Tempo: transformative, difficult look at advanced decision-making theory

As I've noted here before, Venkatesh Rao is a thought-provoking, profound thinker, and I always welcome his long, fascinating blog posts. When he sent me a copy of his slim book, Tempo, I was very excited to see it turn up in my mailbox.

Tempo is Rao's attempt to formalize many years of study into human decision-making. Rao spent two years as a Cornell post-doc doing USAF-funded research on "mixed-initiative command and control models," part of the research on decision-making that includes such classics as Chet Richards's Certain to Win. Rao taught a course on decision-making theory at Cornell that included many of his theories, metaphors and advancements on the subject, and he reports that students found the course entertaining, but disjointed -- a "grab bag" of ideas. Tempo is meant to turn that grab-bag into an orderly, systematic argument explaining Rao's overall view of how and why we decide stuff, how we can change the way others behave, and how to look at the history and future of humanity's individual and collective decisions. Heavy stuff, in other words.

Rao does not entirely succeed in making an orderly argument out of his grab bag. My relationship with Tempo was tumultuous. It's heavy going, abstract, and makes difficult (for me) to follow leaps from one subject to the next. I would normally read 150 pages of academic text in a day or two, but after two days with Tempo, I was still only 40 or so pages in. Usually, that's my signal to move on to the next book -- life's too short, and somewhere out there, someone's written something equally informative but easier to absorb.

But I didn't stop reading Tempo -- instead, I talked about it over dinner that night with some friends I don't often see. I was captivated by Rao's explanation of tempo-driven narrative decision-making, the notion that we decide based on the stories we tell ourselves ("I will get a good job") and that the most important difference between one situation and the next is the rate at which the interactions and decisions proceed. Rao draws on examples as disparate as cooking and warfare, customer service and PowerPoint presentations, teaching and seduction.

A day or two later, I did put Tempo down. I kept it on my shelf, but moved it from the (teetering) "to be read" pile to the shelves of stuff I've finished with (for now at least). I was only halfway through, but I kept losing the thread, and I sometimes doubted whether there was a thread. Rao was blowing my mind every five or ten pages, but in between, he was driving me to distraction with jumps that I was either too dumb to follow or that he wasn't handling gracefully (or both).

But I've just picked it up again, and finished it. Why? Because I kept on referring to it in discussions -- all sorts of discussions. A critical analysis of a friend's manuscript for a new book on security; a talk with my agent about the plot of an upcoming novel; a discussion of economics and bubbles; a practical political planning session for an upcoming debate at a party conference. Tempo had stimulated a lot of thinking for me, and I thought it deserved finishing.

So I've finished it, and while I very rarely bother to post about books that I can't wholeheartedly recommend (see "life's too short," above), I find myself driven to post a rare mixed review. Tempo may be the most fascinating book whose thesis I couldn't entirely grasp and whose author I couldn't wholly follow that I've ever read. Theories of how and why people do things are key to everything from economics to law to security to ethics to literary criticism to childrearing to military adventurism to political campaigning. Rao's insights and examples are fascinating and sometimes transformative. All I can hope is that Tempo will be succeeded by better-developed versions of his argument, that expand and connect his ideas.


  1. I would dearly love to have this as a digital version. I might buy a print version if I need to collect it, but such topics tend to do well for mobile reading.

  2. You wouldn’t be reviewing manuscripts of Schneier’s new book, would you?

    (edited to add: and would you be willing to tell us if you were?)

  3. If Tempo is a bit too dense, Cialdini’s book on persuasion and marketing, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, may be a little more accessible.

  4. Tempo may be the most fascinating book whose thesis I couldn’t entirely grasp and whose author I couldn’t wholly follow that I’ve ever read.

    I feel the same way about Venkat’s blog.

    IMO he could use a collaborator.

    1. IMO he could use a collaborator.

      I would agree with that, he needs someone, a tether of sorts, to communicate the implicit side of his thinking in a concise way that is understandable and relatable.        

  5. There’s no comparison of course, but I appreciate hearing others’ candid thoughts about difficulties reading. I used to be a voracious book consumer, and now they’re just piling up (“bibliosclerosis”?). It’s impossible to talk about it usefully in the US circles in which I move. However, I appreciate hearing numbers. 150 pp. in 2 days… wow. When I started my history studies in Germany, a chain-smoking instructor told us “You’re going to read. You’re going to read a 15-page article at breakfast,” and I did. In German. Something about as the tribe does so doest thou?

    It’d be funny if it turned out my current reading issues are somehow related to my decision-making processes. Probably everything is.

  6. Sounds like a lot of syncretic hot air.

    Probably thought provoking if it’s your first contact with the ideas used, but the blog makes the author sound as desperate to be clever and prove he has a new/better perspective on old ideas, even if it means misrepresenting them (his acknowledgement of the influence of Boyd’s OODA Loop on his work is bordering on the hilarious, the rest I have yet to read).

    Anyway, I’ll probably buy it on Kindle, if only for the pleasure of ranting against the author by myself.

  7. For the past few years I’ve only engaged in ‘Dogma 95’-driven decision making….narrative is so bourgeoisie! Rao clearly needs to read Alan Sokal’s stuff  in ‘Social Text’ from ’96.

  8. I quite enjoyed the book, but I would second Cory’s general take. I’ve described Tempo as an 800-page book in 150-pages. There is a lot of assumed prior knowledge. If you want a simple preparation, I would recommend getting familiar with four concepts:

    1) Metaphor (in the Lakoff/Johnson sense). Read the first few chapters of Metaphors We Live By, or the wikipedia article of the same. Key concepts: embodied cognition, structural similarities. See also Images of Organization by Gareth Morgan.
    2) Legibility (in the James C. Scott sense). The book Seeing Like A State is fanatastic, but it’s a hefty read – Venkat summarizes the core concept here: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/
    3) Complexity – in the complexity theory sense. I recommend Melanie Mitchell’s book Complexity: A Guided Tour as an introduction to the key concepts. I’m sure judicious wikipedia research would work as well.
    4) Feedback/OODA: John Robb and Chet Richards are excellent starting points on the subject. http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/the-ooda-loop.html

    I think Tempo is a rough-to-impossible read for the unprimed. If you’re clever and willing to step out of the book to follow up on some of the concepts dropped without explanation, you can get a lot of use from it. On G+ Venkat’s been talking about putting together a book-like introduction to many of these concepts based on cleaned up blog posts on the same, and that may be the better way to go, ultimately.

    I do recommend the book highly, but just with the above caveats.

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