The Greater Ribbonfarm Cultural Region

by Venkat on February 7, 2012

Now for something a little different and spectacularly self-absorbed.

Several of you have suggested over the years that I should make up some sort of helpful landing page to get new readers oriented. I’ve been mulling how to do that in an interesting and helpful way for quite a while now, and about six months ago, I settled upon the idea of a conceptual map. This is the first draft.

I managed to hit one of the two goals I think: the map is pretty interesting and completely unhelpful for new readers. Click here or on the image to go to the future permanent home of the map (a page that will eventually show up on the menu bar as “You Are Here”). The page has a larger view as well as a link to a high-resolution printable version (US Letter size).

Now for the back story.

I am pretty proud of this map for two reasons. First, I did not think I could actually work Inkscape well enough to produce something like this. It is still pretty awful compared to what a serious artist could pull off, but it is about 3x better than my previous best Inkscape effort. It even has multiple layers.

Second, I think the map is actually quite useful beyond ribbonfarm proper as a way of representing a larger cultural space.

This is a sort of fish-eye lens/spherical projection view that exaggerates the space I think I occupy (which I’ve dubbed “Egocentric Projection”). I wasn’t good enough with Inkscape to show the fish-eye distortions properly though.

I made up the first version of this map nearly a year ago, after my big cross-country road trip, meeting readers in all sorts of weird places. One of the interesting outcomes of that trip was that I got a sense of what else readers of this blog read. Among the frequently mentioned sources were Less Wrong, various sites having to do with Collapsonomics and Neourbanism, John Hagel, John Robb, Hacker News, the xkcd comic strip, and so forth.

So even though I cannot really describe what ribbonfarm is about, I can situate it fairly well with respect to neighboring parts of the blogosphere.

On top of this virtual geography, I added what I’d learned about the various real-world subcultures (for example, lifestyle design, academia, Makers, startup types) that readers seem to inhabit.

A watershed distinction helped organize the map: that between abundance and scarcity mindsets (or equivalently, optimistic and pessimistic mindsets). Bruce Sterling’s colorful concepts (dark euphoria, favela chic, gothic high tech) helped organize the map according to this watershed distinction.

Ribbonfarm itself is largely on the scarcity side of the watershed, but part of the Barbarian Forest spills over to the abundance side I suspect, otherwise I’d probably have shot myself by now.

As an unintended side effect, this map has turned out to be surprisingly useful in helping me think about how to position and talk about my consulting work. Actually, what motivated me to turn my pencil-and-paper sketches into this map was a frustrating afternoon trying to think through what my consulting business is about. I still don’t know the answer to that question, but drawing this map helped me get to not really caring about the answer to that question.

I think this map could be extended and refined to represent quite a large cultural space in non-egocentric ways, but I suspect I am personally too self-absorbed to pull that off. If any of you wants to take a shot at it, the map page has a link to the current Inkscape SVG.  You are free to make derivative maps for non-commercial purposes.

Suggestions for other stuff to add welcome.  I plan to scale up from Letter size to A3 to create more room and posterize this thing.

Vivek February 7, 2012 at 9:03 pm

How come startuptown is on the scarcity side of the map, in fact, right next to the ocean of scarcity?

Josh W February 7, 2012 at 9:57 pm

Because the startups have no resources, and have to balance between making do with the little they have and living off trade via the (appropriately labelled) railroad?

Venkat February 7, 2012 at 10:00 pm

As far as I am concerned, anything that stays within classical economic models is a scarcity-driven activity. Startups are scarcity driven at multiple levels (money, attention, advertising-as-revenue, gamification for engagement with low creativity…).

Vivek February 7, 2012 at 11:08 pm

Actually, I was looking at it not from the condition of the startup folks as much as their mindset/vision. While the people doing the startup themselves might have scarce resources, etc, their outlook or vision may not be that of a scarce world. For example, many startups postpone Malthusian predictions via innovation, so maybe I was expecting some interaction between startups and the boundary. I guess that’s not the part of the map’s purpose though. Anyway, I’m still digesting/exploring the map. :) Sorry for a question right up. Love the map!

Venkat February 8, 2012 at 2:42 am

Yes, many do seem to start with abundance visions. But it seems to vanish by Series B. The bootstrap world is much closer to an abundance mindset, but few seem to think in terms of a billion dollar bootstrap. Most self-restrict to the favela chic/lifestyle business coastline.

Divya February 7, 2012 at 9:42 pm

I quite like it!

jld February 7, 2012 at 11:27 pm
Matt February 8, 2012 at 2:21 am

What, no Talebistan?

Venkat February 8, 2012 at 2:30 am

Good point. It obviously lies past Less Wrong prairies in Kahnemannville, right next to Areilya and Cowensburg.

Enlil February 8, 2012 at 5:31 am

Hello from (relatively) new reader and thank you for another type of insight Venkat, also Bruce Sterling’s «beyond the beyond» should be somewhere here.

Glee February 8, 2012 at 11:18 am

I love it. I have been a subscriber for some time. One of my pals at Level3 recommended you. I have wondered for a long time what you are all about. Now I have a clear(er) picture.

Sam Penrose February 8, 2012 at 9:50 pm

How many women are there in this region?

Venkat February 8, 2012 at 9:55 pm

22% of the 400 odd people who’ve Liked ribbonfarm on Facebook are women, so at least 100 I’d hope. But it’s pretty male I admit. A couple of women have taken me to task over it.

Sam Penrose February 9, 2012 at 1:30 am

I wasn’t thinking so much of your readers (1/5 seems fine given the topics) as the authors you discuss. Aside from Dunnett none of the favorite women on my shelves seem especially right for you, but here’s a thought: parenting is a fundamental human activity — the fundamental humanizing activity, maybe — and much more of it is female than male. Does that fact cast any of your familiar themes in a new light? I ask without an answer in mind.

Simon Tzu February 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Good Point. I think Le Guin would give Venkat much grist for his mill!

Simon Tzu February 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Just read the previous post. I see you’ve met Le Guin. Hear, Hear! Well I’d certainly like to see more of your thoughts about her writings!

Have you read Gene Wolfe and John Crowley?

Venkat February 9, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Yeah, that was the gist of the criticism, that I never mention or cite any women authors. My rather weak defense has been that I follow subject matter threads rather than author threads, and that this blog is not really important enough for conscious affirmative action in the input.

And I am not a parent. That whole domain of human experience is a closed book to me.

RG February 9, 2012 at 3:25 am

Ahem, so we have leapfrogged from MS Paint to Inkscape ;-)

And how! The visual is entrancing.

I am struggling to find a missing “land”.

I hope to see new territory covered in 2012 at ribbonfarm that could then find its place in a revised RfCR map.

Al February 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm

To me this map helps bring to light what both Ribbonfarm, and what I suspect your consulting business really is — modern business oriented Anthropology. There’s a lot of socoliogical, psychological, and linguistic specialists out there, but few disciplines that tie them all together for a larger understanding. We like anthropologists who can compare and contrast the Mayans and the Incas, but there are no(?) modern day business anthropologists who compare and contrast say, AirBnb with a defense manufacturer, or how barbarians from the forest have impacted various cultural ‘places’ (to follow the map metaphor).

All we need on this map are archaeological dig sites, a cross-reference of linguistics used in each region, and discussions on cross-culture interactions and what happens when people travel from town to town (ie subculture to subculture).

Here’s the archaeological angle (archaeology being a sub-discipline of many anthropologists) — the software and tools used in the subcultures on that map. If you were to have an archaeological dig in Startup Town vs the Military Industrial Complex, you’d uncover a lot of different things and start asking questions like – what made these people use these tools in this way? How did those tools help their objectives and interact with their neighboring cultures?

You could do the same thought experiment for other anthropology subdisciplines, e.g. linguistics — the language, both vocab and semantics, can be strikingly different on opposing parts of the map – e.g. a person from YC joining a DoD working group would be like Columbus discovering the new world.

Brent Eubanks March 9, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Good job on putting the permaculturists on the dividing line between the watersheds of scarcity and abundance. That’s exactly right.

I like the way academia is represented, also.

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