We often make a sharp distinction between “traditional” and “modern.” We view tradition with distrust, assuming that we are simply latching ourselves onto arbitrary decisions from yesteryear.
Technology, on the other hand, is viewed as progressive. Rather than entrenching us in the past, technology is supposed to propel us into the future. Technology is the way that we structure our environment in order to maximize our productivity and happiness. We use technology to automate away the bad and boring parts of work, and emphasize the fun parts more predominate. We use technology to boost our productivity to make sure that everyone has everything that they need.
What most people miss is that tradition itself is a type of technology. Tradition deserves our respect, attention, and admiration. Just as we can be enamored with the way that our cell phones are constructed and make our lives better, tradition is deserving of the same type of appreciation.
As a technology, tradition performs several functions. First of all, it transmits information about ourselves (both individually and as a society) across generations. Traditions encode an identity, a history, and a commonality of experience that binds social groups together. Tradition allows a social group to be more than a mere collection of people, but to be a group where the members have a shared understanding and experience which binds them closer together.
Tradition also helps us to be free. Americans often come to the near-worship of having more and more options, and making decisions among those options. However, as a point of fact, what is beneficial is making important decisions. Simply having a multiplicity of decisions that have to be made actually decreases happiness. Imagine if, when going to the movies, instead of simply choosing one of 20 movies showing, you had to describe, in explicit detail, the plot of the movie you wanted to see. You had to decide the configuration of the theater you were going to. The very act of making all of those decisions would render the act of going to the theater tedious, not enjoyable. Tradition establishes norms of behavior which allows the offloading of unimportant decisions so that the important decisions can be focused on. This doesn’t eliminate freedom (tradition, as opposed to law, doesn’t forcibly prohibit anything), but rather eliminates the tedium of pointless decision-making.
Additionally, the specific content of tradition can be helpful as well. Most people spend time thinking about what makes them happy now. Children want to be happy in a certain way—usually playing games with their friends. Young adults want to be happy in a different way—oftentimes partaking in new experiences. Middle agers want to be happy in yet a different way—becoming established and respected in society. The elderly want to be happy in still different ways—by enjoying the fruits of what they sowed in society. The practices that bring happiness in each of these stages vary widely. Additionally, adopting certain practices that are contrary to happiness at one stage of life brings greater happiness in later stages of life.
Tradition oftentimes serves the role of optimizing happiness across all the different preference sets that someone is likely to have throughout their lives. Imagine if you had a device which would tell you which stock picks will give the best performances in the long run. That would be an amazing piece of technology! Yet, tradition serves that role for happiness. Tradition tells us the set of decisions that will likely bring us the most happiness in our present culture across all of the different preference sets we are likely to encounter.
Additionally, tradition helps people who are born in less fortunate circumstances. Millions of uneducated people benefit from embedding good habits of decision making within the culture itself through tradition, the uneducated can use traditionalism as a substitute for thorough analysis.
The Making of Tradition
What most people miss is that tradition itself is often made in a way similar to many of our most high-tech systems—machine learning. Machine learning works by starting out with a decision-making process, varying it, and seeing what works. The magic of machine learning is that neither the network itself, nor even the people using machine learning, always know why machine learning models generate the desired result. All that they know is that, at the end, the model provides a model that helps machines and humans navigate the world of data.
Tradition often works similarly. Traditions are made by individual modifications of cultural practices. Cultures eventually decide if those practices are helpful or harmful. Just like data scientists with machine learning models, the cultures may not have a direct, known causative pathway by which their cultural practices help or harm society. However, the end result can be examined, judged, and modified.
N. N. Taleb makes similar remarks about tradition in his books, including Antifragile and Skin in the Game. He points out that tradition can encode complex heuristics that were gained over generations, that optimize for outcomes that the present generation has not even experienced. Because the current generation lacks experience in certain negative outcomes, refusing the education from previous generations leaves you open to realizing those outcomes again.
It is interesting that, in a world that has become obsessed with machine learning models where the reason for results are opaque to the practitioners (and, in fact, that is part of the charm), the same society oftentimes rejects traditions which have brought social success on the basis that the reasons for their success are opaque to them.
All this is not to say that we should never challenge tradition. On the contrary, just as we should not take every technological “advance” as being worthwhile, we should indeed examine traditions and see what we gain and lose with the tradition. However, unless we see clearly why tradition exists to be begin with, we cannot adequately determine its efficacy.
Chesterton gave a parable of this in his essay, “The Drift from Domesticity”:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
In other words, our traditions are a gift. They are a technology that were bequeathed to us, and hard-won over many generations. There are certainly traditions that need to be revised or removed. However, until we take the time to explore what those traditions are doing for us, or supposed to do for us, we should not be quick to remove them.
You may also enjoy this piece by Jonathan Bartlett: How Bayes’ math rule can counter unreasonable skepticism: Mathematics is much more interesting if we know a bit about the players and their positions.