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Encapsulated Experiences

Simplicity is a deception. The plainest things will lure you in; they will murmur invitations to do with us as you will, then burgeon labyrinthine forests of complexity around you in which you may become blissfully lost. The least can become the most.

As I began to write two very different things, unsure about which to finish, I noticed some thematic connections. So I offer them both to you side by side. Read them as you will.

Desire Paths

It took eight years to create two paths across our front yard. One runs from our front porch straight across the yard to a set of stone steps at its edge that lead to the street. The other veers off from it to the right, cutting across the yard and ending in a circle around a stone bench shaded by a centuries-old oak tree.

Each path is paved with smooth stones, roughly the size of an imperfect dime, and is lined at its edge with much larger stones, puzzled together at their random and irregular edges.

It did not take eight years to pave and line these paths. That work was done in less than a week’s time. It took eight years to define the paths. We wore them in by foot; thousands of trips back and forth across our yard have etched in the lines over which we only recently paved.

The paving has made the lines much more functional — less prone to mud, for example — and more beautiful than before. The stones encourage slower walks, pausing for views, and guide you to the stone seat for some quiet contemplation. From there, looking over the yard from its edge, I have already wondered what these paths would have been had we fast-tracked what has taken eight years.

Would we have known enough eight years ago — when we first moved in to this house — to plan and pave good paths? I suppose that had we made them, we would have used them as they were. But I still wonder how different they might have been. The paths we have now are the result of almost a decade of instinct — they’re the index of the ways we walked without any instructions or guidelines. As fully realized as they are now, and having so indelibly altered the look and feel of our yard, they still feel known. Not new so much as finally complete.

Paths that take eight years to be established are, put simply, desire paths. Not a path architected and established by paving, but by walking. This is a beautiful concept. As a designer, I can’t help but marvel at the procedural implications: A desire path is not planned or prototyped first, but in a stunning reversal, it is user-tested into existence.

Imagine if other things were created in the same way.

Interaction design is usually done differently. Professionals, though they may personally have an appetite for risk and experimentation, are, by contrast, restrained when spending someone else’s money. The recipe for a serious offering is, in the parlance of the professional, minimum viable, but still a multipart procedure: one part alpha to two parts research to three parts review; combine to produce beta; test again; release to the wolves; iterate to taste.

There is nothing wrong with this method. It does its best to balance the preservation of an initial idea with the erosion of constituent opinion. That is a good thing. Without an effort to protect ideas from reactions, our world would be boring — prosaic paths tepidly tread.

And yet, there is room for desire paths in design. Twitter, for instance, launched with such a limited functional scope that the majority of features added since have been desire features. Rather than surprising users with novel new ways to use the system, Twitter designers and engineers have more often observed the ways users tweet around limitations and added features to make those “paths” permanent.

In 2015, researchers published a proposal in the Open Library of Humanities to establish the “adapting retweet.” Until that point, if a Twitter user wanted to retweet and comment on another user’s tweet, it had to be done in a manual fashion that was not easily differentiated from other tweets:

“In Adapting RTs, user A can indicate that they are reproducing text from user B by marking the quoted text off with the capital letters “RT” followed by the username of the original tweeter. The text from the original tweet can be modified (although it does not have to be), and user A can add their own text, which is often placed before the RT and retweeted material. The most common syntax of Adapting Retweets is: {comment text} RT @{author} {retweeted text}.”

Now, the differentiation between a Retweet and a Quote Tweet is permanent. It was a desire feature brought into the fold of canonical code; the paving an act of optimization of the user experience.

The creation of a system like Twitter is not likely to follow the example of a desire path. Twitter was a surprise — a true innovation. In 2006, when Jack Dorsey tweeted the first tweet, he did not really know what he had made or how it might be used. The idea was like a sliver of light at the edge of a crescent moon; there was a hint of what it could be, but the full illumination came in time. Twitter has since followed the desire paths of its users, for better and for worse. Such a design philosophy is seemingly agnostic to the rightness of some paths over others, and much has appropriately been made of the impossibility of remaining neutral when the paths widen to make room for billions of voices across political boundaries. And yet, there is a basic wisdom in iterating by the desires of others.

How much of design can follow a desire path, though is debatable. I’ve often espoused a quite contrary philosophy — that good design doesn’t predict behavior, it creates it; that design is as much self-fulfilling prophecy as it is scientific method, if not more so. This is the sort of approach that limits features not for the sake of minimalism, but to ensure outcomes. If you want people to tweet, give them a message box and a tweet button and nothing more. Then they will tweet. A more complex system would have presented more versatility to users, perhaps, but also less clarity to its makers as to what was working and what was not. I believe in identifying the actions you want users to take, and then limiting features to only those that enable them. The more I think on it, the more like a simple line from Point A to Point B that sounds. A path.

The creation of Twitter was nothing like a desire path. It gave a path to people who had never seen a path before. But since then, Twitter has paved its path according to the walkers. For most of us, the paths we make are not entirely novel; we’re not all introducing paths to the pathless. But every existing path can be improved upon. When we simplify what we make — when we clearly identify our Point A and Point B — we can derive much from observing the walkers.

The Capsule Review

Legend has it that the briefest capsule review of all time was written by Leonard Maltin in response to the 1948 musical, Isn’t it Romantic? His entry was, “No.”

A capsule review really only must do one thing. Of any piece of art, it should answer the question, “Is this worth my attention?” Maltin’s “No” does that.

But there are other elements that can elevate the writing of an otherwise pragmatic capsule review to a work of art. Most of those elements are built upon the foundation of an especially emphatic “yes” or “no” to the first question.

A review that carries forward the wonder and inspiration of successful art — that transports you to feel as the reviewer did, or somehow reproduces something of the art itself through words alone — is, in itself, a wonder to read. One that savages its object is also. So a good capsule review must also provide some additional detail without exceeding the limits of its form. Things like:

Reading a bad capsule review is like watching lethargy labor under trivial weight. The writer’s heart isn’t in it, for better or worse. A review like that will typically expend its wordcount on the how: listing out tracks, chapters, or entries in a group with a rote, mad-lib structure and the first adjectives that come to mind. It will be as boring as the author was bored. Such a capsule review won’t tell you whether a thing is good, or bad, or worth your attention. In those cases, one wonders less about the subject and more what another reviewer would have done with it.

Brief as it may be, a good capsule review will move you before it’s through. You’ll find yourself jotting down a name or firing off a search just a few words in. This may be due to the influence of speed. A good capsule review is written quickly, almost impulsively. It should feel as if it is an unrestrained expulsion of truth too fast to be caught in the nets of second thoughts and tidy prose.

Here are some examples:

DONNIE DARKO — Detached, disaffected Donnie Darko is hostile toward his parents and is always in trouble. He also believes that a six-foot-plus rabbit is ordering him to perform evil deeds. His only allies are a new student named Gretchen with a shadowy home life, a couple of sensitive teachers and a mysterious former schoolteacher, nicknamed Grandma Death, who has written a book about time travel. Is this science-fiction noir? A twisted coming of age story? The movie, written and directed by Richard Kelly, flutters, like a mischievous butterfly, above the despairing hands of easy description. And that’s what’s so good about it. Contains drug use, obscenity and some violence.” — The Washington Post

A perfunctory readers-club style review becomes something more at, “flutters, like a mischievous butterfly, above the despairing hands of easy description.”

THE MATRIX RELOADED — As you may know by now, parts II and III of the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” trilogy were conceived as a single entity, so this second installment is really only the first half of a much longer movie whose loose ends will only be tied up later this fall. Yes, it’s a bit of a rip. Still, “The Matrix Reloaded,” which continues the saga of Neo and his fellow rebels against the machines that would enslave the human race, has more than enough excitement, mystery and obscure spirituality to make up for the flaw. Aiming for sensation, not sense, “Reloaded” has thrills, chills and spills to satisfy everyone but fuddy-duddy filmgoers who insist on a beginning, a middle and an end. — The Washington Post

“Aiming for sensation, not sense,”Reloaded” has thrills, chills and spills to satisfy everyone but fuddy-duddy filmgoers who insist on a beginning, a middle and an end.” Savage.

ORBVS TERRARVM, The Orb — In another characteristic step forward, The Orb leads a dazzling journey through unfamiliar sonic terrain. Casual fans will be baffled, but longtimers will delight in this esoteric foray. Percolating with fluid percussive textures and washes of subtle atmospherics, Terrarvm guides us from the loping groove of “Valley” to the climactic “Slug Dub” in what is The Orb’s most mature and refined sound soup to date. The seven pieces on this brilliant album are less songs than they are elaborate musical gestures, exquisitely crafted and cleverly mixed. — Stephen Reese, WIRED June, 1995
HUNGRY FOR STINK, L7 — These are four gals who aren’t feeling so hot. And they let you know through one post-social-apocalypse, guitar-driven, distortion-laden spasm after another. Their ’92 Bricks Are Heavy release (featuring the droning, over-produced “Pretend We’re Dead”) occasionally sounded like they were locked in your basement bathroom; by contrast, this release maintains an enticing, almost adamantine — though amorphous — edge. Listen long enough to “Freak Magnet,” and you’ll bang your head so hard you’ll end up walking around as pissed off and paranoid as they are. — Roderick M. Simpson, WIRED December, 1994

I had to hand-transcribe these from old issues of WIRED I have on my shelf; they’ve sadly let their online archives rot. The Orbvs Terrarvm review offers examples of excellent turns of phrase: “percolating with fluid percussive textures,” “loping groove,” and “elaborate musical gestures.”

In the The Hungry for Stink capsule, it is the immediacy of the reaction that really works here. It’s as if it was written mid-first-listen. “…an enticing, almost adamantine — though amorphous — edge” is also good language.

THE X-FILES, SEASON 11 is among the most catastrophically bad television I have ever seen. I share this with you not to gripe, really, but to save you the heartache: If you are considering watching it, don’t. With perhaps, one exception, which is the single episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” written by Darin Morgan, who also wrote several of the series’ most excellent and thoughtful episodes like “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” Like his previous episodes, “Forehead Sweat” is a loving meta-commentary on the show’s tropes, gracefully riding the line between elevating all that the show is and straight-up, Muldur-hating satire. It’s ironic — though certainly in keeping with Morgan’s style — that among this episode’s commentary-rich script is a moment that seems to question the propriety of an X-Files-aissance in the first place. In a closing scene, Mulder and Scully sit down to sample a jello-like treat that Scully recalls fondly from her childhood and hasn’t tasted since. Just as she lifts the spoon to her mouth, she pauses and says, “No, I want to remember it how it was.” Same here. — Me, April 6, 2018
INTERSTELLAR — Interstellar is terribly written, rushed (an amazing thing to say of a 3-hour film), silly, and ultimately collapses under the weight of its own ambition. The dramatic arc of its story makes no sense. The score is a shrill emotional drill instructor that will break you soldier. You_will_feel. Someday someone will cut out half of the after-school-special preamble, the entire off-season-Matt-Damon subplot, figure out how to re-edit the last few scenes so they don’t feel like a slap in the face, and upload that to YouTube as a silent film. Or maybe just make a sequel about David Gyasi’s character’s 23 years of solitude. That would be interesting. But unfortunately, Interstellar is not. The best outcome of this truly bad film would be for Christopher Nolan to reset and make a small, effects-free film about women who exist for other reasons than just motivating men. Ideally, his brother does not write the script for this film. — Me, November 21, 2018

Admittedly, mine are not as encapsulated as they should be. Wordiness has always been my weakness. But, what they lack in efficiency they deliver in candor. What I like about them is they’re bursts of unrestrained reaction. I have often been as motivated to experience something eviscerated by a reviewer as something praised. After all, anything capable of bringing a critic to a boil must be worth experiencing.

— Christopher Butler, Apr 23, 2021, Durham, NC

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