Spoon Theory: A Form Of Capital | Elizabeth Patitsas
“Bourdieu argued that there are multiple forms of capital which together determine class.”
“In this essay I argue that spoon theory, a common metaphor for units of physical/emotional energy used in disability circles, are a Bourdieusian form of capital. I’ll explain Bourdieu’s forms of capital, spoon theory, and why “spoons” as a unit of energy are a form a capital. Thinking of spoons in this framework is something that would be useful in social theory, as well as disability studies.”
“Economic capital: how much money you have, assets, etc
Social capital: who you know
Cultural capital: your knowledge, intellectual skills, and ability to navigate particular social situations. A subtype of cultural capital that is often discussed is linguistic capital — the language you have at your disposal.Thinking of multiple forms of capital allows us to have a more nuanced notion of class. For example, a graduate student with very little economic capital often will have a great deal of cultural capital.”
“If you have more economic capital, you can invest the money to get more money. If you have more money, you can buy things in bulk, or buy higher quality items that do not need to be replaced/maintained as often.
If you have more social capital, you can similarly use it to get more social capital. If I know many people, I can ask my many connections to get me in touch with more people.
If you have more cultural capital, you can use it to get more cultural capital. If I have a university degree I am more familiar with how universities function and am better able to navigate the process to get additional degrees or apply to academic jobs.And with all of these forms of capital there is the possibility of a poverty trap. For example: if you don’t know anybody, it’s harder to meet more people. Capital also has inter-generational effects. A parent with more capital can pass their capital onto their children.”
“Those who have a given form of capital often take their capital for granted. A rich person does not worry or think very much about spending money. A highly educated person can take it for granted how difficulty it is to get into (and stay in) university, since they likely did not struggle with a lack of cultural capital during their education.”
“These different forms of capital are not separate. For example:
If you have more economic capital, you can attend events where you meet people and increase your social capital. You can also attend more “elite” universities wherein you can increase your cultural capital.
If you have more social capital, you can find more business partners and talk to people with sound financial advice. Similarly, you can find people to help you get into university, or into a prestigious job.
If you have more cultural capital, you will have an easier time getting a bank loan. Also, you can leverage your alma mater’s alumni association to meet people and get social capital.Thinking about capital beyond economic capital is often a useful lens for sociologists when it comes to understanding social stratification. Some of what Bourdieu is known for is his analyses of who in society gets a higher education, which depends on all three of his forms of capital.”
“_”Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions. So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control.
I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons”. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. […]_Miserandino then proceeded to illustrate to her friend how daily tasks such as getting out of bed, getting dressed, showering, washing her hair, each cost spoons. If she ran out of spoons, she had to stop and rest to recover spoons.”
“The term “spoonie“ refers to people who live with limited spoons, such as due to autoimmune disorders, neurological disorders, connective tissue disorders, sleep disorders, chronic pain, chronic illness, and other disabilities where energy is scarce. These types of conditions are often co-morbid with each other, and it gives an unifying label for people who have multiple energy-limiting conditions.”
“It’s common for spoonies to describe their activities and lived experiences in terms of spoons. The term spoon has a well established meaning in the disability community as a unit of exertion. I’ll be using the term “spoon” in this way throughout the rest of this article, to reflect that I am using a concept that has been both labelled and accepted by the disability community.”
“It feels very personal for me to share my medical history. Using the term spoonie allows me to communicate my personal situation without having to disclose my medical history. It connects me to a community of other people who have to think about every spoon they spend every day — a currency not worried about by most people.”
‘a currency not worried about by most people’
“Spoons are a representation of units of physical, emotional, or cognitive energy. Another metaphor often used for this is a battery: energy is spent and can be recharged.
Spending a spoon refers to an activity which requires significant exertion. Spoons can be recovered through resting.”
don’t entirely agree but i get it
“What costs spoons does vary from person to person. It costs me a spoon to get out of bed in the morning due to the physical exertion. But if getting out of the bed in the morning is something you can do without thinking about, likely it isn’t costing you a spoon.
Similarly, while it costs me numerous spoons to get to work, once at work I generally expend few spoons. It doesn’t cost me a spoon to sit and participate in a discussion on advanced statistics, or to read a paper on social theory, or to meet with a colleague. But for somebody with a learning disability all of these things likely would cost them spoons.
Whether an activity expends spoons is not the same as difficulty. It may be difficult for me to wrap my head around a particularly esoteric scholarly work, but the process does not feel like it drains my energy. Spoons are also not the same as disability. Being deaf or blind does not mean you have a stock of sight or hearing to spend each day. Furthemore, abled people expend spoons; the issue is that they do generally not worry about them.”
“People who have abundant spoon capital_ _available to them do not worry, or often think, about how much they have. It is not a limited resource to them. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a limited resource for Bourdieu — and so not something he would have thought of in making his social theories.”
“Spoons are a discrete resource. They can be quantified. They can be tracked. Indeed, I track mine: I keep a spreadsheet diary of my daily spoons and use it to plan and keep track of what I do. (Yes, I am a nerd and I love spreadsheets.) I have a pretty consistent idea of what one activity costs in terms of spoons, and so can reliably measure them.
Spoon capital is not the same as health. Unlike in an RPG where somebody has health or hit points, it’s quite difficult to come up with a quantifiable, measurable way of saying how much health somebody has. Health is a categorical form of data, not a numerical one. Health is also not spent or recharged in the same way that spoons are.”
“activities could cost different amounts of spoons for you. This is true of other forms of capital. For example, I don’t have to spend economic capital to read a paywalled scholarly article because I have the cultural capital of institutional access. Likewise, somebody who has the economic capital to get a fancy credit card that gives them free lounge access at an airport does not have to pay the fee to enter the lounge.”
“And like other forms of capital, those without can find themselves in a poverty trap, particularly if they do not have other forms of capital to leverage. Using a disability lens gives sociologists a way to identify aspects of social life which would otherwise be missed by traditional sociology.”
“When I have more spoon capital at my disposal, I can do more to price shop. I can go to more stores, and compare more prices, or go to a store farther away to get a better deal. It also costs me spoons to buy in bulk. It takes me more spoons to carry a larger/heavier load home from shopping.
More spoon capital also means more social capital. With more spoons I can do go to more parties and events, or last longer at the same events — meaning I can interact with a larger group of people.
And spoon capital can unlock cultural capital. You need energy to be a student and to finish a university degree. Students with disabilities often spend many of their precious spoons on getting documentation for their disability, navigating university bureaucracy to get accommodations.And these can all go the other way:
With more economic capital, you can buy more mobility aids which will help you preserve your spoons and spend them more efficiently. I bought a recumbent bike ($$) since I can’t ride an upright bike, and riding it costs me fewer spoons than having to deal with public transit. (Driving is an issue for me.)
More social capital means you’re more likely to know people with similar conditions who have helpful management strategies, helpful doctors, good physiotherapists, etc.3. And cultural capital means a that you can stay on top of new clinical research, have more productive discussions with health professionals, and unlock medications/treatments that could give you more (or fewer!) spoons.Spoon capital does not neatly fall into Bourdieu’s framework of three fundamental forms of capital. Spoon capital may be converted into or from other forms of capital but is still a distinct stock of capital. It is embodied, and often quite fixed — I can use my economic, social and cultural capital to find ways to spend my spoons more efficiently, but it is rare to find a way to actually increase the total number of spoons I have at hand.”
Interfaces as a Scarce Resource - LessWrong 2.0
“The first three sections (Don Norman’s Fridge, Interface Design, and When And Why Is It Hard?) cover what we mean by “interface”, what it looks like for interfaces to be scarce, and the kinds of areas where they tend to be scarce.”
“Good interfaces as a key bottleneck to creation of markets”
“I used to own an ordinary, two-compartment refrigerator - nothing very fancy about it. The problem was that I couldn’t set the temperature properly. There were only two things to do: adjust the temperature of the freezer compartment and adjust the temperature of the fresh food compartment. And there were two controls, one labeled “freezer”, the other “refrigerator”. What’s the problem?
Oh, perhaps I’d better warn you. The two controls are not independent. The freezer control also affects the fresh food temperature, and the fresh food control also affects the freezer.
The natural human model of the refrigerator is: there’s two compartments, and we want to control their temperatures independently. Yet the fridge, apparently, does not work like that. Why not? Norman:
In fact, there is only one thermostat and only one cooling mechanism. One control adjusts the thermostat setting, the other the relative proportion of cold air sent to each of the two compartments of the refrigerator.
It’s not hard to imagine why this would be a good design for a cheap fridge: it requires only one cooling mechanism and only one thermostat. Resources are saved by not duplicating components - at the cost of confused customers.”
“The root problem in this scenario is a mismatch between the structure of the machine (one thermostat, adjustable allocation of cooling power) and the structure of what-humans-want (independent temperature control of two compartments). In order to align the behavior of the fridge with the behavior humans want, somebody, at some point, needs to do the work of translating between the two structures. In Norman’s fridge example, the translation is botched, and confusion results.
We’ll call whatever method/tool is used for translating between structures an interface. Creating good methods/tools for translating between structures, then, is interface design.”
Fuck I love this so much
“In programming, the analogous problem is API design: taking whatever data structures are used by a software tool internally, and figuring out how to present them to external programmers in a useful, intelligible way. If there’s a mismatch between the internal structure of the system and the structure of what-users-want, then it’s the API designer’s job to translate. A “good” API is one which handles the translation well.”
“Economically, interface design is a necessary input to make all sorts of things economically useful. How scarce is that input? How much are people willing to spend for good interface design?
My impression is: a lot. There’s an entire category of tech companies whose business model is:
Find a software tool or database which is very useful but has a bad interface
Build a better interface to the same tool/database
“It’s a good value prop - you go to people or businesses who need to use X, but find it a huge pain, and say “here, this will make it much easier to use X”. Some examples:
Companies which interface to government systems to provide tax services, travel visas, patenting, or business licensing
Companies which set up websites, Salesforce, corporate structure, HR services, or shipping logistics for small business owners with little relevant expertise
Companies which provide graphical interfaces for data, e.g. website traffic, sales funnels, government contracts, or market fundamentals
Even bigger examples can be found outside of tech, where humans themselves serve as an interface. Entire industries consist of people serving as interfaces.
What does this look like? It’s the entire industry of tax accountants, or contract law, or lobbying. It’s any industry where you could just do it yourself in principle, but the system is complicated and confusing, so it’s useful to have an expert around to translate the things-you-want into the structure of the system.
In some sense, the entire field of software engineering is an example. A software engineer’s primary job is to translate the things-humans-want into a language understandable by computers. People use software engineers because talking to the engineer (difficult though that may be) is an easier interface than an empty file in Jupyter.
These are not cheap industries. Lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, programmers… these are experts in complicated systems, and they get paid accordingly. The world spends large amounts of resources using people as interfaces - indicating that these kinds of interfaces are a very scarce resource.”
“Don Norman’s work is full of interesting examples and general techniques for accurately communicating the internal structure of a tool to users - the classic example is “handle means pull, flat plate means push” on a door.”
“But accurate communication of a system’s internal structure is only useful if the system’s internal structure is itself pretty simple - like a door or a fridge. If I want to, say, write a contract, then I need to interface to the system of contract law; accurately communicating that structure would take a whole book, even just to summarize key pieces.”
“But the places where we see expensive industries providing interfaces - like law or software - are usually the cases where the underlying system is more complex. These are cases where the structure of what-humans-want is very different from the system’s structure, and translating between the two requires study and practice. Accurate communication of the system’s internal structure is not enough to make the problem easy.
In other words: interfaces to complex systems are especially scarce. This economic constraint is very taut, across a number of different areas. We see entire industries - large industries - whose main purpose is to provide non-expert humans with an interface to a particular complex system.
Given that interfaces to complex systems are a scarce resource in general, what other predictions would we make? What else would we expect to be hard/expensive, as a result of interfaces to complex systems being hard/expensive?”
“Interfacing to the real world means we don’t get to choose the ontology - we can make up a bunch of object types and data structures, but the real world will not consider itself obligated to follow them. The internal structure of computers or programming languages is rarely a perfect match to the structure of the real world.”
“Why is interfacing software with the real world hard? Some standard answers:
The real world is complicated. This is a cop-out answer which doesn’t actually explain anything.
The real world has lots of edge cases. This is also a cop-out, but more subtly; the real world will only seem to be full of edge cases if our program’s ontologies don’t line up well with reality. The real question: why is it hard to make our ontologies line up well with reality?
Some more interesting answers:
The real world isn’t implemented in Python. To the extent that the real world has a language, that language is math. As software needs to interface more with the real world, it’s going to require more math - as we see in data science, for instance - and not all of that math will be easy to black-box and hide behind an API.
The real world is only partially observable - even with ubiquitous sensors, we can’t query anything anytime the way we can with e.g. a database. Explicitly modelling things we can’t directly observe will become more important over time, which means more reliance on probability and ML tools (though I don’t think black-box methods or “programming by example” will expand beyond niche applications).
We need enough compute to actually run all that math. In practice, I think this constraint is less taut than it first seems - we should generally be able to perform at least as well as a human without brute-forcing exponentially hard problems. That said, we do still need efficient algorithms.
The real-world things we are interested in are abstract, high-level objects. At this point, we don’t even have the mathematical tools to work with these kinds of fuzzy abstractions.
We don’t directly control the real world. Virtual worlds can be built to satisfy various assumptions by design; the real world can’t.
Combining the previous points: we don’t have good ways to represent our models of the real world, or to describe what we want in the real world.
Software engineers are mostly pretty bad at describing what they want and building ontologies which line up with the real world. These are hard skills to develop, and few programmers explicitly realize that they need to develop them.”
“Accurately communicating what we want is hard. Programmers and product designers are especially familiar with this:”
“We said that translating what-humans-want-in-the-real-world into a language usable by computers is hard/expensive. That’s basically the AI alignment problem. Does the interfaces-as-scarce-resource view lend any interesting insight there?”
“First, this view immediately suggests some simple analogues for the AI alignment problem. The “Norman’s fridge alignment problem” is one - it’s surprisingly difficult to get a fridge to do what we want, when the internal structure of the fridge doesn’t match the structure of what we want. Now consider the internal structure of, say, a neural network - how well does that match the structure of what we want? It’s not hard to imagine that a neural network would run into a billion-times-more-difficult version of the fridge alignment problem”
“Another analogue is the “Ethereum alignment problem”: we can code up a smart contract to give monetary rewards for anything our code can recognize. Yet it’s still difficult to specify a contract for exactly the things we actually want. This is essentially the AI alignment problem, except we use a market in place of an ML-based predictor/optimizer. One interesting corollary of the analogy: there are already economic incentives to find ways of aligning a generic predictor/optimizer. That’s exactly the problem faced by smart contract writers, and by other kinds of contract writers/issuers in the economy. How strong are those incentives? What do the rewards for success look like - are smart contracts only a small part of the economy because the rewards are meager, or because the problems are hard? More discussion of the topic in the next section.”
“I think there’s a plausible (though not very probable) path to general artificial intelligence in which:
We figure out various core theoretical problems, e.g. abstraction, pointers to values, embedded decision theory, …
The key theoretical insights are incorporated into new programming languages and frameworks
Programmers can more easily translate what-they-want-in-the-real-world into code, and make/use models of the world which better line up with the structure of reality
… and this creates a smooth-ish path of steadily-more-powerful declarative programming tools which eventually leads to full AGI”
“To be clear, I don't see a complete roadmap yet for this path; the list of theoretical problems is not complete, and a lot of progress would be needed in non-agenty mathematical modelling as well. But even if this path isn’t smooth or doesn’t run all the way to AGI, I definitely see a lot of economic pressure for this sort of thing. We are economically bottlenecked on our ability to describe what we want to computers, and anything which relaxes that bottleneck will be very valuable.”
“The previous section mentioned the Ethereum alignment problem: we can code up a smart contract to give monetary rewards for anything our code can recognize, yet it’s still difficult to specify a contract for exactly the things we actually want. More generally, it’s hard to create contracts which specify what we want well enough that they can’t be gamed.
(Definitional note: I’m using “contract” here in the broad sense, including pretty much any arrangement for economic transactions - e.g. by eating in a restaurant you implicitly agree to pay the bill later, or boxes in a store implicitly agree to contain what they say on the box. At least in the US, these kinds of contracts are legally binding, and we can sue if they’re broken.)”
“encompasses things like adverse selection, signalling, moral hazard, incomplete contracts, and so forth. All of these are techniques and barriers to writing a contract when we can’t specify exactly what we want. But why can’t we specify exactly what we want in the first place? And what happens when we can?
Here’s a good example where we can specify exactly what we want: buying gasoline. The product is very standardized, the measures (liters or gallons) are very standardized, so it’s very easy to say “I’m buying X liters of type Y gas at time and place Z” - existing standards will fill in the remaining ambiguity. That’s a case where the structure of the real world is not too far off from the structure of what-we-want - there’s a nice clean interface. Not coincidentally, this product has a very liquid market: many buyers/sellers competing over price of a standardized good. Standard efficient-market economics mostly works.
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s an example where it’s very hard to specify exactly what we want: employing people for intellectual work. It’s hard to outsource expertise - often, a non-expert doesn’t even know how to tell a job well done from sloppy work. This is a natural consequence of using an expert as an interface to a complicated system. As a result, it’s hard to standardize products, and there’s not a very liquid market. Rather than efficient markets, we have to fall back on the tools of contract theory and mechanism design - we need ways of verifying that the job is done well without being able to just specify exactly what we want.”
“The lemon problem is an example: a seller may have a good used car, and a buyer may want to buy a good used car, but there’s no (cheap) way for the seller to prove to the buyer that the car isn’t a lemon - so there’s no transaction. If we could fully specify everything the buyer wants from the car, and the seller could visibly verify that every box is checked, cheaply and efficiently, then this wouldn’t be an issue.
The upshot of all this is that good interfaces - tools for translating the structure of the real world into the structure of what-we-want, and vice versa - enable efficient markets. They enable buying and selling with minimal overhead, and they avoid the expense and complexity of contract-theoretic tools.
Create a good interface for specifying what-people-want within some domain, and you’re most of the way to creating a market.”
“In general, people don’t understand which aspects are most relevant to other specialists, or often even which aspects are most relevant to themselves. A designer will explain to a programmer the parts which seem most design-relevant; a programmer will pay attention to the parts which seem most programming-relevant.”
“It’s not just that the structure of what-humans-want doesn’t match the structure of the real world. It’s that the structure of how-human-specialists-see-the-world varies between different specialists. Whenever two specialists in different areas need to convey what-they-want from one to the other, somebody/something has to do the work of translating between structures - in other words, we need an interface.”
“Somebody/something has to do the translation work. It’s a two-sided interface problem.”
“Handling these sorts of problems is a core function for managers and for anyone deciding how to structure an organization. It may seem silly to need to loop in, say, a project manager for every conversation between a designer and an engineer - but if the project manager’s job is to translate, then it can be useful. Remember, the example above was frustrating, but at least both sides realized they weren’t communicating successfully - if the double illusion of transparency kicks in, problems can crop up without anybody even realizing.
This is why, in large organizations, people who can operate across departments are worth their weight in gold. Interfaces are a scarce resource; people who operate across departments can act as human interfaces, translating model-structures between groups.”
“A great example of this is the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. It was intended to fix a lack of communication/coordination between branches of the US military. The basic idea was simple: nobody could be promoted to lieutenant or higher without first completing a “joint mission”, one in which they worked directly with members of other branches. People capable of serving as interfaces between branches were a scarce resource; Goldwater-Nichols introduced an incentive to create more such people. Before the bill’s introduction, top commanders of all branches argued against it; they saw it as congressional meddling. But after the first Iraq war, every one of them testified that it was the best thing to ever happen to the US military.”
“The structure of things-humans-want does not always match the structure of the real world, or the structure of how-other-humans-see-the-world. When structures don’t match, someone or something needs to serve as an interface, translating between the two.
In simple cases, this is just user interface design - accurately communicating how-the-thing-works to users. But when the system is more complicated - like a computer or a body of law - we usually need human specialists to serve as interfaces. Such people are expensive; interfaces to complicated systems are a scarce resource.”
Superhuman & the Productivity Meta-Layer
“The problem, Kevin argues, is that productivity and collaboration shouldn’t be treated separately. Instead, they should go hand in hand and that’s exactly what a lot of the latest productivity tools do: Figma, Notion, Airtable, etc all have messaging natively built in to their apps.”
“With more and more productivity apps creating their own messaging systems, users suddenly face a new problem: Multiple inboxes. You now have to check notifications in Github, Trello, Google Docs and half a dozen (if not more) other tools in your productivity stack.
Slack basically wants to be the unified notification center that captures all those incoming alerts from your productivity tools – a high frequency communications layer that ties everything together.”
“The way I see it notifications serve three important functions:
Being notified about (relevant) new developments
Taking actions on these developments (if necessary)
Building a (personalized) history of company records”
“As Kevin points out in his article, Slack only really handles the “being notified” part. Whenever you want to take action on notifications you have to switch to whatever app you’ve received the notification from. Productivity and collaboration remain separate.
There are a few exceptions though: Slack does integrate pretty well with a couple of tools and allows you to manage certain tasks straight from within the app. You can close and reopen issues and pull requests from GitHub, for example. Or create Asana tasks. Or instantly reply to Intercom messages.”
“Back in 2013, the Mailbox team built an email client that looked more like a to-do list than an inbox. With a simple swipe users could simply mark an email as done, add to it to a list or snooze it to deal with it later. Emails became tasks.”
“→ A right swipe accepts the meeting and adds the event to your calendar
← A left swipe declines the meeting and lets you propose a different time
You never have to open the message or write a lengthy response – you can only react with a swipe.”
WOWWOW that’s intelligent as fuck
“Superhuman, for those unfamiliar with it, is an email client that – among other features – lets you manage your inbox by just using your keyboard.
There are keyboard shortcuts for literally every single command you can think of: Compose a new email? Hit c. Discard a draft? Press ⌘, Shift and b. Reply to an introduction email with a Thank You note and move the original sender to bcc? Press ⌘, Shift and i (yes, this actually exists).”
“Most importantly though, users can trigger a command line interface so you can just write down the action you want to take without having to remember the exact keyboard shortcut. The NLP engine behind this thing works remarkably well and understands what you want to do no matter how you phrase it (this might be Superhuman’s most underrated feature).”
“Superhuman commands are limited to typical email actions (snooze, send later, etc), but the obvious next step, in my opinion, is to add commands that work across different apps.
That meeting request your colleague Lisa sent you?
Instead of just sending a reply why that time she proposed doesn’t work for you, you should just be able to also send an updated calendar event without having to leave the Superhuman app.”
“But you should also be able to block 30 minutes in your calendar before the meeting so you can prepare – without having to switch over to your calendar app and add the events there. Hit ⌘K and type “Add 30 min buffer before event“. Done.
I suspect that Superhuman will build their own calendar features (as well as to-do list functionalities) and then start integrating third-party applications to become an actual platform.”
“With a strong enough NLP engine behind the command line interface, the possibilities become endless:
Add that New York Times article to your Pocket queue or send it directly to your Kindle to read it later
Re-assign Jira tickets directly from Superhuman or send them to your to-do list
Pay invoices or send money to a friend”
“You never have to leave the Superhuman app – the command line becomes your personal assistant that takes care of all your productivity tasks.”
“Once you can react to email notifications right from your inbox, you can forward all your 3rd-party notifications to your email inbox and manage them from one place. This is how you solve the multiple inbox problem we discussed earlier.
Having all notifications in one place sounds scary: People are already struggling to stay on top of their inbox today and risk missing important messages. This is where Superhuman’s Split Inbox feature comes in handy. Your main inbox is still reserved for only the most important emails you receive. For everything else you set up dedicated split inboxes.”
“Collecting all notifications in one place has another benefit: Building a (personalized) history of company records. In the current world of multiple inboxes your information is dispersed across a dozen different services and whenever you try looking for something you never know where to find it.”
“An actual meta-layer might look closer to something like Tandem, but I could also imagine a Superhuman Command Line that lives outside of the Superhuman app – similar to what Command E are building”