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more on shortcuts

I wanted to write a little more about the idea of "shortcuts," because I shouldn't assume the self-evidence of the way that I'm using it. I'm working from an idea that Ball talks about in Critical Mass, and specifically from an article that I downloaded, from Joshua Epstein, who's at the Brookings Institution.

Epstein, Joshua M. "Learning to be Thoughtless: Social Norms and Individual Computation." Computational Economics 18 (2001): 9-24.

According to Epstein,

The point here is that many social conventions have two features of interest. First, they are self-enforcing behavioral regularities. But second, once entrenched, we conform without thinking about it. Indeed, this is one reason why social norms are useful; they obviate the need for a lot of indiviual computing (9).

It seems to me that the literature on the evolution of norms and conventions has focused almost exclusively on the first feature of norms--that they are self-enforcing behavioral regularities... (9)

My aim here is to extend this literature with a simple agent-based model capturing the second feature noted above, that individual thought--or computing--is inversely related to the strength of a social norm. In this model, then, agents learn how to behave (what norm to adopt), but they also learn how much to think about how to behave. How much they are thinking affects how they behave, which--given how others behave--affects how much they think. In short, there is feedback between the social (inter-agent) and internal (intra-agent) dynamics (10).

Epstein runs this model through several iterations, with different variables (sample radius, tolerance, noise, etc.), but the quotes above are probably enough for what I want to write about here.

As a communicative system, language necessarily operates by social conventions, which is why I think Epstein is relevant. If we didn't share linguistic conventions, we'd be unable to communicate. But each of us also has an individual stake in minimizing the amount of energy we devote to communication--if we had to define every word as we used it, it would take the better part of a day just to write a sentence or two. And so that second feature, which describes the degree to which a convention is thoughtless (i.e., not requiring conscious thought), is crucial to language use.

Hence the attraction of jargon. It is to my advantage as an academic to use specialized terms, even if they are mystifying to a large percentage of the population. Jargon does more conceptual work than so -called "plain language," but it only does so in a much smaller context. To put it another way, I can shrink my sample radius by using specialized language, but at the cost of the overall force of the conventions I employ.

Or to put it in another context, there are frequently calls for those of us who teach writing to do a better job of teaching grammar. Frequently, though, these calls mistake the role that grammar plays in writing. They do so because grammatical errors is very easy to spot (see?) and can be judged right or wrong. The problem is that a proficient writer takes grammar for granted; she no more devotes active thought (computing) to grammatical correctness than she looks up every single word in the dictionary before using it.

So the trick with grammar is that we must teach writers not to think about it, in the sense of making it thoughtless, or taking it for granted. And the trouble here is that direct grammatical instruction doesn't help students make grammar thoughtless--if anything, it diverts their attention and energy from other writing tasks. This doesn't mean that grammar isn't important--far from it. Epstein's examples of thoughtless action are some of our strongest and least ambiguous social norms.

Epstein suggests that we are interested in minimizing our sample radii as much as possible. In other words, we don't want to have to check with hundreds of other people before we do something. But when it comes to grammar, we might argue that our sample radius takes the form of the things we read. I read a great deal, and so my language use is undoubtedly influenced by an ongoing, subconscious negotiation between my own beliefs, attitudes, and structures and those of the texts I read. Students who don't read outside of their classes, though, have no sample with which to operate. And those whose main goal in reading is the extraction of information are similarly unlikely to internalize much about language use. The other piece of the puzzle here is also sometimes absent, and that's writing. If one is simply reading, but not putting those conventions to work by writing, then it's going to be hard to move to the point of thoughtlessness as well.

In other words, you learn to become a better writer by reading and writing, something that sounds tremendously obvious, I know, and something that most of the people in my field take for granted. But we've done a poor job of explaining (to ourselves and others) that grammar instruction isn't simply a yes/no question.

And the point of the last post? That network studies and/or statistical analysis may provide us with a way to interrogate not only the conscious decisions writers/speakers make, but also their subsconscious assumptions...