Marginalised communities and success

Yesterday I was listening to this podcast where Tyler Cowen interviews Neal Stephenson, who is perhaps the only Science Fiction author whose books I’ve read. Cowen talks about the characters in Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, a masterful 3000-page work which I polished off in a month in 2014.

The key part of the conversation for me is this:

COWEN: Given your focus on the Puritans and the Baroque Cycle, do you think Christianity was a fundamental driver of the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution, and that’s why it occurred in northwestern Europe? Or not?

STEPHENSON: One of the things that comes up in the books you’re talking about is the existence of a certain kind of out-communities that were weirdly overrepresented among people who created new economic systems, opened up new trade routes, and so on.

I’m talking about Huguenots, who were the Protestants in France who suffered a lot of oppression. I’m talking about the Puritans in England, who were not part of the established church and so also came in for a lot of oppression. Armenians, Jews, Parsis, various other minority communities that, precisely because of their outsider minority status, were forced to form long-range networks and go about things in an unconventional, innovative way.

So when we think about communities such as Jews or Parsis, and think about their outsized contribution to business or culture, it is this point that Stephenson makes that we should keep in mind. Because Jews and Parsis and Armenians were outsiders, they were “forced to form long-range networks”.

In most cases, for most people of these communities, these long-range networks and unconventional way of doing things didn’t pay off, and they ended up being worse off compared to comparable people from the majority communities in wherever they lived.

However, in the few cases where these long-range networks and innovative ways of doing things succeeded, they succeeded spectacularly. And these incidents are cases that we have in mind when we think about the spectacular success or outsized contributions of these communities.

Another way to think of this is – denied “normal life”, people from marginalised communities were forced to take on much more risk in life. The expected value of this risk might have been negative, but this higher risk meant that these communities had a much better “upper tail” than the majority communities that suppressed and oppressed them.

Given that in terms of long-term contributions and impact and public visibility it is only the tails of the distribution that matter (mediocrity doesn’t make news), we think of these communities as having been extraordinary, and wonder if they have “better genes” and so on.

It’s a simple case of risk, and oppression. This, of course, is no justification for oppressing swathes of people and forcing them to take more risks than necessary. People need to decide on their own risk preferences.

Neal Stephenson is Amibah the Formless One

Close to ten years ago, some of us had imagined ourselves to be Gods, and thus created a Pantheon. I was War, for whatever reason. Madness was Madness. Kodhi was Disease. Spunky was Death, because, you know, Death looks like Spunky.

And then there was a whole host of “minor Gods”, most of who I don’t remember right now, but most of who were also modelled after real people that we (Madness, Disease and I – the creators of the Pantheon) were very well acquainted with. If I’m not wrong, there was a point in time when we tried fitting every significant person around us into the Pantheon. Anyway.

So as far as Pantheons are concerned a flat organisation is not desirable. There can be minor quibbles among the Gods, which can only be resolved by a higher power. Then, there can be conflicts in judgments of Gods, for which a hierarchy is necessary to determine whose Will will prevail.

One way of doing this is to establish a hierarchical structure, where there is some kind of well-formed ordering among the Gods of the Pantheon. The downside of this, of course, is that there can be quibbles among the Gods regarding their positions in the Pantheon itself, and if they can’t agree on the hierarchy itself, there is very little they can achieve by being Gods.

So a standard solution for this is to have a mostly flat organisational structure, but have a head at the head of it – a King of Gods, or perhaps a God of Gods. So in Indian mythology you have Indra. The Greeks have Zeus, whom the Romans call Jupiter and whom the Norse call Thor (it is interesting, though, that when it comes to days of the week, it is Brhaspati and not Indra who is mapped to Jupiter and Thor. But that is another matter). Given that most of the Pantheonic religions have a King of Gods, it seems like a rather sustainable organisational structure!

And so we decided to have a King of Gods for our Pantheon also. Now, within our peer group we wanted to avoid unsavoury competition, and didn’t want to impose a hierarchy. So we had to get someone from outside the peer group to head the Pantheon (like the Kodhis have Manoj Kumar at the head of their Pantheon). So we created a King of Gods, and called him/her (it wasn’t clear then) Amibah the Formless One. Amibah wasn’t mapped to anyone we knew.

So as I’d mentioned in these pages last month, I recently finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Earlier in October, two days before I was due a day-long flight, I started reading the prequel to that, The Baroque Cycle (this book is so long that at the end of the flight, most of which I spent reading, I was at 6% in the book). I’m now through about a quarter of the book, and it has been absolutely awesome. I’ve learnt much more about late Medieval European history by reading this book than by reading all the other history books I’ve read in the last several years.

That, however, is besides the point. As I have been going through the two books of Stephenson, I’m amazed at how much of Madness’s talking and writing and style is derived from Stephenson. In almost every page, there is something that I read that reminds me of Madness. The similarity in styles is unmistakable. Considering that Madness had finished reading the two books before he wrote all the stuff in which the same style was seen, the causation can only run one way – everything Madness says and does is heavily influenced by Stephenson’s writings.

Madness channels Stephenson in everything that he writes, says and does. If you were to remove the elements of Stephenson from Madness, he gets reduced to virtually nothing. By thus channeling Stephenson, Madness can be considered an ambassador of Stephenson. Nay, he should be considered to be a Prophet of Stephenson.

So if Madness is a Prophet of Stephenson, that implies that Stephenson is a God. But Madness is no ordinary prophet – he is also a member of the Pantheon. That a member of the Pantheon is Stephenson’s prophet can mean only one thing – that Stephenson is a higher member of the Pantheon. Which means he is none other than the King of Gods.

Which means that Neal Stephenson is actually Amibah the Formless ONe.