Refactor Camp 2012: Generativity and Captivity

Every interesting thing in my life has been the result of scratching at some weird itch. Every screwed-up thing has been the result of ignoring such itches and attempting to follow some mature-sounding social script instead.

Last year, through my travels and field trips,  I was intrigued to discover that itch-scratchers are disproportionately represented in the readership here on Ribbonfarm. Which is how many of us ended up on the Sausalito docks listening to Sam Penrose talking about outlaw living on houseboats. Or how I ended up inside the storm drains under Las Vegas with Laura Wood.

Reflecting on all this led me to wonder: What would happen if you put a bunch of itchy-scratchy types in a room together? Let’s find out.

I am pleased to announce that on Saturday March 3rd, at the San Francisco Zoo, between 10 AM and 3 PM, along with a few itchy-scratchy co-conspirators, I will be hosting and partially sponsoring the first ever barcamp related to the themes of this blog: Refactor Camp 2012.

All itchy-scratchy types are invited. Use the promotional code EARLYBIRD to register before 10 PM, Thursday Feb 16th, and get $10 off the $40 general registration. You can get one of the limited student reservations if you are a registered student somewhere ($10), or one of the sponsor tickets ($100) if you want to help cover the costs, since I am subsidizing it a bit. Our meeting space is limited to about 40 people max.

The event will run from 10 AM to 3 PM, in one of the meeting rooms at the zoo (with WiFi), and will include lunch, all-day coffee and admission to the zoo.

So sign up now. And then come back and continue reading to find out why a zoo, why the theme is “generativity and captivity” and what any of this has to do with scratching itches and refactoring perceptions.

What’s Included

Besides lunch, coffee and WiFi that is.

The main event page  has an evolving speaker and topic agenda. So far I have 4 confirmed speakers (besides myself that is): Sam Penrose, Jane Huang, Nick Pinkston and Greg Rader.

Each has helped me see very interesting things in the last year, and I am challenging them to do the same for a larger group, with a quick 10 minute whiteboard-only talk.

We’ll weave a loose barcamp style workshopping agenda around what they have to say. I expect to add a couple more speakers at most, but the rest of the time will be open time that we’ll structure as we see fit. You’ll be able to propose your own mini-sessions or speaking topics, and we’ll do the barcamp thing of voting on what we want to fill the time with.

Somewhere along the way, we’ll go look at the zoo.

I can’t predict what you’ll get out of it. It’s an experiment. You might turn an itch into a fully fleshed out passion project that keeps you awake for the rest of the week. Or you might just discover that you like giraffes more than zebras. Or you might just have an interesting time meeting people who are up to strange things.

Generativity and Captivity

I’ve often wondered about the difference between using external, social scripts to guide your actions (such as “American Dream” or “Write a novel” or “Do a YC startup”) versus being driven by strange impulses that may or may not conform to specific scripts. These are the itch-scratching behaviors that can snowball into either major passion projects or madness.

For example, I’ve had a “container-shipping itch” for years now, and it keeps snowballing in broad, metaphoric ways. I have no idea where it is taking me.

When scripts and itches align, great things can happen.

When they don’t, you have a choice.

If you let the script over-rule the itch, you end up feeling trapped by it. Both cubicle life and free-agent life are scripts. So are things like “write a novel.” Scripts are “be somebody” paths.

If you let the itch over-rule the script, you end up unleashing a lot of demented energy. Energy that can lead to obsessive-compulsive behavior. Itch scratching is a “do something” path.

The cost is that you may break scripts. You never know where an itch-scratching may lead. Script-breaking for the hell of it is a stupid idea. But script-breaking as an unintended consequence of scratching an itch always seems to trigger interesting events in my life. They may be good or bad, but they won’t be boring.

Itch scratching destabilizes your life.

With me for instance, shipping containers have become a motif for a more generalized itch. I have no idea whether that will lead to a book, a journey around the world, a painting, a video game, quitting blogging to join the merchant marines, or an idea for a start-up.

It’s simply an itch. It makes me do certain things.

Itchy-scratchy lives naturally trigger the tension between generativity and captivity. That’s what I want to poke at and explore, with others who are good at it.

Why the Zoo?

The field trips we did last year (four of them) convinced me that you only get interesting things out of your head if you put interesting things in.

Zoos have always left me both fascinated and ambivalent. On the one hand, they are critical in conservation efforts and the only way we can get up close and personal with 99% of the living world. They also seem to be the only way to keep some species going (there are now more tigers in captivity in American than in the wild in India, for instance).

On the other hand, we do keep wild things unnaturally captive in zoos, there’s no getting around that. In modern zoos, very humanely captive, but still captive. Some species are undoubtedly happier and genuinely better off as well (after all, dogs and cats self-domesticated around ancient humans), but for other species, captivity is somewhere between a mixed blessing and a curse.

The only real justification is that we do this to ourselves as well. We are one of the latter species for whom captivity is a mixed blessing. The only real difference is that our zoo cages are the scripts of civilized life.

Like zoo animals, we live safer and longer lives than we would in the wild, but like them, it leaves us restless, with no outlet for wild, barbarian instincts.

Whichever you look at them, zoos throw up difficult questions about both our relationship with nature and our own self-imposed “civilized” condition.

I hope those questions provide an interesting context for thinking about generativity, captivity and itch-scratching.

Why “Refactor Camp”

Finally, why “Refactor Camp”?

Well, refactored perceptions is the quixotic tagline of this blog, and I’ve come to realize that the main way you get to interesting and unusual perspectives on the world is to simply scratch an itch and go wherever that takes you. And one day, you find that you have ended up somewhere with a strange view of familiar things.

Scratching itches is how you do refactored perception.

So, see you on March 3rd, with an itch. Let’s see where we end up. Here are the links again.

The event page, with evolving details of agenda, speakers etc. Refactor Camp 2012.

The registration page (also linked from the page above): sign up.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Michael OConnor says

    Hi Venkat, if you like shipping containers you should see what we do with them in Christchurch, New Zealand. We had a force 7.1 earthquake in September 2010 and a 6.3 right under the city in February 2011 that destroyed the CBD and much of the eastern suburbs. Shipping containers are now lined up to protect roads near the base of cliffs, as pedestrian tunnels on sidewalks near broken shops, and we have a small shopping mall in the old CBD made from stacked containers. They are everywhere being used for endless strange purposes. Plenty of good scratching I’d say.

    • Just saw this comment. That’s weirdly cool, though an earthquake seems like an expensive way to get there.

    • In my home town they are used to solve the growing problems with student housing. There are rows of stacks of three, each container housing a student. With metal staircases and painted in weird colors.

  2. Well, refactored perceptions is the quixotic tagline of this blog, and I’ve come to realize that the main way you get to interesting and unusual perspectives on the world is to simply scratch an itch and go wherever that takes you.

    Ironically, “refactoring” as it is used today is perceived as a conservative change, which changes structure but leaves behavior invariant. But it’s arguably a better word than “redesign”, which puts too much weight actually on the maker, instead of the process. Brian Foote has something interesting and critical to say about the culture of refactoring in the software engineering context. He also plays a bit with the différance between Refactoring and refactoring as it was formerly done with Agile and agile.