Beating the Odds
A while back, I read a fascinating piece of non-fiction – Howard Bloom’s The Global Brain. Actually pretty much anything of Bloom’s is worth reading, although it can be slow going at times. The man has a way of drawing from multiple fields of science to produce interesting hypotheses, some of which ring awfully true.
The one that hit me most was in Global Brain, talking about how what he describes as “collective learning machines” (otherwise known as functional, growing anythings) need five elements to function: conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resource shifters, and intergroup tournaments.
He also theorized that they operate at all levels, from the microbiotic all the way up the scale to cultures and societies.
The basic idea is that the judges decree the worth of whatever is brought “in”, whether it’s food or ideas. Resource shifters allocate rewards to the bringers of high-value input. Intergroup tournaments are the way all the respective parts of the whole compete with each other. Conformity enforcers are the ones who keep everything/everyone in line, and diversity generators give conformity enforcers the finger (virtual or literal) and do their own thing. Bloom’s diversity generators are Odds, in other words.
In essence, Bloom believes that all societies balance the four basic functions while participating in the tournaments and each person performs mostly one of the functions at any given time. Conformity enforcers are the most common, because without any conformity, you don’t actually have a society. You have a lot of people who happen to be in the same approximate area. It’s the – usually unspoken – norms that make the collection of people a society. Judges are more or less equivalent to the “cool kids” or leaders when that’s the primary function. As a secondary function they’re more the self-censorship we all do to get along without driving our fellow humans to homicide. Resource shifters are kind of similar but instead of the “good boy/bad boy” psychological reward system, they hand out the physical rewards. In bee colonies, they decide which bees get rewarded for the nectar they bring in. On Amazon, they’re anyone who rates or buys a book (where the judges are more the reviewers, to strain the analogy even further).
More to the point, when things are good (or perceived to be good), there’s more tolerance for the Odds. If you aren’t counting every precious mouthful towards surviving the winter, you’re going to be much more inclined to let Odd-Ogg try his weird new ideas about hunting because it doesn’t matter quite so much if they don’t work and Odd-Ogg really doesn’t care as much as Conformist-Ugh about getting the best women and the best caves.
And in the writing world right now (for the last decade and change, at least) things are on the less good side of the ledger, which means the conformity enforcers are much more inclined to beat on the Odds than they would be if things were good. It’s the same elsewhere, of course, and can be recognized by the crab bucket behavior of the self-styled leaders of opinion insisting that any variation from their preferred viewpoint must be evil – so of course they run around beating the Odds and anyone who might, with a bit of a squint and a sideways leer, maybe be a little bit Odd.
It’s a foolish thing to do, but a very human thing. What tends to happen is that sooner or later an Odd will find something that makes enough of a difference and suddenly gain a whole lot of approval – leading to that Odd’s way of doing things becoming the new conformity to enforce. Things go well for a while under the new normal, then when they get stagnant the whole cycle repeats itself. The only way to break out from it is to value the Odds instead of beating them, and hope that when they find something useful they’ll use it with you instead of against you… because the Odds who rise to real power tend to be even worse than anyone else.
Which, since the writing industry is a society composed almost entirely of the Odds of regular society, explains way more than it should about writers and publishers.