Public perception, Reality, And Narratives: The Tabula Rasa

In a long term project, there will be a certain amount of elegance involved simply because of the type of math that governs complex systems. Climate is an example of a complex system–in the short term, it can appear chaotic, or “fragile”–easily influenced by behavior within it. Taken in its proper context, however, in this case the amount of time Earth has been covered with life,  the available data shows that this is a meta-stable complex system, like the rest of the universe, and therefore unlikely to be derailed by the actions of those operating in a small subset or segment of the system.

Long term projects can be designed with tightly defined goals, broad goals or as an open ended project to be altered over time as it matures. If, for instance, you were in a “Foundation” situation, as laid out by Isaac Assimov, you would design a project that allowed for intervention at certain intervals, or had multiple elegant segments designed to be brought into play if certain combinations of events happened together.

The Foundation Series Overview.

Hari Seldon invented what he called “psychohistory” the branch of math that quantifies the behavior of large groups of people, and uses predictive analysis and scaling to determine “what happens next”. Seldon found that the Empire was dying, and that if intervention didn’t happen, the dark ages would last a long, long time. By carefully analyzing what he had available, he designed a series of elegant segments that could be used at certain points, “Seldon Crises”, that would yield a solution to the conditions at that time and shorten the time frame of the dark ages.

His tapes were stored in a vault at the Foundation facility, where the inhabitants were hard at work compiling a Galactic Encyclopedia. While they didn’t know it, their work was essentially a cover–a useful thing to do that preserved knowledge and encouraged maximum interaction among the planets, without endangering the project going on at the Second Foundation–the home of the math geeks.

This is an open ended project, as the final outcome was never revealed, and Seldon himself might not have seen what the final outcome was in terms of humanity. As such, on the “micro” scale–the individual planets of the empire and others–things seemed pretty disorganized and chaotic at times. But on the macro-scale, this was a meta-stable system, and very elegant given the extreme time frames. It should be noted that when Assimov wasn’t writing amazing science fiction, he was a noted scientist, mathematician and all around genius. So he knew his stuff.

A Long Term Single Focus Project

So, for the fun of it, let’s say you wanted to force a regime change in a country–perhaps because you have nothing better to do. Or maybe your a technocrat, who wants to rule the world and make it better through tech and math. Or maybe you’re a theocrat, with visions of a God centered world. Or a kleptocrat, who really has no interest in what kind of country you live in, as long as the trains are on time, you have power, and you’re making money.

If you made a physical model of your project, it would look like a flexible funnel; a long, slender one. Along the way, if the very large mass of people made choices that were counter narrative, the funnel would stay about the same diameter. However, as more and more people began complying with the narrative, the number of “safe” choices begins to decrease.

Once the project passes a critical point, the endgame is absolutely inevitable. Unless you managed to dispose of every person, company, organization and information source following the narrative, you can’t stop the endgame itself, because you’re in the neck of the funnel. The question then becomes not whether you can stop the endgame, but how you should counter the endgame to create the most desirable outcome, given the circumstances.

The Tabula Rasa–The Ultimate Hard Reboot.

Once a country has entered the neck of the funnel, there will be an endgame. Because when math and “reality” are at odds, math wins. This is where a Tabula Rasa segment is the only viable answer to the equation, the project in play at the time. A Tabula Rasa is a very specialized elegant meme, that is constructed for a specific project, unlike other forms of elegant memes. A Tabula Rasa has some specific characteristics:

  • It is as context free as possible. This is why it is called the Tabula Rasa, in this case; it’s a “blank slate”. A long term project that is designed to produce a specific outcome has built in balancing mechanisms–if the group does “A”, “B” will happen, through push back, blow back, or planned reaction. The project is also designed so that the most probable reactions can be seen well in advance, and planned for.
  • It can be carried on in isolated instances, randomly, or coordinated to happen in multiple places under set circumstances. This way, anyone, anywhere, who feels a local circumstance calls for this solution, they can use it with near zero instruction, zero experience, and no specialized equipment or preparation.
  • Because it has near zero contextual framing, it is easily internalized, rapidly personalized, and carries extreme psychological weighting. Thus, any attempt by the project team or the media to introduce a context will fail.
  • Beyond the aspect of contextual framing failing, this segment is also, like a defiance meme or a standard elegant meme, self-propagating.  It is designed to be seen as a low risk expression. And as it is full internalized and personalized, the subject “owns” it, the urge to use it is heightened.

Some Working Examples Of A Tabula Rasa

This type of segment can be written–a phrase like “Who Is John Galt?” would be an example, if placed in a zero context environment, such as block printed in black on a white wall. The human brain is a big fan of context–a lack of context creates subconscious “anxiety”. So the subject who sees this particular example and is not familiar with the reference, will feel a mild curiosity the first time they see it.

If they see it again, on another wall, or a billboard, the compulsion to investigate will grow. Eventually, after the third random sighting, they will begin to ask people what it means, and find their way to the original reference. With the context provided, the anxiety is gone.

Any symbol can serve as a basic Tabula Rasa segment, if it is one that is relatively unknown, and always placed in a different context free setting. The more unusual it is, the better it works. A Peace sign, for example, does NOT work, because everyone recognizes it. But if you were to research old symbols, and find the Egyptian hieroglyph for “peace” and begin scattering that around, and could make it go viral, it would serve a purpose. It would both distract the subjects from the ongoing project and the direct impact it has on them, and it would also allow them to fully identify with the perspective once they find the “answer”.

The act of searching for the answer and being frustrated causes the mind to speculate on what might be at the end of the quest. The quest becomes personal, something that takes on a magnified importance. And when the end is reached, the value of the “secret knowledge” has an exaggerated significance, proportional to the effort required to find it.


A Tabula Rasa that is designed for a specific type of event is more challenging, as context can’t be avoided, as a rule. When this is the case, the context still must be kept as close to zero as possible. Anything over 1 element dilutes the effect. So on the rare occasions you see a pure example, with no explanation given, it will typically have only one symbolic element.

Never Explain The Unexplainable!

Many people recognize the visceral impact of a symbol or group of like symbols, with no context. Like this Image by David Castillo Dominici at


While this isn’t a pure Tabula Rasa, this picture of a military cemetery carries high psychological weight none the less. The Perspective is one of organized, regimented death. Because each stone is alike, each soldier, whether related to you or not, is internalized as “someone’s son or daughter, who died for my freedom”. The intent of this design is quite specific.

In a “civilian” cemetery, the symbols of “death” are personal–everything from simple headstones to weeping angels. These are individual people, and the stones and flowers are the personal perceptions of those who ordered them. They can also indicate social status, historical prominence, and other temporal attributes–for examples look at pictures of older cemeteries in the south and in the Northeast, where the Founding Families will often have elaborate crypts, inside fences, and there will frequently be sections–a “Jewish” section, a “pauper’s field”, etc. More than one PhD has been written when it comes to graveyard analysis :-).

In a military cemetery, the message is that all soldiers are of equal value. That death is not only inevitable, it is the great equalizer–the general may be placed next to the private. Here, we see the purest expression of military discipline–everything squared away,  impeccably maintained, ordered, cataloged, and inspection ready. Just as these soldiers stood in life, in formation awaiting the inspection of their commanding officer, they now are in formation in death.

The Perspective is one of order. The perception is personalized, internalized by those who visit the cemetery. For some, a military cemetery is far “creepier” then a private one–because it is so impersonal. Death is a creepy thing to begin with. Death with so little context can lead the mind into some very creepy places. To others, it is beautiful, often in a far more personal way than a private cemetery, precisely because they supply their own perception. And to the majority of people, a military cemetery produces a far more intense effect on the mind than a private one, like this one (Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at ):


Compare those two pictures yourself, and see which has a more powerful effect on you.

A Tabula Rasa with one contextual point is designed to fit very specific circumstances. And choosing the single context point is the hardest part of the design phase. The symbol most be one that is universally identifiable, but can still mean different things to different people depending on context. It has to be a symbol that can be fully internalized, and personalized. and any other context, such as a person holding a symbol, must be as neutral as possible.

A well designed segment of this type offers a strong symbol, with no contextual clues provided. As an example–the black monolith from the movie 2001:

What did it mean? More importantly–what did it mean to YOU? This was a very unique use of a Tabula Rasa, just as the ending sequence of the movie was. Beginning and ending a movie with something that is absolutely unexplained was a stroke of genius. If you asked 10000 people what they remembered the most from the movie, “the monolith”, and “the baby reaching out for Earth” or “the very end” would be the most common answers.

And every one of those people would likely offer you a different interpretation of them, also. Put a group of people together and ask them as a group what this means, and at the very least you’ll have an interesting dialogue. But the more likely result would be a rather heated discussion, with everyone defending their perception vigorously. And when the talking heads produce a documentary, with experts in symbology to tell you what the monolith and the baby mean, the result will inevitably be abysmal failure, simply because the odds of more than a small number of people agreeing on the meaning are vanishingly small.

In this case, Arthur Clarke himself said he had no idea what Stanley Kubrick was trying to say. And when Kubrick related what he had been trying to say, everyone disagreed with him. So, his personal project was an abject failure, but the Tabula Rasa he inadvertently created was a raving success.

When The Tabula Rasa Is Deployed:

It will just appear, from nowhere, with no explanation. As an example, a lone person, wearing only dark blue clothing, walks to the center of a grassy area in front of a public building and stands there. A few minutes later, he’s joined by someone else in dark blue, who stands an arm’s length away. Then a third. And a fourth.

By the time you get to six people in a row, passers by are stopping and watching.

When you get to a 6×6 square, people are taking video on smart phones, and tweeting. And in relatively short order, there is a news crew. When your display grows to 10×10, people begin moving into the display, trying to provoke reactions. Media are asking passers by for reactions, and trying to ask participants arriving what it is about.

When another display of the same type begins to form a distance away, the response time will be shorter, and the attempt to engage will be higher. And if displays of the same type begin appearing in other cities, the awareness and impact will be exponentially higher.

The debates will begin among the direct witnesses, and on twitter, and Facebook, and Reddit, but the odds are extremely small that the media will be able to successfully frame any narrative that is accepted by all, and disseminate it before it becomes invalid–because this segment  forces a rapid internalization by each subject, that then is personalized, and shared with others, creating massive discourse without consensus.

And when the right symbol is added to counter the project, the narrative is destroyed.

This is the essence of a successful Tabula Rasa segment–it derails the endgame for its target project because, from a very basic point of view, it takes two people to have an argument. And a project, at its deepest level, is an argument on one side of the equal sign, and a solution on the other. In this case, the base argument, the model, instead of being countered by a solution (like a demonstration, torches and pitchforks, tar and feathers, with arrests and other inevitable consequences) is countered by a cloud of infinite possibilities.

And as each person creates their own solution, the odds of the solution originally intended being accepted gets smaller–as do the odds that the project team’s planned counters for the planned actions of the people will be deployed at all.




4 thoughts on “Public perception, Reality, And Narratives: The Tabula Rasa

  1. Pingback: Public Perception, Reality, And Narrative Part 3 – fortunesthoughts

    • Yep. We nicknamed it a “blank slate”, because it has zero/near zero context. As such, it targets the oldest parts of the brain directly, and creates an imperative to fill in the context, right now.

      The subconscious mind becomes very anxious when only half of an equation, so to speak, is present–it’s something that is hardwired in through millennia of evolution. Part of the basic survival instinct is the need to make the mysterious mundane, the unknown known and understood as rapidly as possible, so you can judge whether it’s a fight, flight, or unite situation.


  2. Pingback: Public Perception, Reality, and Narratives: Basic Elegant Segment Types – fortunesthoughts

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