This article is the first in a short series about things that look complex, but which derive from a few simple underlying principles. Often, those principles involve strategies for reducing cognitive load. These articles are speculative, but they give some interesting new insights.
I’ll start with Inuit tactile maps, because they make the underlying point particularly clearly. I’ll then look at how they share the same deep structure as satirical caricatures, and then consider the implications for other apparently complex and sophisticated human activities that are actually based on very simple processes.
The first article in this short series examined how conflicting conventions and requirements can lead to a movie being unrealistic. The second article explored the pressures driving movie scripts towards unrealistically high signal to noise ratios, with few of the extraneous details that occur in real conversations. The third in the series examined how and why movies depict a world which requires the word “very” to describe it.
All of those themes are arguably about movies either selecting versions of reality, or depicting versions of reality which are simplified and/or unlikely. Those versions are unrealistic, but not actively wrong in the strict sense of the word. The underlying common theme is that they’re simplifying reality and/or exaggerating features of it.
Today’s article looks at a different aspect, where movies and games portray the world in a way that flatters and reassures the audience, regardless of how simplified or exaggerated the accompanying portrayal of the world might be. This takes us into the concepts of vicarious experience, of vicarious affiliations, and of why Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds. It also takes us into the horribly addictive pleasures of TV tropes…
The first article in this short series examined how conflicting conventions and requirements can lead to a movie being unrealistic. The second article explored the pressures driving movie scripts towards unrealistically high signal to noise ratios, with few of the extraneous details that occur in real conversations.
Today’s article, the third in the series, addresses another way in which movies are different from reality. Movies depict a world which features the word “very” a lot. Sometimes it’s the characters who are very bad, or very good, or very attractive, or whatever; sometimes it’s the situations they encounter which are very exciting or very frightening or very memorable; sometimes it’s the settings which are very beautiful, or very downbeat, or very strange. Whatever the form that it takes, the “very” will almost always be in there somewhere prominent.
Why does this happen? It’s a phenomenon that’s well recognised in the media, well summed up in a quote attributed to Walt Disney, where he allegedly said that his animations could be better than reality.
When you think of it from that perspective, then it makes sense for movies to show something different from reality, since we can see reality easily enough every day without needing to watch a movie. This raises other questions, though, such as in which directions movies tend to be different from reality, and how big those differences tend to be.
The first article in this short series looked at one reason for movies presenting a distorted version of reality, namely conflict between conventions.
Today’s article looks at a reason for movies presenting a simplified version of reality. It involves reducing cognitive load for the audience, and it was studied in detail by Grice, in his work on the principles of communication. It can be summed up in one short principle: Say all of, but only, what is relevant and necessary.
At first sight, this appears self-evident. There will be obvious problems if you don’t give the other person all of the information they need, or if you throw in irrelevant and unnecessary information.
In reality, though, it’s not always easy to assess whether you’ve followed this principle correctly. A particularly common pitfall is assuming that the other person already knows something, and in consequence not bothering to mention it. Other pitfalls are subtler, and have far-reaching implications for fields as varied as politics, research methods, and setting exams. I’ll start by examining a classic concept from the detective genre, namely the red herring.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I have an awed respect for the ability of Ancient Greek philosophers to spot a really important point, and to then produce an extremely plausible but only partially correct explanation, sending everyone else off in the wrong direction for the next couple of thousand years.
Today’s article is about one of those points, where the Ancient Greeks didn’t actually get anything wrong, but where they laid out a concept that’s only part of the story. It involves a concept that can be very useful for making sense of consumer preferences and life choices, namely the difference between intrinsic properties in the broad sense, and extrinsic properties in the broad sense.
Here’s an example. The image below shows a pair of Zippo lighters. One of them is worth a few dollars; the other is worth tens of thousands of dollars, even though it’s physically indistinguishable from the first one. Why the difference? The answer is below…
The last link is to a crossover that was not such a good idea, namely throat singing combined with rap music. Much though I would like to describe it, like the famous quote about Wagner’s music, as not being as bad as it sounds, honesty compels me to remain silent…
For some reason, he inspired not only a film so bad that it’s now a much-cherished classic (until you’ve seen John Wayne playing Genghiz Khan, you haven’t savoured the true depths of bad movies) but also a song which is legendary for its kitschiness even by Eurovision standards. That song is the topic of this article, though I’ve detoured slightly into a mention of Barbara Cartland towards the end. If you wish to read more, you know what sort of unhallowed ground you will be entering…
Sources for the original images are given at the end of this article