Sex and Significant Figures

A while ago I took a course in user interfaces. One of the most interesting things I picked up from that course was about making diagrams for user interfaces. Let’s say you’re designing a website. It’s not a bad idea, before you get to the actual coding, to make a mockup of the site, to see how it looks before you implement it, and get some other people’s opinions. Here’s the interesting question: what do you use to make the mockup?

You could draw on paper, with a pencil. You could make something sharp and professional-looking in, say, Photoshop. You could also go with one of the many simple mockup tools that exist online. My first instinct, when faced with this question on a project, was to use one of the nicer looking online tools. Something simple to learn and use, but fairly realistic-looking. In reality, I might have been better off scribbling in pencil on a piece of paper. What I didn’t know at the time is that you get very different feedback on mockups depending on how precisely they mimic the look of the final product. A sharp, professional-looking mockup will get feedback that is much more nitpicky about the finer details, where a pencil drawing is more likely to get feedback on the basic layout.

I find this phenomenon reminiscent of The Uncanny Valley. The more precisely human something looks, the more alarming the tiny discrepancies between it and actual humans are. In the same way, the more precisely a mockup mimics the final product, the more we notice tiny discrepancies between the mockup and the ideal final product.

I also think you can draw some interesting parallels between this phenomenon and certain aspects of human interaction. For example, I think that there is a manner in which a decision about whether or not to hook up with someone can work in a way that parallels the above phenomena. It is often the case, in my experience, that people are more comfortable having proportionately lower standards about sexual partners in contexts where it’s likely to be a one-off thing with a person they’ll never see again. I propose a hypothesis (that readers are encouraged to challenge): that part of the reason for this is that if you know you’re never going to know very specific details about a person, those specific details matter less.

Say, for the sake of example, there is an ideal type of person for you to have sex with. Consider whatever combination of factors you deem important (looks, personality, intelligence, humor, etc.), and let’s assume your ideal combination of all of these traits is represented by the number pi. 3.14159… etc. Now, say you’re at a party with a bunch of new people you’ll probably never see again. You don’t have a whole lot of time to actually get to know people very well. So, let’s say anyone you have conversation with you can get to know out to two significant figures, and you meet a 3.1. Brilliant! As far as you are capable of discerning at present, this person is an excellent match for you. Your actual requirements for an ideal sex partner are far more specific than you could hope to detect on a first meeting at a party — they are exact out to, say, six significant figures. And, in fact, it’s possible that a 3.07 (which this person you’ve met could be), for example, would be sufficiently removed from your ideal as to be a very bad match for you.

But, hey, it’s a party and you’ll never see them again, so what the fuck, right?

If you were likely to get to know them much better than that, I think there’s some chance that you’d be more picky. At least, I’ve seen people operate this way, and I think I would operate this way under certain conditions as well. If you know someone to more significant figures, you may be pickier about smaller details (since you can, at that point, see the smaller details) in the same way that people are pickier about simulated humans the more realistic they look and pickier about mockups the more precise they are.

There’s a lot of oversimplification in the example I presented, of course, but I think it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Oh, and also, on a completely unrelated note, I’ve passed my one year blogiversary, hooray!


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