On complexity cant and guarded knowledge.
What-ho and hello! I seem to be one of the few people in the world that loves jargon.
Sometimes I listen to the dangerlam speak veterinarian to her colleagues, and I love puzzling out what the words might mean. I play with them in my mind, siphoning sounds, separating out prefixes and suffixes, and scanning for related words. I’d then hazard forth my best guess as to the word’s meaning, which would sometimes be close enough so as to be dangerous, and oft-times just plain wrong. But either way; I’d learn something.
And just as a sommelier might grow their sensory vocabulary, so too you get to expand your own linguistic bricolage. And this is an apt parallel; when you are new to a wine tasting, the words we use are of lower resolution. I haven’t the most sophisticated (linguistic) palette for wine—but I do enjoy a whisky. To a novice, a dram of whisky might merely be ‘kinda sweet, a bit spicy, with a smokey finish’. That is to say: it is relatively crude/pixelated in its dimensionality. But—with curiosity and time—you can become more attuned to the experience. Eventually, your sensorial vocabulary expands into more nuanced domains, and we are able to express our subjective phenomenological experience ever more aptly. Whisky is no longer sweet; it is maple-sweet, toffee-sweet, burnt sugar-sweet, brown sugar-sweet, molasses-sweet, and so on. And then: what spice? What smoke? What mouthfeel? And, further: what feeling-tones, memories and conjectures does this evoke? (For more on whisky tasting, see my old ‘Whisky: The Gateway to Mindfulness’ mini-series).
Anyhoo, I find this whole affair to be incredibly generative. It has an infinite quality to it; a forever-invitation to ever more richness. A branching tree of knowledge, evergreen and evergrowing. In this way, “curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it” (Nassim Taleb)—another lovely facet of the curse of knowledge, mayhaps.
But not everyone shares this fascination with jargon-as-an-invitation-to-expanded-knowledge. Some of us have gone as far to attempt to start ‘movements’ like ‘Jargon Free Fridays’. Personally, given the unfurling meta-crisis and its myriad miseries, I feel that there are more worthy causes* than the eradication of jargon. And yet: everything is everything, and this too connects.
* One such worthy cause would be the eradication of downlighting. We don’t need them. Down-lights—those ones built into the ceilings of most rooms, that shine down—are hideous and unnatural. Abominations! Down with down-lights! Use lamps instead. Uplighting, people. Uplighting!
I suspect many of us don’t like jargon in corporate settings because it is often expressed by folks that perhaps feel a little insecure about their respective knowledge, and thus they seek to mask this perceived lack with jargon. But, because almost everyone feels this way—and because enterprise ecologies are so sociopolitically charged—we end up with a collective spawning of jargon begetting jargon begetting jargon. An act of mass memetic mimesis. No want wants to seem the fool; and so everyone plays their part in the perpetual pantomime.
There’s an antidote, of course: curiosity. Simply asking ‘wait, what do we mean when we say “innovation”, in this context?’ ought open the doors to greater insight. And, if it doesn’t, well: it perhaps reveals an insecurity within the one deploying the jargon. (I’ve picked a broad example here—most jargon is technical and specific; more on this in a moment).
But alas; curiosity can be career-limiting, in some contexts. Working with the insecurities of others is a delicate manoeuvre, especially when privilege and power is involved. It requires empathy, deftness, warmth and relatedness. You must create a context wherein it is okay to admit that which we do not know, or that to which we are unsure. An environment in which we feel that we don’t need the armour of professionalism that keeps us distant and disconnected.
It is a role I oft play as an external wizard-philosopher when serving as a provocateur at conference panel sessions or at a leadership offsites. This frequently means that I make low-status moves;* fumble in my own attempts to articulate the myriad ineffable qualities of complexity; and generally air whatever insecurities and doubts I have as and when they arise. This serves to ‘make it okay’ for others to do the same. And when they do, they are met with warmth, enthusiasm and interest. In this way we encourage each other to be courageous in our thinking, whilst accepting the messiness of thinking-in-draft. We switch from seriousness (the pressing towards a specific outcome) to play (wherein we are open to possibility, no matter the cost to one’s self). The resultant conversation is thus more likely to venture beyond the safe and predictable familiarity of the default script, and truly into the territory of the unprecedented and unknown (where all progress lies).
* Not all moves are low-status, of course. It’s always a dance; an interplay.
This disposition serves me in my work, and it may serve you, too. I am exposed to the jargon of many different industries; much of it I can only guess at. But this active sensemaking is useful in that my relative ignorance can help to unearth assumptions or differences in perspective (the precursor to richer synthesis, epiphany and insight). I call this ‘weaponised naïveté’—my being external to the particular industry/profession/context allows me to ask the forbidden questions, to flirt with taboo, and to help my accomplice (aka the leader who brought me in) wreak new and meaningful progress, beyond the default.
But whilst jargon might serve as a foil to otherwise detract from our own lack of knowledge, it can just as well serve as a means of Warding. Jargon—the shared technical cant* of experienced professionals—allows one to both obfuscate and expedite the process of arriving at deeper and more interesting questions.
* Folks familiar with the The Complete Thief’s Handbook might recognise this term. A thieves’ cant is something most thieves’ guilds would have, in a way that allows thieves to talk shop in a way to which idle eavesdroppers would think it but mundane conversation. In this way, the cant is a cryptolect—a cryptic kind of ‘dialect’ employed to exclude or mislead people outside the group.
Aptly, this cryptic discourse happens very much within the land of crypto, where a kind of perverse delight is taken (by some, not so much I) in misleading the ‘tardfi’ (traditional finance) folks come to extract ‘alpha’ (that is: new and/or relatively privileged knowledge that can give a trader an ‘edge’ in the market). Any alpha is thus protected by the foil of cryptolects + deep irony and dank memes. The rogue in me finds this all very fascinating; lesson being: don’t just swagger into a new context thinking you can simply extract knowledge you haven’t earned.°
° I imagine there are similar dynamics to this with Indigenous Knowledge Systems, serving to protect against colonisers from extracting knowledge they don’t have the requisite wisdom (or community of practice) to deploy safely. One would hope that the genuine shamans of cultures whose plant medicine is coveted would also protect the deeper and more complex elements of their practice from the ‘sham men’ who might seek to exploit it.°°
°° Many academics and philosophers see the same thing happen to their work, too. Folks scan for the blinkist reductions collapsing an otherwise complex thesis of inter-contingent thought into pithy one-liners. After years of having my own writing literally copy-pasted by others in my profession—not even reduced; literally word for word—I started to revel in obfuscation and jargon. Oh it’s Insight you crave, eh? Well, you’ll have to find it first, dickhead! Hoho!°°°
°°° I don’t think this is necessarily a good strategy, btw.
The reason I’m writing this particular museletter—(I never quite know what will emerge, as I begin to write to you)—is probably because, in hindsight, I went Pretty Deep, Pretty Quick at The Rekindling event last week. I spared no one and instead waxed full mythopoetic, dialling my performative pseudo-intellectualism to eleven.
I was, effectively, highfalutin. Like flautist trilling a flute pitched too high for most humans to hear, I trilled my thoughts at a level I fretted most would possibly not comprehend.
And you know what? It was utterly refreshing for me to not cater to a broad audience, but to instead speak to the self-selected who attended, and to assume a high level of wisdom and wit. And the result was sublime! PK and I had a wonderful fireside together with those who gathered, and the conversations spawned after the event itself—hours later, over pizza and wine on the streets of Fitzroy at 10pm—are what I live and long for. I’m sure it went over the top of some, but it seemed we mostly attracted resonant folk. Genuinely: wondrous.
Anyhoo: tickets for the next event in The Rekindling are now available. As before, all funds raised will be passed on to the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab.
In our next gathering, I will unpack some of what I am seeing emerge in the wondrous world of web3; particularly as it pertains to regenerative finance, decentralised leadership, and coordination amidst complexity at scale.
This time, I will do my best to share some of the fundamental concepts in this dark forest. I’m impatient to bring everyone up to speed (and beyond the hype and distorted narratives) so that we might partake of deeper, richer explorations of this burgeoning field, together.
web3 + regenerative finance + sacred economics
Fun times. Oh, and this time we have a dedicated location for the altogether hang afterwards. I suspect tickets will sell out fast; most who attended said they’ll come.
I really hope to see you there! Bright minds and warm hearts (that’s you! You and your friend, you know the one. See you soon xoxo)
I think another part of the reason I seem to be drawn to explore the topic of jargon is perhaps the result of an amusing missive received from one subscriber a little while back. Here’s a snippet:—
I love how my attempts to not be contrived—which I do by writing as honestly as I can, sharing the complex mess of my own thinking rather than Simplistic LinkedIn-Grade Thought Leadership Influencer Authority Platitudes Optimised for Algorithms—somehow ends up being perceived as contrived to some. Ha! I love how this world works.
Long time readers will know that I tend to distance myself from my first bestseller, The Game Changer. It’s much more popular than my other bestseller, How to Lead a Quest—but I don’t like it nearly as much. Why? Because my own thinking has developed immensely since then.* The video mentioned in this letter is almost a decade old. It’s just, I don’t know, a bit basic?
* My popularity is thus inversely proportional to what wisdom I seem to have accrued. Which might explain why a lot of complexity practitioners sometimes feel a bit lonely; hence why we have The Rekindling; an attempt to gather the warm hearts and bright minds in our locale.
But the main thing this serves to remind me of is: I don’t really want to sound or speak like a ‘normal’ person. I wouldn’t encourage it in you, either. Or any of us.
What is a ‘normal’ person, anyway? The average of all of us?* Does this mean we exclude all outlier qualities, and those of us on the fringe? Of course not! That’s where all the cool and interesting stuff emerges from: the edge.
* This reminds me of a hellish initiative back from my time in the western side of this continent, where a local council thought it apt to create a morphed amalgamation of photographs of residents who lived in the suburb. The result was kinda abhorrent; an antithesis to the diversity of the place, where all distinct characteristics of individuals were melted down into an uncannily homogenous (normalised?) form. Thankfully, the installation has since been removed. “I hope we never again have a piece of art that was weird, confusing and frankly a little creepy for the people of Cockburn and drivers on the freeway”, one council member said.
Besides: normality is a myth. Not in the cool ‘myth’ sense (of stories told for the sake of their telling; provoking explanation but accepting none of it; the eternal parables and provocations that speak from the recurring mysteries of life). Rather: the crude and mundane version of myth, as in: normality is a myth aka it is not ‘real’. It doesn’t exist. (And yet…)
Which got me thinking about the myth of authenticity again.
Here are some links I shared a couple of years ago; still apt today.
After Authenticity | (I am new to the thinking of Toby Shorin, but I’m digging much of it) “What is authenticity? Of course there’s no such thing, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from believing in it. Nearly 80 years of anthropology research on authenticity-seeking behavior reveal authenticity to be one of the stickiest modern superstitions. The bulk of the early research is about tourism, an activity frequently motivated by a search for this mythical quality.”
The Disbeliever’s Guide to Authenticity | (A followup to the above) “Finally we have enough distance from the authenticity paradigm to see its politics, commitments, and ethics more clearly. But now that we know its implications, we have to decide whether we believe in it or not. There are many ways to relate to the world. Choose wisely.”
Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter | (I’m loving much of Aaron Z Lewis’s writing btw) “Digital masks broaden your range of expression beyond what’s possible with your physical body. With a mask, you can reveal parts of yourself that would otherwise remain hidden on the inside. Your alt account brings these hidden selves to the surface and allows other people to interact with them—even in the so-called offline world. When you talk to a formerly pseudonymous friend face-to-face, you remember how they present themselves online and you feel like you have access to another layer of their psyche. It’s like a Snapchat filter for your social life.”
Personal Brands, Identity and Perception Management | (This is Rust-Age Ribbonfarm; still holds true) “You begin to realize that you are your manifest presence in the real, physical world. That your I only exists because everything else does. And then it hits you: that sitcom-joke of a path to ‘authenticity’ that you thought you’d ironically abandoned in Step 5, is what you’ve been continuing on all along. And inquiry can begin.”
I fear Authenticity (with a capital ‘a’) has become well and truly corrupted by the attention economy now; it’s not something to conventionally aspire to. Similar to Vulnerability and all of its performative optics.
And yet: there’s no escaping this. We contain multitudes, and cannot not be authentic—so we might as well have fun with it. Hence f–ck it! Choose One Word and embrace the mythic version of your own self-construct. Larp your best life!
I’ve recently fallen in love with the work and writings of metamodern theory artist Scout Reina Wiley. In a recent post, Scout shared visions for a post-woke methodology of social engagement, with a reflection on ‘authentically performative virtue-signalling’.
“An ironic distance from the concept of virtue provides the perspective that humans are nondual beings. Virtue is, to rely upon a hyperbolic metaphor, one side of an infinitely-sided coin. Let this not guide us away from the incredibly useful concept of the good, and instead allow us to engage with it from this distance, from this knowing that all behaviours are a performance of sorts. We can interact more creatively when we view our persona for what it is–a mental tool that helps us navigate the complexity of the relational world.” (emphasis mine)
Anyhoo, that’s probably enough musing for one day. <— And that’s the third anyhoo. I remember hearing once that if you catch yourself saying ‘anyhoo’ or ‘anyways’, you’re probably boring yourself. And almost certainly those you are conversing with. So! Much as I’d love to continue to muse with you, I am sure we both have things to do.
In my next museletter I shall attempt some lowfalutin’, just for a change.
PS: If you some how like these solipsistic let-me-remind-you-how-special-I-am museletters, please tap the ‘love’ heart. It helps the substack algorithm figure what’s what, and gives me a simulacrum of fondness, which is nice. ♡