Puzzle Theory

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Let me set the mood by revealing that the starting point for this investigation was the movie Room 237, a “fan theory” documentary about people contemplating Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. A fan theory is an interpretation of an item of art, usually fiction of some kind, that is surprising, bizarre, novel, or disturbing, and puts the item of art in a new perspective. TVTropes calls the phenomenon “fridge brilliance” (that is, theories that you fumble toward after the show is over, when you’re camped in front of the fridge swigging from the milk jug). Movies, television, and books are the usual stuff discussed in the mode of fan theory; the phenomenon also manifests in discussions of the meanings of song lyrics.

In Room 237, theories about The Shining range from the plausible to the bizarre. We are presented with evidence for a subtext of the holocaust, and for a related subtext of the genocide of the American Indians. Individual frames are scrutinized for references to minotaurs and labyrinths. The case is made that Kubrick cunningly alludes to faking the documentary footage of the Apollo moon landings (while the fan theorist explicitly says his theory has no bearing on whether the famed moon landings are factual and happened, he proposes that the iconic Apollo video footage is fake).

One has the sensation of creeping into a labyrinth of enormous size and complexity. The movie is pleasantly chilling, but also profoundly satisfying, hinting at promised gifts, unexplored creation, a frontier. [Read more…]

The Amazing, Shrinking Org Chart

About a year ago, an 1855 org chart of the New York and Erie railroad was cascaded worldwide by the VP of the Infographics Department of the Internet. There was a good deal of admiration as well as lamentation. Apparently we no longer care enough about our corporations to create beautiful depictions of their anatomy, ars gratia artis. Whatever else the shortcomings of mid-nineteenth century corporate management (they had a tendency to start wars and gun down workers in pursuit of their Missions and Visions among other things, and you had to be a quick-draw gunfighter to earn a Harvard MBA in those days), they clearly cared. 

orgchart-full

Library of Congress (via McKinsey)

By contrast, a modern set of org charts is usually a showcase of apathetic PowerPoint banality. In fact, you rarely ever see a big global view anymore. Just little local views that could, in principle, be patched together into a global view, but in practice never are. Often, even CEOs only have a coarse, low-resolution view of the whole, with blocks representing entire huge divisions of thousands of humans and billions in capital assets. There is usually no operational capability for drilling down into finer points where the situation demands it (Proctor and Gamble, apparently, is an exception). Most senior executives — VP and above in organizations of 1500 or more people say — are in the position of surgeons operating on the basis of having played the kids’ game Operation rather than on the basis of medical training and tools like MRI machines.

There’s a very good excuse for this though: the pace of organizational and environmental change today turns static maps into garbage very quickly. The part of the organization that is both possible and useful to represent using an org chart has been rapidly shrinking.

What, if anything, should be done about it?

[Read more…]

Pretending to Care, Pretending to Agree

A couple of years ago, I happened to catch the tail-end of a performance of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town on TV, and the poignant closing soliloquy stuck in my mind:

Most everybody’s asleep in Grover’s Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody’s setting up late and talking. Yes, it’s clearing up. There are the stars doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk … or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain‘s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.

Being the unsentimental jerk I am, what stuck in my mind was not the poignancy, but the evocative stress and relaxation metaphor. Today, thanks to the medicalization of angst, most people would use the word stress rather than strain to convey the thought.

But it is actually the engineering sense of both terms, used together, that sheds the most light on the cultural idea underlying the passage above. The distinction and relationship between stress and strain can be understood using a stress-strain graph. Here is a pair I made up that I think represent the human psyche (I’ll explain how to read it in a minute).

commIndStressStrain1

In common usage, the stress and strain are used interchangeably, but in engineering, stress is the force acting on a material, while strain is the resulting distortion in the material. In humans, stress can be measured by the internal anxiety we feel, and various physiological symptoms. Strain can be measured by the distortion represented by the social masks we need to maintain, in order to function under that stress.

There are two basic types of masks: masks of pretending to care are exit masks, and masks of pretending to agree are voice masks. I suspect these two kinds of masks, between them, cover almost all cases of preference falsification, the concept Sarah introduced us to in her post a couple of weeks ago. Much of her post had to do with the effects of voice masks at the scale of nations, but in this post I want to consider both together at an individual scale.

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Technopaganism and the Newer Age

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at http://ryan-writer.com.

Elon Musk, in response to the popularity of HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley, once remarked that Hollywood doesn’t “get” SV culture because it doesn’t understand what Burning Man is all about.

Most of us here have seen the pictures and heard something it, but what exactly is Burning Man, anyway?  Why are pictures of the event posted in the hallways and offices of the Googleplex, and why is it a topic of conversation that comes up over and over among those working in tech?

Burning Man

Photo by Kyle Harmon from Oakland, CA, USA. (Accessed from Wikipedia – 05/10/15)

Beneath the confusion and craziness, Burning Man can be seen as a manifestation of the sentimentality and spirit of the Bay Area, compressed into an intense, week-long ordeal: techies, hippies, individualists, creatives/artists and progressives all living in close proximity, thrown together into an uncontrolled mix. A giant social experiment of sorts, organized into a ceremonial ritual, conducted year after year.

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Weaponized Sacredness

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Author’s note: The thinking that gave rise to this essay was committed in collaboration with St. Rev. Errors, suspicious implications, and dubious conclusions are my own.

On March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, just north of Los Angeles, California, failed catastrophically and sent a wave of water through the valley that caused the gruesome deaths of hundreds of people. No one had predicted the disaster, but after an investigation, it was decided that the dam was built on inadequate soil; the disaster was, in theory, predictable – after the fact. People thought they had control over a massive force (the water), but their control turned out to be illusory.

Considering political and social disasters like the famines of the Great Leap Forward in China or the French Revolution, a similar explanation for the resulting piles of bodies seems apt: social forces over which humans thought they had control (in the sense of being able to coordinate with each other for well-being and sustenance) turned out not to be under their control. No one ever sees it coming, but after the fact everyone is anxious to demonstrate how inevitable it was. If mass violence and destruction seem impossible in our time, consider that everyone who was about to experience revolution felt pretty much the same way. Even the revolutionaries themselves often think they have little chance of success until the revolution is already underway.
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Roundup: January – April 2015

It’s been a busy few weeks for me. Since I just returned from three weeks in Chile and am still catching my breath, you get a roundup instead of new material this week. We’ve had 16 posts so far this year: four from Sarah, two from Haley, one from Ryan and nine from me. The themes have been all over the place: rituals, community, art theory, video games and corporate humor. Both for me personally, and for the blog, it appears to be a season of experimentation.

  1. A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 1 (Haley)
  2. The Capitalist’s Zombie (Venkat)
  3. The Essence of Peopling (Sarah)
  4. The Art of Gig III (Venkat)
  5. The Art of Gig II (Venkat)
  6. The Art of Gig (Venkat)
  7. The Art of Agile Leadership (Venkat)
  8. Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty (Sarah)
  9. The Mother of All 2x2s (Venkat)
  10. A Dent in the Universe (Venkat)
  11. What Is Ritual? (Sarah)
  12. The Heroine’s Journey (Haley)
  13. Let’s Play! Narrative Discovery vs. Expert Guides (Ryan)
  14. On the Design of Escaped Realities (Venkat)
  15. Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture (Sarah)
  16. Black Mirror as Hell-Is-Other-People Futurism (Venkat)

A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 1

Haley Thurston is a resident blogger visiting us from her home turf at The Sublemon.

Art criticism, whether written by professionals or fans, is plagued by nonspecificity and a lack of self-justification. Things are implied to be good or bad, without a very good explanation for why we should consider them good or bad. For example, why is an “unrealistic character” a bad thing? How about “emotional dishonesty” or “implausible scenarios”? How about killing characters to prove seriousness? How about bringing characters back from the dead to please your audience? What about music that’s too loud or a scene that’s sexually violent? What about something that “celebrates the laborer” or something that is about “the relationship between abstraction and figuration”?

We can look at all of this disagreement, and say that the only common ground is that a quality didn’t work for someone, or it did. I think that does people’s intuitions a disservice. The fact that the experience of art is subjective is a fact, but for my purposes trivially a fact, the way that the experience of gravity is subjective, but gravity continues to exist whether one is in the Mariana Trench or the ISS. When people describe goodness or “beauty” in art, it seems to fall under five categories:

  1. A display of skill awed me
  2. I had a heightened experience
  3. The work gave me animal pleasure
  4. It is morally good that this work exists
  5. The work accurately described reality

I believe it is the confusion of these categories and not the idea of some qualities of artistic goodness being quantifiable or describable that is misguided, and it’s a lack of good vocabulary for what art actually does that continues to make these categories so mercilessly tangled.

I’m going to start today with number five, the relationship between realism and artistic goodness, and I’ll work my way through the others in subsequent posts. What do we mean when we say a work of art feels real? Emotionally real? Factually real? (Is there a distinction?) The Dardenne Brothers are very, very good at what they do, and so have been any number photographers, documentarians or 17th century portraitists. But those artists don’t feel any more artistic or vital, per se, than Picasso or Lord of the Rings. Realism seems to rank about as high as being made more than 100 years ago as far as getting your work of art appreciated goes.

So what are some better words?

[Read more…]

The Capitalist’s Zombie

I’ve been in Chile for a few days, preparing to lead some sessions over the next week or so at a startup bootcamp put together by Exosphere. Naturally, my mind has been wandering to other matters Chilean.

Chile, as an acquaintance remarked recently, has an economy based on two things: copper and astronomy. It’s also an economy that is to economists what Southwest Airlines is to management consultants: a very significant case study. It was the site of neoliberal experimentation by the Chicago School in the 1980s. More recently, it has been the site of the hilariously adolescent Ayn-Randian-Libertarian experiment that was Galt’s Gulch.

I was pondering these matters as I was shopping for, among other things, an interesting local beer to fuel my time here. After some fumbling with my near-non-existent Spanish (with some help from my Italian host who fumbles less), I ended up with a sixpack of something called Baltica Dry.

balticadry

It is apparently the pretty-decent-and-cheap local Löbrau. It does not really appear to be “local” in any sense other than the brand name. As best as I have been able to discover, it appears to be brewed and canned for the Chilean market by Anheuser-Busch in the US (the particular sixpack I bought appears to have been canned in Uruguay though). So now, I basically have no clue about the provenance of my beer.

Baltica Dry is an example of what I call a capitalist’s zombie.

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The Essence of Peopling

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Nouns for human beings – “people” or “person” – conjure in the mind a snapshot of the surface appearance of humans. Using nouns like “people” subtly encourages thinking about people as frozen in time, doing nothing in particular. “People” is an anchor for thinking about human bodies separate from their environment, from the buildings and streets and farms and parks that they build and use to go about their business.

I prefer to think about “peopling” – the process of human beings going about their business, whatever that is. I take this usage from the 1971 movie Bedknobs & Broomsticks, in which the main characters visit a magical animal kingdom, where a sign warns them away:

image

Much of the modern built environment seems to bear this message as well, presenting a hostile face to ordinary human activity, and preventing all but an impoverished subset of peopling from occurring at all.
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The Art of Gig III

And now for the thrilling finale. Read Parts I and II first. 

I exited the AspireKat building at a slight trot. Time was of the essence. Anscombe was scurrying to keep up with me, trying to type with one hand on his open laptop, balanced on the arm of his Starbucks-mug hand.

“Figure out Donna’s home address and get us an Uber. I am going to have Guanxi open up a line.”

He reluctantly folded his laptop under his arm, pulled out his phone and fiddled briefly with it. “Okay. ETA three minutes for the Uber. Looks like Donna lives about twenty minutes away.”

“Good.”

“So why are we going to see her? Why would she know about the acquisition bid?”

“Hold on. I’m texting Guanxi here.”

Unlike young digital natives, I can’t text and talk at the same time.

Things under control?

All good. Bainies getting set up for the initial goat sacrifice.

Khan?

Trying to get to Saul, but the Bainies have him.

We need a live feed.

On it. Periscope.

I pulled up Periscope on my phone. It looked like Guanxi had managed to position his phone strategically by the window ledge near the display. Almost the entire room was visible in a fishbowl view. At the far end, Saul was standing regally, in a gown the Bainies had put on him. Three Bainies were doing a slow, ritual snake dance in a circle around him, waving incense sticks and chanting.

Guanxi wandered briefly into view and nodded imperceptibly at the camera before wandering out if view again. I handed my phone to Anscombe.

“Could you monitor that? I get a headache if I stare at a screen while moving.”

Anscombe promptly forgot about the question he’d asked. His gaze latched onto my screen.

“Firehose time. I’m going to have to reconfigure my setup a bit to handle this.”

Handing your phone to anyone born after 1985 is an incredible gesture of trust. So in consulting, it is increasingly important to maintain your phone in a state of plausible shareability to form alliances. It’s also a good way to keep digital natives busy so you can think.

And I needed to think about an important question: what did Donna know?

[Read more…]