The Wiki Man

How oneupmanship wrecks things for everyone

You can’t just have people round for a pie and booze now; you have to mess about with ramekins. Thanks for nothing, Delia

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

‘There’s a little bit of a fascist in all of us. For some, the tragedy of human want may provoke an impatient urge to expropriate and centralise economic resources. Others, alarmed at the world’s exploding population, may be attracted by calls for a programme of mass compulsory sterilisation.

But for me it’s letter boxes and street numbering. I want order. I want consistency. I want standards. And I want eye-watering penalties for property owners who try their fellow Britons’ patience and waste our time by making their addresses impossible to find.’

You may remember reading this from Matthew Parris in last week’s Spectator. When delivering leaflets in Derbyshire, he was infuriated by the difficulty of matching houses to their address. A trivial point, you may have thought. Not so. In fact Matthew had uncovered two issues which preoccupy practitioners of evolutionary biology, game theory, political science and economics. These are libertarianism’s twin Achilles heels — where individual and collective interests diverge.

In a perfect world, every house would be numbered — with odd numbers on one side, even numbers on the other. Unfortunately, two conflicting forces erode this happy state of affairs. One is the free-rider problem; the other is status signalling (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘wankification’).

The free-rider problem occurs when you exploit your neighbour’s house numbers to save the cost of displaying your own. If the people at numbers 43 and 47 display their numbers on their gateposts, the chap at 45 has no incentive to display anything himself. If enough people adopt this approach, the entire system collapses.

Status signalling causes the same problem in a different way. A house with a name is classier than one with a number, and so people ‘wankify’ their address — renaming number 47 as ‘Rose Cottage’. Like the woman my father overheard in the Monmouth Lidl answering her phone with the words ‘I can’t talk now, I’m in Waitrose,’ these people prize relative status over locational accuracy.

Both problems occur in nature. The cuckoo is a free-rider. Runaway signalling occurs when oneupmanship runs out of control (a peacock is a wankified pheasant). The same problem ruins the design of everyday objects — so the good old wine glass has gradually evolved through wankification into a stupid balloon on an ever-lengthening stem: it doesn’t fit in the dishwasher, and the centre of gravity is so high that every time a sparrow farts it falls over and flings its contents across the table.

Many other goods are ruined by wankification. Food, for instance. Instead of just inviting some people over for lots of booze and a pie, you now have to spend two days preparing things in ramekins. The result is you can no longer be bothered to invite anyone to your house. Thanks for nothing, Delia. Private education is now hoplessly wankified, too: when did I ask for an all-weather hockey pitch and a Year 10 trip to Borneo?

These twin problems: free-riding and oneupmanship — free-riders who are happy to exploit the efforts of others vs people who are so individually competitive that they screw up the common good for everyone else — seem a little like a microcosm of modern Britain. If anyone can find a non-fascist solution to the house numbering problem, perhaps it can be applied more widely. If not, we can all move to Tokyo, where there are no street names and houses are numbered in the order in which they were built.

Your father should know

My 13-year-old daughter recently asked me, ‘What’s a sex tape?’ After mumbling evasively for a bit, I realised she was perfectly familiar with revenge porn: the bit she didn’t understand was the word ‘tape’.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • davidofkent

    I’m sure we used to call it ‘keeping up with, or overtaking, the Jones’. It isn’t new, you know!!!

    • Rory Sutherland

      No – the problem arises when it destroys the original purpose of the activity. Buying a nicer car than one”s neighbour may be vain but does serve to improve cars over time for everyone – mostly. Not least because you can buy your neighbour’s car second hand after three years for a third of what he paid for it. But certain norms become inescapable.

  • E Hart

    Blimey, it’s Madame Loisel by any other name. I have visions of your pacing up and down wringing your hands about whether or not to use ramekins, whilst scorning those neighbours who’ve saved themselves a trip to Homebase to buy into the numbers game. The world is full of idiots, so why should you (or Parris) consider joining them? The matters at hand are entirely frivolous – entirely in keeping with the bourgeois modus vivendi. No sensible person ever foregoes the opportunity to exercise agency when faced with idiotic social convention. I suggest you invite the buffoons to a booze and pie session and start things off in the manner in which you intend to proceed.

    Ask you daughter to man the trap, load it with ramekins and ceramic house numbers, get out your 12-bore shotgun and reduce them to smithereens. You can mutter something about them being biodegradable afterwards. Bingo! Pre-pie and booze entertainment. The middle class are like a mild shot of curare. If they don’t bore you to death with their neuroses and sensibilities, they’ll induce a mild state of paralysis. An invitation to join them should always be eschewed.

    The moral of the story is don’t invite people who attach more importance to “things” or “manners” than they do to being in your company.

    • Rory Sutherland

      I agree but I think you are overestimating the power of individual agency. At some level you have no choice but to conform to the social norms – when repaying hospitality, for instance.

      • E Hart

        Yes, but there’s a difference between reciprocity and parity. In order to escape the social ratchet (by means and intent), you need to exercise some discretion and discernment.

        The key elements are: effort (you need to respect your guests enough to make one); food (it has to be appealing, plentiful and targeted i.e. don’t give a lion a tin of Kittykat or a mouse, the lion’s share) and booze (it should never run out). All these things are easily satisfied with a bit of planning and organisation.

        • Kitty MLB

          Indeed the right food for the right people.

    • Kitty MLB

      I kind of agree.The type of people who invite you to dinner to
      brag about their new kitchen or designer plates are terminally dull and should be avoided.

  • Kitty MLB

    I slightly agree with what you say about house names instead of
    numbers especially if the house is down a street , where the
    majority have numbers.
    But if you like out in the stick as I do, on the edge of a forest, you
    tend to have a cottage with a name. And some of the cottages
    have very unique names.

    Ramekins? an excuse for smaller portions. I once spent ages making a nice pheasant soup and was chastised for forgetting
    the soup spoons..and what is reconstructed apple pie or
    reconstructed moussaka apart from two splodges on a plate
    quite popular here and you cannot blame sainted Delia for that.
    Also the problem with over ballooned wine glasses is that you
    always drink more wine then intended.

    Oh and your lady saying she’s off to go shopping in Waitrose remark, what if Waitrose was her local supermarket?

    I heard a girl say loudly in the doctors surgery the other week that she
    was off on a holiday to some island in the indian ocean before
    going off to Oxford to study..and she wasn’t that exited about
    the holiday because she’d been there a couple of times before

    • Rory Sutherland

      Perfectly acceptable to have a house name in rural areas if reasonably displayed I agree. And where numbering would make no sense in any case.

      The problem becomes more acute when online retailers offer you no choice of delivery firm. The postman knows how to find everyone – the chap from UPS or Yodel or whatever cannot be expected to enjoy the same local knowledge, though the better delivery firms now allow drivers to annotate addresses electronically with more detailed direction if they have trouble finding a house – for the benefit of future drivers.

      • Kitty MLB

        Well we once lived in a place in Nr Stroud named
        Jacobs Knowle.So rural that horses or cows would wander into your front garden if you left the gate open..even the threat of roast beef wouldn’t budge

        In that situation, you had to explain..
        ie..go up a steep hill in first gear , turn left at yellow house and cross bridge etc..They’d usually find it eventually.But will look as if they’d been partaking
        in some kind of expedition.

      • Freedom

        What’s the new avatar about, Rory? Do tell.

  • grutchyngfysch

    “If anyone can find a non-fascist solution to the house numbering problem, perhaps it can be applied more widely.”

    How about small-c conservatism? You know, the thing that advocates distributing social responsibility through personal responsibility (so avoiding the facism of the ever-expanding State), and which values individual attainment in hand with a duty to one’s subordinates (so avoiding the atomised Libertarian who vainly imagines his advances are the work only of himself).

    Duty, tradition, family, respect, neighbourliness, humility, sobriety, mongamous commitment, containment within one’s borders, live-and-let-live. It only sounds like some sort of rose-tinted farce because Liberals and Libertarians alike have been telling us it’s that for so long. It works quite well when you just get on and practice it, I find.

    • Kitty MLB

      Indeed, but what about the higher case letter instead.

  • Wouldn’t that be ‘swankification’? Conveys the idea and sounds less rude in the presence of the Queen.

  • Kitty MLB

    Mentioning the word ‘tape’ to a teenager.I can invisage mentioning the word ‘book will have the same response, as they
    all cling onto plastic instead of paper.

  • GrahamSalmon

    Finest article I’ve read all week. I would have laughed my socks off if I’d been wearing any at the time.

  • maharbbal

    In Paris, historically streets were known after the name of the main real estate owner and the house number started from the main feature of the street. Example: Sutherland avenue, two houses left of the crashed Apache helicopter, the pink door. Easy. It even works with Google Street View!