Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Tipping Point

Blivet or not

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In the June 1964 issue of Analog, which first went on sale on May 7, readers were treated to the drawing reproduced above, along with a note from editor John W. Campbell:

This outrageous piece of draftsmanship evidently escaped from the Finagle & Diddle Engineering works. If the contributor of this item—sent anonymously for some reason—will identify himself, we will happily pay $10 (ten bucks) or a two-year subscription to Analog.

A few months later, in the October issue, Campbell provided an update, although the source of the image proved frustratingly elusive:

It’s impossible to publish even a small fraction of the letters that outrageous piece of draftsmanship evoked. There were well over one hundred fifty letters on that one item alone—and while we have long been aware of the unusually high level of intelligence of Analog’s readership, the high level of honesty was a new and pleasant discovery. Not one of all those letters claimed to be the original contributor, or demanded the ten dollars!

Campbell added that readers had directed his attention to other instances of the illusion, which he said was sometimes called a “blivit” [sic], in recent issues of such publications as Road & Track, QST, The SAE Journal, “various and sundry house organs,” and textbooks on topology and psychology. And in December, he printed a letter from Edward G. Robles, Jr. of Sacramento, California, who claimed that the image had originated at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

To the best of my knowledge, the earliest verified appearance in print of the illusion most commonly known as the “blivet”—although there are anecdotal reports, as we’ll see shortly, from decades earlier—was in the March 23, 1964 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology, in an advertisement for California Technical Industries, a company based in Belmont. The ad, a detail of which is pictured below, caught the eye of Donald Schuster, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, who wrote in a short item in the American Journal of Psychology:

In my opinion, it is a matter of a new type of ambiguous figure. Unlike other ambiguous drawings and geometric figures…it is the shift in the optical focal point which plays a role in perception and interpretation here. If the observer focuses on the left-hand side of the figure at reading distance, he sees three legs, and the right-hand side remains blurred and fuzzy; if he focuses on the right-hand side, he sees a U-shaped object, like a chain joint/horizontal brace. Only if he looks at the middle or slowly allows his view to pass over the figure does he come to realize that he is looking at an “impossible object.”

The following year, it was featured on the March 1965 cover of Mad, which referred to it as “The Mad Poiuyt.” It inspired a flood of replies pointing out that it had previously appeared in such publications as Engineering Digest, The Airman, The Red Rag, The Society of Automotive Engineers Journal, Popular Mechanics, and the letters column of the July 1964 issue of Popular Science, from a reader who said that he first saw it in The Circulator, published by the Honeywell Regulator Company in Minneapolis. (I owe most of this information to David Singmaster’s Sources in Recreational Mathematics, an archived version of which can be found here.) It also made one last appearance in Analog, in February 1969, in which Campbell discussed the phenomenon of endlessly ascending tones, illustrated by a picture of a blivet in the form of a tuning fork.

The invention of the blivet has been convincingly attributed to the Swedish graphic artist Oscar Reutersvärd, the originator of many other impossible figures, who asserted in a letter quoted in Bruno Ernst’s The Eye Beguiled that he had drawn “figures of the devil’s fork type” in Stockholm in the thirties. For its explosion in popularity in the sixties, however, we can look a little closer to home. In the October issue of Analog that I mentioned above, Campbell printed a letter from James E. Tunnell of Industrial Camera, based in Oakland, California, which featured a blivet on its company letterhead. Tunnell wrote:

While a student in grade school some twenty years ago, I saw for the very first time, in my old red mathematics book, a drawing much as that shown in the upper-left hand corner of this letter, and very much like that in your publication.

In 1952, when we started business, this design was undertaken to serve as a logo. We have used it on our letterhead, on the back of business cards…and on the automobiles we use as you can see on close inspection of the attached photograph.

In the field of higher mathematics, this model is known as a Two-Slot, Mark 4, Blivit—origin unknown—and during the past ten years has gotten into the hands of many organizations through our business dealings with them.

For reasons that I’ll explain in a moment, the italics are mine. And I’ll just note for now that it’s only half an hour by car from Oakland to Belmont, where California Technical Industries was based.

When you put all this information together, an intriguing pattern emerges. The blivet can plausibly be said to have first been drawn in the thirties by Reutersvärd. From there, it migrated into at least one textbook, until it ended up as the logo of Industrial Camera. Various individuals and groups were thereby exposed to it over the next decade until, suddenly, it seemed to be everywhere at once—it showed up in Analog just six weeks after its appearance in Aviation Week, which seems too soon for one instance to have directly inspired the other. In other words, it went viral. And the evidence, while limited, implies that it owed its overnight emergence to many of the criteria that have been proposed for other kinds of social epidemics. It was a “sticky” image that couldn’t be forgotten after the viewer had seen it. After a long gestational period, it took root in an existing community of scientists and engineers with a network of small publications and newsletters in which it could be easily shared. There was also a geographical factor involved, since many of these organizations were based in the Bay Area. (Social epidemics have a curious way of starting in my home state. Malcolm Gladwell’s classic case study in The Tipping Point is Rebecca Wells’s novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which first took hold in independent bookstores in Northern California, and I’ve elsewhere pointed to dianetics as an equally quintessential example.) The tipping point here may well have been its appearance in Analog, which was read both by a core audience of professionals and by a larger popular audience, and from there, it moved by a series of logical gradations to Mad, which, in the sixties, was an important gateway in which nerd culture passed invisibly into mass culture. It began as an inside joke, or even a meme, and before long, it became so ubiquitous that it seemed like it had always been there. If you’re looking for instances of virality, the blivet is a nice one, since it’s such a distinctive image that it doesn’t seem likely to have spread except by contagion. I don’t have the time to dig into it properly, but I offer it up to any academic who wants to trace its origins and dissemination more systematically. After all, it didn’t have just one tipping point, but two. Or maybe three. I guess it depends on how you look at it.

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to a discussion of the breakout success of the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. After its initial release in 1996, it sold reasonably well in hardcover, receiving “a smattering of reviews,” but it became an explosive phenomenon in paperback, thanks primarily to what Gladwell calls “the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” He writes:

The first bestseller list on which Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared was the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s list. Northern California…was where seven hundred and eight hundred people first began showing up at [Rebecca Wells’s] readings. It was where the Ya-Ya epidemic began. Why? Because…the San Francisco area is home to one of the country’s strongest book club cultures, and from the beginning Ya-Ya was what publishers refer to as a “book club book.” It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it. The groups of women who were coming to Wells’s readings were members of reading groups, and they were buying extra copies not just for family and friends but for other members of the group. And because Ya-Ya was being talked about and read in groups, the book itself became that much stickier. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something, after all, if you discuss it for two hours with your best friends. It becomes a social experience, an object of conversation. Ya-Ya’s roots in book group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.

You could say much the same thing about a very different book that became popular in California nearly five decades earlier. Scientology has exhibited an unexpected degree of staying power among a relatively small number of followers, but Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the work that that made L. Ron Hubbard famous, was a textbook case of a viral phenomenon. Just three months elapsed between the book’s publication on May 9, 1950 and Hubbard’s climactic rally at the Shrine Auditorium on August 10, and its greatest impact on the wider culture occurred over a period of less than a year. And its dramatic spread and decline had all the hallmarks of virality. In the definitive Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller writes:

For the first few days after publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it appeared as if the publisher’s caution about the book’s prospects had been entirely justified. Early indications were that it had aroused little interest; certainly it was ignored by most reviewers. But suddenly, towards the end of May, the line on the sales graph at the New York offices of Hermitage House took a steep upturn.

By midsummer, it was selling a thousand copies a day, and by late fall, over seven hundred dianetics clubs had been established across the country. As Miller writes: “Dianetics became, virtually overnight, a national ‘craze’ somewhat akin to the canasta marathons and pyramid clubs that had briefly flourished in the hysteria of postwar America.”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The result was a quintessential social epidemic, and I’m a little surprised that Gladwell, who is so hungry for case studies, has never mentioned it. The book itself was “sticky,” with its promise of a new science of mental health that could be used by anyone and that got results every time. Like Ya-Ya, it took root in an existing group—in this case, the science fiction community, which was the natural audience for its debut in the pages of Astounding. Just as the ideal book club selection is one that inspires conversations, dianetics was a shared experience: in order to be audited, you needed to involve at least one other person. Auditing, as the therapy was originally presented, seemed so easy that anyone could try it, and many saw it as a kind of parlor game. (In his biography of Robert A. Heinlein, William H. Patterson shrewdly compares it to the “Freuding parties” that became popular in Greenwich Village in the twenties.) Even if you didn’t want to be audited yourself, dianetics became such a topic of discussion among fans that summer that you had to read the book to be a part of it. It also benefited from the presence of what Gladwell calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. John W. Campbell was the ultimate maven, an information broker who, as one of Gladwell’s sources puts it, “wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own.” The connectors included prominent members of the fan community, notably A.E. van Vogt, who ended up running the Los Angeles foundation, and Forrest Ackerman, Hubbard’s agent and “the number one fan.” And the salesman was Hubbard himself, who threw himself into the book’s promotion on the West Coast. As Campbell wrote admiringly to Heinlein: “When Ron wants to, he can put on a personality that would be a confidence man’s delight—persuasive, gentle, intimately friendly. The perfect bedside manner, actually.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a crucial role, and in the case of dianetics, it had profound consequences on individual careers. One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. Isaac Asimov, by contrast, had moved from Manhattan to Boston just the year before, and Heinlein, fascinatingly, had left Hollywood, where he had been working on the film Destination Moon, in February of 1950. Heinlein was intrigued by dianetics, but because he was in Colorado Springs with his wife Ginny, who refused to have anything to do with it, he was unable to find an auditing partner. And it’s worth wondering what might have ensued if he had remained in Southern California for another six months. (Such accidents of place and time can have significant aftereffects. Van Vogt had moved from the Ottawa area to Los Angeles in 1944, and his involvement with dianetics took him out of writing for the better part of a decade, at the very moment when science fiction was breaking into the culture as a whole. His absence during this critical period, which made celebrities out of Heinlein and Asimov, feels like a big part of the reason why van Vogt has mostly disappeared from the popular consciousness. And it might never have happened if he had stayed in Canada.) The following year, dianetics as a movement fizzled out, due largely to Hubbard’s own behavior—although he might also have sensed that it wouldn’t last. But it soon mutated into another form. And before long, Hubbard would begin to spread a few divine secrets of his own.

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