From pirate dwarves to ninja elves…

03/15/2004

I have always considered the profound distinction between ninjas and pirates to be an absolute one. One was either ninja or pirate – there were no inbetweens. One personality type was skilled and proficient, elegant and silent, contained and constrained, honourable and spiritual. The other type loud and flamboyant, gregarious and unrestrained, life-loving and vigorous, passionate and strong. I thought all people must pledge their allegiance, or be categorised accordingly.

The other day at work, another binary pair was presented to me – a co-worker who doesn’t declare people pirate or ninja, but instead elf or dwarf. For him, humanity falls into doers and thinkers – elves being elegant and timeless, conceptual and refined, abstract and beautiful while dwarves are practical and structural, hard-working and no-nonsense, down-to-earth smiths and makers. It’s a view of the world that’s expounded a bit in Cryptonomicon.

The wonderful thing about both of these classifications systems is how unladen they are with value-judgements. It is possible to consider an elven person to be intellectual and high-concept, or pretentious and useless. It’s possible to view a pirate as boorish and crass or as vivacious and life-loving. It is not better to be ninja or pirate – the world needs both. And the creativity generated by the collision of elf and dwarf is far greater than could be achieved by elf or dwarven kind alone. Not only are there no categories that come prejudged inferior or superior, but also people have no problem self-categorising themselves – there’s no shame to be felt in any of their self-classifications.

Both systems have these qualities – but still we’re left with a conundrum. Although so similar – the systems are different. So how to make them work together? Confronted with a collision between two such radically different ways of conceptualising the world, obviously our minds started working overtime. Could we find a way to map the two categorisation schemes onto one another? Could we declare all ninja’s inherently elven? Or all dwarves intrinsically piratic? The more we considered the issue, the harder it seemed to achieve some kind of detente. And then it came to us – a new view of the world, transcendent and illuminatory – a way not only to make the two systems work together but to make each infinitely more illustrative in the process! At that moment the Ninja/Pirate/Elf/Dwarf theory of human classification came into being – and with it the crowning achievement of all managerial arts, the following graph:

As you can see – the ninja/pirate polarity has become a spectrum. The elf/dwarf polarity has followed suit – it is now possible to exist directly between the extremes. But this spectrum is at right angles to the first, generating a person-space with an infinity of different potential placements. People now can be hardcore ninja dwarves, or err towards the piratic side of elfdom. Within this graph all humanity exists in all its polyphonic splendour.

Think of some of the humble bloggers on my blogroll. Where would they live? Ben Hammersley has something of the pirate about him. This is not a restrained man of quiet honour, but a proud warrior of the sea – hair flowing in the breeze. But his skills are more evenly tempered between the conceptual and the practical – as best evidenced by his work on the schema for various syndication formats. His position is clear. Matt Jones is far closer to elf than dwarf, but as swashbuckling as a man can come. Not so Dan Hill, elven once more but evidencing the self-mastery and discipline of a true ninja.

It takes little effort to spot the ultimate ninja’s quiet responsibility and attention to detail in the work of Jason Kottke and Matt Webb and both straddle the technical divide between thinkers and doers. Mark Pilgrim on the other hand has achieved a balance between ninja and pirate, while plunging into the vigorous constructive heart of dwarvish ways. And so it continues – until I can map almost my entire blogroll accordingly:

And it doesn’t end there! You could plot people’s operating systems against it – Dwarves being more Linux-focused, elves more Apple-oriented. Pure graphic designers have a tendency towards the top right, interaction designers are spread across the top. You can also deduce a lot about the people I tend to associate with online – there’s an enormous clump of people on the pirate / ninja axis who aren’t heavily elf or dwarf. In this context, this suggests a group of old-school web people who have tended toward balanced expertises across a range of disciplines. It’s interesting how those people with more clearly defined job roles tend to move towards the corners too.

Now it’s over to you – take this epic revelation and place yourself within it. If you are a life-loving pirate with dwarvish leanings, perhaps you’d like to assemble a quiz to locate people against the axes like on that rather less important and trivial Political Compass site. I would love to help, but I’m simply not capable. What can I say, I’m an elvish pirate – I have better things to do with my time…