I sit down at church. Staring up at the cross. Knowing my salvation is fully tied to this act. We hoist this reference to a physical vantage point of awe. I must tilt my head up each time I look for the cross, creating a natural position of reverence. From my vantage point I understand my worth, what I must do in reflection and dialogue with the cross.
In consuming this, I am told what is required of me. My actions can be measured, adjusted, confirmed. I sin, I repent, I press onward. Faith is fully knowing. And therefore, I am fully aware of my destination and the path defined by the word.
I am pulled by the cross, this referential object, towards a guiding set of actions that will close the distance between me and the medium.
I believe we can look at this relationship, between referential objects and the subsequent cybernetic drive, across many structures of design.
At the beginning of the month I jokingly tweeted this below, then realized I fully meme’d myself to a T.
Quickly, to make sure we are sharing a language. When I speak of a “referential object” — I am referring to a central and identifiable artifact that orients any system. In the case of the church, the referential object is always the cross. In which the crucifixion is the overarching message of salvation. To illuminate an everyday example for some of you, look at what may exist at the core of one of your group-chats. Why and how is everyone there? The referential object here might be twitter, shared college experience, previously being co-workers. This is what the group, whether explicit or implicit, is revolving around. Many times as the referential object goes, or we distance ourselves from it, so goes the revolving system…
When I speak of “cybernetics” or a “cybernetic pull/drive” — at the core it comes back to a reinforcing loop that has a sense of direction, in which your inputs are receiving feedback and thus you are adjusting them consistently towards some end point. Cybernetics is incredibly cross disciplinary, spanning developmental psychology to architecture to governance.
Why is this relationship important to think about?
As I’ve written about before, all design is birthed out of a need to embody a set of values. We can hold two chairs side by side and build an understanding of desired posture. If it affords the room for two people to cuddle closely. If I can throw my legs over the arm. These all bring up questions and structured responses to how this chair is now guiding me, the sitter.
This is ever more true in a product like Twitter, GPT-3, or Robinhood.
What drives us within these systems — both in the act of constructing them, as product designers + interacting with them, as active consumers — is the conscious choice of developing the referential object. In which the entire system is then geared towards. Both within and without.
Design Around The Referential Object Sets The Culture
I would like to start simple. The culture of Twitter. What is the referential object that we gear ourselves towards? Resonance.
Perhaps not in the macro-network sense, but always seeking a resonance with the niche of Twitter we’ve landed in. Our actions are measured in likes and retweets. I would argue that the first widely understood quantified self, rests in our social networks. This quantified self however, being the display of identity over the biological reading that the term suggests now. The cybernetic feedback loop within our networks is the exact point of it’s existence, a measure of input towards future interaction… in perpetuity.
But this design continually collapses in on itself, and Twitter actively benefits from this contextual collapse as it maintains the referential object of resonance.
LM Sacasas @LMSacasasSocial media, perhaps Twitter especially, accelerates both the rate at which we consume information and the rate at which ensuing discussion detaches from the issue at hand, turning into meta-debates about how we respond to the responses of others, etc.
As LM points out, the very design of commentary on commentary on commentary. Quote tweet on quote tweet on quote tweet. Is we stray farther from the original act that was seeking the referential object. But in doing so, can still trigger resonance within our structured audience.
This should beg questions regarding the culture of the system itself. Which is what I believe we are seeing with Twitter’s new prompts of “reading before retweeting” but also at the same time defaulting to quote tweeting, thus lending itself towards this commentary collapse. This tends to be the dominant culture of Twitter: commentary collapse within a socially quantified self.
This isn’t surprising given Twitter’s product development history, but it either shows a complete lack of understanding their own referential object or a darker answer of knowing that in the context collapse we reach a different sort of resonance.
If you’re wondering, well what are other networks referential objects? Some are incredibly obvious — Snapchat relied on streaks as a symbol of sustained relationship, but some (like I would argue for Twitter) are a bit more subtle than raw “virality” or “status”.
The Royale’s Finite Perfection
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.
— James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
Battle Royale games are probably the perfect example of cybernetic drives towards referential objects. I want the crown at the end. To get there, I must find the golden chests, to shoot people better… before they shoot me.
It’s the cleanest finite loop. One person stands alone, crowned. And then we replay. Each previous loop I participated in, guiding my actions in present play. The feeling of a well earned crowned, sustaining my desire for more. While the despair of getting knocked incredibly early in a round, fires me up to prove it was just a fluke.
When the finite loop is that strong, we can manipulate the variance of the experience through… narrative expression and expansion. In royale’s we see this all the time. The Marvel story line within Fortnite, creating new tools within the game itself and thus changing potential paths to the referential object. Or the medieval knockout within Fall Guys. Which is structured in a similar way. A maintenance of the core cybernetic drive, but impressing a narrative variance.
The equivalent within a social network would be a new meme format to riff on or audio to strip from a TikTok video. The variance comes through the unlocking of a new narrative expression. And all networks to date have relied on the audience to produce this very variation…
Technology’s Lack Of Narrative Expression… "Progress Without Direction
Go to Open AI, you’ll be met with “Discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence. Our first-of-its-kind API can be applied to any language task, and currently serves millions of production requests each day.”
Yesterday morning, I was thinking about GPT-3 in the shower. What was it really coming back to? To me it just feels so obviously religious. An interface of perfect response, and at times cryptic message. Our obsession with agi can be boiled down to our search for a god that responds to our liking.
This being evidently clear to me, I had to go to the Open AI website. To my disappointment, finding their self description so incredibly rote.
In the search of universal scale and influence, technologists have made incredible strides to make themselves invisible. From Mark’s grey t-shirt to any other faceless techno-billionaire. It reverberates down to the toothless policy that governs these same interfaces.
We are left with an incredible lack of direction outside of the capitalistic directive of “bigger”. This is the referential object for most of technology today. It’s inherently tied to an understanding of distribution is king. But we lose so much when we choose to accept that strong distribution with a shitty product, beats the beautiful product still figuring out distribution. I don’t want this to come off as a complaint within a hyper-competitive market, but rather an observation that our cybernetic pulls are simple being built around a narrative of achieving scale. But rooted in what values… well Coinbase would pay and argue for: none.
This is perhaps why I think the small group of tech twitter that participates with an equally willing media side in beefing so interesting. One side doesn’t tell their story well at all, while the other’s entire job is to produce narrative. Both resonating within the Twitter drive to their respective audience… and this can go on forever unfortunately.
What is genuinely exciting are narrative generative programs like Stripe Press. This being a very literal (and literate) translation of narrative expression… but it is a start. And it’s a start that holds an incredible through line of shared values to hold up as referential objects for others.
What I believe the next phase of products and the internet at large holds for all of us, is a deeper understanding of the referential objects we use to embody our values. And the subsequent systems that exist to participate within. Not chrome, devoid of opinion and belief. But rich narrative that is both crafted from within and generated through participation.
This piece is an expression of many conversations I’ve had while in Maine for the entire month of October with truly incredible peers. If you’ve seen my Twitter at all this past month, I’m sure you can piece together those that have influenced me deeply recently.
All images are from the work of Tadao Ando, a Japanese Architect.
I don’t do edits really, so excuse typos and things that don’t make sense.
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