Sunday, February 5, 2017

Littleton - A Parable

There was once a town called Littleton where no one lived much more than two or two-and-a-half months. The people of Littleton grew to adulthood in 21 days, and they even managed to learn to talk by this point, though theirs was a simple language. Most of them raised their families during weeks 4-6 of their lives, and declined into old age in the third month, seldom living past 80 days.

You might think that the people of Littleton were more reconciled to their own mortality the we longer-lived folk. That perhaps, with death so near, they would be forced to come to terms with it in a more profound way than the rest of us. And actually, for the first few decades of Littleton's existence, this was true. Though the people of Littleton had less time for study, this only made them study deeper, and they were apt to understand the deepest, simplest facts of life: death, love, taxes, and family. With these concepts firmly and concisely in grasp, theirs was a happy existence for a time, despite its unusual shortness.

They soon came to realize, however, that certain things were lacking from their lives. Because they had so little time, lawyers and doctors, for example, were very rare in Littleton. Though they were swift learners, two or three months is simply not enough time to learn all the facts necessary for a law degree or an MD. The most prestigious careers available were things like construction or auto mechanics. Littleton had access to a few instruction manuals in such things, and your most well-respected jobs involved meticulous following of directions written down by someone from another town or era.

Over the decades a new career began to emerge, their most prestigious yet: architect. What happened was this. Since all their most clever students went into construction, these exceptional intellects were able to find flaws in the classic manuals being used. So they began to add annotations. In some generations these manuals grew bloated with commentary, and in others they were cut back, summarized, and made more concise than ever. As a result Littleton began to develop a discipline of architecture that was superior even to that of the outside, longer-lived world.

Littleton had never had the skill or patience to build itself a town hall and truly put itself on the map where small cities go. But now it did. The skill had been built up--not in any one person's head--but in the collection of manuals being passed down and improved from generation to generation. Patience had been cultivated by this same process, by seeing how many generations had to pass away for the manuals to grow. And now it seemed that the year or two it would take to build a town hall wasn't as long a time as it might seem, though it would be something like twenty generations.

But of course, even just drawing up the plans for the town hall was a challenging process. No one architect, no matter how brilliant, had the time to learn both all the principles of architecture AND understand every detail of the new building. But by their deep and simple wisdom they knew that they needed SOME kind of overview of the building, if it was going to hang together and be a unified work of architecture.

The most visionary of their architects, then, were designated as "Eagles" -- those with wide, if incomplete, vision of the whole. They were not expected to understand how specific bricks were to be fitted together, nor even all the mathematical principles behind the Littleton theory of architecture. Rather, they were expected to know very basic, broad, ideas, such as (1) What is a Town Hall for? Why are we building it? (2) What sort of aesthetic qualities does it need? Should it appear massive and intimidating, or warm and welcoming? (3) Where should it be placed in the town? What buildings should it be next to? (4) What is the relationship among all the other specialties needed to build this building? For example there should be specialists in roofing, finish work, foundations, etc. What should be built first? How should this all be organized?

Such questions are more than enough for one Littleton lifetime, and bit by bit an Eagle Manual began to grow and establish itself as the basic guide to running the project. Other manuals grew as well, one for each specialty, as mentioned above.

After just a year the project began to take shape. It started to look like it was going to work. The Eagles, in particular, felt it was all very feasible, and might even be done within another year. Great trust was placed in their abilities, and rightly so--for a time.

In the meantime, Littleton had become famous for its small-scale architecture. The project of building a town hall had led to a flourishing of sorts. Extremely beautiful and quaint cottages had sprung up all over town, and people came from miles around to see these uniquely distinctive homes, built according to a theory that had developed entirely independently of the outside world. For outsiders, it was like seeing something from another continent.

Littleton became rich. And now its troubles began.

More specifically, it was the Eagle named Tommy McShort that began to derail the project. It wasn't that he didn't care enough about the town hall. It was that in his pride in his Eagleship -- the discipline that put Littleton on the map -- he believed he could discover the principles need to build the town hall bigger, more beautiful, and faster than they had previously imagined.

On the face it, his theory was perhaps only a little more daring than most. Usually, this wouldn't be a problem. Later generations would catch the mistakes and cross them out. But when an Eagle makes a mistake, it can create special problems. Previously, Eagles had understood the sacredness of their task, and knew that it was very easy to lose past insights if you didn't read the manuals carefully enough.

But this was the very chapter McShort had neglected to read over! The Eagle Manual had grown very long indeed, and McShort had been, as I've said, just a little less careful than most, and he'd missed the first chapters, thinking he would skip to the "good part". And now there was a problem. Because McShort was telling his apprentices to skip the first part of the book too, for he had done fine without it. (So he thought!) And thus each generation after McShort grew a little more flippant and ignorant of what had come before. They were losing their respect for the past. Meanwhile, they were growing rich on their fame as the Master Architects of Littleton, and so didn't spend much time worrying about it.

Within a few generations things were very bad, but only the Eagles even suspected that something was wrong. Each generation argumentation broke out among the apprentices about what was the best approach to learning Eagleship, and many questioned if reading the Manual was even that useful at all. After all it was very long and took several weeks to read over, and perhaps that time could be better spent on more practical questions. Master Eagles had a harder and harder time answering these questions because they hadn't bothered to read much of the first few chapters of the Manual, which was the part that explained the answers in most detail. More and more confused fluff was added to the end of the Manual -- and this was what most new apprentices now seemed to prefer to read.

Meanwhile, specialist architects, without the firm guidance of the Eagles, were also beginning to veer off track. Littleton Stonemasons, in particular, had begun to develop a pride to rival that of their masters.  While the Eagles quibbled over seemingly unanswerable questions like "What is a Town Hall for?" and "How big is too big for a Town Hall?" at least the Stonemasons had been discovering practical principles useful in constructing ever-more-quaint cottages and stone lodges for the tourists to gawk at. Stonemasons began to add comments to the front of their own manual saying, "Most important!" or "This is what it really means to 'hang together!'"

Though they had largely forgotten why, the Eagles were still skimming through other manuals, trying to get an idea of their contents. It was while doing this that Johnny Quickson decided that these pithy self-promotions of the Stonemasons were really much more profound than they seemed. He put forward a new fundamental principle of Eagleship: "The Mortar Principle." It said, basically, that as long as each tiny part of the Town Hall was mortared to its neighboring parts, everything would hang together even if no one could quite grasp the whole. Things like "aesthetic beauty" and "purpose" and so on were useless concepts that the craftsman who physically built the townhall wouldn't need anyway.

Now, these ideas might sound exceptionally stupid, especially coming from the inhabitant of a town whose fame was derived from the aesthetic beauty of its dwellings. You might think that the cottage-builders would come to the rescue and put these Eagle in their place. But it must be remembered that all the inhabitants of Littleton (except the Eagles, that is) still believed in paying respect to the old manuals. And all the old manuals said that the Eagles were the smartest and in charge.

So rather than putting the Eagles in their place, the cottage-builders themselves began to take on this new aesthetic-free, purpose-free style of architecture. And thus began the "Post-Quaint" era of Littleton, when the merit of a new cottage was measured merely in how many aesthetic rules it broke and old traditions it disrespected. Freedom to innovate began to trump all else. Unfortunately for Littleton, more tourists were pouring in than ever, providing them with even more money to be spent on still more extravagantly weird little dwellings.

And in this way, the Eagles' own disregard of the Manuals began to infect the rest of Littleton. Rare indeed was the individual who attempted to get any kind of overview of what a single Manual, let alone all the Manuals, had to say. Without the leadership of the Eagles, this had become all but impossible. The Town Hall project fell to ruin. And now, only a rare few in Littleton have the courage (or the time) to figure out what went wrong and how their Golden Age had come to end. But as long as a few inhabitants still read the old manuals for pleasure, especially the earliest chapters, perhaps some few of them will eventually come along with the know-how to start putting the pieces back together.

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