The Dance of Novelty and Comfort

Diversity and uniformity from a slightly different lens

Hello all,

This is issue #25 of Light Gray Matters. I committed to writing it for 100 weeks, which means I’m a quarter of the way there!

Next week, I’ll take a break from this series of post on variety/diversity to talk about the book I just finished writing. But that’s next week. Obligatory button so you don’t forget to subscribe:

All right. If you’ve read last week's post, you’ll remember it was about the converse of diversity: uniformity. Uniformity is desirable in many situations, just like diversity is desirable in others. My general feeling is that diversity is often undervalued compared to uniformity. But is it? Can we figure out when exactly each of those opposites is desirable?

After reading the post, one of my friends observed that she prefers uniform things when she’s tired. Then she said:

[I] think diversity is pleasure and uniformity is comfort.

That struck me as a particularly apt way to put it. However, I would make one change to that sentence. “Pleasure” is too general. Comfort is a form of pleasure. What diversity provides is a specific form of pleasure: the pleasure of discovery, of uniqueness, of being surprised. Let’s call that novelty.

So my friend’s quote becomes:

Diversity is novelty and uniformity is comfort.

(Sorry for modifying your words without telling you, friend.)

It’s almost tautological, but it’s worth stating: diversity means novelty. Newness. Each element in a diverse set — of people, of foodstuffs, of political opinions, of Pokémon — has a higher chance of carrying new information than the element of a uniform set. But processing new information takes energy and time. We like to do it, because we may find some useful new [people/food/opinions/Pokémon], but we don’t always want to put in the effort. Especially if we’re tired.

Meanwhile, uniformity means that each element in the set is likely to be something you’re already familiar with. Boring if you’re in the mood for exploration and novelty; perfect if you are tired and just want to go home.

Consider: After spending more than a year at home due to the pandemic, you became intimately familiar with your living space. You yearn to see other places. You decide to travel, you visit several countries, you sleep in fancy hotels and basic tents and dingy hostels and on random friends’ couches, you meet tons of new people, you eat food you never knew existed. Then, after a few weeks of this, you find yourself yearning for home again.

This pendulum swings back and forth for all of us. We dance between the need for novelty and comfort, wanting a bit of both, especially the bit we are currently lacking in.

(wow that drawing looked SO MUCH better in my imagination)

Yet I claim that we undervalue diversity and, by extension, novelty. This implies that we overvalue uniformity and comfort. Do we?

When I was in the process of (thinking about) leaving my job, I told myself that comfort is often a trap. We want it. We sincerely wish to be comfortable. Comfort means the absence of pain, of effort, of stress. Who wouldn’t want that? But most would agree, I think, that comfort is not happiness. It can even be far from it. When we’re comfortable, we start wanting more from life. We grow restless. We crave novelty.

And so we quit safe jobs to go in the wilderness and explore new, diverse ways of living.

Except that we don’t. The majority of people seek a safe job or, having landed one, stay in it. Even when they don’t like the job. Leaving is scary — it means giving up on our comfortable, predictable lives, with a constant stream of revenue and daily routine.

This is one way among many that society overvalue comfort. The opposite also exists (i.e. someone who can never settle, always chasing novelty, to the point of being less happy than they would be in a stable situation), but I believe it is less prevalent.

Consider the three benefits of uniformity I discussed last week. Each can easily be overvalued:

  • Applying the best option everywhere: Replace a diverse forest with a monoculture of palm trees, since obviously palm trees are better than the random plants from the natural environment… and then you have a dysfunctional ecosystem, because the palm trees are better only on the economic dimension, not necessarily other important dimensions. And maybe you’re wrong and the palm trees aren’t even the best crop to plant here. It’s easy to make mistakes when applying uniformity, and those mistakes can be costly.

  • Holding to a standard: Same idea. Are you sure your enforced standard is the best? That it’s not preventing someone to invent improvements? The QWERTY keyboard layout is everywhere in the English-speaking world and beyond, but it isn’t optimal. An urban legend even says that it was designed to slow the typist down1. The uniformity in keyboard layouts may prevent experimentation and innovation.

  • Minimizing surprise: Surprise can be stressful or even hazardous. What if this new person you don’t know turns out to be dangerous? It might be tempting to remove the sources of surprise from your life, and, say, stop meeting new people. But that would be a mistake. Surprise is often where fun comes from. Games, conversation, art, tickling, even sex require some surprise to be enjoyable.

Those are only a few examples. Again, it’s possible to undervalue all those things, and I recognize that different people have different perceptions around this. But do I feel strongly that the human brain has some sort of bias that draws it to uniformity. Maybe because we can’t keep track of diversity easily. You can’t hold a rainforest in its full variety in your head, but you can visualize a palm tree plantation fairly well. Maybe because in our far past, surprise likely meant getting killed, while an orderly, uniform situation meant full control. I don’t know. I probably need to do some legit research to figure this.

In the dance of novelty and comfort, comfort is the dominant partner. I want novelty to reassert itself. Novelty — diversity in our lives — can make us more productive, can help us sleep better. Novelty literally lengthens time. Novelty makes the world better, more beautiful, more interesting.

Okay, taking a break from diversity to let the ideas simmer for a while. I’ll try to write a Twitter thread about all of this.

Next week: the book! Until then I remain

Yours in trying to figure out the steps of the dance,

Étienne

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Though this is “unverified” according to Wikipedia