Twenty years ago, Neil Postman gave a talk titled Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. This was 1998, when the Web was still young and social media was still in its embryonic phase. As usual, Postman’s words proved prescient. The last paragraph is particularly descriptive of our era:
In the past, we experienced technological change in the manner of sleep-walkers. Our unspoken slogan has been “technology über alles,” and we have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity, especially in an age of vast technological change. We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we may use technology rather than be used by it.
We have found ourselves in exactly that situation. Google, Facebook, and the other tech giants use the vast oceans of data they extract from us to make their billions while eroding our privacy. We are not the customers; we are the product. We are starting to open our eyes to the dangerous ways they use us. Are we awake enough to prevent further damage?
I came across (via Austin Kleon, who else) this commencement speech by cartoonist Seth, given at the Center for Cartoon Studies. This passage resonated:
Never compromise on the big thing. Your real work.
That has to remain outside the realm of compromise. Yes, take on that dispiriting illustration job about mutual funds. Yes, draw that terrible logo for your friend’s uncle. Do what it takes. But don’t sell out the real work. Find a way to do that somehow. It’s important to make a living but ultimately, it is also important to slowly watch the real work pile up, piece by piece.
Don’t worry about how fast or slow it is piling up. Just keep building the pile. Think of it as a body of work. Think in terms of a lifetime’s commitment.
The whole speech is great. Read it here.
Every time I sit down to write, an angel and devil appear on my shoulders. They know what an overused trope they are, but there they sit nonetheless.
The devil jabs his red boots into my shoulder as he drinks his Bulletproof coffee and listens to entrepreneurship podcasts at double speed. “How’s this going to grow your audience, bro?” he asks, peering over what I’m writing. For him, it’s all about the side-hustle, the followers, the money. For him, it’s all about success.
But the angel will have none of it. “You’ve got it all wrong, Señor Diablo,” he says. “It’s all about the love.” He pulls out a keytar and plays the most righteous chord known to humankind as his hair waves in the breeze. He understands how much I love words and sentences and ideas. He knows the feeling of being alone with a blank page, like a sailor looking out over the sea.
To be honest, it’s not fair to cast these concerns as angelic and demonic. Questions about audience and marketing are important, but I’m not sure they’re important right now. Right now, I have to learn to flick the devil away and get back to work. I’d like to find some success as a writer someday, but it might not happen. Instead, I’m trying to write simply because I love writing. I want to learn to be a better writer simply because I’m not great at it and I want to be better. I’m learning for the sake of learning. I’m writing for the sake of writing.
This attitude is important because it’s liberating. I’m not weighed down by building and keeping an audience. That day may come, but for now I’m free. Free to experiment and try wild ideas, to fail and succeed, to grow and learn.
This article from The Atlantic about Southern California’s possible future as a space hub was an exciting read. It’s filled with captivating imagery: launch pad lights cutting through nighttime fog, vast desert vistas, scrappy startups taking their first steps toward space. It’s a hopeful vision of the future that looks upward and outward, toward adventure and exploration.
In only a generation, people will be gathering every few months—every few weeks—in parks and lawns throughout Los Angeles, on picnic blankets and chairs, perhaps with cups of tea or glasses of whiskey in hand, to gaze as machines, and someday people, depart for other worlds.
But in this article from The Verge, we get a different vision of the future. It’s about a leaked video, The Selfish Ledger, from Google’s X division. The video imagines a future where Google’s data collection ability is so total that they can influence entire populations. It also imagines artificial intelligence designing devices for specific individuals to extract deeper personal data. It’s a disquieting, even creepy vision. Google claims it’s little more than a “thought experiment,” but we have to assume this kind of thinking is already present in the company.
The Selfish Ledger positions Google as the solver of the world’s most intractable problems, fueled by a distressingly intimate degree of personal information from every user and an ease with guiding the behavior of entire populations. There’s nothing to suggest that this is anything more than a thought exercise inside Google, initiated by an influential executive. But it does provide an illuminating insight into the types of conversations going on within the company that is already the world’s most prolific personal data collector.
So which vision of the future wins out? Or will we get both? Can we have the first without the second, or are they tangled together? As we search for other worlds, are we thinking about what kind of world we’re building here?
Earlier this year, I started a project called 52 Stories. My plan was to write and design a story each week, giving myself a chance to experiment and build up a stream of content. I thought I’d have no problem doing this for a year.
It took only eight weeks to abandon the idea. So it goes.
But here’s the thing: I’m an
historical revisionistoptimist, so I choose to consider it not as abandonment but as a pivot. I’m not giving up, just taking the project in a different direction.
To be honest, 52 Stories was misguided anyway. I was too focused on trying to build an audience, and I thought the way to make that happen was to force myself into a weekly writing challenge.
It was fun at first, but it took time away from what I most wanted to write. The stories closest to my heart need a lot longer than a week to develop. It also took time away from blogging, which I suspect is a better way to build a writing platform. So I changed course.
But I do still think there’s value in these short projects. I liked the eight I created, and I have ideas for more. So 52 Stories has become Seedling Stories. A collection of small story projects that may or may not grow into something larger.
And hey, I wrote a new one. It’s called Armistice. It’s about plumbers and wall gremlins. Go read it, and stay tuned for more.
The Atlantic has an amazing collection of photos from the volcanic activity happening on Hawaii right now. Hellish fissures in the ground, floods of lava swallowing up roads. It’s nightmarish, but also beautiful. Terrifying and heartbreaking too, for those who live there. Paradise turned treacherous.
Here in Southern California where I live, we had an earthquake last night. A small one, nothing unusual, but a reminder of what lies under our feet. Every earthquake makes us think about the inevitability of the Big One and the catastrophe it will bring. Scientists say it’s overdue. The San Andreas shows little regard for our schedules.
It’s a strange feeling to know that we can’t completely trust the ground beneath us. Most days, sure; it’s solid enough. But on the days when the ground spits up fire and shakes our foundations, we remember that the solidity of the Earth isn’t always certain. Few things are as solid as we think they are.
A couple months ago, researchers used AI to try and solve the mystery of The Voynich Manuscript, a 600 year old medieval codex that has baffled scholars for the past century. It’s handwritten in an undeciphered alphabet and in an unknown language. Filled with bizarre illustrations, its purpose and meaning are elusive. Many people have proposed solutions, but those have been debunked. The Voynich Manuscript remains a mystery.
The thing is: it’s probably just a cookbook or something.
Isn’t that the way it works? The puzzles of history often have mundane solutions. People believed in mermaids; they were just manatees. People wondered how the Egyptians built the pyramids; they just used ramps and slaves. Bigfoot was just some dude in a monkey suit.
Our experience with mysteries seems to extend to a belief that we can debunk all myths, answer all questions, unravel all mysteries. Many believe we can reduce everything to the motion of elementary particles. There’s no room for mystery in their universe.
My intuition whispers otherwise. There’s a limit to our understanding. At its outermost reaches, our knowledge faces a rising wall of mystery.
I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson’s book of essays The Givenness of Things. In her essay Humanism she talks about the reductionist tendency in much of current scientific thought:
Science of the kind I criticize tends to assert that everything is explicable, that whatever has not been explained will be explained—and, furthermore, by their methods. They have seen to the heart of it all. So mystery is banished—mystery being no more than whatever their methods cannot capture yet.
But even science has shown the world to be much fuzzier and weirder than we could have imagined. In several essays, Robinson talks about the strangeness of quantum physics. Peeling back the layers of the universe, you find things that are simultaneously particles and waves, things that refuse to be measured, things that defy common conceptions of time and causality. This aligns with my suspicion that there is more to our world than what we can see or feel. The universe is built on a foundation of mystery.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
I believe in science and its forward progress. Science is at its best not when it limits the world to our perception, but when it brings us to new vistas beyond our understanding. The mysteries of the universe should inspire us to wonder and humility. It should lead us to ask questions, to search for truth, and to seek God.
“From where, then, does wisdom come?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
“God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
The AI I mentioned earlier? It couldn’t crack the Voynich Manuscript. Maybe we will never solve it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, only that we should pause and recognize the world is much larger than we realize. We could use a little mystery in our lives.
I went to college with a girl who loved to talk about being an artist. She’d pepper her conversations with allusions to her artistic calling, post about it on Facebook. But when it came to the work, she had little to show. She procrastinated and put in the least effort possible, when she showed up at all.
She and I shared a graphic design class, and one of our projects was a comic book. We had to create a cover and three pages based on an original story idea. Fifteen minutes before the critique, she ran in and grabbed some blank paper from the printer. Scribbling out some basic line drawings with only a single frame per page, she finished as the professor walked in.
“I wanted it to have a rough, unpolished feel, to be almost childish,” she said during the critique.
“You succeeded there,” the professor said. Her project did not get a good grade.
To be fair, I’ll admit to procrastinating on that project too. But the difference: I worked all night to have something I would be proud to show. I tried; she didn’t. Next semester she changed majors to criminal justice or something. It seems she was pretending to be an artist. Maybe she found her way back to art; I hope so.
She makes me think of this guy:
“Look at me, I’m an actor. An actor, for crying out loud!” Tobias exults, talking about the rejection he faces as an actor every day. Reminded that he still hasn’t had an audition, he excuses himself to cry in the shower. That’s about all the work he puts toward acting. He too was a pretender.
“Forget about being a Writer, follow the impulse to write.”
Ann Packer, novelist
It’s the same for me and writing. Pretending is easy, but giving yourself a label won’t change much. You have to do the work. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Painting yourself blue and waiting by the phone isn’t enough; make some coffee and start typing. Stop pretending and start working.
About a year and a half ago, I was on an airplane somewhere over the deserts of Arizona. I pulled out a notebook to write down a story idea. The guy sitting next to me noticed. He watched for a few seconds, then asked a question:
“Are you a writer?”
I wanted to say yes. But I couldn’t do it. Instead, I gave some non-committal answer. After a few minutes of small talk, he returned to his magazine while I returned to my notebook. “I’ve never wanted to say yes to a question more than in that moment,” I wrote.
Why couldn’t I call myself a writer?
Because I needed some external validation to back up the label. Writers get paid. Writers get published. Writers win awards. I could show none of those things, so I remained an amateur, a wannabe.
But what is a writer? Isn’t a writer simply someone who writes?
I was stuck on the label and feeling like I hadn’t earned it. I wanted some stamp of approval before I could begin.
As Austin Kleon writes, I wanted to be the noun without doing the verb.
So in the year since that trip, I’ve been learning to stop caring about the label, to stop caring about the noun. I’m working on the verb. I’m learning to write without seeking validation beyond the act itself. I’m writing because I want to, because I have to. I’m writing because that’s what I do.
It’s a fresh, new year.
Last year was a bit of a journey for me. I moved to California for a new job, leaving behind family, friends, and the best coffee in the country. It was a year of challenges, but also a year of rewards.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it was also a year of working in secret. In 2018, I’m ready to shed some light on my work. Over the coming days I’ll talk about more of my ongoing projects, but I wanted to start with something new.
The first big project of 2018: 52 Stories.
A new story every week of the year. Most of them are experimental micro-stories, or maybe story sketches. This project is my latest attempt to blend writing and design and to experiment with online storytelling. I’m not sure how successful this will be, but it will give me practice. It’s a chance to work on crafting sentences and to try out some wild ideas.
I saw this tweet (via Austin Kleon) the other day. It stung a little.
It’s my theory that “binge-worthy” TV series are intentionally repetitive and boring so as not to be cognitively intrusive as we stay on our phones the whole time they’re in the background.— Clayton Cubitt (@claytoncubitt) December 10, 2017
Seems to be a fair accusation. But isn’t this also an indictment of many of us as consumers? We could choose to put down our phones.
And it’s not as if we’re engaging with those either. The level of disengagement is the same. It’s almost like the flashing of all these devices puts us into some incoherent trance. Maybe that’s our unspoken goal.
Another stinger: this excellent article Liz Pelly wrote for the Baffler. Pelly takes a jab at Spotify and its “ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper.” The article’s main point is that automation is hurting music. The algorithms gnaw away until all that remains is branded Muzak.
I’m guilty here too. I love music, but how am I engaging with it? As a work of art, or as background noise? I like to think I have good taste, but is my recent taste the product of a mindless algorithm? When was the last time I sat down with the sole purpose of listening to a song or album?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent days, and there’s more to the problem. But what it all seems to point to is a lack of thoughtful engagement with culture. We’re passive consumers. Is this because we’re unwilling to engage? Are we that busy and overworked?
Or is the situation worse? Are our lives so fragmented we’re unable to engage?
The other day during my lunch break, I walked to a local park to clear out my head. It had grown full of the usual junk: restless doubts and weighty thoughts about the future. As I sat down at a picnic table to eat a sandwich, I watched Saddleback sprawling in the distance.
Since moving to California almost a year ago, Saddleback has been like a new friend. I’ve never lived so close to a mountain before. Seeing its contours lit by the setting sun and its summit grazed by clouds has been a source of joy.
But on Monday, Saddleback sat there like a familiar pet. The problem with familiarity: it breeds smallness. When I walk around the same home, or same office, or same landscape, I start to feel cramped. The world gets smaller as my problems inflate into monsters.
As I took another bite of my sandwich, a plane appeared. It was a small, white, single-prop plane enjoying the skies over Irvine. It looked like a toy compared to Saddleback, as it flew at an altitude far below the summit.
I caught myself smiling as the mountain grew big again. I smiled because I knew the mountain never shrunk. Once again, I over-inflated myself and my problems. Small once again, I was free to wander the world. That plane swooped in to remind me that there is still so much to discover, so much I don’t know. It put me at ease and renewed my sense of awe.
All I needed was a reminder. All I needed was a sense of scale.