Magic 11

They say (though who they are is never clear; they can’t all be Malcolm Gladwell) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something.  Which means, I think, that I should by now be quite good at sleeping, eating and walking.

It also means I should by now be quite good at this thing they call ‘economics’. I have an O level in economics, and an A level, and a degree in it. I’ve been doing things to earn money for about 25 years now and most of the things I’ve done have been either directly or indirectly concerned with economics. Not only that, but so obsessed am I that I happily spend many of the hours when I am not sleeping or earning money thinking about economics.

I haven’t just done 10,000 hours – I’ve done 10,000 days. And still I’ve got more questions than answers.

One of the things that began to intrigue me at a fairly early stage was the power of people’s desire to be an ‘individual’. Simply enormous numbers of people, irrespective of their age or class, seemed to put very considerable effort into a process of establishing and maintaining and signalling their individuality. Some did it through their choice of music or hobby, some through their reading or their writing, some through their sporting or sexual prowess.

And everybody, absolutely everybody, did it by means of buying stuff. They just couldn’t help themselves: furniture, knick knacks, clothes, cars, you name it, carefully or carelessly chosen as an expression of ‘me’.

This behaviour reached its oxymoronic acme in the marketing and consumption of a well-known branded shoe wear: demonstrate your individuality, it said – by wearing the same shoes as everyone else…

And the thought experiment this begs is: how much choice do you really need in order to feel, or be, unique? How many options give you the individuality you crave? Eleven. The answer is eleven. With eleven choices, the number of permutations is about 40 million – which is, roughly, the number of people in the UK aged between 18 and 65. You don’t need thousands and thousands of lines of clothing, and hundreds of brands, and millions of personalised options in order to be exclusively ‘you’; you can achieve it with just eleven.

In practice, of course, it’s not quite like this, but that’s not the point: the point is that the thought experiment suggests it might be possible massively to reduce the number of options with which we as consumers are confronted (and by which so many of us are overwhelmed) whilst still allowing us the subjective experience of ‘enough choice’.

(Why you might want to reduce choice on such a scale; and how you might do it, are for another time.)

Eleven also turns out (according to the back of my envelope…) to be the number of large social networks you would need to co-ordinate in order to give more or less everyone the sense that ‘a thing’ – a vibe, a mood, a fashion, a way of behaving, a lifestyle – is something that everyone else is doing. Social norms, as we know, are the most powerful determinant of social behaviours: and it may be that, rather than a thousand flowers blooming or a hundred government interventions, one could bring about dramatic shifts in lifestyles (and social and economic and environmental outcomes…) through working closely with just eleven carefully chosen entities.

But the detail behind that, too, will have to wait a little longer.

Did I say seven blogs? It should have been Magic 11.

[If there's a photo down here it was added August 2017 as part of blog refresh.  Photo is either mine or is linked to where I found it. Make of either what you will.]


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