Examples of themselves

by Collin Lysford

Suspended Reason and I were chatting recently about knowledge logistics when he was asking me to pitch in to a shared notes document. I’m not generally a big fan of classification systems. Sasha Chapin’s Notes Against Note-Taking Systems” is a pretty good distillation of my views:

Our natural salience filter is a great determinant of what’s most alive to you. If you begin to rely on any other filter, you will increasingly record what seems like it should be interesting according to some preexisting criteria rather than what organically sticks to your mind. This is a tradeoff. It is often not a worthy tradeoff.

In our conversation, I made the point that I deliberately try to think form-light. To which Suspended responded: but you use words! You can’t escape classification systems, so don’t pretend that you’re above them! And yes, of course I can’t think without classification - but I do think it’s worth going in to detail about what’s going on in my brain when I think of choosing between heavily classified thinking against form-light” thinking. For context, you’ll need this 2005 Achewood comic:


Yes, my brain is a classification system, and it’s stored <thoughtfully fingers second Onion Offense card> to be deployed when relevant. But when is it relevant? What is it classified as? Achewood reference”? I’m not going to quote this particular strip every time someone brings up Achewood in general.1 Is it filed under trolling”, or moderators”, or censorship”? None of those really paint a good picture of what this is. As an instance of trolling it’s pretty unremarkable either way, not especially funny or odious. Moderator overreach? I mean, technically speaking, the Onion Offenses are fair warning. Censorship? Pretty obviously tha_snazzle was just there to start shit, and it’s not a moral crime against the whole of free speech to boot him.

So this isn’t a prototypical case of any of those higher level concepts. No, this is sitting in my head as an example of people acting like this specific moderator. The specifying of volunteer moderator”, preening about about their civic engagement in this minuscule nothing-sphere. Saying they’re not one to judge” when they’re explicitly spending their time on a Burger King chat zone. The small gasp of vanity breaking through the customer-service affect by adding Æ as an example special character in the FAQ, which you just know they link every single time someone types AE. It’s funny to me because I’ve met exactly this sort of person many times in many tiny internet communities, and seeing the pitch-perfect parody from someone else validates that it’s not just me who’s noticing all of these things. It’s an example of itself.

Douglas Hofstadter has this idea of Danny at the Grand Canyon”, that (perhaps fittingly) I’ve only heard passed orally based on lectures I’ve never personally seen. We’ll use Catherine Ray’s notes to give us something firm to stand on:

Hofstadter’s family traveled to see the Grand Canyon. As Hofstadter turned his entranced gaze away from the great abyss, he rested his eyes on his son. His 1 year old son, Danny, sat facing away from the Grand Canyon and staring at ants. He was a child so young that he had no idea of distance. This situation can be generalized to the idea of focusing on what you’re interested in (and are capable of focusing on), harboring little interest in what others consider as gems.

So, Hofstadter would say that someone tuning out the big picture to obsess on a local detail is like Danny at the Grand Canyon”. It became a sort of local idiom. But it wasn’t generalized by joining an appropriate category; it instantiated a new one. It was a powerful example precisely because of it’s specificity. If mentally recording it required it to go in a folder that we already conceptually had around”, it would have to be a more general folder (maybe examples of people not paying attention”), and it would lose it’s pin-point descriptive power.

But what do we mean by power? Everything is an example of itself, but it’s clearly not correct to say that any event that ever happens is doing the same kind of thing Danny at the Grand Canyon” is. Collin eating a cheese sandwich” also specifically happened, but it doesn’t have this same resonance to other specific experiences. So we’re looking for things that have this strong similarity to other lived experiences, but crucially have not yet been generalized. For more clarity on which examples have this property, we’ll turn to Wittgenstein:

And if things were quite different from what they actually are - if there were, for instance, no characteristic expression of pain, of fear, of joy; if rule became exception, and exception rule, or if both became phenomena of roughly equal frequency - our normal language-games would thereby lose their point. - The procedure of putting a lump of cheese on a balance and fixing the price by the turn of the scale would lose its point if it frequently happened that such lumps suddenly grew or shrank with no obvious cause. This remark will become clearer when we discuss such things as the relation of expression of feeling, and similar topics.

If it so happened that children stopped acting like Danny at the Grand Canyon - that is, if almost no one could remember a case of a child tuning out the supposed-wonder to look at something child-sized - then the idiom of Danny at the Grand Canyon” would thereby lose it’s point. And regardless of the future of trolling, internet moderators, or censorship, if it so happens that we stop seeing people with some volunteer authority on the internet respond to light irreverence by stilted appeals to a supposed authority that’s actually nothing more than a basic rule set posing as a deep civic tradition, then quote-tweeting them with <thoughtfully fingers second Onion Offense card> will also cease to have a point. The humor is derived from seeing an individual behavior in my life repeated by an outsider, making it common knowledge that many of us have noticed this specific kind of guy exists; the effort spent in remembering is a bet that this sort of guy will come up again, and that I should have this example primed.

Of course, it’s not the case that this must always remain a self-titled, ungeneralized concept. Maybe someone will make an overbearing volunteer moderator” starter pack that includes <thoughtfully fingers second Onion Offense card> as one of it’s examples, and that starter pack catches on and forces overbearing volunteer moderators” into common usage. Maybe that gets abbreviated to OVM and then ovum” because damn, they must have come out of their eggs just yesterday. My point is that the categorized example-collecting to make a starter pack is a different thing than the example-collecting without categorization where you notice the generality of ideas like Danny at the Grand Canyon” and <thoughtfully fingers second Onion Offense card>. It’s not impossible to prioritize which mode” you’re trying to be in when you look at the world. And while you obviously need thinkers all along the conceptualization pipeline to turn pattern into something socially usable, I’m personally happiest here on the starting end of it, collecting examples without bothering myself overmuch about what they’re examples of.

  1. If you have a general reference” you bring up every time someone mentions a piece of media, you are a tiresome person. I’m sorry you had to learn in this footnote.↩︎