To gain or have understanding of: Do you get this question?

get it, Informal
To be punished or scolded.

The American Heritage Dictionary

Entropy Gradient Reversals

On Getting It

A letter, of sorts, to JOHO

OK, this one requires a little set-up.

If you subscribe to EGR (and actually read it), you probably already know that I asked a bunch of people to say good things about me and, incredibly, many did. Never one to hide my light under a bushel -- not even having a decent bushel handy if I wanted to -- I naturally put these on the web:

While being astounded by this embarrassment of riches (and many will feel I damn well should be embarrassed), I noticed that many of these quotes said "Chris Locke gets it" -- or some pretty close permutation. Only the final entry sounds a slightly different note:

"He not only 'Gets It,' he has the sense to question what 'Getting It' really means."

This was from David Weinberger, longtime friend and sparring partner, and editor of EGR's virtuous twin, The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, or just plain JOHO.

David and I got to kicking around what it did mean to "get it" -- and initially we were both of the mind that this expression reflected a potentially divisive Us-vs-Them mentality. However, I started to answer his most recent mail in this spirit and something went terribly wrong, I guess, because I ended up saying the opposite. I can't believe it! The one time I try to agree with the guy, and I mess it up. The results of this botched attempt follow.

By the way, this ramble includes several veiled and half-joking references -- to things like tacit knowledge and the death of the document -- which will make little sense unless you've been following JOHO. If you haven't, there's little hope for you, but here's a last chance:

The funny looking font at the beginning of this is David speaking. The rest is my reply. As you will shortly see, I got a bit carried away.

As VP of [company name withheld] I did a video endorsement (a talking head shot) for [other company name withheld]. I was interviewed for 15 minutes and said, I thought, a number of pithily positive things that might make it into the final reel (which was to be shown at some product launch). But as I found myself saying, "[this company] gets it about the Web," I was washed with both a sense of debasement and a certainty that that's the line they would use. Yup.

I passed this along to a friend. Within two months he was doing a similar interview for another company, and sure enough, that's the phrase that made it in again. As a highly-paid and world famous marketing guru (with a tendency to exaggerate, perhaps), I can tell you that "X Gets It about the Web" is a Can't Miss marketing phrase. Apparently there is literally nothing that people would rather hear about themselves than that they Get It.

I have to say I do like it that so many people say I "get it" on that quotes page. Yeah, it bothers me for all the reasons we've talked about, but I think it's also current shorthand for:

"This person understands something fundamental about how online differs from previous media and knows a good deal about the dynamics constituting that difference. Moreover, he appreciates and empathizes with the frustrations of a savvier but largely disenfranchised grass-roots audience as it helplessy watches traditional corporations attempting to force the Internet and World Wide Web into the mold of mass-communication predecessors such as high-circulation magazines, direct-mail advertising and television infomercials."

...which, you have to admit, doesn't make half as good a sound bite for the 6 o'clock news.

Plus, I think many of us would prefer that those who don't "get it," according to the expanded definition above, would either a) do so quickly, or b) get the hell out of the way.

Also, there is -- you should forgive the expression -- a tacit dimension to this phrase. More accurately, it acknowledges that such a dimension might exist. Much reference is made to "vision" among those who "get it" -- and vision used in this sense is a similarly loaded term, invoking overtones of the arcane and even mystical. Such vision spooks as much as it impresses.

It spooks the suits (another neologism in need of decompression) because it suggests an almost shamanistic ability to see into another world, a world whose logic is inaccessible to anyone who hasn't been inducted into a broad constellation of new media realities. Comparisons with the transition from Newtonian physics to quantum physics are not entirely inappropriate. There has been a genuine paradigm shift.

Not only does T.S. Kuhn come to mind, but also a whole raft of anthropologists. Rites of passage are highly relevant here. How does an individual achieve some measure of cultural synchrony with a larger society and the coherent set of beliefs and practices that define it?

[I would even posit that the surprisingly fast transition from old media to new has been, and continues to be, driven -- to a degree that has not yet been adequately explored, and certainly not explained -- by widespread disaffection with a society whose beliefs and practices have become largely incoherent.]

Anthropologists have also focused on the intersection of radically differing cultures, and this is germane as well -- as is the phenomenon of Cargo Cults. How does uncritically adopting the techno-fetishism of Wired magazine and the atoms-to-bits catechism of Nicholas Negroponte differ in kind from worshipping an airplane made of straw? If that represents "getting it," then count me out.

But looking at the web from this perspective, the crypto-religious overtones become obvious, even glaring. To me, these at least point to the desire for a dimension that could be characterized as spiritual, in the sense of transcending the purely reductive and materialistic axioms of commercial culture.

And such analogies are legitimate to some degree. "Getting it" implies not just intellectual understanding but coming into deep psychological congruence with principles of operation that are largely hidden to casual view. Those who do not live in the new world, and who have therefore not been steeped in its customs, mores, rituals and expectations, are sure to be perplexed -- just as the missionaries sent to "save" them were perplexed by the cultures they encountered beyond the parochial borders of 16th Century Christendom.

To someone comfortable with the world view defined and bounded by the organizational hierarchy, the telephone, the interoffice memo and the fax machine, what you and I have been doing with email and the web is nearly indistinguishable from magic. If it could be written off as mere superstition it would not be so upsetting. However, to see it actually work can be truly scary. I would argue that JOHO works. EGR works. And in ways damn few could have predicted.

Side Trip
Imagine attending a voodoo ceremony in which you personally witnessed the dead coming back to life. Your options at that point would be binary: choosing to ignore evidence reported by your own senses, or radically revising your fundamental notions of reality.

Does the web represent a kind of Dawn of the Living Dead? Many would agree it does -- but for strongly conflicting reasons. Passive consumerism and the mass media that served it did create what amounted to a living death for anyone who might have wanted to communicate another view, create another kind of world. And in this respect, the dead have truly risen -- with a little help from the web. We're not talking about zombification here, but its exact opposite: breaking a spell that has held us in thrall to commercial forces in which we have been participants less often than victims.

Note that this distancing of those who "get it" from those who don't is not necessarily grounded in the learning curve demanded by the newer tools, per se. Anyone can learn to work an email client pretty quickly. Anyone can create a web page with Netscape Composer.

Yes, there's another level of ability required. You need to get that WYSIWYG HTML page onto a server, so you need to know how to work FTP or some fiendishly friendly equivalent. Maybe you need to know something about sub-directories and file systems. And then there's the "cultural" dimension (construed shallowly and thus the quotes) involving such things as netiquette: how neither flamer nor flamee to be.

But it's not all technology and digital decorum. One can master these nuts-and-bolts principles and mechanisms -- spammers do; they just ignore the injunction to be nice -- without "getting it" in any meaningful sense. Knowledge of these matters does not make the knower effective.

Here's an interesting question for you. Is it an accident that you and I both have substantial background in what we might call, for lack of better terminology, "text management"? Or that Tim Bray and Tim Berners-Lee and (I imagine) a whole slew of JOHO readers share a similar background? By the way, I prefer "text" to "document" in this context; while the latter may die, the letter liveth.

I'm edging toward a theory here. It's still unformed, but that's always when things are most interesting -- a pregnant time, as such cusps are sometimes called. So let me take a shot, even though this may amount to nothing more than premature articulation.

What if the tacitly spooky dimension of "getting it" were circumstantial evidence of a kind a folk paradigm in the making? What if it represented a popular but half-formed perception that something genuinely new had come into the world? Existing language often has a tough time capturing such events. My guess is that the empty neologism points to something that isn't empty at all. And I would guess further that what's inside is an expanded form of literacy. Expanded not in the mechanical direction of spelling and syntax, but in the rhetorical dimension.

Imagine this expanded literacy as an ability to use technology to tell a different class of stories than the story we've all been handed. Stories that draw people together around a new cultural campfire and hold their rapt attention there amid the gale-force storm of noise that's blowing down the world outside.

The spookiness derives from the open-endedness of popular narrative. This is atavistic stuff, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, connected to a collective unconscious predating any scrap of recorded history -- notes from the ultimate underground. And this ancient elemental force has just broken loose in the pipes and wires of the late 20th century. Not only is it loose, it's breeding and seething at the very heart of a civilization based on discontent.

To a commercial "culture" whose short-term memory conjures nothing but command and control, this is nightmare incarnate, the poison-spitting Alien of movie horror, not inconsequentially black, not inconsequentially female. Bottom line: unmistakably other.

To a "postmodern" culture with practically no memory at all, it is often something altogether different -- and far less frightening. The immediacy of electronic language is perceived not as threat but as invitation: to imagine, to create, to weave a very different kind of pattern into the social fabric.

text, noun
from Latin textus, tissue, style of literary work, the Gospel, written character (from texere, to weave).

I would venture that grasping this fundamental distinction regarding what really changed with the advent of an open global Internet constitutes what it means to "get it." Anyone who claims to will be branded by the still-reigning media paradigm as a "visionary" -- cute perhaps, dangerous most likely, and definitely communing with Another World whose reality is fundamentally suspect.

But I live in that world. I do get it. That this world is digital or electronic is not the primary fact. What matters most is that it exists in narrative space. The story has come unbound. The world of commerce became dangerously permeable while it wasn't looking and sprang a leak from a quarter least expected.

Let's say it all together: Born again! Thank you DARPA!

And what is emerging is our story in the most fundamental sense, the human imagination weaving a vision of whatever it wants to become. The dangers of democracy pale before the danger of uncontained life. Life with the wraps off. Life run wild.

Terrifying? Why? How does the above description differ from that we might apply to, say, a virgin forest? When he said, "in wildness is the preservation of the world," I bet Thoreau wasn't just thinking about old-growth trees. He also wrote a little ditty called On Civil Disobedience. There is a connection.

Cartesian dualism and theistic religion have held the "civilized" world in their black-magic grip for centuries. We are somehow outside creation. The "laws" of "nature" do not apply to us. But what if there was no immutable law, what if there was no nature as defined to be that "other" thing that we are not? Then something extremely interesting might begin to happen.

It's happening already.

So, great! I set out to defuse the sense of mystery surrounding "getting it" and instead have succeeded in deepening the rift, justifying the fear and separation the phrase implies and identifying it with voodoo, mystical religion and magic. But I suspect my reading is more right than wrong. A reduction to more familiar terms simply will not work here. It's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll.

"Are you experienced?" Jimi Hendrix asked. If you had to inquire what he really meant by that, the answer was clearly no.

Maybe it's time to drop the pretense that this isn't a revolution.

Maybe it's time to drop.

The Wrathful Deities of Tibetan iconography are not there to amuse and titillate, like the monsters conceived by Hollywood. They are there to protect. And what they protect is some sacred space you cannot enter with your shoes on. Can't even enter with your mind on.

In any genuine transition, thresholds are critical. Which side of the doorway you find yourself standing on can be defining.

To come full circle, I suspect the ideas hidden behind "getting it" telegraph a semiconscious folk wisdom relating to changes so profound we only glimpse their edges. Like clouds drifting in across the mountains. Like the moon coming out of full eclipse. Like childhood's end.

* * *

You, I'm waiting for you set my desire

I trip through your wires


Entropy Gradient Reversals
All Noise - All the Time


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"reality leaves a lot to the imagination..." John Lennon
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