Letter on Culture and Context

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Nilay,

You asked about “Context is that which is scarce.”

In our last conversation you expressed mild shock when I said that none of my students and almost none of their parents know what a private equity market is. So, consider this example: I want to explain to a high school student what an equity market is. The student’s parents and family neither run businesses nor engage in any active investing, nor do their parents’ friends. From the student’s perspective there are jobs which pay money and there are places to which one goes to spend that money, and that little model, for them, is the economy. Notions like a funding round, shares, ownership, ROI, and public versus private markets are foreign concepts. But more importantly, even if they are explained, they are quickly forgotten because the concepts do not map onto the student’s experience of reality. To bring a student from ignorance to starting see how this works would require knowing one or several people whose picture of reality is formed by this other context. Such a personal network would then be adjacent to their own, and they could quickly add any new information I provided to their map of reality.

If I want to convince a student that starting their own business is something to seriously consider, their soul must grasp how this could work, but the soul can only with difficulty grasp what the senses haven’t experienced.

Consider another example found in “communities of practice.” What is the best way to become good at creating software back-end architecture? Reading a book? Certainly not, for a book cannot span all eventualities and quirks. For the most part, it seems, the best way to become good at something is to work on a problem and find people who have run into the same issues as you and talk with them or read their chats. Then, when you engage in conversation, they understand the context, or the context is shared enough that they grok the problem you describe.

A community engaged in similar practices encounters similar problems, but one cannot understand the problems or their possible solutions if one lacks the context to understand the problem in the first place.

When I dip into a work of philosophy, I can become gripped and absorbed into the text when the author is exploring a series of questions that I myself have contemplated. My “philosophical literacy” helps me see the point quickly about why a particular argument or line of inquiry matters. When I know what matters I am able to gain understanding. One needs cultural literacy to grasp the significance of any fact.

The point here is that knowledge is not a set of statements outside the mind but understanding within our intelligence about what matters and why.

We live in the information age, but it’s context that is scarce.

Here’s a trivial example. Let’s say I have had a fever for a few days, I text you, “I feel like Raskolnikov.” The information contained in that statement can only be unlocked if one has the cultural passkey, knowledge of Crime and Punishment. The most difficult part of this idea that the scarcity of context is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice the phenomenon, except by example or the experience of total confusion.

If I had to explain to my mom what I have been thinking about recently, it would take many hours of discussion before we were on the same page. The implication is that it is very hard to induct people into one’s own thought and problems unless they already share significant amounts of context with you. Nonetheless, my mother and I share other things, and so can connect on those.

There is a tragic loneliness in the scarcity of context. If I have something great to offer others, but they can’t understand it, then I will languish in obscurity. Sometimes I think about the people, the websites, the communities that I would love, that I know exist out there, but that I cannot find. I could wait for someone to link me there. But the human person is not a passive receptacle of experience, but rather a creator of context, a crafter of relationships and worlds. And so whenever we interact and build something together, we are creating context.

I hope some of that makes sense.

Yours sincerely,

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