In the comments to yesterday’s conworlding post, Nate asked:
I would expect that wealthier people would buy larger yurts to show off their wealth, and then those would get gradually less movable until they’re basically living in houses. Since this doesn’t happen, what status and signaling effects are they optimizing for?
I answered that if you’re trying to design a crazy crackpot utopia, you better have some plan on how to redirect the urge toward status games.
I still think status games are one of the most blitheringly idiotic parts of the human experience. When people have to spend all their money on competing over zero-sum prestige items, it would literally be exactly as beneficial to just set a heap of dollar bills on fire. But they’re a pretty ingrained part of the species and just saying “Please don’t engage in status games” isn’t going to cut it.
The Priests of Joy decided to attack this problem by co-opting status games for their own purposes. They initiated a tradition of wearing symbolic jewelery – usually a necklace made of brightly colored beads. Reading from left to right, each bead’s color advertises to potential interaction partners a certain fact about the wearer.
I don’t have strong feelings on the exact configuration of these necklaces, but the beads might include:
— Is the wearer actively looking for more romantic partners? (think combination of red light green light party and checking to see if someone has a wedding ring) Different colors can connote anything from “taken, stay away” to “I will have sex with pretty much anyone who asks” to “I am only looking for stable long-term relationships”
— Gender and sexual identity. Useful for transgender people who want a quick way to tell people what gender to identify them as, and to tell if someone is gay, straight, bi, etc and avoid awkward misunderstandings.
— Is the wearer an introvert or an extravert? Can have any meaning from “I love talking to random people, please approach me” to “Never talk to me under any circumstances” to “Well, I guess if you have something really interesting to say…”
These beads are all in fixed positions, and an average person can read and interpret them about as quickly as an average member of our own society can read and interpret stoplights or flag pins.
After these fixed beads comes a space where anyone can add any beads they want. Usually these are beads declaring allegiance to a particular social protocol – for example, once Crocker’s Rules are invented, someone can publicize the design of a Crocker’s Rules bead, after which everyone who wants to publicly declare Crocker’s Rules can wear that particular bead and if it is sufficiently well-known their interaction partners will know what it means. Another popular social protocol bead is “ask culture”, signifying that the wearer has promised to try not to be upset if you ask them for anything, even something they consider unreasonable.
Some protocol beads (signified by an octahedral shape) are reciprocal, meaning that they only apply to other people who wear the same social protocol bead. For example, a group might decide to take up radical honesty, but only feel the obligation to be radically honest to other people trying the same strategy. So this bead might signify “I intend to be radically honest to anyone else wearing this same bead”. Other social protocol beads are ridiculously complicated, basically swearing allegiances to entire constitutions governing the wearer’s social behavior.
As these get tested, they split society into various different subcultures. The ones that people like become popular, expand, and eventually become universally accepted mores. Others die out quickly, or remain confined to a small population of enthusiasts (the “I prefer to speak in Kadhamic all the time” bead has been fixed at about one percent of the population for over a millennium)
Obviously wearing these beads is pretty useful, especially in a society where everyone else wears them and you’re viewed as stubbornly withholding useful information if you don’t, such that anyone offending you would be your own fault. So after a few decades, when not wearing them would be considered unthinkable, the Priests introduced one final section of the necklace.
This last part contains beads that can only be granted by a Priest. And although there are no rules forcing people to wear beads, there are rules banning people from wearing beads that falsely represent themselves (essentially an anti-counterfeiting law; these beads are minted by the government), and this has pretty much the same effect.
Among the beads on this last section are one declaring in very vague terms how much you earn, and another indicating level of charitable donation. Suppose the only three income level beads are “I earn less than $200,000 a year”, “I earn between $200,000 and $2 million a year” and “I earn over $2 million a year”. Most people will wear the “less than $200,000” bead, which will be so common and so vague that it won’t have much effect on your social standing. Rich people can either wear the bead correctly signifying their income, or they can wear no bead at all, in which case it looks like they have something to hide and which is pretty suspicious.
Now imagine other beads, granted for certain levels of charitable donation. Give $1,000 to charity and the government gives you a pretty opal bead. Pay them $10,000 and you get a sapphire bead. Pay $100,000 and you get an emerald. And so on.
Now if someone is wearing an “I earn more than $2 million” bead but no charitable donation bead, they kind of look like a jerk, especially in a world where everyone else is wearing charitable donation beads of various sorts.
In practice, most people both want to ensure that everyone knows they’re rich, and make people not think of them as antisocial monsters. So most of them wear beads signifying their income and purchase charitable donation beads commensurate to that income.
There is much more uncertainty in the income-level beads than in the charitable-donation beads, which means that rich people who want to broadcast their wealth might have to use the charitable donation ones. For example, suppose you make $20 million, and a $1 million donation to charity gets you a diamond bead. Merely wearing the “Earn more than $2 million” bead might get you mistaken for one of those hoi polloi who only earns $2 million. If you have ten diamond beads, though, it’s pretty clear you earn at least ten million and probably more.
This decreases costly status games in two ways. First of all, if everyone looks at your beads first thing after meeting you, and your beads very clearly declare you earn at least $10 million, it’s not necessary to prove the same thing by having a ridiculous platinum-diamond watch. Second of all, each non-bead status purchase you get makes people even more likely to check the necklace and think “Hmmm, this guy has an entire superyacht, but he only has one diamond bead on his necklace? Seems like a pretty selfish person.”
As a result of these factors, as well as a very little bit of subtly directed good-old-fashioned propaganda, by far the most important status game in the Shining Garden is who gives the most to charity. And that’s a status game that most people can get behind.
EDIT: Maybe this would require a law saying that if you donate a certain amount, you must wear the corresponding bead? That would prevent people from refusing to do so for not wanting to appear to brag.