Here’s a quick review on at the latest talk at the Lean LA meeting — normally the people in the tech startup community would be more qualified to do this sort of thing but this time they had a slightly unusual guest: Venkatesh Rao, blogger of ribbonfarm.com and the author of Tempo: Timing, Tactics, and Strategy in Narrative Decision-Making. Rao holds a Ph.D in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan — obviously a very smart guy — but it seems like he considers himself to be a “freelance” or “rogue” scholar of sorts, since he works for himself and primarily earns his income through consulting and contract hire.
I can kind of empathize with his story, since a few years ago I was pretty much doing the same as he was — writing/researching papers, submitting articles to journals, crashing conferences, though probably with much less success than him. (But I was having fun with it, so it was OK as a hobby of sorts at the time.) Somehow I managed to find my way into my current program (Ph.D in musicology at USC) then I suddenly became “legit” after that. That being said, everything here is a personal opinion and does not reflect or express the views of my school or its department in ANY WAY WHATSOEVER.
Lot of emphasis on that last bit because it’s 100% true, and I’m guessing some of them probably think I’m nuts for going to these entrepreneurial meetings to begin with. Also consider the fact that my interpretation of the talk might be completely off or “discolored” in some way, which I’ve been known to do in the past, so take everything here with a grain of salt. But onto the review:
The Game of Pickaxes
This talk was intended to be a preview/prelude to Rao’s upcoming book, The Game of Pickaxes, due to be released some time in 2014. Rao was very honest about the fact that the presentation (and the ideas covered in the book) were “works-in-progress”, so the talk had a slightly improvisatory feel overall. For scholars, this usually means making “connections” between different ideas and exploring their interrelations with one another — which can sometimes lead to fascinating discoveries or recursive/regressive intellectual black-holes, depending on which turn you decide to take. The talk was fairly structured but there were some moments of uncertainty where the narrative started to “wander”, especially when audience members started to ask questions that drifted away from the speaker’s main point.
Because of this, some people had expressed that they were confused and didn’t know how/what to make sense of the presentation. There was a pretty interesting chart of a “Money-Beauty-Sense” triangle where it was argued that if you were good you could have 2 of them but not all 3. The model was interesting in itself as an idea, but I think that that was probably the moment where the presentation felt like it was starting to drift in various different directions.
But there’s a good reason why there was a multitude of things that were presented that night — the book itself attempts to create a grand narrative out of all of the technological changes of the entire human history, which requires Rao to incorporate pretty much everything that exists and had existed in the past. (An incredibly ambitious project, to say the least.) He drew his inspiration from a wide variety of thinkers, ranging from (in no particular order, just off the top of my head) Hegel, Marx, Rawls, Fukuyama, Dawkins, and so on, attempting to come to a culmination of all the ideas embodied by these thinkers. My personal background in philosophy is pretty steeped toward analytical and pragmatist traditions — a different type of mindset altogether but our differences in approach didn’t really stop me from enjoying what he had to say.
Some of the diverging perspectives that were happening in his story might be able to get worked out toward the end of the process, after Rao’s ideas become crystallized and given the direction needed to put on a good show. Given his knowledge, skills, and history, I’m pretty sure it’ll eventually get to that point, especially after research on the book gets done. For now, though, he said to consider the presentation a “planetarium” visit into his world of ideas.
The book’s title, The Game of Pickaxes was intended to be a metaphor for how some people got rich during the Gold Rush, which was to sell pickaxes to miners looking for gold deposits on the Western frontier. Miners take the risk of finding or not finding gold, but in either case they will still need a pickaxe in order to do their work. In Rao’s words, this is a “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose” scenario, where the pickaxe seller wins every time, regardless if the outcome of an expedition is a successful or not. Rao argues that society is full of these “asymmetrical games” that allows certain classes of society to stay ahead of the game than others. (And he compared investors/VCs as functioning as part of the pickaxe sellers — a cautionary tale for entrepreneurs looking into acquiring funding, but can also be a warning for artists who’re looking to get signed by a major label as well, since they both function under similar principals.)
After a certain amount of success becomes achieved, the pickaxe sellers eventually starts moving up in the ranks toward becoming part of the “leisure” classes. As they amass more wealth and power, these segments of society often become the ones to manage and establish the “norms” of cultural values and protocols, toward the purpose of allowing society to function as a cohesive community. (These periods of “normalness” often coincides with a culture’s periods of growth, stability, and relative peace.) “Normal” is what we come to learn as what is “civilized”, and these mannerisms often becomes the framework in which people come to understand the way the world works.
For every civilized society, however, there are “barbaric” societies that counter its interests, looking to topple and replace the existing hierarchies of power. Leisure classes, having decoupled itself from environments of work, often become lazy and complacent, becoming targets for “barbarians” — Rao uses Genghis Kahn as the most prominent example of this idea being played out in a historical context with great success. He argues that history is a never ending cycle of these exchanges of power, going through through phases of “barbarism” and “civilization”, depending on which faction is winning at any given time.
For the most of us who have the luxury of living in first world nations, these “games” (thankfully) don’t get played out quite so literally, but they can seen as metaphors for how businesses, innovations, political and cultural trends operate. Facebook might be on top of the mountain of the social media ladder as of today, but at any given moment a “barbaric” startup could replace them at any given time. Cultural fads and trends can appear and disappear at any given moment, and frequently do. Innovations have periods of unrest and stability — no different how society operates as a whole. Democratic societies have managed to “civilize” the process of revolutions, overthrowing those in power every couple of years, without bloodshed. If nothing else, this is something that startup people can take away from the presentation, taking into the account that their company is playing a small part within a greater picture which have been going on for millennia at this point.
All of these things converges on one idea, however: that things are becoming faster and faster. These cycles of change were previously imperceptible because it would often take a lifetime or more for it to complete one of its intervals. Due to advances in medicine, technology, and media, however, the intervals of these rises and falls have become short enough that individuals could potentially witness the rise and falls of various ideologies and institutions more than once during their lifetimes. Rao argues that we’re currently in a state of “future nausea”, because the forces that normalize and allow us to “make sense” of what’s going with the world hasn’t been able to keep up with the furious pace in which technological and political forces have been developing in recent years.
While listening to his presentation, I was thinking of ways in which how this model could be applied in musical contexts. I found that I could separate my two interests in music, composition and improvisation, into his barbarian vs. civilization model pretty easily — improv is a pretty “primal” activity, where “anything goes” and there’s no established methodology for how to make it work. (Classical) composition, on the other hand, has a very structured, methodological way of executing its ideas, which comes out of centuries of development and refinement. (Also known as the “canon” of classical music.) It partially explains why I feel wise and old while I’m composing, because I often feel obligated and responsible towards the methodologies and practices that have been put into place well before I was born. There’s none of that in improv, though — honestly speaking, most of the time I feel like an idiot who doesn’t know what’s going on during most of the sessions that I’ve performed in and organized. (But I’ve always enjoyed the latter more, which probably explains a few things why I’m doing the things I’m doing now.)
I would say that music is largely a “normalizing” force — by becoming a reflection of society’s traits, beliefs, and values, it allows people to “make sense” of their own existence and give them a sense of calm that can’t be achieved by the happenings of day-to-day life. This is why there will always be a demand for new music, because there will always be a need for something to help people contextualize and internalize the changes that every society goes through in their developments. The challenge musicians face today is finding a path toward their audience base, which has increasingly become more difficult due to the pluralistic nature of today’s culture.
I think there’s a little bit of both sides living in all of us, but artists and entrepreneurs come to embody these ideas fairly strongly, because in a lot of ways they’re trying to make both things work at the same time, even though they tend to be contradictory and mutually opposed toward one another. Out of the chaos and contradictions, however, something interesting usually emerges — often a new way or new path that hints at a future better than the one we currently have. And with that, the search for new wealth and new values lives at the heart of every creative idea.