Clerestory

Novelty and Safety

June 10, 2020

We live on a boundary between novelty and safety. This is a balancing act between order and disorder of exactly the same nature in which matter exists.

Think of the structure of your day. You begin and end it, under normal circumstances, in a familiar location, called home. But during the day, under normal circumstances, you venture out.

You may go out to do what you feel to be an unvarying job, but the day outside the house inevitably brings some degree of novelty. You do (or endure) something new at work. And even at a rote job, your lunch differs, you have a different conversation, or you see something different on your commute than you did the day before. For knowledge workers, it is all but inevitable that you encounter some new knowledge, or are forced to learn of some new problem, on any but the dullest of days. And the dull days can make for rich conversation.

This is not to say that home life is entirely predictable, but it is comparatively so. It is 2020, so it would be odd not to say something here of the current situation. I’ll say that we are like the hikikomori, and I have been saying for some years that they are probably a preview of our future. But it was not always like this; humans spread rather rapidly throughout the globe. As a race we tipped quite far towards novelty, and now, perhaps, have bounded back towards safety.

Whether or not we are becoming more predictable as a race, when it comes to leisure, under normal circumstances, the same balancing act is captured by the question asked by The Clash. In every social situation, it arises eventually: “Should I stay or should I go?” This question represents the crux of the issue, no matter which direction you are facing.

If you start from home, then staying is the status quo, a vote for the known, whereas going goes out into the unknown. In the social situation it is reversed: Going home is a vote for the known, whereas staying is a vote for some diminishing return of novelty.

You can see something about a person’s risk tolerance by the point in the night when they vote for the known. This is neither a good nor a bad thing; everyone is somewhere along the spectrum. If the hikikomori are close to the pathologically predictable end, then the homeless are close to the other. One never leaves home, the other never goes home. I am not saying that either group consciously makes this choice — it may well be made for them — just that the opposition of two pathological ends shows that there must be some trade-off going on.

Another way to put this is in terms of entropy. Staying in your room for a decade is low; living on the street for a decade is high. What’s interesting is normally somewhere in between. And it is selected by a filter.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.