On the Production of Culture for the Kingdom


In the late 1800s, there was a debate over whether people could see images in their minds that were not in front of their eyes. This was eventually resolved by Francis Galton who, upon surveying people, realised that some of them could visualise and some of them couldn’t. Of course, since each person had only their own minds for evidence, the ones who did visualise had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn’t had simply assumed everyone didn’t.

You can read more about this idea here. However, the thing to remember is that it took until the 19th century for people to realise that, at least in this regard, different people were experiencing different things. In fact, it turns out lots of variation in human experience is hidden this way.

For the past few days, I’ve been learning Sanskrit and checking out Sanskrit literature. One of the genres of this is Mahākāvya, which are long poems that mostly focus on extremely lavish descriptions. They are renowned for being exquisite, and for evoking beautiful imagery.

Imagery which I can’t appreciate, because I don’t see things when I read. In fact, description in narrative is generally boring for me, except to the extent that it helps me orient events/characters, because it’s not like I can see any of it. Flowery descriptions waste space. Plot, characterisation, and dialogue are what makes good writing to me.

Luckily, Sanskrit Dramas have these qualities in spades. Stop wasting your time on poems,

Kālidāsa. I’ll take your Abhijñānaśākuntalam

over your Kumārasambhava any day. (Yes, Sanskrit literature is fond of long, compound words for titles.)

Of course, I’m not the only person in the world. I bet lots of people love 

Mahākāvya and are glad Kālidāsa split his time. Good thing I know about the variation in human minds, so I won’t conclude that an entire literary genre is empty and stupid.

Imagine you are an Indian king/queen in the Classical period. You are benevolent want to patronise artists who will produce whichever works bring the most joy to your subjects. However, artists need to eat, and you can only afford to hire ten of them. Any that you don’t hire will become village craftsmen instead; never producing the literature they had intended to.

Twenty potential artists approach you, seeking employment. Ten are poets and ten are dramatists. The poets petition you first.

“O, lord of the Fields and Forests!” They declare. “You have brought many wonders to your people. We ask that you commission us, so that we may produce the most splendid poetry man has ever heard. Our imagery shall dance across the mind’s eye and fill men with awe for a hundred generations!”

Now you, like me, have no idea what this “mind’s eye” business is about. Galton won’t be born for another millennium so, as far as you can tell, these poets are bullshitting you. I mean, really; you can’t hear imagery, so recited poetry must lack it. This is probably just a masturbatory status competition, where each of the poets wants to prove they’re better at wordplay that the others. Why would you fund that? You turn to the other artists to see if they have anything better to offer.

“O, Lord of the Towers and Towns!” They declaim. “You have brought much culture to your people. We ask that you commission us, so that we may produce the most magnificent plays man has ever beheld. Our stories shall pull at the heart and teach men morals for a hundred generations!”

Ah, drama. Now that’s more like it! Something with actual creative value, instead of mere signaling games. You dismiss the ten poets and hire the ten dramatists.

Or maybe you do see images in your mind’s eye. Maybe you do so very strongly. Perhaps a verse of lyric poetry can move you to tears as you’re immersed in a world you’ve never visited, yet know intimately. If this is the type of person you are, you’d probably react to the artists very differently. Sure, drama’s great, but the world needs more poems than dramas, right? In this world, you hired eight poets and two dramatists and dismissed the rest.

However, this fails to address the reason you were hiring artists in the first place: You want to benefit your subjects. You want to create that which is of the most value to the hundreds of thousands of people who live in your kingdom. We have just seen that, for reasons completely unrelated to how much other people enjoy a work, you might end up judging it to be more or less valuable than others do.

In fact, those kings could have had the same subjects with the same preferences – some mix of people who like Mahākāvya and people who don’t – despite making radically different funding decisions. The reason is that they’re working off their own knowledge – not the knowledge of their people. They know what they like, but not what everyone else does. If they only use their own knowledge, they’ll never give their subjects what they desire most overall.

So, let’s say you know a bit more than the previous hypothetical-yous did. You know that different people want different things. But how, O Wise Rājā, can you find out what other people want?

The obvious answer is that you can ask them! You can go out and tell each of your subjects which arts are on offer, and ask them what they want.

However, now you have two new problems. Firstly, you can’t cover your entire kingdom alone on foot and, even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to govern in the meantime. This means you’ll have to hire people to conduct the survey, and hiring surveyors means you can’t afford to hire as many artists. In order to ask everyone which ten artists to hire, you may find yourself with only enough money left to hire five of them.

Furthermore, the answers you receive may not be that useful. Most people will probably say they want both, because more is always better. However, you don’t have infinite resources – if you did, you’d hire everyone. Instead, you must choose how to use what little you already have.

What now, O Glorious One? Well, you can make people choose which of the two they like best. That’ll clear everything up, right?

Well, not quite. While it does get you closer to knowing exactly what people want, having everyone vote for poems or plays misses one important piece of information: Degree of preference.

Let’s say your kingdom has 300,000 people who sort of like drama more than poetry, but don’t really care much either way. However, it also contains 200,000 super passionate poetry fangirls who detest drama, except to the extent that they stir it up. If you just have a simple vote, then drama will win out 3:2. Thus, you hire three playwrights and two poets, leaving everyone… Kind of dissatisfied, actually.

Welp, back to the drawing board.

Alright, O Lord of Lands; I’ve got it. How about you have everyone rate how much they care about getting to have new poems or plays? They’d give a number expressing how important it was to them and, as a result, you’d know how much each thing was desired in aggregate.

…Except how do you get everyone to use a consistent scale? One person might say “5″ because they want it a lot and judge that out of five stars, while another says “5,000″ because they’re ambivalent and judge that out of 10,000 points.

So now you need to give everyone a single scale and an explanation of how to use it.

But hold on, Magnificent Master! Behold: Now you have three problems.

Firstly, with each new increase in detail, you’ve increased the cost of administering the survey. Now, instead of you sending a few people out to ask one question and tally the results, you have to give detailed explanations of the survey methodology to 500,000 people across the kingdom. At this point, you probably need an expeditionary force, and would have to make lots of copies of the instructions for all your surveyors. After all of this, do you even have money left to hire artists?

Secondly, any definition of the scale you use will be ambiguous. Even if you say something like “On a scale of one to one hundred, with one hundred being the most you’ve ever wanted anything, how much do you want a new poem and how much do you want a new play?”, different people will give different answers for reasons unrelated to actual differences of desire. 

Maybe one of them is a pampered noble who’s never been desperate for anything, so he says “70″ for a poem. Meanwhile, a mother who desperately needs food to feed her starving child says “5″ for a play. This can happen even if they both want the art equally, because they have different reference frames. There is always an insurmountable gap between what you know of your own desires and what you know of someone else’s. More complex surveys bridge some of the gap, but not all, and at significant cost.

Finally, how can you know your subjects will answer honestly? Even if I only want new dramas a little, I still want them; so why shouldn’t I say “100″? Why shouldn’t I claim it’s the thing I want most in the world? I mean, you can’t check, and I lose nothing by making this claim. Talk – and votes – are cheap for me, even if hiring the artists I ask for is expensive for you.

As you get more and more detailed, all three of these issues will keep showing up. In fact, after a while, people lying will become less important than people not even understanding what you’re asking, once you’re asking them page-long questions to avoid loopholes. Peasants don’t have time for that shit, dude.

In the end, it is impossible to find out how best to hire artists to benefit your people just by asking them. In fact, the only way you could find out from people how they think you should balance these scarce resources is if they did it themselves…

…Which they actually can do. The way to truly tell how much someone wants something is to see what they value it more than. If they’ll give up the opportunity for X to get Y, then they value Y more. Lo, it is revealed: To know who you should hire for the people, you must have the people hire them.

If the people choose to buy the works of an artist, that is the artist whose work they desire most. Nay, this is the thing they desire most, out of all their options of things they could acquire. For your dilemma, O Noble One, was always greater than poetry vs plays. Rather, it was poetry and plays and paintings and furniture and tools and grain and milk and houses and bed sheets and every other work under heaven.

Alas, you could never have weighed all of these quantities and determined which combination was most fitting for your subjects. However, each subject has a mind of their own, and may weigh for themself. Thus songs and shoes and buttons and butter are all made in the quantity they are requested, and go to those who desire them greatly before those who desire them mildly.

Behold, O Lord of Prosperity! You have uncovered a most powerful device. One which brings all the goods under heaven from the corner of their abundance to the place of their demand. Which feeds the hungry and clothes the naked. Which weighs the merits of every work without need for a king or surveyor or planner at its centre. Verily, the sages call it Vipaṇa, and it is respected by all those who know its operation.

And of the butcher, the baker, the brewer, and even the artist – they call it the market.

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