The Rise of the Casual Creative (Part 2)

Kurt Vonnegut and the Echo Chamber

by Adam Huttler

This is the second installment of The Rise of the Casual Creative. To start at the beginning, read part one here.

On Karasses and Granfalloons

In his novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut introduces the concept of a karass. In Vonnegut’s lexicon, a karass is a network of people who are mysteriously linked in the service of some unknowable aspect of the will of God.

We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon. If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons that person may be a member of your karass. [A] karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries. It is as free form as an amoeba.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

The karass is best understood in contrast to the granfalloon. A granfalloon (sometimes called a “false karass”) is a group of people, often one that is formally recognized by society, that may seem significant but is actually meaningless. Examples cited by Vonnegut’s narrator include “the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company — and any nation, anytime, anywhere.”

In the narrator’s vision, finding another member of one’s karass is a quasi-mystical event. It happens by chance, based on non-obvious underlying ties and a secret shared purpose that may never be revealed. Vonnegut was writing in the pre-internet era, though, when constraints of geography and communications infrastructure meant that the average person had far more limited opportunities to find and connect with like-minded others.

Would you watch this show if there were literally ANYTHING else on?

When the primary opportunities for social interaction involve essentially random samples of the population that happen to live in close geographical proximity, culture necessarily gravitates toward lowest common denominators. Mass media — bland, middlebrow, and, most of all, passive — become the social glue because anything more specific, interesting, or demanding is unable to get traction and reach critical mass.

In fairness, Kurt Vonnegut would probably accuse me of butchering his concept of a karass, and he wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But I’m making a point here, so call it rhetorical license.
Viewing Vonnegut’s concept through a 21st century lens, however, offers a different perspective.

The internet has birthed countless hubs for the organic assembly of karasses — Facebook groups, Meetups, mailing lists, and online forums organized around every obscure interest or obsession imaginable. In Vonnegut’s day, for a lover of artisanal pickles to stumble across another who shared her passion (and moreover for the two to become mutually aware of said shared passion) would require an extraordinary set of coincidental circumstances. Today, that fellow traveler is just a Google search away.

In 1908, a Mr. and Mrs. William Fell attended a masquerade at a skating rink in Cincinnati, Ohio wearing Mr. Skygack and Miss Dillpickles costumes. This is generally considered to be the first ever cosplay.
Sixty years later, fans of the television show Star Trek began wearing replica costumes and pointy ears to conventions.
But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that cosplay made the leap from a niche aspect of geek culture to a widespread, popular phenomenon. Attendance at San Diego Comic-Con, the premier cosplay venue in the U.S., has tripled since 2000 to over 130,000 attendees.

So, how exactly do karasses and granfalloons relate to casual creatives? It seems a stretch to argue that making Brickfilms is somehow “doing God’s will.” Yet, AFOL communities and countless others like them are legitimate karasses — and not granfalloons — precisely because participants actively self-sort based on personal passions. They are discovered organically rather than bureaucratically imposed. The social and spiritual glue connecting members is deeply, if subjectively, meaningful.

In the context of casual creativity, online karasses serve a number of important functions. Since they pull from a global audience, they allow for otherwise obscure hobbies and art forms to achieve a kind of critical social mass. Community veterans teach newbies the techniques and conventions of the practice, both by example and often through didactic content on blogs, YouTube videos, and the like.

Meanwhile, the very existence of such communities provides a form of social validation that, for many, makes it psychologically safe to dive in unselfconsciously and without reservations. This is especially true with hobbies that are closely associated with geek culture and would once have gotten us stuffed into our high school lockers. Consider Dungeons and Dragons, that classic creative outlet for generations of nerds. In the early 1980s, the game was so far outside the mainstream that it became widely associated with Satanic cults. Today, it is a regular activity of geeky characters on popular television shows like The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things.

The increased visibility provided by online communities paved the way for this shift in mainstream acceptability. In turn, the positive portrayal of geek culture in mainstream media reinforces the social validation and draws more people into the associated karasses. The result is a positive feedback loop — not unlike an echo chamber.

Echo Chambers Real and Metaphorical

Without the feedback loops and virtual echo chambers facilitated by the internet and other accelerating technological advancements, geek culture and all of its subsidiary karasses might still be lampooned in the mainstream. However, from politics to pop culture, social media’s stimulation of confirmation bias and open anonymity has encouraged both the growth and also the visibility of myriad subcultures that might otherwise have remained largely invisible and culturally taboo.

The impulse to indulge in creative subcultures like cosplay or Brickfilms is nothing new, but the acknowledgement of social acceptability — that others are indulging as well — encourages more and more people to want to explore, to feel safe exploring. So, as much as the internet has the capacity to be a psychologically unsafe space, it also has the capacity to become an accelerative substrate for the development and safe exploration of many forms of nontraditional artistry thanks to the phenomenon of the echo chamber.

Not a metaphor. It’s an actual echo chamber at the Dresden University of Technology.
When a karass is organized around false or harmful ideas, they too are amplified by these self-reinforcing phenomena. If only these particular karass-seekers embraced Lego-building instead of Nazi ideology.

The concept of the echo chamber is an almost perfect metaphor for how the internet affects societal thought and contemporary cultural shifts. A literal echo chamber reverberates sound in an enclosed space. In a virtual echo chamber, the sound is an idea, a shared interest, or a worldview that reverberates within the enclosed space of the karass.

Echo chambers amplify whatever idea, interest, or worldview is contained within. They become a feedback loop of thought and behavior so that the “sound” isn’t just echoed briefly but regenerated continuously. We see this in politics all of the time now, from the propagation of fake news to the increasing extremism on either side of the political divide. And it’s all due to the conceptually localized bubbles that we both create and have created for us online. The internet may have broadened our horizons and perspectives, but it has also allowed us to narrow them.

Nonetheless, there are still positive uses of these exponentially regenerative echo chambers.

Besides the unfortunate dissemination of discredited reports and amplified political hostility, the echo and regeneration of thoughts and ideas can build communities and create welcoming spaces for like-minded individuals who might have trouble finding mainstream acceptance. For example, there no doubt were AFOLs in the 1980s, but it was probably an individualized, even lonesome, creative endeavor. However, as the razing of technological barriers and geographic limitations ramped up, AFOL-to-AFOL visibility increased, thus encouraging their commitment to the art. The more committed these amateurs were, the more likely they were to post their creations on Brickshelf, Bricklink, MOCpages, etc. The more they posted, the more it signaled its acceptance to others who might be flirting with the interest. And then those dilettantes (in the positive sense of the word) became more committed, and so on and so forth.

It’s this feedback loop that serves as a major backdrop for casual creativity, which is fast becoming today’s predominant wave of artistic production. Sure, the Casual Creative might have always been present, but it’s taken the power of exponentiality — thanks to increasing accessibility and the irrelevance of geography — to allow her to come to the fore as part of a community-based movement.

To be continued…


In Part 3, we’ll explore a few more examples of casual creativity and discuss the benefits of creative practice.