From Incomprehensible to Arbitrary

William James’ observation, “The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear” has long seemed to me a near-perfect definition of civilization. But it doesn’t get at the costs of this process. Which is why I was inspired, a while back, to make up my own no-free-lunch version of the aphorism: Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.

A lot of my recent thinking and writing (and coincidentally, consulting work) has revolved in one way or another around this idea. Last week, I figured out a pretty neat 2×2 that captures this notion of civilizational progress, and folds in a bunch of other interesting ideas that I am thinking about, in satisfying ways. Here you go:

The diagram may be hard for you to parse if you haven’t been following some of my recent writing. There are also ideas in there that I haven’t yet written up. The diagram maps to the aphorism from bottom-left to top-right, but via a path of wiggly process through the other two quadrants.

It’s going to take me another week or two to dig out from under my move and post a decently polished full-length post (thanks to guest bloggers for keeping things moving along in recent weeks), so lucky for you, this short post is all I have for you this week.  I have a lot more to say about the ideas in this 2×2, but I’ll save that for future posts.

If you really want more, here are the slides, and here’s the video, from my talk at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab last week. Warning: as with many of my recent talks, this is very much work-in-progress material, probably with lots of flaws and errors. I’ve sort of adopted a blogger-approach to speaking in recent years, where I release early and often. It’s a refreshing change from the more academic present-when-done style I operated in until a few years ago, but it does result in more bugginess.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Props for getting Hassan i-Sabbah into a talk at a business school…now there was an entrepreneur.

  2. Grant Gudgel says

    Great to see the slides and video from Annenberg. I’ve been following your thinking on this since you mentioned it in the Future Nauseous post. For the record, “You nailed it” in the Forbes articles.

    One comment though. I am certain this falls under your “Work in progress” caveat but I was kind of surprised to see the Right/Left political spectrum as your X axis in the Jeffersonian/Hamiltonian matrix.

    The J/H notion of “Big vs Small” institutions makes perfect sense in the context of Kool-aid cognitive-capture and us-vs-them narratives. But the link to the R/L socio-political spectrum seems arbitrary at best. Like asking the folks at Jonestown if they prefer “grape” or “orange” flavored Kool-aid.

    I find this all the more interesting considering that the “Startup scene” in your slide (#50) appears to have migrated to the left between your visit to Annenberg and posting to Slideshare. Coincidence?

    • Yes, there was a problem with that slide. As you sharply pointed out, the startup scene moved in the final slides to the left. I always meant it there, so it was a visual typo. It was also pointed out in the Q&A, and in fact I fixed it live. Not sure if that bit is in the video.

      It’s not arbitrary though. Most of the R/L classifications are based on self-identification of those people or groups, and I think each side does J/H in a distinctive style, despite the commonalities. So R-J (like Tea Party) and L-J (Transition movement) share a lot of beliefs, but are also clearly distinct in a way that the R-L axis captures I think.

      • Grant Gudgel says

        Sorry, my mistake. Hadn’t stuck around for the Q&A in the video.

        Indeed most of the groups listed are defined by a distinct R/L identity, either linked directly to an overt socio-political ideal (eg. Tea Party vs. Transitionists) or higher up the H/J axis they sit on one side of the aisle or the other on the D.C. Gravy-Train and their loyalties reflect this (eg. NSF/NIH vs. DARPA).

        I think what makes me uncomfortable with the model is that the Startup Scene seems like the odd-man-out. Compared with all the others it has a much weaker link to R/L and a much stronger link to H/J. In other words gritty Kool-aiders should tend to compromise political affiliations in favor of moving up H/J whereas most of the others would do the opposite. This makes it difficult to classify on R/L.

        I agree that the reservoir of individuals who make up the Startup Scene tend to hail from a left leaning demographic (young, educated, anti-establishment etc…) but the organizations themselves and the aggregate “scene” they comprise tend to be apolitical and to drive apolitical decision making by individuals. If DARPA wants to fund your R&D good luck telling your VC that you are going to turn them down because it doesn’t sit right with your political affiliation.

        Anyway, great content, looking forward to more! I’ll leave you alone for now but I am going to try to catch you in Geneva at Lift 2013. Instead of coffee I’ll buy you a Swiss hot chocolate! :-)

        • Well, that is true of many things: the people involved have a political affiliation, but the economic dynamics they represent is apolitical. Universities are an example: students tend to be more liberal, but often grow conservative after college. Everybody consumes Hollywood art, but the scene itself is definitely L. The military is necessary for both L and R Presidents, but is itself mostly R at the individual level (if nominally apolitical in aggregate).

          The startup scene though, I’d argue, is L even in aggregate, until individual companies break up and out and acquire individual political characters. I suspect Palantir will start to drift R as it scales for example.

          I think plotting the scene on the L/R axis is still useful. As ideas gain traction and move up into the H-half-plane, they either spread into a technology set that spans both L/R-H quadrants, or becomes a “medium with a message” that retains a political character (presumably sharing-economy technologies will remain L even as they transition to H).

  3. Alexander Boland says

    Excellent slideshow so far. Also reminds me: what’s your take on Parks and Recreation? Is the entire thing a parody of the office in the sense that the clueless and the losers seem to be living in a perpetual fairy tale? Is Jerry Gergich some sort of loser guru who understands a situation that others don’t? What about Ron Swanson for that matter?

  4. “path of wiggly process ” -> “path of wiggly progress” ?

  5. I don’t recognize either of the movies in your presentation, and can’t hear the audience member’s answer. Will you tell me what two movies are pictured in your slide?