The fractalness of things

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Fern-leaf is fractal, each leaf is self-similar to the larger leaf

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 to promote a healthy workplace. So we gave every speaker a water bottle with a Quantified Self-touch. It was a Joseph-Joseph water bottle with which you could count your refills by twisting the lid. This present had a relation with health, and Quantified Self. This gift totally resembled, and fitted our message. To me, this was the perfect gift for our symposium. But what are things that “fit” exactly, and how does this work? In this blog, I want to talk about 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.

Why fractal(ness)?
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 (see the picture) has fractal properties because the smaller leafs have the same shape as the larger fern-leaf. Moreover, a tree is fractal because the base branches into the same (smaller) branches, into smaller branches, and so on. I think the self-similarity over different scales is a good basis to start for a theory on things that “fit”. I will elaborate more on this in the next paragraph.

The fractal things
If you search for the top 3 of most dangerous cities, you would expect criminals, ghetto’s, broken windows, and deserted houses when you visit them. 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 would 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 “fancy 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. Apple’s other products are elegant, and even their marketing is quite elegant. Everything Apple does fits their vision of elegance, and thus is Apple strongly fractal to me (according to my perception). 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 within the fractal category but I believe that this is enough for now.

Would the perception of a city being a dangerous city, make it more safe or dangerous?

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 aren’t always fractal
Things aren’t always that fractal, but we are (often) surprised when things are not fractal. Click-bait is a good example that isn’t fractal. With click-bait, 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 after reading 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.

Two types of prejudices
In the same line, I believe that this is where prejudices come from. When you see a father handling his children with care, and then you imagine him with his grandmother, then you would expect that he would also handle her with care. However, this is a prejudice. When someone is mad at you in traffic, doesn’t mean that he is a mad person. With this prejudice we assume that the details resemble the whole person. However, when you are wrong, you are thinking too “fractal” of people. But there are also the prejudices which go the other way around. The second prejudice happens when you judge the details of someone, based on the large concept you already have. These are prejudices when we don’t know the individual details but we do have a judgement over the larger population (the overall concept). An example; I think that Eskimo’s are nice people, even though I never met an Eskimo in person. So when I see an Eskimo grabbing a knife I don’t expect that he will kill someone with it, but this is just a biased assumption. It is quite unlikely that everyone, and everything is perfectly fractal, so we are quite likely to make prejudices. Nevertheless, 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 in our minds like the concept of a “dangerous city”. And on the other side we have the details, like the criminals within this city. 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 might 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, to get a gun, and be rude to other, (aka a criminal) what makes the city more dangerous. These spiral patterns, also known as positive feedback loops, are quite dangerous because they enlarge the gap between societies, people, and organisations. 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). Moreover, Vsauce has a good video about Zipf-law, what is closely related to it.

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 even though every other thing your friend did was quite cool before. 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. Through information exchange 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. Through information exchange and feedback, both sides can adapt their behavior and perceptions increasing the fractal perception. This is one reason why information exchange and adaptation is very important; it increases your certainty and reduces the changes of unpleasant surprises.

The continuous interaction between the larger concept and the smaller elements

In this blog I talked about how the small details influenced the perception of larger concepts, and how the larger concepts influence the perception of small details. As a result, (self) perception could influence behavior enforcing a spiral pattern. When there is true alignment between the small details and the larger concept I would call this fractal. This is something you would see when behavior of someone conforms with the concept you had of that same someone. To acquire this, often a lot of information exchange is necessary. Nevertheless, we have to realize that this theory is still about perceptions of people and is no objective theory. Nevertheless, if correct, I think this theory could help us to understand the brain a little bit better, because there are many benefits of having fractal perceptions. One more thing to mention is that this theory has a lot to do with our associative mind on which I wrote another blog about.



1 Comment

  1. Pam Russ

    Interesting article, Justin… I think tying the concept of fractal life perceptions with synchronicity would enhance what you wrote about… Like tying predestination with free will… Looking at both sides of a coin at the same time.


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