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Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
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Europa Off the Jersey Shore

06 Feb, 2011 | Brian

I have tweeted excitedly a few times now about the Exoplanet App (free iTunes link) that I have been playing with lately. This is the kind of thing that I can get really worked up about. As of this writing it reports 526 exoplanets. The three-dee galaxy has me practically bouncing around like a kid.

And there's new news about the mission to Jupiter's moons (linky), which only emphasizes that in addition to the dozens of potential Earth-twin planets that have been found - those roughly Earth-sized and in the habitable zone - there are potentially thousands of moons around the Jupiter-sized worlds we've already catalogued. It seems reasonable to guess that we will get our first look at extraterrestrial life in the immediate future. The first time ever in the history of...everything, as far as we know. The momentousness of that discovery is almost paralyzing.

Yet no one that I show the Exoplanet App to has any interest. Did you hear about Charlie Sheen? He's back in detox, you know. And those skanks on Jerseylicious? Don't get me started.

Now I'm not growling about how "people" just aren't elite enough to appreciate my geeky science interests. Not at all. It is, on the contrary, quite fascinating. (You have to imagine me saying that while lifting one eyebrow in Spock fashion.) It demonstrates how overwhelmingly powerful our social mind is and what our social mind prefers to focus on.

By "social mind" I mean the part of our mental engine responsible for interpreting and responding to human social stimuli. If there was a cartoon bubble above my head showing a human head enlarged in proportion to all the social processing we do, it would be a grotesque sight. A tiny, feeble body topped by a stupendous melon. Sure, there are other social creatures on the planet, but we homo sapiens take the cake for social sophistication. We devote vast amounts of time (which is opportunity cost) and calories (which is also opportunity cost) to running social simulations in our heads. To be entirely clear, these are scenarios that aren't really happening, and may not have any possibility of happening, potentially involving collections of people that are unlikely to be collectively engaged, and perhaps over a subject that hardly warrants so much attention. We'll fuss and fuss over whether Joe thinks Mary doesn't trust Mathilda any more.

But what is most utterly astounding is that we'll do this even if we don't know Joe or Mary or Mathilda. We'll even do it if all three of them are fictional characters.

The chances of spending real-world resources on imaginary social statuses goes way, way up if the details are gossip-worthy. Anthropologists call this strategic information: the stuff that, if known, modifies the social fabric. Joe filling his Volkswagon at the station doesn't interest anyone. Mathilda getting caught stealing money from her workplace - now that is worth gossiping about! How about if she's stealing because she has a gambling addiction? Maybe her forlorn daughter has taken to hiding her shame under tattoos, cigarettes, and bad company. What a bad mother. Oh, we'll talk about this all day!

I don't have a particular point to make here, at least not yet. I only want to establish that our love of strategic gossip outshines everything else, no matter how objectively grand or amazing. There are a few subjects I'll attempt in follow-up posts that use this as a foundation, with one in particular eating up my mental attention: gaming.