The Big Board

"Is a bucket of cheese more or less specific than a donut?"

"It's more specific."

"But is it as achievable?"

Charlie sat at his kitchen table holding a spiral bound yellow pad scribbled with notes.  He had been collecting people's answers to the question, "All I want is......", and now he was reading the answers aloud one by one while I tried to plot them on a graph I'd drawn on the back of an envelope.   After reading through the 60+ answers, we came to two observations.  First we noticed that some answers were fairly specific, "I want the Chiefs to win the super bowl", while others were quite vague, "I want to know the universe".  We also noticed that some desires seemed much more achievable than others.  "A puppy and a beer" seemed a great deal easier to achieve than "world peace" and so we came up with a graph where the X-axis was Specificity and the Y-Axis was Achievability.

We managed to plot 30 answers in about 2 hours.  It took so long because with each vague answer there was quite a bit of arguing over what the person meant and how we should consider the answer.  For instance when someone says, "All I want is happiness," do they mean: 

  1. a momentary state of happiness
  2. a greater amount of punctuated moments of happiness over a long period of time
  3. a prolonged state of happiness that lasts the rest of their life

The differing interpretations greatly affected how achievable the desire was.  We also went back and forth over the lack of context, that once the desires were divorced from the person who said them, there really wasn't anyway to consider what the person intended.  Therefore, one argument was that we should imagine the desire, not in relation to a particular person, but to the average person.  

This idea was quickly challenged by the answer, "to see my kids again".  Certainly someone who desires to see their kids is having trouble seeing their kids, and thus it should be less achievable than if we figured the general likelihood of an average person who has kids and wants to see them.  We didn't resolve the debate that night, rather it was just the beginning of how we started to negotiate the meaning of these answers.  By the end we had come to at least one solid conclusion.  You cannot plot human desires with a ball point pen.  You needed something more malleable and so late into the night we decided on magnets, something that could easily be adjusted and pushed around.  

In what seemed like no time we were leaning against my red pickup getting ready to unload four metal panels into Missouri Bank for our first day of performing The Big Board.  Charlie had secured an artist's residency and they generously let us use their space for a week. The plan was to write people's desires on magnetic circles and instruct them to place the magnet on the 8' x 8' metal board.  Charlie took his seat at the counter and I sat in the chair by the graph.  My job was to talk people through the process of placing their answer and Charlie would reinterpret their desire in a drawing which would replace their original answer (which they could pickup at the end of the project).  We also decided to wear matching overalls.

When you're seated next to an 8' x 8' metal graph it doesn't take long for people to come up and ask what you're doing and pretty quickly the answers started coming.  We didn't set any hard fast rules as to how things were supposed to be plotted, rather we let people choose where they thought their desire belonged.  The only rule was that they had to have a reason for why they put it there.  We also informed them that anyone could come along and move another persons' s dot if they disagreed with the placement.   If someone thought "love" was more specific than "fried chicken" they would have to argue why, and if someone else disagreed, they would have to present an argument as to why it should be changed.

As more dots got added it started to create a fairly complex context in which people's desires had to sit, and one thing that became apparent was that a small number of people didn't want to put that much effort into placing their dot.  Was their desire for "money" more specific than "doughnuts" put less specific than "cookies"?  Placing the dot in a specific location forced them to make claims about how things were and the more dots that got added, the more variables started to push and pull against one another.  It became a complex equation and some people just didn't want to spend the energy figuring it out.  And so instead of solving the question that was asked, they substituted it for an easier one.  Instead of placing their dot in relation to specificity/achievability, they found a funny association between two things, such as "jesus" and "being high all the time" and then placed the dot there.   (Note: This is a well documented cognitive heuristic known as Attribute Substitution.)

Some people answered the question without asking what we were doing, without examining the graph, or taking into consideration why we were asking them the question, while others wanted to look at everyone else's answers and understand how we were plotting things before they answered.  The majority of people did spend quite a bit of time talking through how you could assert that "money" was less specific than "doughnuts".  A typical answer sounded something like this:

"One way to measure specificity is to think about how many possible interpretations you can come up with for the given answer.  The more interpretations you can think of, the more vague it becomes.   You can also think about the number of possibilities in a given category, so you could think, 'How many different types of doughnuts are there?  Are there more types of doughnuts than types of money?'  The arrow of time also comes into question.  Are we talking about circulating currencies or every currency that's ever existed?  If we are talking about circulating currencies, there are around 180.  Given the various cultural interpretations of the doughnut combined with an almost limitless combination of flavors, I would imagine there are significantly more types of doughnuts than currency, so I would say that doughnuts are more vague."

One thing that became apparent rather quickly was when things became vague, people tended to rate them more achievable.  I believe this is case because as more possibilities emerge for what someone might mean by, "I want to know myself" there is a range that develops between the easy version and the hard version.  In the easy version I want to be able to recall true statements about myself, so for instance, I know my name is Jori.  I'm married to my wife Laura.  I work at my families business, The Harry J. Epstein Co.  

However, there is a harder version of "knowing myself" that would imply that I've uncovered deep truths about who I am, possibly through being tested by the hardships of life.  "Knowing myself" in this sense means that I've proved myself in the face of adversity, such as running back into a burning building to save a child. Before I only thought of myself as courageous, but now I know what I'm made of.  I don't just "think" I know myself, I have direct evidence, consequential action that backs up my claim.  

There is a still harder version of "knowing oneself" that is ultimately impossible.  I am not able to know my unconscious mind.  I think I understand my intentions towards people, why I am attracted to certain activities, but maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe there are underlying evolutionary, social and biological forces that are pushing me do things, and my story for why I'm behaving in a certain way is just a post-hoc rationalization, a comforting story to tell myself.  Maybe after a good deal of personal introspection, I may come to understand that I hardly know anything about myself at all, besides the fact that I'm aware of my confusion over who I actually am.  

Given these three versions, and any number of possibilities in between, most people tended to pick the easy version, and so on the board, in the upper left hand corner there were all sorts of vague desires such as: (ease, purpose, to make a difference, to get what I want, unity, to live life to its fullest, to be happy, to love myself, space, tolerance, respect), that all have a highly unachievable version that didn't occur to people in relation to their desires. 

Given this problem, I found a better way to measure the achievability of a vague desire was to come up with an average of the likely possibilities and then weigh them given what we could infer the person meant.  The answer that moved around the most and that had the most discussion of this kind was, "Jesus".  Originally "Jesus" was placed as highly unachievable and very specific because the interpretation was of the historical man.  However as we talked to more people we found that wanting "Jesus" was actually fairly vague, because so many different interpretations emerged as to what that could've meant.  Given the growing amount of interpretations (the message of Jesus, Jesus in your heart, the embodiment of the principles of Jesus, any person on earth that happens to be named Jesus) it became more achievable.  Given all these possibilities, we decided to take the average, but we did so in a way that was intuitively weighted.

For instance, it was probably not likely that the person meant "anyone that is living named Jesus".  They most likely meant something associated with Christianity, and so we weighted this answer as "not very probable" whereas other answers seemed to be more probable, i.e. having Jesus in your heart.  So taking this into account, and given all of the more achievable versions, "Jesus" finally came to rest right above the line of being somewhat achievable, but fairly vague.  What I learned through this exercise is that the vaguer an answer became, the greater the spectrum of possibilities, the wider the range of achievability.  Given this view, I would've placed most of these vague answers in the middle/left of the graph, but this is not what happened.  Most people chose the easier version of their ambiguous answer and placed it as highly achievable.  

This was not the case for the person who desired, "The Kate Bush Discography".  You cannot create nearly as broad of a spectrum of possibilities that would effect its achievability and so this was one of our more specific and achievable answers.  It was also very easy to place as there wasn't much room to argue about where it should go.  Other highly specific and achievable answers were:  this coffee to be hot, a clean kitchen and no roommates, a fig tree, to make pizza blindfolded, a room full of pillows, to sing on top of a building in New York City.  One answer that was placed as highly specific and achievable was "here and now".  To me, this sounds pretty vague but in the persons mind who placed it, it was specific.  They did this by inferring a third person perspective, such as "everyone has a here and now that is equally unique and specific to that individual," such that everyone has a location (here) and a time they exist (now).  

Perspective switching was another interesting variable to watch as people often vacillated between three different points of view.  First they considered the achievability of the desire in relation to themselves, so if we take the desire "singing on top of a building in New York City" you would interpret that as how easily YOU could sing on top of a building in New York City, which will greatly depend on your travel plans, your job, economic status, family life, etc.   Some people took the third person view, the view of "the average person" such as Charlie and I tried to do in the beginning.  In this view they were no longer burdened with the particulars, but were working on an intuitive average.  But trying to measure specificity brought a third option, taking the words at face value, without any person in mind at all.  Achievability requires an agent that you must infer things about, and if that agent is absent or unknown you are left filling in the blanks, whereas "specificity" does not require an agent.  It just requires language and that language can be more or less judged on its own.

Some answers did make it into the vague and unachievable section (the lower left quadrant) but they weren't placed there by person who came up with the answer, rather they were moved there later by someone who argued with their placement.  This list includes: nothing, to not want, to know the universe, to be the best like no one ever was, to know the answer, to get out of my head.  These answers could easily have been placed as highly achievable, if you take into consideration their easier interpretation, but for whatever reason, they were placed at the bottom.

These observations, while fascinating to me, are not the purpose of The Big Board, nor is the purpose data collection.  This is not a scientific process and the observations I've made are entirely anecdotal. The real power lies in The Big Board's ability to ease strangers into philosophical discussions and to "take the edge off" of taboo conversations.  This was first demonstrated to me with "Jesus" where something as touchy as religious belief, a notoriously avoided subject in casual conversation between strangers, became quite easy.  Race relations and gun violence were other issues that were brought up and were talked about in ways I found to be quite useful.

I believe this was because the board presents a game-like environment with specific rules and requirements.  The contestants are asked to do a very narrow task such as place their answers relative to everyone else's.  The gamification of the conversation may help people treat disagreements, not as threats, but as a natural part of the game we are playing together.  Participants are actively encouraged to reinterpret other people’s responses (as well as their own) and to re-contextualize them, an exercise that may help strengthen their ability to perceive things from multiple angles, another strategy that may help with disagreements.  It is essentially a physical representation of the social navigation of meaning, how things we say lose context, get reinterpreted by others, and then return to us in ways we don't expect.  

Charlie and I are excited to try The Big Board out in a variety of settings and to see how it holds up.  We were contacted by the Kansas City Police Department after our initial installation and are working on raising funds to be able to do this project in the East Patrol Division at 26th and Prospect.  Examining a contentious issue like police/neighborhood relations will be a real test to see how people respond to the environment we present and we look forward to be able to use the skills we've developed in helping people navigate through it.  

If you have an idea of how The Big Board could be useful, or would like more information about it, please feel free to contact us at:  jorisackin(at)gmail(dot)com