It’s a Thin, Thin World

Last month I had a dream that had a song in it. The song seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. As I tried to remember the song, I was only sure of two phrases: “all around the world,” and “gotta spread the word.” These are two very common phrases, almost cliches, so I didn’t think they would be enough to find the song, if it did actually exist. But when I asked the Google search engine to search the world for web pages that contained these two phrases, I got a surprising result. As common as these two phrases are separately, there is apparently only one place in the world where they are used together. All 81 Google results referred to the same original document. That document was, of course, the Oasis song “All Around the World.” It was the song in my dream. It did exist.

That was the quick answer to my question, but it left me asking another question: How is this possible? I meant, of course, not the question of how it was possible that I could dream about a song that actually existed, but how it could be that two short phrases so familiar that as a songwriter I would call them “stock phrases” had been put together only once in the history of the world (or at least of the World Wide Web as seen by Google). And the answer is that the world is thinner than we imagine it to be.

Thinner? What does that mean? As humans, we are gatherers by nature. That just means we are animals that collect food from our surroundings. We think like gatherers, so we form generalities very quickly from what we observe. Most of the time, the process of generalizing goes faster than we realize. For example, as a gatherer, you might see a tree, take a close look at it, and find that there is no fruit on it. Twenty years later, let’s say you see a second tree of the same kind. There’s a good chance you will instantly believe that this tree also contains no fruit. You believe it so quickly you would say you see it. You may believe it so strongly that you won’t look to see whether any fruit is there. If I ask you why you have the beliefs you have about the tree, you may answer, “Because that’s what this kind of tree is like.” If I press you, you might add, “I’ve seen lots of these trees, and they never have fruit on them.” You’re not likely to say, “I saw one tree that looked like this one twenty years ago and it didn’t have any fruit on it,” because your understanding of the new tree will feel far stronger than the single past experience it is based on. Most knowledge comes from experience that is less than you think it is — and less could mean your past experience happened fewer times than you seem to remember, you were paying less attention than you thought you were at the time, or the reference point from the past is not as relevant to the current situation as you imagine it to be.

Much “knowledge” has no real personal experience behind it at all. It could be from stories we heard, rumors, advertisements, or even dreams. Anything in our experience has the potential to form beliefs, or what seems like knowledge, even about things that weren’t really part of the experience. We can easily forget that we have no actual experience of a subject we think we know about.

I made fun of the tendency to generalize in a song I wrote years ago called “I Know What to Say to a Woman Like You.” The character in the song dismisses a woman before she has a chance to introduce herself because he thinks she is a certain “type.” This repeats in each verse as he continues to meet women of the wrong “type.” In reality, there may exist just one woman of the “type” a person is thinking of, but she made such an impression that now he “sees” this “type” everywhere he goes. It’s easy to make fun of someone who has an extreme case of seeing something out of his past instead of what’s actually in front of him, but this is a tendency we all have in one form or another. We all “know” things that, based on our actual experience of them, we maybe shouldn’t be so sure about.

Everything that seems common is less common than it seems. Some of the things that seem usual are actually rare. To put it in very personal terms, among the qualities you have that you think are perfectly normal are some that are totally weird. And don’t take my word for it — ask anyone you know. They’ll tell you.

Or you can use a search engine such as Google to demonstrate this principle. There are millions of phrases that you think of as ordinary, everyday expressions. But search for one after another with a search engine, and you will shortly come to one that not only isn’t an everyday expression, but is one that the search engine can find in only a handful of documents from the Internet era. If you have pet phrases, things you say a hundred times a day, search for them. You might be surprised to find that an expression that you use all the time and everyone seems to understand is nevertheless quite rare. For example, is “Listen, honey” one of your pet expressions? Google finds it in only one in a million web pages, so it’s not as common as you thought. Do you suddenly feel self-conscious, realizing that a few of your pet expressions may be so distinctive that they could identify you?

In mathematics, data is sparse if it describes a large number of combinations, the vast majority of which don’t exist. This quality describes most of the things we experience. If a single thing is not so common, then a combination of two such things can easily be unique or nonexistent. That’s why the two phrases “all around the world” and “gotta spread the word,” which do not really occur as frequently as I imagined, could have been put together only once. Likewise, listen and honey are both perfectly common words, but listen, honey, as familiar as it might sound, is not a particularly common phrase.

Whenever you think you know what the world is like, it isn’t really that way, except maybe in a thin layer surrounding your own perceptions. Look farther, and there are surprisingly few examples of the things you know well and surprisingly many things you couldn’t imagine. When I say the world is thin, I’m really saying that the way you experience the world around you is built on the thinnest of evidence. You can think of that evidence, or experience, as a thin layer separating you from the real world. The things you think are common are like a veneer that you see right in front of you, and everything beyond the veneer is different. Even when you know something is very common, it’s still not often the exact way that you imagine it. When you look closely, every new thing you see turns out to be different from what at first glance it appeared to be. Your knowledge and beliefs are based on less actual experience and observation than you think you have. You think you know for sure, but you’re really just winging it.

I’ve written in the past about the misguided notion of the “typical rock band.” When I’ve heard descriptions of the “typical rock band,” it is usually a description of the Rolling Stones and the bands that, consciously or unconsciously, are imitating the Rolling Stones. This myth has been repeated in cultural reference books and encyclopedias, but the repetition doesn’t make it true. The fact that fewer than one in ten rock bands today fit this “typical” model even in the simple matter of personnel doesn’t seem to deter people who want to generalize. In 1999, MTV broadcast a special about the new swing “craze,” but they could find only two bands that really fit the “trend” they were describing, along with a third band that halfway fit. That doesn’t mean that the 1999 swing fad didn’t happen, but it was smaller and was located more in people’s imaginations than anyone wanted to admit at the time.

The most important implication of the “thin” world is this: you will learn more if you maintain a degree of skepticism about what you have learned so far. I’m not talking about the cliche of an “open mind,” in which you listen freely to any point of view that anyone has to offer; in the age of junk e-mail, it’s more obvious than ever that that approach mostly gets you manipulated by advertisers. Rather, I’m suggesting that you not let your past experiences negate your new experiences. If you expect that every day and everywhere you go there is something new to see, then you can continue to add to the observations that your knowledge is based on. If, when you think you know that something is impossible for you, you remind yourself, “There is a lot I don’t know,” then in most cases, the wishes and dreams that seem impossible will turn out to be possible.

The world you see surrounding you is a thin, thin world, and if you decide to break through the veneer of belief that you’ve built up from your experiences, you won’t have to go far from where you are. Just around the corner, if you are ready to go, there is something new to see.

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