A Song of Shapes and Words
what a bad time
I’ve been grinding for tiny scraps of engagement in the internet mines since I was but a wee lad. But my actual claim to fame turned out to be a memetic repackaging of funny cognitive patterns that ended up activating an incredible underbelly of tribalism that we didn't know we were missing until now. People are starved for good dichotomies and consumable sources of identity, and these neologisms turned out to perfectly combine the two. The brain worms started proliferating across “ingroup” and tech twitter as soon as “shape rotator” and “wordcel” dropped. I hate to make anything explicit that’s funnier left unsaid but after the 87th question about what shape rotation is and this awful article I've been worn down and I'm throwing in the towel. It’s not actually possible to control the definitions of these words at this late stage but I might as well attempt this futile effort.
My first disclaimer is that you need to be open minded for this. Don’t take it too literally. I will cite several questionable, possibly incorrect factoids about psychometrics, but the methodology doesn’t matter. We’re here to have a good time. It turns out that when you give a large set of people a battery of cognitive tests and run their scores through some statistical magic, two principal component axes emerge: visuospatial and verbal intelligence. Scores on both sets of tasks are still positively correlated (being good at one makes you more likely to be good at the other) but they display the largest orthogonality of cognitive ability. The most tangible, common, and yet inherently funny way to detect visuospatial skill are mental puzzles that ask you to envision which of these compound shapes on the right match the one on the left, albeit rotated:
The internet recognized the comedic value in differences in visual ability and has been generating memes about it in some form for a while:
On the other hand, the verbal portion of IQ tests might consist of vocabulary quizzes, analogical tests, or even anagrams. Not as meme-worthy.
Throughout early 2021, there was a massive Discourse in my part of twitter about IQ testing in general. People were incredulous that the ability to rotate boxes in your head could be indicative of anything other than, well, the ability to rotate boxes in your head. Now, dear reader, I could not possibly have an object level opinion on any of these issues, but I will sure as hell weaponize any emotionally charged discourse for satire and engagement:
Somehow I have become the poster child for the shape jihad, expanded the visuospatial canon a little bit, and fleshed out an unlikely, idiotic, and possibly dangerous ideology around the initial jokes about imaginary cube spinning. Later on I coined the opposite — the “wordcel” slur — and this meme started cooking with gas. But why is everyone fascinated with this distinction? Why are people proclaiming themselves wordcels and rotators? Why did these memes have such evolutionary power in the noosphere?
There is clearly some low-hanging fruit of social understanding here that was previously left untouched.
Beyond the purely technical level of psychometrics, these two archetypes seem to hint at deeper patterns in human nature. There are many verbally gifted writers and speakers that, when pressed to visualize some math problem in their mind's eye, must helplessly watch their normally high-octane intelligence sputter and fail. They often write or talk at a blistering clip, and can navigate complex mazes of abstractions — and yet, when it comes time to make contact with the real world or accomplish practical tasks, they may be helpless. They'll do great in English class, and terrible in Physics. They can be very fun to listen to due to their terrifying leaps in logic and the exceptional among them will be natural leaders.
The wordcel moniker describes more than just one’s level of verbal skill: it’s also a socioeconomic classifier that refers to people whose verbal ability borders on self-sabotage (thus the “-cel”). Perhaps they’re driven mad by political rage, postmodernism, and disconnection from reality. It might refer to the priestly figures who work in the culture factories of the New York Times with their incomes and social prestige both precipitously declining only for the unperturbed masses on the internet to tell them in unison: “learn to code”! There’s even an implication that these folks are entirely rent-seekers (wrong, but directionally interesting).
To the best of my knowledge, I coined the word in the heat of battle with another prodigious schizoposter (Mr. @Logo_Daedalus, whom I feel no animosity towards), and he became a kind of ur-example archetypal figure in the wordcel sphere. A deep yet largely unintelligible expert in the humanities, history and philosophy, his verbal abstractions have led him quite far from the base reality we share. While some of these types will become presidents, poets, priests, the vast majority will live and die producing little value, chasing down rhetorical dead-ends, with their scholarship forgotten. This is the central tragedy of the wordcel.
We all know the opposite archetype as well: the brain genius engineer that can whip up a spaceship part in AutoCAD in hours and make it look easy, but uses the wrong "their" in emails. They have preternatural intuition for technical problems that supersedes common reasoning. It might even look like the stereotypical dad skills of someone who can navigate between any two points within 40 miles of their home without opening a map, or someone who’s great with their hands. They may be very good at details and bad at seeing the bigger picture. The demarcation isn’t just between STEM and humanities — you will absolutely find wordcels in the STEM domains — rather, it’s about modes of thinking. It’s about realism, thing-orientation over people-orientation, and investigative grounding in the tangible world.
The shape rotators have been a minor force until very recent history. Though they’ve produced a significant portion of human progress through feats of engineering excellence, they were rarely celebrated until the dawn of the Enlightenment, perhaps 500 years ago. While the long-lasting glory of the Roman aqueducts is renowned to this day, nobody knows the chief engineer behind the project (probably Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, but who’s counting). Today their stock is climbing to the moon. The world’s richest (self-made) men are almost uniformly engineers, computer scientists, or physicists. Vast portions of society that in a prior age might have been organized by government bureaucrats or private sector shot-callers have been handed over to cybernetic self-organizing systems designed and run by mathematical wizards. We have been witness to the slow, and then rapid transfer of power from the smooth-talking Don Drapers of boardroom acclaim to the multi-armed bandits of Facebook Ads.
It’s clear that these big tech CEOs are verbally gifted, but by affinity and by practice they are in the rotator camp. Elon continually attributes his success to studying physics in college. Zuck programmed the original iteration of Facebook himself. Larry & Sergei did an entire PhD in linear algebra based information retrieval, a platonic ideal of shape rotation. Of the ten largest companies in the world, several are driven by fundamental technical breakthroughs. Society at large seems to respect and fear the forces of technology more and more as its cultural and financial capital rises.
Like the wordcel, the shape rotator has his own struggles. The rotators are fundamentally unable to tell their own story and struggle with historical context. Their concerns seem somewhat alien to the common man at best, and downright scary at worst. Fukuyama:
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.
The struggle of the shape rotator, the pursuit of technical progress, the mastery of realist competence is an alienating struggle that will not be seen as altogether honorable or romantic by broader society. The run-of-the-mill rotator may produce incredible amounts of value and fail to capture most of it, though many of them are kept well-compensated enough to not complain.
Is mental rotation really the same as technical skill?
Clearly not. Anybody that’s read a dense science paper or reasoned through some formal logic problem knows that mathematics requires vast amounts of verbal intelligence. Oftentimes, you find that lower level math is heavy on visualization and as it gets more and more abstract and high level you are staring at pages and pages of dense symbolic manipulations. Multivariable calculus is plain and straightforward shape rotation with symbols added on as an afterthought, but proving NP-completeness of 3-SAT is something else entirely. The initial insights of Einstein (“what if I was riding on a photon?”) (“gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration”) were world-historic shape rotation magic. But to get the formalisms correct, he had to recruit mathematicians like Minkowski, Hilbert, and others.
Overall I can’t strictly agree with this tweet:
But I think it’s sort of spiritually correct so we’ll let it fly.
Is programming shape rotation?
My Twitter audience is full of programmers who like to call themselves shape rotators. I’d say it depends. Some part of software engineering is genuinely visuospatial skill. At a basic level, programs are data and control flows that you visualize in your mind (there’s a reason we call it the control “plane”!) alongside object-model hierarchies, which then become serialized by your fingers into symbolic programming language. Software engineering can consist of building distributed systems or managing resources across compute clusters. Personally, I envision various compute resources filling up like water buckets with data flowing between nodes like a graph in my head. Machine learning is almost all shape rotation — all about letting those tensors flow. Of course, math programming more generally, as previously discussed, can be either-or.
But the folks who concern themselves mostly with the minutiae of programming logic, type theory, etc. are most definitely hardcore wordcels (wordchads?) and frankly, good for them. Here’s world-famous programmer of ReactJS Dan Abramov:
What should I do if someone calls me wordcel?
Call up the ADL, SPLC, etc and complain to them. Then try to dodge the allegations by playing this game and scoring above 1:00.
Is this the same as the right brain, left brain dichotomy?
I’m not even really sure what this is but I’m reading that
Left-brain thinkers are said to have strong math and logic skills, while right-brain thinkers are supposed to be more creative.
This doesn’t map at all. In my typology wordcels should be very strong at logic and rotators intuitively good at math. Creativity can obviously exist in both worlds.
The rotator ↔ wordcel axis also happens to map to some other common ones. I might expand on these later but I’ll just list them for now.
spacing guild v. bene gesserit
autism v. schizophrenia
san francisco v. new york
intuition v. formalism
empiricist v. rationalist
deep learning v. crypto
capitalists v. socialists
apolitical v. political
geometers v. algebraists
Some well-known wordcels:
Some shape rotators:
Watson & Crick
Some masters of both worlds: