networks in expanding cultural spaces, part II

new yorker 5.jpg

Yesterday, we noted how an unlikely solution (two mathematical brothers from Russia) found an improbable problem (distorted Unicorn images at the MET).

Today, I want to use this story to address a question: can expanding networks hope to keep up with the expanding cultural universes in which we live. (All unicorn stories are allegorical and especially this one. The photographic ’tiles” created by the MET proved to have captured diverse materials that would not, when assembled, fit. Gregory Chudnovsky decided finally, “The [MET] tapestry is like water. [It has] no permanent shape.” Water, c’est nous.)

As to the improbability of intersection, we open with a shocker. It is, I think, relatively certain that the Chudnovsky brothers enter this network ONLY because certain conditions were fulfilled. The brothers:

1. were immigrants
2. came in twos (brothers insisting that they represent one functional mathematician)
3. failed to get mainstream academic appointments and lived in obscurity
4. pursued a problem regarded as unsolvable
5. built their own computer and stuffed it into a living room
6. did all of this in New York City

If even one of these conditions were unfulfilled, no New Yorker story, no Rube Goldberg mechanism, no MET solution.

But the moment the world supplies all of these conditions, I think the movement from stage 1 to stage 2 is relatively certain. (And this is strange. One condition missing, no transition. All conditions in place, transition inevitable.)

This is where we are obliged to get “all anthropological.” We are after all talking about cultural systems here, not logical or mechanical ones.

Here’s how I think it works culturally. The Chudnovskys make an irresistible narrative, at least in our culture, in this moment, in New York City. Most people, and virtually every New Yorker, is pleased to hear this story. Most people, and virtually every New Yorker, is still more pleased to tell the story.

Why is this? The story has good narrative value. It gives us sympathetic actors, little guys shut out of the mainstream, who quixotically pursue impossible problems, and do so from the discomfort of an apartment they share with a home made computer. Not just little guys, but deeply eccentric creatures who insist they are a single mathematician who happens to be divided across two bodies. People who have ordinary intellectual gifts love to tell stories about very smart people who are tormented (A Beautiful Mind) or very strange (the Bobby Fischer story). It is, I think, a way of saying, “whew! I may not be all that smart, but at least I’m not nuts.”

For a variety of reasons, then the Chudnovsky story tells well. All of us like to hear stories. It gives pleasure to hear stories. This is almost certainly hardwired and I will say no more. We like even more to tell stories. Telling good stories gives pleasure plus some kind of personal capital. As social actors, we are now more appealing, more credible, perhaps more charismatic. And this is a capital we can spend on a variety of things, some tangible, some not, all of them more or less influential in the disposition of our “life chances.”

Most of all, the Chudnovsky story has “definitional” force. One of the pleasures that listeners take from this story is a confirmation that reads something like: “yes, this is the kind of city I live in. Yes, this is the kind of person I must be (if I live in the kind of city this city is).” Floridians might tell this story with a certain, “get a load of this for just plain nuttiness” and in this case the definitional force runs in the other direction. (“We’re not like this, thank God!”)

But for New Yorkers this story carries a deep confirmation of what the city and its occupants must therefore be. Many other events, institutions, people and misadventures compete to supply alternate notions of the city. The horror of 9-11, Time Square, Donald Trump, crime, any one of these supply a different definition of the essence of the city, to the chagrin or distaste of most New Yorkers. The Chudnovsky story helps define the city these people want to live in and the kind of people they must be, by implication.

This is the place to bring in a “6 degree” analysis. (Thank you, Brian.) Chances are the Chudnovsky story spread quickly. It’s an empirical question: how many links did it take to hit the New Yorker net and how quickly did it then climb the editorial ladder? In this case, the New Yorker Magazine acts as a classic diffusion agent. It is always in the business of making the affairs of the city available to those who cannot experience it first hand. (This is all New Yorkers, because no one can be everywhere on the island, and lots of people across the state, the country, and the world.)

For some of these readers, the New Yorker goes so far as to traffic in a “New York frame of mind” and now the magazine is much more than a classic diffusion agent. It is not just supplying notice of urban affairs but an opportunity to participate as a “New Yorker in absentia.” For this virtual New Yorker, the Chudnovsky story has special definitional force. “Ah, yes, this is confirmation of the very special place this city is…clear evidence of its difference, and how important it is for me to stay in touch.”

Transitions through stages 3, 4, and 5 are much simpler and can be dispatched with a simpler argument. This I leave for tomorrow. Because, like, clients are waiting. I think you see what I am trying to do here. I am trying to see if there is a cultural account of the network that connects the Chudnovsky solution to the MET problem that shows where system, emergent or otherwise, driven by maximizing actors driven by cultural objectives, is operating to link diverse parties in disparate places. This will give us a chance to ask whether networks can keep up with expanding universes.

(I acknowledge the sheer implausibility of my example. Most readers will already have said to themselves, “for crying out loud, there is almost nothing in the Chudnovsky story that corresponds to the real world. Most problems have nothing to do with spoiled digital images at the MET. Most solutions, we must hope, bear no relationship to underemployed mathematicians from Russia!” I hope my final discussion will show that the Chudnovsky story has a certain illustrative value as a talking point.)

In the meantime, I am putting down the chalk and I hope, when I come in tomorrow, someone will have finished the equation.

3 thoughts on “networks in expanding cultural spaces, part II

  1. steve

    My main question on Step 2 is how many such stories float into the ears of New Yorker staffers but do not get published. After all, there are a million stories in the Naked City, but the New Yorker only has so many pages.

    The analysis must therefore be a competitive one: not just why the Chudnovskys were a great New Yorker story, but why they were better than the marginal great New Yorker story that just misses the cut. To do that, we need to look at stories that are considered but not printed. For instance, there may be a file of spiked stories (or a backlog of accepted but unpublished material). There may be memos to the editiors describing stories that are rejected.

    Looking at this larger universe would help us tell whether we have a theory that can discriminate ahead of time between publishable and nonpublishable stories. This would help us pin down Step 2.

  2. Grant

    Steve, good point, I think this is where the several conditions come in. There are stories circulating in which, speaking now metaphorically, everything is in place except the brothers are from Cincinatti. No coverage. Or, all conditions, except it’s just one guy, not two brothers. No coverage. And so on. It’s only when a story hits on many dimensions that it can hope to survive the cut. Quality and quantity of narrative, what should we call them, tags? hooks? elements? will decide what gets considered, how far it goes, and whether it gets selected. I think the Hollywood guys who option stories from the real world must have a model like this in their heads. Thanks, Grant

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