In my choreographic work I use rules to generate movements and to guide the interaction between the dancers. In recent years I’ve also become increasingly interested in algorithmic design, generative art and artificial intelligence in general. And so I was thrilled when I came across Rules: A Short History of What We Live By, a recently published book in which Lorraine Daston explores the concept of rules and their role in shaping human behavior.
In less than 300 pages Daston analyzes a great variety of rules, from traffic rules and sumptuary regulations to legal treatises, cookbooks and the laws of physics.
As Daston observes, rules are so ubiquitous and indispensable that their existence is taken for granted. There is no culture without rules and a book about the history of all of these rules would amount to a history of humanity.
The term “rule” has a rich and interesting etymology. Its various meanings can be divided into three semantic clusters. Rules can be thought of as tools for measurements and calculations; as standards or models to imitate; and as laws or norms not to be breached. The notion of a rule as model or paradigm was still prevalent in the eighteenth century, but has since disappeared from usage, so much so that it is now considered its antonym.
As Daston argues, the long history of rules is structured around three oppositions: “rules can be either thick or thin in their formulation, flexible or rigid in their application and general or specific in their domains” (p. 3). "Thick" rules require experience and discretion to apply and come with exceptions, examples and provisions. By contrast, "thin" rules aspire to be self-sufficient and explicit and apply to all situations uniformly.
Thick rules were prevalent in medieval Europe, where they were used to guide decision-making in areas such as religion and governance. However, with the rise of urbanization and capitalism, the need for more predictable and uniform rules increased. This led to the emergence of a growing body of thin rules, which were first seen in the so-called mechanical arts, which encompassed everything from gardening and cooking to clockmaking and engineering, and later spread to other areas such as traffic, grammar and spelling.
Daston suggests that the shift towards thin rules is linked to the decline of the belief in the importance of virtue and ethics in leadership. In the West, leaders were no longer expected to possess the wisdom to exercise rules, and instead, the law became the ultimate authority.
Modern natural law, which emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, further solidified the role of thin rules in society. This new form of natural law drew from two conflicting currents: a belief in human reason guided by the divine, and a belief in human instincts. It aspired to stabilize a world of selfish, acquisitive individuals through thin rules that were universally valid, applicable to all peoples, and eternal.
The rise of thin rules has led to the dominance of regulations in modern society. This, in turn, has also led to the problem of rule rigidity. A system can grind to a halt when bureaucratic rules are followed to the letter. But when the background for thin rules collapses, thick rules resurface.
Daston also explores why some rules endure while others fail. She suggests that rules succeed when they make themselves superfluous and become second nature.
I always enjoy reading books that map out a conceptual landscape. Daston distinguishes three ways in which rules are stretched or bent: casuistry tests one rule against another; equity bends the letter of the law to conform to its spirit; and sovereign or executive prerogative breaks with rules altogether, such as when laws are suspended in a state of emergency or during a pandemic.
Rules. A Short History of What We Live By is a fascinating and highly readable book that will be of interest to anyone from AI researchers who try to capture the world into algorithms to lawmakers and regulators who try to force the world into a straightjacket of laws and regulations.
I now look forward to reading more of Lorraine Daston’s work.