Mopium, Copium, Hopium
Lore emerges when people try to make the minutes less lousy
Part 6/7 of the On Lore series.
One of my favorite bits of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an exchange between Ford Prefect and the Vogon guard who has been tasked with throwing Ford and Arthur Dent out of the airlock. Ford is trying desperately to stall for time:
Ford: I mean does it give you a full satisfying life? Stomping around, shouting, throwing people out of spaceships?
Vogon Guard: The hours are good.
Ford: They’d have to be.
Vogon Guard: But now that you’ve come to mention it, I suppose much of the actual minutes are pretty lousy. Er, er. Except some of the shouting I quite like. Resistance is use-
Ford: Yeah, sure, yes... You’re good at that I can tell… but if it’s mostly lousy, then why do you do it? What is it? The girls? The leather? The machismo?
Last week, we looked at some of the larger, macro-level functions of lore from the point of view of the lorecrafters who try to shape raw lore to their own ends, and how it shapes dark, gray, or light epistemologies. This is like the central-banking level of lorecrafting.
This week, I want to zoom in on the micro-level functions of lore at the level of day-to-day habits and ingrained behaviors, where the center of gravity of lore is actually situated. This is the household-budgeting level of the lorecrafting.
My hypothesis is that the function of lore at this level is to elevate the stream of lousy minutes to at least indifferent, and perhaps introduce a few great minutes into the stream, to make the rest of them worthwhile.
The better the lore, the larger the fraction of great minutes relative to indifferent or lousy ones.
In the limit, a lore-utopia is one where all the minutes are great and you don’t have to care about the hours at all. You can forget about big goals, epic journeys, and consequentialist projects. You can simply live in the moment, because every minute is its own reward. You’re not grinding away to make that one moment five years out — perhaps the Mars landing moment — super-duper extra-special to make up for all the lousy ones. Life itself has arrived in the happily-ever-after post-narrative (or post-historical phase).
Of course, there are no real lore-utopias. But we get a small taste from time to time.
Why, for instance, is there so much lore around coffee brewing? Why do coffee aficionados have vast stores of tips and ideas about equipment, roasts, and brewing techniques to swap with each other?
It’s because making and drinking your coffee in the morning or afternoon creates one of the rare great minutes in the stream of lousy and indifferent ones that make up a typical day for most people. Coffee rituals are a source of “great minute” lore.
But while “great minutes” lore is the most obviously attractive kind, the bulk of lore is devoted to making the lousy minutes somewhat less lousy, rather than crafting the great minutes.
How does lore do that? I think Marx was on the right track with his idea that religion is the opium of the masses. But you need a more fine-grained approach. Lore is something like a psyche-management memetic nootropic stack.
Let’s explore the stack and how it works.
Lore as a Nootropic Stack
Epics are fueled by kool-aid, a reality-distorting, potentially fatal concoction brewed for you by a charismatic leader. Drinking it transports you out of the minute-to-minute life.
Lore though, is fueled to a large degree by a triad of memetic substances I call mopium, copium, and hopium. Consuming it makes the minute-to-minute life better.
Mopium is lore comprising common patterns of whining and mutual commiseration about minor annoyances and grievances that nevertheless exact a heavy toll over a long period if left unmanaged. What the Brits call moaning.
Copium is “A metaphorical opiate inhaled when faced with loss, failure or defeat, especially in sports, politics and other tribal settings.” (from Urban Dictionary)
Hopium is “The metaphorical subtance that causes people to believe in a false hope…which represents the rationalization of the current situation, hopium represents the belief that the situation will someday improve.” ( from Urban Dictionary)
The connection between these functional-psychological characterizations and lore in the sense of narrative fragments might not be immediately obvious, but I’ll get to that.
An example of Mopium is routine watercooler games devoted to complaining about boring meetings or What Did the Clueless Boss Do Now?
An example of Copium is the line, “well, at least we learned something.”
An example of Hopium is reacting to a tepid product launch with something like “well maybe it’s because it’s the weekend, and sales will take off on Monday.”
All three often take the form of Bernean games, but unlike Bernean games, they often serve real functions that help break out of larger equilibriums. They are not necessarily eternal rituals that are a symptom of hopelessly arrested development.
So Mopium, Copium, and Hopium production and consumption is not always delusional self-talk.
Occasionally, good ideas for managing an annoying persistent circumstance or repeating situation emerge from moaning honestly about it.
Occasionally, you actually do learn something from a failure that makes the next attempt better.
Occasionally a possibility that begins as a false hope turns out to actually be a real hope.
Mopium, Copium, and Hopium make up 80% of lore, but there is a long tail of less commonly used memetic substances, all of which have this characteristic quality of being partly a kind of opiate that mitigates the toll of lousy minutes, and partly a genuinely adaptive kind of cognition with a small likelihood of actually improving the situation.
Two of the more important long-tail elements that I especially like are ones I call Ropium and Dopium.
Ropium, as in “enough rope to hang yourself” is a kind of short speculative foray or experiment exploring the possibility of changing stuck circumstances that produce too many lousy minutes. It’s a behavioral what-if. For example, what if we rearranged the chairs in the meeting room in a circle instead of in rows.
An idea like that might do nothing, it might effect a real change, or it might fail miserably and hang itself and turn into fuel for a “we tried that, it didn’t work” Mopium game.
Dopium is straight-up cognitive palliative self-care with no attempt to reorient within the situation or put a positive spin on a big dump of lousy minutes. For example, “let’s just take a 5-minute break” is a dopium move. The culture of break-taking, incidentally, is a big part of the lore of an organization.
Mopium, Copium, Hopium, Ropium, Dopium.
Remember that incantation. Remember how those memetic substances work together to manage the tempo of lousy and great minutes in the stream of activities that make up life in an organization or group.
Together, these five substances make up a kind of spice that enables sensemaking and navigation in possibility space (especially the nearby regions of possibility space, often called the adjacent possible).
You can usually “read” an organization very rapidly by taking an inventory of these five substances and constructing a profile of the nootropic stack that keeps an organization going.
Sometimes you’ll spot a kind of long-tail *pium you haven’t encountered before, and you can add it to your own store of metalore.
Now how does this connect to lore in the more common sense of little narrative fragments and bits of world-building?
*pium Hits and Narrative Beats
In narrative theory, especially screenwriting, the idea of a beat is an important one. A beat is something like a stimulus-response pair that moves a story forward. A character does or says something, and gets a response from another character or something in the environment. In a good story, that response is at least a little unexpected, keeping the story interesting.
Here is a non-example of a beat:
Alice: Hi, how’s it going?
Bob: Good, how’s it going with you?
Here is an example of a proper narrative beat:
Alice: Hi, how’s it going?
Bob: Awful. Just got out of another terrible Charlie meeting.
The second example is a proper beat because the response is slightly unexpected, and serves a narrative function — establishing that there is a guy named Charlie in the picture and that meetings with him are terrible.
But whether that beat is part of the main plot of the story, or part of the background lore, depends on who Alice, Bob, and Charlie are, and what role the information conveyed by the beat plays.
Notice though, that whether or not it functions as part of the main story, it functions as lore simply by virtue of having the structure of a moan. It’s a bit of mopium.
A beat is by definition also a *pium hit of some sort.
When beats like this repeat in organizational life, they get reinforced, recognized, and occasionally reified into a named pattern or trope. For example, if lots of people have terrible meetings with Charlie, and it becomes known that these meetings are terrible because they are confused, they might get named Confused Charlie Conferences, and compressed further into an acronym, CCC, as in “Just got out of a CCC, I need a good coffee.”
At some point, Charlie might even hear (or be told about) this but of lore and do something about it.
If Charlie leaves the organization, such meetings might continue to be called CCCs anyway.
The name Charlie might get elevated to an archetype, as in “you’re such a Charlie!”
The flows of *pium of various sorts in everyday life, beat by beat, create a background of evolving raw lore that might bubble up through recognition and reification to shape the internal language. It might bubble up even further and drive the story in a consequential way.
Lore, Oracles, and Encyclopedias
Defined this way, there is clearly a LOT that qualifies as lore in every organization or group. The sheer quantity of information being constantly created and conveyed as lore is probably 10x to 100x that being created and conveyed by any foreground story, such as a plan of record. And the older the organization or group, the larger the ratio.
Lore doesn’t accumulate very quickly, mainly because a lot of proto-lore turns out to be faddish and transient, and is quickly forgotten (“stop trying to make fetch happen” suggests that there is a lot of “fetch” out there that didn’t make it). But over time a lot of it accumulates, making it a pain to learn and keep up with. Which is a problem that needs solving.
If organizations and groups are sort of like AIs, lore constitutes the corresponding frame problem.
Yet, lore is not quite world-building type frame information in an architectural sense of major structural elements. You cannot convey it through a small set of strategic artifacts like maps (though maps can help anchor lore in a larger information space).
Lore is a large mass of pointillist, atomized information relating to background folkways, any fragment of which might, with some low probability, feature consequentially in the foreground story at any point. And it doesn’t have the compressibility necessary to be turned into compact learnable assets.
It’s just information you acquire by grinding through it. The learning curve of lore is by definition very long.
Which means it has to be relatively pleasant to consume steadily in small quantities over a long period. Which of course is why it takes the form of cognitive opiates that can fuel a nerdy, long-term obsession. If lore were unpleasant tasting and non-addictive, nobody would acquire or use it. It can’t be too pleasurable or addictive though. Though I’m using the *pium stem, most lore is more like coffee or beer, not hard drugs.
This is why, if it is legible at all, lore takes the form of oracles or encyclopedias that are a nerdy delight to consult.
Oracles are interesting people you can consult about any fragment of action whose significance is obscure to you.
For example, you’re a new employee at an organization, and the boss makes a joke at a meeting and you laugh uncertainly but everybody else pretends to be absorbed in something else or offers only a weak smile.
You ask the Old Timer, and he tells you that the joke is a tired one that the boss keeps repeating, and that it is actually tasteless for a reason nobody has told him yet, and that it is fuel for moaning sessions where people roll their eyes and make fun of him.
That’s getting lore from an oracle.
And if they like you, they might initiate you into the processes of making lore. You’ve arrived culturally when one of your early attempts at lore-crafting gains the backing of an oracle or two, who commit it to their store of active lore they distribute to others (this is why successfully seeding a meme on Twitter is such a useful thing; it’s like a successful pull request into the zeitgeist).
Less commonly, you might have a subset of lore actually captured in documentary form. In these cases, it is usually in the form of an encyclopedia or other random-access look-up format, rather than a history or other serial-access repository.
An example: while I was at Xerox, the company had an actual internal database server somebody had set up, for looking up 3-letter acronyms (“TLAs”). It was called the TLA server. It wasn’t documented in the list of the official knowledge sources, or included in the new employee orientation package. But old timers would point you to it. This was very useful to new employees because the company was practically drowning in acronyms (as are most old technology companies with a deep history, a lot of knowledge, and a lot of evolved compact ways of talking about it all). To keep up with the discussion in meetings, you had to be literate in the acronyms.
In science fiction and fantasy, this is why it is convenient to communicate bits and pieces of lore and world-building elements in the form of fake encyclopedia-like entries at the beginnings of chapters (certain kinds of stylized history, genealogies, compendia of things like aphorisms, and of course lexicons, also work well).
You can achieve a similar effect through the use of oracle characters who explain things to the protagonists via live dialogue, but that often gets tediously expository.
In real life, 80% of lore resides in the heads of oracles, and only 20% in documents, but in fiction, the ratio is often reversed.
In both cases, you are solving a frame problem by throwing in glimpses of the framing lore as necessary, in order to tell the story efficiently. It helps that the content itself is cognitive opiates that’s fun to consume for its own sake, independent of the quality of the story.
The Hithchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, is both the name of the novel, and of the fictional guidebook in the fictional universe, entries from which are cited liberally throughout the text (the Guide itself plays a role in the plot too at various points). The Guide is actually an example of both oracle and encyclopedia, since it exists in the form of a digital device that answers questions.
The mark of a really good fictional encyclopedia (or oracle character) is that it is capable of suggesting a vast, but coherent body of lore using just a handful of entries.
But in a real organization, you can’t just invent and populate an encyclopedia. You can’t just appoint someone Chief Oracle and have them memorize a bunch of stuff, ready to dish out to all who ask.
Lore has to emerge from day-to-day life, as people adapt at a micro-level to the lousiness of minutes, attempting to elevate them to non-lousiness, and looking for ways to insert greatness where possible. It has to start as a chemical economy of mopium, copium, hopium flows, with other nootropics making occasional appearances.
These flows have to then fall into recognizable patterns over time, carving channels into the landscape. Recognitions of these must turn into reifications. Which must turn into names, tropes, archetypes, and little origin stories.
And this growing body of lore must then find a stable and persistent home in the heads of oracles, and in encyclopedias that emerge relatively spontaneously as passion projects, rather than via top-down commissions.
In the former case, the oracles cannot be appointed, but must earn informal acknowledgement as oracles. They must exercise some agency in how they share lore, and with whom.
In the latter case, the less “official” the encyclopedic effort, the better. This point is made clear in Hitchchiker’s Guide, where the Guide is favorably compared to the Encyclopedia Galactica (much as in our world, Wikipedia is now usually favorably compared to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, though this wasn’t the case in the early days).
All this takes time.
Hell, it takes time even to fake it in fiction — it generally takes multi-volume works (a trilogy at minimum, but ideally a full extended universe) to establish a solid foundation of even made-up lore. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took over a decade to build, despite drawing on a comic-book universe that had already been evolving over half a century.
Web3 technologies offer interesting new way to pave the cowpaths of emerging lore. One can imagine encyclopedias emerging as growing corpuses of NFTs, or oracles emerging in the form of popular NFT-minters for example. But the affordances of these technologies are inevitably going to be in tension with the natural characteristics of lore to some degree. And it is the technologies that will need to adapt to the nature of lore, not the other way around.
Because there is no royal road to good lore. With or without blockchains.
Because lore, you see, is proof of organizational life. Any attempt to conjure it into existence by fiat can only produce frankenlore.
But there is an easy way to produce real lore. Just continue existing for long enough, moping, coping, and hoping your way through all the lousy minutes, and cherishing the rare great minutes.
And if you have time left over from all that, and the inclination, you can play your bit part in whatever epic is unfolding on top of the lore.
Next: Part 7/7 — Towards Management Metamodernism
I just made up this term. The study of folklore is called folklore studies or folkloristics, so loristics seems like a good term for lore associated not associated with “folks.” I don’t identify as “folk” do you?