Close Encounters of the Missing Kind

My daily routine is a strange attractor.  Every morning, I decide whether to hit one of the cafes on my regular circuit or work at the desk I rent from a local business. After lunch, and sometimes a nap, I pick a different location for my second work session. My most frequent cafe choices are as follows:

  • A downtown  cafe inside an office high-rise, patronized mainly by the herds of people who work there and ebb and flow through it, guided by the invisible pilot waves of office rhythms.
  • A somewhat dingy cafe that has some mix of locals, homeless people, tourists and what I suspect are gang members who seem to hang out there in the afternoons.
  • A cafe a few blocks from downtown inhabited by a mix of office workers getting away and a few sad people, obviously impoverished, who sit for hours nursing a coffee and browsing on cheap laptops or smartphones.
  • A self-consciously alternative cafe staffed by attractive, tattooed goth baristas, which attracts more conventional looking people apparently looking for a change of scenery, as well as the tattooed classes.
  • A rather precious hippie cafe with an ideological menu of offerings, which seems to be a crossroads for the local crunchy and nightclub sets.

If I decide to take my bike, or am in the mood for a longer walk, my range expands to perhaps twice as many locations.

There are enough cafes in my bike-accessible prowling territory that I could probably go months without repeating myself, but I don’t like either a routine that’s continuous exploration or complete predictability. A strange attractor seems to work perfectly for me. I’ve been doing this for perhaps fifteen years now, and my circuit has generally ranged from two to a dozen work locations. Home, surprisingly, has rarely been on my circuit. Home offices are really hard (read “expensive”) to get right.

It’s a lifestyle on the edge between settled and nomadic and between unsociable and sociable. I think my days of experimenting with true nomadism are over. My circuit is still more cloud mouse than metro mouse, with more big-chain cafes on it than indie, but I think I’ve become more willing to self-localize lately, and less freaked-out at being recognized by baristas.

I think a lot more people, like me, are starting to lock onto a strange attractor routine: it’s more stimulating than a regular routine, but not as demanding as full-blown nomadism. The third place is not a place so much as a pattern of movement in a socially fertile zone.


I like to pretend that my strange attractor routine represents an ongoing random sampling of the cultural micro-climates of Seattle.

If you work in the same place all the time, you develop fixed patterns of attentiveness and blindness. You start to read the game of life around you in a particular, ritualized way.

On the other hand, if you explore all the time, you cannot actually see your environment. It becomes just a blur of texture and color passing by, as you blow through.

But a strange attractor routine keeps you somewhat more sensitive and open to the small surprises that turn reality into more than pure theater. I think of these as small social near-misses: barely-averted social collisions created by slippages in ritual scripts.

A social collision is a situation when two people are navigating a shared reality using conflicting but not necessarily adversarial mental models. Such situations usually require a certain amount of awkward quasi-adversarial maneuvering to resolve. An example is a moment of confusion over the protocol for holding a door open for a stranger (which I analyzed in Be Slightly Evil). Another is ordering coffee at Starbucks using the more intimate protocol of an indie cafe.

A near-miss happens when a potential collision is averted by one party doing some unconscious or conscious collision avoidance.

Baristas are fun to watch because their collision-avoidance habits are so well-developed. I enjoy joining the tail of long coffee queues because you get to watch a little performance art show unfold ahead of you. It is a constant stream of potential collisions being turned into near-misses.

There is a normal range of ritualistic ordering behaviors that baristas can process unconsciously, as well as a normal range of noise around the rituals.  That noise, which is due to customer inexpertise, is in the form of small, unpredictable variations in the language used to order drinks,  handling of payments, and so forth. When the noise exceeds the normal range, baristas register an impending collision and consciously maneuver around it. The overall result is a smooth flow of commerce through a not-quite-as-smooth flow of social intercourse.

Our social collision avoidance habits are based on a mix of what you might call fenders and maneuvers.

A barista’s capacity to handle a certain kind of social noise, such as unexpected but not confusing ways of ordering drinks, is a fender. Noise that’s simply absorbed and dissipated in a way that does not affect the transaction, but does cause a slight draining of social energy on both sides. There is contact, but not damaging contact. Like their rubber cousins, social fenders bounce back after a grazing near-miss.

On the other hand, a barista smoothly registering a befuddled tourist, extracting a drink order, accepting payment and shepherding her towards the pickup counter: that’s more than passive energy-absorption by a fender. That’s an active social maneuver. A conversation that nominally has some unscripted elements, but can be reliably guided towards certain predictable outcomes.  A more skilled barista might deploy a gentler maneuver that un-befuddles the tourist, or discreetly teaches her the ritual she’s messing up. But that’s not a necessary outcome.


Social near-misses are usually asymmetric. True collisions damage both parties and alter their future trajectories. True misses — pairs of mutually adapted unconsciously coordinated maneuvers and imperceptible fender-grazes — evaporate immediately from short-term memory on both sides, erasing mutual influence entirely, leaving future trajectories untouched.

Near misses though have qualitatively different outcomes on the two sides: one party might barely register the interaction; the other might form a long-term memory. Leading the maneuver dance and having thicker fenders both lower the damage you experience. As the old saying goes, whether an insult is traced in sand or carved in stone depends on whether you delivered or received it.  Every social near-miss has this asymmetric insult-like quality to it.

An encounter that barely registers for one party as a lightly grazed fender, might be a bruising collision to the other party. A maneuver that is unconscious for one party might seem like an anxiety-provoking run-around to the other party. You could define social cluelessness as the vague sense of being constantly handled by an intelligent environment, via near-collisions between unconscious competence and unconscious incompetence. If the handling is sufficiently bruising, it can seem like gaslighting even when it is actually benevolent.

In a fixed daily routine, maneuvers grow more intricate over time, but fenders grow thinner as you come to need them less. You could even say that social adaptation in settled civilization is the progressive substitution of maneuvers for fenders.

The disruption of a routine is always a minor tragedy.

There are perhaps no more tragic creatures than middle-aged, middle-class tourists, unused to traveling in unfamiliar places, on a lifetime dream vacation. You can tell they are used to feeling highly competent in their home worlds. Their thin fenders are being worn through rapidly, making every interaction a bruise and everyday functioning a rapid drain on social energy reserves. It’s not just cellphone batteries that drain more quickly in roaming mode.

In a dominantly exploratory daily routine by contrast, fenders grow thicker over time and maneuvers more heavy-handed. The result is a sort of globally adapted abrasive coarseness. Watch a seasoned road warrior blow through an airport cafe, often leaving a bruised barista in his wake. Or watch a traveling salesman imperiously commandeer a cafe table in a strange city rather than merely occupy  it. That’s thick fenders and heavy-handed social maneuvering for you. You can often tell such people by what they physically carry around with them. Their laptop cases have a battered, survivalist quality to them. Their phones (they often have more than one) are much more intimately married to their bodies, via headphones. They handle local fauna like baristas and Uber drivers, instead of being handled by them.

The natural coarseness of behavioral adaptations in exploratory lifestyles is perhaps why it is easy to map barbarism to nomadism and refinement to settled cultures.

I think I like strange attractor routines because they avoid both these extremes. You get attuned enough to read environments without being desensitized to their subtleties. You become capable of exploring your environment with agility instead of having to bludgeon your way through it with a rugged laptop case.

I know I am getting into a rut when baristas start to recognize me and remember my drink. I know I am wandering too much when I can’t develop social situation awareness within a minute of entering a cafe.


Of course, the vast majority of near misses are far below coffee-ordering in intensity, most too fleeting to even notice. Every sidewalk sidestep is a social maneuver, not just a physical one. Every slight physical graze is absorbed by a social fender, not just a body part. Compared to the subtlety at the bottom of the pyramid of near-misses, an episode of ordering coffee is like galaxies colliding.

My routes to my cafe destinations are as varied as the cafes themselves. Every walk is a trajectory of a thousand near misses.

One route takes me through the crowds of awkward tourists at Pike Place: round white cruise-ship Midwesterners from 1985,  pods of Asian teens determined to take every iconic selfie, and harried-looking expat Indians steering visiting sari-clad moms through the crowds (that was me last summer). Each kind of tourist brings a different public-space navigation algorithm to the party.

For locals — and I now count myself as one — navigating Pike Place every day becomes black-belt training in sidewalk collision avoidance, especially if you like to work your phone at the same time, as I occasionally do. The crowd is just so dense, and so varied (and so variably absorbed in concurrent digital behaviors), neither fenders nor unconscious maneuvers work very well. The only way to get through Pike Place quickly is to be more alert than everybody else. Your speed is almost entirely a function of how mindful you are.

There are some predictable patterns. For instance, there will always be a big line by the “original Starbucks” that may or may not spill over to the street, depending on traffic and who’s busking at that prime location. There will be a gawking crowd near the fish-tossing seafood vendors. But you cannot build refined maneuvering behaviors around these patterns.

Locals usually weave through on the street, between the traffic and the crowded sidewalk, opportunistically exploiting clear patches on either side.

One of my other regular routes is challenging in a different way: it is not physically hard to navigate, but it is guaranteed to be emotionally challenging, because it weaves past homeless haunts and offices of social service outreach programs. Just how challenging depends on the particular mix of homeless and/or mentally disturbed people working the two-block stretch that day.

Each route is in fact a different sort of challenge. Each is an obstacle course of many colliding worlds and many more near misses.

Whether on the sidewalk or inside a cafe, near misses keep you constantly aware of the sheer size of the universe of close encounters of the missed kind. It is much larger than the world of active relationships. A strange attractor routine feels like you’re constantly patrolling the boundary between realized and counterfactual social universes. Being at the boundary keeps you sensitive to the game-breaks and  recognition double-takes going on around you. It also makes you realize just how much our world runs on effective collision avoidance behaviors. Without these behaviors turning the vast majority of potential collisions into near-misses, our social world would experience a meltdown. I suppose controlled meltdowns are partly what drugs and alcohol are about.

In a way, social evolution is about learning to gradually extract more energy from the universe of near-misses, by detecting and enabling potentially positive collisions and more reliably preventing negative ones. By that metaphor, we are currently at a very primitive stage of evolution comparable to alchemy. But we’re rapidly heading towards social nuclear engineering.


Physicists use ideas like vacuum energy and the Dirac sea to talk about the unseen world of evanescent near-matter. It lies beneath and beyond  the coarse world of lumbering stable particles, macro-measurable forces and diffraction-mappable chemical bonds that make up the visible material world.

I sometimes idly think about how human society too admits similar notions. The connections we are mining today as crude graphs are like experimental physics data. The notions of social identity we are reconstructing in terms of this data are vastly more sophisticated and high-resolution than crude ones like race, gender and nationality.

But compared to what still lurks in social vacuum energy — the evanescent universe of near misses evolving both online and offline — what we’re mapping today is merely the coarse, persistent and high-energy macrostructure of the social universe. A casual visit to a not-too-familiar coffeeshop, or an unexplored corner of Twitter, will reveal just how much more there is.

It strikes us as astounding that we can now think of our social identities as being rich portraits being enacted in real time as Facebook and Twitter feeds. Like particle accelerators, these media reveal and log the textures of social reality, one event at a time, in ways that were impossible just a few decades ago. Experiments like the Facebook emotional contagion study are to William Whyte’s studies of people’s behavior in public spaces as the Large Hadron Collider is to the Wilson Chamber. Things like Snapchat are perhaps new accelerators being built for ever-higher energy regimes. Maybe we need measures comparable to electron-volts to talk about this stuff. Could we charge a sidewalk side-step level near-miss with the social energy of say, an entire wedding? What would that result in?

And it isn’t just about digital media. I learned today that friendships correlate to genetic similarities. Social reality is much weirder than we think in lots of ways.

Even what we already know is hugely disruptive to traditional notions of identity and relationships though.

Our traditional categories of social identity (the part that’s constructed through interactions with others), private identity (the part we believe is somehow intrinsic, the “real me” bit) and perhaps a third subjective identity (whatever belongs with subjective hard-problem consciousness) no longer really work. They are like the categories of alchemists, based more on poetic plausibility and immediate convenience rather than any solid phenomenological grounding.

Categories like introvert and extrovert, individualist and collectivist, no longer work either.

When mathematical sociology began to take off in the nineties, thanks to then-new research on complex networks, it seemed like a sideshow. Now it increasingly seems like that was the beginning of the journey from social alchemy to social particle physics. The late nineties work on social networks was like early chemistry. I remember being really excited at the time, devouring books and articles by people like Barabasi and Watts.

Now, with a decade of social networks under our belt, it is becoming clear just how deep the rabbit-hole of “six degrees” goes.

I started thinking about this stuff more than a decade ago, and even gave a little talk (I can’t find the slides anymore) called “splitting the atom of the subjective self” once. If I’d experienced then what I’ve experienced since, it would have been a very different talk, because we are now actually past the first self-splitting experiments.


Ironically, it is our increasing ability to turn our lives into a set of partial digital abstractions that is revealing the extent to which we are socially situated phenomena (nothing as cohesive as “beings”). We are evolving functions of our environment, like waves in social reality. You don’t need to get to Jungian notions of the collective unconscious to understand how that’s true. Much more banal cafe-and-Twitter realities will suffice.

Social identity is sort of the evolving skin of bruised and scraped fenders, along with the behavioral shell of maneuvering habits we evolve through our daily routines. Traditional textual categories within social identity, like race, gender and ethnicity, are almost ephemeral in this picture. Most of the mass of social identity is non-textual dark matter. Perhaps this is why archetypes interest me so much. Your coffee shop habits today might contain more behavioral mass, so to speak, than habits arising from your gender identity. On Facebook, we are not so much male/female or black/brown/white as we are new members of entire new trees of species evolving rapidly from Igoe finger-eye beings.

Private identity is not something you can think of as a sealed-off essence behind the envelope of fenders and behaviors. It comprises bruises and scars being carved into conscious long-term memory everyday instead of fading away like ripples on water. Like a wabi-sabi cup being constantly re-repaired to preserve cracks and breaks as memories.

Subjective identity starts to seem more like a stream of sensory/digital consciousness than a locus of awareness.

Introversion and extroversioninstead of being ways of being, are turning into ways of flowing through social reality as patterns of collisions and near-misses. Individualism and collectivism become matters of information persistence models.

Yet, compared to the complexity that we sense exists in the social vacuum of near-misses, these developments in our understanding seem almost trivial.


For human society, the difference between connecting with other humans and relating to objects has traditionally been marked by eye contact. You lock eyes, you recognize the other as human. I-it vs. I-thou.

Stuff that is above eye contact is roughly what you might call accessible social energy, capable of being turned into “relationships” and captured as digital intelligence in social graphs and interest graphs of various sorts. Stuff that’s below eye contact is the sub-relational sociological world of near-misses, mostly dissipated or filtered out as noise today. There’s probably a fortune at the bottom of this pyramid.

Eye contact in a way is too coarse an interaction for exploring this world. To sneak up on the evanescent world of social vacuum energy, we need the subtleties of elemental digital actions, capable of crystallizing unseen context into acknowledged meaning. Today, we have a range of higher-resolution digital proxies for eye contact in the online world. Medieval poets who agonized over the meaning of a passing glance would probably consider our agonizing over the significance of cryptic emoticons (cryptemoticons?) ridiculously overwrought.

The most elemental kinds of digital eye contact today are Facebook Likes and Twitter Favorites. If these seem too elemental to be unpacked further, consider the complexity of the idea of hate-favoriting.

I admit I am really curious to see where Yo ends up.

I wonder a lot these days about what will happen when this kind of subtlety starts to bleed into meatspace. Perhaps all the near-miss noise being absorbed into fenders today as deadweight loss can be turned into intelligence. Perhaps maneuvering  baristas in the future will use augmented reality glasses to bag-and-tag people as they are served, creating maps of customer service way more refined than easy/difficult customers.

Perhaps you could create new, transient societies simply by having two groups of digitally-enhanced people pass through each other on a sidewalk, and logging every tiny maneuver, expression and gesture.

At some point, I suppose stuff will just get too weird for me to keep adapting, and I’ll retreat grouchily to a corner. Possibly that has already happened.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. There’s something rich about this piece; it’s much more amorphous than I’ve come to expect from you.

    Think about the poke; it’s a form of flirtation that uses its own context-based medium. Essentially Yo, with childish and sexual connotations thrown on. More useful than Yo for exactly that reason though. It’s sort of an analog of the wink, but without the plausible deniability. It’s ambiguous only in meaning, which gives it a kind of strange depth.

    “There’s probably a fortune at the bottom of this pyramid.” This is the bit I think about the most. Necessity means that social protocols in cities tend to promote avoidance of creation of interaction, which results in silly situations where lots of people who consider themselves terribly isolated find themselves congregating together.

    I’m reminded somewhat about an experimental piece of social software called Glance; it sits in your menu, and ambiently tells you when other people have used it. If you check it, it shows you who used it and made it become active, and you show up on the list. There’s a short slide deck on it:

    • Yeah, this is pushing beyond territory I’ve become familiar with to a relatively new one. So even though I’ve backlinked a lot to my old posts, I think I am experimenting a bit here.

      Glance sounds very interesting in an artsy way. I’d be interested in productized versions of it that have more of an excuse to use.

      This stuff is at the experimental games and artwork stage. Yo is performance art to a degree. I don’t think poke was all it is sometimes romanticized as though. Relatively shallow experiment that didn’t get too deep into what’s basically context/gestalt based social design.

  2. Enzong Yap says

    Hi Venkat

    Thanks for this article. Fender and maneuver analogy helps me to the martial arts more and explain to people why direct blocking is not necessarily the best action.

    Taking direct block in tae kwon do or in boxing is like taking the entire impact of the collision onto your fender. Taking a direct block usually requires less effort and skill. But if the energy of the collision exceeds the energy dissipating capacity of your fender (usually an upper arm or a shin), you are likely to take mechanical/structural damage.

    While full maneuver is what slip-the-jab moves in boxing, side-stepping in taekwondo and entering moves in aikido are intending to accomplish. Yet to do a full on maneuver requires a great skill and a great sense of timing and speed.

    Anyway that is to add my two cents. Regards

  3. I do like the idea of becoming part of a tribe based on subtle aggregated interactions, because it gives me a chance to evolve without being locked into self-described interests that were appropriate 5 years ago. IE my device suggests new social events because a loosely connected group of people (who I either unknowingly bump into everywhere else, or who have a similar pattern aggregate in different countries) are going somewhere similar.
    Re the coffee analogy, knowing that my beverage preference and the quality of my average barista interactions are visible above my head could either feel helpful , or make me be uneasily nicer to the staff (as you put it, “tense social shadow-boxing”). It depends on how it’s handled, I suppose.

  4. Nice lifestyle design article but what will possibly stick is that baristas should use Facebook and Glass and cyborg themselves to become finally intelligent enough to handle customers. Customers, unlike users, may cause friction though and becoming social dark matter may be a status gain: paying a relatively small fee to be not a member of a community or part of a crowd – just leave us alone, me and my social class.

  5. Meh. I don’t expect epiphanies every post, but coffee shop dynamics aint exactly Boyd in flight over Nam instantiating the OODA loop. The tension between a third-space experience, perhaps as an expansion of the cube/office as the normative locus of work, and the apparently growing desire for untethered work (nomadic or otherwise) is what I’d prefer you’d explored.

  6. While not specific to the article, it’s interesting to see that Glance concept was by the founder/CEO of Berg (UK) well before Berg, and to ponder the water under the ‘digital social’ bridge since then. They’re currently trying to bring digital back into physical via internet-things.

  7. You raise an important issue about identity and service. Many employees in service positions are required to wear name badges. The irony is that these are the people most do not wish to interact with in a personal way. I flip this assessment on its head and always address these folks directly by their name. First, it brightens their day and I feel better as a result. Second, I get better service. I believe the “fender” between us still exists. We just don’t need the fender; we interact by employing respect and dignity.

    Try it sometime. I bet it will profitable inform your strange attractor wanderings.


  8. Not exactly relevant- but I wanted to share- I was at Panera Bread (pseudo brunch cafe) and I noticed a takeout shelf / bookcase structure – and it had a “takeout” sign. Supposedly -bring up the order form on your cellphone while traveling, place order which could be your “saved favorite”- pay electronically and pop in and pickup off the unmanned/unsupervised bookshelf- No people interaction necessary – just whether you hold the door for the person coming in after you… hmmmm It scared me because I was attracted and thought well… I don’t have to deal with ANYBODY, none of the social niceties and yet still breathing cafe ambience. Maybe these systems are in a lot of restaurants. I was intrigued about the trust involved. I mean somebody could steal an order….. hahaha (I looked for a camera). It is interesting the thoughts that go through your mind when confronted with a new system.