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I’m obviously just getting up to speed on the whole Creative Commons/free content debate. So this post may well be repeating stuff that’s been said elsewhere, and even rebutted elsewhere. But here goes.

Writing software, while still an inherently creative activity, is also different to other forms of creative work, and so generalising definitions of freedom from the software publishing context (Richard Stallman’s Free Software Definitions) is not automatically correct. While I respect the urge to generalise principles of freedom across all forms of human endeavour, and indeed this kind of generalisation is a direct product of the general nature of human intelligence, the fact is one of the major ways that harm is done by humans is by misapplication of principles which applied in one context to another where they do not.

The key differences that I see arise from two things: historical context and technical nature.

Historical context

(Before I begin: yes, I know that “it’s been this way” is not the same as “it should continue this way”. But drastic change is understandably met with wariness by people who have a reasonable degree of humility about their own ability to predict the future. I’m identifying obstacles to applying Stallman’s freedoms to artistic content, not necessarily endorsing them.)

Copyright has substantially shifted the balance of the monetisation of fiction, visual art, and music away from being solely about production of the saleable copy (the copy of the book, the copy of the artwork, the performance of the tune) to the creation of the new work which is then reproduced. Prior to copyright, an author of a major work was entitled to no share of the profit her work afforded others, and might well starve while her creation was selling in the thousands. (So it’s worth remembering, even while trying to fix the problems with copyright, that it was originally introduced to remedy a substantial injustice, even if that injustice mattered more than it should have because of the grosser injustices of the system and society within which the artists were creating.)

The only way an artist would be rewarded for the composition of a new work was if it was commissioned by someone rich – a business model which somewhat rewards withholding creative efforts, and certainly reduces the incentive to create on spec – which is part of why, relatively speaking, the majority of substantial works in the pre-industrial period constituted propaganda on behalf of religions, governments, and other powerful people and/or institutions. So not only was copyright created to correct an injustice, but one of the effects that it had was to shift power away from the ruling class to individual creators. This was reinforced by other social shifts taking place at the time, and as always the powerful have found ways to shift it back to their advantage, but the development of critical intellectual culture was tremendously enabled by the ability of creators to demand both a place at the table and a slice of the pie in the distribution of their work.

None of this mitigates the clear need to remedy some of the drastic abuses of copyright that we are seeing in the present day. But it does explain why some of those whom one might most expect to support such reform are coming out strongly in favour of traditional models of copyright. Any reform is far less likely to succeed without that historical understanding, and an acknowledgment that the philosophy of copyright has some roots in justice, even if you hold that some of the assumptions that pinned that concern to notions of property are now outdated.

Technical nature

Software is different to all other creative forms – including some which sit on a platform of software – because it is rarely an end in itself to the vast majority of its consumers.

People who run an operating system do not do so because they find the experience pleasant or enlightening. They find it enabling.

The same goes for the vast majority of other software. Even reader or media player software is a means to the end of the book, song, image or movie. The only software which springs to mind as being something which people run as an end in itself is gaming software. And I do not believe it to be a coincidence that there has yet to be a successfully-produced free software game that rivals commercially available games in the same way that Linux rivals – or surpasses – commercial OS software, or OpenOffice can substitute for Microsoft Office. (In fact, a disturbingly large number of the games listed on the Free Software Foundation’s site are ports or other adaptations of games which previously appeared elsewhere.)

A key result of this difference is that the majority of operating system and productivity software – software which enables the user to do something else – is subject to objective assessment. Either it does what it is required to do reliably and efficiently or it does not. There are degrees of efficiency, and even some room for subjectivity as to preferable coding technique and user interface, but nobody other than fellow creators would give any time to flawed-but-interesting code. By contrast, in traditional artforms and even (again, not coincidentally) in games software, successful execution (comprehensible writing in fiction, functional games software, etc) is only the first step.

Yes, there are electronic games out there which come with editing tools that allow the end user to create and share levels or modules; I doubt many people, including the developers who publish them as “toolsets”, would regard these programs as games in themselves. Similarly, there have been Choose Your Own Adventure books which allow users to assemble their own narrative by selecting from the material provided, though that material is fixed. The closest comparison to most software would be the ruleset for a roleplaying game, though even there there is a range of balances between fixed content and open procedure, from the fully generic like GURPS and Mythic, to genre-based games like D&D and Mutants & Masterminds, to games designed to simulate specific fictional settings like Call of Cthulhu and A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying, to games that really only allow for a single story to be told through to a limited range of conclusions (the most extreme of which might be something like the quasi-RPG Werewolf).

Not coincidentally, these sets of procedures are likely to share another distinctive quality of software: multiple iterations. Very few traditional creative works will be substantially revised once released to the public, though some reference material might (and, not coincidentally, it is precisely this sort of reference material which lends itself best to being shared and open-sourced in similar ways to software, as wikis everywhere prove). There may be sequels, whose names may even include similar numeric coding to software’s version notations; but these are not only additive but may even require the first work to make sense, whereas version 2.0 of an application will generally replace 1.0 wholesale.

This, I think, points to the key difference which needs to be reconciled with Stallman’s freedoms. A traditional creative work is intended not as a process or a tool to be used by others, which makes personalisation and adaptation highly desirable, but as a definitive statement or expression which is offered as-is for others to react to on its own terms, which makes modification by others undesirable, as it is likely to lead to confusion and/or misrepresentation.

A person creating a tool is less likely to be held responsible for its effect on other people, though depending on the nature of the tool (i.e. the things it enables, the side-effects of its design etc) this may be appropriate – the leather-worker in Se7en is an example of this line being crossed. Tools generally act on things, whether concrete physical objects (even the human body) or abstract entities like words, and do so under human direction. By contrast, the author of a traditional creative work, whether fiction or non-fiction, is held responsible for its effect on other people, because such works (as opposed to their media) act directly on consciousness, not on things. They inform, educate, entertain, illuminate, advise – and/or bore, deceive, confuse, manipulate, baffle – and all those verbs have people as their objects.

In other words, publishing a creative work is an act of communication between people, whereas software is a tool used by people (possibly to facilitate communication, but VOIP is not the same as conversation) and need not be interpersonal in any way. The sharing of speech is therefore necessarily different from the sharing of software. Attribution, modification, publication and sharing take on different meanings and have different effects when applied to speech as opposed to software; being exactly correct about what was said how and when by whom matters more for speech than it does for code, where the concern is more simply whether something works or not. For this reason, certain freedoms in relation to traditional creative acts carry with them responsibilities that do not apply to the same extent in code. And as always, personal freedoms must sometimes be protected by restricting the freedom to behave in ways that reduce freedom overall.

Whether copyright is the best implementation of such protection is highly debatable, but at least both copyright and Creative Commons recognise those differences.


So I’ve been looking into the Creative Commons licenses for my possibly-big thing. They are awesome and I will certainly be using them in future.

However, there’s a glaring omission. For those who don’t know, Creative Commons is basically a way of issuing a free blanket license on material whose copyright you own – basically allowing anyone to do anything they like under a range of standard terms, without all the headaches of getting clearances and permissions in advance.

The four standard options, which can be mixed and matched to some degree, are BY (if you use my stuff in your work, you have to credit me), NC (non-commercial: you can only use this if you’re not making money from it – if there’s profit involved I may want some so you have to contact me first), SA (share-alike: if you want to use my material you have to share whatever you make on the same terms as I just specified), and ND (no derivatives: you can only share this exactly the way it is, you can’t remix it or mash it into something new). See the link for proper explanations.

The problem I have is that, provided it’s not “commercial”, there’s no way to say “you can’t use this for political speech”. So if you create some awesome feisty feminist character and the local NeoCon franchulate, sorry, political party wants to make posters with her on them, they can do so freely provided none of the steps in the chain are “commercial”.

Now, I know there’s a mighty fine line (or else a very wide, smeared one) between opinion and political speech. But I’m pretty sure most jurisdictions already have legal definitions of political speech for regulatory purposes. Here in Oz, it’s the stuff that has to have that little spiel “Authorised by so-and-so”. So my suggestion for an NP clause for the Creative Commons is something along the lines of simply:

“You can’t use this if you’re working (whether paid or unpaid) for a political party or a government agency; you can’t use this in anything that would count as political advertising for other legal purposes, or to advocate voting or otherwise supporting a particular political party; and you can’t use this in material that is primarily intended for an audience of politicians or members of a political party.”

Does it work for you?

[This is actually a follow-up to the following post (i.e. the one above), but in order to make it appear underneath the OP I’m posting it first. I’m sure there’s a neater way to do it but I’m rushed for time and this works. ]

I also thought about suggesting an RV (Respect Values) clause, which is sort of a more full-on version of the NP clause. The basic idea is that, to use the same example, your awesome feminist character can only be used to promote the same values she was clearly created to embody. Using her to promote sexist bilge – some smartypants having her mope about how nice it’d be if only she had a man to please, for instance – would constitute a violation of copyright and could result in a lawsuit.

But I’m really not sure about the idea. If it worked as planned, it could make more people willing to release stuff to Creative Commons, but it would probably generate a tonload of case law and could be used by court junkies to generate lawsuits. It also raises the question of what to do if someone you decide has breached the RV terms can point to someone else’s work which is more extreme and say that they genuinely didn’t realise your character was supposed to embody particular ideals… you could get around this by specifying broad principles the character stands for in the license the same way you do the attribution text for the BY license though… hm. Still all seems like a bit too much work.

But an interesting idea, so I’ll post it anyway 😛

More simply: a rising tide only lifts all boats because water is near impossible to pile up. Water finds its own level, quickly and nearly irresistibly. Money… not so much.

So a society’s prosperity is a function of amount, distribution and fluidity of money relative to need. Volume by itself tells us nothing.

No posts for a while… working on something big. I hope. Anyway…

Here’s a thought experiment to try out:

Make a short list of things that make you angry.

Go through them one at a time, calling each item the “stimulus”. Think about how angrily you behave and how angry you feel in the presence of the stimulus.

Think about the opposite or absence of the stimulus.

Think about how happy, pleased and/or grateful you feel and behave when you’re around that opposite or absence.

Weigh the feelings and behaviour inspired by the stimulus against the happiness, pleasure and gratitude inspired by its opposite and absence.

If you find that stuff triggers anger but its opposite does not trigger happiness/pleasure/gratitude, consider whether you’re being entirely fair to those around you. Especially consider whether you are more likely to show negative or positive behaviour to those close to you, and those subordinate to/dependent on you, if any. (If you start spotting patterns of particular people you are likely to display anger around, don’t assume that they’re to blame for that.)

All of this is even before you ask yourself the question “is this anger justified and proportionate?”

This thought experiment came about because I’ve been thinking a lot about people’s tendency to seek excuses to do their thing. (“If all you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail” is another take on this idea.) For some people, possibly because it makes them feel powerful, possibly because they just like the rush, anger is their thing… but anger is not exactly conducive to the kind of reflection that might help people realise that they’re getting angry as much from habit as reason.

I don’t know why, but this phrase (and concept) appears to have almost completely vanished from public conversations about economics. Of course, public conversations about economics are not exactly thick on the ground; but it wasn’t that long ago that the question of who owned how much of the world was actually of interest to the wider community.

I’m not a socialist, or a communist. Equal distribution of wealth is impossible, and undesirable in any case. But wealth does unquestionably equal power, and excessive concentration of power is undesirable too – but not impossible. (In fact, through a process of natural selection, power in any form will tend to act in ways which aggregate more power; which is to say that people with disposable wealth will tend to spend their money in ways which get them more money back, and the richer you are the larger the range of options you have, and/or the more of those options you can use. Additionally, the more power you have, the more likely you can influence the writing of the rules in your favour. The only way to combat this is to actively work against excessive accumulation of wealth, whether by periodically changing the rules by which large fortunes can be amassed and kept, actively redistributing it, or whatever.)

The thing is, the concentration of wealth is not only bad for the vast majority of us who are being squeezed out of prosperity. An egalitarian economy, which still has rich and poor in relative terms, but which ensures that that “vast majority” is doing well enough that we have disposable time and income, is the essential foundation for the kinds of extraordinary explosions of innovation which we’ve seen in the past half-century.

This is for four reasons. First, mass opportunity is essential to generating a large mass of innovative thinkers. It’s a numbers game: if 10% of the population would innovate given the chance, but only 5% have the wealth and spare time to try out their ideas, then you are looking at only getting somewhere between 1/20 and 1/2 the possible innovations, depending on how many more innovators there are per capita in the rich 5% than the societal average.

Second, even if you have the bright ideas, economies of scale indicate that many fewer innovations are financially viable without a mass market to sell into.

Third, where the general community is impoverished, ambient conditions deteriorate even for the wealthy. The people on the street are unhappier, sicker and probably smellier and less attractive. While this is obviously far more of a problem for the poor than it is for the rich, my point is that even the most self-centred rich bastard ends up worse off in a society where most people are not prosperous.

Fourth, and relatedly, as wealth levels diverge, more money has to be diverted from actively improving life (i.e. innovating) into protecting wealth and the wealthy from poor people who (wrongly or otherwise) calculate that the quickest way to get wealth is to take it from those who do. This may not simply be laziness or greed; where the future – or life – of the self or a loved one is on the line in any time-critical way, which is also far more likely in a mostly-impoverished society, the incentives for criminal behaviour rise; and where the victim is drastically better off than the criminal, internal sympathetic restraints (“I wouldn’t like it to be done to me”) are easier to rationalise away with “it’s only property crime, and their need is less than mine”.

There’s also the fact that concentration of wealth, if the trend continues, will ultimately only benefit the super-rich. After all, if the apparatus for extorting wealth out of the moderately prosperous stops working because they aren’t any more, the slightly-more-prosperous will be mined next.

So: if you’re rich, you need to think about whether you’re best served by the continuing trend towards concentration of wealth and power, and possibly entertain the idea that redistribution of wealth – or rules that ensure that wealth is shared equally in the first place, rather than being hoarded for the people who steer the large masses of money we call corporations – is good for you too.

Another post of something I wrote up (in my own time) for the library I was working in… posted in case it’s useful as a starting point for someone else trying to get games into libraries. It’s written as an infodump for specific people at that specific service and as a result the style is pretty dense, so it will need adapting; but maybe it’ll save someone some time and helps get games into a library somewhere. It worked for me, despite games and collection management being no part of my job description: the library now has both a “games books” lending collection (mainly RPGs) and a bunch of board and card games for use inside the library.

Notes for games collections at public libraries


  • are tests of skill (unless they are pure games of chance, which are usually regulated as gambling) and therefore improve abstract reasoning, hand-eye co-ordination and/or ability to “read” and anticipate other people. Many improve other skills, such as resource management, linguistic skills, vocabulary, etc. The only games without any such benefit are pure games of chance, such as roulette – which are almost always played for stakes and are therefore regulated as gambling.
  • have historically been important parts of our culture: an understanding of chess, for example, deepens an understanding of a wide range of texts.
  • are important parts of other cultures, and a great way into learning about those cultures and interacting with the people who live them.
  • are an increasing part of the leisure-activity market.
  • come in many varieties, not all of which are easily integrated into a traditional library collection – but some of which are.
  • linked to the above, may or may not come complete with everything you need to play. Some may only be rules.
  • are based on platforms of every level of technology from sticks and stones to advanced electronics.
  • are often expensive (but, arguably, cheap for the number of hours they occupy relative to traditional, non-participatory media).
  • can be free (or available for free download if you print them yourself).
  • like comic books/graphic novels, are breaking out of a “kids’ stuff” ghetto and are taking on more sophisticated thematic, aesthetic and cultural elements. Some are completely unsuitable for children. Also like comics, parents can get quite irate if their kids get hold of adult material in a “kiddie” medium.
  • are a growing source of jobs – games journalism/criticism, and especially game design, are booming (though highly competitive) areas of employment.
  • as with film, literature, and fine art, some games are highly controversial and are portrayed by some as inculcating violence or inhumanity. The same arguments about free speech are being made about games as have been made (and continue to be made) about other media. Games are therefore, again like other artforms, important politically as well as culturally.
  • are increasingly integrated into other media. Every major-release film now has a game released at the same time, and these are not always repetitions of the same story. The Matrix trilogy, for instance, had an accompanying computer game revolving around the actions of a couple of supporting characters in The Matrix: Reloaded, and the action of the game interwove with the action of the film, explaining a number of elements of the movie which were otherwise unexplained. (This was planned from the start by the movies’ creators.) It also featured around an hour of footage filmed on the same sets, with the same cast, and at the same time as the movie. It is probably fair to say that the game was the fourth part of the trilogy.
  • are increasingly being used not only for fun but for educational and/or polemic purposes. Examples include the UN Food Program’s game Food Force (simulates the real difficulties faced by UNFP personnel in the field); Real Lives (generates a random person of varying background and wealth anywhere in the world, lets you play out choices in the real context of their lives, based on actual statistics); various online games created in response to the Iraq war; America’s Army, a free game created and distributed by the US Army as a recruiting tool… the list goes on.

Probably the most important distinction between games from a collections point of view is whether they are electronic (played on a computer or console) or non-electronic.

Electronic games

For a library, the only major distinction within the category of electronic games is between the “platforms”, i.e., equipment required to run the games. The three types are computer games (games to be played on a general-purpose computer, i.e. Windows, Mac, Linux etc), console games (which require a dedicated games-playing machine which plugs into a standard TV), and handheld games (played on portable devices about the size of a PalmPilot which require no other equipment, except batteries/chargers).

The current consoles of note are the Microsoft XBox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation 3 (the PlayStation 2 is also still a current platform, but new releases are limited). The usual interval between console updates being released is 5-10 years. This means that the life of a game (assuming the physical medium survives) is 5-10 years, with the peak of its use in the first 3 or so years. (Computer games have a similar lifespan, as hardware and operating systems become outdated too.)

The current handhelds of note are the Sony PSP (PlayStation Portable) and the Nintendo DS  (Double-Screen).

Electronic games, by and large, can be stored and treated exactly like other optical electronic media (CDs and DVDs). Physically, they are identical: optical discs with optional booklets of various lengths, though games tend to have thicker booklets. Not that it is strictly relevant to the library, as we are not responsible for patrons’ actions, but they can be pirated just like CDs and DVDs, and like such media they often include built-in copy protection.

The decisions to be made by any library considering including these games in its collection are:

  • Which platforms to buy for.
  • If lending console/handheld games, whether to have the appropriate devices available to borrow as well, so that patrons without the console can play the games. On the one hand, we do not lend out DVD players; on the other, libraries experimenting with eBooks often do lend out eBook reader devices.

You would also need to ask suppliers about copyright/licensing issues pertaining to electronic games.

Loan periods would want to be reasonably long; games can take some time to play through. Good games can contain upwards of 100 hours of gameplay, though 20 is more typical.

Peripheral fact: Many computer games now support “mods” – modifications to gameplay and in-game virtual environments made by the public. Console games currently do not. Mods are generally available for free and provide an opportunity to develop game design skills. Talented mod authors are often hired by commercial game companies. This is mentioned to highlight the fact that these media are as open to patron authorship as more traditional library media – perhaps not as readily as books, but certainly as readily as movies.

Non-electronic games

Non-electronic games have enormous variety. Setting aside sports, they include:

  • Nursery rhymes/schoolyard games
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Dice games
  • War/strategy games
  • Role-playing games (tabletop and “live action”)
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Educational or training exercises

They may use some or all of the following elements:

  • Bodily gestures, words
  • Quasi-theatrical characterisation
  • Dice
  • Cards
  • Boards
  • Generic tokens representing players (Monopoly, Snakes & Ladders)
  • Specific tokens with particular abilities or effects within the game (Chess, Scrabble, war games)

Some or all of these things can reasonably be supplied by patrons. (Indeed a boardgame company called Cheapass Games makes a point of keeping its games cheap by NOT including dice, player tokens etc on the grounds that buyers probably have about 10 sets of these already and they are cheaply available elsewhere. They sell you only the rules, board and sometimes cards specific to the game. Presumably the next logical step has already been taken by having even these things available for download in PDF form.)

Some card cards, board games and war games (similar to board games except that the “terrain” – i.e. the board – changes) are collectible. That is to say, not all pieces are included in a newly purchased set, and new pieces are regularly released over several years, with new sets often carrying new rules to vary gameplay. Collectible games are not well suited to a library collection; they are more susceptible to theft, there is likely to be considerable inflationary pressure on the budget to “buy them all”, and keeping collections and collection information up-to-date is complex.

Collection issues also arise with games which include all the pieces but use specific tokens, such as Scrabble or chess. Losing a piece makes the game un- or less playable. This is more easily addressed, for example by not permitting the game to leave library premises, or having cheap, not-very-attractive, and/or distinctive pieces – such as Scrabble tiles with the library logo on the back, which would not blend with any other set. (For well-known games, custom pieces are commercially available at reasonable prices.) Above all, pieces should be easily and cheaply replaced.

The obvious point arising from the above is that the games which are most easily included in a library collection are those which exist primarily as a set of rules, and where any equipment needed to play is provided by players. These are nursery rhymes/schoolyard games; card games; dice games; role-playing games; and possibly educational games. This can be stretched to include board games which use only dice and non-specific player tokens, which are easily replaced, but as more tokens are involved in play (and especially if they are difficult to distinguish and/or count, such as cards or tiles) the game becomes more and more difficult to keep in one piece. Thus Ludo or Snakes and Ladders make good games for a library collection, but Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit do not.

Most library collections already include some coverage of nursery rhymes/schoolyard games in their children’s collections. Similarly, rulebooks for card games, and to a lesser extent dice games, are likely to already be present in a library collection.

Historically, role-playing games have not been included in library collections. This is partly because of controversy (reports of association with Satanism and/or mental illness) and partly because of discomfort with the performative aspect of such games as players “act” their characters – it has associations of childishness (the “let’s pretend” elements), kitsch fantasy, geekery and/or bad improv. Live action role-playing (where participants actually dress in character, swing padded “swords” in combat etc) in particular is seen as embarrassing. However, both “live” and table-top role-playing are becoming more popular.

Educational or polemic uses of games have rarely been the subject of books in their own right, but this is changing. The use of games to illustrate points about and to counter common assumptions, to develop mental faculties and ways of thinking, etc., is increasingly popular. War simulations, the military training tactic which pits troops against their own side to provide something like actual battlefield experience and to test new technologies and strategies, is beginning to be adopted on a smaller scale in the corporate world and even by some large NGOs.

Games as a field of study

Interest in game design is growing. This is particularly focused on computer game design, but is not limited to is. It is worth keeping an eye out for new books in this field; more and more people are interested in the analysis of game structures and design, games as cultural and aesthetic artefacts, and so on.

Game theory is a related, also very interesting, and often neglected area of study which touches on mathematics (especially probabilities), logical analysis, psychology and even ethics and politics. (Game theory is essentially about how people second-guess each other. Many famous ethical and political problems, such as The Prisoner’s Dilemma, are problems in game theory.)

I’d do something to recognise the paradox that undermines all representative democracy: even if you choose a person who is genuinely a member of the local community and committed to representing the same, the very business of going off to the centre of power to participate in government exposes them to ideas, influences and concerns which may be completely outside the experience of the community they are supposed to represent.

In such a situation, do you act on what you now know? Or do you act to represent your constituents – even though you may now know them to be in the wrong?

This is one of the central flaws in representative democracy as it is currently practiced: that this tension is not openly stated and understood.

So my party would recruit and promote its candidates on the following basis:

  • They are grounded in local issues but capable of dealing with the bigger picture;
  • They are expected to deal with the bigger picture, and manage both outwards and inwards (i.e. represent their constituency to the wider community – but, crucially, also vice versa);
  • That wherever possible before they contribute to a decision they will have a chance to come back to share the information they have because of their privileged position with their constituency, in order to synchronise their perspective with the constituency’s to whatever extent possible;
  • That where possible the above will happen over some time, to allow for questions arising from the community to be answered;
  • That there is an expectation that the constituency will take some responsibility for paying attention to the stuff being brought back by their representative.

…And this is why my party would almost certainly fail completely.

I don’t, however, believe that spending time on consultation such as this is wasted. Time spent making the decision, vetting the idea, getting everyone on board, etc leads to better decisions – and it means implementation is less likely to be sabotaged because more of the bunfights have already happened. Plus there is the little matter of respecting and seeking the consent of the governed.

Urgh. Need sleep. Sorry if this is muzzy – it gets that from me.

Prejudging a person – assuming that anything is automatically true about them – on the basis of their membership of any involuntary grouping (gender, race, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, age, eye colour, nostril size, pinky-toe length…) is wrong. Here in the simplest possible form are the main reasons why.

First, most such assertions are made on very shaky ground. Pretty much every major study that has claimed to show substantial differences in innate ability between different groups has been challenged extensively. One study that claimed to show that Asians were academically smarter than whites, who were smarter than blacks, was shown to be deeply flawed because it wasn’t comparing apples with apples: the academic environments in which each group was learning were completely different, with the Japanese segment in the study operating in a context where education is valued and schools and teachers are respected – less the case for the white American cohort, and less again for the African-American segment. As a comparison of different education systems, it might have been useful; as a comparison of relative “innate” racial ability, it was a crock.

Nor is it even possible to establish an adequately controlled, fair, “apples-to-apples” group – anybody’s physical, emotional and psychological development takes place in a culture which loads them with preconceptions about who can achieve what. The power of these expectations is attested to by a study which was done in which four groups, two of men and two of women, did a maths test. All four groups did exactly the same test, but two of the groups (one male, one female) were told beforehand that the test had been “specially designed so that women could do it as easily as men”. When the results came in, the two male groups had done about as well as each other, and so had the group of women who had been told that they could. Only the group of women who were still operating under normal cultural expectations about their own performance did significantly differently than the others – and not surprisingly, they did worse. About as much worse as women normally do on those sorts of tests.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? And calls into question the extensive system of rationalisation called “evolutionary psychology”. What happens to all those arguments about “men had to measure distance and count prey animals, so they’re better at maths and maps” when in point of fact men aren’t necessarily better at those things?

But maybe in some cases there are genuine population-level differences in capability. For instance, for generations African-Americans were bred (like livestock!) for strength. (Yes, forced marriages and impregnations. Hooray for white “civilisation”. Not to say that slaves didn’t trick their “owners”, but that the attempt was even made… gross.) So let’s allow hypothetically that perhaps there is some truth to the argument that African-Americans tend to be physically superior to whites. (Anyone who argues in parallel that surviving as a slave selects for lower intelligence, however, is clearly not thinking the thing through. I’m not conceding that one, even hypothetically.) Let’s allow further that this tendency is genetic and not a product of the culture and the physical environment in which people grow up. If the difference is the result of several generations of selective breeding, doesn’t that rather suggest that even genetic differences can and will change over time, as cultures shift and start selecting for different things?

The clincher

Even if we set aside all arguments about whether significant differences in innate ability really exist, and if so what causes them and how fixed they actually are, and accept the assertion that at the population level people of group A will tend to be better at X than people of group B, or less “Y” or whatever… that still means absolutely nothing when it comes to dealing with any given individual.

For instance, if you believe that women are innately better at emotional stuff than men (and I have seen extraordinary emotional skill from men, both good and deeply, manipulatively bad; but I digress), and you encounter a man who bucks the trend… do you pretend he is an emotional klutz, or do you treat him as someone with good emotional skills?

And until you know which he is, aren’t you better off withholding judgment and remaining open to all possibilities until you have adequate information?

And further, and more radically, if you actively want men to have some degree of emotional competence… and you take on board what we’ve learned about the power of negative expectations to limit achievement… aren’t you far better off abstaining from making generalised pronunciations about “men are emotional idiots”?

In other words, a culture which genuinely wants all its members to achieve the most they can will be very careful about accepting generalisations about one group being not as whatever-quality-is-under-discussion as another, even if there is some evidence that it might presently be true, because the only thing making it true might be that self-fulfilling expectation.

While there is always value in analysing the current big picture – and if you’re interested in justice, it is essential to be able to say that group X is not pulling its weight relative to group Y, or is benefiting more, et cetera – such comments need to be phrased in ways that limit the generalisation appropriately and emphasise the possibility of change.

Insistence on blanket assertions that “women just can’t read maps” or “Aboriginal people can’t manage more than a Certificate 1” (made quite seriously by a senior Australian public servant – to an Aboriginal professor!) is therefore not only moronic. It is actively sabotaging the people about whom it is made. And therefore it is wrong in every sense of the word.

More reading (to be updated as I find my old link collection):


Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (blog here) has some useful discussions of false snap judgments as well as accurate ones

There’s a more general post coming later about racism and other negative -isms (“negativisms”?), but I just came back from wandering around the CBD of Melbourne. Every time I do this, I’m struck by how truly diverse the inhabitants of this city are. We had people whose ancestors (if not themselves) have come from pretty much everywhere in the world on the streets. All over Asia, including the Indian sub-continent; shading through the Persian parts of the world, to the Arabic, then to the horn of Africa; central and South African; Europeans of all sorts; some people who could have been from native South American stock, though with less exposure I find it hard to tell; and last but most certainly not least, our own First Australian peoples, both majority-descent and in little touches on the faces of some of the other locals. And, of course, delightful mixtures of all of the above.

Every time I see this I’m reminded of a friend of mine, of Chinese and Scottish-Australian ancestry, who talks about travelling in Europe (even relatively “cosmopolitan” cities) and seeing visible double-takes as people tried to work out “what she was”, and the sense of relief on coming home to a place where that kind of categorisation isn’t instinctively necessary before you can be comfortable just dealing with the person in front of you.

I’m not saying racism isn’t present in Australia – I’m white, my partner’s Asian, and we still get looks in some parts of Melbourne, and definitely in the nearby but smaller city of Geelong. We’ve even had it suggested by those that would know that her surname, also obviously Asian, was a handicap in getting teaching jobs – in a state that supposedly has a shortage of teachers. The recent treatment of Indians, and the ongoing shame of our treatment of the First Australians, also show racism is still tainting the atmosphere here, even if it’s often shameful and covert, and contested, and arguably less prevalent than in some other places which (however rightly) criticise Australia as racist.

But in the Melbourne CBD today I saw humanity in – not all – a substantial part of its glorious variety, sharing the streets, giving way to one another in all the little courteous gestures that we do. And I was struck by how many of the people I saw were beautiful. All ages, all backgrounds, all sexes – there was a lot of beauty around.

I know, eye of the beholder, blah blah. But I wasn’t in that good a mood. If there’s a lot of beauty in my eye, something else must be at work.

I remember reading somewhere that our brains determine our definitions of beauty by kind of “averaging out” all the faces we see, and then determining any individual face’s variation from that norm. My idea is, maybe seeing such a wide variety of people widens our capacity to see beauty. In a mathematical sense that maybe-sort-of works – a larger sample means that an average will be more of an approximation of any one face, leaving more wiggle-room for others to fit into. But I don’t think that’s it, either. I think the habit of seeing such a wide array of possible faces in itself reduces the power that “average” face has over the imagination, so you can see a bit more clearly each face as itself rather than as a variant on an imaginary ideal. You can more quickly see the human flow of expression, and something of the underlying person(qu)ality, not a skin tone or a particular cast of feature, not a common trait that causes “them all” to “look alike” because you can’t see past it.

So one perk (of many) of living in a diverse community is that your eyes have more beauty in them. Works for me.

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