The human brain is basically a giant correlation machine. Well, ok, that’s a drastic simplification, but I’ve often written about how correlation and induction play an important role in life. This is a large subject, but today I want to focus on one result of our predilection towards correlation: our tendency to develop complex taxonomies. For books and movies, we’ve got genres. For beer, we’ve got style. Retail stores have departments. You name it, chances are that there’s a complex taxonomy describing variations (you’ll notice that this post tends to consist of examples from my obsessions with movies, beer and technology, but this would all be relevant to a wide variety of subjects).
This tendency invariably leads to nerdy arguments about specific examples and where they fall within the taxonomy. Is Inglourious Basterds Science Fiction? Are comic book movies science fiction? Should we make a distinction between science fiction and science fantasy? What exactly constitutes a West Coast IPA? What do we call Black IPAs? What are the defining characteristics of a Weblog? What are some examples of the Hillbilly Horror genre? Take a trip down TV Tropes lane, and you’re guaranteed to find a comprehensive list of genres, sub-genres, and myriad conventions or cliches.
Why go to all this trouble to categorize everything? What is it about the internet that seems to magnify these discussions?
Well, the most obvious reason for such excessive categorization is that it will communicate something about the particular instance being discussed. Categorizing movies into various genres helps us determine what we’re in for when we sit down to watch a movie. Style guidelines communicate what kinds of characteristics to expect from a beer. Genres and styles provide a common ground for both creators and critics, and the reduce the pool of possibilities to a more manageable number.
Those are good things1, but they’re really only scratching the surface of why we taxonomize. Most people get frustrated by taxonomies. It seems that every genre, every style, is inadequate, especially when their favorite instance is pigeonholed into a particular category. Hence, we get the aforementioned nerdy debates on the nature of science fiction or west coast IPAs. Genres and styles are blurry along the edges, and there’s a great deal of overlap. Individual works often fit into many categories. If one were so inclined, they could make each category excessively inclusive or moderately narrow, but worrying about the blurry edges of taxonomy is kinda missing the point. In the parlance of hackers, the blurry edges of taxonomy are a feature, not a bug.
I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and he makes a fascinating observation that genres are the stacked platforms of the creative world:
For understandable reasons, we like to talk about artistic innovations in terms of the way that they break the rules, open up new doors in the adjacent possible that lesser minds never even see. But genius requires genres. Flaubert and Joyce needed the genre of the bildungsroman to contort and undermine in Sentimental Education and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dylan needed the conventions of acoustic folk to electrify the world with Highway 61 Revisited. Genres supply a set of implicit rules that have enough coherence that traditionalists can safely play inside them, and more adventurous artists can confound our expectations by playing with them. Genres are the platforms and paradigms of the creative world. They are almost never willed into existence by a single pioneering work. Instead, they fade into view, through a complicated set of shared signals passed between artists, each contributing different elements to the mix.
I love the description of genres fading into view, perhaps because you could say that genres never really come into full clarity. That may frustrate some, but that inherent blurriness is where taxonomies derive power and it’s what allows geniuses to create their most amazing works. And this does not just apply to art. In Brew Like a Monk, Stan Hieronymus relates an anecdote from Michael Jackson (the beer critic, not the pop star):
In one of the many stories he likes to tell about German, English and Belgian brewers, Michael Jackson first asks a German how beer is made. “Pils malt, Czech hops,” the brewer replies. Then Jackson asks the German brewer down the road the same question. “It’s the same as Fritz said. That’s how you make a Pilsener, that’s what we learn in school.”
After getting a different answer from a British brewer, Jackson turns to a Belgian brewer. “First of all, you take one ton of bat’s droppings. Then you add a black witch,” the Belgian answers. “The brewer down the road uses a white witch.” Jackson concludes with the lesson: “Belgium is a nation of tremendous individualists.”
If style guidelines for Bat Dropping Ale stated that color shouldn’t be less than 25 SRM, do you think that would have stopped the brewer down the road from using a white witch? Of course not. Style guidelines don’t limit creativity, lack of imagination does.
As Hieronymus later notes, if we didn’t make “rules,” we wouldn’t know when to break them.
That is the power of taxonomy. It gives us a place to start. It gives us the basic rules and techniques. Defining such conventions may seem limiting, but it’s actually freeing. You have to understand those conventions before you can break them or combine them properly, which can sometimes result in something inspirational and brilliant. Ironically, this seems to happen with such regularity that I’m sure many “innovations” we see today are repeats of previous revolutions. As Johnson notes, genres and style are part of a stacked platform. They’re built on top of even more basic building blocks, notably technology. Technology often recontextualizes existing taxonomies, opening them up to subtly different interpretations. The same innovative idea can be magnified and mutated into something different by technology. It’s very rare that something completely new emerges from history. It’s more likely something that has existed for a long time, but slightly tweaked to match the times. Taxonomies are platforms. They are not limiting. You build things on top of platforms, and that’s why we go to the trouble of categorizing everything we can.
1 – Nerdy fury on the internets is one thing, but for the most part this isn’t really controversial stuff. However, once you start placing taxonomies on human beings, things get a little more complicated. If one were so inclined, an interesting discussion on the nature of prejudice as it relates to the human penchant for correlation could yield interesting insights. Unfortunately, this is not a post for that more weighty (and controversial) subject.