People have a strong tendency to be different from one another (e.g. are horrified to be caught in the same dress, find it weird to order the same dishes as their companion without comment or to choose the same art for their living room). Yet they also have a strong tendency to conform.

These are even in the same areas, and the best behavior seems to be balancing on an edge between the two forces. You don’t want to wear either a dress that someone else is wearing, nor a dress in a style that hasn’t been worn since the 1600s.

I have noticed both of these human forces before, but I hadn’t seen them so vividly as acting in the same realm. You don’t want your essay to be on an identical topic to another student’s, but you also don’t want it to be outside the bounds of what the professor thinks of as an essay, or expressing views beyond a short hop from those others would endorse.

This makes me imagine the curlicues of culture as growing in the fertile interstitial zone between options too conformist to consider and options too wild to consider. Kind of like a Mandelbrot set or a tidal flat or a cellular automaton. There’s a similar pattern in the space of ways the whole of culture could have been: if everyone was very conformist about everything, it would be monotony, and if everyone immediately flung themselves as far away from anyone else as they could on every axis, it would be another kind of monotony. But with this balance of effects as it is, we get some complicated spiraling evolution of art movements and attitudes, trousers and tools. Each idea bringing forth riffs of of it in every direction.

Inspired by a conversation with Robin Hanson, where he probably basically said the main point here, that these two forces act in opposition.