writing

Freestyle and Building the Future

Hip Hop Architecture Camp

I argued back at the end of June that LIFE IS A FREESTYLE was not just a tagline, but was the name for a serious and detailed conceptual metaphor. Also, I gave some examples of how it can help people understand and live life better. A freestyler is aware to context, reading the room and responding to others, and someone who lives life according to this metaphor will be. A freestyler is able to deal with it when the beat changes, and someone who lives life according to this metaphor will be able to do so, too. This is not just an offhand and trivial idea. It means that when the context and the “beat” (rhythms of life) change radically because of something like the COVID-19 pandemic, a person able to freestyle, and able to apply that skill to life, will be better able to adapt and keep up a positive flow. In a situation like this, the metaphor provides more than the common idea LIFE IS A JOURNEY does. Being able to freestyle as you live your life can mean the difference between personal happiness and progress on the one hand, or stagnation and “choking” on the other.

But let’s consider what that means on a grander scale, beyond an individual life. Can freestyle, and this metaphor, help us deal with 400 years of racial catastrophe in the United States and a president who refuses to clearly denounce white supremacy? With climate change and a president who has decided to withdraw from a major agreement to work against it? With a possible constitutional crisis if a leader of a major democracy refuses to give up power, even if defeated in an election? In other words, is LIFE IS A FREESTYLE just an individual coping strategy, or can it actually help us confront major issues in life and work toward a better future?

There are two answers to this, as I see it.

First, even if LIFE IS A FREESTYLE does just add to our capabilities to deal with crises on an individual, family, and work level, as when COVID-19 disrupts our contexts and rhythms, that can still be pretty important. It can be a very useful complement to other metaphors. We use several conceptual metaphors together to understand very challenging target domains, such as LIFE. So we could bring in LIFE IS A FREESTYLE to give us some perspective that LIFE IS A JOURNEY or LIFE IS AN UNWRITTEN BOOK doesn’t offer. Those metaphors don’t highlight social context or the rhythms and cycles of life in the same way and may not be able to offer us the same personal help.

Second, it seems like there is more to LIFE IS A FREESTYLE. We can, if we choose, freestyle (in the “off the top” sense) as a way of beginning to compose verses. We can use a freestyle (in the sense of “goes all over the place”) as a way of exploring metaphor, allusion, and the musicality of language. We can learn from what we freestyle rather than just letting it be something in the moment. Eventually, we can build on that. If we think that LIFE IS DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION, or maybe LIFE IS COLLABORATIVE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION, we can think of freestyle as a way to perform brainstorming, to intensely generate ideas. This process in design and architecture is called a charette, as was discussed by Mike Ford of Hip Hop Architecture in a recent Freestyle Friday.

The brainstorming is only part of the process of design. In creative writing terms, you follow a cycle (as Mike Sharples describes it) that goes through “engagement” and “reflection” repeatedly. First brainstorm, then be critical and revise and pare down, and then do it again and again. Wash, rinse, and repeat. In this way, you can use the freestyling process to develop something organized, honed, and highly effective.

To deal with the all the challenges of life today—not just the disruption of the pandemic, but also racial injustice, climate change, even the potential crumbling of democracy—we need to do more than freestyle a response and freestyle our way through life. We need to organize. We need to design solutions. We need to strategize beyond the next bar. LIFE IS A FREESTYLE is not the one absolute ruler of our concepts, some sort of dictator metaphor. It’s a contributor to the community of thought, one that can be useful if it’s taken seriously. It works alongside other metaphors that also have their uses and that highlight other important things about life.

[Photo of Hip Hop Architecture Camp by Urban Arts Collective, thank you!]

Rapping in the Shower

rappin in the shower keeps you clean/
you do it a capella, no drum machine/
the words are not written they are unseen/
just go with the flow let it mean what it means

Sometimes you don’t have other people to freestyle with—maybe you’re taking a shower, or maybe you’re in some situation where you expected a full circle, but it ends up being just you. Since a lot of freestyling is about the social context of the activity, responding to others and handing it off to them, is there any point to freestyling by yourself?

I say yes, and not just because it could be a type of training and make you better at freestyling when you do get into a group.

My much-missed colleague Prof. Patrick Winston, a computer scientist who died last year, worked to advance artificial intelligence and was also devoted to improving himself and others as public speakers. It was particularly special to me to hear his final public talk, and to let him know by email how much I enjoyed it in my last message to him. The insight I’m going to relate isn’t about public speaking, though, or about presenting results. It’s about speaking as you try to work something out.

Patrick said that the best way to solve problems was by talking to other people. If there aren’t any around, though, it’s a good idea to talk to yourself.

In programming, there’s even a name for talking to yourself about the code you’re writing: rubber duck debugging, where instead of going and asking a senior programmer about a problem, you carefully describe the problem to a rubber duck, perhaps one that you keep on your desk for this purpose. During the process of describing the problem carefully, you often are able to solve it, all by yourself.

Of course, I’m not claiming that LIFE IS COMPUTER PROGRAMMING. I would be interested to learn what exactly that metaphor is, but if the mappings are what I imagine, I think it has more than a few problems! Still, the basic insight is that you do learn from talking (or writing) to yourself. People who keep an entirely private diary demonstrate this all the time.

To put it in terms of the LIFE IS A FREESTYLE metaphor:

The freestyler who engages socially is able to learn from others and up their game. This maps to a person, living life, who collaborates, listening and responding to others, and as a result learns and improves.

Ideally, the social freestyler helps others up their game as well. This maps to a person, living life, who collaborates and helps others improve.

The freestyler who doesn’t have a social opportunity is still better freestyling than doing nothing. They can come up with rhymes and twists to metaphors that give them insights and provide beauty, even if they don’t take those directly, or even indirectly, to a stage or a cypher. This maps to a person, living life, who speaks out loud (alone) or writes (privately), using this external language to improve their lives.

I see this as consistent with the mappings I presented in the last post, including the ones related to cycles. But you tell me!

[will.i.am & Prof. Patrick Henry Winston in MIT’s Lobby 7, 2010.]