This is a a partial follow up to In Search of Lost Time.
I notice that most of the people I “know” are extremely successful, rich and famous. When I say I know them I simply mean that if I see their face I recognize them. I’ve never met Tom Hanks or Barack Obama but I know more about them than any of my neighbors. I can barely remember a handful of my high school classmates and all my teachers are gone but I can sure remember a lot of the people who were on TV and in movies while I was in high school.
Maybe I’m a bit of an outlier. I perhaps consume more than an average amount of media and definitely engage in less than an average amount of real social interaction. But I don’t think I am too far from the norm. Consider the phenomenon of the “box office draw.” It makes no sense to prefer to see the same people over and over in different movies. As soon as I see The Rock in a movie I know it’s The Rock, not whoever he is playing. It shatters the suspension of disbelief. Not only does having a movie star in a film make it less immersive for the audience, but it costs a fortune for the producers. Rationally, talented actors who are not widely recognizable should be the most valuable commodity in Hollywood. If an actual friend of mine was in a movie I would definitely see it. I would want to support them and also would be very curious to see their performance. My logical mind knows that I am not friends with The Rock, so the desire to see his next film is not as strong, but I am still somewhat drawn to see it. Its worth it for movie producers to pay him 8 figures to appear in their films because they know that effect is going to operate.
Before the invention of mass media no one experienced this phenomenon. Evolution could not have prepared us for knowing so many people that we do not know. The brain has highly developed circuits for recognizing faces because being able to tell friend from foe and navigate the details of complex social interactions was vital for humans throughout our history. Seeing a celebrity in person feels like an optical illusion. Part of the brain is sure that they know that person well , and it fights with the rational part that knows they are a stranger.
Throughout history (and prehistory) the majority of people that most people knew were fairly close to them in status. That does not mean that there was not a hierarchy. Its just that the hierarchy was compact. In a hunter-gatherer tribe there could have been people that were considered particularly wise or charming or skilled in some way or another. And conversely people that were less skilled or socially adept than average. A popular piece of “wisdom” is that you should not compare yourself to others, since its likely to make you miserable, but it often makes sense to do so. If you can understand why some people are able to do what you cannot, you learn from them. If you can see why other people fail, you learn what not to do. There is no way that evolution intended for us to ignore the vital information contained within the social hierarchies we can see.
Humans are not intuitively good at statistical reasoning. My brain sees that the majority of the people I know are far, far more successful than me. I try to find the incremental steps that bridge that gap but I can’t intuitively sense the massive survivorship bias inherent in the situation. I can try to be more like them but I won’t get the results they have gotten. Every coin toss has gone their way or else I wouldn’t know them. My only choices are either to naively try to be like them and fail in frustration and envy forever, or to give up. If I give up trying to be like the lucky geniuses, then the part of my brain that thinks that I really know those people will never leave me alone. I have no aspirations to be a movie star, but the statistically ignorant part of my brain will never let me forget that I could have been a bitcoin millionaire. I don’t compare myself to Stephen King but with enough writing practice maybe I could be achieve the level of Scott Alexander. Or maybe I could be the next Nassim Taleb. We both have a finance background, after all, and he seems like such a weirdo. And while I’m at it is it really too late to start being Warren Buffett? I know that there are millions of strivers for every one who achieves their levels of success but I just don’t see those failures and can’t make my brain truly understand their magnitude.
Obviously I, and everyone else, has figured out how to live with this unnatural situation. We can recognize that these comparisons are delusional. We can suppress these feelings and not experience them most of the time. And yet, I think there is a cost. This passage in “Infinite Jest” made me feel better about it when I read it 15 years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. Particularly this quote:
“You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.”
If there is no reward to being on the other side of the fame divide, then that should relieve the pain. I can try to convince myself that I’m not missing out. However, if true it implies that there is a massive deadweight loss. If the lucky few were able to somehow experience the envy of the rest of humanity as a form of pleasure then at least that psychic joy would be conserved. If the people that society turn into gods really became gods then that would be something. But if there is nothing but loss in this system then that is truly sad.