wandering wandering star
The Importance of Arts Integration on Deep Learning
When I was a student at Butler University I had a psychology professor named Dr. Neil Bohannan. While Dr. Bohannon and I did not see eye to eye on many things, I readily admit that I learned quite a bit from the man. One of the phrases that struck me, and I recall it often (because I utilize it often), is “Learning = a change in behavior based upon acquired knowledge.” This equation
, if you will, suggests two things; first - in order to learn anything, one’s behavior must change
. An example of this behavioral change might be: We studied the United States Constitution in History Class: I decided to vote, because I recognize voting as a right that is given through the Constitution. (Was it Mark Twain who said, “A man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over a man who can’t read them.”?)
The second tenet is that behavior will change based on the assimilation
of acquired knowledge. The input is the knowledge, but the output will manifest learning through the exhibition of an assimilation. In essence, there must be prior knowledge that sets the original behavior. Synthesizing my first example: perhaps I understood voting, or voted prior to my study, but due to my study I will now vote a certain way. Perhaps I will join a political party? This is a behavioral action taken due to my increased knowledge utilizing my prior knowledge - thus - I learned.
Let me break this down into a simple - yet profound example, so it’s easy to understand…
My daughter was 7 at the time. She and her mother were making cookies. I was drinking coffee and grading papers at the kitchen table. The ladies had melted chocolate in a pan on the stove top. My wife took the melted chocolate and turned to the sink to pour it into a mixing bowl. She told my daughter, “Don’t touch anything.” My daughter looked at the red hot coils on the stove top. I noticed her staring at them. Then she did something insane… she reached out and touched them. Now, my daughter - even at 7 - was a smart girl. For her to do something so inane was unfathomable, but she did it. I quickly grabbed the entire ice tray from the freezer and stuffed her hand in it while my wife called the pediatrician. “Why did you do that?” I asked her. “I don’t know?” she answered, with tears in her eyes. 2nd degree burns. A beautiful coil singed on my little girl’s hand. It’s still there to this day.
Following the ordeal I thought about why my daughter would do something so ridiculous, and what my daughter learned. Obviously, she learned not to touch a hot stove. To a degree she learned how to treat burns. We had a follow up discussion on listening to mom and dad. She knew the stove was hot. She could feel the heat. She could see the red coils. Her mother had given her a verbal directive saying, “Don’t touch anything.” And yet KNOWING that, she still touched it… So the question becomes: WHY? Did she really know that the coil was hot? Surely, she did. What does it mean to know something? Can you know something without experiencing it?
Let me give another example:
I know my sums in math. I can add, subtract, multiply, and divide - but I don’t know how to utilize math, like the guy in that show Numb3rs
. I can’t function with math. I can’t use it in my life to do much more than make sure the person making change at the cash register is correct. According to Dr. Bohannon’s theory - in the purest sense - I did not really LEARN math in school. It does not affect my behavior and I have a limited knowledge from which to acquire utility where mathematics are concerned.
By contrast… I can write music. I can create music. I can manipulate music. I choose music to listen too based on my mood. I can communicate feelings and emotions with music. I can help other people appreciate, analyze, create, and synthesize music. I hear music in my head at all times. I dream about music. I think in song patterns and sound waves. I hear lyrics when I’m in certain situations. I can connect my own behaviors and the behaviors of others to songs. I can hear colors and see palettes in music. I type in rhythms. I walk with a beat that changes according to my motion. I am a marionette of the Muse. I have learned music. I live it. I breathe it. I think with it. I think about it. I love it.
See the difference?
Two things should come to your mind. The first is that I did not like mathematics, but I love music. The second is that mathematics and music have deep connections. Since math and music hold such deep connections, why did I not also develop a love for math? That’s an excellent thought. The difference may lie in what I love most about music… A person does not have to understand music to create it.
It’s true that music has a form and order to it. I can show that order in the chord structures. There are seven tones in a scale. Utilizing those tones we can build seven chords. Each of those chords can be manipulated into major, minor, half, and fully diminished chords. Also, the chords can be stacked with additional tones to create new chords. Additionally, music has functionality. Each chord works in an orbit around what we call the “tonic” or home-base chord. I did not learn any of this until I was in college, yet I was playing professional gigs through high school. Not fully understanding music did not hinder my creation of music, and my desire to perform it fueled my practice of it.
Because of this universal understanding in music - and, really, all of the arts - they become approachable, meaning students can see themselves utilizing the art. Not everyone acts well, but most people are comfortable acting. The confidence in their ability elicits practice, and the practice elicits better acting skills that can then become refined into even better skills. Because of this principle, the arts can be utilized to create learning experiences in your classroom. These experiences give us a measurement - place, time, sequence of events in order, that students can set their learning anchors on. The experiences will also add to the student’s knowledge base. Once the knowledge base is assimilated, they will remember and adapt their behavior based on this newly acquired knowledge.
They will learn.
Do I have proof of this? Yes. Sarah and I have a student, let’s call him John. John is completely unmotivated. John’s parents have stated that John shouldn’t have to do anything that he’s uncomfortable with (including graduate, evidently?). I had all but given up on John, but during our Midsummer Night’s Dream project, while we were reading through the play, Sarah and I decided to have the students get up and tableaux the scenes to help them understand what was going on. John did not read aloud, but he did participate in a scene or two. After that, I noticed that John was paying attention. When the project ended we had the students debrief, which is a norm for our classes. On the debrief John said, “I din’t think midsummer d be cool, but we got to act it out. that was cool.” (sic) Did John understand the content? Yes. Would he have understood it if he had not seen it? No. That much is very clear. When did John begin to become involved? During the tableaux. I can give you the date and the time. What will he retain from Midsummer10 years from now? We will see, but my moneys on the tableaux of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Dr. Bohannon was right. The question is: How do core-curriculum (traditional academic) classes utilize aesthetic experiences to create these learning anchors? I think the answer lies fully and completely in the curriculum that creates aesthetic experience: the Arts. Arts integration, by being approachable and creating experiences for learning, is the key.
- Nate Foley
And, from the Atlantic:
The conflict between career ambition and relationships lies at the heart of many of our current cultural debates…
Relationships Are More Important Than Ambition (?) http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/relationships-are-more-important-than-ambition/275025/
HT @anxiaostudio http://bit.ly/12uToKN
“The great virtue of thought and analysis is that they free us from the necessity of following recipes, and helps us deal with the unexpected, including the imagination to try something new.”
- Harold MCGee, “McGee on Food and Cooking”
Google Alert for the Soul
Rationalized identity construction and the postauthentic data self
In this paper, I want to trace changes in the ideological notion of personal authenticity that have been brought on by widespread social media use. Earlier notions of authenticity were premised on a unique interior self that consumerism would help us express, but social media have made that untenable. In response, authenticity is shifting, describing not fidelity to an inner truth about the self but fidelity to the self posited by the synthesis of data captured in social media — what I here call the data self. This sort of decentered authenticity posits a self entirely enmeshed in algorithmic controls, but it may also be the first step toward postauthenticity, in which identity ceases to be conceived as personal property.
“Becoming oneself” has turned into a crappy job — a compulsory low-paying, low-skill job. The promise of modernity, that we might escape the contingent circumstances of our birth and become who we “really are,” has become an injunction to continually work on the self with no hope of ever fully knowing ourselves or feeling fully recognized.
Neoliberal ideology, as Jodi Dean argues in the quote above, effaces boundaries between work and life and requires subjects to continually seek opportunity to prove their creativity and flexibility. Social-media companies have emerged to offer just that, an endless number of opportunities for us to test our creativity and transform everyday life experience into proof of our economic fitness. Social-media profiles may thereby become necessary collateral, mandatory passports to participate in a consumer society gone “social.”
But being oneself was supposed to be joyous self-discovery, not work, not reputation management. Consumerism encouraged the idea that we were born unique individuals and that we could display that uniqueness to the world by buying things. This became the basis of the modern notion of authenticity, one of consumerism’s most successful and desirable products.
The demand for commodified authenticity is an expression of consumers’ nostalgia for a never-existing time when one had total control over the development of one’s identity. That sort of authenticity has always been a fiction, but the very real existence of goods that signify authenticity masked that fact. Consuming authentically could seem to prove fidelity to our “real self.”
Networked sociality threatens that notion. Though social media are sold as means of self-expression that let us articulate our real selves (with our real names!), they are also intrusive, invasive technologies that make surveillance ubiquitous. They dissolve the continuity of personal identity into discontinuous data that can be sold to marketers or recombined to create synthetic truths about us.
Social media are forums where we can test our uniqueness. While this can provide a sense of triumph (congratulations! 20 retweets!), it can also yield paranoia and a constant feeling of self-promoting phoniness as checking one’s reblogs, likes, messages, and comments becomes compulsive.
The calculating self-consciousness cannibalizes authenticity, contravenes spontaneous self-expression. Authenticity starts to merely measure the gap between who we’re trying to be and how we are actually seen rather than stand for some intrinsic essence. And given how social media can decontextualize these authenticity games, we can’t possibly know how large that gap is. It becomes conceivably infinite.
Authenticity as fidelity to an autonomous, unified a priori self becomes untenable. Social media inevitably confront us with our inconsistencies and our poses.
So how does the neoliberal self, in its perpetual state of selling out to maintain economic viability, survive its apparent inauthenticity? How do we regain a feeling of control?
If we maintain a belief in authenticity as fidelity to a static, preconstituted inner truth, we almost have to opt out of social media to salvage our integrity. That’s not an economically viable option, though, so the ideological construct of the “true self” must modulate.
While we can still superficially subscribe to authenticity as an ideal, the exhortation to “be ourselves” has given way to the soft commands to always be measuring ourselves and sharing more information as a means to take that measure. Authenticity is no longer given and proved by unique consumption but established by the volume of one’s productive behavior in social media. We are only what we express and share; what escapes capture is not authentic but irrelevant.
The true self, from this point of view, doesn’t precede the process of being encoded in social media; instead the real self — real in the sense of being influential — emerges through information processing (sharing, being shared, being on a social graph, having recommendations automated, being processed by algorithms, and so on). As information is processed and assimilated to the archive of self, it begins feeding into the algorithmic systems that report back to us the true nature of who we are. (Think: the quantified self, or imagine Pandora, only played out across the entire spectrum of social life.)
So what is real about ourselves depends not some internal ability to think or feel something but the ability to externalize it as processable data. We surrender the prerogative of claiming to be self-created and learn to love the self the data tells us we are. We let Google or Amazon or Facebook tell us what to do next, and then we tweet about it or put it on Tumblr.
The move to a data-self basis for authenticity is a move away from qualitative identity a quantitative one, away from self-surveillance before the fact to self-surveillance after the fact. With the advent of the data self, the self’s basis of reality shifts from the past to the future, where the templates of social media hold the self in place and reveal it as it emerges, giving it coherent form through its searchability and availability to algorithmic processing and collective rating. We don’t even have to act on these recommendations for this self to anchor authenticity. The data self’s existence alone proves our potential. In its quantification, the data self offers a self that appears growable rather than fixed.
The data self no longer seeks meaning through action; it seeks to be processed into meanings. It’s available for audit and pliable to the incentive structures built into social-media platforms. By letting social media capture and process everything, a more reliable, socially authenticated version of the self is produced, better than what our memory can give. Facebook Timeline, for instance, can be seen as an infographic of our personality so compelling that we can comfortably overlook its formulaic nature. Facebook invites us to forget we even had a self before Timeline was there to organize it.
Why would anyone buy in to the data self? First, it fits better with the actual, continual process of individuation we are all always undergoing. No one is as self-contained as the ideology of individualism asserts. Social media seem to afford more control over this interdependent individuation process, making the burden of self-surveillance into a procedure of self-care.
Social media give us a dashboard for reputation management — the smart phone serves as the controller for the real self, while we outsource the finalization of our authentic identity to the machines that report it to us with certitude, filtering what we see and goading us to act along formulized lines. The platforms pre-certify certain courses of action as “authentic.” We’re told how we should be under the guise that it’s already what we have been. The data self can be embraced as normative but not coercive. The coercion happens in the algorithms, not interiorly.
Whereas the old Freudian self aspired to normality but remained a unique product of its dysfunctions, the data self can achieve normality relative to a statistical average profile. Just as the “tastes and interests of people who don’t yet exist within systems can be easily predicted based on the patterns of others,” as danah boyd noted, so can our own future selves.
This makes it so we can’t fall short in expressing a true self, solving any need to be loved for “who we really are” by convincing us we are nobody until algorithms tell us how we were loved already. Social media also match us with those people who can best affirm us. The pleasant Pavolovian buzz of seeing someone respond to one of our social media posts is not merely pleasure at having gained some attention but a momentary reassertion of control over identity.
With all of social media’s feedback loops, we get a comprehensive status update from ourselves, allowing us to consume our own personality as novelty. We effectively set a Google alert for our soul.
The data self allows us to view the self as productive along neoliberalist lines, giving a protocol for handling both too much visibility and too much information. It gives us something practical to do with our experience. Social media instigate what Bernard Stiegler has called a “grammatization of the social”: giving standard forms by which everyday-life experience can be captured and processed to imbue it with legible meaning. It makes that experience “real” in the sense that augments our reputation in the data forms neoliberalism demands. It makes memories into curated cultural capital.
As we see that cultural capital build, we strive to document as much as we can within social media, thus mimicking at the personal, micro-level the macro-level aspirations of Facebook to assimilate all of sociality on its “social graph.” From this totalizing system, we can then derive the comfort that everything will be recorded and be factored in — we don’t need to decide in advance what is significant, what to consume or not consume. With social media as a personal content-management system, we get to consume more than ever, free of the supposed guilt that comes from consuming the wrong stuff or showing off.
The system conveys what Adrian Mackenzie calls “an affect of efficiency,” which complements neoliberalism’s emphasis on self-directed productivity.
Social media’s sharing rituals and feedback loops give the subject momentum, a sense of control over both the flood of information in and the flood of information out. Their ability to capture everyday life becomes not a threatening form of total surveillance but a giant Getting Things Done flowchart for processing life experience. In this system the evaluative criterion of experience is not exposure or authenticity but efficiency. Can it be disposed of?.
The flow of operating social media affords the same “relaxed feeling of control” that Mackenzie claims productivity manuals promise. This is the data self’s consolation prize. Outsourcing identity production and submitting to quantification also begets a feeling of superiority, of winning: As Melissa Gregg argues, “metrics allow the creator-God to be liberated from the fallibility of self and others.”
But in reality, the data self is hardly godlike. If anything, it more closely resembles Deleuze’s concept of the “dividual” — the encoded, premediated subjectivity of the society of control. The data self cannot exist apart from social media and is at the mercy of how they calibrate their filters. The data self may not face the threat of inauthenticity but it’s intensely threatened by the possibility of being disconnected, of having the information flow disrupted. That reflects an underlying terror that there’s something crucial about our lives that can’t actually be expressed — integral things that can’t be processed.
But what the data self may ultimately offer is a bridge to precisely that kind of contentless identity, an identity that doesn’t signify. Rather than being hopelessly trapped in authenticity games, the data self, as an outsourcing of identity, could point toward postauthenticity, in which the momentum of sharing itself is all that needs to be shared, and identity becomes noninterpretable.
The attachment to the unique individual self has been destructive in its defensiveness. That self perceived threats everywhere to the originality that seemed to be the basis of its value. The data self dispenses with originality but retains the need to create value through producing identity and managing reputation. The next move could be to decouple subjectivity from cultural capital and identity, and embrace the idea of identity as ephemeral, with no need of reputation management to qualify for pleasure in the networked society.
At the end of his talk he does a product comparison between the MUJI product and the non-MUJI product. It is similar to the advertisements that compare a particular brand to a conventional product, except that the comparison is not highlighting shortcomings in the one that have been resolved in the other, but is presenting the sales proposition as a difference in concept.
The non-MUJI product is a kitchen knife chosen to illustrate simplicity western style. Western style simplicity is to be understood as enabling a user with no particular skill to use it. The knife’s handle is shaped to be held in a specific way for effective cutting and to prevent the person using it from harm. On the contrary, Japanese style simplicity, or ‘emptiness’ is about allowing for the complexity of users of different skill to use and grow with the product. A MUJI grip-less knife is presented. Kenya Hara: “The grip-less knife seems to lack common courtesy at first sight. But it is within this universality that the user can hold it from any angle that we find emptiness”
Kenya Hara describes the MUJI knife’s particular traits as a culturally determined understanding of usability. He is implicitly explaining the brand that is MUJI. MUJI is not simple: it is empty.
Kenya Hara illustrates in his cerebral way that a brand is a certain vision of customer interaction with the company or its products. Brands are helped by a hint of philosophical insight. They require an understanding of what kind of a relationship is desirable to cultivate and maintain with the people who are concerned. Underlying such a relationship is not just keen business sense but also a conviction to inspire people and enable them to identify with a product, service or organisation.
I invite you to become an exhilarationist, which is the opposite of a terrorist: Conspire to unleash blessings on unsuspecting recipients, causing them to feel good. Give anonymous gifts or provide some beauty or healing to people who can’t do you any favors in return.
Before bringing your work as a exhilarationist to strangers, you might want to practice with two close companions. Offer them each a gift that fires up their ambitions. It should not be a practical necessity or consumer fetish, but rather a provocative tool or toy. Give them an imaginative boon they’ve been hesitant to ask for, a beautiful thing that expands their self-image, a surprising intervention that says, “I love the way you move me.
”—Rob Brezsny, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia
There’s two major schools of thought in Japan when it comes to sartorial matters. You have the old masters – Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo etc – who put Japanese fashion on the map by conquering Paris over thirty years ago. For long, their conceptual designs defined the Japanese ‘look’, with the rest of the world soaking up a fresh and daring take on contemporary fashion. Of late, though, this avant-garde catwalk approach to fashion has been challenged by a modern streetwear wave, a form of fashion that’s more concerned with functional workwear than a dreamy and abstract vision of style. This option has, in the last decade or so, crystallised as a second major Japanese fashion movement, with its very own Yamamotos, Miyakes and Kawakubos at the forefront.
Brands like White Mountaineering, Nanamica, Engineered Garments and Wtaps are all flag-bearers of this aesthetic. As different and unique as they all are, there’s a loose red thread running through their output; focused on traditional heritage, smart sportswear, functional outdoors garment and technical solutions, they all obsess over authentic craftsmanship and qualitative fabrics. The missing brand from that list, the one that should – according to many connoisseurs – be mentioned first, is visvim. The 13-year-old label started out focusing on footwear but soon applied its design and manufacturing philosophy on clothes. Founded and designed by Hiroki Nakamura, visvim sums up the Japanese approach to street and workwear: whatever other designers have done well in the past, we can do better. And they’re not wrong.
The mentality of these brands is often – but far from always – to look at existing design ideas, preferably vintage Americana, and improve the design and construction. Whether it’s a Converse trainer, a M65 jacket or an Oxford shirt, Nakamura adds his own unique quirks and details. When recently visiting the visvim showroom in Paris, I spoke to Nakamura, a genuinely friendly and immensely well-researched designer, about two items from his AW13 collection. Attached to the wall of the loft space, next to an aluminium-coloured caravan from the 50s, were two zipped cardigans. Made with completely different techniques and channeling two clashing cultures, the garments sum up visvim’s commitment to not only speak through garments, but also vice versa. Here’s what Hiroki Nakamura had to say about…
The Modern Manufacturing Process
“I like to mix interesting products and raw materials from all over the world, using various artisans and techniques. Modern manufacturing is great because you can take advantage of quality and price but at the same time, the output of modern manufacturing increasingly looks the same, and I like to see character. I’m working with different artisans and sources to add character to the product. I believe in using natural colours and dyes – I think the natural dying process still has a lot to offer. You won’t get a completely flat dye, it won’t be perfect, there’s an element you cannot predict – but I like that, it’s key to our product.”
The Beige Cowichan Natural Dye F.Z. Cardigan
“I wanted to make the cochineal-dyed sweater looking like an old Americana-inspired piece; rough and strong. I really like them because they have a very human feel, they’re not perfect. The brown parts are mud-dye, from the Amami Islands in Japan, and the white is the sheep’s natural colouring. The yarn is naturally hand-dyed but only in bunches, and that creates an uneven colouring as the dye goes into each bunch differently. The colour is not uniform and creates depth. It’s made with Shetland wool, this yarn was spun on an old machine from the 1920s, which gives the material an unevenness.”
The Indigo Crochet FR Cardigan
“This one is made by French artisans using a traditional French crochet method using a naturally dyed yarn from Japan. I wanted to mix traditional French fine yarn and Japanese natural dyes. I used natural dyed indigo and red cochineal to dye the yarns. We use a Parisian company called Golden Hook for the crocheting. We’ve been working with them for a few season – their artisans are grannies! The cardigan is inspired by an old American calico fabric but made with our own techniques, using natural dye. For this one we use a finer yarn, made using a different machine but, again dyed naturally, and crocheted by an old Grandma called Simone.”
“In my head, the idea was the concept of old Americana and Navajo. The crosses on the cardigans are from the Navajo. But the cross design is also used in Tibetan cultures. Both cardigans are influenced by Indigenous people using the same motif, which is a very natural and traditional sign. I’m curious about what inspired those old artisans and where they got their ideas from. Sometimes I’m amazed to see such similarities, like with the the Navajo and Tibetan artisans… They’re from completely different continents and time in history but they’re using the same colours, patterns and motifs? I think that’s fascinating.”
The Final Results
“There is beauty in each artisan technique. I wanted to present the strengths of those different processes and mix natural Japanese dyes in with the traditional crochet technique and an Americana-type piece. I would’t necessarily choose between them, they both have depth. Both cardigans are completely handmade. I like them both and think they are both strong pieces with different strengths, each with its own beauty.”
// Love the idea of comparing & contrasting Hiroki’s work + philosophy with Sruli’s…
A couple of weeks ago, I was using the latest version of the Rdio app and realized that I had no idea how to put a song into a playlist. After hopelessly tapping around, I got a bit annoyed and posted a tweet asking if anyone had figured it out, which is my standard reaction when things aren’t immediately obvious in apps.
But then I thought about an interaction that we’d recently put into place at Foursquare, the long tap checkin. So, curious, I held down my finger on the song title. Lo and behold, a whole set of song action options popped up, including Add to Playlist. Excellent! I added the song and went on my merry way.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks and my friend Keith is also complaining on Twitter about how he can’t find key features in Rdio. People mention the long tap, but it’s obvious there’s a problem; the menu is undiscoverable. The long tap is a graceful solution, but it’s a hidden solution: Rdio needs to teach us.
This illustrates an interesting tension in interaction design. On the one hand, designers want to make obvious interfaces—on some level, in fact, we’re looking to create the Holy Grail of interaction design: apps so fluid, so intuitive, that people naturally have an ‘a-ha’ moment, and there’s never a sense of frustration during onboarding. And that’s great; that’s an amazing goal, and I hope we achieve it.
But at this point in technology, especially with gestural-based stuff, we’re not only working out the kinks, we’re working with a lot of technological, physical disadvantages. For example, there’s no mass commercial computer interface as simple, light, and high-fidelity as pen and paper. The iPad is a solid start, and we can reasonably expect the technology to improve dramatically over the coming decades. But fine, delicate movements and gestures just aren’t supported by technology at this time.
And aside from the technology constraints, we simply do have to create a new set of interactions for new interfaces. Screens have things you can move around, unlike drawings on a sheet of paper, so you’ll be covering up content at some point. Screens can be positioned in a wide variety of spaces, sizes and contexts; if you’re presenting information, you’ll be using more than just your hands but your entire arms and perhaps entire body. So there’s a whole set of interactions, not only you interacting with elements on the screen, but you interactingwith the screen, that simply haven’t been standardized yet.
But that’s okay! Here’s the important part: don’t feel like every single action you design right now, in this Wild West time of interaction design, has to be completely intuitive. There are things we think are intuitive now that we learned using tutorials decades ago. Andrei Herasimchuk pulled up a great old Apple tutorial on how to use a mouse. Do you remember those? Probably not, even if you’re above a certain age, and your kids or siblings (or maybe even you) have likely never seen them. They learned how to use a mouse by watching people instead. People don’t come out of the womb knowing how to use a mouse—they do learn it, at some point—but once the information is out there they can learn so seamlessly it doesn’t matter.
So don’t be afraid. The interactions we have to teach now may be the new standards for the next generation, and they may be much better than what we had before, even if they’re slightly less intuitive to start. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t stop from doing something interesting just because you have to show someone else how to use it. Don’t stifle innovation and interesting gestures. Explain them, and people will remember.
“…I am from a bubble in time, a place where these things have always existed. I can tell you what users are going to want, because I have seen, over the course of my short life, so many things fail, and so many unlikely things succeed.”
I grew up in the future
My mom is a futurist, that peculiar subclass of optimists who believe they can see the day after tomorrow coming
When I went home for the 2007 holidays, in my last year of college, my mom’s new favorite phrase was ‘mobile social networking’. It was a big thing in Asia and Africa, she told me, in the throes of writing a several-hundred-page market report.
What is it supposed to be? I asked, getting the milk out of the fridge and making myself some muesli.
Well, she said, you joined a social network on your phone, and then you could express opinions about things. You could send something to your friends, and they would say if they liked it or they didn’t like it — on their phones.
That sounds really stupid, I said.
But, as I don’t think I need to stress, the idea turned out to have legs. In my defence, the first iPhone was still six months away. And though I was one of the first few million users of Facebook, the ‘Like’ button wouldn’t come along for years.
The future arrived much earlier in our house than anywhere else because my mother is an emerging technologies consultant. Her career has included stints as a circus horse groom, a tropical agronomist in Mauritania, and a desktop publisher. But for most of my life she has lived by her unusual ability to see beyond the glitchy demos of new tech to the faint outlines of another reality, just over the horizon. She takes these trembling hatchlings of ideas by the elbow, murmurs reassurances, and runs as fast as she can into the unknown.
When the web and I were both young, in the mid-1990s (with 10,000 pages and a third-grade education to our respective names), video conferencing was my mom’s thing. We had our county’s first T1 fibre-optic line thanks to her, and I grew up in a house full of webcams, shuddering and starting with pictures of strangers in Hong Kong, New York and the Netherlands, to whom I’d have to wave when I got home from school. Later on, when I bought a webcam for the first time, I could not believe you had to pay for them — I thought of them as a readily available natural resource, spilling out from cardboard boxes under beds.
It’s not a particularly comfortable place to be, that knife’s edge between the next big thing and a truly embarrassing evolutionary dead-end
My mother worked with companies who wanted to develop software and hardware for video conferencing, and she wrote reports about the state of the market, which, at that point, was a slender stream of early adopters. Internet connections were so slight, and the hardware so bulky and expensive, that it was slow going — tech start-ups launched with fanfare and sank within months, unable to stay afloat on the ethereal promise of everyone, everywhere, seeing each other talk. The promise, too, of never having to travel for business was not as appealing as the start-ups thought it would be.
But my mom is a futurist, that peculiar subclass of optimists who believe they can see the day after tomorrow coming. In the 1990s, she ordered pens customised with her consultancy name and the slogan: ‘Remember when we could only hear each other?’ Years later, when an unopened box of them surfaced in her office, she laughed and laughed. It would be another several years before Skype with video brought the rest of the world up to speed with her pens.
And by that point, she’d moved on.
It’s not always a particularly comfortable place to be, that knife’s edge between the next big thing and a truly embarrassing evolutionary dead-end. We were constantly wading through early models of doomed technology, and we dressed in, wrote with, and drank out of the detritus of wrecked start-ups. My dad’s favorite polo shirt memorialised a company that had not existed for at least a decade, and for toys we had stress balls and small plastic tops from telecom tradeshows. We had a massive TV-like device mounted with a swiveling webcam before which, at my mother’s behest, I played the clarinet for children gathered in a classroom thousands of miles away. I have not seen one of those in anyone’s living room lately.
In 2004, the year I went to college, one of Forbes’ top tech trends was that consumers were beginning to buy more laptops than desktops. I took a laptop with me, of course — we’d had one or two around the house for years, and I think we bought three more that summer — but I also took a video phone. It was a silvery chunk of plastic with a handset on a cord, a dialpad, and a four-inch screen on a hinge on which I could see my family every week or so. It was the way of the future, and my mom wrote an article about using it to keep up family ties across long distances. The next year, when my sister went away to college, she did not take one. That fateful Skype release had occurred in the intervening 12 months, and the days of dedicated hardware were through.
Strangely enough, after the video revolution came, it no longer seemed to interest my mom. I had not fully grasped it until that point, but her interest was in premature things — full of potential, hampered by bizarre deformities, in need of her talents. Unlike almost every consumer of technology, for her, and for a few others like her, the sleek final product held much less interest, except as a sign that their instincts had been correct.
The bugs, in other words, were more than just bugs. They were opportunities. And without people who have this affinity for the half-formed, we might not get anywhere much at all.
Some years later, as an intern at Popular Science magazine, I was doing research for a retrospective that highlighted the products that had stood the test of time and Googling a quarter century’s worth of inventions featured in the Best of What’s New awards. In an image search for one of the products — I cannot now remember which, and don’t have a record of it, but it must have been a monitor-mounted webcam — I found a small photograph of my mother, in her office in a house we’d long since moved out of. The photo showed her head and shoulders off-center, against a white wall. She was wearing a peach turtleneck and a loose bun, and she stared into the lens of this now-forgotten device with an attentive expression, as though looking for a sign of things to come.
I’ve never thought of my profession as being at all connected to my mother’s. It’s easy to forget that they might seem to be related. Which makes these spooky moments, when I stumble across her signal in the noise, all the more eerie.
My career as a writer about science, and sometimes technology, arose from a particular moment in a college class in cell biology. Late in the semester, we watched a silent movie of a cell dividing. The frenetic activity within the cell paused, and the twinned chromosomes assembled into a straight line. Then they began to pull apart gently, tugged by invisible threads into halves, identical, but destined for existences in separate spheres. I wanted to get closer to that ethereal beauty, to help people understand more about what was happening there — a process still so mysterious, even after decades of research, that our professor was forever coming into class with updates to the textbook. Together, my career and my upbringing have given me something important: a taste for the beautiful and the patience to wait it out, if not the desire to midwife it myself.
These days, the devices strewn around my parents’ apartment are augmented-reality glasses and headsets. The dinner table talk has been about waypoints and layers and standards for content. Mom’s latest projects include turning a city’s publicly available data into an app that lets people see the transit system or sewer pipes projected over the reality before them. She’s been talking to hang-gliders and hot-air-balloonists about whether they would like to see the wind unfurling across the sky ahead. And years before Google Glass was even on the horizon, my mom had me try out a pair of glasses that were to provide an immersive movie theatre experience. (The earbuds mounted on the frames, I regret to say, had not been designed with young women in mind.)
Sometimes I think I could sell my services to these people with the tagline: ‘I come from the future’
But while there have been some industry successes — mainly in the form of games, and the Yelp app, a big standout — augmented reality is going through an awkward adolescent phase. It’s good for PR stunts, like the billboard that went up in Stockholm a couple of years ago and let passersby win McDonald’s food by playing ping-pong with their smartphones. Or the display in Korean subway stations that lets people ‘shop’ for groceries by snapping pictures of QR codes. But will there ever be, as my mom thinks, a secret digital world underlying the real one? A Metaverse visible through your phone, and soon, she hopes, through glasses? Several months ago I went to a release party for a phone loaded with augmented reality features, and the demo was a groan-inducing animation. We’re not there yet.
Sometimes I think I could sell my services to these people with the tagline: ‘I come from the future.’ I don’t have all the hallmarks of a standard techie: my cell phone lives peacefully unconnected to the internet, and I belong to relatively few social networks, but I am from a bubble in time, a place where these things have always existed. I can tell you what users are going to want, because I have seen, over the course of my short life, so many things fail, and so many unlikely things succeed.
That said, I would never want to be too far away from those who live and work perpetually in the vanguard, who have chosen that risky, Schrödinger’s Cat-like existence. Even after growing up with my mother and the remains of a hundred half-baked ideas, such people’s willingness to ride the wave, their foolhardiness and their bravery, still provokes awe in me. It’s not a thing I can profess to understand beyond a basic respect for their guts and their kind of crazy hope that the future will be weird. But that’s something I can get behind.
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier.
The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you really need to do, in order to have what you want.”—Margaret Mead
Wealth, risk, and stuff
Via Anne Galloway on Twitter, I just saw Living With Less. A Lot Less, an opinion piece in the New York Times.
I run into some version of this essay by some moneybags twig-bishop about once a year, and it bugs me every time.
Here’s the thing. Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a number of material possessions. It’s having options and the ability to take on risk.
If you see someone on the street dressed like a middle-class person (say, in clean jeans and a striped shirt), how do you know whether they’re lower middle class or upper middle class? I think one of the best indicators is how much they’re carrying.
Lately I’ve been mostly on the lower end of middle class (although I’m kind of unusual along a couple axes). I think about this when I have to deal with my backpack, which is considered déclassé in places like art museums. My backpack has my three-year-old laptop. Because it’s three years old, the battery doesn’t last long and I also carry my power supply. It has my paper and pens, in case I want to write or draw, which is rarely. It has a cable to charge my old phone. It has gum and sometimes a snack. Sunscreen and a water bottle in summer. A raincoat and gloves in winter. Maybe a book in case I get bored.
If I were rich, I would carry a MacBook Air, an iPad mini as a reader, and my wallet. My wallet would serve as everything else that’s in my backpack now. Go out on the street and look, and I bet you’ll see that the richer people are carrying less.
As with carrying, so with owning in general. Poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk.
When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.
If you buy food in bulk, you need a big fridge. If you can’t afford to replace all the appliances in your house, you need several junk drawers. If you can’t afford car repairs, you might need a half-gutted second car of a similar model up on blocks, where certain people will make fun of it and call you trailer trash.
Please, if you are rich, stop explaining the idea of freedom from stuff as if it’s a trick that even you have somehow mastered.
The only way to own very little and be safe is to be rich.