The first time I encountered this video I was reading a a now-forgotten comment on a blog or reddit. It shows a heroic, unskilled, energy intensive attempt to wrangle a goat:

At the time I didn’t understand why a video of catching a goat was relevant to the conversation myself and the rest of the internet was having, so I ignored it and went back to the topic at hand. It would be some time later before all of the pieces came together and I understood why I’d just watched a >1 minute video of a goat being tied up. The first hint that there was some meaning beyond the literal events in the video was when I encountered Venkat’s From Incomprehensible to Arbitrary, where he opens with this heartbreaking paragraph:

William James’ observation, “The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear” has long seemed to me a near-perfect definition of civilization. But it doesn’t get at the costs of this process. Which is why I was inspired, a while back, to make up my own no-free-lunch version of the aphorism: Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.

In a diagram showing what this process looks like, a parcel of space lies beyond the boundary of arbitrary that proclaims: “Here be goat rodeos.”

I’d completely forgotten that I’d watched a goat wrangling video some weeks prior, so I considered “goat rodeo” an interesting turn of phrase and filed it away. I was even disappointed the phrase “here be dragons” didn’t appear. It’s what I would have put on my own copy of the diagram.

A day or two later, I encountered the presentation ‘Vinay Gupta at Meaning 2012: “Plausible utopias”‘ That video is something of an ‘Anarchist State of the “Union”‘, so the term Goat Rodeo doesn’t take long to come up. But even with examples provided in the video of metaphoric goat rodeos, I was still at a loss to articulate exactly what the phrase meant. I had really just confirmed that I was looking at a novel meme.

Last night I encountered a video that made that term utterly visceral to me. Intellectual curiosity about goat rodeos gave way to perceiving just what the experience of a goat rodeo was:

This video is a scathing critique of hipsterism, and in that lens carries a painful, awkward, over-the-top humor: I can certainly relate to the main character. But I also had Venkat’s definition on my mind: “Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.” With that lens the video has an “as above, so below” quality to it: everyone running around filling their appropriate role even after that role is devoid of meaning and purpose, while everyone pats themselves on the back for a performance well done:

For all the fancy language used in the complexity consulting trade, we all know the feeling – 14 people around the table, with no clear idea of where they are going, going through the motions of mapping a complex problem with no belief that their respective organizational chains-of-command will ever approve any common-sense solution to the problem at hand, and slowly the coffee pot drains, and people consider their pensions. –Vinay Gupta

At this point I was ready to really understand the phenomena I was observing. “Goat Rodeo” has been around long enough to have coalesced into a concrete, coherent description as a “governance anti-pattern:” A chaotic situation, often one that involves several people, each with a different agenda/vision/perception of what’s going on; a situation that is very difficult, despite energy and efforts, to instill any sense or order into. A couple links that explore the topic:

That last link particularly beautifully bridges this phrase with other descriptions of the phenomena: wicked problem, chaotic domain, clusterfuck. But this quote from the first link has all the flavor:

This is hideously unpopular, but I want to create a culture in which the following dialogue is possible:

Scene: a meeting re. state failure impacts in some horrible place

Chairman > Right, let’s call this session to order. We have 3 NGO reps, 5 different national militaries, two people from the State Department and USAID, a local government rep and two local civil society representatives.
Chairman > On the agenda, [difficult task on which nobody really agrees the course of action]

Voice of Reason > “Sir, I believe this meeting meets all of the technical criteria of a Goat Rodeo! I move to adjourn and reorganize in a soluble format to actually address the problem.”
Voice of Reason > “Specifically, we have seven different kinds of entities represented at the table, so we cannot use a standard dispute resolution method if there is competition or conflict. We clearly do not agree on the following two aspects of [difficult task] and so are not in a truly cooperative environment. Therefore we can neither compete nor collaborate effectively, and furthermore nobody is actually in charge or responsible, and the meeting will go round and round in circles without creating an accountable party. Therefore it meets the technical definition of a Goat Rodeo, and we must adjourn and pass the problem to a more suitable group to resolve.”

Chairman, groaning > “Dammit, you’re not invited the next time we try this.”

This phrase is particularly burdened with meaning to me right now because Sunflower River is literally in the process of getting goats. We have an area on the farm that looks at awful lot like the space in the first video I linked, where actual goats are going to do exactly what you see them doing as we try to lasso them. What am I getting myself into?

Sunflower River, which has now existed for 5 years, certainly has and is seeing its governance version of a goat rodeo as well. Problems where there is no consensus on what to do, while discussion make the problems more, rather than less, intractable. Will knowing about the phenomena help us identify and rework these situations? I hope so–I have enough hope to write this post. But time will tell.