Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tempus fugit

A while back I had the unusual pleasure of meeting someone in person that I met through the blogosphere -- Venkatesh Rao, proprietor of the Ribbonfarm blog (and now hitting the big time by blogging at Forbes). That sort of thing often doesn't go well, but in this case it did, we had an invigorating conversation. I hope he won't mind me saying so, but he feels like a kindred spirit, from his notions of being an "illegible person" (and thus difficult to categorize), to his use of ideas from narrative theory in his book Tempo: Timing, Tactics, and Strategy in Narrative-Drive Decision Making.

Tempo is a small book which is about too many different things; many of them some of my own favorite topics: conceptual metaphor, narrative, decision theory, enactment, situatedness, Minsky's Society of Mind theory. Again, I'm in complete sympathy with the author, because I too can't write anything without a couple dozen different ideas and approaches creeping in. In a way it reads like a proposal for a much longer book, a grand work of synthesis that could be called something like "The Temporal Structure of Action". But perhaps he's not in a position to write a longer book, or doesn't want to, or maybe nobody reads monumental tomes anymore. But that seems to be what he's trying to get at:
I define tempo as the set of characteristic rhythms of decision-making in the subjective life of an individual or organization, colored by associated patterns of emotion and energy.
Although I don't think this is made quite explicit, what struck me most about this concept is that it blithely crosses the boundary between agent and environment. Tempo is a property of the situation, and is equally objective and subjective.
The most basic decision-making skill is adapting to the tempo of your environment, and setting your own pace within it... 
[an analysis of the task of driving as an example] 
...Driving graphically illustrates the four main skilled behaviors that constitute the overall skill of timing: merging, going with the flow, pacesetting, and disrupting.
That last gives you a feel feel for the book. It's mostly a collection of temporal patterns, or attitudes toward time and action. Like pattern languages elsewhere, I find I have a dual reaction: yes, these all seem like useful ideas in a sort of cookbook-y way, but where's the theory behind them? What unifying principle lets you declare that these are the patterns of reality and not others? That's not a fair question in this context, because rather than presenting a rigorous or pompous philosophical system, Tempo reads somewhat more like a self-help or business book, urging readers to come to grips with the temporal nature of their world.

Also among the ingredients in this stew is a dollop of military theory, which is an area I'm almost totally unfamiliar with. But it fits in well, since matching your actions to a ongoing fluid situation is obviously something armies have to be good at. 

Anyway, this book is hard to categorize, hard to classify, and hard to locate, in keeping with the author's idea of illegibility. I put it somewhere in between the land of academic cognitive science, management theory, and self-help. Although the style is totally different, it also seems to have something in common with books on meditation, since that too is a way of redirecting attention to the temporal nature of reality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The two of you have hit on something interesting.

Hopefully Anonymous