It Seems to be a Meme

This was a piece I wrote for Nick Routledge’s monumental, labyrinthine, hypertext “Space without a Goal”. It never got put up, because it coincided with “a change in direction” in Nick’s life when he largely abandoned his work with the web and hypertext. Fragments of the site are preserved on Jon Van Oast’s site When I dug this out of my files I was surprised to see how long ago I wrote it. If I hadn’t dated it (10 July 1996) I would have said it was more recent. Anyway, this was my first, slightly desperate, attempt to capture some of the ideas I had been thinking about purposive drift for some years before. I circulated it to a few people as well as Nick. John Chris Jones, one of the most perceptive writers on design, who I had long admired, claimed that getting a copy helped him get unstuck and complete writing his last book, “The Internet and Everyone” (You can reach an on-line version here). Some parts of it are included in his book. I also sent a copy to Pierre Levy, who has some interesting ideas on the web and consciousness. Nick had mention the idea of purposive drift to a friend of Pierre Levy’s – in his reply he thanked me and said his ” beautiful and smart” friend had been very touched. What he thought about it wasn’t clear!

It seems to be a meme: Some rambling thoughts about ‘Purposive Drift’
There is something about the phrase
Purposive Drift
that makes some people’s eyes light up
It seems to be a key
the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle
the punch line to a joke
the something that makes sense of their experience
It seems to be a meme
spreading between those that get it
A tiny
tiny number of people at the moment
all the time growing
What is curious to me is that those two words seem to say so much
(Is this example of what Nicholas Negroponte calls semantic compression?)
They say a lot to me because they are the culmination
the distillation
of years
and years
and years
of struggle
to make sense of my own experience
How it is that they speak to others with such force and resonance
remains a mystery
I had always found the language of goals and objectives
to do lists
career planning
and all the other ideas that treated life like an engineering project
totally baffling
I couldn’t do it
And not being able to do it didn’t seem
It just felt that there was something missing from looking at
the world
like that
So I
and thought
and talked
and wrote
trying to find a language that would make sense of my experience and perceptions
Then one day reading Jane Jacobs “Cities and The Wealth of Nations” I came across this passage
“The Japanese anthropologist, Tado Umesao, observes that historically the Japanese have always done better when they drifted in an empirical, practical fashion (‘ Even during the Meiji revolution, there were no clear goals; no one knew what was going to happen next’) than when they attempted to operate by ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will’. This is true of other peoples, too, although Umesao believes what he calls ‘an esthetics of drift’ is distinctively Japanese and one of the major differences between Japanese and Western cultures. Had he been looking at Europe and America in the past rather than the present, he would have seen, I think, that ‘an esthetics of drift’ was distinctively Western too, and worked better for western cultures than ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will’.
A flash of light
A moment of insight
and Yes
but there was one connection missing
A fragment from Chris Jones “Essays in Design”
(page 162 John Wiley & Sons, 1984 if you want to look it up)
“When you go to process, you lose the goal, you lose the aim.
I’m beginning to see it now …..THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF PURPOSES……the purpose of having a result, something that exists after the process has stopped, and does not exist until it has stopped….. and there is the purpose of carrying on, of keeping the process going, just as one may breather so as to continue breathing?……the purpose is to carry on.”
The purposive bit of purposive drift is to find a way of living that is
and true
to carry on living that way
to carry on refining and exploring
what it means to live a life
that is
and true
The drift bit of purposive drift is to find a way of living
with an awareness
and sensitivity
that allows you to recognise
those spaces
where you can live your life that way
(At least for some of the time)
Not to despair
in the times
when those spaces seem only to exist
as a dream
as an act of imagination
as a fragile place of resistance that will crumble in the face of the forces of darkness
Purposive Drift is the search for capabilities
“The great landscape gardener, Lancelot Brown, when confronted with a client’s estate, did not say “what is your problem?”, he asked “what are the capabilities of this piece of land?”. Optimism, generality, and scope flowed where otherwise all would have been pessimism, specificity, and narrowness. That is what is wrong with conventional wisdom: not enough Capability Browns and too many Problematic Tom, Dicks and Harrys.”
(Michael Thompson ‘Rubbish Theory” page 51)
The language of goals and objectives is about algorithms
and nothing else
It is closed
It is the language of problems and problem-solving
The language of purposive drift is about heuristics
and sometimes when they are useful
for a narrow purpose
algorithms too
It is open
It is the language of capabilities and capability seeking
Stafford Beer, the cybernetician, says
“An algorithm is a technique, or mechanism, which prescribes how to reach a fully specified goal.”
“An heuristic specifies a methods of behaving which will tend towards a goal which cannot be precisely specified because we know what it is but not where it is.”
“These two techniques for organising control in a system of proliferating variety are really rather dissimilar. The strange thing is that we tend to live our lives by heuristics, and to try and control them by algorithms. Our general endeavour is to survive, yet we specify in detail ( ‘catch the 8.45 train’, ‘ask for a rise’) how to get to this unspecified and unspecifiable goal. We certainly need these algorithms, in order to live coherently; but we also need heuristics – and are rarely conscious of them. This is because our education is planned around detailed analysis: we do not (we learn) really understand things unless we can specify their infrastructure. …’Know where you are going, and organise to get there’ could be the motto foisted on to us – and on to our firms. And yet we cannot know the future, we have only rough ideas as to what we or our firms want, and we do not understand our environment well enough to manipulate events with certitude. Birds evolved from reptiles, it seems. Did a representative body of lizards pass a resolution to fly? If so, by what means could the lizards have organised their genetic variety to grow wings? One only has to say such things to recognise them as ridiculous – but the birds a flying this evening outside my window. This is because heuristics works while we are still sucking the pencil which would like to prescribe an algorithm.”
(Stafford Beer, Brain of the Firm, second edition, John Wiley 1981)
Amen to that
as someone once said
Birds care for their children
migrate to warmer places when it gets too cold
Richard Oliver 10 July 1996
modified 17 July 1996