The Antipodean Framework

There’s a certain framework that seems to be governing various aspects of how we think about history and the world. And I’m christening it the ‘antipodean framework’ because I like the name even though there’s probably already a name for this concept.

What the hell am I talking about?

‘Antipodean’ has two meanings. One, ‘being in the southern hemisphere.’ People in the northern hemisphere (very rarely) use this word to talk about Australians and New Zealanders. Literally, anti – podean. Podes, as in feet. Anti, as in the opposite of. Having the feet opposite. Simple.

We can take it literally, or we can take it to mean approaching things upside down or from the opposite direction.

(A quick note on the finding itself: I came across the word in The Shivering Isles, as in, yes, the expansion pack for Oblivion, and then read it in about four completely different contexts over the next month. It wasn’t a case of looking for something then suddenly seeing it everywhere, changing the question you put to reality and getting an unusual answer; it was just a collection of insane coincidences. After all, how often do you come across the word ‘antipodean?’ It’s not like, say, counting all the red cars that pass a particular intersection and only then noticing a high number of red cars. It’s a different phenomenon altogether.)

In any case, when you approach topics from the opposite direction and with a view to questioning the dialogue around them, you get interesting results. This is partly where the argument for actualisation by speech comes from: and it’s the same source as the self-help advice books like to give about thinking positively to change the world. The truth is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, no great supernatural modification of reality, but a collection of sneaky frameworks governing our perceptions and changing our behaviour, which modifies the state of the world, which informs the prevailing opinion, and so on in an endless cycle.

It’s not quite the same to talk about self-fulfilling prophecies, but it can be similar. Some antipodean examples follow:

If musicians in high places keep talking endlessly about how influential the Beatles are, they only become more so as a result of that exact discussion, and the actual musical influence follows on from the attention they gain as a result of influencing one musician. Even if – and this is the crux of the point – the original musician may not have actually been inspired by the Beatles. But if he says he was, other people will say he was, and the people who are influenced by him will go back and be influenced by them. A real-world effect essentially caused by a lie, but a lie he didn’t realise he was telling. Not to say that the Beatles aren’t fantastic – they are – but the discussion feeds itself.

That’s an easy one.

The British Empire is regarded as one of the most powerful empires the world’s ever seen, and the most powerful in the last few centuries. But, says historian Niall Ferguson, to a certain extent that’s only because they entered the business late and conquered all the poor countries or countries-judged-worthless (ahem, Straya m8) that hadn’t been conquered by the Spanish or Portuguese. Name two territories the British conquered that aren’t culturally Western today and aren’t India. (Actually you probably can since there are so many of them but the point still stands).

Very recently there was a story going around all the major news outlets about some stupid person who dyed her hair brown in order to succeed as a CEO in Silicon Valley ‘because she wants to be seen as a business leader and not a sexual object’ ignoring the fact that it makes no difference how people see her, unless they know that her hair’s dyed in which case they believe she’s more frivolous and image-obsessed and thus not as good a choice for CEO as another random candidate.

Consider that only one or two people would need to fit the criteria of having brown hair, being a woman, and being a major player in the tech industry to create this image, and then women would (falsely) circulate it around by themselves and use the lack of blonde CEOs to prove the point, when it’s likely a complete coincidence and a result of brown hair simply being more common on average. They would then create their own standard to live ‘up’ to in online publications like the Daily Mail, and then the perception would be supported by a study (in a stupid social science journal managed by people who spend every day trying to justify keeping their jobs), and become accepted fact.

Then, every woman who wants to be a CEO dyes her hair brown and suddenly the initial state of exclusively brunette CEOs goes from being a simple coincidence to having a complex reason and history behind it – which isn’t great for blondes who hate hair dye and want to be CEOs. The framework’s just made their lives harder. Great.

There’s a case to be made that definition in words defines something in reality as a result of this backward-living. If something is entirely made of words, then the words we use to define it (in the descriptive sense) become the same as the words it is defined by (in the actual, ‘real’ sense). Hence the following example.

In her book Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes, Melissa Katsoulis wrote about the hoax perpetrated by American radio host Jean Shepard. Shepard went to several publishing houses out of curiosity and discovered that when they were trying to sell several hundred copies of books they didn’t want they would just put the books at the tops of best-seller lists, and people obsessed with reading the best of the best would immediately go and buy the remaining copies. So Shepard started asking for copies of a book that didn’t exist, and encouraged his (niche, but large) audience to follow suit; once the major booksellers were aware of this clique of people asking for a book they knew wasn’t real, they contacted the publishers, who scrabbled around for copies, but nothing materialised. And yet, critics and booksellers made smug statements about how slowly the general public had cottoned on to such a fantastic underground writer, and people were talking about how much they liked it, and an undergrad did a nine-page book review of it and got a B+, and so on and so on. Shepard revealed the hoax, everyone except the New York Times (apparently they’ve always been humourless bastards) had a good chuckle, and the world moved on. The rights to the fictional book were bought and it was finally written, and actually became a bestseller as a result of the earlier controversy.

These kinds of things tend to happen end-first – or in an antipodean way. Hence the name. Part one of the Antipodean Framework: People notice something, shove it in a framework, assume it’s the case because they believe they’ve seen all the evidence there is.

Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein had a famous debate about the existence of a rhinoceros in a very small room in which they were talking. Wittgenstein, by refusing to believe there was no rhinoceros, asserted a belief in nothing but asserted propositions – we can never know the totality of the facts, and so should never assume that something can’t emerge from the part of the room unknown to us that might surprise us. This kind of relates to Nassim Taleb’s work with Black Swans and the totality of knowledge, too; you should never assume you have all the relevant facts because there’s always the chance of an entirely unknown set of unknowns that could ruin everything you’ve built.

Part two of the antipodean framework, which probably has a real name but I don’t particularly care, is that people begin acting as though their assortment of facts is the total truth and slowly making other people act as though that’s the case; then, when everyone’s following the new behavioural pattern it’s essentially ‘true.’

As our examples partially demonstrate, a true antipodean framework can be a dangerous thing.

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