Cultural Learnings of Blogosphere for Make Benefit Glorious Blog of Ribbonfarm.

I found a couple of good blogosphere conversations that took me far off my usual reading routes this week. It started with an article about whether language influences culture, Lost in Translation.  Here’s the sort of insight the new research offers:

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world’s languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.

This is Lakoff -Sapir-Whorf hypothesis territory so if you are interested in backtracking, you may want to read an old post by me, Sapir-Whorf, Lakoff, Metaphor and Thought. My online wanderings this week were sparked by two posts in this general cultural territory. The first is about a fascinating 19th century Algerian leader, Abd-El-Kader, who I’d never heard of. The other is a conversation about the use of Twitter in the Black community, sparked off by Farhad Manjoo of Slate (which was pretty much universally slammed), a subject I’d never thought about. Here’s the tour. Warning: severe online wanderlust ahead.

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A Big Little Idea Called Legibility

James C. Scott’s fascinating and seminal book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, examines how, across dozens of domains, ranging from agriculture and forestry, to urban planning and census-taking, a very predictable failure pattern keeps recurring.  The pictures below, from the book (used with permission from the author) graphically and literally illustrate the central concept in this failure pattern, an idea called “legibility.”

States and large organizations exhibit this pattern of behavior most dramatically, but individuals frequently exhibit it in their private lives as well.

Along with books like Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we Live By, William Whyte’s The Organization Man and Keith Johnstone’s Impro, this book is one of the anchor texts for this blog. If I ever teach a course on ‘Ribbonfarmesque Thinking,’ all these books would be required reading. Continuing my series on complex and dense books that I cite often, but are too difficult to review or summarize, here is a quick introduction to the main idea.

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Becalmed in the Summer Doldrums

In the early eighties, after lunch, around 1 PM on hot — and I mean Indian hot — summer days, I’d step out onto the verandah, push two straight-backed chairs together to create a sort of bench, and take a nap. There were ceiling fans inside, and even one room with an air-conditioner, but I preferred the verandah with its still, hot air. It was a natural sauna and sensory deprivation chamber. It induced a sort of death-sleep and occasionally, mild hallucinations.  Reflecting on these memories and the 100 degree days we’ve been experiencing here in the DC area this week, it struck me that I am a very seasonal kind of guy. Which is why I dread being forced to move to California. Something about sharply marked seasons fits very well with my personality. At least when I am able to harmonize my own manic-depressive mood swings with the local seasons. In my winter post from exactly 6 months ago, I noted that I like bouts of extreme, deathly cold because they represent rebirth and renewal. Deathly summer heat on the other hand, feels like suddenly hitting the pause button in the middle of the most exciting action in a movie.

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The Missing Folkways of Globalization

Between individual life scripts and civilization-scale Grand Narratives, there is an interesting unit of social analysis called the folkway. Historian David Hackett Fischer came up with the modern definition in 1989, in his classic, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America:

…the normative structure of values, customs and meanings that exist in any culture. This complex is not many things but one thing, with many interlocking parts…Folkways do not rise from the unconscious in even a symbolic sense — though most people do many social things without reflecting very much about them. In the modern world a folkway is apt to be a cultural artifact — the conscious instrument of human will and purpose. Often (and increasingly today) it is also the deliberate contrivance of a cultural elite.

Ever since I first encountered Fischer’s ideas, I’ve wondered whether folkways might help us understand the  social landscape of globalization. As I started thinking the idea through, it struck me that the notion of the folkway actually does the opposite. It helps explain why a force as powerful as globalization hasn’t had the social impact you would expect. The phrase “global citizen” rings hollow in a way that even the officially defunct “Yugoslavian” does not. Globalization has created a good deal of  industrial and financial infrastructure, but no real “social landscape,” Friedman-flat or otherwise. Why? I think the answer is that we are missing some folkways. Why should you care? Let me explain. [Read more…]

The Lords of Strategy by Walter Kiechel

It takes some guts to subtitle a business book “The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World.” Even for a genre whose grand overstatements are only rivaled by the diet-books aisle, that is an ambitious tagline. The Lords of Strategy lives up to that subtitle and then some.  It is a grand, sweeping saga that tells the story of how the ill-defined function known as “corporate strategy” emerged in the 60s, systematically took over  boardrooms and MBA classrooms, and altered the business landscape forever. Even though we are only 4 months into 2010, it is pretty likely this is going to be the best business book of the year for me. If you are considering, currently in, or recently graduated from, an MBA program, you really must read this book. If this book had been written 10 years ago, it would have saved me a good deal of trouble making my own career decisions.

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An Infrastructure Pilgrimage

In Omaha, I was asked this question multiple times: “Err… why do you want to go to North Platte?” Each time, my wife explained, with a hint of embarrassment, that we were going to see Bailey Yard. “He saw this thing on the Discovery Channel about the world’s largest train yard…” A kindly, somewhat pitying look inevitably followed, “Oh, are you into model trains or something?” I’ve learned to accept reactions like this. Women, and certain sorts of infidel men, just don’t get the infrastructure religion. “No,” I explained patiently several times, “I just like to look at such things.” I was in Nebraska as a trailing spouse on my wife’s business trip, and as an infrastructure pilgrim. When boys grow into men, the infrastructure instinct, which first manifests itself as childhood car-plane-train play, turns into a fully-formed religion. A deeply animistic religion that has its priests, mystics and flocks of spiritually mute, but faithful believers. And for adherents of this faith, the five-hour drive from Omaha to North Platte is a spiritual journey. Mine, rather appropriately, began with a grand cathedral, a grain elevator.

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Safar aur Musafir: The Hero’s Journey in Bollywood

The single silliest cliche I’ve heard about India is that it is a “land of contradictions.” Every travel book, outsourcing guide, and opinion on globalization repeats this cliche. Empty-headed Indians repeat it too. Land of striking contrasts, perhaps. Contradictions, no. At least no more than you’d expect from a country of that size, with that much history and entropy in its civilization-ware. In particular, India is no more a land of contradictions than, say, China or the European Union. The problem is, there are very few lenses through which non-Indians (especially Europeans and Americans; I think the Chinese and Middle Eastern worlds understand us well enough) can comprehend the India underneath the apparent contradictions. Two of those lenses are Bollywood and Cricket. I flipped a coin and decided to start with Bollywood. Cricket might come later. So here is one of the many contradiction-busting themes that hold India together — the Campbellesque metaphor of “life as a journey,” viewed through the lens of Bollywood songwriting.

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