The Will to Relevance

Posted by on 13.07.2008 in belief, science

The notion of ‘will to relevance’ has been appearing in my notebooks since March 2005; as one of my oldest and most important background concepts, it’s overdue for at least a semi-articulate public treatment.

I’m preserving the grammatically incorrect phrasing in order to authentically convey the original purpose and spirit of the concept; it’s an artifact of my extended intellectual adolescence, and by looking at it as it was, it provides a fairly honest account of why and how I arrived at such an idea.

It was the answer (or so I believed at that time) to a problem that had obsessed me on and off since my early high school years: What motivates us? Why do we do what we do? What makes us happy — or at least satisfied? I didn’t just want an inventory of motivations, I wanted to know the secret of human nature.

A second year university course in political philosophy pointed me to Nietzsche’s concept of will to power; and for several years I referred back to that as a provisional solution — but not one that was ultimately satisfying.

Perhaps I wasn’t satisfied because I didn’t fully grasp Nietzsche’s meaning — not to mention the more difficult ideas that are more rightly associated with him — and tended to conceive it with excessive overtones of Hobbes and Machiavelli (thanks to first year political philosophy), who themselves were also simplified by interpreting “warre of every man against every man” too literally and narrowly.

I literally interpreted “power” as meaning objective power over people and things; altruism was thus conceived as a “selfish” kind of act with a selfish purpose (i.e. good deeds are performed in order to feel superior to others, or to make others indebted for future favours in return).

Come to think of it, popular simplifications of Freud’s concepts of unconscious repression and sublimation may played a role in my early thinking as well.

Needless to say I wasn’t keen about that “selfish” formulation of human nature for very long. But nor was I ok with rejecting (or even ignoring) it merely because it was unpleasantly cynical. I was still very much open to the possibility that people gain something by being altruistic; I refused to accept the lollipop land fantasy that people are just nice and good (while others are just evil) without asking questions — as if no explanation would be needed or even wanted.

As my thinking matured (and as I actually read more of Nietzsche, rather than just adorning my thoughts with misappropriated Nietzschean slogans), I began to rely less on over-simple dichotomies (like good-evil, selfish-unselfish) to start my own “revaluation of all values” — “beyond good & evil.”

I may not have realized it at the time, but my intellectual project was being supplied by metaphors from the internet — and more importantly, from the social web, or “Web 2.0.” The old dichotomies were inspired and perpetuated by mechanical metaphors — collisions and friction, turning gears, pressurized steam, etc — so it’s perhaps inevitable for us to conceive a new theory (or at least attitude, or vocabulary) of human nature using the marquee technology of our age.

The problem with the simplified good-evil accounts of human nature is that they treat people as hard, static, well-defined mechanical units — wealth maximizing machines — whereas our behaviour is affected by all kinds of dynamic, ongoing, subjective processes and interactions that are difficult to define and control.

So I stumbled on the term “relevance” to replace “power.” It’s essentially in the same spirit as Nietzsche’s original, but “relevance” changes the connotation from domination and control to connectedness and meaning. Mind you, connectedness and meaning may just happen to manifest itself as domination and control, but connectedness may also manifest itself as altruism, etc.

In my original notebook entry from March 1, 2005, I wrote that “the tendency of individuals persists to an (unknown) end of maximum social relevance — peer-level connections.”

Google’s search engine (especially PageRank) acts as a metaphor for this theory the same way that mechanical engines provided metaphors for nineteenth century psychology, and, for that matter, the same way that older computing vocabularies in the mid-twentieth century provided metaphors for cognitive psychology.

And it isn’t just the search engine itself. Witness all the effort that goes into maximizing websites’ “relevance” to increase and sustain traffic. It isn’t just search engine optimization: consider the absurd amount of friending on MySpace, whereby people accumulate tens or even hundreds of thousands of “friends”; or witness bloggers jockeying for “authority” ratings on Technorati by exchanging links and RSS feed subscriptions (which, if you read any of the countless blogs devoted to the topic of how to make your blog popular — another absurdity — too many bloggers seem to value stats far more than actual readers).

But relevance means more than just maximizing connections and links, it’s also about optimizing the appropriateness, context, integrity, vitality, richness, and reciprocity of those relations: it’s about how effective and alive our connections are. The value of the subjective relevance of “1000 True Fans” may be far greater than the value of the objective relevance of 10,000,000 “friends” in MySpace, or “authority” points on Technorati

Briefly turning the discussion back to political philosophy, consider that authoritarian dictators may have a lot of objective relevance, but their subjective relevance may be fairly low. In fact, ‘the mass’ they rule over could be conceived as a single connection — and a fairly mechanical one, lacking vitality, richness, and reciprocity.

So authoritarian dictators (and “greed is good” capitalist fanatics — the type responsible for Enron and other debacles) find themselves on hedonic treadmills — a term used by happiness researchers in reference to the endless pursuit of immediate gratification, often with diminishing returns, as experiences that once seemed to be ultimate achievements (e.g. becoming president, or earning $1,000,000, or making 1,000,000 “friends” on MySpace) turns out to be hardly satisfying at all (e.g. compared to being declared emperor, or making $1,000,000,000, or being discovered by a record label on MySpace).

Likewise for all the people living under an authoritarian regime, or even working in a large organization, or just temporarily part of an audience assembled around a common central or frontal focal point (e.g. attending a movie, a concert, or a lecture): subjective relevance is low because it lacks reciprocity and integrity, and the context of events may not match the individual’s character: there are connections, but not connections that distinguish any individual from any other.

The most vivid demonstration of the will to relevance may be the popularity of Facebook — especially the social applications such as iLike. Through Facebook people can experience a continuous stream of relevance that is appropriate, contextual, integral, vital, rich, and reciprocal — personal.

But Facebook still falls way short: it tends to favour the immediate and superficial — becoming another hedonic treadmill: the more we use it, the more we need it (or otherwise, the more we use it, the more we get sick of it — call this the hedonic merry-go-round).

The happiness literature (I’m thinking specifically of positive psychology) seems to indicate that happiness most consistently correlates with more sustained activities and engagements, like religious belief and marriage/family, that eventually generate more relevance than we put into them at a given moment because we’ve already invested in them for so long. This supports my thesis — a thesis I developed shortly after reading Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness and following some of those intellectual leads. [Correction made Aug. 9.]

Religious belief is perhaps more interesting. It may be suggested that religious people are happy because they are integrated into a support community, or they tend to live less stressful lives; but consider how much relevance may be experienced by a true believer: every event is potentially another reminder and justification of their belief — another reciprocation, another refinement of context, another degree of richness. There may be some interpretation required to make events fit the beliefs (or vice versa), but that active requirement is largely what makes the relevance so gratifying — by engaging in a kind of ‘rapport with the universe.’

There is another way to develop this kind of broad and deep relevance without being religious in a traditional way: the love of learning.

Mihalyi Csikzsentmihalyi’s work on ‘flow’ suggests that the highest quality of experience occurs “when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges.” A condition of flow isn’t necessarily a condition of happiness, but it tends to generate happiness and motivation.

When we develop new skills and work up to new challenges, we’re not just experiencing relevance, we’re also making it easier to find and manage relevance in the future. Learning means investing in relevance — which means investing in long term happiness — with no ceiling or cap.

Think of video games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. These might seem to be good examples of activities that generate flow: they’re challenging, framed by clear objectives, and occupy one’s full attention. They gradually work players up to greater challenges… but we find there is a treadmill here as well: there’s a ceiling to how far a player can go: eventually the game runs out, and most of the skills learned become largely useless — i.e. irrelevant.

The only “skills” the video gamer retains after finishing the game are improved dexterity and familiarity with a bunch of tunes. Apart from what may have been gained socially, the gamer would be marginally more prepared for other video games and marginally more prepared to learn how to play real guitar. In reference to the latter, they would have gained far more (even just in terms of dexterity and ear) if they spent the same number of hours on the real instrument instead.

Compare someone who invested their time learning to play a real guitar: there is no such ceiling or cap on re-investing this kind of learning. Even if a person ‘beat’ every other guitarist on the planet (as if it could be merely a competition), there would still be countless opportunities available to apply their skills to new challenges: songwriting, producing, teaching, running a record label, marketing guitars, designing gear, learning other instruments… not to mention interacting with a lot of interesting people, who might introduce unexpected opportunities and challenges.

More importantly the real musician has a degree of freedom not available to the gamer. The gamer has no relevance without the game; gamers rely on a steady supply of new games (even worse than the hedonic treadmill: sitting at the end of a hedonic conveyor belt).

Whereas real musicians may become autonomous creators of relvance and meaning: they actually live music. Like the religious believer, every event is potentially another opportunity to co-create their own experience. In the musician’s case this means providing an accompanying soundtrack — or at least rhythm, or melody, or harmony — even if it is silently heard in the musician’s own mind.

Music perhaps provides an even better metaphor for the will to relevance. Rhythm, melody, and harmony are kinds of relevance: tones have specific relations and effects, strings cause each other to vibrate when the right overtone is sounded, rhythm forms a background of reference on which duration is regulated and measured, while melody organizes time into discreet units and coherent wholes.

And then there are the very real, non-metaphorical effects that music has on our emotions — how rhythms can make us move, harmonies can change our mood, melodies can conjure memories and desires… and have you ever noticed how infectious it is — how naturally it connects people? Music can thus be conceived as a kind of medium or ether in which our lives are suspended and stirred with others.

Another such medium is language. Language is what optimizes the relevance of all these thoughts; it connects my ideas to those of Nietzsche, Csikszentmihalyi… and you. Maybe you’ll post a comment. Maybe later we’ll talk about it — or you’ll talk about it with someone else — or you’ll blog about it, bookmark it, or link to it.

Consider how your next move might affect your relevance. Can you afford to reflect on this a little longer, digging deeper, perhaps investing in long-term ability to generate your own subjective relevance? Or should you quickly move onto something else that you can comment on and link to quickly, perhaps moving you up incrementally in the immediate game for objective relevance with Google, Technorati, Twitter, and Digg?

Yes, language is so powerful that even Google is powered by it. Or should I say, “language is so relevant…”

There’s still much more to be said on this.