Cunningham’s Law states that the best way to get a correct answer on the internet is not to ask the question but to post an incorrect answer . The actual mechanism underlying the phenomenon probably revolves around motivation, the why. But I’m interested in creation, the what. And what Cunningham’s Law reveals is the same simple truth that OuLiPo relies on; it is easier to react than to act. It is easier to refine and correct than to create. This is why so many companies spend so much time and money polishing turds. That and the sunk cost fallacy.
In Cunningham’s Law, the starting point is inherent in the intended outcome. Knowing the question, I formulate what I know is the wrong answer and wait for someone else to supply the correct one. In OuLiPo’s case, the starting point is arbitrary. I use semi-random generative devices to create the thing to which I’ll react and then see where it goes. N+7 is an example arbitrary device. In N+7, the writer selects an existing piece of writing and then substitutes the noun 7 places away in a dictionary. The corrective reaction is either in the reader, who experiences literary vertigo, or in the writer, who uses the resulting text as a new starting point for a new process.
Around ten years ago, I picked up an old copy of Diseases of Swine at the book fair in Monterey, Virginia, an invigorating drive over three mountains from where I lived in Staunton. Sometimes, when I am particularly vexed at someone, I flip to a random entry in that book and then interpret the treatment plan for the pig disease into a plan. Antibiotics. What’s the antibiotic for being an idiot? It’s the same basic sort of generative device as N+7 and helps me come at the problem from a new direction.
- Ironically Ward Cunningham refutes the attribution.