Dots and Curves

We are all dots on a curve.

I like to frame the world in terms of curves, normative plots, probability distributions, wave functions, sometimes bell shaped, sometimes skewed to the left or the right, sometimes packed around a pointy average, sometimes flattened and tapered like tea biscuits. Regardless, it’s a useful and elegant map of reality. Everything can be plotted against a curve: atoms, plants, animals, planets, stars, galaxies, even languages and ideas. They can all be plotted. Even when they can’t or shouldn’t, we can make them fit, with cold callous indifference.

When we plot, we make sense of things in a certain way. We explain where things were, where they are, and where they appear to be going. Sometimes predictions can be made with great confidence, other times our models tell flimsy tales. Nonetheless, curves always tell us something.

 

Like all things, people fall along, on, and into curves. We are more or less this or that. Sometimes more of this, other times more of that. Over time, we change and shift from here to there depending on our place, mood, and appetite. As dots on a curve we can appear and disappear from one second to the next, from one tail to the other, or clumped against the average. 

Rarely, we find ourselves sitting on the fringes, outliers of society, but inevitably we regress back towards the mean. Deviance creates resistance and discomfort, conformity and cooperation are more pleasant states of being. So like moths to the moon, we all flutter towards that peak in the middle, the great representative mean.

Some have learned how to harness the reliability of curves to achieve desired outcomes. These outcomes can be grounded in good will and humanity, or more malicious motivations. Aggregate datasets can be used to predict and manipulate the purchasing behaviours of consumers, or might nudge us in the direction of prosociality and ecological welfare. In either case, the individual dots don’t matter. As long as we can reliably predict what most will do, that’s enough to imbue curves with utility. 

A world of Big Data has emerged, where the powerful can tap the power of curves, the predictability of averages, to direct or misdirect human activity. Curves not only describe and predict, but also create the preferred direction of flows. What might have been a fluid continuum of dynamic ideas, entertained and exchanged between free thinking peoples, can be divided and polarized into rigid opposing factions: enemies and allies. This is the reflexive quality of normality, causing effects and effecting causes, entrenching patterns of thought and behaviour deep into the psyche until they become as inviolable as the laws of nature.

How does this affect my individuality? Can I simply refuse to be plotted, to sit on the fringe and resist being regressed towards the mean, or to actively interrupt what I’m expected to do at this moment, in this context, given my traits and temperament? Perhaps. But just as soon as I counter the curve, another curve appears like a tightly woven net, especially designed to capture me and likeminded others; lassoing us by the necks and corralling us into a common herd. Now we graze together, us rebels, on feed designed to satiate our unique malcontent. 

Still, I rebel again and again, la lotta continua. This is not an act of futility. I know that my identity can never be in opposition to norms, but emerges in solidarity with them. Not by fleeing connection do I find my authentic self, but through connections made deliberately. I am not trapped in a curve, but was borne of it and give birth to it simultaneously. Like a molecule in the ocean, I am both contingent and necessary. I dance upon the tumultuous waves of being with intentionality.

In this sense, there are no enemies and allies; only the movement of ideas plotted against a dynamic and ever-changing distribution of normality. There are no enemies, only deplorable ideas conditionally embodied by dots along the curve.

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