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.