The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Doorknobs and directors

I like the sound of this, over at Bobulate

Start with the doorknob. Once you become a doorknob expert, you can move on to becoming a room expert, a door expert, a window expert. Make connections, and you can become an expert on how public spaces can foster community interaction, or how city design can alleviate congestion.

…but I wonder if it’s actually true? A couple of things come to mind:

One: In I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter argues against the notion that we’ll derive a useful theory of consciousness from what we know about neurons. His analogy: We know that a hurricane is, at root, a bunch of air molecules swirling around. But we don’t use the physics of molecules to predict hurricane behavior. We use the physics of hurricanes. So even if things are linked—as minds and neurons certainly are, or as doorknobs and public spaces certainly are—it doesn’t mean you should start at the bottom to understand the whole system. Actually: you probably shouldn’t.

(Note that I’m not doing justice to Hofstadter’s argument in my lil’ thumbnail sketch. It’s really thought-provoking and ultimately, I thought, really convincing.)

Two: Hewing a little more closely to the point that Jeff Veen (as paraphrased by Liz Danzico) is trying to make: Don’t super-specialists usually just remain super-specialists? I’m thinking, for example, of movie production: the cinematographer, the make-up artist, the special effects artist, the special effects artist who is really good at spaceships, the special effects artist who is really good at spaceships piloted by lizard-droids… and so on. You’ve seen those credits! And the one in charge of the big picture—the “expert on […] public spaces” in this situation—is in fact the one person who didn’t specialize. The generalist; the ringleader.

This is not to say that super-specialization is not a super-smart strategy! Being extremely good—the best in the world—at a particular thing is actually one of the best strategies for survival and satisfaction. But I just don’t think it necessarily leads anywhere other than… super-specialization. It seems to me, looking around, that the people in charge of cities, public spaces, organizations, and Spider-Man 4 are the people who have gone straight at those more macro levels like an arrow.

Note that Will Smith’s wisdom, noted in the same post, is on the contrary unassailable.


I am not 100% sure I get Hofstadter’s analogy and am running it by people whose opinions on statistical mechanics and hurricanes I trust.

But from my limited reading of the history of physics and of modern biology, the doorknob analogy works if the scientist is willing to both pan and zoom. Looking at the lifelong workflow of someone like, say, Max Delbruck or even Watson, Crick & Franklin, it seems like they maintained a narrow “gimlet-eyed”(1) focus on any given workday, regarding the project hand, but that they were able to move from project to project in a way that was coherent, somewhat additive, and allowed them to *deeply* sample a lot of different points in their overarching space. This is what you might call panning. They were also able to step back (in my mental vision, this is the kind of thing they might do at the end of the day, on the train home or something) and look the big picture: talk to other scientists about their work, write review articles, philosophize. This would be zooming and is akin to the blockquote you have from Bobulate. Becoming an expert on a doorknob teaches you how to become an expert, and it also gives you a handle to connect to doors, then to walls, then floors, then to thresholds, then to sidewalks, etc. . .that’s panning. Being able to step back from the door knob and see it’s place in a room, a house, a block, a city–that’s zooming.

Film is a very weird beast, and I’m not sure you can generalize from that to anything else . . but for example, a symphony conductor has to be a big picture thinker, but almost invariable has expertise in at least one instrument if not more.

(1) my new favorite phrase, now that I know its etymology. Very Athena.

1. Well-played w/ the symphony example.

2. Yeah I’m not doing D.H. justice. I think he would argue that you cannot, in fact, zoom usefully from molecules to hurricanes. While the domains are (obviously) related, it’s notnlike you derive your models for hurricane formation from the physics of air molecules. You approach & analyze the
macro behavior on its own terms.

There’s bleed-over, of course — e.g from cognitive psych to economics, even politics! But not, it seems, all the way from the bottom to the top. Not from molecular biology to urban planning.

But as I think about it, that’s not really
the point here; introducing D.H. might have been ill-considered.

No, I think Hofstadter’s useful here. I used to argue this point a lot at the U of C, and I teach the idea pretty often now in my math and writing class. Every level has its own advantages and disadvantages — what you lose in articulation you gain in clarity.

The disciplines are in part defined by the level at which they approach a particular problem. We don’t even know how to link economics and psychology, for example, unless we’ve got well-defined ideas and phenomena in both. Otherwise, you’re just making it up, usually with anecdotal or otherwise imprecise results.

(As opposed to intentional distortions or oversimplifications, for the purpose of explanatory leverage. It’s one thing to assume, for the point of view of producing a model, that human beings are pure economic rationalists, to see how much explanatory power your model might have; it’s another thing to actually believe that it’s true. Kind of like if a physicist suddenly were to believe that air pressure and wind resistance didn’t exist, just because they weren’t included in their models.)

The meaningful work happens at the interstices.

[Uggghghgh. The other big problem with randomly jumping between disciplines is that it means your co-bloggers can’t keep up with your output.]

Or, you know, you start with The Design of Everyday Things, and you check out The Death And Life of Great American Cities, and you move on to How Buildings Learn, and then you read The Great Good Place, and you read The Architecture of Happiness and decide it’s full of crap, and your friend hears about your interests and convinces you to read A Pattern Language, and then you hear about The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and put it on your reading list…like any scholar does, collecting a bibliography of thought about your subject! And you’re still mostly uninformed, but you have a place to start.

Taking this literally, it is entirely possible as a historian to start from doorknobs and expand your focus to civil society. Doorknobs, to an expert, as well as to anyone with an emotional connection to doors, are interesting in the way they evoke the doors and rooms and buildings they opened, and the hands that touched them. When you take material culture seriously as part of culture, you can start anywhere and find meaning. This is an instance where toggling between history and public policy can be valuable.

As an example: there was a wonderful doorknob exhibit at the City Museum in St Louis. This interview with curator Bruce Gerrie helps explicate how doorknobs can be a key to understanding a building, an architectural style, and a moment in industrial capitalism.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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