[This is the answer to June's riddle]
“This … stuff?”
“Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you [...] But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue. It’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean.
And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves saint Laurent – wasn’t it – who showed cerulean military jackets [...]. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores, and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner… where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin.”
- Scene from The Devil Wears Prada
Whether sprung from a physical sensation, or from an emotional state, there is no denying that a feeling of pain is painful. But our lives may very well depend on these necessary evils, as the only way to avoid getting hurt is to know what it feels like to get hurt in the first place. Thus we learn, the hard way, to avoid pain-inducing situations so that we may less often feel pain.
Being able to steer away from situations or behaviours that will cause us physical, emotional, financial, psychological, academic or career aches, and put our own very survival at risk, is thus a basic human instinct. In fact, one of the simplest and most basic pain avoidance strategies, the pain-reflex, is an automatic and unconscious behaviour that doesn’t involve any brain or mental activity at all.
Thus, through trial and error, we learn to discard those behaviours that hurt us, and replicate those that do not and which prove successful to our lives.
And this basic act of ‘ditching the bad and reproducing the good’, is perhaps one of the most important ones governing individuals, societies, organisms (biological or societal) the human genus and the whole of life on earth: the ones who can best and most appropriately apply the ‘discard and replicate’ method, prevail.
One need not get too technical in order to see this in action. In fact, one needs not leave our own living-rooms or even be literate. Most reality shows are perfect examples of our quasi built-in need to practice our selective powers over others, almost regardless of the consequences this may have over foreign lives, careers, personal achievement and financial situations. The platforms and set-ups may vary but the premisse is the same: you vote off the participants who perform the worst (according to your own judgement – whatever criteria you may wish to use). Whether it be in the world famous Big Brother, or on smaller scale online reality shows such as Fourth Fiction, the approach is the same. In order to avoid elimination in these environments, contestants will adopt tactics and adapt behaviours so that they will be allowed to continue onwards and win. In the end, the ‘survivor’ will have been successful (and also perhaps lucky) in his strategizing (i.e., in his replicating of those behaviours that worked and discarding those that didn’t) and will be given prizes – the biggest one of which is a short-lived fame.
But unlike reality shows, many other aspects of our lives where competition for survival is at play, do not in fact require such an explicit and conscious process of selection, or even conscious attempts at ‘avoiding elimination’, from the general population.
In the fashion world, the runways may introduce new styles, but whether or not these are adopted by the general public is very much the product of an organic chemistry involving chance, peculiar senses of taste, economic conditions, media reactions, and general public acceptance. In the end, styles deemed ‘in’ (according to whatever criterion) get replicated the most, trickling down the echelons of the fashion industry, onto the sale rack, and to the give-away bin. Thus the mini-skirt, the leg-warmer and the mullet managed to get picked-up and replicated by the general population, until they became must-haves for closets and heads around the world. It seems that our own views of what is deemed ‘hot’ and what is ‘not’ becomes itself dictated not by taste and/or practicality alone, but by availability, price tag and what everyone around us is wearing. In sum, through a democratic consensus by the general public about what is ‘trendy’.
This is not to say that ‘out’ styles die off – we all still see perms and scrunchies on our way to work – they just get replicated less by the mainstream population and produced less by the chains that sell us our clothing because they work within a free market system dictated by supply-and-demand – an economic system which is itself also governed by a ‘discard and replicate‘ formula (or if you prefer, ‘buy and sell’). But because populations’ tastes are not universally shared or even stable, the presence of groups which do not adhere to mainstream fashion trends, such goths, punks and other socially and uniformly identified crowds, will always persist (and perhaps someday they will be picked up and replicated by the larger population and thus become mainstream fashion trends in turn).
The general media and economically driven mainstream trends arising from seemingly conspiratorial waves trying to put us into little boxes and make us wear what ‘they’ want us to wear, is in fact much more likely to have arisen organically from the general population’s judgement and finger-pointing of what is deemed ‘cool’ at that particular point in time.
Graphic depicting Google’s PageRank algorithm system
And it is precisely due to this (unconsciously) democratic processes dictating the rise and fall of fashion trends, that search engines such as Google can work. PageRank is the link analysis algorithm used by Google to measure a webpage’s relative importance, and it “relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B”. In other words, the more ‘votes’ a page gets, the more ‘important’ it becomes and the more it gets bumped up on the webpage food chain. It is because Google has so accurately captured the aesthetic preferences as well as the content preferences of its customers, that I am still 6th in line behind 5 websites pertaining to a supermodel bearing the same name as me.
On a much smaller but real-time scale, Twitter is another a democratic arena in which topics of interest are picked up and spread naturally throughout the network’s lattice. Twitter can therefore be useful in tracking trending topics by calculating the number of times a certain word, group of words or hashtaged words are mentioned by its users. Many times, but not always, these reflect happenings in the news or of mainstream culture and can provide insights on to what the (twitter) population is most interested in, by looking at the topics users choose to pick up, tweet and re-tweet. Tools such as Twitter, can be said to be some of the most socialist and therefore subversive tools available to anyone that can access them. Information has the potential to be picked-up first-hand and passed from the bottom up, instead of the other way around, thus offering us an escape from the narrow information filters of publishers and media corporations.
“on the Internet, however, it’s not one single subjectivity but a popular hive-mind that decides. The “big break” arrives when, with lightning speed and often to one’s own surprise, the inscrutable pack decides to start forwarding one’s content around.” – Bill Wasik, Bright Lights, Big Internet.
But I would argue that these democratic tendencies are biological in nature, and that they characterize the decision making processes of groups of organisms sharing a particular environment. It’s not enough that a new product or behaviour is invented and publicized, it has to become ‘popular’ for it to be successful, and popularity of a product or behaviour depends on its adoption by a general public who will fixate it due to a recognized value or utility (which can be completely subjective or random – case in point: shoulder pads), which in turn will allow it to become replicated due to a preference for it. Whether they be information, fashion accessories or behaviours, these social units (some will call them memes) will continue to be perpetuated until they fall from the general population’s good graces, at which point they get discarded. Some units may enjoy long lasting popularity, such as mascara, while others may be shorter lived, such as parachute pants.
In the same fashion, modern day first-world societies also get to choose for themselves what works for the population and what doesn’t. Laws, bills, rules, and even moral codes get created, tested, and then approved or discarded according to the population’s will. Different groups will generate different consensuses about what works and what doesn’t, which is why some have the death penalty and some don’t, why some condone rape within marriage while others punish it, why some legalize abortion and marijuana while others consider it a crime, and why some have healthcare systems that cover the whole population and some that extend only to those who can afford it. Perhaps some of these behavioural units will follow MC Hammer’s pants in the near future by being deemed ‘uncool’ by the larger population and discarded in favour of something trendier.
If instead of fabric, MC Hammer’s pants were made of long sequences of purines and pyrimidines weaved together in a helicoidal structure of microscopic proportions, they would have disappeared from the gene pool and left no descendants. In the same way that fashion accessories and behavioural habits get replicated and discarded according to each societies’ own tastes, needs, and environments (sheepskin hats would be an improbable trend in equatorial Africa) so do genes get replicated and discarded in human population groups, according to the environments in which they must survive and differing human tastes.
In this way, both types of unit alike (behavioural and genetic) make their way in and out of our lives in a purposeless, directionless way – because much like fashion they have no other reason or rhyme than the one inflicted upon them by the ‘show’s’ participants and the context in which they are placed. The selection process behind these trends thus occurs in an organic way, through a natural process in which we are pawns and players all at once and which most of us are, like in the Devil Wears Prada, so blithely unaware of. The process of Natural Selection.
In June’s Riddle, ‘Colour me Blind‘ I had asked you to specify what the best colour was, after having you look at 3 pictures depicting 10 multi-coloured circles superimposed on different backgrounds. The purpose was to reflect on the idea and process of selection and the concept of ‘fittest’ as expressed in ‘Survival of the Fittest’ – a sentence coined by Herbert Spencer in 1864 as a synonym for Darwin’s ‘Natural Selection’ and often misattributed to Darwin himself.
The concept of ‘best’, a superlative of good, relies entirely on our own understanding and interpretation of what ‘good’ means – even its meaning is almost universally understood. In this sense, my question was pointless and anyone that was able to provide a valid reason for decreeing one specific colour ‘the best’, is in fact right. But it is precisely because the idea of ‘good’ and ‘best’ are relative concepts that they make for drawing such good analogies with the concept of Natural Selection. This process does not obey orders of an absolute nature, but will rather take on different shapes according to the environments in which organisms are found – it is contextual and relative. What may be good in one environment may be bad, maladaptive or fatal in another environment altogether. The concept of best may also vary according to the particular element of the environment one organism happens to explore. ‘Best’ in the riddle’s context may mean ‘conspicuousness’ or it may mean ‘invisibility’ according to how we wish the interpret it. In this case, against the black background, black may be deemed the best colour because the black circle disappears against its background. On the other hand, green may be deemed the best because it is the colour that is most noticeable against the same background. You may wish to draw parallels between these ideas and the concept of predator avoidance, and mate attraction. Another interpretation would have been to determine how well a colour does in terms of ‘conspicuousness’ or ‘invisibility’ in all 3 backgrounds combined.
In the end, the goal was to reflect upon the use (or rather, the misuse) of the word ‘Fittest’ and the expression ‘Survival of the Fittest’ as a measure of absolute overall gene quality and superiority; an idea which has so often been used to distort the realities of Evolution and of Natural Selection, and which has in indirect ways legitimized political and military movements of disastrous proportions.