AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

RUBE GOLDBERGISM, THE GEODESIC MINDSET, AND INSTRUMENTAL RATIONALITY

What follows is a guest post by Elijah Millgram.

You can be effective but ridiculous, or effective but a very special sort of unbelievable. And that tells us that some of the most basic distinctions in the domain of practical rationality—that is, of the reasons we invoke when we decide what to do—are matters of aesthetic judgment.

Most of us have seen various of Rube Goldberg’s once very popular drawings; here’s one of a “self-operating napkin” that involves a soup ladle, a parrot, a rocket, and a pendulum, among other components.

Rube Goldberg, illustration for self-operating napkin machine, Collier’s Magazine (1931)

And if you look around on the web, you’ll find one after another video homage to his work; this tribute, a construction that turns a page of your newspaper for you, deploys lit fuses, billiard balls, a vase, a smashed laptop, and an animal that I’m guessing is a hamster.

Now, it was naturally the comics page on which, a couple of generations back, Goldberg’s drawings of elaborately roundabout ways of performing simple tasks used to appear, because the public of the time found them spit-take funny. They were funny because they were crazy, and the craziness was all in their very visible instrumental irrationality—which is actually a bit of a puzzle.

Instrumental reasoning is means-end reasoning (for an introduction to this issue, see here), and it’s pretty much the consensus that whether a way of doing something is instrumentally rational is just a matter of whether it’s effective: whether the means in fact bring about the end. But although not nearly all of Rube Goldberg’s own machines would have worked—in that first drawing, what are the chances of the parrot cooperating?—some of them do, as in those tribute videos. In any case, we overlook whether they would work in assessing their success as Rube Goldbergisms; people find them funny pretty much regardless of whether their respective jobs are actually going to get done. So if Rube Goldberg machines are funny because they’re instrumentally crazy, and they also (some of them) accomplish their announced tasks, then the consensus is mistaken: effectiveness can’t be all there is to instrumental rationality.

Still, and before we get to what else there could be, you shouldn’t be convinced of that just yet. After all, aren’t Rube Goldberg machines inefficient and wasteful? And doesn’t that mean they’re ineffective after all?

Here we need to navigate a dilemma turning on what someone might mean by “inefficient” and “wasteful”. On the one hand, in this context these descriptions might merely be a way of pointing out the roundabout, convoluted look and feel of Rube Goldberg devices and their relatives. So they are, no doubt, inefficient and so on, but well-nigh-tautologically, and without further argument, this doesn’t go to show that they’re ineffective. (Remember, those homages work.) On the other hand, calling them inefficient and so on might be making a substantive claim. Even if some Rube Goldberg machines do accomplish their designated tasks, whoever is using them has other objectives, too. The devices are instrumentally irrational, alright, but that irrationality is nonetheless a matter of the failure to attain those implicit and offstage ends. The machines are too fragile, or too expensive, or too time-consuming to assemble; what makes them so silly is their users’ obliviousness to the ways that their other goals are being undercut.

That latter claim sounds plausible enough, but doesn’t survive full immersion in the spirit of Rube Goldberg. In the first place, you can normally address those further goals by making your Rube Goldberg machine more Rube Goldbergish. You can cut costs on materials by assembling your device out of found objects, or just plain trash. Sometimes money is no object, as in the Rube Goldberg machine below, where the point is advertising, and there’s a hefty budget. [Ed. note: Ignore the weird ending; this was the best video I could find of this particular RGM.] True, assembling and installing the ‘machines’ takes a good deal of painstaking effort. But the well-heeled have their housekeeping staff polish the silverware and lay the table with complicated special-purpose cutlery; if they’re already putting out the grapefruit spoons and butter knives, why not have them set up the Rube Goldberg device as well?

When a gadget provides some trivial convenience, the engineering behind it generally involves a great deal of ingenuity and labor, all of which makes economic sense only in mass production—but mass-producing Rube Goldberg machines won’t make them any less Rube Goldbergish. Maybe it would be especially in the spirit of Rube Goldberg if they were manufactured in a Rube Goldberg-style factory.

And while Rube Goldberg machines are normally fragile, you can compensate by adding redundant layers of convoluted machinery. Imagine constructing, as a backup, a meta-Rube Goldberg machine, one that perches over the one you’re worried will fall apart. You equip it with sensors (probably bits of string with odds and ends attached to them, reaching down from above), and when the (first-order, so to speak) machine it’s monitoring fails, the meta-Rube Goldberg machine, like a bowling alley pinsetter, sweeps it away… only unlike mechanical pinspotters, which are actually fairly elegant technology, this one will reconstruct that first Rube Goldberg machine, component by component, in the most roundabout, inefficient, convoluted, Rube Goldberg-like way possible. Your augmented Rube Goldberg machine is now somewhat more robust, but much more Rube Goldbergish, and if you’re still concerned that it’s not reliable enough, consider building a meta-meta-Rube Goldberg machine on top of what you’ve already got, and a meta-meta-meta Rube Goldberg machine on top of that… (employees complain that all of this is more or less standard operating procedure at NASA). No, Rube Goldberg machines (sometimes) do serve one’s ends, but ridiculously.

If I’m reading it right, the argument that you can’t write Rube Goldberg machines off as unproblematically ineffective portrays instrumental rationality as (surprise, surprise) a secondary quality. The machines’ ineffectiveness—where that means their inability to get the job done, plain and simple—doesn’t explain why they’re funny; rather, the way we find them funny, and often enough bemusing or fascinating, is what we have to go on in classifying them as means-end irrational. After all, there’s no other criterion we’re in a position to articulate; those other criteria can be worked around, I suggested, by making the Rube Goldbergishness worse. But now, funny, silly, ridiculous and so on are aesthetic characterizations, expressing (in the first place) aesthetic responses. If means-end irrationality is a secondary quality, and one that is tied to aesthetic responses, then instrumental rationality is an aesthetic property.

It’s widely thought that means-end rationality is the most central aspect of being practically rational, and actually, the default view among the specialists, though I wouldn’t care to endorse it myself, is that it’s all there is to rationality in decision making. If means-end rationality is that central, a certain amount of standard-issue moral philosophy is completely wrong-headed. Theorists of practical rationality have that default view because they think that means-end reasoning is simple, straightforward, and well-understood. But if what counts as successful means-end reasoning is demarcated by the sort of laugh-out-loud responses that kept Rube Goldberg in business, then it’s not well-understood at all.

It’s not just those responses. Back when I was in grad school, my roommates watched MacGyver religiously, and even today the show has a sizable fanbase. For millennial latecomers: an episode’s payoff consisted in seeing the eponymous protagonist improvise a novel, ingenious, and surprising solution to a means-end puzzle out of whatever happened to be at hand. Here he’s dealing, as so often, with a ticking time bomb in a locked room, and rather than defuse it, he takes a way out of the predicament that puts a phone and a safe to nonstandard uses.

His trademark approach to problems was an over-directness that is the analog, in the mechanical and artifactual world, of the social ruthlessness exhibited by one after another popular cartoon character: Dilbert’s Dogbert, Doonesbury’s Duke (and again a week later), Pearl Before Swine’s Rat. Maybe the geodesic mindset would be a decent label for the attitude they evince, that the shortest path between two points is an absolutely straight line.

The characters’ charmingly outrageous obliviousness to routinized expedients normally elicits rhetorical disbelief that is somehow blended with fascination. I mean, belief usually supports Moore’s Paradox: you don’t get to avow the belief and disavow what you’re believing; so when you say, “It’s Monday again—I can’t believe it,” which doesn’t wear the aspect of self-contradiction, that’s disbelief that’s merely rhetorical. The form taken by the response to MacGyver and to Dogbert and so on is an I can’t believe he did it that way—even though, of course, as you just saw, he did. Or rather, that’s the reaction indulged in from the safe perch of the comics page reader or television viewer; confronted with people like these in real life, it’s another matter entirely. (Imagine the MacGyver commute; imagine an entire city of commuters solving the problem of how to get to work, MacGyver-style… probably, sometimes, with a trebuchet and paragliding gear.) Once again, that response falls into the category of the aesthetic.

Means-end rationality is starting to look like an Aristotelian mean, a virtue positioned between the vices of too-roundabout Rube Goldbergism, and chutzpahdick, whatever-it-takes, too-clever-by-half MacGyverism. Aristotle thought that the only real standard for the virtues he cataloged was somebody who had them, because only the fully virtuous person could accurately distinguish that mean from the flanking extremes. (You’ll remember this as the so-called ‘phronetic circle.’) If instrumental rationality is that sort of a mean, we should expect only those with a properly developed taste for effectiveness to competently discriminate what’s goofy from what isn’t.

Since historically we haven’t noticed how important this particular mode of aesthetic sensibility is, we have paid hardly any attention at all to the problem of how to cultivate it. But maybe exposure to Rube Goldberg, MacGyver, and other exemplars of deviant means-end reasoning would be a start?

Notes on the Contributor
Elijah Millgram is E. E. Ericksen Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah, and the author of, most recently, Hard Truths and The Great Endarkenment. He is currently working on a book on John Stuart Mill and the meaning of life.

Image credit: Rube Goldberg illustration via Wikimedia Commons