On the Value of Exceeding Expectations
Expectations are what ground us in life. They give us instructions about the things we’re likely to value, or fear, to treat with indifference or just plain disregard. But they also lead us away from perspectives that require a little too much thought in peculiar directions. I mentioned this briefly when I wrote about cartoonist Scott Adams recently – he has always succeeded against other people’s expectations. But what about ideas? Are we too dismissive of ideas that don’t fit our expectations?
That’s what I had in mind when I set out to write a new batch of microreviews this week. The books highlighted in the sidebar aren’t the usual fare. They shift from the surprising delights of comics to the far more dubious social mechanics of drug-dealing gangs, all the while taunting, asking whether you, leisurely reader, will buy their big ideas. And whether I appreciate them or not, that’s a valuable asset in itself.
Probably the most disappointing book of the batch is Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day. An account of Venkatesh’s unusual approach to sociology forms most of one chapter in Seven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics. But where that version cuts to the bone and reveals society writ small in the economics of drug dealing, Venkatesh’s book wallows in a sort of tough but scared sociologist mode.
And there’s also a sort of repulsiveness about the subject that makes it at once fascinating and almost loathsome. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution describes the effort as very interesting but “somewhat evil, if I may call upon that old-fashioned concept”. Interesting because it offers a unique view of how close gang dynamics are to more acceptable social norms, but evil because Venkatesh spent years encouraging and supporting the vicious gang leader JT. As a narrative the book fails, but as a surprising affront to middle-class values I truly hope it lingers on the best-seller lists.
Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams confront and expose expectations in much the same way, but their Panicology is focused on what passes for news in the traditional media. We shouldn’t worry about bird flu in the city or gadget safety in a technology obsessed world, because the hype outweighs the probability of disaster. Of course they cover far more ground than that, but their message doesn’t vary all that much.
It’s not really a case of cutting “through the nonsense with critical thinking and a bit of wit” as Shakti Sombrero described it at the intriguing Panic Watch! blog. At some point you’re more likely to wonder how many more examples Briscoe and Aldersey-Williams need to make their case.
Still, their analysis is interesting because it pushes into the murky realm of whether we really believe what we see on the nightly news, or if we dismiss it out of hand. Perhaps we do both and worry about obvious improbabilities: that’s a little beyond expectations.
In a sense, Clay Shirky turns this whole scenario upside-down with Here Comes Everybody. This is the sort of book we should expect from one of the foremost observers of Web 2.0. But Shirky’s account of how “social tools” such as Flickr, Wikipedia and blogs are allowing people to form communities beyond the usual limits of daily life also offers up a position that doesn’t quite ring true. Cyberspace, writes Shirky, is a concept fallen into disuse because we no longer distinguish between the online and offline ‘worlds’.
I’ve been deriving my livelihood from editing over the Internet for 8 years now and even I find this a challenging notion. Is the hyper-reality of skipping over borders and communicating around the world in an instant just an aspect of ‘real’ life? Or is it a special case of society being re-formed, reshaped in a technological image? Both alternatives are intriguing.
So not all ideas that exceed expectations are easy to pin down. They have a tendency to float just out of range, not entirely within any one field of thought. Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics tosses up premises a bit like that, jumping from considerations of artistic integrity to declamations of woeful storytelling and never really skipping a beat. Wolk’s big idea is relatively simple – the comic book can be appreciated as a medium that deals with ideas in their raw forms better than most.
At one stage Wolk makes the slightly disarming claim that superhero comics – not his preferred genre as it happens – are “the closest thing that exists right now to the ‘novel of ideas’ ”. This sounds preposterous, but then again the broad scenarios that comics have covered in the last twenty years as the corny dialogue has fallen behind more inspired artwork (save a lifetime’s worth of preposterously large breasts) lend themselves to big ideas half revealed. It’s up to the reader to work out the logic buried in the storyline. Superhero comics always ask the most difficult question: what if?
We return, then, to expectations exceeded, to being offered something in a book that makes you stop and wonder. You don’t have to agree with everything an author writes to be challenged by uppity ideas, by notions that might lead somewhere new.
There’s always something delightfully puzzling just beyond the confines of our everyday world.