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The Long Tailed Rat of History

Finding the right mix of metaphors.

The practical problem of dealing with paradigm shifts is that holes change shape. We tend to have enough problems just getting round pegs into round holes but if half the holes become square we’re suddenly, unexpectedly, screwed. If you continue shoving round pegs into what are now square holes problems steadily increase. People also get excited and begin blaming the idiots who put all of these round pegs in square holes. This leads to arguments if the people involved are not aware that that holes are now changing shape. Accusations and threats result. After all everyone knows what a square hole looks like. But half our holes are now round! Your’re an idiot! Round is round and square is square. Holes don’t change shape!

Yes they do. This may sound familiar as it seems to be another way of looking at the political polarization of the post-industrial world. The political holes are changing shape and so are the pegs. Just to make this more complex there are more than simply square and round pegs to deal with. In fact the analogy extends rather nicely as we have many sided shapes that were simply ignored before although they didn’t really fit in square or round holes. And we have a significant group of people who are simply refusing to believe that holes can change and there are more than two kinds. It’s very easy to see this in the problem of diverse genders. The rather absurd insistence that people fit public toilet choice to specified binary standard does a good job of illustrating the problem. In fact this describes the world we are struggling to adapt to right now.

I have come to think of this as the long tailed rat of history. The statistical term describes a frequency distribution that has many instances far from the main body of the distribution. This goes back to work done by Mandelbrot in the 1950s and used in insurance and other areas. This became the marketing strategy of Amazon described in 2004 and subsequently connected to the Tipping Point. All of these widened the idea of frequency to include historical change. Could this be an opportunity rather than a problem?

In a period of relatively slow change the majority of people will cluster together will common assumptions and values. As we move into periods of rapid change, or paradigm shifts, the range of distribution lengthens with early adopters (to mix metaphors) on one end and a long tale of people stretching into the past. In the short tailed history people are still close enough that differences in language and general attitudes are understandable. The nature of the pegs and their respective holes are basically understood. Extensive change stretches this to the point that basic assumptions are no longer understandable and the fast changing, read urban and coastal for the US, become increasingly strange to those who are father back on the tail of the historical rat. When the tale is really long a higher percentage of people are far from the body of the rat. In online sales this allowed Amazon to sell more books that it didn’t sell yesterday than it did of the ones that were sold yesterday. In the historical context I would suggest that understanding the long tail is, itself, an example.

So, when I or anyone else refers to the disruption of paradigmatic change we are talking about the percentages of people along the tail of the rat that are far enough removed that they can’t relate to the people in the body of the rate let alone those at the head. Throughout most of our history on this planet the tail was short and people might be unsure of the people far from them but not that unsure. We have been growing our species tail (sorry, can’t help it) for the last two hundred years and the rate of growth is accelerating. I would suggest at some point in the last ten years the head has lost contact with the longest parts of the tail representing about 30% of the population.

Can this be fixed? In short, no. I think we need to learn to live with it but this has great social and political implications. But, but as I said at the beginning maybe this is an opportunity posing as a problem. We have people who are living in increasingly different worlds that are changing at different rates. But there is an overarching evolutionary rate of change. People move and adapt but most commonly young people grow up and adapt to the body of the rat or at least to farther up the tail. And old people, who tend to be less adaptive, die and fall off the end. But, I would suggest, that the steady movement (50% already) of people living in urban environments induces a faster rate of adaption and change. To mix all of this together we are becoming more diverse with more shapes and these are nurtured most effectively in urban environments but we will always (at least for the foreseeable future) have a long tailed distribution of people with fewer shapes who are threatened by choices steadily appearing.

How do we deal with this? It seems to be that we can look at this as an era of rapid evolutionary change. We have many new versions of people and communities that have different needs and preferences and don’t fit will with the old as these are too far apart on the tail. The traditional solution for this was for the new types to move away from the old. Maybe we should look at this intense polarization as social and intellectual differentiation of our species. Maybe it is unreasonable to expect the old unity to ever return. We need to split up so that we all have room to deal with this distance that has developed between the head and body of the rat and its long, long tail. Maybe that is a survival characteristic.

Next: How do we move away?



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