A study of eccentricity

Are we less interesting than we used to be?

I

Are we less eccentric than we used to be?

The thought started from a Twitter exchange recently. The prior credence that seemed to exist was that somehow we're living in an age of mediocrity. An era where the Great Persons of history or Great Works of history didn't exist any longer, or at least only existed sporadically.

If you take a random sample of the important movers and shakers of 18th and 19th century Britain and compare them to 21st century America the biographies of the former are far more interesting, their pet projects far bolder and more creative.

There's also the persistent myth that this is why we're just not accomplishing much.

People like Musk are the exception today, in the age of Rockefeller they were the rule...

But can it be true? What we know of Rockefeller comes from a historical lens that's more than a century removed. What we know of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk comes from minute-by-minute updates published with no filter.

The older generation had Howard Hughes, but we have Elon Musk. Yes Hughes went nutty and used to store his pee in bottles, but Musk sincerely believes we can become AI-human hybrids who live on Mars. So that’s a tie.

There was an exploration by Scholars Stage that looked at an adjacent phenomenon. At many a time in human history, you could pretty easily name those writers who are destined to become classics. The punchline made in the article (though you should go read the whole thing) is that we have homogenised our culture enough that we're stuck and stagnant.

In a world in which American culture is so dominant yet so sterile it is difficult for genuinely fresh developments abroad to arise. For three decades we have had our universal empire and all the intellectual rigidity that comes with it.

There seems to be a huge amount of both recency bias and salience bias present in these assertions. But it's a belief held widely enough that it's worth figuring out if it's fair.

II

Let's take a first glance, trusting in the all seeing Google to see if we can see anything useful. Each of the three below are results when you search for notable folks.

Notable 18th century people

Notable 19th century people

Because Charles Dickens snuck in above for unknown reasons, I added an extra for this century. Mary W snuck in too, though I blame Google for pushing her accomplishments up a century.

Notable 20th century people

I added a couple more here since I didn't want to leave out Papa.

Apart from the fantastic variance in hairstyles, the interesting thing is that it isn't immediately clear how one group is that much more successful, smarter or more eccentric compared to the other.

There are plenty that are left out here in the earlier eras - like Howard Hughes and Rockefeller and JP Morgan and the Rothschilds and Walt Disney. But we also have our eccentrics here. There's Elon Musk who wants us to become spacefaring human-AI hybrids, Bezos who can basilisk-stare entire industries, Peter Thiel who's a well known genius + oceanic vampire, Jack who runs two companies equally absently from a Polynesian island, Bill Gates solving all of the world's problems, an anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto and more.

There's also the true counterparts of PT Barnum, like Elizabeth Holmes from Theranos and Trevor Milton from Nikola.

It's just not clear to me that we're living in a world of "elite sheep" where the lack of talent or drive is our main issue. I repeat from above, someone invented the future of money and we have no idea who that is still.

The one change that's worth mentioning is that we have much fewer eccentric world leaders, for the simple reason that a) there's much lesser looting and pillaging and conquering which appeals to a particular type of young man, and b) there's much fewer really rich people born into wealth with no legal or societal guardrails, helping them become as crazy as possible.

But maybe we're unfairly looking only at recent history. Let's go back in time to the Victorian ages. Do we have the equivalent of Lord Byron? For exploring we have Sir Ranulph Fiennes. He doesn't get the same love I feel, but he definitely fits the explorer/ swashbuckler/ poet bill. And we have David Bowie, a poet and Romantic who became Ziggy Stardust, an alien liberator.

We all fall somewhere on a bell curve that determines our abilities. Yet our exploits often follow a power law. It holds true for wealth, for accomplishment, for scientific discoveries and genius. And in the days when the status-bar for who all you knew was barbell-shaped, where you knew your locals and also knew the King, very few people broke out.

Feels weird to think somehow we're immune to those pressures and have become fully conformist in a weirdly unspecifiable way. That can't be true, can it?

III

Channelling Twitter again:

Which I'd argue is a key reason why so much was accomplished in the age of Rockefeller. An elite of "excellent sheep" might be able to make incremental improvements, but won't be able or willing to introduce genuine novelty. As it turns out that's more or less what we have...

Of course in conflating eccentricities with elite success, this is one possible answer for Nicolas Bloom's idea of why ideas are getting harder to find. I can't reconcile it with the fact people are claiming this is true despite a) the better tech we have, b) the better IQs we have, and c) the increased population we have. So if we're smarter, more capable and there's just more of us, surely we can't have become less interesting or able to generate novel insights. Solving all those needs a systemic answer, not a talent based one.

But what if we took a slightly different tack and start looking at a few examples, randomly chosen, to see what the average idea of an eccentric is.

  • Sir Tatton Sykes: A perfect British aristocrat, living in the late 19th century, who hated flowers with a consuming passion. He'd smash them when he saw one, and he also forbid his tenants in Yorkshire from growing the "nasty untidy things". In case that wasn't sufficient, as a replacement, he suggested cauliflowers. He also apparently used to buy coats in multiple sizes, to wear one atop another, so that he could take it off when he got hot or put them on when he got cold. To be honest, this sounds like genius to me!

  • Sir Ranulph Fiennes: A British explorer in the 20th century. He conducted expeditions to the South Pole, the North Pole and crossed Antarctica on foot. He circumnavigated around the world along its polar axis, and climbed the highest mountain on all seven continents. He climbed Mt Everest at age 65. He's also a pretty amazing author (you have to read The Feather Men), and a pretty good poet.

  • Lord Byron: He travelled the world and fought in the Greek War of Independence. He was bisexual, which he managed to hide reasonably badly. He was a politician, advocate of social reform and against the death penalty, which took some standing in those days. He was a philosopher and a fantastic poet. He also fathered Ada Lovelace, a foundational figure in the field of computer programming.

  • Alexander Thynn, Marquess of Bath: Among other amazing features, he lives in a safari park, decorated the rooms of his home with Kama Sutra paintings himself, and had 75 "wifelets" living in cottages on his estate. Need we say more?

  • Simon Norton: Mathematician in Cambridge, who at one point was called the greatest English mathematician since Newton. He worked with John Conway creating several discoveries related to finite groups and related to Conway's Game of Life. He was also obsessed with buses, spending most of his time later taking rides on buses all over England, fulfilling the public notion of what all mathematicians eventually become.

  • Other random selections: David Bowie, Walt Disney, Jane Goodall, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain

Politics and business are a little too easy, so I bucketed them together lest they overwhelm the results.

  • Business: Rockefeller, Elon Musk, Howard Hughes, Jack Dorsey, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, JP Morgan, Rothschild, Henry Ford

  • Politics: Kim Jong Un, Fidel Castro, Donald Trump, Nicolas Maduro, there's no shortage of weirdos in politics today. It does seem to be the case though that only dictators seem authorised to act crazy, which is also why the olden days seemed odder like King George IV or King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

  • Entertainment: This is where our era truly shines. We have Bjork and Johnny Depp and Tim Burton and, come on, Nicolas Cage. We even have Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol and a long enough array of rockers that most of their antics have passed from insane to barely noteworthy.

We forget sometimes that when we see the most interesting or eccentric people in history oftentimes we're seeing a selection from a long time period, selected out through a long period.

While making the list and doing a bit of random selection there seemed to be two forces at work, biasing the analysis. One was that there's of course recency bias in most available sources - there's just more written about modern day notable people. And another, those notable gentlemen (they were mostly gentlemen) from the 18th and 19th centuries were spread over a remarkably large time period (well toughly two and half centuries by definition), making it an unfair comparison. Since both the biases pointed in opposite directions, I took their effect as a wash, though this is a caveat emptor sort of situation.

IV

There's a coda to this. What defines our civilisation in many ways is our conception of the Great Work. Shakespeare's sonnets. Newton's diaries and discovery of gravity. Einstein's e = mc2 equation that captures the cosmos in something so simple. Mozart's Magic Flute. Whether it's in science, literature or music, the Great Work is a constant.

Do we have anything comparable in the past half century?

Oswald Spengler, in his analysis of comparative world history espouses the theory that all great cultures, us included, follow a similar arc. If you feel like it echoes Peter Turchin's theories of historical cycles, that's because it kind of does. But the interesting aspect of this analysis, at least as of this time, is that it explicitly invokes the ecological concept of civilisations as organisms, with clear birth, growth, maturity and death stages.

There's a rather poetic argument that then gets made. Cultural heights happen at the autumn of a civilisation's life. They're explicitly repudiating the cultural foundations that's been made, as in the case of Epicureans, Nietzsche and Confucius.

The interesting looking though is that Spengler could credibly articulate that Tolstoy and Karl Marx were world changing figures on par with Plato, he wrote that before WWI had started, not with the benefit of historical hindsight, but in the literal heat of the moment.

Who can we say that about today?

The fact that the answer isn't immediately, readily apparent is an interesting one. Our inability to recollect easily, what Kahneman would call availability bias, presents the absence of immediate evidence as the evidence of absence. And that's where the thought that "our generation is full of elite-sheep" comes from. I don't think that this suggests cultural homogenisation, but rather think that when you live in an age of excess where information flow costs nothing, it's sometimes much harder for someone to be easily and critically known as 'the best'.

In Literature, would Delilo and David Foster Wallace and Haruki Murakami be known as classics in the coming century? Perhaps. Or it might be Jose Saramago or Salman Rushdie or Tolkien or Orhan Pamuk. We can't tell today, which is sort of the whole point, but there's no shortage of candidates.

What about Architecture? The Burj Khalifa isn't quite the same as the Empire State Building or the stunning Capitol in stature, much less the sculpted cities of London or Paris. But they are impressive. Antoni Gaudi sure can be classified amongst the greats. Same for Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright or Zaha Hadid. The palm in Dubai is magnificent. We're also exploring an entirely new medium, which is what leads us to see the glass spires and concrete we see.

Even in philosophy, there's a trend. There was Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, but also Hume and Kant, and also Wittgenstein and Popper, and later Rawls and Nozick and Singer. There's a rich tradition that continues.

What about science? This is where we have the strongest argument, and perhaps where Bloom's argument is the strongest. There's not much in the recent decades that's of a magnitude similar to what Einstein or Von Neumann or Shannon did. And that seems to be a problem.

But whether this is because we're somehow less capable is debatable.

I repeat, in a population that's much larger, where the IQ is higher, and we have much better technology to help enable more talent, how can this be true? It shouldn't be our starting hypothesis, that's for sure.

What's much more likely is that we're at a punctuation point between existing S curves reaching maturity but where we haven't yet seen progress. Maybe it's a breakthrough in AI that pushes us to the next S curve. Maybe it's biology that either teaches us about complex systems or even increase our innate comprehension and analysis abilities. Maybe it's materials that help us build things which seemed impossible and help push the boundaries of experimentation and knowledge.

We don't know where we are, by definition, but it seems likely that the sorts of Great Works (at least in science) we want to see aren't invisible because we're somehow "lesser", either in capacity or through social conformity, but rather that we're as a species standing in front of a chasm too wide to jump in one leap, waiting to either spring higher or make better intermediate platforms to launch from.

The very fact that we can see equally groundbreaking acts in literature and architecture and entertainment, visible once you move past the biases clouding our vision. Even in philosophy great thinkers continue making their presence known.

It's only in areas that show cumulative growth, such as science or mathematics, where we see the Great Stagnation rearing it's ugly head.

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V

So why does it feel like we don't have enough eccentrics or, more generally, enough interesting people? A few possibilities.

  1. We do have them, but because our sense of time is fine-grained in the present while knowledge from history is coarse-grained. We compare every Dick and Harry in our time against the best from the times past. So it seems like we're living in an era of mediocrity, but it's just that we're not looking at things apples to apples.

  2. We don't have the equivalents of total charlatans putting on incredible shows or Victorian explorers going into the heart of Africa. And without that we don't have a singular cultural conception of "amazing work" which is simultaneously noteworthy and scarce.

  3. The societal mores were just looser back then, when Kings and Counts and elites of all stripes could get away with doing the craziest of things, with minimal repercussions.

  4. We have an extraordinary amount of self promotion as part of the cultural milieu, and this makes wading through that pit to identify an actual eccentric difficult. It's like we've had eccentricity inflation and finding the true A-pluses from the thousands of other A-pluses takes time. Einstein and Wittgenstein didn't have to share attention units with Kim.

  5. There are changes in where we are seeing the eccentrics - less in the world of politics or aristocracy, more in the world of entertainment, new emergent mediums like graphic novels and TV shows and movies, maybe around the same in the world of business and much less so in the world of science.

  6. The Overton window for eccentricity has shifted. When we read about the 19th century explorers it's akin to reading fiction. The world is unfamiliar as are it's inhabitants. Things naturally seem more alien and therefore interesting. It's not eccentricity we're measuring here, but unfamiliarity.

My sympathy is largely for the first, systemic answer that we're affected by the bias that we see the best and most interesting aspects of history carefully selected through the actions of time, while we see today without the benefit of a filter. It's hard to compare the two. We're comparing the best of another era with the average of today.

I don't think we, as a society, are getting more conformist. We're definitely getting more interlinked and that brings with it some level of social homogeneity. Whether that affects the level of conformism really depends on what level you're talking about. At the commercial level we might all be using iPhones, or using email. But those aren't core to our identity, any more than the fact that Lord Byron wrote on paper was core to his.

Feels like it's the right prior to have, and we need much more proof to explain that no, the level of interestingness has indeed changed. The explanations in order therefore becomes:

  1. Recency bias and availability heuristic makes us believe that our timeline is much less eccentric and interesting

  2. The increased volume of information reinforces the notion making it harder for individuals to truly stand out amongst the noise. Perhaps the firehose of output makes us feel overwhelmed towards all rather than proud and adulatory towards a few.

  3. In certain areas, like the sciences, we rely on cumulative performance and knowledge gathering, which makes it prone to times of punctuation. Other areas will continue to have breakout stars as seen in most historical eras.

It doesn't feel like individually we're less eccentric or less interesting or less capable necessarily than our forbearers. Unlike in the arts, in sciences we do need to wait for a better "standing on giant's shoulders" moment, but in the rest of human endeavours at least we're pretty well positioned. Sometimes we need to take a deep breath and just be slightly kinder to the present.