Arbitrary Value Assignment

Today I would like to write about arbitrary value assignment and how it relates to adoption or rejection of technology and culture.

When I say technology I am not merely talking about iPads, apps and laptops; but all objects which have been developed in conjunction with application of knowledge of scientific principles. In other words, a broader definition.

First, lets talk about physical books. Printed, bound and inky books. These were developed through application of science and technology. Compared to an eReader they look downright shabby – possessing no batteries, LCD screen or even speakers. They are technology, however, and thus can be compared directly to an eReader in the same paradigm.

It is important to note that the word “book” simultaneously (and I would argue equally) describes both a physical bound and printed written work and the contents thereof. A good example is the books of the Bible. We are well aware that they are separate, individual works despite being bound together, and so we retain the designation, rather than lumping them all together. The medium is not the message. If the text of Moby Dick were written on a giant cave wall in charcoal, would people still call it a book? I think so. Regardless what people call it, would it be any less profound, thrilling or educational? Of course not.

“Stop!” a critic might exclaim, “the tedium of reading off a cave wall would distract the reader, and thus might make the story less effective!” That would be an astute observation, and it leads me to my first point. A medium or any “thing” for that matter, should be judged according to its merits, and not upon arbitrary value assignments.

How this applies to books is that many individuals feel it is important to champion paper books over eReaders beyond a pro/con analysis. They take the argument into a realm of ethereal ideas of quality based upon something, something that makes paper books more… well just better. That something is an arbitrary value assignment.

What is a value assignment, and what makes one arbitrary? A value assignment is labeling something as “good” or “bad.” This can be meant in a moralistic sense or a simply practical one, with “bad” being informally substituted in the place of “unsatisfactory.” People do this by collecting evidence and then making a decision. If evidence is not taken into account, then that judgement is arbitrary, or baseless. Assuming one wants to live a life guided by rational decisions (many don’t mind omitting logic from the source of their beliefs, hence the designation) then arbitrary value assignments are… well, bad.

How does this relate to technology and culture adoption? People commonly assign arbitrary value when evaluating new things. In my observation, the most common way this is accomplished is to view old or previously established things, ways of behaving, doing, etc, as better than the new way, thing, or idea. To put it differently, people are used to the way things have been, and thus push against the new. This is not a unique idea I am presenting here, but I do feel it is an original spin on what has previously been said. What I want to point out, however, is that this behavior, of automatically judging things in one lump established=good/unproven=bad is not rational, as it could prevent people from obtaining potential benefit.

People often scoff at new ideas only because they are new. Not because they have evaluated and judged them, but because they are unfamiliar. Sometimes people believe they are making a rational judgement, when in fact they are merely filtering ideas through their previous understanding of the thing. A good example is the argument of whether children should be given cell phones. Younger and younger children are being given cell phones because of decrease in prices for basic calling plans and the phones themselves. The parents do this for added child safety. Many people deride the parents of these children, like they are somehow soiling their youth because… well… um… it just seems like kids shouldn’t have cell phones. Kids didn’t use to have cell phones (actually no-one did, but that is beside the point), so why do they suddenly need them now? Despite the obvious flaw in this argument (we didn’t previously have antibiotics either) people defer to it in a vain attempt to express what they are feeling. It is my argument that the disdain they feel for this possibility of kids having cell phones is not based upon logic or reasoning, but simply because previously kids just didn’t have them, so that just seems right. 

It seems like kids should be reared having to call from a landline, memorizing phone numbers while being careful to plan departure and arrival times so as not to worry parents. But that is only because it is the way that adults today had to do it when they were young. Sure, certain skills may have been learned by doing it that way, but those specific skills, if not taught through the new way of owning a cell phone, probably aren’t needed anymore.

For instance, I can only imagine what kind of skills are developed through computer programming on punchcards. Make sure you don’t make a mistake because once those holes are in the paper, they will remain! However, that isn’t how computers are programmed anymore. So while there were probably a few graduating computer scientists who learned the punchcard method while their college updated the curriculum, the industry quickly moved on, forgetting the outdated method. There were, no doubt, old curmudgeonly programmers who scoffed at the new young programmers who hadn’t even seen a punchcard. They must have judged them as lacking an integral skill or important experience that, although unquantifiable, must be important because it was experienced by someone. 

It is this appeal to feeling that I believe is absolutely useless. If one is unable to articulate why something should or shouldn’t be used/adopted/completed/etc and are relying on a sort of instinctual gut feeling, it is likely that the underlying reasoning is based upon an irrational line of reasoning. This is not to be confused with split decision making and fight or flight response, wherein a person makes a “gut” decision and acts quickly.

It is important to identify our own internal reference material. In academic studies one is required to verify sources of information to ensure validity. So too should individuals when making decisions, since it is absolutely possible that the seed of any one particular bit of information began as a half-formed thought, based in bias or misinformation. To use a historical example, designers of the RMS Titanic believed the design to be unsinkable. They based other decisions, such as how many lifeboats to place on the ship, upon this flawed premise. How many other decisions were poisoned by the faulty reasoning on this principal portion of the design?

Again, I feel that one of the most common elemental erroneous judgements is that things that have been around for a while are better than those that are new. It is common to look back at past decades as simpler, happier times. Who hasn’t gazed at a 1950s marketing image for Coca-Cola and thought “It sure would have been nice to live back then”? What many fail to remember is that at this time blacks were marginalized in the United States to a significantly greater degree than today, as were women discriminated against in the workplace, while various diseases remained yet uncured. You won’t see that intentionally in an ad for dyed and carbonated sugar water.

In summation, it is important that we don’t confuse feelings of comfort with perceived merit. It is irrational to make value assignments based purely upon how established something already is. People should study their preconceived notions, and judge all incoming data upon valid information, and not merely an inclination or feeling.

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Filed under Books, Opinion, Random, Rant, Tech

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