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There is a scene in the Harry Potter books when all the hidden wizards are gathered together, and they start using more and more ostentatious magic to show off (thus flouting the astringent & terrifying rules of the hegemonic ruling conclave).  The senior adult wizard turns to the protagonists and observes, “Always the same…We can’t resist showing off when we get together.”

I suspect a lot of readers are smugly noting that wizards aren’t really real, (which is true), but those books were about very real things, and I feel like Arthur Weasley hit directly upon one of humankind’s biggest issues.  Most of the things we work for don’t actually have much to do with our actual needs, but involve instead the desperate struggle for higher status. Showing off is what humans do.

This quest is woven through every human endeavor: the gardener trying to hybridize a novel color of rose, the actor trying to be even more intensely emotional, and the fashionista trying to wear ever-more extravagant get-ups are all trying to aggrandize their social standing by impressing the right people.  However not only are people part of a status game when they are doing what they themselves are good at: they are part of somebody else’s status game when they do pretty much anything.

When you spend all day working on moronic busywork at an ugly office, you are really a fractional part of a column of some CEO’s spreadsheet which is about him making more money. The great masters are hoarding all of the world’s wealth so they can buy tacky mansions, Bugattis, and super yachts, yes, but mostly so they can point to a number on a computer screen to impress other super oligarchs.

There is nothing wrong with this per se.  Human life is quite complicated and we need ways to quantify who the high status apes are (so that we can apportion resources and mates and what not). Isn’t it better we show off with hybridized roses and new fashions and financial acumen then with battle prowess and physical violence?

Well yes it probably is; but I worry that the oceans are filling with plastic and the atmosphere with carbon because we are not managing this mad primate howl of SELF SELF SELF very well at all. We could be having status battles over scholarship and science rather than the nakedly venal and meretricious (and consumerist!) contests which most of us seem engaged in.

Something I want to write more about is “the red queen effect”, the idea that you have to compete harder and harder and harder to maintain the same relative place.  The term comes from the realm of evolutionary biology where it betokens the concept that ptarmigans have to fly faster to avoid gyrfalcons and thus gyrfalcons have to fly faster to catch these faster ptarmigans: soon everyone is flying much faster! [an even more germane example vis a vis human status relationships might be the Irish Elk’s mighty antlers: which were apparently a sexual display]. Human society is a synthetic ecosystem of sorts.  The constant future shock we now live in doesn’t just have to do with the rapid advance of technology.  It has to do with the proliferation of new realms of status posing. Not only are you failing to keep up with the Joneses: You are failing to keep up with everyone! Quick! Buy more plastic crap!  this feedback loop impacts us in ways which are so universal they swiftly become unnoticeable [stops writing and checks site stats and posts to Instagram]. Then we wonder why we are spending all day doing things we despise and somehow using up the Earth in the process.  I want to write more about some of the ramifications of this and we can brainstorm about we can maybe channel this inextinguishable competitive status drive in more productive directions.

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