Monday, 23 May 2016

Polarisation: or When You Get Better, Others Get Worse

For thousands of years, the distribution of just about any human quality, from height to charm through spear-throwing prowess, was distributed on a Bell-curve. Since about the 1970’s, technology and social change has created a phenomenon called “polarisation”.

Whenever a new piece of kit, knowledge, skill or social practice appears, standard consumer behaviour theory says that some people will jump right on it, others will wait a while, others will wait a longer while, and the rest will be hold-outs who don’t adopt or do so with very little engagement. This is the “early adopter / late adopter” model.

Polarisation isn’t anything to do with that, but might be confused with it.

Some bits of kit, knowledge, skill or social practice are only consumer goods and fashions. A few have the capability to change the quality of someone’s performance at a specific activity (think of the Wilson metal-head tennis racquet)

 (If you were an okay player, this made you even better)

or even the quality of their health and life

(It is not the only exercise you need to do, but you should be able to do it)

Consider the difference in productivity between a programmer using a modern IDE with some hold-out insisting that Notepad and a good memory is all the development environment anyone needs; or consider the difference between you and the people at work who still haven’t go the message about weight-training and eating right.

When a change like that comes along, some people jump on it to take advantage of the improved performance or productivity it gives them: they want to do whatever it is better, they are prepared to put in the work to learn the new tech and acquire the habits needed to use it. Most other people look at the cost, either financial or of learning, time and work, and decide that they don’t care about whatever it is enough. So they don’t bother.

It’s what happens next that is the kicker: the people who want to improve, improve a lot, and the people who decide they don’t really care that much actually put less effort in and get worse. If, for the sake of an illustration, everyone starts off distributed along a Bell curve (the blue curve below), they wind up along a very different curve (the red one). Depending on the driving change it can happen in a year (high tech) or a decade (social change requiring new habits).

Polarisation is what happens when some people decide to exploit a technological or social change to improve at doing something, and others decide not to, or actually to ease off on doing whatever it is. If it’s a new bidding convention at Bridge, that’s not a problem: but someone who backs down from what little exercise they are doing because they can’t keep up with me or you, is deciding to give up. Polarisation isn’t about genetic or native advantages. Those follow the Bell Curve. Not only do you have to be born looking like Mica Arganaraz, you have to work at staying like that as well: there are a million ways to ruin that look and only a few to keep it.

(Any excuse for a picture of Mica.)

It’s not enough to buy the gear (hence “all the gear and no idea”), it’s about acquiring new habits and knowledge. Polarisation is about self-discipline, a desire for improvement and/or excellence, combined of course with vanity and a mild obsessive-complusive thing. That’s what makes polarisation brutal: it’s often about moral character.

Notice that the red curve has a lot more people at the right-hand side of the distribution than the Bell curve does: after polarisation there are actually more smart (hot, fit, healthy, well-travelled, whatever) people than before, but everyone else slips to the left. That’s why companies are staffed mostly by novices and advanced beginners, who know enough to do the business-as-usual parts of their job, but not enough to innovate or troubleshoot. They and the company get bailed out by the people in that bump on the right. And they get dragged down by the people in that bump on the left: because there are also more really dumb (lazy, fat, stupid, whatever) people than there used to be as well.

Under polarisation, the smart get smarter and everyone else gets dumber; the fit get fitter and everyone else winds up on statins; the hot get hotter and everyone else puts on a bitch face and wears vanity sizes ; the cultured watch Eva Yerbabuana and everyone else watches Strictly Come Dancing; the travel bugs go to Malaysia one year and Uruguay the next while the rest barely leave the house except to go to work (that’s me); the healthy eat steak and broccoli while everyone else eats Mac and Cheese. And so it goes on. (This is not the same as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. That’s been happening since the start of time and has to do with the fact that wealth is a zero-sum game: for you to get rich, you have to take wealth from me. But I don’t get fit at your expense, since you can use the weights after I do. Those sorts of things aren’t zero-sum games.) The others are not worse off because of some conspiracy by the better-off, but because they have chosen to bother less. Some people are content to accept out loud that they have made this trade-off, but others don’t want to accept responsibility, and invent any number of conspiracy theories ("The Patriarchy”, “Colonial Oppression”) to explain why it is someone else’s fault.

It so happens that in the last few decades we have seen changes in the nature of work, entertainment, learning, food and exercise, that have produced a lot of polarisation. Hot women are hotter than they ever used to be, but the rest are barely even attractive. People who exercise are, by the standards of the 1960’s, absurdly fit and healthy, but the rest are physical basket-cases. The Internet has made it possible to wallow in junk culture, or to read books that even in the 1980’s could not be found outside an academic library or Foyles: but most people watch dumbed-down TV documentaries, if they even do that. Smart people have laptops and software that let them express and expand those smarts way beyond anything they could have done in the 1960’s. People with good taste have an incredibly wide range of culture in which to apply that taste, while people with no taste have endless opportunities to demonstrate their cultural klutz.

Although there are more smart people, they tend to congregate in the industries where their smarts are appreciated and rewarded: so they actively avoid the public sector, whereas in the mid-20th century, public service attracted smart people. There are more hot girls, and the contrast between them and regular women gets harsher, with the obvious effect on men’s enthusiasm for all things provisioning and commitment. There are more men who are in shape, and therefore less willing to settle for regular girls who can’t be bothered even with Pilates. The only people who notice the ill effects of polarisation are the people on the right-hand side of the curve: regular people don’t notice a thing, and the ones on the left-hand bump have a feeling that somehow they are utterly superfluous to the functioning of, well, anything, and that nobody would miss them if they vanished overnight. (That’s where third-wave feminism comes from: it’s a screeching demand that the world change to make them relevant so they don’t have to do any work themselves.)

Regular people will carry on leading mainstream lives: but they will be less healthy, less fit, less smart, less cultured, less everything, than before. They won’t notice that because they have no point of comparison except the unattainable standards of the people who put the work in. (This is one reason why governments publish health and dietary advice that is worthless at best and actually harmful at worst. They are trying to say something that will be useful to people who didn’t put the work in and are not going to start now.)

That has repercussions for the health service, the quality of your local government, the quality of the teaching your children get, the quality of customer service you get, and a ton of other stuff. Supported by good systems, even novices and advanced beginners can deliver a reasonable service. The problems start when the organisations need to change those systems to adapt to changing legislation, customer needs and suppliers. They have no internal problem-solving expertise to draw on, and some organisations don’t even have people good enough to spot bad advice from expensive consultants. Take one look at the NHS to see where that goes.

Polarisation matters, and as long as you stay on the right side of it, you're okay. You don't have to be good at everything, but you do have to resist the temptation to slide from acceptable, and so be a little better at a lot of things than most. It's not that hard.

You'll just have to stop flicking through Facebook and read a proper book instead.

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