lördag 12 november 2011

Social media, modernity and superstition

This blog post has a tenuous connection to my work and is more in line with "general musings" about life, universe and everything.

Wednesday this week, at a seminar in my social media course, me and my students sat down around a large table and the young woman beside me said "I don't want to sit at the corner [of the table]". Two other nearby women chimed in and were in humorous agreement. Me, I didn't get it. Why would you not want to sit at the corner of a table?

I quickly found out that according to (local?) superstition, a young woman who sits at the corner of a table won't get married. The women who didn't want to to sit at the corner is Hungarian and the other two other female students were from Russia and Lithuania. I don't know if this saying is Eastern European or if "we" Swedes also believe(d) the same? Perhaps I'm not in the knowing because I've never been a young woman and anyway didn't spend a lot of time thinking about getting married or not?

The student in question said that she "of course doesn't believe in this", but that every time she sits down at the corner of a table, her family tells her not to. I jokingly made a snide-ish comment, wondering aloud if social media will ever eradicate superstition or not.

The day after the seminar, I went to the Royal library [Kungliga Biblioteket] and put my coat and my backpack in one of the lockers, simultaneously realizing that for some reason, I like to put my stuff in a specific locker, namely the one with the same number as the year I was born.

I could lie and justify this behavior by saying that it helps me not to forget the number of the locker, but really, the number of the locker is printed on the key, so it's not like I wouldn't find my stuff if I put it in another locker... For some reason it feels (a little) better putting my stuff in that specific locker than in any of the neighboring ones. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I feel a connection with that specific locker, and I don't mourn the fact that the locker is sometimes taken, but anyway, there it goes.

I do believe that no matter how "modern" or "rational" we are, it is difficult to eradicate our primitive belief, and our want or even need to create meaning from stuff which doesn't have any, or has very little. The positions of the stars become pictures and stories and so on... I would even go as far as to say that this is true even for the most rational of us rational modern people. We might look down on "primitive" or "superstitious" people who have unfounded beliefs, or who succumb to "magical thinking", but we do it too. Here are a few examples:

This past week saw the 11th [day] of the 11th [month] of 2011. At 11.11 - a magical moment if any - my whole department got spammed by a researcher who just couldn't refrain from commenting on the fact in the form of a mail. I myself told my students that this "magical" moment would occur during the break in our class. The date and our belief in the magic of numbers carried a specific significance and was a topic that made it into newspapers and radio.

Joseph Weizenbaum, in his 1976 book "Computer power and human reason" (which I also mentioned in a recent blog post) pours his scorn on hackers (or, in his parlance, "compulsive programmers"), comparing them to the most irrational of gamblers:

"the hacker is "without definite purpose": he cannot set before himself a clearly defined long-term goal and plan for achieving it [...] The closest parallel we can find to this sort of psychopathology is in the relentless, pleasureless drive for reassurance that characterizes the life of the compulsive gambler. [...] Touch a hunchback, carry a rabbit's foot, don't cross your legs, and have a blond young lady stand behind the chair. When that doesn't work, he calculates that that particular combination works only on Thursdays, and so on [...] The programmer is free to convert every new embarrassment into a special case to be handled by a specially constructed, ad hoc subprogram and to be thus incorporated into his over-all system."

I recall that the eminent researchers Kahneman (2002 Nobel laureate) and Tversky (died in 1996), who have looked at how "irrational" we all are when we make decisions, have said something like "for every problem that the layman fails at, there is a marginally more difficult version that experts fail at". I searched for the quote in the book where I thought I would find it, and then some more on the internet but failed to find it... Do you the original quote? If so, please write a comment and tell me the quote and the source (or a curse may befall you)!

2 kommentarer:

  1. I will take the risk of being cursed and instead provide you with an academic concept: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia

  2. Aha, "the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data". I guess conspiracy theorists have their fair share of that and then some more.

    On the other hand, what about MMO games where *everything* (the whole world) in fact does have a structure and is there just for your pleasure. Would that make notorious World of Warcraft players more likely to see meaning (in everyday life) where there isn't any...? Hmmm