It’s Monday, July 11th of 2022, and this is the first Monday blog post among the ones that I’ve begun writing every weekday morning, which only started last Tuesday (and that is why this is the first Monday post…as you probably guessed, or could have guessed, even if you didn’t already know).
The fact that the date is 7-11 (in the American system of writing dates, anyway) is rather pleasing, and not just because it consists of two consecutive prime numbers. It calls to mind an interesting thought—to me, anyway—about cultural evolution*. The store chain, 7-11, took its name originally, as I understand it, from the hours it stayed open. That was from seven in the morning until eleven at night, not from seven until eleven am or pm. That would have entailed a business open for only 4 hours a day (or eight, if it had been done in two shifts, which I guess could have been interesting to make into a store name).
At the time, or so I’m led to understand, having a store open from seven in the morning until eleven at night was exceptional enough that it was worth making into the name of your convenience store**. But of course, free market economies having at least a little bit in common with biological evolution, it wasn’t long before competitors started showing up, since the resource laden niche of the long-hours convenience store had been shown to exist. Eventually 7-11 extended itself to be a store worthy of the name 7-7…or 8-8, or 9-9, or any other string of times that loops around the clock and comes back to start again ad infinitum. They could have just renamed it “24-7” if that had been a cultural meme at the time, but of course, by that time, “7-11” was already an evocative meme, and a highly recognized and popular brand, so there was no need to change.
But as is often the case with cultural evolution due to economic competition, once the store hours had been extended to 24 hours a day, every day, there was no credible way to scale back merely to 7-11, except perhaps in a few rarefied and “underserved” markets. In most places, the chain would have lost market share to shops that had already sprung up in competition with it…even those that weren’t 24-hour stores, because their advantages were usually in the form of lower prices than 7-11 was able to charge.
Thus, 7-11’s 24-hour schedule, etc. became a sort of peacock’s tail or Irish elk’s antler of the retail economy. Nothing short of a true and rather complete collapse of world retail seems likely to reset the norm of store hours…or of working hours, or of “at-will employment”, or of other similar configurations. Because, though change can be brought about by politics, via laws and regulations, politicians—and their promises—are as subject to inadequate equilibria and peacock’s tails (and bird-of-paradise courtship displays) as anyone and anything else.
If the public at large were bright enough, and self-aware enough, to adapt rationally what they voted for, or how they made their purchases, or the hours they were willing to tolerate working, or the conditions under which they were willing to work, they probably wouldn’t ever have landed themselves in the first place in situations where the only ways to reset things are via catastrophic occurrences, deliberate or accidental. And, unfortunately, since there is rarely any well-thought-out, scientifically planned or tested cultural adjustment done, revolutions and other catastrophes tend to be bloody and destructive and horrible, and to make things worse for everyone, until evolution has time to find another equilibrium that is at least a bit more efficient and tolerable.
But maybe I’m wrong about all that.
All this does bring me around to something that always irritates me: the way politicians, or activists, or similar people, talk about wanting or seeking to make “change”. That’s just simply too vague and useless a word to use, in my judgment. Seeking and working to make “change” is not good enough, because though all improvement is necessarily change, not all change is improvement. In fact, given the extremely high-dimensional vector space of all possible directions of cultural change, or societal change, or political change, or economic change, and given the comparatively narrow region of that vector space that most people would consider better than the space in which they already reside***, there are far more ways to make life more or less universally and objectively “worse” than there are places in the space of possibility which could be thought to be better.
Even in a one-dimensional space (so to speak), with a random change you’d have a 50-50 shot of either getting better or worse, and that’s as good as it can get even in principle with respect to random movement. The higher the number of dimensions, the more ways things can potentially get worse (or get no better). And reality is a very high-dimension vector space of possibilities indeed****.
So, don’t make change just for the sake of “change” without thinking very carefully about what you’re doing, because you’re more likely to make things worse than you are to make them better, by any reasonable definition of “better” you might care to choose. And if you gain an advantage by keeping your store open longer than others, other people will eventually extend their hours to compete with you until finally, all relative advantage is squeezed down to being so tiny as not usually to be worth the effort. And everyone will be stuck in a new, more exhausting equilibrium, like tall trees in a rain forest, competing for the otherwise ample sunlight and water, when they could have survived much more easily and efficiently if they could all just have agreed to stay short. But they couldn’t do that, being trees.
Humans are not trees, of course. But they don’t seem to be that much smarter.
Have a good week.
*Not to be confused with Cultural Revolution, which tends to be a very bad thing even when done deliberately and “planned” in advance.
**Though I’m not sure if even the term “convenience store” existed before 7-11 conjured it.
***The portion of the vector space in which we now exist clearly has going for it the fact that we can exist here, at least in the short term. To take an analogy, imagine being on Earth and being given the opportunity to teleport instantly to some other random spot in the universe—or to some other, random planet in the galaxy, even. What odds would you give yourself that you would survive more than an instant once you reached your destination? The reason we’re alive here on Earth right now is because we can be.
****This has nothing to do with higher numbers of spatial dimensions, as in String Theory or M Theory or related proposed systems of physics. Those entail literal, spatial dimensions, of the sort through which we regularly move, though with certain special characteristics, whereas I’m talking about dimensions of vector spaces, or “phase spaces”, the dimensions of which you can think of as being analogous to any of the axes on a set of graphs that map data relative to other data.
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