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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Silliness as a Discovery Process

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, Loki Lego Launcher, and the Social Benefit of Free-Range Kids


The Internet, like Monty Python’s Camelot, is a silly place.

That’s why it’s valuable.

Here’s what I mean.

Back in 1929, the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy developed the idea of “six degrees of separation,” which states that everyone is linked together by chains of connection no more than six links long. That idea was then picked up and made famous by the playwright John Guare in his 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation.

In 1994, some snowbound college kids (obviously well educated and quite possibly chemically enhanced) were watching Footloose. They connected the popularity of lead actor Kevin Bacon with their knowledge of Guare and Karinthy, and the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was born. For those who are unfamiliar with the game, the object is to connect any actor — through his or her films — to Kevin Bacon in less than six steps. The casual game became a website called “The Oracle of Bacon.”

Out of silliness came a second career for Kevin Bacon who has been smart enough to have fun and do some good with his status as the oddball darling of social media.

So far, so silly.

But just this month a group of scholars from Carnegie Mellon has released the beta version of a website called “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.” The website is a collaborative envisioning of the early modern social network. It tracks 13,000 early modern people, shows us who is likely to have known whom, and allows us to track the connections they have in common. But even better than that, the site’s creators are calling for other scholars to add their own specialized knowledge of early modern connections in order to expand the network and make it more accurate, more useful, and more broadly based.

This is a scholarly tool of enormous potential value. Early modernists are plagued by questions like, “Is it possible that X read this book and is referencing it here?”

Those questions may well become a lot easier to answer. If we find out that X was friends with Y and that Y had a copy of the book in question, we suddenly have a link we can speculate about more productively. Who knows what connections the network will turn up?

And it all started with some college students making fun of — or paying tribute to — Kevin Bacon. Because they were bored. And they were silly. But out of that silliness came amusement and diversion for anyone who has played the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, a second career for Kevin Bacon, who has been smart enough to have fun and do some good with his status as the oddball darling of social media, and a serious scholarly project.

Maybe silliness isn’t so silly.

I thought the same thing when I read the story about 8- and 10-year-old Kimberly and Rebecca Yeung, who modified some plans they found on the web for a weather balloon to build their own “Loki Lego Launcher.” They used the launcher to send a Lego R2-D2 and a picture of their cat 78,000 feet up, right to the edge of space.


A serious adult might have stopped them from such a silly project. Lego is a silly toy, after all. And cat pictures have pretty much defined Internet silliness for more than a decade. But the Yeung girls lucked into some adults who understood that a bit of silliness can take you to some remarkable places. Like space.

The glorious and unpredictable results of silliness ought to make us fellow travelers with the economist F.A. Hayek, who wrote of the importance of competition as a discovery process, revealing to us things that we never knew, could not have imagined, and could not have even formulated questions about. In “Competition as a Discovery Procedure,” Hayek wrote,

When, however, we do not know in advance the facts we wish to discover with the help of competition, we are also unable to determine how effectively competition leads to the discovery of all the relevant circumstances that could have been discovered. All that can be empirically verified is that societies making use of competition for this purpose realize this outcome to a greater extent than do others — a question which, it seems to me, the history of civilization answers emphatically in the affirmative.

I would say the same for silliness:

When, however, we do not know in advance the facts we wish to discover with the help of silliness, we are also unable to determine how effectively silliness leads to the discovery of all the relevant circumstances that could have been discovered. All that can be empirically verified is that societies making use of silliness for this purpose realize this outcome to a greater extent than do others — a question which, it seems to me, the history of civilization answers emphatically in the affirmative.

Silliness, or what we might more solemnly call “creative play,” produces unexpected results. We can’t plan for it. We can’t force it. We can only stand back and give it room to breathe.

The Yeung girls lucked into some adults who understood that a bit of silliness can take you to some remarkable places. Like space.

When Tina Fey gives her rules for improvisational comedy in her book Bossypants,the first rule she lists is, “Agree.” The second rule is “not only to say yes, but, “Yes, and.” That’s what the Yeung girls did when one of them first suggested launching R2-D2 into space. That’s what the Carnegie Mellon scholars did when they ran with an idea suggested by a bit of college silliness.

When you are invited to engage in some silliness, say yes, and add something of your own. It might take you into the intricacies of the early modern literary/theological/political network. It might take you into space. It might take you into Camelot. The value of it, as Hayek points out, is that we don’t know where it will take us. We can’t know until we agree — until we say, “Yes, and.”

Lenore Skenazy’s work on “free-range kids” has made all of us aware of how important unscheduled and unsupervised play — which often contains a lot of silliness — is for children. Freeman writer Steve Horwitz has recently written a sobering consideration of the larger societal implications of a generation that has grown up without unsupervised play and the social skills it teaches. The urge to plan is strong. The urge to stamp out silliness — in our children, in ourselves, and in our society — is even stronger.

The things we never discover because we give in to that urge are unimaginable.

Imagine some. Or say, “Yes, and,” to someone who does.