The Ruffian, Special Edition: Book Club

This Week's Book: "Rational Ritual": Why Everyone Needs To Know What Everyone Knows.

Dear Ruffians. After I’ve read a book I really like I like to talk about it, but I’ve always balked at joining a book club because then I’d have to listen politely as people express incorrect opinions about the book in question (yes I realise this is my problem). So I’ve hit upon this great plan: a book club in which I’m the only one allowed to speak.

At irregular intervals I’ll be writing about books I’ve found interesting and connecting them to whatever’s going on. I hope it will be a source of reading inspiration for you, but also that each ‘review’ is interesting in its own right regardless of whether you’ve read or want to read the book. Sound good? Then let’s begin. No, me first.

Rational Ritual, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, a book about why successful human society depends on everyone knowing something about what everyone knows.

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge: Amazon.co.uk:  Michael Suk-Young Chwe: 9780691158280: Books

The return of televised sport post-lockdown has been immensely welcome - you don’t realise how important the unimportant things in life are until they are taken away. There is no doubt, however, that watching a football game on TV when there is no crowd in the stadium is less enjoyable than it is with one. Even the biggest games feel a little flat and trivial, like watching a bunch of blokes in a park kick a ball around for ninety minutes. Yes, I know that’s what it literally is, but some veil of magic has been stripped away and I’d like it back.

On the one hand, this is predictable and unsurprising - we all love a good atmosphere - but on the other, it’s puzzling. Presumably I like watching football for the game itself - the tactical battles, the glorious goals, and of course, the interminable VAR disputes. All of that is right there on my TV screen. If we conceive of the game itself as the information or content I’m here for, then the atmospherics should be irrelevant. Why should it matter whether I can watch other people watching the game? Yet, given the option, I choose to switch the fake crowd noise on. I need to lie to myself in order to get the most out of what I’m watching. That’s weird.

I suspect the answer that Michael Suk-Young Chwe would give is that football is a ritual as well as a sport, and that, like many human rituals, part of its purpose is to affirm to us that other people are watching the same game - that we are all partaking of the same reality. The desire for “common knowledge” - for knowing that I know what others know, and that they see what I see - is deeply human, and what’s more, meeting it is crucial to the organisation of any society. Rituals are one way that common knowledge is generated.

Rational Ritual was published in 2001. I read it a few years ago and re-read it last month, for what probably won’t be the last time. It is a short, scholarly book, crammed to the brim with insights and provocations. Suk-Young Chwe is a political scientist at the University of California who specialises in game theory, which uses math to analyse how people make decisions together. There’s little math in this book. When I say Rational Ritual is scholarly I mean in the old-fashioned sense of asking a big question and then ranging freely across disciplinary boundaries to find answers. The case studies he draws on are eclectic: in almost every paragraph there’s another story or example from anthropology, history, business or popular culture (it includes an analysis of On The Waterfront and a theory of Apple’s ‘1984’ ad). Although Chwe was writing at the start of the century, to me his book offers a powerful explanation of our current political and cultural disruptions.

What Rational Ritual is About: “Common Knowledge”

It’s about many things but let’s start with politics. As Hobbes worked out, the first requirement of any orderly society is that its inhabitants submit to the same authority. That authority might be an individual like a chieftain or monarch, or a representative institution like parliament, or the rule of law. Whatever it is, most people have to submit to that authority for the system to work. That presents what game theorists call a coordination problem. Each person will be more willing to support an authority, the more that people support it; I believe in the king if you believe in the king, and you believe in the king if I believe in the king. But how do I know that you believe - and how do you know I believe?

Historically, the solution to this problem has been to create ceremonies, rituals and narratives that enable people to see other people submitting to the authority. Chwe calls this the creation of common knowledge, the bland-sounding but fertile concept which forms the central theme of his book. Chwe discusses the early modern ritual of a royal progress, when a new monarch traversed his or her kingdom in an entourage, drawing crowds along the way. The point was not just that you could pay respects to the queen but that you could see others doing so. It was a way of creating knowledge of what everyone ‘knows’, in this case that the queen is our legitimate ruler. Each individual might have had doubts, but those doubts dissipated or were suppressed when they saw everyone else (apparently) believing.

I can know or believe something, and you can know or believe the same thing. In that sense we would have shared knowledge. Common knowledge is when I know that you know and you know that I know (ad infinitum). My knowledge or belief about what you and others know and believe is crucial, not just to politics, but to all aspects of societal life. It enables people to coordinate - to do things together, to act as and feel part of a group or community with shared purposes.

To illustrate the basic problem that common knowledge solves, Chwe uses an imaginary example. Say I’m on a bus with a friend and we’re both going to the same place but we’re standing near different exits, and other passengers have come between us, so we can’t see each other (oh and we’ve left our phones at home - suspend your disbelief, OK?). Before reaching our stop, I spot a mutual friend on the street, waving to my friend to get off at the next stop for a drink. The bus draws to a halt. I know I want to stick with my friend on the bus. Should I get off or not? If my friend saw our friend on the street, I’m pretty sure he’ll want to disembark, but I don’t know that. At this point it’s possible we get split up, or we both stay on the bus and miss our friend, both outcomes being clearly sub-optimal.

In Chwe’s words: “Successful communication sometimes is not simply a matter of whether a given message is received. It also depends on whether people are aware that other people also receive it.” To put it slightly differently, it’s not just about knowledge of the message, it’s knowing that other people have received the message too - which is what Chwe calls the “metaknowledge” of a message.

And it’s meta-knowledge all the way down. Let’s say that I can see, by watching the top of your head, that you have seen our friend. I still don’t know if I should get off the bus or not. I know you want to stick with me (look, we’re close buddies, OK?) and I don’t know if you know that I know about our friend. In theory this is an infinite regress. Rather than worry our pretty little heads about that let’s just observe that something is common knowledge if everyone knows about it and everyone knows that everyone knows about it, and so on.

In summary, we want to take part in things only if others take part, but none of us know if they’re going to take part, so we have come up with various ways of generating common knowledge about what everyone is likely to do. Ritual is one way to do that; others, as we’ll see, include seating arrangements, news media, advertising and WhatsApp groups.

The Many Manifestations of Common Knowledge

Note that a key condition of our communication breakdown on the bus is that we couldn’t see each other’s eyes. Eye contact is the most primitive and enduring method of generating common knowledge. The human capacity to see where others are gazing is crucial to our superior ability to coordinate and collaborate as a species. Evolutionary biologists think this is why the human eye has a sharper contrast between the pupil and the white of the eye than other primates. It doesn’t help us see better but it helps us see what others are seeing (or, it helps others see what we are seeing).

For larger groups, the best way to achieve collective eye contact is to sit in a circle. Historically, many of the structures and buildings that house collective decision-making are designed with this in mind; from the Native American tribes who built circular meeting places underground, called ‘kivas’, to Roman amphitheatres, to nineteenth century town halls, the public square is often a circle. The shape might ostensibly be chosen to symbolise equality or amity but the structural reason for it is that everyone can see each other “in perfect reciprocity”. The circle is a communication technology.

The creation of common knowledge can serve democratic decision-making, but it can equally serve autocracies or rebellions. Hitler’s rallies enabled Germans to see that other Germans were loyal Nazis. Authoritarian regimes do their best to stop common knowledge of any reality except the one they wish to project. Even if all of the citizens of a regime hate it, and even if, in an act of collective effort, they had the power to overthrow it, the regime’s authority may go unchallenged until everyone knows that everyone knows (that everyone knows…). Once that threshold is jumped, things can move very quickly, as we saw in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as people feel able to reveal their preferences. I suspect there’s a similar effect at work when democratic opinion on a divisive issues shifts relatively quickly, as happened in the US on same-sex marriage - many people who privately felt OK about it were waiting for a signal that most others felt the same, before, as it were, coming out.

Let’s look at a few more examples, some from the book and some from me:

  • #MeToo. (This happened after Chwe’s book was written although he discusses similar dynamics.) Harvey Weinstein got away with his obscene and illegal behaviour for years even though it was not a secret. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people knew about it. When the story broke in the New York Times, the scandal blew up not simply because more people found out, but because the meta-knowledge became inescapable: suddenly, everyone knew that everyone knew. Cue multiple mea culpas from Hollywood stars.

  • Could you, in theory, replace fire alarms with all-employee text messages? No, because the purpose of a fire alarm is only partly to send the message (‘fire’). It’s also to instantly let everyone know that everyone else knows.

  • Before Christie’s sold Salvator Mundi, the last known work of Leonardo Da Vinci, it staged a global marketing campaign for it. Why did they do that? After all, there were only a handful of potential customers; Christie’s salespeople knew all of them personally, and visited their homes with the artwork. But Christie’s knew that buyers would spend a few extra million on a painting that the world considered “iconic”. This isn’t just a quirk of idle billionaires; it’s human nature. We value things more highly when we know others value them.

  • Chew cites email protocols. You can send everyone the same message on bcc, but to generate common knowledge you must use cc. That way, everyone can see what everyone can see (see).

  • A big part of the reason that Facebook has had a disruptive effect on elections is that politicians and pressure groups - and malign actors - have been able to send messages which only the intended receivers can see. It’s politics on bcc.

  • As we’ve seen, autocratic regimes work hard to establish common knowledge, especially when they seek to abolish tradition, which is history’s way of generating it. When French revolutionaries converted churches into pagan temples they made sure to abolish side-chapels and transepts so that the building became one flag-bedecked space, making it difficult for someone to see you without you seeing them.

  • In 2011, Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, led the business into a rash restructuring that it soon had to reverse. Afterwards he discovered that senior executives had expressed doubts about his decision, but not to him, or to each other. The dissent never reached critical mass. Afterwards, Hastings instituted an online internal forum called Farming For Dissent, in which executives share their ideas and invite criticism and disagreement.

  • One of the definitive mass advertising campaigns of the modern era was for the launch of Listerine, in the 1920s. Originally a surgical antiseptic used in hospitals, it now began to be marketed to consumers as a mouthwash. A magazine campaign which at its height reached over a 100 million people per month identified a widespread ailment called “halitosis”, a reassuringly clinical term for bad breath, which could be solved with a morning swill of Listerine. By doing so, it made a private problem public. People who suffered from bad breath or, critically, who imagined they might, now saw themselves not as lone, shameful sufferers but as one of many. The ads were so ubiquitous that everyone could assume that everyone else saw them too. What’s more, the campaign was itself about common knowledge; the potential consumer was portrayed as not knowing what everyone knew. Headlines included “If your friends were entirely frank with you” and “They say it behind your back”. Since bad breath wasn’t the kind of thing one could discuss in polite society, the ad campaign effectively owned exclusive rights to public communication on the topic, filling a vacuum it partly created.

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Common Brands

I’m going to close out with some thoughts on how common knowledge has evolved since Chwe’s book was written. But on the way, let’s stop briefly to look at an industry I know well, advertising. The industry has come a long way since Listerine. Now that brand marketers have access to endless data on consumers and so many channels to reach them by, they are obsessed by tailoring messages to each individual consumer. This is an advance in some ways but there is a danger that marketers now over-rate the importance of what consumers believe about their brand, and underrate the importance of what consumers believe about other consumers. The value of “fame” (as opposed to “brand awareness”) is my knowledge that other people know that the car I’m sitting in is expensive, or technologically advanced, or sustainable or whatever. A billboard is effective not just because I see it but because I know that others see it too.

In Chwe’s terms, brands solve coordination problems. Advertising taps a basic need of people to conform to the norms of the community they’re in. What beer should I have in the fridge? One that I know guests will know and expect - in fact you might say that whether the guests or I really like it is a secondary consideration (call it the Budweiser principle). Why did I buy Nike shoes when I started running? Not because I admire their construction or because I love Nike’s “brand values” but because I know that everyone knows them, so I won’t ever have to explain or defend my choice. To the extent that brand values matter it’s that they send the same signal (“high achiever”, “good parent”) to everyone, not just me. Establishing a cultural salient like this is enormously valuable to a brand. It means the brand becomes the beneficiary of network effects - the more people that use it, the more essential it becomes. That can’t be achieved by talking to one consumer at a time. As I put it in a previous article, messages can be targeted but meaning must be mass produced.

However there’s no doubt that it’s just getting harder for brands, particularly new brands, to achieve and sustain that kind of fame because there are fewer opportunities for them to send messages that everyone sees, due to the way media has shattered into a million tiny pieces. Thus common knowledge is rarer, more valuable and more expensive than ever. The price of Super Bowl ads has skyrocketed over the last twenty years (note that this coincides with the internet usage) despite - actually because - TV audiences have declined.

super bowl ads cost

Ruobing Su/Business Insider

Even businesses with network effects built into their usage pay a lot of money for fame. Social media brands are some of the biggest advertisers around. A lot of this spend is in conventional media - TV, print, posters - the very same media from whom the social media brands are stealing share of attention. TikTok has consistently spent big on advertising in order to break out of its early adopter groups. Its ads don’t say much about the app, they just say, more or less, “TIKTOK”. The point of fame is fame.

What Rational Ritual tells us about 2020

Look around you at this blasted moment and what do you see? The gradual dissolution of cohesive societies into hostile factions which often cannot agree on the nature of basic reality; a decline in trust in national institutions; the rise of ever-weirder conspiracy theories; the sudden rise and sudden decline of extremist political movements; a widespread sense of atomisation and anomie; squabbling over the stories and symbols of nationhood. All of this derives from the way our media environment has developed into an ever-proliferating hypermarket of niches, where everyone gets their information from different sources, nobody watches anything at the same time, and nobody knows anything about what anyone knows.

Common knowledge isn’t just about information; it acts as a cultural and psychological binding agent for people of disparate backgrounds and beliefs. A nation is a community insofar as everyone knows that everyone knows certain symbols, ceremonies, stories, norms of behaviour, songs and TV shows. Those ceremonies may feel archaic, those stories may mislead, those songs may be cheesy, but take them away and all you have is a diverse collection of people who happen to live under the same legal jurisdiction. That is not conducive to harmonious co-existence or to individual well-being. Remember, as per Chwe’s hypothetical scenario on the bus, common knowledge makes it easier to predict what others are going to do, which in turn makes it easier for us to decide what to do and how to be (and in turn…). But a nation with diminishing common knowledge is one in which, from any one citizen’s perspective, everyone else seems increasingly unpredictable. That’s a recipe for stress and anxiety.

At the same time as it becomes harder to sustain national cultures, people can form micro-cultures with much greater ease than before. The web generally and the social media platforms in particular have made it easier for people to split off from the main and form their own islands of common knowledge. WhatsApp has built a multi-billion dollar business by creating an easy and instant way for groups to form common knowledge, while insulating themselves from the outside world.

Extreme political movements like Corbynism in the UK or Five Star in Italy have been able to aggregate supporters who might otherwise have remained dispersed into coherent political entities by reassuring them that others out there were having the same thoughts as them. Conspiracy cults like QAnon, and anti-authority movements like the anti-vaxxers, gain traction much faster than was previously possible, for the same reason. In all these cases, people get a feeling of belonging from those groups they may not get from society as a whole, which in turn reinforces their sense of disconnection from that society.

In short, common knowledge is now harder to generate at the level of a nation, and easier to generate at the level of a group. That’s a perilous combination.