Complexity versus Novelty

I’m working on a conference paper tentatively titled “Chaotic Novelty: Beginnings as problems”, for a the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable, to be held this May at UBC in Vancouver. I want to poke at the idea of an instance — the constitution of a legible, structured social form that has distinct local qualities, but also formal precedent. My argument is that novelty, however prized it may be in entrepreneurship discourse, is, in practice, often scary and frustrating.

It takes work to create something from nothing, and one way to manage this is to maintain that there’s never been nothing, no blank slate. “Entanglement” has been a popular recent domain rubric in social theory for this approach: you argue that everything is constantly being fashioned out of other things, that an asssemblage, a lashing-together may have a distinct set of qualities, but that it’s being made out of pre-existing materials. In an earlier era of social theory discourse, one more beholden to the humanities, people talked about palimpsests in much the same sense.

This is empirically true. From the Big Bang onwards, we’ve got what we’ve got, and we’re just rearranging things. This is also experientially not how things work. As much as the ecosystem practitioners I knew talked about “localization” they were not just working to extend a set of tech entrepreneurship practices, they were working to make a setting that they felt was new. It’s a bit trivial, though, and it misses the way that people I worked with imagined their work. It’s like saying that every book is just a remix of the dictionary: true, not that relevant.

If they were doing simple extension, there would have been far fewer organizational challenges. The actual organization of a tech ecosystem that I documented had ultra-Modernist impulses to create clear spaces for work, but was pragmatically entangled in a bunch of existing projects. The latter half is easy to document, the former, trickier, and the kind of thing for which ethnographic research was made. It’s also what I find interesting, and with that, I should probably put a better-supported version of all of this into my paper.

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