At Home, in a Car

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Regenerations

Early tomorrow morning, I will pile stuff into my twelve-year old Corolla one more time, and make the two-day drive from Las Vegas to Seattle, via Twin Falls and Boise. My car (which I bought new in 2000) is now over 130,000 miles old and has sported license plates from five states. It has traveled with me from Austin to Ann Arbor to Ithaca to Rochester to DC to Vegas. That last trip was also a nomadic driveabout across the lower 48 that covered nearly 8000 miles over six weeks. Many of you have met my car. Some of you have ridden in it as well.

To the extent that there is any sign of external continuity to my adult life, it is tied up in this car. It has also been the only non-disposable physical part of my life for a long time. Since I arrived in America at age 22, I have not lived in a single place continuously for more than three years. In about a week, I will turn 38. I will have lived in 16 apartments/houses and half a dozen cities through my adult life. My digital life will have passed through half a dozen computers, email addresses and cell-phones.

For much of this time, my car has been the only physical anchor of my sense of place and self.

***

[Read more…]

Anthropology of Mid-Sized Startups

Guest post by Kevin Simler, who works at Palantir, observes the startup scene, and writes at Melting Asphalt, about… well, go see for yourself.

In their natural habitats, social species organize into characteristic groups. Gazelles form herds, wolves form packs, and ants form colonies. Humans, in the same way, form tribes.

Of course, we’re pretty far removed from our natural habitat these days. But tribes are a large and fundamental part of our evolutionary heritage, and they have a corresponding influence on our mental and social lives. Organizing ourselves into tribes is one of the ways we manufacture normalcy. It helps our paleolithic minds perceive and act, more or less sensibly, in an increasingly complex modern world.

Humans also form kingdoms, nations, states, and civilizations, but those units of organizations aren’t as fundamental to our psychology. Statecraft is an esoteric enterprise; we spend most of our cycles processing social data at the tribal scale. Even Kissinger, for all his mastery of foreign relations, had to play tribe-level politics in the White House and State Department.
[Read more…]

Money as Pain Relief

I’ve been thinking about four ideas related to money lately, and about why I am generally uncomfortable framing life goals in financial terms.

  1. The classic idea in sales that people buy only two things: happiness and solutions to problems
  2. The idea that “money is a problem to be solved” (I don’t know the source of this idea)
  3. The idea that only central banks can make money, and that everybody else should think in terms of taking money from someone else (this one is due to Dorian Taylor)
  4. The piece of folk wisdom that says (contrary to the first idea) that money cannot buy happiness

When you put the four together, you get quite a nice little theory about why most people find it hard to make take enough money for their needs. And you end up with the interesting conclusion that all money is pain relief.

[Read more…]

The Generalized Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect is a basic idea in social science research that I first encountered in William Whyte’s Organization ManI remember making a note of it at the time but never got around to thinking more about it, until it came up again in a recent conversation.

It is a sort of Heisenberg Principle for social science. The effect hypothesizes that the changes in participants’ behavior during a study may be mostly caused by the special social situation and treatment they receive from management.

I think the principle has far greater significance than people realize.

[Read more…]

Welcome to the Future Nauseous

Both science fiction and futurism seem to miss an important piece of how the future actually turns into the present. They fail to capture the way we don’t seem to notice when the future actually arrives.

Sure, we can all see the small clues all around us: cellphones, laptops, Facebook, Prius cars on the street. Yet, somehow, the future always seems like something that is going to happen rather than something that is happening; future perfect rather than present-continuous. Even the nearest of near-term science fiction seems to evolve at some fixed receding-horizon distance from the present.

There is an unexplained cognitive dissonance between changing-reality-as-experienced and change as imagined, and I don’t mean specifics of failed and successful predictions.

My new explanation is this: we live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak.  To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

[Read more…]

Rediscovering Literacy

I’ve been experimenting lately with aphorisms. Pithy one-liners of the sort favored by writers like La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680). My goal was to turn a relatively big idea, the sort I would normally turn into a 4000-word post, into a one-liner. After many failed attempts over the last few months, a few weeks ago, I finally managed to craft one I was happy with:

Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.

Many hours of thought went into this 11-word candidate for eternal quotability. When I was done, I was tempted to immediately unpack it in a longer essay, but then I realized that that would defeat the purpose. Maxims and aphorisms are about more than terseness in the face of expensive writing technology. They are about basic training in literacy. The aphorism above is possibly the most literate thing I have ever written. By stronger criteria I’ll get to, it might even be the only literate thing I’ve ever written, which means I’ve been illiterate until now.

This post isn’t about the aphorism itself (I’ll leave you to play with it), but about literacy.

I used to think that the terseness of  written language through most of history was mostly a result of the high cost and low reliability of writing technologies in pre-modern times. I now think these were secondary issues. I have come to believe that the very word literacy meant something entirely different before around 1890, when print technology became cheap enough to sustain a written form of mass media.

[Read more…]

How Do You Run Away from Home?

My Big History reading binge last year got me interested in the history of individualism as an idea.  I am not entirely sure why, but it seems to me that the right question to ask is the apparently whimsical one, “How do you run away from home?”

I don’t have good answers yet. So rather than waiting for answers to come to me in the shower, I decided to post my incomplete thoughts.

Let’s start with the concept of individualism.

The standard account of the idea appears to be an ahistorical one; an ism that modifies other isms like libertarianism, existentialism and anarchism.

Fukuyama argues, fairly persuasively, that the individual as a meaningful unit only emerged in the early second millennium AD in Europe, as a consequence of the rise of the Church and the resultant weakening of kinship-based social structures. This immediately suggests a follow-on question: is the slow, 600-700-year rise of individualism an expression of an innate drive, unleashed at some point in history, or is it an unnatural consequence of forces that weaken collectivism and make it increasingly difficult to sustain? Are we drifting apart or being torn apart?

Do we possess a fundamental “run away from home” drive, or are we torn away from home by larger, non-biological forces, despite a strong attachment drive?

[Read more…]

Lawyer Mind, Judge Mind

Several recent discussions on a variety of unrelated topics with different people have gotten me thinking about two different attitudes towards dialectical processes. They are generalized versions of the professional attitudes  required of lawyers and judges, so I’ll refer to them as lawyer mind and judge mind. 

In the specialized context of the law, the dialectical process is structurally constrained and the required attitudes are  codified and legally mandated to a certain extent.  Lawyers must act as though they were operating from a lawyer-mindset, even if internally they are operating with a judge-mind. And vice-versa. Outside of the law, the distinction acquires more philosophical overtones.

I want to start with the law, but get to a broader philosophical, psychological and political distinction that applies to all of us in all contexts.

[Read more…]

How to Name Things

— 1 —

Naming and counting are the two most basic behaviors in our divided brains. Naming is the atomic act of association, recognition, contextualization and synthesis. Counting is the atomic act of separation, abstraction, arrangement and analysis. Each behavior contains the seed of the other.

To name a thing is to invite it to ensnare itself in your mind; to distill and compress the essence of a gestalt into a single evocative motif, from which it can be regenerated at will. Just add attention and stir.

Here are three very different American gestalts that I bet many of you will recognize without clicking: Babbitt, Bobbitt, Rabbit.

We name and count babies, products, species, theorems, countries, asteroids, ships, drugs, essays, wars, gods, dogs, foods, alcohols, pieces of legislation, judicial pronouncements, wars, subcultures, ocean currents and seasonal winds.

We try to name and number every little transient vortex, in William James’ blooming, buzzing confusion, that persists long enough for us to form a thought about it.

As with plans, so with names. Names are nothing; naming is everything. To name a thing is to truly know it. As Ursula Le Guin said, “for magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.”

It is the process of naming that is important. The actual name that you settle on at the end is secondary.

— 2 —

Vanity and pragmatism wrestle for control of the act of naming.  We bend one ear towards history and the other towards posterity. We parse for unfortunate rhymes and garbled pronunciations. We attempt at once to situate and differentiate. We count syllables and look for domain names.

We walk around the name, viewing it as parent, lover, friend, bully, journalist, lexicographer and historian.  We embed it in imaginary headlines and taunting rhymes.

In Bali to name is to number. It is an unsatisfying synthesis that only works in limited contexts.

“The firstborn is “Wokalayan” (or Yan, for short), second is “Made,” third is “Nyoman” or Komang (Man or Mang for short), and fourth is “Ketut” (often elided to Tut).

I am not sure what happens if Wokalayan dies young. Does Made replace his older sibling and become the new Wokalayan?

In crypotgraphy, the first named-character in an example scenario is Alice. The second one is Bob. And so on down an alphabetic cast of characters. This is not the world of  interchangeable John and Jane Doe figures.  The order matters.

When birth order is more important individual personality, you get a social order in naming that inhabitants of individualistic modernity struggle to understand.

— 3 —

Counting is both ordinal and cardinal. It takes a while to appreciate the difference between one, two, three… and first, second, third.

To truly count is to know both processes intimately. In naming, ordinality has to do with succession and replacement. Cardinality has to do with interchangeability. You cannot master naming without mastering counting.

The ordinal, cardinal and nominal serve to situate and uniquely identify, but do not necessarily indicate the presence of something real. Hence the query: name, rank and number? 

There was once a substance with rank 0, number 0. It was named ether. It did not actually exist. Substances 1-1 through 1-4 though, earth, fire, water and wind, were real enough, and became the founding fathers and mothers of the modern discipline of chemistry.

It is in fact useful to think of naming an interrogative act that creates what it questions. Demand insistently enough to know the name, rank and number of a thing, and you will eventually find out. Even if your mind has to manufacture an answer.

When you understand both kinds of counting, you can count and name in both ways, without using actual numbers.

That gives you iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad on the one hand, and Kodiak, Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard and Lion, on the other. I’ll leave you to guess why the first-born is a bear here, while the rest are cats. Don’t give up and click too soon.

Not many languages can efficiently express questions of ordinality. In English for instance, the question, what is your birth-order ordinality among your siblings? sounds downright weird, but I cannot find a simpler, grammatical way to express it.

It is much easier to ask the related cardinality question: how many siblings do you have? 

Curiously, the ordinal question is very easy to ask in my nominal native language of Kannada. It would translate to something like: How many-eth son are you of your father? If such constructs were allowed in English. At least that was the best I could come up with my father challenged me to translate the line as a kid.

It would be a useful construct to have in English. We could ask, What-ieth major version of Mac OS X is Lion? 

The naming practices in Bali and the Ursula Le Guin quote made me think of a rather clever idea for a short story about a culture where the young start out with ordinal names as in Bali, but are given true names if and when wise elders first spot the child in an act that expresses a unique individuality.

At this point, a coming-of-age naming ceremony is conducted, and the child is declared an adult with special privileges over the un-named. Rather complicated things happened to the hero’s name in the story, having to do with self-referential paradoxes. I’ve forgotten the plot, but I remember that at the time I had to diagram the events in the story.

I never wrote the story because coming up with names for the characters was too hard.

— 4 —

We name to liberate, and we name to imprison. We name to flatter, and we name to insult.  We name to own, and we name to be owned. We name to subsume, and have subsumed. We name to frame, and we name to reframe.

Google bought Urchin on Demand and turned it into Google Analytics. It bought Youtube and left the name alone.

The Left calls it Right to Choose. The Right calls it Right to Life. The debate itself is partly about naming: at what point does something deserve the name human?

The British and the French built a plane together and fought over the name. The French won. It became the Concorde rather than the Concord. 

Gandhi attempted to rename the untouchables Harijans. God’s people. They resented being patronized, and chose for themselves the name Dalit. The oppressed.

Priests weigh about the numerological significance of names and marketing mavens opine about syllable counts.

States step in with Procrustean templates to tax and conscript: last name, first name, middle initial. Under Spanish rule, the entire Philippines became a geographic-lexicographic state.

Philosophers ponder the metaphysics of naming and Greek scholars hunt for their linguistic roots.

As one anthropologist said (I have never managed to find the source), naming is never a culturally insignificant act.

— 5 —

To name is to appreciate the crucial distinction, due to urban theorist John Friedmann, between appreciative knowledge and manipulative knowledge. The one allows us to construct “satisfying images of the world.” The other allows us to gain mastery over it.

To either number or name is to both appreciate and manipulate.  To number is to appreciate timeless order; to name is to appreciate transformative chaos.

You number to extend and preserve. Archival is the ultimate act of numbering.

You name to create, destroy, fragment and churn. You name a product and launch it. You give a dog a bad name and hang it.

In a break with family tradition, I was not named after my paternal grandfather. The timeless sequence, …ABABAB… was broken.

— 6 —

Agent 007, James Bond, was named after an ornithologist.

In his numbered world, he is part of a greater order. A world of conversations between 007 and M, where technology comes from Q and even the secretary is a very countable Moneypenny. It is a timeless world where the M’s and Q’s are replaceable and 00s are both replaceable and interchangeable.

In his named world, first he situates, then he differentiates.

My name is Bond. James Bond.

A tough, hard and unusual name, for a tough, hard guy, who allows glimpses of a dark past to shine through the veneer of shaken-not-stirred cocktails and social polish. He blends in, but makes his presence felt. It is a name that is at once a trust and a threat. Bank of England to friends, gunboats to foes.

Is that a threat? No, it’s a promise. 

Commander Bond was once a naval reserve officer. It was in the maritime world that the line, “my name is my bond,” gained currency.

It is a name of narrative belonging. It situates the man strongly as British, but differentiates him not at all among Britishers. In Bond is the veiled threat of a still-potent dying empire. In James lies identification with, and anonymity within, that dying Empire.

Fleming once wrote to the real Bond’s wife:  “It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon  and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born.”

— 7 —

The story of Windows is the story of a wild tree of apparently domesticated numbers seeking its way in the world, rather than an orderly parade of tamed wild cats.

1.0, 2.0, 3.0, NT, 3.1, 95, 98, ME, 2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8.

This is no accident. Microsoft, has always been a company that has sought its way in the existing world, rather than inviting the world into a fabricated universe of non sequiturs like Apple, Macintosh and Lisa.

The original portmanteau, MICRO-computer SOFT-ware, was a seeking of a place in a world defined by others. The micro-computer was ordinally a lesser thing than the mini-computer. Soft-ware was one of three wares: hard, soft and firm. An element in a set of cardinality three. It was a shy, retiring and polite name, that knew its place in the scheme of things.  

But the personality worked, and Microsoft quietly took over the universe it entered so politely. Windows was a literal-minded appropriation of the name of a key element of the desktop metaphor. Office seeks to belong in the workplace rather than redefine it. Internet Explorer remains the only browser that presumes to name itself after the thing it explores.

How a company names itself, its products and services, and its organizational parts, tells you a great deal about it.

To number something — implicitly or explicitly, cardinally or ordinally — is the first step in a grander project to order, tag and classify a part of reality; to prepare it for timeless forms of manipulation: replacement and interchange. To number is to subsume the particular within the general.

But to really name something in the sense of Le Guin, is to disrupt that project at every turn by discovering new magic that confounds the creeping logic of a rigidly ontological enterprise.

To really name is to find leaks as quickly as the number-givers find water-tight categories. To break connections thought secure and make new ones, previously considered impossible. To create difference — irreplaceability and non-interchangeability — as fast as numbering creates homogeneity.

This is perhaps why I still trust Microsoft more than I trust Apple. In the mess that is the the Windows sequence-numbering, I find reassurance.

— 8 —

To position is to number and name at the same time, and create something that is both a being and a becoming. Something rooted, that seeks to connect and get along, and something restless that seeks to get ahead and away.

To position a thing is to teach it to get ahead, get along, and get away. We project onto the memetic world of names, our own fundamental genetically-ordained proclivities. Evolutionary biology tells us that getting ahead and getting along are the basic drives that govern life for a social species. To this, as a species that invented individualism sometime in the 10th century AD, we must add getting away. The drive to become more than a rank and number. To become a name, even if the only available one, alpha, is taken.

The Microsoft version soup is Darwin manifest.

Getting ahead, getting along and getting away. Ordinal numbering, cardinal numbering and naming. Name, rank and number.

Perhaps it is naming and numbering that are fundamental, not biology.

To number well is to comprehend symmetries and anticipate as-yet-unnamed realities; holes in schemata, to be filled in the future. And so we name new elements before discovering them, imagine antimatter when we only know of matter. To categorize well is to create timeless order. Mendeleev’s bold leap advanced both chemistry and the art and science of naming.

To number poorly  is to squeeze, stuff and snip. To constrain reality to our fearful and limited conception of it.

To name well is to challenge and court numbers.

To name poorly is to kill or be killed by numbers.

Naming without numbering creates a chaotic unraveling. Numbering without naming creates orderly emptiness.

It takes discipline to couple the two forces together. And sometimes, numbers and names dance together beautifully to create magic, as when Murray Gell-Mann found inspiration in James Joyce’ line, three quarks for Muster Mark. 

— 9 —

To name is also to hide and cloak. To switch stories and manufacture realities.  This is the world of Don Draper. He dons a mask, and drapes new realities over old ones.  Starting with his own life.

And so Operation Infinite Justice became Operation Enduring Freedom.

I was supposed to be named after my grandfather, in keeping with the timeless …ABABAB… rhythm. I would have been Rama Rao. But then they broke with tradition.

My mother wanted to name me Rahul, but my grandmother objected: it is a name with deep significance for Buddhists — the name of the Buddha’s son.

Fortunately, in the (cardinal and ordinal) universe of a thousand names that is Vishnu — there is actually a long hymn known as the Vishnu Sahasranama, “Vishnu of the Thousand Names” — a close cousin of Rama was found.

And so I came into the world as Venkatesh. A break from tradition, but not quite a complete break.  Certainly not a defection to a competing tradition. That would have upset my grandmother.

I once wanted to name an algorithm I’d developed Mixing Bandits, since it used mechanisms inspired by bandit processes. I gave a draft of my paper to a distinguished professor in the field. He liked my work, but objected to the name. My allusive overloading of a precise term did not sit well with him. Mathematically, my algorithm was not related enough to bandit processes.

So this grandmother rejected the baby, refusing to absorb it into the family tradition. It wanders the world today as an illegitimate orphan of the noble clan that has disavowed it, under the clumsy and undistinguished name MixTeam scheduling.

— 10 —

In the genealogy of a single name you can trace entire grand narratives.

Once upon a time, there was a company in Rochester called Haloid. It made photographic paper and lived in the giant shadow of a company across town called Kodak.

Haloid wanted to grow up. So it acquired a technology called xerography: a name coined by a Greek scholar to situate the idea of dry writing within the illegible history of that long intellectual tradition within which the West seeks to situate everything it does.

Ironically, the technology was not the result of a long, gradually evolving tradition that can be traced back to the Greeks. Not only did the Greeks have nothing to do with it, as the biographer of the technology David Owen notes, “There was no one in Russia or France who was working on the same thing. The Chinese did not invent it in the 11th century BC.”

Xerography sprang almost fully-formed from the mind of one man, Chester Carlson. He systematically set about the project of inventing and patenting something truly new. He managed to do so by putting an obscure property of the element Selenium to a completely unexpected use.

So Haloid became Haloid Xerox, and eventually just Xerox. It is a powerful name. So powerful that it subsumed the name of the man who created it, Joe Wilson. During my time at Xerox, the Wilson Center for Research and Technology (WCRT) became the Xerox Research Center, Webster (XRCW). Across the world you will find XRCE (Europe), XRCC (Canada) and XRCI (India). To earn its right to a unique name within this orderly namespace, the sole rebel, PARC, had to unleash planet-disrupting forces.

Xerography eventually became electrophotography, in the hands of envious competitors who appeared after the trust-busters had done their work. The name that had gotten ahead and away now had to get along. My name is photography. Electro-photography. 

They still call it xerography at Xerox though.

— 11 —

And across town, Kodak slowly declined and began to die. There is irony here as well.

Photography does have a long history. The ancient Greeks did have something to do with it.  The ancient Chinese did know about pinhole cameras. The French did play a role.

But Kodak is one of those rare names that was born through an act of pure invention. George Eastman is quoted as saying about the letter k: “it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter.”  Yes, incisive like a knife.

The story goes that Eastman and his mother created the name from an anagrams set. Wikipedia says about the process:

Eastman said that there were three principal concepts he used in creating the name: it should be short; one cannot mispronounce it, and it could not resemble anything or be associated with anything but Kodak.

The first two principles are still adhered to by marketers when possible. The last has been abandoned since the 1970s, when the positioning era began.

As with Wilson, the child soon eclipsed the father. Eastman Kodak became just Kodak to the rest of the world. In proving the soundness of his principles of memetic stability, Eastman ceded his own place in the history of naming to a greater name.

Haloid incidentally, is a reference to the binary halogen compounds of Silver used in photography. The word halogen was coined by Berzelius from the words hals (“sea” or “salt”) and gen (“come to be”). Coming to be of the sea. It may be the most perfect name, suggesting the being and becoming that is the essence of both naming and chemistry.

Jöns Jacob Berzelius is a founding father of chemistry in large part due to his prolific naming. He came up with protein as well. He was also responsible for naming Selenium. From the Greek Selene, for Moon.

It was no small achievement. Chemistry is a science of variety and difference. It deals in so many different thing that a narrowly taxonomic mind will fail to appreciate its broader patterns.

In declaring that “Physics is the only real science, all the rest are just stamp collecting,” Rutherford failed to appreciate chemistry the way Berzelius did. As an ongoing grand narrative with lesser and greater patterns.

Some deserving names like protein and others merely abstract, categorical formulas like CnH2n+2 and names that just fall short of cohering into semantic atoms, like completely saturated hydrocarbon.

— 12 —

Counting and naming are at once trivial and profound activities.

Toddlers learn to count starting with One, Two, Three…

Terence Tao has won a Fields Medal and lives numbers like nobody else alive today. And he is still basically learning to count. At levels you and I would consider magic, but it is counting nevertheless.

Toddlers learn to name, starting with  me, mama and dada.

Ursula Le Guin has won five Hugo and six Nebula awards, but is fundamentally still a name-giver.

Names are born of universes, be they small ones that contain only Kodak or large ones that contain all of Western civilization between alpha and omega.

It is very hard to make up universes. It is easier to borrow and disguise them, as Tolkien and Frank Herbert did.

And it is very hard to do so without accidentally causing collisions between large, old namespaces that might not like each other, as my mom found out with Rahul. 

Lazy novelists are laziest with names, and the work falls apart. When you have named every character in your novel perfectly, your novel is finished. Plot and character converge towards perfection as names do.

Names in turn create universes. Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Foundation, Carnegie-Mellon University. 

To name is to choose one universe to draw from and another to create. Rockefeller gave his name to few things. He preferred bland names like Standard Oil and The University of Chicago. 

And so it is that the Carnegie Universe is very visible, while the much larger Rockefeller Universe is more hidden from sight.

— 13 —

Rockefeller chose to create, and hide much of what he created. But you can go further. Beyond hiding lies un-naming. To un-name is to deny identity.

To un-name and un-number is to anonymize completely.

It is useful for the name-giver to ponder the complementary problem of un-naming. If to position is to name and number, to de-position is to un-name and un-number.

You must seek randomness to disrupt the timeless order imposed by numbering, disconnection to counter the narrative order created by naming. Like Dorian Taylor, you must seek cryptonyms.

Cryptonym itself is from the Greek words for “hidden” and “name.”

Randomness is hard.

To un-name is to fight the natural. Given enough time, even a set of cryptonyms will fail to arrest a cohering identity. To truly arrest a name, even changing the crytponym at a random frequency is not enough. The underlying cohering realities must be disrupted.

— 14 —

Names demand to be born, and hijack numbers if no worthy ones appear. And so we have 9-11 and Chapter 11. 

At other times, names strain to hang on to life, with no stories to tell. In the arid, random desert that is bingo, where numbers rule, names struggle.

Only to a Bingo player is 22 “two little ducks.”

Few numbers truly rise to the level of human meaning, and they are all small: 13, 42, 867-5309. 

The largest number in my life that is also a name with permanent narrative significance is 1174831686. 

When I was nine or ten, our local newspaper, The Telegraph, launched a club for kids in its Sunday edition, called the Wiz Biz Club. I signed up excitedly, to belong and to make new friends. That was my membership number.

I received a badge, some stickers and an ID card with that number.

So Venkatesh Rao  became 1174831686.  That cryptonym was probably the start of my struggle to own my name instead of being owned by it.

I am glad to report that despite it being an extremely common Indian name, I now own venkateshrao.com (it redirects to this site) and almost the entire first page of Google results. Vishnu can have the other 999 names, but I plan to pwn this one, at least for one lifetime.

— 15 —

We dimly recognize, even without the aid of mathematicians who study such things, that numbers win this decidedly unequal contest of appreciation and manipulation in the long-term.

In the beginning, we generously allowed our businesses, products and services to share the older namespaces of people and geographies. East India Company, Jardine-Mathieson, Carnegie Steel, Johnson & Johnson.

That strategy quickly exhausted itself, and so we energetically began manufacturing Xeroxes, Kodaks, Microsofts and Apples.

The first really-big-numbers company decided to name itself after a number, Google. Its home became an even bigger number, Googleplex. 

After Google, the Internet began throwing up naming needs faster than humans could manufacture them, and the orderly taxonomy unexpectedly imposed on the world by the Internet Domain Name system suddenly made life very difficult indeed.

So far, we’ve kept up by inventing quasi-algorithmic models: flickr, dopplr, e-widget, i-doodad.

But eventually naming as a way to understand and construct reality will fail.  Technology creates complexity that creeps inexorably towards the unnameable-but-significant.

When semantic genealogies in naming give way to syntactic and lexicographic genealogies, you are halfway to the world of pure numbers (there is a cute scene in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, where members of an online group decide to abandon names and stick to purely numbering and ranking the world; the split occurs between those who seek cryptonyms and those who seek a fundamental order within which, for instance, Earth might be numbered 1).

The march that begins with Aachen and Aardvark cannot keep up with a universe that throws countable, but not-nameable, variety at us. We count on, long after we can no longer name.  And eventually we cannot count, either, and must stare at an unnameable, uncountable void and wonder — as some mathematicians do — whether it even exists, given how it eludes characterization.

Yet we persist with both naming and numbering, finding solace in imposing a partial lexicographic order on reality, even as the struggle gets harder.

— 16 —

I have not used the word brand even once in this post, until just now. Over the years,  I have lost confidence in the utility of the concept.

It is appropriate only for the cardinal-ordinal world of mass manufacturing, where everything has a rank and number, but very few things have real names. Most brands are McBrands. Billions upon billions have been served up by marketers and fond parents. Most represent no deeper reality than the first answer to the question, name, rank and number. 

It is not surprising. After all the very word originates in processes that evolved superficially distinguish the essentially interchangeable. In the world of cows, and pottery before that, to brand was to mark for identification and counting, and little else.

Brand is an abstraction that adds very little to the more fundamental concepts of naming and numbering, and the key derivative concept of positioning. In fact, it is distracting. The word makes it far too easy to lose yourself in abstractions. Naming and numbering keep you honest and focused on the gestalt you are trying to distill, with repeated tests. The story of these attempts is what we know as PR, and with each proposed naming and positioning test you can ask, do I understand this story yet?

Without such test-driven naming, branding is an exercise in waterfall marketing.

To the extent that it is a useful word at all, it describes a consequence rather than an action. Away from the concrete world of cows being tortured with red-hot irons, there is no actual action that you can call branding.

You name, number and position.  You then make up non-verbal correlates — colors and logos — that derive from these basic elements.

These are things you do.

Brand happens.

Peak Attention and the Colonization of Subcultures

Coded, informal communication — significant messages buried inside innocuous messages — has long interested me.  I don’t mean things like “NX398 VJ899 ABBX3” that the NSA might deal with (though that’s related). I mean things like this:

You: let’s get coffee sometime

Me: Sure, that’d be great

We both know that the real exchange was:

You: let’s pretend we want to take this further

Me: yeah, let’s do that

The question of how such coded language emerges, spreads and evolves is a big one. I am interested in a very specific question: how do members of an emerging subculture recognize each other in public, especially on the Internet, using more specialized coded language?

The question is interesting because the Web is making traditional subcultures — historically illegible to governance mechanisms, and therefore hotbeds of subversion — increasingly visible and open to cheap, large-scale economic and political exploitation. This exploitation takes the form of attention mining, and is the end-game on the path to what I called Peak Attention a while back.

Does this mean the subversive potential of the Internet is an illusion, and that it will ultimately be domesticated? Possibly.

[Read more…]