The astute reader will have noticed my frequent namedrops of the philosopher Daniel Dennett recently. I have been plowing through his ouevre for the past couple of weeks, and he has made me rethink and reconsider a lot of things I was convinced about.
One of Dennett’s big ideas turned out to shed new light on something I’ve been noticing for years: that jokes on Twitter kind of suck and that they are all the same.
This is actually, it turns out, a philosophical problem of astonishing depth and scope, going all the way down to the nature of ideas and creativity itself. Stay with me, internet. I’m not kidding.
I’ve actually written briefly about this problem before in this post about the email tag line “Sent from my iPhone”. In brief, I’ve noticed that whenever big events happen in the world, a certain percentage of the population of my Twitter feed will try to make a joke about what happens.
Most of these people, I have noticed, make more or less the same joke. Sometimes with four or five different minor variations, but still: the same joke. Or maybe there will be two or even three different jokes floating around, each with its own little variations. But rarely more than that. Sometimes, two different topical events will be at the forefront of consciousness, and end up being combined in the same joke by many people.
So what do I mean by that? Let’s do the first example that comes to mind: the recent death of Nelson Mandela. In my language, there is a possible pun on the word Mandela and something having to do with Christmas. The pun makes very little sense as a joke about Mandela, but if you happen to have the concepts “Christmas” and “Mandela” as active searches running in your mind, the odds of picking up on it are very high, and it kinda sorta looks like a joke if you squint and look at it sideways.
I just ran a search on Twitter, and the pun occurred in over fifty variations. And that was just on Twitter. A staggering number of people must have been doing this joke at watercoolers across the country.
Or how about that Obama “selfie” with the Danish prime minister? Everyone and his sister posted a link to the “selfies at funerals” Tumblr that went viral a few weeks back. (More so now that the Selfies at Funerals guy has written an op-ed for the Guardian declaring an end to his Tumblr).
Now, I think that most of the people who make these bad jokes make them up themselves. I suspect that they don’t in fact steal or borrow them from someone else. I think this same joke is not just being picked up and retold. I think it is actually being invented simultaneously by tens or hundreds of people near the same time.
This observation, that jokes are bad and kind of the same, has lead me to believe that the set of really original jokes is extremely limited, and as a rule comes more often than not from people who are professionally funny.
What do you do when you make a joke? The way Dennett would see it, you are basically running a creative search function through what he calls “Design Space”, an informational space filled with all possible designed functions. Everything from the full text of Moby-Dick to your DNA to all possible variations of DNA, to all the DNA that isn’t yours, all the combinations of DNA that could possibly exist and all the possible and impossible novels that aren’t Moby-Dick and all the strategies and ideas and concepts that can possibly exist as designed objects or code.
Design Space is Vast, in Dennett’s conception, with a capital V. And mostly filled with garbage. But a few things in there are really well-adapted to certain parts of the universe and can thrive there. Some of these things are really good bits of DNA that can make things like humans or blue whales or salmonella bacteria. Some of it is Hamlet. Some of it is a good recipe for chili and some of it is the blueprints to the international space station.
Natural selection is an algorithmic search function that looks through Design Space for good genetic designs. The algorithm uses the death of unfit creatures in order to generate order, design and adaptation.
Natural selection is a very wasteful, almost brute-force type search function. It’s basically just generating a bunch of designs and tweaking each of them a little and seeing what does best and discarding all the rest of it.
Making or designing a joke is different. You have developed biological and cultural search functions which are creative, in a sense. Our search algorithms are different. They choose, and choose hard, cutting away huge bits of the search tree so that you only really have to look at a really small part of Design Space and just decide between a few likely candidates.
Now, let’s look at a few different ways that humans do creative searches in Design Space. Let’s look at very restricted searches and more creative searches.
Take chess, for instance. When grandmasters look a chess boards, they will in most situations “see” instantly that there are only a few possible moves that are any good. And they’ll dedicate a lot of search power to finding out which of those three or four moves is the right one. That’s not just because there are a limited number of moves (and a limited number of moves after that), but because the rules of chess means that there are big restrictions on what kind of moves will work. And they have played enough chess that their search functions are really well honed and they therefore see that most moves can be instantly discarded. Those bad moves are just not going to adress the pressing issues at hand or get the player closer to a mate. (Getting close to a mate is, interestingly, also what natural selection is all about, but I digress.)
Now, Novelists don’t work like that. When they’re writing a novel, there is constantly an extremely wide amount of words or sentences that could go next. The reason the novelists end up choosing the ones that they do is first and foremost that most of the words sculpture anthrax acid colourless Wednesday whither monkey typewriter aren’t words that generate meaning or salmon intoxicated storehouse under woodchuck in that context. But of the ones that do, the “legal moves” will potentially move the plot in vastly different directions. And then a spaceship landed on the White House Lawn and Mrs. Dalloway stepped out.
Actually, no space ships. Just kidding, internet. But we see that there are some activities, like chess, which put intense restrictions on creativity, while others, like writing a novel, are much less restrictive. Though it’s hard to have a space ship land in the middle of a Regency romance and make it work, novels do have a very wide-open search field, and the search functions that the novelist uses to create the disembowellingly wonderful artifacts we worship in our lounge chairs must be strange and complicated indeed. Those search strings are generated by the novelist’s interaction with literary culture, her understanding of language, her life experience and the swathe of stories and their archetypes available to us, within reach in Design Space.
There are more possible chess games than there are particles in the known universe. And I can’t even begin to imagine the Vast, Vast, Vast number of possible novels. (Though fortunately Jorge Luis Borges has.) It’s a big field to search.
So despite the difference in the number of restrictions placed on chess players and novelists, we see that both activities need intense algorithmic trimming of the search in order to generate good design. And we see that we have some version of some of those algorithms.
So why do we choose the same jokes?
This is where I start to run out of answers, but I believe that one of Dennett’s ideas presents a way forward. He talks about “good tricks” and “forced moves” in Design Space.
A Good Trick is simply a genetic or behavioral innovation that an individual acquires and which enhances its fitness. A Forced Move is different. It’s something that, if you want to achieve something, presents itself as the only solution. In chess, if you see that moving your (unchecked) king quite simply is the only way to avoid a mate in one, there’s nothing in the rules of chess that prevents you from doing something else. But you easily see that moving the king is a “forced move”. The dictates of reason demand a certain kind of solution.
In evolution, if you want to be in the business of competing in the great Darwinian race, you need to have a way of seeing things coming, so eyes or something like them are a forced move. You need to have boundaries to your body. You need to have energy conservation. You will probably need to have locomotion if you’re an animal. These are all good tricks that really are the only way to fly — forced moves.
In jokes and other creative endeavours — in the world of memes, not genes — these kinds of good tricks and forced moves also abound. In the highly competitive meme-space of Twitter, jokes are put under intense selective pressure in order to replicate (become retweetet) or jump hosts (start a conversation, be tweeted or mentioned by other people). Many of the things that happen to genes under evolutionary pressure seems to happen to tweets as well.
And jokes, as my comedian friends are always telling me (though using different words), are the ideas under the heaviest competiton out there. It either works — is a good trick — or it doesn’t. Either they laugh, or you “die”, as the comic jargon talks about, leaving space for better, faster, sharper-toothed jokes.
(“Funny” story: I’m actually playing chess online with a comedian friend of mine as I write this, bringing all these themes into a higher unity. I’m kicking his ass, incidentally. But enough about that.)
The tendency for certain jokes to get repeated over and over again tells me that something draws us towards these funny points in Design Space. What I think we’re seeing is that as we can search through and look at each generation of joke memes thrown at the world, it’s becoming clear that, like evolution, some tricks are being tried a lot. They are, in fact, being tried by a clear majority of the people who try to solve that particular problem.
In a sense, we can now see the sum of the attempt to find good tricks in each time unit of Twitter. And we’re now capable of seeing that most of the tricks that are being played are “shallow” tricks. Tricks which come from a search of only a small and “obvious” section of Design Space. A search which only finds the neon-signed, obvious tricks. Maybe these tricks are so obvious that they are forced moves? Or maybe they are just easily located Good Tricks.
A recent piece in n + 1, on the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, has an interesting wording, which struck me: “reading My Struggle, you have the sense that Knausgaard has made a wonderful discovery, an almost scientific innovation. My Struggle is something new, something brave”.
I think this way of thinking about what Knausgaard did — and it is an absolutely remarkable piece of writing — is dead right. It’s a kind of daring, creative innovation. It’s so close to being like a normal novel, but somehow, it just isn’t. There’s something new happening in that language and its interaction with his personality and biography, something about the way he oscillates wildly between boring woodenness and unapologetic lyricism, often within the span of a sentence, while at the same time completely revealing his life.
It strikes me that Knausgaard is searching with deeper, stranger algorithms through Design Space. He is doing much more heavy creative design lifting (what Dennett refers to as “R & D”). And, unlike Mother Nature, he does not have to go through the brute force search of killing off millions of novels to get at his one good one. He can prune the search tree in interesting ways in his head. Ways that you and me can’t. (Though maybe we could learn.)
His possibility of finding genuinely Good, New Tricks in Design Space is somehow greater. He has a higher search return. He seems to have more competitive and innovative algorithms at hand and he seems to be using them in more interesting ways.
The same thing, this different, more deeply innovative and exploratory kind of creativity is happening (on a more limited scale) with really good jokes. Even on the minute canvas of 140 characters, really original twitter comics — Rob Delaney is the most celebrated one, but he has good days and bad, and there are literally thousands of good ones out there — are exhibiting this kind of deeper search, with stranger algorithms, pulling away to find good tricks in new places.
And even the good comedians go for the obvious jokes sometimes:
What the really profound long-form comics, like Louis CK or the other greats are doing, is the deeper, exploratory creative innovation stretching the boundaries of comedy, like Knausgaard stretches the boundaries of the novel.
We want to have this kind of deeper search happening more. A research question should be what brings these more creative search functions into action. A lot of recent study — for more on this, run and read Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow — seems to indicate that the one easy thing we can do to go deeper into the search field is to do something hard.
It is this: to think slowly, effortfully and with concentration about the task we are trying to perform. Just sitting down and doing some really hard work with the mind is the best way of getting the search to interesting places. That way, we weed out all the dumbest, instinctively heuristic algorithms that lead most people to the bad or not-great jokes, and we start to get to the really interesting places beyond. We get beyond the bad puns and the dumb gifs and start to find genuinely new expressions which help us do good tricks.
The next question for me which I’d like to think more about is whether or not there are forced moves at this level of play. Are forced moves just something that happens at the most basic level of a particular contest (life, literature, language), or is it something that you can keep finding as we uncover new regions of Design Space? Can we find new forced moves in literature or did we find the last ones when we discovered the narrative? The novel? The epic poem? Or can we keep finding new forced moves in, say, the early 21st century autobiographical novel? The Twitter joke? Or how about politics? Or love?
Are there always new forced moves to find in the regions of Design Space we are moving through? Even in tiny subsections like “Nelson Mandela jokes” or “things to say around Christmas which are kind of funny and will get me retweeted”. Put more generally: can the human race always, in creative exploration, keep turning up new, good tricks no matter where we are or how far we look? Well, your mom can — so why shouldn’t we?