Keeping the Fire Lit
Sometime between 125,000 and 400,000 years ago (there’s debate about exactly when), human existence got a major upgrade. All of the sudden, everything changed: later bedtimes, better food, fewer bug bites.
Because of fire.
Discovering that we could burn things was a major epiphany! But it also introduced a new problem: keeping the fire lit. The hearth was a catalyst for the stabilization of community, provided it kept burning. After all, now that you could cook, you had a reason to grow more things. So, farms. And farming meant you could have a more permanent camp. What was once a bunch of nomads on layover became a settlement. But, the fire had to stay lit. Someone always had to be worried about it — whether there was enough fuel, whether it was burning efficiently, whether it was hot enough, whether it was under control.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, what a community needs to remain intact? Today, we’re many layers of abstraction removed from the fires that continually burn to keep our lights on, our houses warm, and our food cooked. But there are still fires we need to tend.
Recently, I found myself chatting with a colleague over dinner at a conference I was attending. As we waited for our main course to arrive, he leaned in and asked,
“How do you stay so inspired and engaged?”
First I thought, “I dunno… do I??” But then I imagined a fire and keeping it lit. And then I imagined myself doing that literally. Hunched over it, grunting; blowing on it; poking at it. Probably about as intelligently as the first guy who let his fire go out. But then I got serious and thought of all the ways we do that figuratively. And I said,
“I’ve got my canon.”
Let me explain. A couple of years ago, the wise and modest Russell Davies posted a 19-word blog post “I think I refer people to this piece more than any other single bit of writing. Fascinating and illuminating.”
“This piece” was linked to a long piece by Malcom Gladwell from 2000 on why some people choke and others panic. What intrigued me wasn’t the Gladwell piece. Never really been a fan. No, it was the “I refer people to this piece more than any other” bit. In my time reading him, Russell Davies has done this sort of metareferencing — referring to stuff he refers to — before. I’ve probably noticed it because I have the same habit. As I imagine is also true for him, my recurring references are often to things written or made by people whose voices — whether I know them personally or not — have established a permanent place in my head, helping to keep the fire up there lit. It’s a growing and prolific crowd, which makes for an ever growing list of recurring references. I have a sense for this because I’ve tried to keep track of them.
In fact, I’ve kept a text document on my desktop for years now called “Canon.txt”. (It’s in the cloud now. I ain’t no luddite.) It contains a long list of links to articles, audio, and video. It’s the stuff on the web that has been most important to me; the stuff that I refer to over and over again; the stuff that has added new voices into my head. Of course, it’s a changing and incomplete list (unfortunately, many of the voices in my head come from people and works that can’t easily be linked to or come and go in their availability). It expands and contracts. I’m continually curating it. Much of it is scattered about, but this private document is the definitive index of my personal web canon. Knowing that it will continue to change — this is the nature of lists of web content — I thought it might be good to share some of my canon, as it is today, with you. And unlike my “Recent Tabs,” where there’s a bunch of stuff I found interesting last week, this stuff endures. Here’s a selection from my list. If you’ve got one of your own, I’d love to hear about it:
- The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Brownowski (video playlist)
- Attention, People of Earth, by Paul Sims
- Cosmic Clock, by Al Jarnow (video)
- The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke (I used to have a YouTube playlist of this entire series but the BBC harshed my mellow and it is currently nowhere to be found in digital form.)
- The End of Solitude, by William Deresiewicz
- The Engines of Our Ingenuity, by John Lienhard (full list of 3011 episodes w/transcripts and audio)
- Everything I Know, by Buckminster Fuller (video playlist)
- Fred Rogers Archive Interview, by TVLegends (video playlist)
- A History of the Sky, by Ken Murphy (video)
- How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, by Philip K. Dick
- How to See the Future, by Warren Ellis
- Jerry’s Map, by Jerry Gretzinger (video)
- The Local-Global Flip, by Jaron Lanier (video)
- Lumiere et Compagnie, by David Lynch (video)
- Murmuration, by Islands & Rivers (video)
- The Novelist as God, by OnBeing (audio)
- On Pessimism, by Alain de Botton (video)
- Our Digital Crisis, by Jonathan Harris
- The Room and the Elephant, by Sven Birkerts
- Time, by RadioLab (audio)
- Space Collective Gallery, by Space Collective (images)
- THINK, by IBM (video)
- Ways of Seeing, by John Berger (video playlist)
- Incidental MediaPixel Track, both by BERG (may it rest in peace)
♬Heavy Rotation: This is kind of an odd thing, but I’ve basically kept this CSS-generated web showcase of 30 endangered species ⧈
Recent Tabs: An open letter on the digital economy. Everyone should read, support, and share it. Tappable, swipable fabrics. I shudder to think of what we’ll call this stuff. SmartClothes? ThrEads? Or are we just going to put them under the big ol’ Wearables umbrella? The Flaw in Designdesigning a better beehive. There is a Video Game Hall of Fame. Virtual reality outpacesThe average gamer is 31. THIRTY-ONE. Much older than I would have guessed. Solar energyexperimental electronic musictransplantable bioengineered forelimbs. If you think that’s weird, try this: Chicken grows face of dinosaur. Death metal band with a parrot for a singer. Logos for buildings that look like buildings. If we find aliens, they will be machines. What’s more surprising than the fact that an 8oz glass of Tropicana orange juice has more sugar than a Krispie Kreme donutconspiracy theories on Facebook. Very intricate collages. 隠れクッキーモンスターを探せ!