Last night was the first episode of this season’s The Sopranos. Lacking cable, I ended up watching it at a nearby pub, finding the spot through a search on Craigslist.org. Along with 20-30 other strangers, we gathered for pizza and beer and enjoyed the show.
A few things about the event stood out. First, how so much of the dramatic tension within The Sopranos involves juggling resource scarcity, and the collective search for clear lines of authority around who gets to manage those resources. Just take the following highlights...
Tony’s only pleasure - indulging a love of high priced sushi. The obsessions of one mobster to lose weight. The pathetic pleas of another mobster seeking Tony’s blessing to forgo crime and buy real estate and retirement in Florida. Carmela’s initial joy at Tony buying her a Porsche, looking devastated when a friend shows her up with a Corvette. Even Tony getting shot by his deranged uncle for whom he’s caring, this after he raged at his sister when she objected to his need to baby the aging crime boss, not wanting to throw the old man in a facility for “assisted living.”
Whether it’s fighting for more time or free space, everyone in the show acts like they're on rations. But it's a psychic rather than objective can of nutrients that they seek. Nobody starves from lack of food, shelter or even sex. Rather, what unites them all is their desperate longing for a sense of order. When it comes to meaning, it’s an emaciated bunch. And they’re all on a ferocious path to satiate its absence, looking to objects like cars and new houses as signs that they've found it.
The other thing that struck me about the evening was the experience of watching the show at this pub party, a sort of crime loving flash mob. In addition to the Sopronos, there was a photographer and reporter from Newsday getting our stories. And between being photographed and drinking, the crowd shared quick introductions, flirting, laughter and “oohs" and "ahhs" at the violent end. Then we went home, most of us remaining strangers. Interesting but far from cheery.
If you think I’m here to rant about modern life’s loneliness or lack of meaning, well, I’m not. Having grown up in New York City, I can’t yearn for an idealized past when neighbors enjoyed “real community.” Yes, 25 years ago more doors were open to me, but I was a child. Single adults tend to be more isolated creatures. And if you want to read about alienation in American cities go back to Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.
Human beings are complex creatures with complex needs. That's nothing new. The immigrant waves that moved across oceans 100 years ago were as inspired by spiritual as physical needs, as were the original founders of America. History is a stew of people searching for such varied nourishment.
What does fascinate me today is how the process of creating shared meaning has evolved over the last 25 years, and the role of digital technology in creating ways to navigate the search for order. And how that shows up in the way we build infrastructure and interface. Before I lose any readers with verbiage, let me throw out an abstract idea with specific implications.
The search for meaning is a search for completeness. A purity of spirit if not substance. The religious have God (or "the gods"). The science-minded have seek an objectively defined natural order. Both seek narratives that are ultimately seamless. Complete.
I doubt that search will ever dissipate. I do think that we are experiencing a turbulence today where seamlessness is elusive, whether it’s in the content of the stories we tell - like tales of mob bosses who seek the blessing of shrinks - or how we take-in those stories – like in the complex weave of arenas that may as often include isolated viewing via cable-on-demand or in a bar with a room full of strangers momentarily acting as neighbors.
What’s that have to do with economics and markets? Well, this may seem like an excuse, but while I’ve tried, I’ve found it impossible to offer a seamless answer. I end up writing wordy paragraphs that are pieces of a puzzle which may have a multitude of shapes. Instead what I’m going to do is spend the next few days throwing out ideas about story telling, seamlessness, and the connection to business and government. Hopefully you will find enough pieces that fit together to your liking. More tomorrow.
by Jonathan Field