free” money with which to indulge yourself. The indulgence trap says that you can’t efficient your way out of waste. Every penny you save on efficiency, you then re-invest in more energy use. This is sometimes known as the Jevons paradox. Jevons was the economist who noticed that every time steam engines became more efficient, England needed more, not less, coal. Efficiency drove consumption.

But the Jevons paradox isn’t a true paradox. Sometimes the technology changes to such a degree that you are gratified, your needs are fully satisfied with something that requires less to make. That is, you are truly doing more with less. You don’t need to indulge your way out of your savings. When this happens, the world gets a little better.

I recently read a book called, not coincidentally, More With Less. It’s a hopeful book. In it, author Andrew McAfee catalogues situations in which people are satisfying the same needs with considerably less stuff. He calls this “dematerialization.”

The simplest example of this is your phone. This one device, small enough to fit in your pocket, now performs the work of a seemingly endless list of devices. Phone, pager, camera, scanner, fax machine, radio, personal stereo, alarm clock, audio recorder, video camera, GPS device, calculator, metronome, guitar tuner, synthesizer, seismograph, reference library, and on an on. You don’t need to buy any of those now.

Reading the book made me think about how happy I am when I replace something old and big with something new and small. I love ditching stuff.

I love the fact that my TV now is basically a poster that I tape to the wall. My computer monitor is similarly thin. The last CRT computer monitor I owned was a frighteningly heavy monster. I genuinely worried about getting a hernia every time I moved it. And I’m old enough to remember when people would brag about how big their stereos were. (“Dude, my speakers are THIS tall”). My whole stereo cabinet is gone. No turntable, no cassette deck, no CD player, no tuner. These days I have a few Sonos speakers, and the rest vanishes into software. As these old devices depart, they take with them special dedicated furniture: the television hutch, the stereo cabinet, the speaker stands. These things used to be focal points in the living room. Now they are simply gone.

Another form of simplification comes in the form of electrification. Of course you still need to generate the electricity, but you save by having lightweight electrons travel the last miles to the house. I don’t have to take my electric car to a special station where I fill it with gallons of heavy energy liquid. My heat pump doesn’t require regular deliveries from the fuel oil truck. And one of my personal favorites is the electric lawnmower. Man, I hated dealing with my old stinky, hard-to-start gas mower. And I never liked storing gasoline in my garage. Life is better.

Having read the book, I now try to look at things and regularly ask myself the question: can I get rid of this or replace it with something smaller? Can I indulge myself and still decrease my impact on the world? It’s encouraging how often the answer is yes. Matter isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Mathematical Insight in 4 Easy Steps: Huh, Wow, Duh, Wow

Sometimes I think about mathematics in terms of this sequence: Huh, Wow, Duh, Wow. You can stop at any point, but getting to that last wow is really worth the trip.

HUH
First you are oblivious. You are marinating in the Slough of Uncaring as Netflix flickers and the unseen stars wheel overhead. But then you notice an odd fact, or maybe someone brings it to your attention. Huh? you say. What’s going on here? There is something there that glows and sparkles. It draws you in.

Example: Take a number, say 7, and square it: 49. Take the numbers on either side of 7, 6 and 8, and multiply them together and you get 48. That’s one less than the square. Maybe you stop here and carry on with your life. So what. Big deal. But maybe you say: Neat! Are there more examples of this?

WOW
Does it work with other numbers? 10 squared is 100, and 9 times 11 is 99. Yes!

How about a huge number? Let’s see. 2558 squared is 6,543,364. 2557 times 2559 is 6,543,363. Sure enough! That’s actually kind of amazing!

This is the first wow, the little wow. If you get off the bus here, you’re still left with a sense of the magic of numbers, the tingling sensation of recognizing beauty. But of course there’s more. There’s always more.

DUH
The duh comes when you realize that this observation follows from polynomial multiplication.

(n+1)(n-1) = n2 – 1

Or maybe you realize that you can visualize these products as straightforward geometry. You can see the square that represents 49. Now take one square away and shift the top row to the side. The remaining rectangle is now clearly 6 times 8, or 48.

Well, duh. It’s not magic! I can see the rabbit at the bottom of the hat. It seemed interesting at first, but now I can see that it’s not the least bit interesting. In fact, it’s obvious. It’s inevitable! It would only be interesting if it weren’t true. I don’t know why I bothered to pick up a pencil.

WOW
The second wow is subtle and vast. Maybe you see how your observation ties neatly together with some other elements of number theory that you happen to know. Or you might prove something related. Sometimes it’s just the realization that there exist dozens of ways to see how obvious it is. The little wows keep piling up until they overwhelm the duhs. Ultimately, the big wow comes when you realize that you get to live in a world where things like this are possible, where in fact they happen all the time, so long as you keep your eyes open. When you see that the world is stitched together from glowing threads that are both inescapable and miraculous. Obvious and mysterious.

A clever person stuck at Duh can do real damage. They might find terrible pleasure in smiting people with the Duh stick every time they hear a little “Wow.” Armed with the Duh stick and the suffocating net of Well Actually, they can snuff out curiosity and drown delight. There is no school-level mathematical proof or observation that isn’t Duh-obvious to somebody. BUT there is no mathematical proof or observation that isn’t Wow-delightful when approached gently and mindfully. Some days I am amazed that multiplication commutes.

The n2 – 1 example I gave above actually happened to me when I was in high school. I have a vivid memory of surfing rapidly through all four stages of insight. I was lucky to have a good math teacher who could help me past the duh to see one corner of the shining sky.

Never cheat someone out of the wow they deserve. Most wows are little wows, flowers. But every now and then you can help someone navigate through a thicket of duhs to the big wow, a shower of fireworks in the night sky, or the glowing aurora borealis. That’s when your mouth hangs open in wonder. And you think: it’s been there all this time.

Carrier Landings in Context

When I was kid, I was obsessed with airplanes. I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, since I went on to major in aerospace engineering, but I remember a particular middle-school trip to Washington DC where the highlight for me was, of course, the National Air and Space Museum. Like all museums, you finish at the gift shop, and this gift shop was like a candy store. So many books on cool planes! Bréguet 14, P-38, SR-71, X-15. I bought myself a book about the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.

The F-14 had movable swing wings. Sexy, but heavy and complex.

For someone like me in the 1970s, this was the kind of book that you could only get at the National Air and Space Museum. In a pre-internet world, I was never going to find a book about the F-14 anyplace else. After all, my hometown library stocked only a few shelves on aviation. This book had all kinds of intoxicating details in it: specifications, performance numbers, production variants, squadrons where it was deployed, and lots of pictures. It was perfect catnip for eighth-grade me. I felt like I was learning how to fly an F-14. But really, I was memorizing a lot of zero-context factoids.

Poring over this was my kind of fun

For instance, I remember salivating over the cockpit diagrams. I learned the names of the instruments and where they were, but I couldn’t tell you much about what they did. So for instance, I knew the BDH Indicator was in the right instrument panel. But what does BDH stand for? I could guess, but I wasn’t sure.

The original inspiration for this post was a video, a video that reminded me of the gift of the web: bottomless context. These days, you can follow any thread and keep learning more and more. Of course, this means we’ve traded the hazard of too little context for the hazard of never-ending gopher holes. But on balance it’s a much better place to be. It takes no time at all to find a well-labeled F-14 cockpit with every instrument carefully explained. Here’s that BDH Indicator. I mean, that Bearing Distance Heading Indicator

But as much fun as it is to find endless pages of data, what I most value are videos created by experienced practitioners. Here’s the video that inspired this post. It was posted by one Navy pilot, and then commentary was added by another Navy pilot. It’s just a beautiful example of story and data contextualized by experience. Appropriately, it’s called “What Are They Doing?” That’s what I want to know, and this is the guy who can tell me.

I love hearing him talk about the disruptive “burble” that complicates the approach. He calls your attention to exactly what the pilot is doing with his hands, where he is looking, and what radio calls he’s making. He also gives some emotional context. We are informed that the last landing in the video would have been embarrassing for the pilot (“That is most likely a one-wire. It sucks. I’ve been there.”). These are things you’d never know without his help.

What would teen me have made of all this? I really don’t know. But I’m convinced that all this access to information and context (and community, which I didn’t even address here) is going to mean that the obsessed teens of the world are going to be building some incredible things in the coming years. Much more exciting than my crappy eighth-grade science project, I can tell you. I’m looking forward to it.

Nostalgia for the Future: Flintstone-Jetson Syndrome and the Digital Sundial

We yearn for the future. We pine for the past. Which is better?

The Flintstones and the Jetsons were the same show, just set in different eras. The family hijinks played out alongside a pet dinosaur or a robot maid, but the plot points were largely the same. Which one makes a better backdrop, the paleolithic past or the space car future? Maybe either one will do. All we know for sure is that the present is not so great. Let me escape to elsewhen. Call it the Flintstone-Jetson syndrome.

Lately, though, optimistic Jetson-style futurism has taken a beating, what with climate change, global pandemics, and the cancellation of Keeping Up With the Kardashians after only 20 seasons. What really gets us going these days is a package that contains elements of the future embedded in the past. Nostalgia for might-have-beens and should-have-beens. A cozy extrapolation down a few avenues rather than the cluster chaos madness that beckons us now.

The Flintstone-Jetson mashup shows up in entertainment genres like steampunk, but it also appears in consumer goods. We take something old, something sturdy and mechanical, like a spring-driven watch, and then we pump it full of high-tech low-tech. It’s still old-school mechanical, but now it’s a gorgeous jewel-bearing triple-axis gyrotourbillon wristwatch, available for small multiples of one hundred thousand dollars. It’s the future and the past in one sexy package. It feels like it came from… elsewhen.

My personal favorite example of the Flintstone-Jetson syndrome is also a timepiece. It’s a 3D-printed sundial. If it was just an ordinary sundial that happened to be 3D-printed, that wouldn’t be anything special. But this sundial is digital. What does that even mean? How can a sundial be digital?

To demonstrate the effect, I’m holding it up at different angles

Behold. As the sun changes position in the sky, the light pathways that make up the “pixels” for the time display are either opened or occluded. The effect only works down to about 20 minutes’ worth of temporal resolution. But who knows? Maybe we can fix that next year with a new triple-axis jewel-mounted turbo-gnomon.

If you want to learn more about this sundial, here is the project page on Thingiverse, and here is a video about it.

Special Times Aren’t Special

I once heard an interview with a woman who, as a young girl, was interned at a Japanese camp in the Philippines during World War II. Her father was sent to a POW camp, and she spent the entire war with her mother and brother in a camp for civilians.

Their situation, while nowhere near as bad as the camps for the men, was terrible. They endured hunger, illness, and shortages of every kind. There was some abuse by the guards, but she said that perhaps the most dispiriting thing she saw was interns cheating and fighting with other interns. Scarce resources, bad behavior.

And then came the most interesting part of the interview, the part that sticks with me even though I heard this many years ago. She said that she and her brother came through the ordeal with a strong and positive mental outlook, something she credited to her mother. The other children were constantly being told by their mothers that the world is broken. Things shouldn’t be like this. Someone will rescue us and the world will be set right. Until then, everything is broken. Her mother, on the other hand, said: This is how the world is. This is where we live. Sometimes people behave like this, and you need to understand it and deal with it.

The children (and their parents) who were waiting for the world to get fixed, they suffered, thinking they just had to hang on. Years passed without the hoped-for rescue, and they stewed in bitterness or despair. The ones who accepted the situation as it was fared better. Face the world as it is, and try to be decent. The world isn’t broken. That’s just how things are now. It’s the difference between clinging to the ceiling and standing on the ground.

This interview came back to me in 2020 as I, along with you and everyone else in the world, struggled to deal with the pandemic. You can tell yourself “Everything is upside-down and broken, but it will get fixed.” Maybe it will be fixed by god, or maybe by scientists. But I have long believed that the best way through an ordeal is to remember that internment camp. Accept the world as it is and try to be decent. Things might be get better. They might get worse. It’s hard to say. But we still need to make soup for dinner.

Steven Callahan gained fame as a sailor who, after his boat sank in the middle of the Atlantic, managed to survive for 76 days before being rescued. He made a similar observation about attitude and outlook. You can’t count on being rescued. You have to keep busy honing the craft of living from one day to the next with no end in site. This was the only way to manage the maddening frustration of seeing an unresponsive ship go by in the distance. You have to reach a point where rescue, if it comes, will simply interrupt a busy day of taking care of business.

As I mentioned, that interview about the internment camp stuck with me. But I was reminded recently of the notion of radical acceptance by this timely piece:
The crises won’t stop coming. Radical acceptance is the key to coping.

Stop acting like this is all so new! The world is old. You’re not so special. Get over it and make some soup.

Gerrymandering with AlphaPhoenix

You probably know that gerrymandering concerns drawing voting districts, as for state representatives, in such a way that one side gets an unfair advantage. How can you tell if it’s happening? Generally people like to point out the strange snakelike districts that are used to pack certain groups of voters together or break apart others. After all, it was a funny salamander-shaped congressional district that gave gerrymandering its name. So you might expect it to always result in spidery-lizardy districts. But look at these two maps of North Carolina.

Maps courtesy of Brian Haidet

This first one is an actual district map for North Carolina. It has some of those tell-tale salamander districts. By population, North Carolina is a red state, but not dramatically so. With 13 districts, you might expect a 7-6 split in favor of Republicans. But this map manages to squeeze out 10 red districts.

This second map was made by a physicist named Brian Haidet who took a great interest in gerrymandering. He wrote a program that can gerrymander successfully while avoiding the problem of snaky regions. This map “looks” fair, in the sense that the regions are reasonably shaped. And they all have roughly the same population. Yet he’s managed to give North Carolina Republicans 11 out of 13 representatives.

Here’s the video where he talks about the process: Algorithmic Redistricting: Elections made-to-order. It’s long, but it’s both entertaining and eye-opening. And it uses the prize-winning phrase “Markov Chain Monte Carlo Simulated Anneal.”

Here are my big takeaways from the video.

  • Cheating does not mean funny district lines. If you’re good at math and maps, you can totally cheat with nice, sane-looking districts.
  • Fairness is predicated on people’s voting preferences being stable and predictable. You must start with a baseline population and voting preference. This may be a safe assumption in these polarized times, but you still need to keep in mind that “fairness” is based on a distribution that needs to be resampled from time to time.
  • If preferences are indeed stable and predictable, then the outcome is completely known. It is purely an exercise in geometry, foreordained well before the election by an algorithm. This seems weird, but there’s no escaping it.
  • Even when you draw the districts so that they are fair, you still have a few degrees of freedom. Would you like the races to be close, or incumbent-favoring landslides?

Gerrymandering is a hot topic these days, partly because it lends itself to fun simulations that are now tractable on personal computers. So we now know what danger lurks in the redistricting process. There are plenty of good ways to limit cheating, but political interest means that whoever thinks they have the upper hand has no interest in trying to make the process fair.

In a sense, we’re lucky that the people trying to rig elections have been so ham-fisted about it. By making such obviously partisan maps, we are now at least alert to the danger. I think of this as the Photoshop Effect. Photos have been doctored since photography was first invented. But it took the widespread use of Photoshop for ordinary people to realize it. You never could trust photos, but now you KNOW you can’t trust photos. Voting districts have been doctored since Elbridge Gerry was the salamander-loving governor of Massachusetts. Thanks to the good work of people like Brian Haidet, more of us are starting to get wise to it.

Idea Gardening – from Perl to Obsidian

One of my favorite writing activities is idea gardening. I’ll think about something that might make a good blog post and make some notes. But more often than not, I’m not ready (read: I’m too lazy) to finish it. So it gets set aside, incomplete. But that leads me to another idea. I move that idea forward a little bit. But then I get distracted by Twitter.

“Idea gardening” is, of course, a charitable term. It might be less charitably called diffuse attention-deficit bullshit non-writing. I get to pretend like I’m writing, but really I’m moving distractedly from one topic to another without actually completing anything.

But years of desultory experience have taught me a few things. One is that I genuinely enjoy idea gardening, whether or not I finish anything. So, like playing the ukulele badly, I’m willing to call it a hobby and feel good about it. The other other lesson is that good tools can make a big difference. Good tools can help me cycle more quickly through my garden of ideas, pruning and weeding and watering, and occasionally harvesting. I love that moment when a topic becomes substantial enough, mature enough, that it almost seems to grow to completion on its own.

Tools and Tool Hounds

So, if tools matter, what tools should you use? I like watching what the cool kids, the tool hounds who review new tools, are playing with these days. But switching tools can be a dangerous time sink. It’s easy to convince yourself that these are the shoes that will (finally!) let you play like Michael Jordan. It’s easy to spend more time installing and polishing tools than using them. And it’s easy to mistake the honeymoon glow of mere novelty for a genuine productivity boost. After all, what Michael Jordan really does is pull on his shoes and play ball. It’s the rest of us who obsess about the shoes.

But still! Tools really can make all the difference. When it comes to idea gardening, these are the tasks that I’m asking the tool to help me with.

  • Catch ideas. Quickly create new documents
  • Survey ideas. Move quickly between documents.
  • Connect ideas. Find patterns in documents.
  • Polish ideas. Refactor and edit documents.

I could try to do all this in Microsoft Word. But what would be the fun in that?

My history of gardening tools

I’ve been at this for a long time, so some of these go back into the last century. This list is just from my personal history. Any comprehensive list would go on for pages.

  • Perl. When the web was young, I wrote tiny web-enabled perl scripts that would let me edit any text file by clicking on a link. Effectively, this was just a crude proto-wiki. Which may be why I instantly fell in love with wikis when they came along.
  • Trellix. This was a creation of Dan Bricklin, the same guy who wrote VisiCalc. It was a revelation to me that someone else valued this workflow and was willing to make a product out of it.
  • Wiki. Built to support collaboration among multiple authors, wikis also support the idea gardening of one person. I even installed a personal version of MediaWiki (the software behind the Wikipedia), but it proved too heavy for my needs.
  • Scrivener. This is a professional’s writer’s tool I learned about from journalist and tool hound James Fallows. It was fun to play with, but also more machinery than I need.
  • Simplenote. This was closer to my ideal of speed and simplicity. But maybe a little too simple. Moving between files and ideas was still a little clunky.
  • Evernote. I eventually took the big dive into Evernote. I’ve used it for a long time and I still like it a lot, but it’s on a path to excess functionality and bloat. Beyond that, I can’t think of any feature (that I care about) that Obsidian doesn’t do better and faster.
  • Notability. This is a beautiful iPad app, but it’s geared to the pen and tablet note-taking experience. It’s not so great for searching and assembling text.
  • Obsidian. For now, for me, this is the clear winner. Free, fast, text-based, extendable, it checks all the boxes.

I feel like I’ve been searching for the perfect idea-gardening tool for ages, and Obsidian is it. I’m sure it’s not the last word in idea gardening, but it’s passed a threshold that, for me, means it has fully arrived. I’m having so much fun with it. Will it actually cause me to write more? We’ll see.

Facts, Belonging, and the Emperor’s New Clothes

You know the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A king is duped into believing he’s dressed in the latest fashion, when in fact he’s wearing nothing at all. Everyone plays along until a little boy says: “That man is naked!” Truth is triumphant and mirth ensues, with the exception of the chagrined and trouser-less king.

What I find interesting about this story is the boy’s behavior. Is it heroic or anti-social? We spend our time as parents coaching kids NOT to say things like this. Here’s a related story: The Neighbor’s Big Nose. One day your neighbor (who, let’s be honest, really does have a big nose) walks by and your son says “That man has a big nose!” You quickly try to defuse the situation, but your son’s defense is strong. “I was telling the truth! His nose IS big!” Becoming a properly socialized adult is all about developing a fairly nuanced relationship with the truth.

What’s the difference between these stories? When is politeness more important than truth? To what extent is civic harmony destabilized by truth? When is belonging more important than facts? Of course, there IS a defensible difference between these stories, but the line that divides them is tricky enough to carve a jagged rift right through the middle of our society.

This is something that Max Fisher talks about in his New York Times article Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts. In short, humans (particularly fearful humans) don’t generally seek the truth. They seek social safety and comfort, and they will use twisted and motivated reasoning to achieve that comfort. The story of the boy and the emperor entertains us precisely because the scene it depicts is rare. That kid is lucky not to be in jail.

I recently read a book on the topic of truth-telling called The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef. She also has a nice TED talk on this topic. The big idea is that there are two kinds of people (there always are): those with soldier mindset and those with scout mindset. In a nutshell, a soldier is more interested in winning an argument than in finding the truth, whereas a scout, faced with a convincing argument, will update their opinion. We would all like to imagine ourselves as nimble scouts, but it’s shockingly easy for anger and pride to drive us into the rigid and defensive argumentation of a soldier.

It’s a good book. It provides lots of good anecdotes and workable strategies for behaving more like a scout. And her premise seems incontestable: you’ll be better served, and you’ll live a happier, more prosperous life, if you’re realistic and honest. But then you look around and you see how much guidance we get, explicit and otherwise, to the contrary. Fake it till you make it. Display confidence even when you know it is unwarranted. Be “loyal” to the colleague that you know to be abusive of his power.

Is self-deception ever good? Is it ever good to tell the small lie to defend the big truth? Of course, her answer to these questions is no, and I believe her. But we humans got social long before we got rational. It’s hard work being a scout.

UFOs in the News

UFOs are cool again! But first, let me tell you about a recent trip I took to the beach.

I was taking a picture of my friend when I realized to my horror that he was being attacked by a giant insect. It looked something like this.

“Look out!” I cried. I turned to shout for help, and was amazed to see the bug move almost instantaneously to threaten a nearby sailboat.

No matter which way I turned, that bug monster kept zipping around, attacking the things I looked at. Finally I took off my sunglasses to get a better look at the evil creature, and wouldn’t you know it? It vanished.

But enough about giant bugs. Let’s talk about UFOs.

This is a 1951 picture of a UFO taken by Guy B. Marquand, Jr. in Riverside, California.

And here is a recently declassified picture of a UFO taken by a Navy pilot in 2014.

A lot of time has passed since 1951. Cameras have improved dramatically. And yet somehow UFOs are always these tantalizing smudges. Why is that? Why, after all these years, are we still getting these crappy, grainy pictures of UFOs? Are the aliens so advanced that they can assess our cameras and then purposefully arrange to be just blurry enough to be mysterious? You’re always seeing something that ALMOST looks like solid convincing evidence, but it’s not quite good enough.

Two things affect what you see. One is the thing being viewed and the other is the device, the lens, doing the viewing. The resulting image can tell you a lot about one or both of these things. Smudges turn out to be an ideal projection surface for our notions of what a UFO should be. Being tantalized is fun, so we seek out tantalization. We project tantalization onto convenient surfaces. Blurry is better. To focus would be to disappoint.

The liminal space between the seen and the unseen is the medium we use to shape our ghosts, our dragons, our aliens, and our giant insectoid beach marauders. As a general guideline, when something stays perpetually just out of view, it’s likely telling you more about your lens than it is about the world.

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.