through the dry wall

Last night, I went to a Montreal celebration for a magazine called FQ. It was staged in the St. James Hotel. I got there early as clueless academics always do. (The term “fashionably late” means nothing to us.) And I found myself standing in the big room surrounded by waiters with silver trays. There is a very clear anthropological convention here: “begin drinking immediately” and I did. What follows is a little feverish.

It is almost impossible to describe the grandeur of the hotel. It was built first as a bank at a time when capital was still not quite certain of itself and felt obliged to turn itself into grandeur. In those days, apparently, we still did not quite believe in banks and would only tip our money into their pool of money with the most lavish and architecturally material of assurances.

Here’s the lobby. But the room beyond this lobby is indescribably complicated with every kind of ornament and architectural elaboration. There is an upper balcony that runs, and here “runs” is no mere turn of phrase, from one end of the room, to the other.

st james interior.jpg

I talked briefly to Jeannie Beker, the editor of the FQ. She is one of Canada’s unsung marvels. If she were American, we would know her name as well as we do Diane Sawyer’s or Katie Couric’s. But this is Canada and that’s ok.

I had a couple of drinks, and stood, as all academics must, on the margin, watching the world carry on with an animation that seems to outstrip anything that ever happens in the “senior common room,” even at its most sherry fueled.

And then I had a kind of epiphany which I hesitate to share with you, because it sounds a little screwed up. But never mind, it’s for science.

The thing that occurred to me, standing in that room surrounded by breathtaking architecture, is that “you could turn all of this into numbers.” I am sure that this revelation that comes to some people easily and often. But for an anthropologist who has been raised “without numbers” (we are the enfants sauvage of the social sciences, raised without a basic language) it came with a certain head-snapping impact.

It now sounds obvious, on the one hand and addled, on the other, but for some reason I was impressed by the fact that everything in this extraordinarily complicated room could be charted and mapped in relation, in very precise relation, to everything else.

Why? Why should it occur to an anthropology raised without numbers to think about a cultural artifact as numbers. Most of my colleagues would see this as an act of reduction, a vulgar diminishment, a preposterous act in which the extraordinary is made ordinary. What what I recall thinking is this: if you could turn this artifact into numbers, you could compare it to all other cultural artifacts. But of course, you could, but why bother? The history of architecture is nothing if not a labor of comparison, identification, categorization. This field has spend the last couple of hundred years doing precisely this, comparing styles and moments and transformation in architecture and anyone who has done an undergraduate course in this field knows they are pretty good at it.

So what does it matter that it could be “turned into numbers?” I think it’s because the world of contemporary culture has a way of punching through the existing categories of understanding as if these were merely so much dry wall. Routinely, we see our culture add on and do over. (This communication comes to you on a technology, the internet, that did not really exist 10 years ago, in a forum, the blog, that did not really exist 5 years ago.) In our culture, there is always something more that no one in charge of the categories (intellectuals, academics and other observers) anticipated or thought or thought possible.

These days, concepts and categories, as crafted by the chattering classes, are almost always struggling to catch up to the world that comes rushing through the dry wall. The revelation, for anyone who is paying attention to what is happening to contemporary culture, is that this is the work of a capitalism that doesn’t know, and doesn’t care that it doesn’t know, what comes next.

The real observers of the world beyond the dry wall are no longer intellectuals but venture capitalists. These are the people who glimpse the world in the works and must decide whether to pour capital in or not. It’s a little like that game that appears on the Letterman show, “Is this something or not something?” This is the VC game. (“Ok, I have a proposal for something called Mosiac. Is this something or not something?”)

I’ve taught business school students and I have a rough idea how they made the decision, and I thank God they were not trained as anthropologists, who would have, as anthropologists, said, “no, we don’t know what this is and we cannot fund it.” Happily, HBS graduates and other VCs do not think this way. They plug in the numbers, they see as far as their spread sheets can show them, and they say, “ok, consider yourself liquid.” A couple of years later, we had the most extraordinary creation of value in this history of the market place and something called the Internet. People who think about culture for a living could not have seen what was possible and would not, almost surely, have funded it.

In The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss talked about the difference between traditional societies and modern ones. The latter, he said, are driven by scientists who are always searching after that “other message,” the one not anticipated by the code. I’ve seen HP engineers at work and they are a lot like this. They are not much interested in what is. What interests them is what’s possible. Screw the code, screw the categories, what’s on the other side of the dry wall? These days the world is routinely reshaped by scientists and engineers and more actively, entrepreneurs and VCs. These are the ones who move out of what we know into what no one quite gets. VCs are funding in the dark, as it were. They are betting on shadows that our present categories cannot quite illuminate. They are laying down bets on things that might make sense, and, hey presto, with funding, someday do. In other words, capital that once had to turn itself into great architectural declarations of the here and now is now being pressed into service to enable not the here but the horizon, not the now but the next.

This is the world we live in, one constantly transformed not by the playing out of ideas we share and have “signed off on.” (Hayek is very good here on the difference between the French notion of individualism and the English one.) We are living in a world that is constantly in a process of becoming and the becoming is not a recitation of what we know but what we can, at the limit, imagine, fund, enable, create, and then live. (Again, we are communicating with a technology that is almost brand new.)

Do intellectuals understand what has happened to them? I think they do. The postmodernist crisis of “representation,” the now overwhelming ordinary recitation of the instability of our analytic categories, what is this if not an acknowledgment of the fact that we live in a world where the real constantly outstrips the thought? The people who are supposed to act as the miner’s lamp on the helmet of contemporary society, what we hear from them mostly, is “we can’t see, we can’t know, we can’t imagine.” What we hear from them is mostly, “wet pavement, bridge out, don’t go there!” And the world, fuelled by the imaginations of entrepreneurs and the capital of venture capitalists barrels on right through the dry wall.

Back to the St. James hotel and that room as numbers. This room is merely intervals, that can be marked off and fixed with ones and zeroes. The creator of a video game creates a virtual world in just this way. This room and every room is a choice of intervals marked on or off. And, yes, of course, architectural history precedes us and it can show how and why certain configurations of marking take shape and press themselves upon the world, shaping the difference between the Rococo and the Renaissance. But this post hoc determination doesn’t serve us as a way of marking a world that is much more fluid and unpredictable. What happens when innovations of the order of the Internet come every few years or so? To think about this world, we will need a much more open conceptual system. To live in a world that changes more quickly, more variously, and more unpredictably, with new speed and power, the old ways of seeing and categorizing will have to go. And then seeing things as numbers may be so much an act of reduction but a way of keeping track, of keeping up.

In a sense, this is, to borrow an image first from Hegel, and then from an early post, really just Minerva taking wing at dusk. This is the moment when the anthropologist understands that his categories can’t keep up with the world. And in this moment of crisis, the qualitative mind looks for quantitative salvation. I think there’s a good chance that it’s only because I am quantitatively innumerate that I imagine there is any help here. Certainly, when I look at the categories, the methods, the intelligence that economics and other numerate arts put at my disposal, my first thought is “what, this is it?” We will need some combination of the qualitative and the quantitative to develop the ways of thinking that a truly dynamic world will demand of us. Numbers will have to do things that economists haven’t yet made them do for those of us who wish to understand the world the keeps coming at us ‘through the dry wall.”


Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 8. (The quote in question: “The difference between this view, which accounts for most of the order which we find in human affairs as the unforeseen result of individual actions, and the view which traces all discoverable order to deliberate design is the first great contrast between the true individualism of the British thinkers of the eighteenth century and the so-called “individualism” of the Cartesian school.”)

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1972. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 20. (The quote in question: “The scientist, on the other hand, whether he is an engineer ora physicist, is always on the look out for that other message which might be wrested from an interlocutor in spite of his reticence in pronouncing on questions whose answers have not be rehearsed.” emphasis in original)

6 thoughts on “through the dry wall

  1. steve

    I don’t think quantification in the sense of putting numbers on things can solve your quandry; the numbers we use are markers on some set of dimensions, and it is precisely the adequacy of the dimensions we choose to measure that is at issue. There may also be problems with applying the intellectual strategy of formalization, which decontextualizes by reducing semantics to syntax, in matters of culture. But my deeper concern is that correctly and systematically anticipating cultural outcomes is a kind of knowledge that it is not logically possible to have.

    I once again press upon you D. N. McCloskey’s If You’re So Smart, which contains a beautiful chapter on the relation between ciriticism and poetry as being like the relation between social science and entrepreneurship. Crudely, if we had a critical theory that could precisely explain and predict what produces great poetry, then any critic in possession of that theory would be able to be a great poet. Such a critical theory would thus eliminate the scarcity of great poetry. Don’t hold your breath.

    The same logic applies to economic or anthropological theories that try to pin down the properties of successful business in advance–such theories would be self-annihilating, because once they were disseminated competition would destroy the very opportunities they picked out.

    When I teach business strategy, the very first thing I lecture on is that a successful theory of business strategy cannot be an algorithm for making money. If I had exclusive possession of such a theory, I would have used it long ago to become wealthy enough not to be standing in front of my students. If the theory were non-exclusive then competition would destroy the benefits of knowing it. The role of theory in business strategy is like the role of chess books or golf books or military science books–not to magically enable the reader to surmount all rivals, but to eliminate gross errors and to focus creative tihinking on the right questions. I don’t think anthropology can realistically aspire to any more than that either.

  2. Tom

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with someone about the fashion industry. We were talking about picking successful sweaters for the coming year, and this friend said: “well, it’s picking sweaters; not exactly rocket science.”

    I agreed by saying something like, “yeah, rocket science is easy compared with this. You have all the rules of physics [all those great numbers] to count on when you’re sending a rocket to the moon: you know how much it weighs, where the moon will be, how much thrust you’ll need…all reliable. When you’re picking sweaters, you’re trying to predict human behavior, for which there are no rules as reliable as those of physics.”

    We undoubtedly need both qualitative and quantitative ways of thinking to understand the dynamics of the modern world. A mentor taught me that using one OR the other to understand reality isn’t incorrect, just incomplete.

  3. Grant

    Steve (and below) Tom,

    very well said, and, as usual, most illuminating.

    I guess what I was thinking of was a world in which we begin to map the “dimensions” of which you speak, so that more of the world, more of the cultural world, is machine readable and we are then in a position to see little changes working their way, in a complicated, interactive set, towards a new form.

    The thing is, and I know you know this, the forms come and go so quickly that without this early warning, the likes of social scientists (my kind of social scientist) is reduced to a constant state of surprise. We are only beginning to “get a handle on” the new cultural innovation when we are blind sided by yet a new one.

    This was the thing that impressed by so much watching Pip at work in front of a capital markets crowd telling them about what to expect about the tech sector. He really does have things mapped and the question, for me, is how we could map the qualitative things that I need to care about.

    Once we have something like this, then it might well be able to situate an enterprise in a flow of information that allows it to respond in real time instead of play catch up.

    I dont think we can say this isnt possible until we have a new set of markers and a new set of concepts with which to think about them. This is the topic of the book I am working on for HBSP but this is at the moment going a little slowly!

    The post we got from Tom is hopeful in the way I think we must be hopeful. But then these are not very hopeful days, are they? Anyhow, thanks a mill.

  4. Tom

    Watts Wacker’s book, The Deviant’s Advantage, tries to do something like what you’re describing, Grant: providing postcards from the edge about what’s next. Of course, the trick is knowing which deviants to watch and when the inflections are likely to occur. Clearly acts of human intuition and judgment. Getting “machine readable” early warnings about those things is another story altogether.

    Hope your work with HBSP goes well. I have many friends there.

  5. Tom

    Grant, I just came upon this quote and thought you’d find it interesting:

    “DARPA is two-year-old $50-million Human ID at a Distance program. And while automated face recognition receives the most attention, DARPA is also funding efforts at a handful of universities to identify people through their body language. The theory is simple: in the same way that each person has a unique signature or fingerprint, each person also has a unique walk. The trick is to take this body language and translate it into
    numbers that a computer can recognize. One approach is to create a “movement signature” for each person.”

    Digitizing perceptual/intuitive experience leads to the opportunity for the kind of projection of possibilities that the most sophisticated chess programs can now perform.

  6. Grant

    Tom, Thanks for both of these. I’ve seen Watts’ book and I like it, but it feels to me that it hews too closely to the “change comes from the margin” model and I think lots of it comes from within the mainstream. And I think Watts’ waits till something is manifest and then asks that we track it. This is a great idea but the real objective is, I think, is to read a culture and economy so acutely we can spot things before they manifest themselves in some distinct form. This is the early warning we need…and yes you are absolutely right. We will need a model that blends the qualitative and the quantitative and it will take some time before we know how to integrate the pieces and learn how to give them the right weights and interactions.

    DARPA, that’s interesting! “Translating [something] into numbers that a computer can recognize”! This is what we need for a machine readable culture and economy. Sensational. Thanks.

Comments are closed.