Conceptual Metaphors (Mashable), Gervais Principle (Fugitive Philosophy)

Heads up on two posts that should interest ribbonfarm readers. The first is a guest post by me on Mashable, and the other is a post by Tobias C. Van Veen on the Gervais Principle. I keep meaning to do a big roundup of all the blogosphere reactions (there’s several pretty good ones) to GP, but haven’t had time. But this one was worth pointing out, since it adds some new ideas.

First, my Mashable guest post is an opinion piece on  how our obsolete conceptual metaphors are stunting Web innovation. This is in a basically a Part II to my post, The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink. Excerpt:

Consider these terms: page, scroll, file, folder, trash can, bookmark, inbox, email, desktop, library, archive and index. They are all part of the document metaphor, a superset of the “desktop” metaphor. Some elements, such as scroll, desktop and library pre-date the printing press, but all are based on some sort of “marks on paper-like material” reference.

The post talks broadly about how metaphors inform Web technology, and was written with my “work” hat on. I am still dancing around to find a harmonious balance between my for-work blogging around the future of publishing and my personal interest blogging here. One of my compromises has been to move a  successful thread (on social media, publishing etc.) from  ribbonfarm over to So much for not mixing work and personal life. I seem to have blended the two into a smoothie.

The second post is Managing Language (With Extreme Prejudice), on Tobias C. Van Veen’s Fugitive Philosophy blog (that’s an inspired name for a blog, isn’t it?). The post connects the GP series to recent political-economy ideas from an Italian school of thought. The language is rather academic as you might expect, but most of you should be able to parse it.

A particularly intriguing suggestion is that the “careless/carefrees” (Tobias’ term for what I’ve been calling “checked-out losers”) have one power lever against the sociopaths, exodus (this is different from sociopaths-in-the-making job-hopping to get ahead; that dynamic I did include in my original take):

In the indication of a blindspot within an organisation’s powergame environment, Venkat’s analysis suggests that other systems of power might lie elsewhere. This elsewhere keeps those with an ear to the outside constantly seeking an alternative means to living without working, and as Virno suggests, means that exodus (or the politics of disappearance) constitutes the general strategy of the (Loser) workforce.

I hadn’t really thought about this, but it is an attractive thought. The idea is that the checked-out loser can do more than devote his life to crossword puzzles, a la Stanley. As a “Carefree” he can indulge in exodus as an act of protest. In a way, Tobias has connected up my GP theme to my cloudworker theme with a solid link, something I myself had failed to do.

This idea has some solid backing. In Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom, which I reviewed on the E2.0 blog, Matt Fraser and Soumitra Dutta suggest that Web communities have to deal with a “voice or exit” customer dynamic. An example is how the early adopters of Friendster, annoyed at the site’s treatment of their needs, simply upped and left, en masse, heading to places such as MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn.

While the thought of exodus as a strategy is appealing, we have to keep in mind one harsh fact. The real economy requires people to earn paychecks to pay the rent. A job isn’t a “nice to have” part of life like Facebook, but a “must have,” at least for now. And while I am among the most ardent champions of cloudworking and free-agenting, I am also pragmatic enough to recognize that the economy doesn’t really provide support for exodus as a strategy on any significant scale.

At least not yet.

And in my opinion, it may never happen. My reason is a simple analogy to oceanic ecosystems. Most ocean life is a proper nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw hierarchy that congregates around the few food sources. Out in the open ocean, the top few feet of water can sustain some life. Below that is basically a watery death valley.

A Biblical analogy is very tempting. Before the Free Agent Nation can truly rise up, there is need for a Moses to lead them through the desert to the promised land of a 1000 raving fans and long-tail nirvana. Until that happens, exodus is not an option.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Thanks Venkat. Yes, well put. Exodus is a contentious strategy if seen as one. And the references certainly become Biblical. Indeed.

    In one way, exodus is the general malaise of democracy. Most of us don’t vote and don’t care, for example. This kind of exodus from participation can be seen in two ways. In one way, it signals that conventional involvement in political life is falling apart. Democracy itself might be at stake. But in another way, it signals that people are making-do in other ways. That by exiting en masse from political life, they are creating networks and ways of coexisting in their own manner (and the Net has much to do with this).

    As for work, you are absolutely right. One needs to work and exodus is something of a privilege if thought as ‘leaving one’s job’. But exodus can be more subtle, in the sense that the Checkout Losers have invested meaning in their lives somewhere other than work, and are willing to sacrifice work, and its monetary reward, in order to live otherwise.

    I live in a ski bum town at the moment, one about to be overrun by the world — yes, Whistler, heart of the Olympicon. And here exodus is the modus operandi of the workforce. Bums since time immemorial have drifted off when the big machine comes in, or the boss demands too much. Quite simply, the possibility of picking up and going elsewhere is the main trend of economic activity here for Losers. The local economy itself recognises this; it’s called the “seasonal workforce.” But what is also interesting about exodus in this manner is that other values beside work mean more for many people in a place such as this. Outdoor activities, and life itself, has more value than having a lot of money.

    There is a paradox of course; Whistler is increasingly prohibitive to live in. A recent study (see the Pique January newspaper) shows that 85% of Whistler residents don’t make enough money to cover their living costs. That number corresponds with the number of seasonal workers. Most people working here technically live below the poverty line (though in Western comfort), and earn less so they can, usually, ski more.

    Of course at some point, it all caves in, and either you ‘grow up and get a real job’ or become the toothless hippy living in a shack in the woods (a lot of those dudes have been kicked out by the military with the Olympics comin’).

    Or you find some kind of way to make it work — that dream exodus job, as a pro snowboarder, photographer, in the outdoor industry somehow, that kind of thing, where work and life mesh. Where your job is something you love.

    In Italian Autonomist thought, such as that of Paolo Virno, exodus is the general response since the ’90s of the worldwide workforce to increased demands on their time for a decreasing average wage. Mass amounts of people check-out in many ways. Heck, what we’re really talking about what was picked up by Douglas Coupland in -Generation X- and Richard Linklater in -Slacker-. A kind of drifting-away from exhausting demands toward living life the way one wants it, now, in whatever meaningful one can find.

    Of course to engage in exodus on this level means that one already inhabits a fairly privileged sphere of existence. Most of the world is still trapped in slave labour factories, without any of the complex relations of the Gervais Principle at stake; most of the world is hungry, and getting by any way they can.

    But perhaps the West’s exodus opens the territory for the great flood of the world’s underdeveloped.

    Thanks Venkat, your analyses are superb as always.

  2. I wanted to tell you that I thought it was great the one reaction I read to your post on Gervaise principle on the blog Fugitive Philosophy.
    I think the metaphor post also diserves interesting reactions, I am actually considering writting one (hope you don’t mind).
    Here is what I commented on mashable, I copy it here also to see what you think about it in person:
    Excelent article, I loved it, congrats about it.
    Here is another reason explaining why metaphors might not work (which might be applied to the document one):
    “Metaphors are markers of the roots of thought itself. They are the main mechanisms through which we comprehend abstract concepts and perform abstract reasoning. Abstract thought would be meaningless without bodily experience. People think with their brains and their brains are part of their bodies as well”. – Lakoff and Johnson
    More here:
    Twitter and the stream can also be considered metaphors, you can explain the stream one as:What the Web is thinking and doing, right now. It’s our collective stream of Consciousness. The Stream is the dynamic activity of the Web, unfolding over time. It is the conversations, the live streams of audio and video, the changes to Web sites that are happening, the ideas and trends — the memes — that are rippling across millions of Web pages, applications, and minds.
    More here:
    And also like Spivak described it:
    “If the Internet is our collective nervous system, and the Web is our collective brain, then the Stream is our collective mind. The nervous system and the brain are like the underlying hardware and software, but the mind is what the system is actually thinking in real-time. These three layers are interconnected, yet are distinctly different aspects, of our emerging and increasingly awakened planetary intelligence. The Stream is what the Web is thinking and doing, right now. It’s our collective stream of consciousness”.
    More here:

    Let me tell you also that I consider your conclusion excelent.

  3. FYI, new post addressing some of this with a twist:

  4. Exodus? What about sabotage? Skimming from the register?

    I am afraid it is falsely attributing choice to say that the losers have “sacrificed meaning”. Acts take on meanings according to their place in the world; and we do not choose our worlds. Either meaning and a paycheck come together, or they don’t.

    It’s true that the well-schooled mind is molded to see meaning wherever the paychecks are, but these days the internet is corrupting the youth. Some of these are prone to see meaning in a riot or a burning car.

    The monkey-wrencher finds meaning in his working life, too.

  5. hi EA, just saw your comment on the discussion. I’m curious though, I don’t think either Venkat or myself argued that the “losers have ‘sacrificed meaning'”. (Btw, do read up on our exchange over a few posts and what is meant by loser – which here is not meant as a derogatory term.) Indeed, what you have to say has more in common with theorizations of exodus than not. You might want to check what I wrote above in the comments concerning the “checkout losers” sacrificing work, and not meaning:

    “But exodus can be more subtle, in the sense that the Checkout Losers have invested meaning in their lives somewhere other than work, and are willing to sacrifice work, and its monetary reward, in order to live otherwise.”

    In short, I think you got it backwards.

    As for the internet corrupting the youth, there was meaning — or the lack of it — far before the Net in acts of destruction. It’s almost a perennial urge, from Lao Tse to Nietzsche. One could point to Breton’s invocation to fire blindly into the crowd as the ultimate revolutionary act in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929) just as easily as the Futurist glorification of the mechanics of war in the Futurist Manifesto (1909). But more easily we could just glance around at our world: intoxicating violence still rules the day. However, I don’t think there’s much meaning to be had beyond the moment of jouissance in the act of vindictive destruction, which is why such an act has no political content – a point well recognised by the Surrealists themselves. It is a Surrealist act, but it is not an act that can be generative of sustained meaning. This is why I favour Virno’s conception of exodus, which does not see exodus as a means unto itself, but as the foundation of a new republic.

    It’s worth remembering that in the film -Fight Club-, Tyler Durden’s dream is not *just* to blow up the banking and credit infrastructure, but to establish a primitivist-agrarian society in the shell of the old. There’s meaning projected beyond the end of the film into a possible “utopian” outcome reminiscent of some currents of contemporary anarcho-primitivist thought. That it requires a masculinist, neo-fascist organisation run by a split-personality masochist who has to attempt suicide to reconcile the contradictions of this violent programme with its apparently peaceful outcome captures well, in an embodied metaphor, all the dirty work that thinking-through the consequences of such violence would yield.

    Of course destruction is always the weapon of the crowd, at last resort – witness Italy, France in recent years. But is it the repository of meaning? Once the banlieus have burned, in the burnt ruins what meaning remains?

    Btw, here’s Breton:

    “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.”

    The Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929)

    best/ tobias

  6. PS. Almost forgot to mention – indeed, the saboteur & sabotage, monkey-wrencher & skimmer, these are all traits of *both*, methinks, the Checkout Loser (as ways to pry open exodus) and the Psychopath (as ways to get ahead). Such acts again have no political content, but they are acts committed against systemic exploitation in general, up until the point that they exploit those around you, at which point, they become tools of advancement for Psychopaths. I do get into this in my own posts over on [ ]./

  7. tV, I’m afraid it is you who has misunderstood, although I am sure my own writing is to blame.

    You wrote: “But exodus can be more subtle, in the sense that the Checkout Losers have invested meaning in their lives somewhere other than work, and are willing to sacrifice work, and its monetary reward, in order to live otherwise.”

    My point was only that this “investment of meaning in work” is not a matter of choice. It was a mistake to misquote your use of “sacrifice”, but I did not misunderstand you.

    The monkey-wrencher in fact invests meaning in work, but in a completely opposite way: work provides access to a machine which exists as a horror to be destroyed, rather than an opportunity to be seized, a mission to fulfill, or a black hole of dead time. Like the mission, but unlike the others, it is a perspective which _situates_ the workplace in a larger world outside.

    You ask: “Once the banlieus have burned, in the burnt ruins what meaning remains?”

    I can only conclude that you take “meaning” to be something much more than I take it to be. One man reads in the paper that the banlieus riot, and he is shocked, disgusted with these impertinent poor. That is his meaning. Another reads the same article, and cheers for more.

    And, if that other is an American college student, you can reasonably guess that it is the internet — directly or indirectly — which has led him astray from the path so carefully laid out for him through the control of his developmental environment by parents, teachers, coaches, and so on. That protective bubble has been pierced everywhere, and only just recently. Of course you are right that this has always happened; but not to an entire generation at once.

    One final comment:

    Servile wars, peasant revolts, and ghetto riots have certainly had their influence on the course of history. The effects of these events have outlived any “moment of jouissance” felt by their participants. So I would not myself be so dismissive of the possibility of “political content” in such acts. Besides, it may be only the modern disparity of arms which separates those who today smash windows from those who in the past have removed heads.

  8. Thanks EA, these are great thoughts (do you write elsewhere?)/

    Indeed, of course you are right, labour can be a repository of meaning, even in its negation as you mention – even if it exists as counterexample, as stage for its negation, as model of what labour is not – but I’m just not sure how this fits, simply, into the framework Venkat & I were playing with – insofar as by identifying ‘types’ of labourers through pop culture analysis of the Office, we were seeking to integrate such analysis with developments in political theory. Quite simply, we had not investigated the underlying question of “work” itself in this respect (though it’s worth delving into what I have been writing on precarious labour, which might interest you, as it interrogates the character of contemporary labour, gets into cognitive labour, and so on, which is where exodus as analytic comes from – this might be familiar to you, my apologies if it is).

    I am pondering what you mean by the ‘forced choice’ (which would be no choice) in which meaning is assigned to work. If a choice is forced, is there meaning? Indeed, can meaning be forced? Perhaps such forced meaning is key to the concept of ideology itself. Or perhaps it is believing in the possibility of choice that we encounter the ideological moment. I would position, perhaps strategically so, only questions around this level of thought.

    As for meaning, yes, I mean it in a sense different than that of the banality of a relativist interpretation, in which all has meaning and so on. You are correct to identify this. Of course meanings differ across subject positions. Your earlier comment led me to think on how, *in* the act of destruction, there arrives a peculiar void of meaning. There is affect, force, jouissance. There is meaning in its interpretation – before of after. And of course the effects of such acts are generative indeed. But the act itself is a peculiar void – an event – in which destruction itself finds its own ends. This is what I mean by the act being devoid of political content. That its reasons, and its effects, of course once interpreted in the long tail of history, either before or after the fact – however one reconstructs the open-ended narrative that remakes again & again the perception & conception of history – these grant us the political content devoid in the moment.

    As for influence of the Net – perhaps. Indeed, the impact of network culture is one that has perhaps arrived sooner. The family nucleus had disintegrated a few decades before the arrival of the Net – but hand-in-hand with modern communications technologies. The modern library in Canada, for example, was a socialist intervention of the first half of the 20th century. Dissolution of phallogocentric power has always come about in the dissemination of texts – unless it be texts that claim to be the only text worth reading.

    To carry on where this is going, we’d need a better forum – if you have more writing, do send along. I appreciate indeed the depth. Perhaps there is a greater conversation to be had here. Drop a line if interested through my blog.