Posted by: rolfsky | January 2, 2007

the allure of general theories

I am the type of thinker that’s always trying to come up with a general theory behind things; rules, sets, guidelines, comparisons, generalizations. For me, it helps simplify things, because if I have a workable and generally correct theory about something, then I can forget the details, and only focus on remembering that doesn’t fit within the theory. It just occurs to me, that this type of thinking allow for “data compression”, not unlike my understand of how JPG compression works, setting up large blocks and only pointing out the variations from those blocks. (This would also explain why if parts of my memory are corrupted, I’m at a near total loss, like JPG’s suffer badly from line noise, while bitmapped images fare much better). But I digress…

So, the allure of general theory always plagues me, I hunt them down, sniff them out, and generally go a little crazy sometimes, looking for something that “fits”. When I finally to come to a “solution” that makes me happy, a great feeling of triumph comes across me, eventhough I now recognize, my theory is probably at best incomplete, at worst, inaccurate.

Reading over the theory of the Long Tail makes me recognize the work of another general theorist, who believes he’s stumbled upon the answer to profit, niches, and markets for all senses. He based his theory on another general theory by Shirky, which, in a sense also describes something that is happening and postulates a few reasons behind it. The unfortunate part about all this? The theories are all somewhat correct, in describing (and to a lesser degree predicting) the area for which they were generated.

It’s like throwing a dart in a wind-storm: with a few lobs, assuming the wind is fairly constant, you can extrapolate a rough kinetic theory of how that dart is flying. You may, with some practice, even be able to extrapolate and refine that theory enough that you can hit a target, or even hit multiple unique targets, successfully. Where it breaks down is when you try to apply that knowledge to pitching a baseball on a calm day in Wrigley field. The theory was generated with no consideration of drag, gravity and other basic “laws”. It was based on a current environment, a vast collection and combination of the specific conditions and their expression at that moment.

And what does this all mean? We have a long way to go with regards to psychology and economics. The problems we wrestle with are more exquisitely complex and we can even fathom. (But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.)


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