Reading time: 7,5 minutes
In November 2017, me (and my fellow project members) organized a symposium about the Healthy Workplace. Within our Healthy Workplace project we use Quantified Self techniques to make people conscious about their health (behavior) during office-work. At the end of the symposium, we wanted to thank our speakers with a fitting gift. We thought; it couldn’t be wine, because wine isn’t that healthy and it doesn’t resemble the statement we wanted to make, we want a healthy workplace. So we gave every speaker a water-bottle with a Quantified Self-touch. It was a Joseph-Joseph water-bottle on which you could count how many refills you had done. Thus this present was healthy, and Quantified Selfy. This gift totally resembled, and fitted our message. To me, this was the perfect gift for our symposium. In this blog, I want to talk about things just like that, things that “fit”. I call this the fractalness of things. It is astonishing in how many aspects of life “the fitting of things” appears. It happens within people, cities, products, restaurants, shops, and almost anything you can think of.
Fractals are the phenomenon where a detailed pattern that repeats itself on every scale. If the replication of the pattern is exactly the same at every scale, it is called a self-similar fractal pattern. You can find fractals in nature everywhere. A fern-leaf for example shows fractal properties because the leafs have same shape as the larger fern-leaf. A tree is fractal because the base branches into the same (smaller) branches, into smaller branches, and so on.
The fractal things
If you look at the top 3 most dangerous cities, you would expect criminals, a ghetto, broken windows, and deserted houses within that city. In this sense, the details of the city (the criminals etc.) fit with the larger view on the city (a dangerous city). On the other side, if someone tells you about a lovely city, you expect lovely people, lovely buildings, and lovely little shops. If their opinion turns out to be true, I call it fractal. Things are fractal when the overall perception of a thing synchronizes with the small(er) details of the thing. With fractal people you can think of people who are rock-stars (who don’t care about stuff), and show in every little thing that they really don’t care about stuff. Or people who look fancy, do fancy, have fancy houses, have fancy friends, and even have fancy socks. But you also have fractal products, like Apple products. Apple has a general perception of being very elegant. If you look at an Iphone, it looks like a real elegant phone. If you go to the details, like the Iphone-apps, these are very elegant, their other products are elegant, and even their marketing is quite elegant. Everything Apple does fits their vision of elegance, and thus is Apple very fractal (according to my perception, even though I’m an Android-man). On the other side, you also have this for the low-cost products, a product like a shirt from the Primark looks cheap, is sewed cheaply, and has a cheap looking picture on it. There are many more examples but I believe that this is enough for now.
Fractals between them all
The most fun thing is, that often cheap-people buy the cheap shirts, have a low-paying (cheap) job, live in cheap houses, in a cheap neighborhood, in a cheap city. While the elegant people buy the elegant Apple-products, live in elegant houses in elegant cities. They love doing elegant things while wearing elegant clothing, with an elegantly shaved mustache. Between it all, there are also the casual people, who live in mediocre houses, have a mediocre job, and so on, and so on. For each person on the spectrum there is a perfect fractal person. It is very interesting that over all the fractal things, there are many connections between them; from people to products, to cities, to countries, and so on.
Things that aren’t always fractal
Things aren’t always that fractal. But we are (often) surprised when things are not fractal. Clickbait is a good example that isn’t fractal. With clickbait, the content of the article does not fit with the title of the article. The title and the content aren’t self-similar, you got fooled while opening the article. A person isn’t fractal when he shows behavior which you didn’t expect; like your colleague who is always too late, but does his work perfectly. Or your friend who is always nice to you but behaves inappropriately ignorant to every waiter.
In the same line, this is where prejudices come from. When we meet a nice guy for the first time, and he does something nice, we might think that this nice detail resembles the whole person. Thus we will judge this guy as “nice”. When this judgement was wrong, we were thinking too fractal of people. We had prejudices. But there are also the prejudices which go the other way around. These are prejudices when we don’t know any individual (the details) but we do have a judgement over the larger population (the overall concept). An example; I think that Eskimo’s are nice people, although I never really met an Eskimo in person. The fact is, that large concepts like nice Eskimo’s, dangerous cities, fancy products are not always self-similar to their smallest details. However, the larger concept and the smaller details do interact with each other.
How the perception of things influences the small details
On the one hand we have the large concepts like the dangerous city. And on the other side we have the details, like the criminals within this city (or the title of a story and the content, the phone and the apps, the culture and its individuals, and so on). The notion of a dangerous city makes up how we perceive the details. And our perception might even form the real details. If we visit a presumably dangerous city we would be more likely to view people in there as dangerous. You wouldn’t accept a lift from someone that easily, and you would keep your wallet closer. The people from the city might even become more violent/protective from knowing that they are living in a “dangerous” city. Another example, if your parents looked down on you when you where young and judged you as the “dumb one”, you will probably feel like the dumb one. You’ll start to avoid learning, and prefer dumb things. Your parents will agree to this, and might even stimulate you to do more “dumb” things. Over time, you will literally become dumber because of the (wrong) judgments of your parents. Just like this, the children in a “dangerous city” might think that their only way to survive in a dangerous city is to become stronger than others, someone who needs to fight for his right, someone who needs a gun, (aka a criminal) making the city more dangerous.
How the small influences the big
On the other side, the small details of a thing make up or change the larger concept too. If you actually meet very nice people in that (presumably) dangerous city, the city might turn out to be not so dangerous at all. The details you see within that city, change your overall perception of the city. For example, If you find out that your friends secret hobby is to torture cats, the overall image of that friend becomes totally different. Suddenly, he becomes a total asshole although every other thing he did was quite cool. We saw this phenomenon with many celebrities like Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, Kevin Spacey, and all the famous men who were involved with the #METOO convictions. Their affairs and lie’s where enough to make the overall concept of the person totally different. Isn’t it quite weird that we will never see a movie with Kevin Spacey again? He is an amazing actor, but because of his sexual assault we despise him (totally) and would never want to see a movie with him again?
Re-adjust until it becomes fractal
Thus, the small details influence the larger concepts, while the larger concepts also influence the small details. They both influence each other continuously. If they are balanced right, you have the true picture of a person, product, or a city. But you’ll have to re-adjust your thoughts each time until nothing surprises you anymore. For example, you might have a friend that you got to know over the past years. You know him so long by now, that nothing of his behavior surprises you anymore. You know each little secret of him. Now, the overall image of your friend, and the details of his behavior align exactly with each other. You have a true picture of him. But this took a lot of re-adjustments over the past years.
When the big and small are aware of each other
Let’s get back to the parents with their “dumb” child. The parents and the kid initiated an infinite loop towards a real dumb-child. The parents thought their child was dumb, thus the kid thought he was dumb, thus he showed dumb behavior by avoiding difficult things. This made him dumb, what made the parents confirm their thoughts about the child. In this example, a negative feedback loop was created where the kid gets dumber and dumber as long as he confirms with the judgments of his parents. This is also (a part of) the reason why the “the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer”. This is a commonly used phrase as a criticism on capitalism (source). Vsauce has a good video about this and is called Zipf-law. I will probably dedicate a future blog about is as well.