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Rules you don’t see

I came across a piece of music yesterday that I found extraordinary. It came up in a discussion between Brian Eno and Ha-Joon Chang. That these two were in discussion was peculiar to me, but more of this kind of crossover discussion is a good idea. Cross-pollination of ideas is almost always worthwhile, if only because it helps uncover the rules you don’t see.

The piece of music, In C, composed by minimalist Terry Riley works something like a round (you can find the full rules here). I found many versions on YouTube, the comments beneath which revealed that many people find the music tedious and irritating. That’s fair warning. Each player moves through the 50-odd bars as they wish. Each bar is written in C, as the title suggests. Each time the piece is performed then, it is likely that each player will drift ahead and fall behind each other player in a slightly different way.

The outcome is different each time, but the rules stay the same.

What you might not see though, is that the notes cannot be questioned – most people don’t sit down at a piano and wonder why they cannot play in between the notes. You have an instrument, and you work within the parameters of that instrument. To quote Brian Eno:

So whenever you talk about the free market – or free jazz! – what you really mean is “constrained by rules that we’ve stopped thinking about”. This seems a long way off music, but when you set out to make something, you might just inherit all the ways of making it. If you’re a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, you don’t question the fact that there are 84 notes on the piano. You’re not bothered by the fact that you can’t get in between two of them – these are just the ground rules of the working situation.

This quote followed some discussion about economic rules we don’t see. Free Market adherents, I would suggest, are really not at all what they claim to be. How many libertarians have you met that suggest that child labour is the way forward (“Hey”, people once said, “I have a job, the kid wants it, Government should stay out of it”). So, no child labour has, in many places, become a rule we no longer see.

Though “regulation” is often criticised as unnecessary costs to business, stopping that holy grail of economic growth (more perhaps, on zero-growth economics in the future), what any given person, or any given political persuasion means by “regulation” varies. In New Zealand, an example of regulatory failure resulted in what is now known as the “leaky homes” problem. Removing regulations in the building and construction industry in the 1990’s probably did result in some bonus to those businesses. It came at some cost though! Few people now question the need for regulation and minimum standards for construction (more so, given the risk of earthquakes). Rules you don’t see.

It’s almost always a good idea to take a step back, to look at the basis of your thinking. Sometimes the rules you don’t see are a good thing. Just as often, these rules limit the extent of your thinking – they stymie creativity and prevent new ideas from developing.

Sometimes, it helps to mix up ideas, to find the rules you don’t see; sometimes they can be challenged to improve the state of the world you do see.


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