Treating people like people

Recently I have been enjoying many videos on the LindyBeige YouTube channel.   In particular, I enjoy watching his presentations of his theories of various historical weapons or warfare tactics and how they were used.   I do not know much about him outside of these videos but I’ll grant that he is an archaeologist, a practitioner of martial arts and historical reenactments, and an avid traveler.    He also is a very talented entertainer.

I’m drawn to the topics of his videos out of curiosity about pre-modern history.   In general, I’m always eager to learn about historical life although I generally don’t focus on topics of warfare.   One of the compelling aspects of his presentations is that he is obviously very interested in fighting techniques and yet is acutely aware that the wielders of weapons were people.   The people of these past periods had world views and values very different from our own and perhaps too different for us to understand.   He presents a view that in spite of this difference, we can still appreciate the fact that these were people like us, who prefer to stay alive and to enjoy success.    In addition to historical records and recovered artifacts, we can reconstruct the past by imaging how people would think through these situations.    I believe this comes from his experience in reenactments: provide people with authentic weapons and armor, reconstruct battle tactics, and then observe what is happening when people find themselves in that condition.

I am skeptical that even highly accurate reenactments with authentic gear and tactics can tell us what the scenarios were really like.   To me there is no way to escape the cultivation of the mind with the modern world view.   In particular, it must be very difficult for trained scientists in reenactments to appreciate the influence of world views that involved magic, spirits, and other non rational beliefs.    Good scientists do understand this as a limitation.

Also, the one thing that is hard to reenact is the every day lives leading up to the relatively brief moments that involve uses of such artifacts and that get recorded in history.    The everyday experiences of struggles, interpersonal relationships, and accumulated obligations and insults will influence how people behave when they are called upon to act.    Even in terms of professional military, there is the ignorance of the training and the uniformity or diversity of training when people came together to fight.    In historical battles, it was not uncommon for alliances to form quickly involving very different cultures with different weapons and techniques.

I still think it is valuable to imagine what happened by putting ourselves into the situation of the times.   I think we can separate the rational or cultural aspects of our world views from the more basic emotional aspects of being alive and in a human form and mental capacity.     A recurring message in his videos is that people are not stupid.

In one of his videos, he describes the rarity of actual field battles.    To have a battle, two sides have to agree to meet at the same place and time.    In his explanation, he asks why would either side enter a battle unless they were certain of winning.   Usually it would be apparent that one or the other side would have a decisive advantage.   This argument appeals to that insistence that people are not stupid.   Instead, sieges were far more common: a city or fortification has no option to get out of the way.

In another of his videos, he describes the every day experience of access to fire.   In modern times, we are accustomed to easily starting fires when we need them and then put out the fires when we are done.   This modern bias leads us to think that people would do the same time in earlier times by making fires more difficultly with friction or sparks.   His explanation is more reasonable in that people would take pains to make sure that fire will never go out.    The easiest way to get a new fire is get it from another source of fire.   People would never let fires go out, or at least there will always be a fire somewhere to start a new flame.   Again, I think this appeals to the idea that people are not stupid.

I realize that I can not expect to recreate the worldview of people who had completely different experiences in their formative years and in their day to day experiences.   However, I think it is reasonable to assume that people are smart enough to take care of themselves.   People are not going to attempt something unless they are convinced they have a chance of accomplishing their goal.    People are also going to do something that is simple if the alternative is too difficult.

In short people are not stupid.

I enjoy thinking about life in more historical times.   This interest has never motivated me to invest a lot of time in studying either history (including archaeology) or people (including sociology or psychology).   My interests are always in the immediate present.   I’m interested in understanding people right now.

One of my graduate courses in control systems engineering involved a topic called system identification.   This topic involved the mathematical tools (linear or matrix algebra) developed for designing new systems, but instead attempted to derive these models from existing systems.   This topic is a type of reverse engineering but is specific to dynamic systems as opposed to something that can be described by blueprints.   Central to this discipline was the idea that the inner workings of the system were unavailable but could be derived by observing reactions to certain input stimulation.    The goal is to find the best mathematical model that matches the same responses to the the same stimulation.

I approach historical inquiry from that same perspective.   I’m trying to understand people.   People are dynamic systems.   In my thinking, understanding people means understanding the dynamics of people relating to the world around them.   While people may exhibit a large diversity of responses to certain conditions, these responses will generally share traits of being human.   In particular, people are not stupid.   Using the information and world view available to them, they will plan and execute their actions with a reasonable explanation.    Any difficulty in explaining their actions is due to the audience not sharing the same information and world view.

We often use the term stupid as a convenience to describe our inability to understand someone else’s actions, especially if those actions have detrimental consequences.   People make mistakes, but people also learn from their mistakes.   If someone can learn from their mistakes, they are not stupid.   If they are not stupid, then I would grant that their thinking process leading up to the mistake was well justified from the information and world view available at the time.

Recently I have been investing a lot of time in searching for a way to re-enter the workforce.   However, instead of diving in and trying to find employment, I’ve been spending a lot of time imagining what potential employers would think about a candidate such as myself.   In analogy to historical battle reenactments, I’m absorbing the experience of being in the battle space of unemployed and employers.    I am spending so much time thinking about the experience of being unemployed that technically I don’t qualify as being unemployed.   I’m not actively seeking work.   In a some definitions I am employed, but I’m simply not making any money.

In particular, I am spending more time thinking from the perspective of the employer instead of the unemployed.   I invest so much time thinking about managing people because I still expect that eventually I’ll find a job that will eventually lead to some form of managing others.

A key challenge of managing people is to know what to expect from a person in a particular job.   In earlier posts I referred to my impression that we may be losing some wisdom of earlier generations of management.  In particular, it is my impression that older management theory had a more realistic view of people as dynamic participants who were not stupid.    We had practices that encouraged hiring people with potential and then develop that potential within the specific reality of the specific business.

In contrast, today we demand people to be qualified for specific positions.    I’ve lost track of the number of warnings to not apply to jobs where I lack qualifications.   Part of the reason for my lack of submitting resumes is that it is easy to find something in the list of qualifications that I lack.   Instead of arguing the point, I concede that they don’t want me.

Coincidentally, there is this trend to be more data driven in our decision making.   There are many articles suggesting that big data can be used for recruitment purposes.   We should be able to query all of the data about everyone to find the specific people with the right documented traits to meet the job description.    Not only is this possible, but this will lead to better candidates so that it would be wrong to hire anyone but the person with the best query results.

This idea replaces the concept of people with the concept of data about people.   People become items in supermarket shelves and the data is a description of the contents and the promises for its intended use.   For a long time, I described this as an approach that reduces people to commodities.   It neglects the fact that people are not stupid.

LindyBeige’s videos suggests to me a different analogy.   We look at history different than we look at the present.   We have data and artifacts about history.   It is clear that some events occurred and the events played out in a certain way.  In that view, the actors are reduced to static entities with predefined capabilities that contributed in the way they did because of the accidents of being in particular places and times.    In this view of history, the winners had the right stuff and the losers had the wrong stuff.    One project of history is to itemize that list of advantages and disadvantages to explain outcomes.   One consequence of historical perspective is that the only stuff we know about is the stuff that was actually used.   Implicitly we assume that’s the only stuff available.   In the context of history of now dead people, that is in fact true: we will never know the alternative stuff available but lacked the opportunity to be put into use.  Our mistake is to assume that unused stuff didn’t exist.

A common theme in this hypothesis-discovery blog is the idea that all data is historical data.   The way to approach data is to approach it like historians approach data.   My view of data science is that it is unlike computer science, and unlike physical science (what I call present-tense science).    Data science is a part of the historical disciplines because data is evidence of what happened.  That evidence is all that we have about what happened and for a variety of reasons that evidence may be unreliable no matter how trusted it was a the time it was generated.

The trend to reduce present time people to data about those people is changing people from living to historical.   We are increasingly narrowing the window of the present from the past to the point where we are becoming historical figures in real time.    The immature view of history is that the actors were destined to have things happen exactly as they were recorded.    Increasingly we are treating living people the same way today.

I think that is what is refreshing about LindyBeige’s community devoted to various forms of reenactments.   It is a reminder that historical people were actually real people.   They had no idea history would turn out the way it did.   They were not stupid in how they approached their lives.   They didn’t let fires go out because it was too hard to start them.   They didn’t enter battles when they had doubts they could win.

If historical people can be recognized as living people, then maybe present time people also are living people.

Herodotus recounts Solon as saying “In truth, I count no man happy until his death, for no man can know what the gods may have in store for him.”.   A historical figure talking about a figure historical to himself describing another historical figure as living person.   It is only when one is dead does he become historical.   History is about the dead.   Data is about history.


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