Cover photo

Cooking Up a Scene

Mise en place, Mise en scène

Issue 24

Last week, we shared our main goal for the post-season phase of the Summer of Protocols program: to catalyze a "scene" around protocols, similar to the Maker scene. This week we want to kick off our post-season phase with some of our initial thoughts on how to do that, and also invite you to share yours.

Some elements are straightforward. We'll be gradually publishing the research output (you'll get a preview in the next couple of weeks), and continuing the protocol talks on our YouTube channel. On Sept 13, Gordon Brander will kick off the post-season talk series with a session on the exciting new protocol he's developing, noosphere. Check the Announcements channel in the Summer of Protocols Discord server to join the talk. If there are other interesting people you'd like to see featured in this talk series, please send us your suggestions. We will likely host talks or salons twice a month going forward. Our Discord server will remain open, but switch gears to off-season mode. Most of the active channels will be archived, but a few will be kept open to keep the conversation going. We hope to see you there.

Other elements are not so straightforward. How do you deliberately create something as fluid and inchoate as a scene? What can you do to catalyze the emergence of, say, "the Arduino of protocols"? How do you avoid blundering missteps that hurt more than they help? How do you take an initial set of exploratory studies, artifacts, and collaboration relationships of the sort we have generated, and use them as provocations and enablers for larger conversations and activities. How do you scale a conversation from dozens to hundreds of people in a fertile way?

This newsletter of 400 odd subscribers represents our first major challenge in this direction. Our goal here is not growth but deepening involvement. We are not about turning 400 subscribers into 4000 or 40,000 (though that would be nice). What we really care about is turning spectators into actors, and isolated actors in silos into connected actors with a broader view of the Great Game of protocols.

If you're already also an active player in some way, what can others do to broaden and deepen your efforts? If you're mostly lurking and learning, what can the rest of us do to turn you into an active player? If you're in some siloed corner of the protocol map, what can we do to help you break out and explore beyond that corner? How can we turn what you know about your specific area into part of a broader base of knowledge and know-how about protocols generally? How can people working with blockchain protocols learn from people working with climate protocols? How can people working with safety protocols learn from people working in diplomacy or healthcare? How can mathematicians interested in applying abstract ideas like category theory to protocols learn from specific real-world protocol domains and, in turn, translate general and universal insights to those specific real contexts? How can we direct useful attention to general technological issues around protocols, such as ossification and complexification?

We don't have answers yet, but we hope we're asking the right questions about scene-making. And we hope you can help us find the answers. If you have thoughts on any of the above, hop on the Discord and share them.

We're also hoping to find answers in the past. Throughout the summer, we've drawn inspiration from, and consciously calibrated our efforts against, several pivotal historical "scenes" that shaped human society on emerging frontiers. Each of these scenes started out small and localized, but eventually grew to include tens of thousands of people around the world.

It is tempting to believe that such burgeoning global scenes emerge organically somehow, but if you dig into the backstories, you usually find that early catalytic efforts by a handful of institutions at the right time played a huge role. Sometimes, such efforts involve simply convening a few appropriate people within a relatively structured program such as the famous 1956 Dartmouth AI workshop that named and launched the now-world-changing field. Sometimes the catalysis is more subtle, as in the case of the enormously influential Bloomsbury group, which shaped the early evolution of modern literature, art, and economics.

Modern examples, such as the Maker movement, make heavy use of the internet of course, but are still powerfully shaped by traditional institutions and critical in-person gatherings. And in every case, even the subtlest ones, you invariably find a degree of formal structure and deliberate planning and orchestration. In each case, you also find that the early instigators of a scene are driven by a strong sense of history and a conscious desire to shape it. It takes a curious mix of unseemly hubris and the insecurity of what Harold Bloom called the "anxiety of influence" to even think about changing the world. It is an attitude that would seem narcissistic and self-important if it weren't alloyed with a genuine sense of humbling excitement sparked by vast potentials, dimly glimpsed. It's about the grandeur of the game, not the glory of the players.

Famous historical examples tell us that it is indeed possible to create "scenes" and that attempting to do so with a degree of self-consciousness and deliberate orchestration is not just fine, but actually necessary. Early actions will necessarily feel somewhat awkward and unnatural. The idea of a truly organic "scene" is a myth, but any deliberate action has to be undertaken with taste, mindfulness, and sensitivity. The scene emerges through the interplay of deliberate choreography and natural dispositions and tendencies.

Two French phrases offer useful mental models for this process of scene-making: mise en scène and mise en place.

Mise en scène refers to the idea of setting the stage for a performance; the arrangement of props, set backdrops, and actors on a stage.

Mise en place, on the other hand, refers to preparing a kitchen for cooking; sourcing and prepping the ingredients, making sure all the equipment is clean and ready at hand, and so on.

Both phrases refer to protocols of preparation. What follows the protocols, either on a stage or in a kitchen, can be either highly planned and choreographed, heavily driven by improvisation, or somewhere in between. In all cases, there are elements of both functional production and creative performance. Kitchen activities are generally "behind the scenes" but can unfold as a performance on some sort of stage. Conversely, staged activities need not necessarily unfold as a conventional performance. The idea of a mise en scène could also apply to preparations for an important meeting of a board of directors, or a secret cabal.

Most collective activities that take some preparation have elements of both theatrical performance and cooking. You could think of the combined process as cooking up a scene.

As a fun example of cooking up a scene, consider murder mysteries. In Agatha Christie's novels, Hercule Poirot uses both phrases in relation to solving murders. He "arranges facts" for review, a kind of mise en place for detection as cooking. And then the big reveal requires a mise en scène, not just because Poirot is vain and the conventions of murder mysteries require such a setup, but also because the performance is designed to get the murderer to confess through the force of dramatic necessity.

How do we pull off something like that for protocols, and do it with a largish group of a few hundred people acting independently? That's the challenge before us now. The ingredients and props are at hand. It's time for the mise en place and mise en scène.

Let's get cooking!

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