Can what really matters pass the test of being a joke?

‘How do you know that what you’re making–or what you’re thinking of making–really matters?’ This was the question that my friend Dougald Hine and I were discussing over Skype at the end of last week. We started joking, he recounted how he’d come up with the one liner that ‘there’s something joke-like about the nature of reality,’ and I came up with the following test.

Suppose you were to tell a joke that no one else could think to tell in the hope that some like-minded others would get it and they, in turn, would retell it.

Creating something new and valuable is rather like this. (a) You have to tell a joke that no one else would think to tell. (e.g., Spinoza’s Ethics, Turing’s computer, the US interstate system). (b) Others of a like-minded sort have to get the joke. (e.g., Twitter). (c) They, in turn, have to retell the joke when you’re not around (e.g., believing a la liberal economic theory that human beings seek to maximize utility).

Most things won’t pass the test. First of all, ideas, things, and institutions that already exist won’t since these jokes have lost their joke-like status and have become common sense. (The idea of paying interest on a loan, e.g.–see Toulmin and Jonsen, The Abuse of Casuistry). Second of all, some jokes nobody–not even your friends–gets. Third, some may get the joke but not think it good or funny enough to retell. (Whether the joke gets retold and retold over and over again is, it seems to me, too high a test to pass. Clearly, the iPad  passed this test, yet–if memory serves–early reviews were mixed.)

Dougald is writing a book on Collapsonomics. The group, he writes, was united by ‘a sense of the absurd – and the word “collapsonomics”, followed by the idea of an Institute for Collapsonomics, began as a kind of joke.’ We’ll see whether others get it and whether, upon getting it, they retell it themselves.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, ‘Toward a Tentative Theory of New Ideas’

Andrew Taggart, ‘Paul Graham on Good Startup Ideas’

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