Of Singletons, Granfalloons and Karasses

There are lots of things in the world that are not Singletons, including some cool ideas about how we should act towards each other. These ideas encompass morality, normality, politics, and lead to physical manifestations like companies and nations.

There are also some pretty cool ideas that help us to deconstruct and question the ideas and groups of people that form naturally around the organizational concepts. One of my favorite is from Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

The granfalloon and the karass.

A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle), is defined as a “false karass“. That is, it is a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is meaningless.[vague]

Charles J. Shields‘s 2011 And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life quotes the novelist, who wrote[where?] that a “granfalloon is a proud and meaningless collection of human beings….” That biography also cites Hoosiers as “one of [Vonnegut’s] favorite examples” of what the term refers to.

  • karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.

BTW, Wikipedia is amazing, cheers to great writing on those pages.

Once you accept the idea that there are meaningful and meaningless connections with others, and everything else is a granfalloon, it will profoundly change the way you think about politics, leadership, and especially the concept of pride.

Being proud of belonging to a meaningful group, your karass, makes a lot of sense, both for emotional health and evolutionary protection of the tribe. These would be people you see every day at work, your family, the people in your immediate Dunbar Radius.

But being proud of being American? Being proud of being Russian? Being proud of your race? Being proud of your state? People you don’t know?

Feeling this pride isn’t wrong. It’s just meaningless. It’s a connection you are feeling whereby your brain is tricking itself into releasing social reward chemicals, treating the fictional grouping as an individual in your karass. It’s like feeling an affection for the planet Neptune. It may feel nice, but Neptune doesn’t care, and as far as the universe goes that connection is meaningless.

Feeling pride for your dog learning to stay, assuming the dog is in your karass, is meaningful.

Unfortunately, the meaningless pride for the granfalloons leads to massive unnecessary pain for real individuals in the world.

These granfalloons, in other words, are not Singletons. The don’t deserve our respect. We can treat them like robots and rebuild them to our heart’s content. But all Singletons do deserve our respect.

If we are to build better companies, and better countries, we must start with the understand that these are all convincing fictions. We can build new structures however we want to, and with the computers in our pockets we can even make their shape constantly change to meet the realities of our limited karasses.

And maybe there is some way to link all of our karasses. To think of government and organizations not as a top down hierarchies, but as overlapping Ven diagrams of influence.


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