Sunday, 20 July 2014

Group Theory Sucks

I don't like groups. That said, I predict that within ten years, everything is going to be happening in groups. In education, in our working life, in our personal lives, there's going to be a group mentality to all of it. Why do I predict this? Because of what I'm seeing.

It's the way groups form that disturbs me.

This doesn't have to suck. My fear is that it will. My question is whether you agree. Here's my reasoning.

1) Corporations Like Groups

Individuals are hard to predict. A group mentality is a lot easier to anticipate. (Shades of Asimov's "Foundation" series.) Corporations in particular like being able to categorize everyone into little boxes, so that they can then market things towards you. (All girls like pink, right?) This also gets them off the hook if a campaign goes badly because "everything pointed to that working, see?". WE'RE not the problem, it's your mixed signals!

This sucks. It means less new stuff is going to be tried out, because individual preferences are not "safe". It means we get more entrenched in our ways, perpetuating the cycle. It means minority groups may fall off the radar in favour of pushing towards the bigger groups (and "big" is being increasingly defined by money, not size). Which ultimately means that innovation will stand out more for being innovative than necessarily being good.

2) Backlash Against Individuals

The pendulum is swinging away from "everyone is a unique snowflake" and "everyone is a winner". It's moving towards "be a team player" and "you can't do it on your own". There is some truth to this. Networking is huge. You can't just walk into an interview any more, wave a university degree around, and get hired - everyone else is doing that too.

To actually get hired, you need more than marks. You need connections, you need to be able to work collaboratively, you need soft skills. You need to be boosted up into the spotlight by your peers, who act as your judges. Consider the case of Shinichi Mochizuki, who supposedly proved the ABC conjecture - but after 10 years of working on his own, no one understands his work. This is not a good thing. That said, the pendulum is going to swing too far.

Everybody betrayed me! I'm fed up with this world!

This sucks. It means that working by yourself will label you as "not being a team player". That having no social media presence becomes a black mark against you, since it implies a lack of social awareness. (Much like you need a credit card/rating these days.) It means people with social disabilities (like Asperger's) may be unfairly overlooked. Worst of all, people who fail will think there is something wrong with them, or their work, when the actual issue could be that they are not as extroverted as their peers.

3) Backlash Against Society

Politics is becoming increasingly polarized these days, at least in the United States and Canada. We're not so much voting for OUR candidate as AGAINST the other guy. (Which our candidate takes as carte blanche for doing whatever s/he likes, but that's another issue.) But it's not just politics, people are taking sides in issues of relationship and race too. For instance, if I now mention "NotAllMen" before "YesAllWomen" - will you be judging me?

We got into office based on ideology!
So, anyone have a plan?
Granted, the only way to effect large changes in society is with groups. Individuals may act as a catalyst, or a spokesperson, but you're not going to change hundred year old laws without support. There's also safety in numbers. More to the point, it seems like a lot of current issues involve changing the establishment. Which is creating more group mentalities. And while I'm all for change and equality... it's also created that polarization.

This sucks. Because our brains tend to remember negative things more than positive ones, one group often tears into the other instead of building themselves up. Media and big business also look for a "villain" who made a bad decision, in defiance of what we teach our youth - namely that we learn by making such mistakes. (Sometimes the "villian" is even the victim - seriously?!) Competition, while good to avoid monopolies, makes no sense here. Individuals are becoming targets, and scapegoats, due to group mentalities.

4) Too Much Data

SO MUCH DATA. It's impossible to sift through it all. So what do we do? We group it. We decide: These are blogs I can follow for statistics, these are ones for gardening. These are online stores/reviewers I'll trust, whereas these ones seem to have bad reviews. The internet is only too happy to help too: "You liked watching X, maybe you'll like XX too!" But when was the last time you searched outside your groups? Or for an intersection within two groups? Heck, when was the last time you went past page 3 on a web search?

This sucks. It can very quickly boil down to "These are people who support my viewpoints, these are people who do not". (When was the last time you disagreed with someone on Twitter?) Grouping also makes it hard for newcomers outside established groups to make a name for themselves. It even makes it hard for some people INSIDE established groups to speak up, once the group is large enough. In short, Cliques Are Inevitable, and I hate cliques.


Groups don't HAVE to suck. There's one concept which was introduced to me this past year, which achieves many benefits of groups (diverse opinions, societal change) without a lot of the downsides (cliques, getting set in your ways). Randomized Groups. Constantly changing the members and the voices. I'm still trying to figure out how to implement it in a more traditional classroom setting. (Randomized group seating for lectures?)

Of course, I'm not sure how well that works outside of an educational setting. I could claim I'm doing it here, in that this blog is all over the place - but then, the voices in my head do not constitute a group. Perhaps if we randomize your blog readers or news feeds every few weeks? But then not only would people start complaining, corporations would freak out without their targeted advertising. Almost the same way people now freak out over a lack of individual rights - even as the same politicians keep getting elected.

Maybe if we instituted "Randomized Wednesdays". A day when you have to interact with a different group. Actually, it would probably be better if it was a different random day for everyone, as you can't see what the other guy is doing if he's not there. I suspect some of you are stressing out at the mere thought of this.

"People can be very frightened of change." (Kirk, ST VI)

Whenever groups integrate, add the constant.

It comes down to comfort. If you know the people around you, their likes and dislikes, you will not only be able to serve them better, you will also feel more comfortable. It's when you're put into an unfamiliar situation (like a random group) that you become unsettled, uncomfortable, even unpleasant. Which is when you will probably cling to the familiar, to the comfortable. Because we've been told that to be COMFORTABLE is to be HAPPY.

THAT is what really needs to change.

Which is, perhaps ironically, why I should try to do more with groups... because I don't like them. Fine then. I have less than ten years to get comfortable. Any suggestions from the group?


  1. I recently read Susan Cain's book Quiet which offers a lot of similar criticisms that you point out. I personally am a weird middle person -- I love interacting with a group to share ideas and get a concept started, but then I need to go into a hole for a week and flesh it out on my own. Corporations say they value teamwork, but I think they should really value clear communication of expectations and a willingness to openly spread your ideas and consider those of your peers. I don't need to sit next to you in an office without walls to do that -- in fact I would probably get nothing done and be frustrated at you for being the problem. Events like TMC are a chance to have that in-person collaboration and excitement get sparked, but online community offers a nice barrier to outside contact that can be opened or closed as needed to help you work best. Maybe in class there should be more desks-separated quiet time instead of groups all-day every-day as my room is setup now?

    1. I don't know if that's necessarily weird so much as defying being in a category/group. (Perhaps shades of your "Individualized education becoming categorization" post.) I can see TMC being in synch with that process too, get a bunch of stuff and go on your own to ponder. I'm a little more hesitant of linking it with the online community though, because I feel like the "permanence" of social media presents something of a false window. We don't see the whole outside, or even necessarily what is true.

      As to the desk thing, that's what I've had to ponder. A more "quiet" area might work if kids didn't have the tradition of being in the same desk each day, plus I have the same number of students as I have desks (so who gets "stuck" in that area)? Because everyone should at least experience a group sometime. I'm also not sure there's room for any desks beyond 30 either, even assuming we could pull some out of storage. Plus I don't want to randomize the location of desks... but maybe something is still possible with randomizing students. Anyway, that's all me, maybe you'll find something for your room in my musings!