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New Model Organisation

Tafting is a word that Daniel Biddle coined to refer to the process of fascinatedly clicking links on Wikipedia until you've gotten to articles utterly unrelated to where you started. I was tafting this morning and went from wherever I started to wondering about how to improve puzzles to be more exciting, to learning about mediæval puzzles, to thinking about mediæval recreation.

That is to say, mediæval re-creation. Or actually, both. There's a well known organisation called the Society for Creative Anachronism that intrigues me in its manifesto: the idea is to investigate the past by doing, by making cool things and reënacting battles and so on. Except that they don't quite do it the way it was, because obviously there was lots of bad stuff too like veneral disease and serfdom and what have you. So their motto is “the middle ages the way they should have been!”, or something akin to that.

Now this is a great idea, but I don't really want to join the SCA and I was wondering why I feel uneasy about it. So naturally I got to thinking about what kind of organisation I would make if I had an historical recreation type group along the lines of the SCA.

Creative Organisation

Of course it was a bad idea thinking about what kind of organisation would be my hypothetical favourite organisation because that just drew me into the philosophy of sociology; in which, surprisingly, there are some quite interesting topics!

I was wondering, on my puzzle-fixing spree, for example, what the incentive is to solve puzzles. I'd just been playing a computer game that has nice æsthetics, and it reminded me of the pleasure of playing Super Mario World. What a fine game that was: one of the great reasons to play it was that when you find a new bit of the world, you have all this wonderfully designed new space to explore. New levels, new goodies, new characters, power ups, backgrounds, and Mr. Kondo's awesome music. Just looking at those levels gets me humming those iconic themes again.

So you solve irritating problems, jumping on that platform for the hundredth time (damn you, Tubular!), so that you get your reward in the form of art. Makes sense.

With a creative organisation, the aims are more complicated. Let's just think about a subset of creative anachronism, such as heraldry. You want to be able to share research, articles, and ideas about heraldry with other like minded individuals. You want to be able to create arms, register arms, get criticism on your arms, give criticism, and so on. To make it really fun, you want to have a central herald's office, to register arms with. It makes it all seem very official, but it's just a game really.

Or is it? I mean, you can think of real heralds as being games too in that case. What are the actual distinguishing features? They are only twofold that I can think of: the College of Arms, i.e. the real one in the UK, is a) ancient, and b) very widely accepted. Age and acceptance are the two factors that make it “real” rather than an SCA-like game.

This got me thinking about prototypicality. Basically, philosophers have for hundreds of years figured that a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat and that's the end of the story. Oh, and dogs aren't cats. Of course. But that led to all kinds of crazy problems, such as whether a bath is also a ship (it can be when you put it on water), or whether a banjo is more like a guitar than a stick of chewing gum (of course it is!), so instead in the 1970s or whatever they came up with prototypicality theory. That's the idea that instead of all these strict categories, we actually think in terms of how much like another thing things are. A duck is more like a cat than the moon. Sounds a bit ridiculous, but it's catching on, and actually if you use decent examples of the kinds that I don't have, then it makes a lot of sense.

Now let's factor that into organisations. With organisations, you're either a member, or you ain't. Often with organisations, you have to pay to get in or do some other kind of feat of entrance. In the olden days it might've been something like “kill seven elk, and you may join our clan”. These days you have to take exams to get a degree to become a professional to join a royal chartered guild. Or whatever. There's always some qualifier.

But again, does it have to be that way? Groups that are really centred around interest (see also my essay on chassignite interests, which can be summarised as “internal interest is a powerful egalitarian currency”) actually tend to be quite relaxed about what people they let in, because otherwise their group will fail. Only the really popular groups need entrance examinations to keep the riff-raff out. The little groups need to put up flashing banners to bring people in! But they still might charge their members for admission, because a) it stops people who are completely disinterested from destroying the group's relevance, and b) it makes sure that the group has a bit of money to advertise, rent rooms to meet in, and generally sustain itself in society.

I question the point of that. These barriers seem to be the kind of thing that were necessary before the current communication age. Nowadays you throw up a wiki or a mailing list. If you want to meet in person, then everybody has to shell out for their travel and accommodation, but you don't need to have people pay just for the privilege of belonging to your hallowed group. That's just silly.

Of course it's not, because these are further functionalities of groups. They, in the middle class stratum of society, can provide a kind of social badge. “I'm a member of the Royal Institution”, says Tiffany Anderson-May. It's the same old story in the nerd classes too: you're either a Trekker or you're a Star Wars nerd. You can't be both! That'd be nerd-sacrilege.

So one of the problems I've been thinking about is how to balance that out. How do you build up these strong things, consensuses and prestige so as to make things what people tend to call real, whilst bringing in some of the more recent ideas about prototypicality, so as to ensure that groups can mutate and branch off and flow and be creative and evolutionary?


The title of this essay scraplet is of course based on the New Model Army, “formed in 1645 by the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War”.

Sean B. Palmer, 2008-01-17