1. Somewhere in Holland in the mid-17th century, a time machine was invented. Or it may have been a teleportation device. This is how it happened.
2. Two children were goofing around in their father’s workshop in which artisans of some description were working under their father’s patronage. The children were laughing and playing and chasing each other about without a care for the work going on about them. Free from the burdens and pressure and grind of an ordered life, they could do completely ridiculous, impractical, nonsensical things. Silly, useless things. No one who made sense in the normal, old-fashioned, rational way would see what they were doing as anything but, well..you know — childish. Contrary to purpose. Frivolous. Fucking around, really.
3. These were things that made perfectly good sense to the children of course. Their meaning-making filters had yet to be oriented so as to make hard distinctions between their very active imaginations and what counted as valuable uses of time, energy and resources. They engaged each other in sense-making and meaning making of the imaginative, whimsical, irrational and childish variety, which was exactly what you would expect and which is exactly what the rational sort dismissively refers to when they say the word ‘childish.’
4. ‘Childish’ is always pejorative, never optimistic, and never uttered to reflect a character trait that would get you a good paying job. Or, frankly — much of anything, really.
5. The crafts-folk in the workshop, who were all adults, were scurrying about with seriousness and purpose. To them, the children were to be ignored as best as possible. Barely tolerated, if truth be told. Because those children were silly. But their father paid the wages at the workshop so..what can you do? Occasionally, they would be politely asked to play in the corner, or more sternly told to “go outside. “
6. For the most part, the adults in the workshop hoped that the children would soon tire, find a reason to play outside, or be called to the manor for a meal. Then, out of the way, finally the serious work could procede in peace.
7. One day — it’s always ‘one day’ — the children had found a small crate packed with some ground and polished glass that had been received from a specialist workshop elsewhere. In their usual mode, they set about doing nonsensical, time-wasting things — configuring arrangements of the pices such that gazing upon them they could make their eyeballs look huge, or examine the contents of their nostrils, or looking for the universe in the cracks and detritis of the wooden floor.
8. In frustration, a workshop artisan shoo’d them outside, out of the way of the work. When they insisted they be able to carry on with these newfangled bits of polished ground glass, he allowed them to take what was in their hands with the promise that they would bring them back undamaged. They agreed, and so the workshop was relieved of their nonsensical mischief and could go about the orderly work it was meant to do.
9. A short while later the children crashed through the heavy workshop door with earnest yelling that the stone wall at the edge of the property had moved closer.
10. “More nonsense”, is what spoke the general frustrated glances they received. But, no better way to put this to rest than to humor them, so one of the more generous artisans went to indulge their request for attention. A few moments later the artisan came back in with a rush and a startled look. Others went out to see what this was all about.
11. Through their whimsical meaning-making and wide-eyed ways of seeing the world, the children had discovered that a particularly nonsensical arrangement of lenses appeared to move the stone wall closer. They had, through their childish nonsense, made quite profound invention of an arrangement of lenses in the form of what we now know as the telescope — but it’s meaning at the moment of its initial formation was elusive. Why does the stone wall appear closer? What does it all mean now and forever more?
12. This wasn’t the telescope as we, today, make understand things. This arrangement of polished ground glass had yet to make any kind of sense. What do you call such a thing that produces such profound an effect? What is it to make something distant come closer through an arrangement of glass — glass! — brought up to one’s eyeball? Were things far away made closer? Or were things yet to be seen beyond the previously seeable, now seen before being seeable and thus one somehow was able to see that which is yet to arrive, as if one were able to pull time, rather than just objects, closer?
13. Perhaps at this moment — before this arrangement of ground glass became to mean what we understand now as a telescope — it was a time-traveling device. It’s easy to imagine that they were precious, rare instruments owned by wealthy merchants and commodities traders, who were perched at the seaside docks in the tallest structures, which they inevitably owned. They would use these instruments to see what ships were edging towards port right at the horizon. This would allow them to see — and thus know before anyone else — which merchant ships with what cargo had survived the perilous journey across the oceans. With this insight about the future, they could negotiate their portfolios of commodities contracts secure in the knowledge that cotton, or tobacco, or tea, or whale oil, or rubber would be in good supply.
14. Why do I tell this story, which I have definitely made up in whole or in part? It’s to make two points.
15. The first is to reflect on the power of whimsical, playful, meaning-making. Discovery may be one of the most celebrated and elusive of all human endeavors. And discovery requires imagination, openness to unexpected and unanticipated arrangements of practice, ways of knowing, and ways of sense-making.
16. The second point is this: In more ways than one, we enter the world undisciplined. Discipline, for better or worse, comes later, when we are taught the rational ways of seeing and knowing. Maybe discipline starts to happen right after kindergarten or something. At that point we are expected to become well-behaved according to a particular set of ways of being and behaving in the world. From this perspective, discipline is a bit like a herbicide on the imagination - it tames or destroys the wild weeds of whimsy and the distracting, buzzing, annoying insects doing something inscrutible but definitely annoying and seemingly serving no purpose that we can make sense of. Discpline leaves only that which is desired or considered of value. We become trained to do certain tasks and derisively dismiss as irrelevant all those others that do not make sense. We are put on a rail that restrains, constrains, orders, and rationalizes how we make sense of the world.
18. Go. Sit at that workstation and be that work.
19. Discipline has virtues, certainly. It’s what makes us feel a particular kind of safe that is beyond ‘boy, I sure hope so..’ when we fly in an airplane. Discpline lets me assume that the person who tightened the bolt that holds that one bit to that other bit knows that the bolt is tightened such that the bits won’t detach when we’re aloft — at least under most circumstances. Pilots. Sure nice to know they’re disciplined and certified and all the rest.
20. Prior to discipline, we have an imagination that ranges widely, and some of us hold on to that range-y imagination. We are adept at pulling in insights and themes from a thickly hodge-podged world of immense variety, particularly acute these days where reality and shared meaning, not to mention means of making meaning, remain elusive. The productively undisciplined amongst us shape our interests based on curiosity and as such are able to help the peculiar become legible. We can make sense of things that others see as non-sense, and make meaning from the things that discplined sorts see as meaningless. We luxuriate and ramble with wide-eyed amusement through confusion, rather than dismiss confusion as noise. We enjoy discovering new ways of sense making in order to make nonsense things make sense and become new things.
21. These are moments of true invention, as distinct from innovation. They are moments when consciouness imposes itself to help us see new possibilities where previously there were only things that were innovations — those things that make perfectly good sense because they are seen through the sense-making apparatus of rational, ordered, well-disciplined minds.
22. Once, we thought it was brilliant to open a can of beer with a church key. “Look! Now you can have your beer can and drink your beer, too, without having to trudge down to the corner bar!” It was also a stroke of brilliance to put a handle on luggage so we could lug it and ruin our backs until someone fought against norms and decided to put some wheels on it. Our sense-making always evolves. It just takes a particular persistent, irrational, optimistically contrarian and imaginatively childish sort to turn nonsense around into the new and perfectly reasonable.
23. Let us here at the Near Future Laboratory know if you need more optimistically contrarian and productively irrational perspectives on a dramatically confusing, topsy-turvy, partially-fungible and tokenized, self-opening, self-driving world. We here at the Near Future Laboratory see the world a bit sideways. We can use that undisciplined way of seeing to help you make sense of it all.