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March 2016

The Urge to Create Meaning

I have been reading (slowly; I'm still on chapter one) a book about the origins of modern Mexican culture. It's fresh hamburger for culture geeks like me. The author was discussing how the Mexicans had created a pantheon of gods, which they used in part to make sense of their world. 

Side note: Don't go all Marvin Harris critique on me. I'm not saying Mexicans or anyone else "invented" a cosmology in order to explain their world. Maybe they did this purposely; maybe it just happened. The point is, however it happened, it seemed to work.

If you're the average citizen of Mexico and Central America, with no formal education, no literacy, forced to work for someone else and/or pay them tribute (or die) it makes sense that you'd want a way to make sense of your life. Even just the activities we now see as part of daily geology, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, were scary and required some explanation. So, there arose a belief system that said (for instance) that there were all these gods, who didn't care that much about you and could fuck up your life if they chose to. If you placated them, they might not bother you; then again, they might anyway (this was one of the differences between native beliefs and the Christian beliefs of the invading Spaniards.) The populace dealt with changing beliefs and circumstances by inventing or promoting new gods and demoting others. (This is akin to my notion of "culture as an adaptive system" that was my Great Thought at Stanford. Whether it really was a great thought or just the result of too many beers is an ongoing question.)

All of the above would be stock anthropology fare, except for an "aha" moment I had at work soon after starting the book. I was in a meeting with one of our product partners. They had been trying for some time to reinvent themselves, and they wanted to come and explain what the new company was all about.

Our CTO and I sat down and listened as they pulled out their PowerPoint slides and started explaining how the world had changed. That's when it struck me: these people had to describe a reality in order to make sense of the actions they were now taking. Absent that explained (and, for them, hopefully convincing) point of view, their changes might not make any sense.

Thinking back over my years spent explaining product roadmaps and strategy positions, across hundreds of PowerPoint presentations (thankfully, a rare occurrence for me lately) it all made sense. To enact a new reality (for you, your country, your company) you first had to answer the question, "why?" Why do this? Why not keep doing what you've been doing? What is the rationale for change?

Having seen these slides in a new light, I started noticing how common these kinds of presentations and stories are. "Let me explain why, before I explain what."

The problem with these explanations, the problem with religious and cultural world views, is that they are but one interpretation of events. How many other interpretations are there, leading to how many different prescriptions for action? The book I was reading was all about the world view of the Conquistadores compared to that of the indigenous peoples. One set of observable events, two interpretations, two courses of action.

All of this had led me to a new way of viewing these kinds of stories. I like to ask myself not just "why" but "why this point of view?". It also made me realize that, for all our trappings of modernity, in some ways we're not very different than our pre-literate ancestors.

Culture, for the win!