because cool kids are boring

The importance of boxes

without comments

There is a saying that’s popular among people who spend their time thinking certain kinds of thoughts that goes, “The map is not the territory.” Or, as Alan Watts restated it, “the menu is not the meal.”

The crux of this statement is our tendency to confuse our words and ideas with reality. It is the nature of language that to communicate ideas we must have an understanding of what our words mean. A chair refers to a thing that we can sit on. It does not refer to something we can eat or a vicious animal. The same can be said when we talk about concepts and models that we work with. Communism is not a model that lends itself very well to describing the technical aspects of your cell phone for instance.

One way to view the issue is to see ideas and concepts as boxes.

Ask most people what you can use a box for, and they will typically tell you that it is for placing things inside so that they are easier to carry around. The same is true for words or concepts. If I tell you that I am a nerd, this will give you a certain idea of where I am coming from in a form that is much easier to work with then if I were to take the time to describe all the individual components of my personality that lead me to adopting that title. (for the developers reading this, it may help to point out that boxes are objects) By using this short hand I can spend less time describing the particulars of myself and more time discussing the ideas that I’m trying to get across. I can simply say, “I am a nerd, and because of that I think…” and you automatically have a contextual map, based on certain assumptions, that will allow you to understand where the rest of my comments are coming from and whether those comments are something that you may be interested in reading more about. If I instead said that I was raised Irish Catholic, then you would have a different set of assumptions that would provide a different contextual map to view things with. I do not need to waste time going through the minutia needed to properly contextualize my ideas because I’ve already given you that context by saying that I’m a nerd or I was raised Irish Catholic.

Let’s take a moment to discuss those assumptions. By saying that I am a nerd, you may automatically assume that I’m a gamer, or that I belong to one or more fandoms, or a host of other assumptions that you make when someone uses that term. Some of the assumptions that you make will be true, others will be false. For instance, while I own a 360, I mostly use it for watching Netflix or YouTube. I’m also not really involved in any fandoms. These assumptions though are not inherently bad. If the comments I was making hinged on you having a more exact definition of where I sit in the nerd pantheon then I would say that I was a record geek or a database developer or I would provide a more specific context for the term. If this is unimportant though, and I’m just using a wider definition of nerd, then I can just use that single term and let you populate the box with whatever assumptions that you decide to include. If there is an assumption that I feel shouldn’t be included, then I need to say so. Or if I’m going to add something new to the box that is critical to the context of understanding what I am saying, then I should point out what that thing is.

The issue occurs when we start to fight over what goes into the box and what doesn’t with too much explicitness. When we start dictating that only certain things can go into the nerd box. And that anything else must be placed in a different box. “You can’t be a nerd if you don’t game.” “You can’t be a nerd if your too sexual.” “You can’t be a nerd if you’re a girl.”

And this is where the box analogy gets interesting. Because, you see, there is another use for a box then just something to put other things in. If the box is of sufficient structural integrity, then you can flip that box over and you can stand on it. In this way, you can use it to gain a better vantage point from which to see where you are going and where you have been.

The greater the variety of things that we put into our box, the stronger that box becomes. This happens because the more varied the description of ourselves the more nuanced our understanding of ourselves. The more limiting we are with what can be placed in our box, the more likely our description is to be just a superficial description that provides limited help in understanding our place in the world. If, on the other hand, we take an approach that allows every person to place what ever components into the box that they feel define their nerdiness, then we can take an aggregate of those things that are placed in the box and come to a deeper understanding of who and what we are as a collective group. We see that we are more then our pass times and the things that we own. We see that our motivations are deep and varied, but that there is still a central core that unites us all and provides us with a unique identity. By having an understanding of this central core of our being, while still allowing that core to evolve over time, we can grow and evolve as a community while still staying true to who we are.

By adopting a concept like nerd to define ourselves we are placing our own definition of nerd into the box. By doing this we strengthen the box. And the stronger the box, the better it will serve us as a vantage point from which to understand who and what we are. By limiting what can be placed into that box, we weaken the box. We confuse the map with the territory and then we wonder why we missed that left turn at Albuquerque.

Written by Matt

June 17th, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized