Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

This essay attempts to place ritual in the context of evolving complex systems, and to offer an explanation for why everything is so ugly and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.

On Boundaries and Their Permeability

Boundaries are an inherent, universal feature of complex systems. Boundaries arise at all scales, defining the entities that they surround and protecting them from some kinds of outside intrusion. To be functional, boundaries must be permeable, allowing the entities to take energy and information from outside themselves. If we are looking at complex systems, we will find boundaries everywhere.

Boundaries are structures that protect what is within them and allow their contents to solve smaller, more manageable design problems than would be possible in a perfectly interconnected system.

Islands are surrounded by natural boundaries. Strange varieties of life arise on islands that are not seen anywhere else, precisely because they are cut off from the densely interconnected systems present in the ocean and on large land masses. Islands, small systems surrounded by a natural ocean boundary, give life the opportunity to try amazing stunts that would be impossible on a large landmass. Drifting daisies evolve into trees; drifting iguanas learn to swim; fruit flies evolve into fantastic, showy varieties; crabs grow a meter long and figure out how to open coconuts. Tree kangaroos, ground parrots, and giant tree skinks are niches only available on islands. And when the boundary opens (often because of that great destroyer of natural boundaries, humans), the unique species on islands are often out-competed by species that evolved in the diversity-flattening zones of great land masses. Boundaries drive diversity.

Note that the moon, however, despite being separated from the continents of Earth by a significant boundary, is not teeming with unusual life. This boundary is too great, too harsh, and not permeable enough to allow life to adapt to it in the first place.

Life itself has discovered a number of effective boundaries that allow it to diversify and flourish. The cell membrane is the most basic boundary. Trivially, there are no multicellular creatures without cell membranes; less trivially, there are no complex creatures whatsoever without this protecting, organizing, problem-space-limiting innovation. And in evolving a cell membrane, the most important problem to solve was how to get things through it: how to make it permeable enough to be useful.

The diversity explosion of the Cambrian era was aided by the discovery of a different kind of boundary: the exoskeleton. Exoskeletons provided a boundary protecting individual trilobites, which differentiated into many different forms and niches. Cell walls, evolving independently in multiple taxa, protect and shape the forms of plants.

Another kind of boundary that limits the space of problem solving and promotes diversity is Pattern 13 of Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein’s A Pattern Language: the Subcultural Boundary that occurs between neighborhoods in cities:

The mosaic of subcultures requires that hundreds of different cultures live, in their own way, at full intensity, next door to one another. But subcultures have their own ecology. They can only live at full intensity, unhampered by their neighbors, if they are physically separated by physical boundaries.

Distinct neighborhoods and distinct ways of life can only evolve within permeable boundaries of some kind, so that they can have communication with the outside world, but not be simply absorbed, flattened, and made uniform by forces outside them.

When natural boundaries between human groups are lacking, there has been intense pressure in human history to create effective boundaries of other kinds; military arms races across poorly-defined boundaries may be seen as building a new kind of boundary. This is one interpretation of “good fences make good neighbors;” only good boundaries are capable of organizing people well. (It is important that G. K. Chesterton chooses fences for his famous analogy about reformers.) Kevin Simler considers the functions of boundaries, from cell walls to national borders (amusingly I had written most of this essay, including the cell wall analogy, before I read Kevin’s excellent take). If we think of agency as “the ability to take action,” boundaries are essential for an entity to have any kind of agency.

In the present essay I am mostly interested in boundaries around groups much smaller than a nation state. I suggest that these small group entities – overlapping entities of multiple sizes, from Dunbar-sized “tribes” to neighborhoods of 7,000 or so – have increasingly had their boundaries undermined, and have largely ceased to exist and function. I suggest that ritual, my subject for the past two posts in this series, both functions to draw boundaries and to energize and coordinate human groups within the boundary so defined. I suggest that the loss of these small groups, in favor of nation-level organization of atomized individuals, has had serious consequences for human welfare and human agency. We are missing a layer of organization essential for our happiness.

Individual Imagination, Groups, and Flourishing

Perhaps the most important question of our time is how human beings can flourish and enjoy satisfying, meaningful lives under conditions of material abundance and extreme cultural interconnectedness. In A Dent in the Universe, Venkat proposes that “imagination” is a crucial survival skill at higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Here, I propose that individual “imagination” – even at its best – is woefully underpowered to solve problems of human flourishing by itself.

The lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid reflect material well-being. But material abundance is not itself the cause of anomie and angst. Rather, ancestral, evolved solutions to lower-level problems also tended to contain solutions to higher-level problems as well. As these ancestral solutions are made obsolete by solutions that are more efficient on the material level, the more ineffable, higher-level problems they solved present themselves anew. Simple abundance of food is not the cause of obesity, but rather the loss of carefully evolved ancestral diets. Our ancestors found it easy to get to sleep because they were tired from intense physical activity; we often find it a challenge to get to sleep because modern solutions to material problems do not include physical activity. We are lonely and bored not because of material abundance simpliciter, but because the specific cultural patterns that have reproduced themselves to produce material abundance have whittled away the social and psychological solutions that were built into old solutions to material problems.

Some challenges encountered at supposedly high levels of Maslow's hierarchy

Some challenges encountered at supposedly high levels of Maslow’s hierarchy

Here, I hope to motivate a humility toward carefully evolved ancestral patterns, and, especially, to the conditions and forces that allowed such patterns to evolve in the first place. The old patterns, exactly as they existed in the past, simply will not work to solve modern problems. But new, effective patterns do not come in a “flash of insight” to individuals; individuals have relatively little agency and power in shaping the way things are. Individual imagination is weak; evolution is strong.

Boundaries as Constraints on Design Complexity

Evolution, like human designers, faces constraints. Design problems that are too large, complex, and densely interconnected are unlikely to be solved by either process. Christopher Alexander opens his 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form with a quotation from Plato’s Phaedrus:

First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about . . . Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.

What does it mean to carve reality at the joints? Alexander provides an explication with an analogy to a hypothetical design problem. He introduces the concept of “fit”, the absence of misfit, which is to say, a design that solves its problem. “Fit” is a song that is beautiful, a chair that is comfortable, a kettle that is not too heavy or expensive and that heats water quickly. “Misfit” is ugliness, discomfort, uselessness, or other failures to solve design problems.

Now imagine an abstraction, a grid of one hundred lightbulbs connected to each other, ten by ten, representing a design problem with many variables. If a light is on, it corresponds to misfit; if a light is off, it corresponds to fit. Each light (variable) is connected to some number of other variables, just as, for instance, the variable of teakettle material is connected to expense and to its capacity to heat quickly.

If all variables are uniformly connected to all other variables, the system has little chance of reaching an equilibrium of “fit” by trial and error; the problem is too complex. However, if there are zones of dense interconnectivity that are not densely connected to each other, then reality may indeed be capable of being “carved at the joints,” and less difficult design problems exist that have a chance of being solved independently of each other, whether by evolution or by human agency:

An interpretation of Alexander's design space metaphor

An interpretation of Alexander’s design space metaphor

The existence of these zones of dense interconnectedness, that are not densely interconnected to each other, is a prerequisite for solvability. They are surrounded by a kind of permeable boundary, as pictured. This is analogous to “information hiding” in object-oriented programming; just as a living cell controls what enters it and acts on it, an electronic “object” limits access to its internal processes, accepting and returning only certain types of information. More ominously, a “black box” with limited interaction that solves a problem effectively is often so useful that it backfires: it becomes a new, required “solution” that limits the space of future design, often ironically resulting in poor fit. (More on this in the later section entitled “Tiling Structures and Monstrosities.”)

Another relevant analogy is the concept of life and death in the game of Go. The game of Go is a game of drawing boundaries. Within a boundary of stones, a structure is “alive” if any action on it can be met with a reply that preserves it, even when surrounded by enemy stones.

A kind of programming is occurring here, a complex tree of if-then statements abstracted into shape. Only a bounded structure can “live,” but within its bounds, it cannot be vulnerable to dangerous inputs. A perfectly impermeable boundary – a solid group of stones, with no holes or “eyes” – is dead, captured when the opponent encircles it. But a structure with enough “eyes” (holes where enemy stones may be placed) lives, and is held as territory.

To summarize, boundaries function to protect their contents from harmful intrusion, to allow for the solution of smaller design problems, and to preserve and encourage diversity. On the other hand, solutions developed at small scales are of limited utility if they cannot be adapted for use on larger scales. There must be communication and connection in order for bounded entities to live. Perfectly impermeable boundaries result in stasis and death, in social and biological life as in the game of Go.

Networks allow bounded entities to communicate and coordinate, and allow solutions developed at small scales to be used more widely. However, densely interconnected systems carry inherent risks not seen on the lower levels of organization. As we have seen, good design solutions cannot emerge from systems that are too densely interconnected. Beyond that, complex networks are vulnerable to (often inscrutable) risk of large-scale collapse. And black box “solutions” often seem to reproduce themselves like a plague, limiting design space and preventing new refactorings. The next section introduces some analogies to help think about networks and the balance between boundaries and interconnectedness.

Networks and Complex Interconnected Systems

On May 30, 2002, three ice climbers died in a fall on Mt. Hood. The incident, described in Laurence Gonzales’ excellent Deep Survival (Chapters 6 and 7), involved several of the most common factors in mountaineering accidents: the climbers were roped together, without fixed protection. That means that they did not anchor themselves to the ice, but attached themselves to each other, so that if one fell, all fell. They chose to form a tightly-coupled system (via the rope), without anchoring that system physically to the ice they clung to. “When a system is tightly coupled,” Gonzales says, “the effects spread. When a system is loosely coupled, effects do not spread to other parts of the system.” Like falling dominos, the mistake of one ice climber spreads to the others he is roped to – especially in the absence of adequate protection. The hope of one or more climbers executing a “self-arrest” – stabbing an ice axe into the ice before it is too late – is hampered by the fact that the force of a free-falling human (or two) is enough to dislocate the shoulders of a human strong enough to hold onto his axe.

There are two important points to this analogy. First, in tightly-coupled (densely interconnected) complex systems, one entity can send force into the system that destabilizes the entire structure. Second, humans are not good at noticing the dangers inherent in such systems. The type of accident reported in Gonzales’ 2003 book continues to occur with clockwork regularity. Gonzales quotes a climber who characterizes climbing roped together without fixed protection as “a suicide pact” – but climbers are apparently not good at noticing when they have entered such an unreasonable pact.

There are many problems with this analogy. In the case of climbers roped together without fixed protection, all the risk comes from individual accident or mistake. In reality, the risks inherent in complex systems often come from the system itself – though individual inputs are often dangerously propagated as well, as with parasite infestation in agriculture.

Another problem with the climbing analogy is that, in complex systems, there are many levels of “falling” other than death. Certainly, the extremely interconnected system humans have built risks complete collapse and extinction. But being “roped together” in a sufficiently interconnected system may also mean that we become stuck at low levels of well-being, unable to evolve better solutions at small scales to problems not quite as dire as death and extinction. Consider healthcare and education systems that require all citizens to participate in them and prevent smaller, better solutions from evolving. Obesity, boredom, and loneliness may not be quite as bad as death, but are levels of “falling” that sufficiently connected and tightly-coupled systems impose on their member human beings, limiting their freedom to attempt smaller-scale solutions.

Consider this substitute analogy, for contrast: instead of being suspended on ice, the people are suspended in air on a commercial airplane. Here, people are not roped together, but entirely dependent on a complex system, any aspect of which may fail.

Who “chooses” when to become part of a complex system, and which of its components to accept or reject? Where is the agency located? Often, poorly-fitting pieces of complex systems seem to be thrust upon us without our consent, with no practical way to refuse it. Network effects can frustrate human agency instead of magnifying it; I call these “tiling structures.”

Tiling Structures and Monstrosities

I use the personal jargon “tiling structure” or “tiling system” to describe a system that causes itself to be replicated, tiling the world with copies of itself. Some tiling structures are biological; humans are a tiling structure, tiling all continents with copies of the same kind of naked primate. Some are technological; agriculture tiled the world with itself not by making humans healthier, taller, or less prone to famine, but by producing sheer numbers and densities of miserable people for thousands of years so effectively (despite all the famines) that other options for subsistence were tiled out of existence.

Tiling structures are one explanation for why urban design looks so uniform (and so soul-crushingly ugly) throughout the United States. Certain forms are ubiquitous because they solve certain delineated problems effectively enough to become effectively mandatory: power lines, big box retail, strip malls, freeways, parking lots, and billboards are such powerful patterns that few locales can refuse them, despite their ugliness and the constraints they impose. Education has tiled the world with itself; it is taken for granted that children are to be locked up in adult-controlled cages for most of the day. Together with the other tiling systems, education has obliterated unique children’s cultures. The democratic government that requires this kind of education (what I call the “free child caging service,” although it is certainly not free) may be regarded as a tiling structure: it tends toward more control and intrusion into the boundaries of smaller entities, constraining what they can do.

Some tiling structures are “top down,” like government education: imposed on sub-entities against their will. Others are “bottom up” – a design problem is solved in such a way that all later actors adopt it, and it gradually becomes just as mandatory and constraining as a top-down imposed pattern. The blogger Viznut examines this latter dynamic with respect to software development; instead of attempting to solve problems by refactoring from scratch and “cutting reality at the joints,” pre-existing chunks are adopted and glued together to form a monstrosity that just barely works and is riddled with misfit:

Tell a bunch of average software developers to design a sailship. They will do a web search for available modules. They will pick a wind power module and an electric engine module, which will be attached to some kind of a floating module. When someone mentions aero- or hydrodynamics, the group will respond by saying that elementary physics is a far too specialized area, and it is cheaper and more straight-forward to just combine pre-existing modules and pray that the combination will work sufficiently well.

Viznut, The Resource Leak Bug of Our Civilization

Whether or not this is a fair description of software developers, I think it is an accurate description of how people build their lives. We select from the available chunks and try to fit them together into a coherent whole – an education here, a job there, a box to live in, entertainment to pass the time. These available “life parts” tend to be black boxes in whose design we have little say. They may not fit together into a satisfying whole at all – the boat they make may not float. Perfectly adequate material solutions fail to provide essential “nutrients” – sometimes literally (as with obesity), sometimes figuratively (sunshine, eye contact, exercise). It is tempting to accuse a person who cannot make a coherent life out of the available parts of having too little imagination; however, I do not think this kind of problem is one that individual imagination is powerful enough to solve. Even the most imaginative among us will tend to build a “monstrosity” instead of a life.

We may ask a very practical question: where lies the agency that accepts or rejects certain “black box” structures or tiling systems? An important myth of our time is that voting is an effective way for individuals to have agency in a democracy. The idea that the aggregate will of millions of people is adequately expressed by voting in elections is a rather outlandish claim, and clearly one with much evidence against it, but the “plausibility structure” of democracy causes us to believe this fiction on faith.

Why democracy seems to work

Why democracy seems to work

One pathological boundary that has been imposed top-down by our democratic system is drug prohibition. Total prohibition, in the form of the drug war, drew a boundary that created a very lucrative niche that only the most ruthless, violent actors could fill. The drug war prevented small-scale, non-totalitarian solutions to drug problems from ever being attempted, including the kind of small group rituals that allow people to use drugs in healthy, prosocial ways. The drug war hampers small group agency even more than individual agency; individuals may use drugs underground, supplied by those violent niche-fillers, in isolation or among the dispossessed, but if groups attempt to use drugs in healthy ways, a raid is almost guaranteed. “Prescription power,” limiting the power to prescribe drugs to doctors, is part of the drug war; I do not hold much hope for medicalized drug rituals administered by doctors. Despite wide agreement that the drug war is a failure, humans do not seem to have the agency to end it.

The idea that individual “consumers” express their will effectively by choosing among the options provided in the market is a myth that is related to democratic agency through voting. There is agency in market choice, but it is limited to the options provided, which are in turn limited by what other people are willing to buy. Much of what humans want and need is not possible to supply in markets, and the chunks that are supplied are often not good materials for composing a human life. I think that only small human groups are capable of supplying these benefits that are difficult for the market to capture. Both producers and government find it easiest to tile the world when humans are atomized into individuals, rather than in small groups with appropriate, permeable boundaries; but a nation of individuals makes it difficult for anyone to experience belonging. Only a small group, and not “the nation” or, even worse, “Mankind,” can supply social belonging and even multiply agency. A small group has its own agency, in the sense that a group of 200 or 7,000 is capable of more, when coordinated together with boundaries, than the same number of individuals operating completely independently. (This is why the ideal firm size is not one; transaction costs turn out to be significant.) Firms are efficient at producing material goods and services for the market, but they are not good at providing belonging and happiness for people.

These small-group levels of organization are increasingly missing. Church membership decreases, and no new cults spring up to take their place. Work, education, legal, and residential design patterns make it difficult for local groups to form and express themselves. Rituals increasingly tend toward the spectacle rather than small group participation. And without rituals to set their boundaries and energize them, small groups cannot thrive.

Boundaries, Agency, and Beauty

A story I have heard about the Langley Schools Music Project is that one of the music teacher’s strategies was to supply the children with instruments that were tuned such that they could not make “off” notes; rather than overwhelm children with a piano full of notes, they were given gamelan or other instruments that only made harmonious notes. The children could immediately pick them up and make music, rather than having to wade through years of inharmonious noise. “Toy instruments” (the thumb piano is a beautiful and very functional example) reduce the problem solving space: there are fewer options, but they all sound good and can be combined together to make music that exhibits “fit.”

Maynard Owen Williams, writing in National Geographic in 1921, writes about what happens to folk aesthetics when unfamiliar elements are introduced:

In Merv I saw the havoc modern commerce has wrought with lovely Oriental rugs. The same thing is taking place in the peasant costumes of Czechoslovakia, with the same aniline dyes being substituted for vegetable colors, which were not only much softer when new, but which fade into mellow tones no chemical dye can duplicate.

Factories are calling the women from the farms, where they utilized the winter months in working out the designs traced by the village designer or in evolving their own. Thus, gradually the arts of the past are being lost.

Good solutions to design problems – beauty in all its forms – evolve into being as least as much as it they are created by individual human agency. The solution to design problems in the human realm have had a long time to evolve in ancestral cultures, in which they evolved under more bounded, less interconnected conditions than we experience today. When new variables are added, the old aesthetic cannot instantly absorb them, but must work through many iterations of misfit before good fit is discovered. Individual humans continue to change, elaborate, and shape their aesthetics, but the more elements (choices) are added to the problem space, the smaller the chance of hitting on a good solution.

Christopher Alexander seizes on the same example as Williams in a bit more detail in his 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form to elucidate a model of cultural evolution, which I quote at length:

The Slovakian peasants used to be famous for the shawls they made. These shawls were wonderfully colored and patterned, woven of yarns which had been dipped in homemade dyes. Early in the twentieth century aniline dyes were made available to them. And at once the glory of the shawls was spoiled; they were now no longer delicate and subtle, but crude. This change cannot have come about because the new dyes were somehow inferior. They were as brilliant, and the variety of colors was much greater than fefore. Yet somehow the new shawls turned out vulgar and uninteresting.

Now if, as it is so pleasant to suppose, the shawlmakers had had some innate artistry, had been so gifted that they were simply “able” to make beautiful shawls, it would be almost impossible to explain their later clumsiness. But if we look at the situation differently, it is very easy to explain. The shawlmakers were simply able, as many of us are, to recognize bad shawls, and their own mistakes.

Over the generations, the shawls had doubtless often been made extremely badly. But whenever a bad one was made, it was recognized as such, and therefore not repeated. And though nothing is to say that the change made would be for the better, it would still be a change. When the results of such changes were still bad, further changes would be made. The changes would go on until the shawls were good. And only at this point would the incentive to go on changing the patterns disappear.

So we do not need to pretend that these craftsman had special ability. They made beautiful shawls by standing in a long tradition, and by making minor changes whenever something seemed to need improvement. But once presented with more complicated choices, their apparent mastery and judgement disappeared. Faced with the complex unfamiliar task of actually inventing such forms from scratch, they were unsuccessful.

It is frequently observed that constraints and obstructions are precisely where great art comes from; far from limiting art, they allow it to happen and feed it – the more demanding the constraints, the better. This paradoxical relationship between constraint and expression is the subject of the movie The Five Obstructions (which I highly recommend). An aesthetic is one form of a constraint, and aesthetics tend to be developed, elaborated, and enjoyed in small groups. Certain aspects of reality are excluded in order to focus on the ones within the aesthetic. An aesthetic also provides a context in which forms can exist, fit, and be beautiful (or fail to be).

The work of elaborating an aesthetic together, as a small group, providing context for each other’s selves, is some of the fundamental work of being human, a way for humans to be valuable to each other that markets cannot supply.

It is perhaps a hipster universal, and one I share, to declare that modern fashion is ugly compared to almost every “folk costume” ever devised. Clothing is cheaper and more plentiful than it has ever been in human history, and yet we all look terrible. The “chunks” that individuals may select from the market are difficult to fit together into a coherent aesthetic; most retreat into a nondescript uniform (jeans, printed t-shirts, hoodies) that is more of an apology for existing than an outfit. If people are not good at solving even so simple a problem as fashion, with the help of all those factories, how are they supposed to design excellent lives for themselves? I am not blaming anyone for bad fashion here; I am remarking that we are all deprived of a possible source of beauty and enjoyment by the lack of coherent community aesthetics. We are deprived of both context and excuse for beauty, and individuals are seldom up to the effort and social risk. It is not a problem we are well-designed to solve individually, for it is not an individual problem at all, but one of groups.

The more that economically efficient tiling systems intrusively organize us and our environments, the more beauty is crowded out and eradicated. There is a tendency to imagine that the world is fair and that there must be a trade-off – longer lives and more clothes in exchange for less beauty, perhaps. But it is not clear what entity’s agency is authorizing such a trade. Ugliness is an easy externality to impose because it is difficult for individuals to coordinate against.

Consider the leaf blower. Millions of people are subjected to loud, unpleasant noise every day so that the removal of leaves from certain areas may be performed more efficiently; this is possible because there is no mechanism for the suffering of those affected by blasts of noise to be internalized by the actors who benefit by making it a bit cheaper to blow leaves around. Are we better off because gas-powered leaf blowers exist? I submit that we are much worse off, and we have been “tiled” by the leaf blower tiling structure because there was no coherent agency to refuse this intrusion. Individuals do not have much power to stop the noise; small groups are sometimes successful in excluding them from their environment, but the continued prevalence of leaf blowers indicates the absence of widespread, powerful small-group agency capable of protecting its members’ aesthetic interests.

Noise pollution is rampant and very damaging, but a more subtle form of pollution, equally unremedied, is legible word pollution. Here is Johan Christian Dahl’s 1839 painting View of Dresden by Moonlight:

Johan Christian Dahl, View of Dresden by Moonlight (1839)

Johan Christian Dahl, View of Dresden by Moonlight (1839)

Now, here is the same painting given a modern update with word pollution:

Word pollution

Word pollution

Words are processed differently than non-words, and literate people are forced to process words if they are in their visual field. Words on top of beautiful things ruin their beauty. But beauty is a difficult interest to protect in our world, and ugliness externalities flourish. The advertising tiling structure fills the landscape with signs and billboards that create more ugliness than value in the aggregate, but whose damage cannot be recouped on the market. Increasingly, fashion itself is tiled with words and legible symbols – words express social meanings more cheaply and legibly than clothing without words. The result is that everyone’s eyes are constantly being assaulted with unwanted meanings that ruin visual fields that might otherwise be beautiful.

Individuals alone can only retreat from all the noise and ugliness into a walled, private world (if they’re lucky, and tolerate loneliness well). The most sensitive people are the worst off, and of course people vary in sensitivity. Small groups of humans, however, might provide real respite from the tiling structures of the world. The next section considers these entities that have become semi-mythical, described in nostalgic, archaic words like “tribe,” “neighborhood,” or “community”: small groups of humans.

Small Groups of Humans

Small groups, and not masses of disconnected individuals, are the contexts in which most ancestral solutions to human design problems evolved. There is much romanticism these days for “tribes,” a form of organization that has not been economically effective for many centuries. We still instinctively long for this kind of belonging, as our sacrifices to sports teams, fraternities, or churches demonstrate.

Vernor Vinge’s novel A Fire Upon the Deep portrays an alien species of dog-like animals, with each conscious individual made up of multiple animals, forming a group self. In military combat, after most members of a pack are killed, singleton “fragments” wander the countryside, asking other packs, “Where am I? May I be part of you…please?”

I find this depiction to be a poignant analogy for our present state as humans – except that the small group entities mostly do not exist for us to join. They have been tiled out of existence, merged into a mass of individuals who can no longer supply each other what they need. We don’t really know how to make tribes.

Pattern 12 of A Pattern Language, Community of 7,000, declares that “individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5,000-10,000 persons.” This is the neighborhood layer of small groups. Small groups ideally (and traditionally) exist in multiple overlapping layers, mirroring the nature of the human self.

Internet communities are becoming more valuable as sources of belonging and meaning, but their geographic boundlessness is a limitation as well as a benefit. Only local groups can protect their members’ interests in local physical space; quiet internet communities of intense connoisseurship cannot protect us from noise or ugliness in the meat world. Internet communities have less power than local communities to give us eye contact, sunshine, and exercise, or even to allow us to wear beautiful clothing in public. While I have much hope for the internet as a ritual domain, the groups that will be most powerful in solving the problems set out at the beginning of this essay will be local, on-the-ground, “colocated” groups.

It is difficult to say how to bring these groups into existence, but I think that doing rituals together is an unavoidable component. Rituals function as permeable boundaries, network people together, smooth conflict, provide beneficial mental states, and allow the group to practice the expression of its agency as a corporate entity. Whether the rituals exist for the benefit of the group, or the group exists as an excuse to do the rituals, is a matter of perspective.

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Lots of threads here to pull on here. This is a rich vein, and even though I am much more interested in developing the individualism angle on these themes, the collective angle is of course key context.

    Some angles that immediately occur to me include:

    1. Stuart Kauffman in his Santa Fe work (Hidden Order I think is the one) describes computational biology experiments that explore the transition from single-to-multicellular in terms of the “chemical soup” going from supercritical to subcritical, and the division process serving to keep the soup containerized in edge-of-supercritical chunks: neither explosive, nor net dissipative. Right amount of cellularization, so to speak, to keep the entity coherent as a dissipative structure.

    2. Another angle which I am kinda surprised you didn’t touch upon since you’re coming from urbanism, is densification of cities/neo-urbanism. From Jane Jacobs in the 60s to Geoffrey West (also Santa Fe), the idea that larger, more densely packed populations are “better” in a certain sense is a big theme. West’s recent work shows that in lots of material terms, from energy efficiency to innovation, big cities are way better than small communities. They show superlinear growth, which seems exactly analogous to supercritical chemical soups, and also analogous to gaseous masses being large enough to go nuclear and turn into stars, rather than staying gas giant planets. Not sure how this plays into your angle, but I think the interesting phenomenon is modern mega-metros, not smaller communities. Even though the latter are what still dominate our pastoral-romantic imaginations. An interesting question is “what is the right size”? I think the Bay Area/New York region are about the upper limit. More than that and you get too-big things that are short-lived and go supernova too quickly. Too much smaller than that and you get the subcritical kinds of pre-Industrial communities.

    3. That’s of course just the material bottom of Maslow, but it is also clear that in terms of higher-level well-being, metros beat cities, cities beat towns, towns beat villages, and villages beat tiny bands of hunter-gatherers. Deirdre McCloskey tackles this angle head on in her work, by busting the peculiarly American myth that people in small communities are happier and people in cities are “alienated” or something. Quite the reverse. There IS a big difference though: traditional contexts are forced patterns of association inherited from kinship structures (usually oppressive). Modern mega-metro contexts and online interactions catalyze voluntary patterns of association. A world of difference in terms of well-being each kind of collective catalyzes.

    4. Regarding individual imagination versus collective, certainly, I grant that. I’ll contest the idea that collective imagination requires community in the sense of close-knit, cohabiting tribal groups or something. In fact, the best works of collective achievement have relied on impersonal institutions rather than personal ones. To take the cliched example of Apollo, that was not a paleo-village type social structure/container. It was a complex set of institutions that embodied *impersonal* patterns of trust. Sure there were much more tribal patterns within those structures, but you can’t claim all credit for collectives! I think modernity works precisely because it blends impersonal institutions and personal structures in ways that allow each person to be as individualistic or communitarian as they personally choose to be, and still get the benefits of being part of complex systems. Successful fusion of Gesellschaft, Gemeinschaft, market mechanisms and “priceless” tribal mechanisms (and yeah, I don’t buy that line that markets organize nothing of value: that’s the tired line about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing…)

    5. Still mulling the ugly/beautiful angle and wondering whether your notion of beautiful simply reduces to pastoralism or whether there is more there. I personally like word pollution. I think it is hilarious to do that sort of thing to the solemnity/gravitas of high-culture art :)

    • WRT your #2 above, both NYC and S.F. are geologically constrained, one is an island and the other a peninsula, so the permeable boundary condition that Sarah’s posits acts in this instance to limit the growth of the human population. Additionally, the economic forces that are dominant in both locations act to foster a sort of induced tribalism, i.e. the vast majority of residents are going to belong to the same socio-economic class and the marketing directed toward them will be concentrated in a narrower range. Contrast London or Los Angeles, which can spread out in suburban sprawl with much less geographical constraint. It seems to me that these two much larger cities have a greater diversity of distinctive neighborhoods. I lived in San Francisco in the late 1980s, when an apartment was ten times less expensive then as compared to now. At that time, the neighborhoods were much more distinctive. The massive influx of tech lords has led to a homogenization of the 49 square miles of the City.

    • Venkat, you said almost everything that I wanted to say in reply to this — so thanks, saved me a lot of trouble :).

      But now I’m left in limbo between two competing schools of thought about what’s “good” for human beings. Historically I’ve planted myself firmly in the material-well-being camp. Let’s just make sure everyone has clean water, good access to school and medicine, freedom to choose their [whatevers] — all of which implies that metros and big individualistic states are the best thing to happen to us. I mean they aren’t without their downsides, but on net they’re good for us.

      OTOH, most of what Sarah wrote here resonates with me personally. I was never happier than when I was saturated in my ritual-rich “tribe” of ~1000 primates []. Not sure how much you remember, but you saw my office once, and it would be hard for me to describe what I liked about it better than how Sarah put it:

      “The work of elaborating an aesthetic together, as a small group, providing context for each other’s selves.”

      • Limbo is kinda what I’m going for here as an editorial direction for ribbonfarm. Sort of an idea hedge-fund, so to speak. I too have a fundamental bias towards taking material well-being seriously, possibly because I grew up in a part of the world where most people around me had very little of it. Easy to romanticize the squalor of lack of material well-being when you have it.

        That said, I also take the beyond-material-well-being stuff just as seriously, and I don’t think there’s any real paradox there. But there probably IS a paradox between communitarian/individualist drives. Hell-is-other-people vs. hell-of-solitude. And corresponding heavens.

        I think there’s far wider variation on that than communitarians think. So to me, the challenge of this post is to pull out the stuff I agree with, while bracketing the totalizing bits that are always part of a communitarian perspective but don’t necessarily survive a port to a pluralistic framework (for example, ugly/beautiful judgments have to be bracketed).

        At some point, I will do a post mansplaining all this to Sarah :P

        • Ah, the betwixt and between of Limbo – neither here nor there, neither this nor that. I struggle with the communitarian versus individualism poles because I am an extreme extrovert who needs interaction with others to energize. But, as I learned from an earlier essay of yours, I am also a Wowbagger. I certainly don’t suffer fools gladly and fools seem to predominate at every level of community I find myself in beyond the narrow confines of family and close friends. I don’t know what the solution to this dilemma is, but ideas are a great anodyne. So ribbonfarm as an idea hedge fund serves as an excellent Beatrice in this particular limbo.

    • That’s of course just the material bottom of Maslow, but it is also clear that in terms of higher-level well-being, metros beat cities, cities beat towns, towns beat villages, and villages beat tiny bands of hunter-gatherers. Deirdre McCloskey tackles this angle head on in her work, by busting the peculiarly American myth that people in small communities are happier and people in cities are “alienated” or something. Quite the reverse.

      Without specifics about what research establishes this with so much certainty, all I can say is that this conclusion contradicts my personal experience and intuition as well as my understanding of the anthropological research along these lines. I feel that “love/belonging”, “esteem”, and “self-actualization” are all actively suppressed by living in a bureaucratic, consumerist society.

      Not only that, but from what I understand hunter gatherer bands tend to be low conflict and incredibly happy. Not a hard-and-fast rule, but egalitarian hunter gatherer bands are routinely described that way.

      Of course, cities are better if you’re seeking novelty specifically, but I don’t “novelty” anywhere on Maslow’s hierarchy. Otherwise, the city environment (one in which you’re definitionally surrounded by strangers all the time) seems pretty alienating to me.

  2. Some random reactions (I am in mostly-complete agreement with this excellent post):

    I՚m guessing you know that the line “good fences make good neighbors” is not the point of the Robert Frost poem it is taken from – rather the opposite: ”Something there is that doesn՚t love a wall”.

    Re democracy and ritual, see here.

    I՚ve been researching Stewart Brand for a session at Refactor Camp, so thinking a lot about hippies, and this post made me see them in a new light – the 60s were in large part an aesthetic rebellion against the mid-20th-century modernist uglies. Brand and California bohemianism were one of the more successful branches of this rebellion. The WEC was explicitly aimed at supplying better “materials for composing a human life”, in your phrase. Brand was also something of a ritual designer, and I think it is through Brand that most of us are familiar with Christopher Alexander.

  3. This was a very provocative read. I suppose the thing I am most likely to think about is the notion of the ideal human grouping for the realization of an objective aesthetics. If every individual is the judge of beauty, then there really is no standard and judgement about any particular artifact is impossible. If, however, a smaller group of committed aesthetes cannot advocate for a particular standard because their judgment has been tiled out of existence by Encorpera, the bland sameness oozes over every artifact. (I love Sarah’s example of clothing. I myself have adopted the “protest” uniform of a black knit polo shirt and khaki’s.)

    One thing that struck me as incongruent in the essay was the critique of the “drug war.” This sounded almost like a Libertarian manifesto of the individual set against the over-encroaching Government. Almost everything else in the essay relies on a communitarian or collective ethos, which is quite distinct from the individualism of recreational drug use. And I don’t think the distinction is collapsed by suggesting that there may be a ritualistic (i.e. communal) role for using controlled substances. In my experience as a prosecutor, the genuine ritualistic use of a controlled substance, e.g. peyote by certain Native Americans, has a well-recognized cultural history. In contrast, the more frequent appeal to “ritualistic” use is by individuals who want to circumvent prohibition by creating post-hoc justifications. A good example is the number of medical cannabis users who have no real medical condition (i.e. cancer as opposed to ingrown toenail) but rely on the legal fiction to get high. Collective action in the case of medical cannabis is political action or a legal fiction so that users can obtain marijuana without having to resort to street-level black market transactions. It is rarely ritual in the sense that I suspect Sarah is using it. Though the Zion Coptic Church, which is an outgrowth of Rastafarianism, claims to use cannabis sacramentally.

    • Sarah Perry says:

      Donald E. Brown has proposed that “mood- or consciousness-altering techniques and/or substances” are a human universal; rarely in human history, however, are substances used in the individual, isolated manner in which they are used under drug prohibition in the United States. In no culture is it just a free-for-all; institutions evolve to help people use drugs well and safely, but those are prevented from ever evolving under prohibition. Instead, violence and degradation is ensured.

      I appreciate your making my point – that prohibition drives drug use toward isolation. ;) And my point is not the usual libertarian concern for *individual* use rights, though I do think we have the right to alter our own consciousness, but rather a concern that prohibition has destroyed the agency of small groups to use drugs in wholesome group contexts. (In many cultures, only experts actually use the drugs; everybody else participating in the ceremony does not – as with Maria Sabina in my earlier essay in this series.)

      I chose to talk about the drug war because it is a concrete way that “tiling structures” destroy (in a top-down manner) the possibility for certain states of consciousness – but it is hardly the most important one. States of consciousness are the “forms” I care most about; “mental states” are, under my view, pretty much the only important thing, and everything that exists, exists to create or maintain them.

  4. Much of the ugliness you describe is probably contingent. In The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander offered the 15 transformations as a reliable way of enhancing wholeness and beauty, and there is no reason why such transformations cannot be applied to systems with modern fashion or words/fonts (neither of which should be viewed as monolithic). Of course I may just be biased as a stylish person :P, but it seems most people stop experimenting due to the ease of achieving ugliness, and revert to safe combinations of t-shirts and jeans, which mostly aren’t even fitted to the human organism in the first place.

    It was great that you considered non-physical boundaries, especially information ones as emplaced by rituals. In Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, permeable autopoietic boundaries are indeed necessary and sufficient for self-hood and agency. Of course in a network topology, relative scarcity of connections itself acts as a boundary.

    Your mention of black boxes reminded me of black box ontologies, which according to Andrew Pickering characterized cybernetics, in that knowledge of the interacting systems is not required for action, since the systems can adapt and regulate each other. Rituals are like a deeper homeostatic layer that maintain the system through changes enforced from without, yet the deeper homeostasis of human psychology may lead us to abandon rituals even before we have found replacements, at some cost to our mental wellbeing.

    The problems with giving up such evolved patterns of behavior are those described in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State and Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, for instance in a recent tweet when Taleb realized that fasts like Lent are not merely meant to act as sacrifice rituals to maintain religious identity or provide nutritional benefits for humans, but also had health and ecological benefits for farm animals.

    The part about solutions spreading like plagues in highly connected networks is like abandoning the wisdom of crowds, where guesses do not converge to the mean but are affected by the anchors. Local fit is also lost in such cases, leading instead to solutions that fit the system and perpetuate the conditions for their reproduction.

    Tiling structures are like attractors or what Deleuze called singularities, patterns or points on the fitness landscape which tend to be produced and reproduced, especially when sustained by stable parallel loops as described in Muralidhar Ravuri’s Pervasive Loops. Perhaps the strongest tiling structures cannot externalize like economic products, but wage Boydian moral-mental-physical war, bringing and keeping others in play in an infinite game, aware that self-interest includes altruism, as explained in Liu & Hanauer’s Gardens of Democracy. These structures would also self-propel into a Serendipity Singularity, as long as they are not snuffed out in their nascent stages.

  5. 1. I’m very happy to see Notes on the Synthesis of Form get more exposure. It’s by far the best of Alexander’s books, I think.

    2. The problem isn’t insufficient boundaries, but too many boundaries. Something there may be that doesn’t like a wall, but it’s in nature, not in human nature. Human nature (or at least analytic western tradition) seems to love dividing tangled systems into zones like in your figure above. Each boundary is imposed on the basis of local concerns, but without holistic cost-benefit consideration. Once imposed it’s hard to move or remove boundaries, because of the fear of destructive consequences. Hence heuristics like Chesterton’s fence. I tried to explore these ideas in (though it’s not nearly as well written as this post).

    To quote myself: “Our institutions are plagued by a tendency to forget the precise scenarios they were designed for, dooming them to either forget history and repeat mistakes (‘regressions’ in programmer-speak) or to continue cargo-culting old solutions long after they’ve become obsolete.” (

    3. The number of things we both referred to is quite crazy: Christopher Alexander, Robert Frost, Go stones, Chesterton’s fence, the resource leak bug (but then I’m a programmer). Your leaf blower example connects up with one of my favorite essays: (it’s about a weedwhacker, but still).

    Tl;dr – tiling systems are an inescapable result of creating boundaries while forgetting why they were created. Boundaries need comprehensive unit tests. That way lies loose coupling and nirvana.

  6. Jordan Peacock says:

    The answer is *through* individualism => we cannot uneat the apple.

    Threads that come to mind:
    – The rise of Sunday Assemblies: atheists realizing that the ritual function is not worth throwing out with the theos bathwater
    – Things like ribbonfarm + RefactorCamp as a, admittedly wildly unfocused, example of a kind of ritual-linked online community.
    – Companies that are remote-primary are in a similar position.
    – There’s an interesting overlap with concepts of superimposed states (First Nations, Kurdish democratic confederalist zones, cartel-controlled areas of Mexico, etc).

    Very glad to hear you’re contributing editor!

  7. I work as a theatrical director (and actor), and I also think this process is why most film and television acting is so bland and awful. In an extended rehearsal process for a live performance, you get many options to repeat your performance, try again, see how it flows from one moment to the next, how your scene partner responds to you, etc. In film you don’t get the opportunity to do that. Scenes are shot out of order, often without the other people there, and so you need to adopt acting strategies that you assume will fit without having genuine information on whether the fit works. If you make big, bold acting choices, they are unlikely to fit because they come off as ham-handed unless they are very well-motivated. And so we get more and more absent deliveries of lines as written, or canned imitations of emotional responses that are acceptable for television audiences. It becomes acting that is “more of an apology for existing than a performance.”

    When it works, live theater is SO MUCH MORE FUNNY than film. Part of this is just that you are in a large group of people, and laughter is mostly socially mediated, but it’s also due to the fact that the actors can breathe and act in response to the audience’s response. I think that the traditional division between audience and performer is important for the compartmentalization that you talk about, and directors break this distinction far too nonchalantly because they assume that it’s always better to have audience interaction. (Not saying that it isn’t a great and important way to do art, just that people whip out alienating pseudo-Brechtian crap as a lazy way to make a performance more “interesting” without considering what that does to everything else in the performance.)

  8. The notion of Heterotopia seems relevant. Via Jordan Peacock’s Be Slightly Evil cardgame.

  9. As an avid gardener I can deeply relate to all that you have explored here. I would maybe add the idea that in gardening even if a strategy yielded good results in the past, continuing to do it indefinitely will almost certainly lead to disaster.

    For example, if you are adding certain types of fertility to the soil you will usually see increased returns from your crops, but if you keep going there will inevitably be a residual mismatch between inputs and outputs every cycle, leading to some nutrients being over-accumulated and others depleted over time. This to me is the big danger of the most modern form of agriculture where the same land is used in the same way for indefinite periods. Even simple crop rotations don’t completely reset the imbalances. I get the impression that older forms of agriculture were more shifting and opportunistic, with small patches of cleared cropping land cycling back into the wilder pasture management approach for long stretches of time. Real ecosystems also behave the same way, with species shifting in space and time.

    It also reminds me of the Savory approach to management where you pretty much assume you didn’t make the right decisions in the last cycle, and always keep a wide view on possible variations of approach. I know from my own farm some of my biggest successes were from random experiments that I never thought would come to much. With age I am learning to devote more time and energy to those agnostic approaches to problem solving.