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Saturday, October 19, 2002

The Flow

Funny though I see myself as completely open, the world ever finds me inaccessible, even sometimes those I can't explain away with Social Vice.

People far less honest, far less inviting, and even far less accepting (yes: people even more misanthropic than me!) find themselves regularly in the role of friend, confidant, or companion just as a matter of course, as if somehow in normal, everyday life it just can't be avoided.

And that's exactly it.

The Flow

The Flow, as in "to go with", is an interesting thing, the analogy aptly put, like the flow of water, of particles in a vector field, of people in a mass march. A single molecule of water that just wants to go down hill may instead meander to and fro far far from its optimal course just to go with the flow, to serve the momentum of the masses as they relentlessly resist all turns, and to make room for all the others, since the optimal path that makes room for all is quite far from the optimal path for just one--that lone drop of water trickling down the dry river bed, hopping from rock to rock, hugging the turns, always taking the very steepest path available, hell bent on getting somewhere and free from the whims of brownian motion.

The human flow is like a branching-choice game, like a freeway where you just follow the flow and occasionally veer a little left or right to keep from hitting the impact cans or the pillars of indecision, those blades that cut and reassemble the flow. You go to school, choose your classes, then return to them day after day until the quarter ends, take the offramp, wait at the light, then merge onto the next freeway. Eventually you pick a job, then return there day after day until you run out of gas, hit a pillar, or successfully navigate the transition to another job. Repeat.

And everyone around you is doing the same thing, moving with the same flow, moving with you, at roughly the same speed and in roughly the same direction at any given time, there beside you day after day, like that car on the long road trip that you keep seeing over and over, the family sitting next to you at the diner who sat next to you at the last one too. So you strike up a conversation -- hey, you were sitting next to us at the last diner! My name's Joe, and this is my wife Mary. Where are you headed? Oh? Same here!

The Flow equals familiarity.

Unfortunately, it does not equal novelty, nor efficiency except when the cost of working against The Flow outweighs the savings of the shorter path.

The Flow is more than a whim; it shapes the local environment, changes the local gradient, redefines what is down hill at any given moment and in any given place. The naive particle goes with The Flow for the same reasons it goes a completely different direction when alone--it is simply following the local gradient.

The global gradient, on the other hand, may be quite different. And different again at each level of abstraction, at each grander scale (with perhaps the unfortunate surprise that it is completely flat on the grandest scale of all, but I digress). The particle that gets its hooks into that gradient is lifted out of The Flow, and is suddenly cutting across, going somewhere else. You see them for an instant, and then they are gone -- that crazy guy driving the wrong way on the freeway, or passing you at 130mph; that guy you saw at the cafe, once and never again; that girl with the big backpack and adventurous look in her eye who you passed once on the street; that friend of a friend you've heard of for years, but never met; that consultant your boss hired who got the job done overnight and then vanished; that girl you made room for to pass sideways through your line--where was she going, anyway? You ask the person standing next to you in line; you both shrug. By the way, my name's Joe.

Flow happens at all levels of life, from the scale of seconds to years. Do you drive in rush hour, or avoid it? Do you stop by the grocery on the way home, or go at 3am when it's empty? Do you watch TV, listen to the radio, and go to ball games, or sit in your basement painting portraits of Egyptian sloths? Do you go to the bar with your coworkers and friends, or to the symphony by yourself? Do you have a Live Journal, or keep yours tucked away in some dark corner of the web? Do you have a job? Do you go to school? Are you a member?

If there were a web site that assigned Flow ratings, I would almost certainly score zero. Not just now, but since birth--moving about twenty five times in my first twenty years; becoming a traveling consultant about the same age most people are starting college; buying my own home when I was twenty one, surrounded by neighbors two to three times my age, no roommates, and my nearest consulting gig four hundred miles away; having no decent television reception or cable since I was a child; always preferring to build or design my own over buying the stock solution; I shop for groceries at 3am, or at 10am on the weekdays with the short lines of retirees; I go to the Zoo during the superbowl; if I had a basement, I'd spend way too much time there; I drive in rush hour about twice a year, when I've forgotten that there is such a thing; I have no job, no school, and I am not a member.

And by now, I admit, I'm addicted to being free of The Flow, I'm addicted to having my own way, getting it done right, going where I want, when I want, how I want, and why I want. Not at anyone's expense but my own, mind you. It's not about fighting The Flow, it's about failing to bind to it in the first place, not even seeing it in the same way that it doesn't see me, because it travels past me in some odd direction I don't even care about; and as I cut across it it changes this way and that, and in the end there isn't even an average to take.

And you'd think there'd be a secondary flow composed of those outside The Flow, but no. Counter-culture is just another artery of The Flow. There is no counter-flow, just a few free particles zipping this way and that, rarely colliding, like cosmic rays passing right through the planet unnoticed and unperturbed.

But in the end, I'm still just Joe. It's just that nobody is ever close enough, long enough, to find that out. Such is life outside The Flow.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com