How long have people loved randomness?
March 27, 2008 11:17 AM   Subscribe

What are some (and some of the earliest) instances of people shuffling things on purpose to get a random result?

Is it possible to create a genealogy of the human desire for randomness? Are there academic studies of that desire/impulse?

This came up as a slightly goofy dinner topic which has since been hounding me, so I figured I may as well ask all of you. The basic premise of the question came up when someone posited that the iPod/equivalent's "shuffle" feature took advantage of a cultural preference for randomness over order. When, we asked collectively, did that preference first manifest itself?

Shuffling cards is an obvious answer -- but with cards, the randomness is simply the essential precursor to the creation of order through playing a game. In other words, the intended outcome of shuffling cards is to allow card players to re-create order for fun.

Similarly, fortune-telling techniques that rely on randomness (throwing bones; tea leaves; etc.) all seem to be about creating order out of randomness, rather than producing randomness for its own sake.

In fact, we're having trouble coming up with examples of randomness for its own sake at all -- can you?
posted by obliquicity to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
One could argue that the soldiers casting lots for Jesus' clothes were using randomness over order (say, military rank) when deciding who got what.
posted by unixrat at 11:27 AM on March 27, 2008

Best answer: Can you distinguish between randomness and surprise? When we choose Shuffle on the Ipod, we're essentially delegating the task of choosing songs to the ipod.

I'm thinking this ties in more to our long-standing love of the unexpected. For example, multiple course meals where the host surprises us with a new dish. Dances or balls where someone else (the host) has pre-arranged seating or dance partners. Whether the host used intuition or rolled dice seems less important than the fact that the outcome is unpredictable to the recipients.
posted by vacapinta at 11:32 AM on March 27, 2008

What vacapinta said. I think you're confusing randomness with novelty, which I believe is part of human nature.
posted by desjardins at 11:35 AM on March 27, 2008

I'm not sure if the point of shuffle is that it's better than a hand-picked playlist, just that it's easier.
posted by aubilenon at 11:41 AM on March 27, 2008

Response by poster: Yes, vacapinta is right, I'm definitely connecting the idea of "shuffling" to the love of novelty -- but it's not just novelty. For instance, all the songs on my iPod are known and loved by me -- but there's something extra-special about not knowing which familiar song I'm going to hear next.

So, unexpected but not unfamiliar.

Vacapinta is also right that in terms of my question, the mechanism is not as important as the effect -- I'm asking about the latter rather than the former (although specific examples will necessarily, I would have thought, describe both).

As an aside: unixrat, I'm not familiar enough with Jesus's story to know what the purpose of the redistribution of effects was, but I think that using chance to determine outcomes (i.e., drawing straws) might generally be characterized as using randomness to maintain order -- an egalitarian order, rather than a hierarchical one, but with order still the goal.
posted by obliquicity at 11:46 AM on March 27, 2008

I'd think that any truly ancient culture wouldn't believe in chance. Any seemingly random result would just be the effect of some god's will. (ie. Cleromancy)

Sortition seems to be the best example of true randomness, with its roots going back to elections in Athens c500BC.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 11:52 AM on March 27, 2008

Best answer: I think the basic premise is wrong. Moreover, I think the fact that you can't come up with an example is because the basic premise is wrong.

People deliberately look for patterns where it's entirely possible that none exists. Using your own example, there were many articles about how people felt their iPods were predicting their moods, or playing songs that 'went' together even though it was on random setting.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:09 PM on March 27, 2008

I would suspect that people who have their own chefs probably don't plan out every meal - some of them might like to be surprised by what shows up on the table (even though they know it will be something from a rough set of guidelines, at least).

Key parties seem to be another example of getting a "chance" result from a known set of possible outcomes.
posted by mikepop at 12:29 PM on March 27, 2008

Best answer: the need and desire for randomness can be found in gambling, lotteries, military drafts, political polls, as well as the fields of statistics, cryptography, and computer science. so as early as those things have been around.
posted by brooklynexperiment at 12:43 PM on March 27, 2008

Take it easy there, Dice Man.
posted by phrontist at 1:09 PM on March 27, 2008

Purim, the Jewish holiday named for the casting of lots (pur). ~500BCE. One could infer that the divination technique used by Haman was already hundreds of years old by that time. See also cleromancy; there's also a biblical reference in the Book of Joshua. These books were probably set down between 500 and 250BCE, so it isn't clear whether the technique was actually used that far back or if it was anachronistically ascribed, but you can probably assume 500BCE for sure, and possibly 1500BCE if you're willing to give credence to oral folklore.
posted by Araucaria at 2:18 PM on March 27, 2008

Cut-up Technique of writing.
posted by sharkfu at 2:21 PM on March 27, 2008

Sorry, Orange Pamplemousse, I see you were there before me.

And I, like others, missed the OP's point, that they're interested in non-divine usage.

Romans and Greeks played dice games for fun. So 2000 years, at least.
posted by Araucaria at 2:23 PM on March 27, 2008

Response by poster: Consensus seems to be that gambling is definitely the best and oldest example of this. So obvious a group of seven college professors couldn't come up with it :) And now I realize that gambling is the overarching term we were looking for to describe the "shuffle effect," which reduces this to one of those, "what's the word for...?" questions!

I do think that Jacquilynne makes a good point -- that while people value the "shuffle" function because of the randomness, there's also an urge to assign meaning to the order that emerges -- modern-day divination. Part of me wants to think of this push-pull as a persistent contradiction in human character (it's certainly all over gambling, anyway).
posted by obliquicity at 3:12 PM on March 27, 2008

I'd think that any truly ancient culture wouldn't believe in chance.

The ancient greeks argued about chance as much as contemporary scientists and philosophers do, which is to say, some thought everything must be by necessity and some thought there must be room for chance. Aristotle discusses these disagreements in The Physics.

These things are still disagreed about. Modern-day determinists generally don't attribute intention to their cause, (but then, neither did all the ancient determinists - ie, whether it must be a certain way because of physical laws, vs poetic beauty), but there is still a lot of discomfort with the idea that pure randomness could really be possible. If you think about it, that would kinda screw with our whole cause-and-effect universe, so the idea becomes, we must just not fully understand what the ultimate causes are...
posted by mdn at 3:53 PM on March 27, 2008

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