I had the rare privilege of attending one of the yearly RefactorCamps last weekend in L.A. Loosely an offshoot of Venkatesh Rao’s (aka vgr on Twitter) multi-year blog project, Ribbonfarm, the conference is a two day summit of interesting people with interesting perspectives on the yearly topic. This year’s topic was “Escaping Reality”; Venkat invited me to apply to talk on my sometimes philosophy project that I’ve been writing about on foolproof.ink, as the underlying theme of quantum rhetoric is largely based on fundamentally changing how we understand our physical reality.
Giving the talk was pretty stressful, as I didn’t really have much material written out beforehand. But preparing a talk didn’t really give me much time to investigate what sort of a conference I was going to be attending. Instead, I spent most of the weekend trying to figure out what the point of refactor camp was. For context, I’m not exactly an avid reader of Ribbonfarm. I’ve spent a good amount of time with the Gervais Principle posts (which are fantastic, if you haven’t checked them out I highly recommend them). I’ve followed Venkat on Twitter for a few years now, following a recommendation from a good friend from the Recurse Center; I subscribe to Breaking Smart but am not a consistent reader.
So what was RefactorCamp all about? What kind of people go? What’s the, pardon the gross pragmatism, point, if you will, of attending? I was going, clearly, to give a talk, but what were all these other people doing here?
Turns out, they’re also just passing through. But in the way that involves turning yourself about and seeing the world in a new and different way.
Refactor, as a Concept
The term ‘refactor’ in software development refers to the process of taking a set of code and rewriting it such that it continues to do the same thing, however the underlying structures that support that function have radically changed in form.
In some ways, Refactor Camp is all about rewriting the structures that you use to view the world from, without really changing anything ostensibly noticeable with how you interact with it. The point of refactoring in software is that the rewritten code will allow you to make changes more quickly, or add new features more quickly than the old version.
In the same way, insights and refactoring the way that you see an experience a topic, or reality even, in theory gives you new tools for understanding and creating better metaphors for describing the world as you encounter it.
On a whole, it was surprisingly effective at this task, not at an easy one.
What kind of people go to RefactorCamp?
There’s a type of person, I think, that is susceptible to being lost into Twitter or the hive mind forever. That’s the sort of person who loves insights. Loves to find out what the new insight is, loves that feeling of discovery that comes from the ability to see the world in a new light. These are the sort of people, by and large, that show up at Refactor Camp. The insight junkies. As a body, they’re incredibly insightful and genuine and happy to explore new thoughts, especially thoughts about thoughts.
I fit right in.
Not all Insights are Equal
One of the presentations this past weekend was a bit difficult to wrap your head around. It was called “Introducing xenoreation: the physics of schism and unschism” and it involved a massive mashup of brain triggering thoughts delivered in a manner that largely resembled spoken word poetry. It was delightful and also frightening.
If you consider an insight to be the ability to take a situation and turn it about, almost like a polished gemstone, such that you can see a new and interesting facet of an existing thought or situation, this presentation was like taking the gemstone of reality and tossing it into the air such that the light of the sun burst off into a million different directions. It was dazzling.
It didn’t feel nearly as generative though as some of the other, less poetic presentations. Another conference goer, Grayson, had a good analogy for explaining the difference between this talk and other types of insights.
Some insights are like running around a track — you revolve around an idea to get a different view of it. You’ve got definitive forward progress, there’s a generative motion to the thought process. If you stop, there’s a good chance that you’ve ended up somewhere else.
The type of insight flow that xenoreaction provoked, on the other hand, was more like spinning in a circle. You still revolve about an idea or set of concepts but there’s no real movement feeling to the insight. If you stop spinning, there’s no real guarantee that you’ll find yourself in a place much different from where you started. There’s also a higher chance that you’ll have some sort of physical reaction to the experience, not necessarily a pleasant one.
I don’t really have a good way to wrap this off. It was a great weekend and I’m definitely glad that I had the opportunity to participate. I’d definitely go again, as the talks and interactions were all quite insightful and delightful.
At the end of the day though, I am left wondering what the point of insight, is after all. Is it a therapeutic measure? Is there a point where you’ve reached the depth of insight and there’s no further to go? How many insights is enough insights for a life time? In the Matrix, Neo is tasked with taking either the red pill or the blue, and it was a single choice that defined the rest of his life. How many red pills are there, though? When do you know that you’ve taken enough?