On viewquakes

A decade or so ago, it was briefly fashionable to think in terms of "viewquakes." These are "insights that dramatically change one's worldview, making one see the world in a new way." This fashion has passed. "Viewquake" appears to be a Robin Hanson coinage, and you know a Robin Hanson coinage is obscure if a Marginal Revolution search for it comes up empty, as "viewquake" and "viewquakes" do as I write this.

The phenomenon seems to me still to be under-appreciated and under-theorized. A lot of what I think is shaped by ideas that (i) I went a long time not believing or understanding, (ii) can be stated fairly succinctly, and (iii) now work as a high-frequency cognitive tool. They're a bit like favorite movie quotes in terms of salience and propensity to jump to mind (but more intellectually useful, at least on average).

A striking phenomenon of viewquakes is that they're non-transferable. Andrew and I would often ask guests on Thinking Poker about "aha!" moments or viewquake-like insights for them. Those insights seemed unremarkable, even from world-class players. More generally, how often have you been stunned by someone's "single key to life"?

My best theory for this starts with a Cowen-style emphasis on scarcity and context. A large, multi-dimensional understanding is required in order for a viewquake to register as a viewquake. (Here I'm tempted to disagree with Hanson and say that a viewquake often results from seeing the world in a new way, though it reinforces a different and often superior understanding.)

Here's a recent viewquake of mine: "Decisionmaking is overrated (because having a stream of good options matters far more)." This resonated with me because of my background in poker (and transition into software); years of reading finance-themed newsletters and gaining a new vocabulary around options and a new understanding of variance; and because I was thinking hard about how to maximize my productivity. Such things, and many others, tend to come to mind along with that phrase. I expect a lot of readers found the sentence itself a bit underwhelming. I bet many have a longer-lasting and more intuitive grasp of the idea; perhaps others find its surface meaning uncontroversial and don't feel the impulse to see many other ideas in it; others might be left cold for different reasons.

So, I conjecture that viewquakes are non-transferable (as viewquakes) for roughly the same reasons that cultural and other expertise isn't transferable (that way). If you know more about this, please do tell me.


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