Borsalino Test #23: Vodka soda and the meaning of freedom

Vodka soda and the meaning of freedom

Ballpark rituals

Wrigley Field has been the beloved home of the Chicago Cubs for more than a century. During my brief stint in Chicago I have attended a handful of games there. At the time, I cultivated the unrealistic expectation of getting swept off my feet by this exotic ballgame.

Needless to say, my grasp over baseball murky mechanics is still very much nonexistent. However, there’s still much about baseball I have absorbed from mere observation of players at the Field. Pitchers adopt the same pregame rituals. They walk from the locker room to the same spot on the bench, put their water bottle in the exact same spot, and stretch in the same way. They maneuver geometries of their workplace in the very same, sequential way. Game after game. 

I’ve been told there are two locales in a pitcher’s universe—on the mound and off the mound. When a pitcher is on the mound he should be thinking about only two things, pitch selection and pitch location. If he finds himself thinking about something else, he should get off the mound. The discipline of on-the-mound thinking is to put the task at the center. The pitcher’s personality isn’t at the center. His talent and anxiety aren’t at the center. The task is at the center.

Great players have the ability to self-distance from what they are doing. They are able to be cool about the thing they feel most passionate about. If you do this long enough, you begin to understand your own strengths and limitations. You develop your own individual method. Rituals serve exactly that function. They operate as volume knobs for mental focus. 

This kind of structured discipline is necessary to escape the tyranny of the scattered mind. Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy. Freedom from expectations and the demands of others. From weakness and fear. And self-doubt.

Vodka soda and mushroom omelets

When a carpenter wants to cut a half-dozen boards to the same length, they are unlikely to measure each one, mark it, and then carefully guide the saw along the line made on each board. Rather, they will make a jig. 

A jig is a device or procedure that guides a repeated action by constraining the environment in such a way as to make the action go smoothly, the same each time, without them having to actively think about it. A jig reduces the degrees of freedom that are afforded by the environment. It stabilizes a process, and in doing so lightens the burden of care. On both memory and fine muscular control. 

The concept of a jig can be extended beyond its original context of manual fabrication. As David Kirsh points out in his article “The Intelligent Use of Space,” jigging is something that expert practitioners do generally. Pitchers’ rituals are one of many forms of jigging. 

Consider a bartender who gets an order from a waitress. A vodka soda, a glass of house red, a martini dry, and an old fashion. What does she do? She lays out the four different kinds of glass that the drinks require in a row, so she doesn’t have to remember them. If another order comes in while she is working on the first, she lays out more glasses. In this way, the sequence of orders, as well as the content of each order, is represented in a spatial arrangement that is visible at a glance. It is in the physical world, rather than in her head. This is good, because there is only so much room in her head.

Now let’s pick a short-order cook on the breakfast shift. As he finishes his coffee, the first order of the morning comes in: a sausage, onion, and mushroom omelet with wheat toast. The cook lays out the already chopped sausage next to the pan, the onions next to the sausage, then the bread, and finally the mushrooms, farthest from the pan. 

He now has the ingredients in a spatial order that corresponds to the temporal order in which he will require them: once it gets hot, the sausage will provide the grease in which the onions will cook, and the onions take longer to fry than the mushrooms do. He places the bread between the onions and the mushrooms as a reminder to himself to start toasting the bread at such a time that the toast will be ready just as he is sliding the omelet out of the pan. The pace of what comes next is set by the level of heat under the pan, which he generally leaves at the same level throughout the shift—it corresponds to an internal clock he has developed through long practice. 

When the sound and smell of the omelet indicate that he ought to turn down the heat, he removes the pan from the flame and sets it to the side for a while—maybe the amount of time it takes to retrieve a colander—rather than turn down the flame. That way, the level of heat is encoded spatially in the environment, in a way accessible to peripheral vision, and has a temporal dimension too, becoming part of the cook’s bodily rhythms as he moves around the kitchen. He doesn’t have to stoop down to look at the flame and make fine adjustments to a knob. The mental work he has to do on this omelet is reduced and externalized in the arrangement of physical space.

Jigging and the meaning of traffic management

I am now a few essays into this journey of learning how to write. It is evident to me that my own memory is not a reliable friend, nor a sufficient source of inspiration. Also, it’s hard to organize thoughts sequentially. If you’re anything like me, you’ve noticed that ideas occur serendipitously, in a random logical order, and when you are expecting them the least.

I took the habit of taking notes on my phone every time a quality thought pops to my forehead. When I research a piece, I start from a collection of dozens of excerpts from books and articles. It turns out I think geographically. I need to see notes and paragraphs laid out before me to get a sense of what I am working on. I created a system that works for me - a jig. 

The writing process is very much not sitting at the keyboard typing on a blank page. It is a cadenza of ‘Alt-Tab’s and ‘Command-F’s among a vast archive of categorized notes. Once that’s done, I start separating paragraphs that conceptually belong to the same ideological roots. Then split them further into shorter sentences. Finally, I fine-tune color, tone and punctuation. Writing is a work of traffic management. 

Kirsh finds that experts “constantly rearrange items to make it easy to track the task, figure out, remember, or notice the properties signaling what to do next, predict the effects of actions.” This frees them from the kind of halting deliberation that you can see at a glance in the movements of a beginner who is relying on conscious analytical processes. 

Experts make things easier for themselves by partially jigging or informationally structuring the environment as they go along. A physical jig reduces the physical degrees of freedom a person must contend with. By seeding the environment with attention-getting objects a person can informationally jig it to constrain his mental degrees of freedom. The upshot is that to keep action on track one has to keep attention properly directed. 

Once we have achieved competence in the skill, we don’t routinely rely on our powers of concentration and self-regulation—those higher-level “executive” functions that are easily exhausted. Rather, we find ways to recruit our surroundings for the sake of achieving our purposes with a minimum expenditure of these scarce mental resources.

Advanced cognition and dissipated reasoning

The primal tension between freedom and structure traces back to human agency. A humming kitchen or a buzzy bar may be regarded as ecologies of attention. The external demand of serving people in a timely manner provides a loose structure. The staff establishes an internal order of smooth, adaptive action within those boundaries.

Andy Clark, one of the leading figures in the extended-mind literature, writes that “advanced cognition depends crucially on our ability to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical wisdom through complex structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political and institutional constraints.” Such constraints might be called - you guessed it - jigs.

Consider the example of how our capacity for “advanced cognition” depends on environmental props: doing arithmetic. It is not hard to multiply 18 by 12 in your head, for example by multiplying 18 by 10 to get 180, and then multiplying 18 by 2 to get 36, and finally adding 36 to 180 to get 216. 

We break the math problem down into simpler pieces, to be reassembled at the end. We can do this because our “working memory” is able to keep three to five items in play at any one time. But no more than that, for most of us. If one has to multiply 356 by 911, the number of items to juggle becomes quite challenging, so what do we do? We reach for a pencil and paper.

With this simple expedient, we vastly extend our intellectual capacities. Long division, algebra, calculating the load on a structural member, building space shuttles, and all the rest. A number of metaphors have been suggested. We “offload” some of our thinking onto our surroundings. We incorporate objects in such a way that they come to act like prosthetics. 

To understand human cognition, it is a mistake to focus only on what goes on inside the skull. Our abilities are highly scaffolded by environmental props. By technologies and cultural practices, which become an integral part of our cognitive system.

Freedom from, freedom to

So, are jigs and environmental props essentially levers to reduce our freedom? Does expertise constrain our ability to be human? In our culture we think of freedom as the absence of restraint. That’s freedom from. But there is another and higher kind of freedom. That is freedom to. This is freedom as fullness of capacity, and it often involves restriction and restraint. 

You have to chain yourself to the piano and practice for years if you want to play ‘La Campanella’ by Listz, especially like this. You have to engulf a certain set of virtuous habits in your routine so you don’t become a slave to your destructive desires. The desire for alcohol, the desire for approval, the desire to lie in bed all day. 

As the theologian Tim Keller puts it, real freedom “is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones.” So much of our lives are determined by the cultural definition of freedom (“freedom from”) we carry around unconsciously in our heads. 

Today’s view of freedom is one that was articulated at the founding of modern liberalism by John Locke and others. The thing we needed to be free from was clear: the arbitrary exercise of coercive power by the political sovereign.

The birth of liberalism is a crucial moment for the spread of “freedom from” as a social construct. Locke fleshed out the idea of freedom in a way that was necessary for his political arguments, but also resonated far beyond politics, and continues to inform the ideal of autonomy that has become second nature for us. 

Locke’s argument is quite straightforward: we are all equal in our smallness before God. Therefore our natural estate is one of freedom in relation to one another. Locke spells this out further. Once upon a time we lived in a “state of nature,” the defining feature of which was the absence of some recognized authority. In this state, it is merely the dictates of one’s own reason that one obeys—there is no such thing as “authority.” 

If we are to get truly free, we cannot rely on the testimony of others. The positive idea that emerges, by subtraction, is that freedom amounts to radical self-responsibility. This is both a political principle and an epistemic one. We achieve this, ultimately, by relocating the standards for truth from outside to inside ourselves. That’s the birth of “freedom to”.

Freedom and self-understanding, then, are intimately intertwined. The point isn’t to reach bedrock — some foundational, holistic understanding of the self — but rather to act like a geologist and get a clear sectional view of the strata. You may or may not find the task easier than understanding baseball rules.