Why we love unimportant things

Consider all the things humans have ever invented. On average, the ones that have been adopted by the most people should be the most useful ones. This seems to be roughly what has happened.

Now consider the ones we get really excited about, and identify with, and celebrate. These are the ones that are not widely adopted. Chairs have been adopted by everyone, because they are great. Nobody ever mentions this. You might think they are just taken for granted because they are old. But consider skis. Skis have been around forever. But they are more controversial than chairs: they have never caught on with some people. Now notice that people who do like skis actually rave about them, and think about them, and consider themselves skiing enthusiasts.

Here are some more unpopular and raved about innovations: drying fruit in the sun, dancing, the iphone, the gin and tonic, the internet, Christianity, watercolour painting, eating a larger meal at lunch time than in the evening, sexual promiscuity, tea

Here are popular uncelebrated innovations: the escalator, the hat, the mobile phone (this was on the other list back when they were rare), the phillips head screwdriver, the computer, queues, tv, bread, floors

Here are the closest things I can think of to counterexamples: the internet (really fits in the first category, but many people who love it must rarely contact with those who don’t and vice versa. Then again people who rave about it often mean to support quite extreme and unorthodox use of it), anti-racism (virtually everyone seems to think they like it, but the ones who rave about it do at least seem to think that others do not), people rave about anything they consciously want at that moment (e.g. they have been standing for ages and they find a chair, or someone brings them a big cake) though they still don’t tend to speak up that item in general or identify with it, sex.

So it seems that we largely celebrate the things that are least important to our actual wellbeing. It even looks to me like the less consensus there is on the value of something, the more impassioned are its fans. At the extreme, when people make up their very own theory or cheesecake or whatever they can often become quite obsessed.

I take all this as a sign that we basically celebrate stuff to draw attention to our identities, not because it’s important.

7 responses to “Why we love unimportant things

  1. This is a very interesting post, but I think there’s one omission. I think that what’s going on here isn’t that we rave about things that are inconsequential, but rather about things that controversial. We don’t form strong “pro-floor” opinions, because no one in their right mind forms strong “anti-floor” opinions. Likewise with chairs (at least outside of tech offices where yoga balls and standing desks are making inroads).

    I think this is borne out by looking at things like politics and personal medical decisions. People form strong pro- and anti-vaccine opinions not because vaccines are unimportant to us, but rather because they’re a contentious issue. People rave about their positions because they know that some other people vehemently disagree with them.

    Still, your view is an interesting one and I’d be curious to hear more about it.

    • I think we agree then – I was just saying that the consequence is that we are obsessed with inconsequential things.

      • I think the consequence is something with just the opposite connotations: we are obsessed with things for which the expected outcome of our obsession is most consequential for ourselves and others.

        What happens if I’m a particularly persuasive and accurate pro-skiing enthusiast? My friends are convinced to join me skiing, I have more fun, they have much more fun, and everybody’s life gets better!

        What about if I’m a particularly persuasive and accurate pro-chair enthusiast? My friends, all of whom already had chairs, now make appreciative noises about their chairs. Hooray?

        It doesn’t matter that chairs are obviously a bigger improvement in human well-being than skis are; my efforts and enthusiasms are best focused on the margin where they can lead to additional improvements.

        (note: examples above are hypothetical; ironically I don’t ski)

  2. The last statement about drawing attention to our identities seems spot on. Liking chairs doesn’t say very much about you, relative to other people, but liking board games does.

  3. Your examples stink. *Tea* is an unpopular innovation? Seriously? Look up how many people drink it, or just crack open Wikipedia to ‘Opium Wars’.

  4. Pingback: What celebration is | Meteuphoric

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