LF06 - Practical Nonsense

October 23, 2019

Practical Nonsense

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” ― Dr. Seuss

Businesses and people strive to make sense - to act rationally and sensibly within their environments. This… well, makes sense! Acting sensibly protects advantages, protects roles and allows for a consistent narrative as you advance.

Except - the thing about sense is that it tends to be common.

Common sense is fine for today - but using yesterday’s common sense for tomorrow can sometimes get you in trouble. As the world accelerates and as our environment becomes less stable the logic of common sense increasingly falls apart.

So how does one get space to think about non-common sense? Uncommon sense? Nonsense?

Carving out time for “Great Thoughts Time” is one way:

Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called “Great Thoughts Time.” When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. […] I thought hard about where was my field going, where were the opportunities, and what were the important things to do. Let me go there so there is a chance I can do important things.

Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say “Well that bears on this problem.” They drop all the other things and get after it.

source: you and your research by Richard Hamming

This space to think hard about where things are going allows Richard Hamming to push himself outside of the constraints of the current business, the current time, the common sense. To push towards uncommon sense.

And this uncommon sense, this sense of where things might be going, allows you to prepare for the future. Being ready for the future allows you to gain a first mover advantage. To adapt faster in uncertain times.

In business, we fetishize “smart futures” - futures that “make sense”. But the future rarely makes sense.

Instead we should accept and critically consider nonsense futures and the logics that might help them make sense.

We (Brian and Tom) took a few mins to project some nonsense onto the future by asking “2020 will be the year of…”

2020 will be the year of…

Digital sandpaper

Burner identities

Shallow internets

Bodiless headlines

Headless bodies

No Data

Secret clubhouses

Boring crypto

No network social

Closed social

Organizational coupling

Deepfakes-fakes

Small blogs

Hyperfeeds

Junkfeeds

Collectible internets

Digital fashion

Digital China

Clone wars

Triple opt-in

Blogchains

Submerged communities

Businessmagik

Identity warfare

Militarized memezones

Porous business

Permeable organizations

Collaborative commerce

Digital preppers

Ownerless orgs

De-augmented reality

Programmatic podcasts

Designed realities

Escaped realities

Submerged networks

Generated realities

Game worlds

Borderless gameworlds

and… Little Futures?


This week, links on nonsense.

We linked it up top but we’re going to shine a light on it again because it is wonderful and profound - this talk on “great” research. You and your research:

when I came to Bell Labs, I shared an office for a while with Shannon. At the same time he was doing information theory, I was doing coding theory. It is suspicious that the two of us did it at the same place and at the same time - it was in the atmosphere. And you can say, “Yes, it was luck.” On the other hand you can say, “But why of all the people in Bell Labs then were those the two who did it?” Yes, it is partly luck, and partly it is the prepared mind; but ‘partly’ is the other thing I’m going to talk about. So, although I’ll come back several more times to luck, I want to dispose of this matter of luck as being the sole criterion whether you do great work or not. I claim you have some, but not total, control over it. And I will quote, finally, Newton on the matter. Newton said, “If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.’”

We could just quote the whole thing but you should read it.

This wonderful Notes Towards a Feminist Futurist Manifesto addresses the notion of language and “knowable” futures as critical ideas to reflect on:

Xaviére Gauthier lambasts an imitable and imitated (by “us”?) tendency to speak in order to be right or ‘in fact, to put someone else in the wrong’ (200). This is speech without reference to the vocal or the spoken, deaf to ‘the mutilation of meaning’ that must otherwise occur. It persists, she says, even ‘while a new voice is beginning to be heard’ through the gaps, speaking ‘on behalf of the unsaid’.

Radical futures include elements of nonsense - imagining different logics that can contain different futures. From Radical Imagination And The Left Hand of Darkness:

Imagining is a radical practice. Ursula K. Le Guin displays the potential of this practice in her classic feminist science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. In the novel, Le Guin constructs a world inhabited by a brown, androgynous, gender-fluid human population. While the novel itself has an awkward, dated deconstruction of gender, Le Guin’s use of her imagination as a radical tool and her earnest attempt to evoke new, undetermined ways of being is deeply inspiring. The Left Hand of Darkness and the subsequent evolution in Le Guin’s thinking around gender and identity offer a strategic reference point for those of us attempting to envision and actualize new social and cultural configurations.

The Dada art movement was grounded in nonsense:

“Dada wished to replace the logical nonsense of the men of today with an illogical nonsense,” wrote Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, whose artist husband, Francis Picabia, once tacked a stuffed monkey to a board and called it a portrait of Cézanne.

More in dada Poetry and the Dada Manifesto:

It will serve to show how articulated language comes into being. I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows . . . Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn’t let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words.

Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing by itself. Why shouldn’t I find it? Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.

And finally time for a re-read of the nonsense Jabberwocky poem by Lewis Carroll:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”


This week, Tom is musing on brands as unknowable hyperobjects (and also knee deep in media business P&Ls) & Brian is knee-deep in prepping for the Tachyon III cohort.


Little Futures is a research and consultancy studio from Brian Dell and Tom Critchlow to make futures thinking less abstract and more grounded - to shine a light on what we call “arm’s-length futures.”

With a background in creative strategy, media, startups & consulting we are experimenting with building a new kind of research studio to navigate new kinds of futures - Little Futures.

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