The new rule

I once created a game I called “Tradition.” I was trying to find games with simple rule sets. In Tradition, the only rule was you could make a rule or make a move. At the outset, then, the only move is to make a rule. A move that ends the game immediately is to make a rule that there can be no more moves. That’s equivalent to messing up the chess board, say. Otherwise, the challenge in Tradition is to create rules and moves that are worth conforming to and performing. In a way, Tradition is rather like an open-ended discussion or conversation, where there are tacit rules and moves that each participant recognizes and which may be brought into play.

In what sense is exploration and discovery more like an open-ended discussion than it is something “systematic” and “managed”? If we know what we are looking for, or where we are going to find it, we might mount a systematic effort to find it. Create a grid and start digging. But if there are countless combinations to consider, such systematic brute force methods don’t answer. Instead, we have to rely on intuition, luck, prepared mind, serendipity, accidents. We do things without “management” approval, outside what “management” can imagine. Such actions look imprudent, ill-advised, lacking theoretical justification, lacking good experimental design, outside established consensus, looney, a waste of effort, impractical, bad for one’s career, people will laugh or won’t listen.

You know, that stomach ulcers are caused by H. pylori. Or that continents drift. Or that hand washing can save mothers’ lives during child birth. 

In Malory’s depiction of knights at the Round Table, the primary activity (beyond trysts with ladies) is for knights to seek adventure. They go out riding, to forests, to strange wells and castles, into lands where they don’t belong, and encounter adventures–despondent knights, forlorn damsels, strange apparitions and curiosities, knights who dislike other knights for the sake of past or present behaviors, Merlin or Morgan le Fay.

Against each event, a knight determines whether to win worship or be shamed. Knights fight with each other and then realize they are friends and stop fighting. Knights fight each other until one is near death and cries mercy, and then they become allies. Knights fight until they are killed, but win worship or at least avoid shame. Bad knights trap and capture and kill other knights without fighting knight to knight on fair terms. Good knights come straight at it. Though there are tacit rules of knight-errantry, things appear to be made up in the moment–who will ally with whom, what adventure might be next.

Thus they talked a grete whyle, and than they departed ayther frome other such wayes as hem semed beste.

That there might be some great undercurrent sweeping the knights along, sorting them out for their truth and prowess, their worthiness for a last great task (such as the quest of the holy grail), comes later.

A systematic search for some great thing would be like using a brute force method in the Monty Python men’s final of the Olympic hide and seek competition. It just wouldn’t likely work. One has to rely on some absurd insight–absurd because there’s nothing available to rationalize it as proper. No proper theory commands the new observation in advance.

In a way, then, an expedition of discovery requires a degree of self-determination and self-assembly rather than proper management from “the outside” or “the top” or “according to the rules of the organization” or “following priorities established by policy-makers.” Or even “following proper scientific methods.” As Paul Feyerabend put it in Against Method, “anything goes.”

In a way, a commons is like that, where there’s value in some organization–a Round Table itself is something of a whim–but organization that is self-organization. Get things close enough at the start that new things can be added but only as they happen, and in a form that is seems encouraging to the exploration–adventure and worship. The worst thing is to end the game or end up with a bureaucratic burden that has to be undone before anyone involved can respond to new opportunities for adventure and worship.

It would seem to be especially important that we have room for self-organizing behaviors around exploration and discovery where there are too many combinations and unknowns for brute force systematic mapping of everything. If we accept that in many cases, to adapt Richard Feynman’s phrase, we are “just too stupid,” then we might think what behaviors and practices we might want in the absence of theory, management, proper service to those in power, participation in consensus when even the best are “too stupid”–meaning we don’t even know what we are looking for, or at, or where to look, or what to make of it.

I remember the first lab in intro to experimentation, freshman physics. Here’s a radioactive source. Here’s a geiger counter. Here’s a data accumulator. Keep a record of what you do. See you in three hours. Whoa. How do we get to a poisson distribution from there? And what else might we observe if we don’t even know that there might be a poisson distribution in the data–among other things?

Make the road as we travel it. Sort of opposed to a top-down vision of “management” in an organization. In a institutional geography of science obsessed with proper protocols–properly written proposals and budgets, reviewed by properly organized committees and scored for merit according to properly defined rubrics–perhaps it is essential for us to have management structures that resist all that, that work against systematic, managed, supervised, proper conduct of exploration. We need to have the means to self-organize, self-govern.

We need the equivalent in social disciplines as what Stewart Kauffman gives as an account of the predicament of life: in the ordered domain on the edge of chaos. Maybe at that edge, self-organizing, cross-catalytic systems are essential to discovery. Whether public domain or free software copyleft or a bill of rights that pushes back against institutional authority or a self-organizing commons–a cumulative technology, an ongoing discussion, a cross-institutional collaboration, a consortium, an ad hoc standard, a library of tools, even wild opportunists who defy organizational rules–we need counterbalances to the maintenance of the status quo.

Despite what institutional administrators may want, we must be able to start new games of Tradition–without administrators making the rules and taking control of each game. My move. That’s the new rule.

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