Raikoth: Symbolic Beads

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.

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45 Responses to Raikoth: Symbolic Beads

  1. Summarizing because it took me a while to find the information in the text:

    The supposed way these beads spread initially is that the priests “initiated a tradition” of wearing beads, and people decided that “obviously wearing these beads is pretty useful”. Later on, when “everyone else wears them”, the holdouts wear them because they don’t want to be “viewed as stubbornly withholding useful information”.

  2. Mary says:

    One notes that the potlatch culture can involve extravagant feasts at which large number of blankets are destroyed as a sign of how lavish the host is.

    • Mary says:

      Similarly, and perhaps more relevant, sumptorary laws can actually increase the signalling value of the forbidden items, since you must be not only rich enough to buy them but rich enough to pay the fines.

      • Deiseach says:

        Or you could have people wearing variant beads that signify “Has paid minimum contribution but has also made donations in excess but exact amount withheld”, so that (say) only the nouveau riche and arrivistes would be so tasteless as to wear their string of ten diamond beads, while the simple little quartz or obsidian bead signals the above which means you’re smart and/or established enough to be rolling in it, you give more than your compulsory whack because you’re just that fabulous, but you don’t like to brag.

        Simplicity can then be a signalling device; as Pratchett has it in one of his Discworld novels, only the rich can afford to wear hand-me-down clothes because only the rich can afford, for instance, shoes of the quality needed to last in order to be passed from grandfather to grandson.

        • Deiseach says:

          That was actually a sneer about a Tory politican made by one of the party grandees back in the 80s: Alan Clark in his diaries “quoted Michael Jopling — referring to [Michael] Heseltine, deputy P[rime] M[inister] at the time — as saying “The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy all his furniture” and judged it “Snobby, but cutting”.

          See, real toffs inherit all their furniture, so they don’t have to buy new pieces for their big houses when they get government posts/climb the social ladder.

        • Mary says:

          Miss Manners, explaining to a woman that it was perfectly proper to use her great-grandmother’s silver, quoted the British expression, “The sort of people who buy their silver.”

  3. Deiseach says:

    “set a heap of dollar bills on fire”

    The KLF burned a million pounds of their earnings back in 1994.

    I’d be one of the people refusing to wear beads on the grounds that it’s none of your damn business what the inside of my head looks like, unless I’m a danger to beat your brains in – and if you forced me to wear beads, you would be in danger of having your brains beat in. Also, if forced to wear these, I’d lie like Ananias so the information would be deliberately misleading.

    Any chance of a bead meaning “Feck off, I’m not interested in your small talk and I’m not going to tell you if I’m looking for a new lover/yak/recipe for soda bread”?

    I also imagine Raikoth status games might involve what you said about the mistrust of ‘city dwellers’ and the romantic notion of the ‘real Raikothian pioneer’ – the same way you have a baronet going off being an adventurer both today and in the 19th/early 20th century ( the rush to the North and South Poles being one example), I imagine you would have wealthy/high-status Raikoth being very purist about going off into the howling wilderness with traditional items and equipment and living off moss and melted snow and reindeer droppings – all the most expensive kinds of old-fashioned handmade equipment and training, of course, because it takes a lot of money to live The Simple Life:

    G. K. Chesterton

    The Good Rich Man

    Mr. Mandragon the Millionaire, he wouldn’t have wine or wife,
    He couldn’t endure complexity; he lived the simple life;
    He ordered his lunch by megaphone in manly, simple tones,
    And used all his motors for canvassing voters, and twenty telephones;
    Besides a dandy little machine,
    Cunning and neat as ever was seen,
    With a hundred pulleys and cranks between,
    Made of iron and kept quite clean,
    To hoist him out of his healthful bed on every day of his life,
    And wash him and brush him and shave him and dress him to live the Simple Life.

    Mr. Mandragon was most refined and quietly, neatly dressed,
    Say all the American newspapers that know refinement best;
    Quiet and neat the hair and hat, and the coat quiet and neat,
    A trouser worn upon either leg, while boots adorned the feet;
    And not, as anyone might expect,
    A Tiger Skin, all striped and specked,
    And a Peacock Hat with the tail erect,
    A scarlet tunic with sunflowers decked–
    That might have had a more marked effect,
    And pleased the pride of a weaker man that yearned for wine or wife;
    But fame and the flagon for Mr. Mandragon obscured the Simple Life.

    Mr. Mandragon the Millionaire, I am happy to say, is dead.
    He enjoyed a quiet funeral in a crematorium shed,
    And he lies there fluffy and soft and grey and certainly quite refined,
    When he might have rotted to flowers and fruit with Adam and all mankind.
    Or been eaten by bears that fancy blood,
    Or burnt on a big tall tower of wood,
    In a towering flame as a heathen should,
    Or even sat with us here at food,
    Merrily taking twopenny rum and cheese with a pocket knife,
    But these were luxuries lost for him that lived for the Simple Life.

    • Athrelon says:

      Yeah that seems like the weak spot of this system. You can set up a pretty accurate signaling system, and you can even try to foreground the stuff you want to emphasize. But you can’t stop people from playing meta-status games around it, and you can’t make them take beads seriously if they’d prefer to compete on social connections or physical prowess or whatever.

      CVs right now are a pretty hard to fake signal, are easily accessible with a quick google search, and correlate with some stuff that people say they care about. Yet nobody uses them to assign status points in informal settings.

      Abaris, you also might be interested in the fact that Geoffrey Miller suggested a simpler real-life version of this, in which companies will sell you certain signally things only if you meet certain criteria. For example, a car in a certain shade of red is only available for purchase if you stably test +1SD in extraversion.

      • Deiseach says:

        That bit about the cars has me laughing so hard. First, I’m obviously not their client base because I don’t care about the particular shade of red or make of car and I can’t even drive, for that matter; second, I would not test for extroversion so again, I’m not the type who wants to subtly brag about “See that shade of red? Only X percent of us get that” and thirdly, I fully understand why Groucho Marx said “I wouldn’t join any club that would accept me as a member” 🙂

        Is it bad of me that the car thing makes me think of little boys playing with their model cars and not (presumably) grown adults with lives and incomes? 🙂

  4. ElGalambo says:

    This wiki page also describes Raikoth: http://micras.org/wiki/index.php?title=Raikoth
    According to this page, Scott Alexander has been involved in micronations since 1999: http://micras.org/wiki/index.php?title=Scott_Alexander

  5. Ronak M Soni says:

    I’m confused about one thing: you say your people react in such-and-such way to the conditions you’ve created. Are there any mechanisms you use to decide on whether those reactions are realistic, apart from your own knowledge of psychology?

  6. Vanzetti says:

    What kind of bead Elon Musk gets for building his own space launcher?

    • im says:

      Can think of two possibilities, either a rare high honor chosen on case by case basis, or “I’m Elon Musk, ever hear of me?”

  7. jimrandomh says:

    Would it be possible to hack together an enforcement mechanism for this using trademark law and contracts?

    • Von Kalifornen says:

      I actually really wonder about that. (although I was thinking about arms/sigils/whatever, as well as titles.) If it could somehow be self-set-up within modern society without any legislation…

    • Mary says:

      Remember that trademarks are only protected within their field of commerce. UPS has trademarked brown for postal services, but you can use brown as long as you are not competing with them.

      • Von Kalifornen says:

        What exactly would that mean as far as what we are talking about? Stuff would be more specific.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Hmm. If Company-1 was the company that set this up, you could just sell necklaces with the logo “Company 1” displayed on them in big letters, and any fake necklace without the logo would be obviously fake and any fake necklace with the logo would be trademark infringement.

      If there was some sort of minimal technology preventing it from using beads that weren’t sold by the company, then it might be you could force people to use your beads using the same kind of legislation that prevents you from jailbreaking iPhones.

      I think the problem would be less legislation and more enforcement (police won’t actually waste their time arresting people who add fake beads to the necklace) and the fact that most people don’t wear them and therefore not wearing them isn’t a sign of having something to hide (plus people who do wear them would be seen as bragging about how much they donate and shunned).

  8. Platypus says:

    I feel like American-level income disparities are sort of weird and dystopian. In a society where the economy was working properly, I would expect you simply would not get a situation where one person’s labor was valued at more than 10x another person’s.

    I would expect this to be especially true in a well-designed utilitarian society. If your utility-system is allocating 10x as much stuff to one person as another, you have to start wondering if maybe there’s some sort of utility-monster thing going on.

    • Watercressed says:

      I could easily see how an economy prices different labor at more than a 10x differential.

      If a backbone of the electrical system fails, the downtime costs $13,000 per hour, and only a handful of people know how to fix it, it seems obvious that that labor costs more than ten times a baseline unskilled job.

      For a more abstract example, if there are 20 people doing unskilled labor, and someone comes up with a way to do the same amount of work with only ten people, the market will price that labor that went into that innovation at ten times the unskilled rate.

      The sentiment that there are no situations where a properly working economy prices a person’s labor at more than ten times another person’s is egalitarian. It is also entirely false.

      • Von Kalifornen says:

        Also, one can have cases where there is inequality for other reasons (reason here meaning both ‘root causes’ and ‘purposes’. Typically really, really rich people don’t really do ‘labor’ the way ditch-diggers, computer programmers, and engineers do.

      • Platypus says:

        You’re arguing that the value of an hour of labor should be equal to the value of the goods produced by that labor.

        I’m arguing that perhaps the value of an hour of labor should actually be determined by the unpleasantness of the task being performed (and the amount of training required to be able to perform that task).

        A problem with my argument is that it’s really hard to determine how unpleasant a job actually is for a given person. So in practice what we do is we just value labor at the value of the goods being produced, and let capitalism do its thing. But I think Scott’s utilitarian society, with its giant utilitarian computers, can do better than capitalism.

        I’d like to note: in your example where the electrician repairs the downed electrical system, the electrician does not actually get paid $13,000 per hour for making the repairs. Instead he gets paid the standard electrician’s wage. Wages for jobs like “electrician” are determined by the amount of training needed to do the job, and by the unpleasantness of the job itself.

        • Mary says:

          It is perfectly possible for a pleasant task, not needing much training, to produce something someone wants, and an unpleasant one, requiring much training, to produce nothing. That is why we evaluate work according to what it produces: because that is the only way to get it to produce what we want.

        • Platypus says:

          Here’s a stronger statement: if you’ve already got a superadvanced utilitarian computer making all your important policy decisions, you should think about whether to transition to a computerized planned economy.

          The reason we usually don’t do planned economies is that planning economies is really, really hard, so capitalism even with its flaws works better. But I would expect a superadvanced utilitarian computer would do better than capitalism for most purposes.

          In a planned economy, you’re much less likely to get gross income disparities.

          I wrote a longer version of this comment at http://platypuslord.livejournal.com/435448.html .

  9. Platypus says:

    This discussion does not match my model of why rich people spend money on things.

    My model is that very few people actually want to show off their wealth. Displays of wealth make one a target for people who want money. (Examples might include criminals, or beggars, or people who want to borrow “just forty thousand dollars — less than 0.01% of your wealth — for my startup that’s a combination pet store / rock garden / novelty bakery!”) There are exceptions but [I believe, based on no evidence, that] those people are a minority.

    On the other hand, once you get a certain amount of money, you start actively looking for ways to spend it. For example, maybe living in a quadruple-sized yurt might actually make you 3% happier than living in a normal-sized yurt. Like, with a yurt that size, you could have a swimming pool, and a dedicated gaming table, and maybe you only actually use those things once a month, but 3% happier is 3% happier.

    In other words I think people buy yachts, not to impress people, but because they believe they might actually enjoy owning a yacht.

    Of course it’s completely possible I’m just wrong. ^_^;

    • im says:

      I think it’s more complex than that. Status symbols are… pretty undeniable. Blatant displays of wealth are not quite as common, but positional goods are very much a thing.

    • Max says:

      Trawling OkCupid’s users for match responses, it seems to me that the majority of respondents answer the question “would you prefer to live in the nicest house in an okay neighborhood, or an okay house in a nice neighborhood?” with “nicest house in an okay neighborhood,” which suggests that to a great extent people are, probably consciously, seeking positional status rather than simply quality of goods.

    • Mary says:

      One must consider who one wants to show off to. Many social markers are subtle, not only to prevent their easy imitiation, and to have the charm of being in the know, but because they will only indicate it to the others you want to show off to.

      A man who does not want a total stranger to hit him up for a loan may want some social prominant hostess to regard him as suitable for her daughter.

  10. Kaj Sotala says:

    Now that’s just brilliant.

  11. What do the charities do?

    • Michael Vassar says:

      Seconded. This is a critical question. If they mostly just hold parties for donors, like many Earth charities, this seems rather less valuable than it could be. If they help the poor, why are there still poor people? Do they in practice keep people poor in order to be able to keep ‘helping’ them, as sometimes happens on Earth, especially in India? If they patronize the arts, why not do that directly?

      • I don’t feel so sure that there isn’t a good answer, but the combination of sensible people and a sensible social system should mean that there aren’t poor people.

        The tech level being stuck might mean that there are many people who are sick enough to need a good bit of care, but I’m not sure how much of that care would be mediated through money.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I hesitate to say this because it is less in the genre of “design clever social mechanisms” and more in the genre of “magic away the problem”, but because the government is assumed to be perfectly utilitarian, everyone just gives their charity to the government as bonus taxes.

      The government mostly spends it on basic income guarantees for everyone, infrastructure, useful scientific research, and a military that intervenes in certain high-leverage foreign conflicts (like stopping genocides in two-bit countries that are easy to conquer)

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh, Scott. Ohhhh, Scott.

        “stopping genocides in two-bit countries that are easy to conquer”

        And then the Raikoth end up with either an empire of their own (unless they pawn these ‘conquered’ territories off on the God-Empire that they are a part of) or declare “Job done”, pull out, and after a decent interval, it all kicks off again only with added historical vengeance and bitterness on the parts of the two sides (now bumped up to three or more sides, thanks to outside interference)?

        Some places stay less conquered than others: see Afghanistan, which the Russians, the British and now your lot have been declaring settled since the 19th century.

      • At least those could soak up enough money to be plausible in ways that charity to individuals wouldn’t.

        Considering the telluric fields, how useful can scientific research be?

  12. Von Kalifornen says:

    I LIKE it.

    (Incidentally, I think that it would be a great idea to somehow take over De Beers and direct its monopoly-powered profits to charity. Diamonds are actually really cheap gemstones.)

    • Deiseach says:

      The trouble with that, as I understand it, is that diamonds are indeed cheap gemstones and it is only by artificially controlling the market by restricting access to, release of, and setting prices for, diamonds that makes them valuable.

      Taking over DeBeers and releasing all their diamonds would bring the price down fast, thus reducing or even eliminating the profits available for charity. Me, I think the problem would be better addressed if we understood that people shouldn’t buy into the marketing about “diamonds means special”, but that could be because I prefer pearls 🙂

      • Von Kalifornen says:

        One would keep the flow slow, optimizing for charity profit.

        • Mary says:

          Also for charitable purposes in itself. The high price of jewelry diamonds helps subsidize the price of industrial diamonds.

        • Deiseach says:

          So you’re still maintaining the monopoly system, which is artificially generated and an interference with the free workings of the market?

          I’m not that sure that taking over DeBeers merely to divert its profits to good causes is legal or right in itself; I don’t care about diamonds, as I’ve said, and I find it ridiculous that one firm managed to bribe, bully and manipulate its way into that position, but I don’t think seizing the assets and name and whole structure and just slapping a coat of paint on the outside is enough of a response, either.