The Disappointment of Now

Picture me on the couch in my den, trying my best to type three or four words in between being pawed by a certain Border Collie who insists I’ve never played with her ever. I’d send her to the back yard for a bit, but it’s raining out there, as it has been for the last two days. This has made for an abrupt but altogether welcome transition to Fall. Like the Border Collie who lives in my house, I’m of northern stock who prefers a chill in the air and wearing sweaters at all times. We also like goat cheese. It’s 5:30 PM.

Greatness is made of the mundane. It really is. I was reminded of this on my drive home from work yesterday. I was listening (again) to an episode of The X-Files Files; this one in which the host interviewed Mark Snow, the creator of the theme music used on the show. You know the one. It’s probably the most famous 46 seconds of TV of the 20th century (and comes in really handy when your local news station needs to do a quick story about something weird someone saw in the sky). Before he begins the interview, Kumail Nanjiani spends some time talking about why this theme was so unique — it really was — and why that made such a difference at the time. You know, as compared to something like this. Or this. Or this. Or THIS. OK you get the idea. Anyway, the interview is fascinating. Especially the part when they are discussing how the creative process worked. Snow told the following story. Chris Carter (creator of the series) had provided him with lots of material he liked with notes, like, “I like the guitar in this,” and “I like the rhythm in this,” and “I like the synthesizer sounds in this.” Snow listened to all that music and came up with a few ideas of his own, which he presented to Carter. Carter was encouraging, but but wasn’t sold on any of them in particular. Snow made changes. They reviewed again, and the cycle continued a few times. So far, pretty familiar for any designers out there. Eventually, Snow felt that they weren’t making the right kind of progress, so he said that now that he had a much better sense for what Carter was looking for, he felt he’d have a better shot at it if he started from scratch. Carter agreed and left. As Snow turned to get back to work, he bumped his elbow on one of his keyboards, and through the amplifier came this “ba… ba…. ba… ba…” sound with a delayed echo. He was intrigued. He thought, what if I used that sound with a repeating note pattern? From that came the delayed four-note pattern that makes up the rhythmic synth of the opening theme you know. After that, he thought: I need a melody. He came up with something very simple, and tried all kinds of different sounds for it: Piano, Violin, Voices. Eventually, he came to a patch in his synth library called, “Whistlin’ Joe.” Then, he added some layers of synths and pads, and that was it. He thought, this seems like a good point to get Carter’s opinion. When he played it for him, Carter basically said, “that’s not bad,” but not in a “Heyyyyyy! That’s NOT BAD!” way or anything. Next, Snow presented it to three executives. Each one responded in roughly the same way, “Huh… I’m getting a feeling… It’s like… The way it sounds reminds me of something… I dunno… Bill, what do you think?” Snow left the meeting without any sense that he was done. But somehow, the piece made its way to the team working on the visual portion of the show’s opening credits, and the next thing he and Carter and everyone else knew, this odd piece of music was broadcast on national TV. Very quickly into the show’s first season, though, everyone was talking about it. About how spooky it was. How it was unlike anything anyone had seen or heard on network TV before. Everyone was whistling that tune. At some point, one of those executives called Snow on the telephone and said, “Mark, didn’t I tell you how fantastic that thing was?!?” Snow was diplomatic: “You sure did, Bill.” What’s fascinating about this story is how lacking it is in any lighting-strike moment. Nobody seems to have felt that this thing was it, really. There was no catharsis for the creator. It just kind of happened, and it wasn’t until the audience responded to it so positively that its greatness was recognized. As I listened to this, I realized how profoundly more true that experience is to the creative process than any catharsis really is. As creators, we strive for those A-ha! moments, but they rarely come from us. They more often come later, from someone else. It reminded me of a piece that Scott Tobias wrote recently at The Dissolve, called Five Simple Rules for Making Biopics About Geniuses. It’s really a takedown of the Hollywood biopic as a genre, and in this case, a couple of recent pics happen to be the fall-guys. But one bit he zeros in on quickly is the “You’ve done it!” moment, where that thing that we all attribute to that famous person is done in just a moment and some character points it out. Like the scene in Pollock where Lee Krasner blurts, “You’ve done it, Pollock! You’ve cracked it wide open!” I’m just sure she actually said that. Why wouldn’t it have been more like what Mark Snow described — perhaps Pollock doing a whole bunch of his dripping thing and Krasner being all ho-hum and stop wasting paint, mannn! until, one day, somebody says this stuff is kind of good actually? I thought to myself that if a biopic is ever made about the creation of The X-Files, somebody needs to be hired simply to prevent “You’ve done it, Snow!” from making it into the script.

Show, don’t tell, you know? In the same way, Apple has thoroughly inverted the show-don’t-tell principle in their marketing, haven’t they? The beginnings were so humble. Go back and watch Jobs’ first iPod presentation in 2001. It’s about as far from the mega events we’ve come to know as you could imagine. He spends the whole time presenting market analysis! It’s essentially: Right now, you can buy a CD player, or a Flash player, or an MP3 CD player, or a hard drive player. What’s the best value? Where should we be? We need to be where the cost per song is lowest. So, iPod. Then, there was the first iPhone presentation. Bigger, but still, compared with events where, say, U2 show up, it’s still kind of humble. But it’s starting already. Jobs gets going with a little history of how Apple has changed the world: The Apple II changed computing. The iPod changed music. But what’s neat is then he goes into what that day’s event was for: “Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls.” - crowd cheers - “The second is a revolutionary mobile phone.” - crowd looses their minds - “And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device.” - crowd explains what ho-hum means - Then, Jobs basically repeats, over and over again, “An iPod, a Phone, and an internet communicator.” Three times, I think. “Are you getting it?” he says, “These are not three separate devices. This is one device.” - crowd is like, GOD DOES EXIST!!! - Then, Jobs: “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the Phone.” But in a stroke of self-aware genius, right where the “You’ve done it Jobs! You’ve cracked it wide open!” beat would be, he showed a slide of a godawful iPod v1/rotary phone dial mashup. “Here’s what it looks like.” - laughter - Thank goodness he did that. Now we’re in something that’s a little more Wayne’s World than it is Pollock. After that, Jobs gets back to his real mojo. Market analysis, again. You’ve got to appreciate that he was willing to take boardroom experiences to the public. So finally, last week, we got the latest event. And honestly, to say that these things have become absurdly hyperbolic isn’t itself absurdly hyperbolic, is it? It’s right there, in the first few lines from Tim Cook: “Helping to move the world forward.” Good lord. And then, here we go, We gave you the Apple II. We gave you the iMac. We gave you the iPhone. Then, lots of back patting. We’re the greatest. The BEST. The most loved! So then we got the bigger ones :) BIGGEST! (Although, “the biggest advancement”? Really? I think it’s pretty much the same, Cookie, just bigger. That’s not really an advancement so much as it’s an inflation. Amirite?) Cook continues: “These are the best phones we’ve ever done…the best phones you’ve ever seen!” Poor guy must not have known about the bending yet. Of course then there’s more. Cook brings Phil Schiller out. Schiller says, “Their design is like nothing ever before.” “The most beautiful phone you have ever seen.” “They’re new in every way.” Really? Gosh, I’m so glad you told me. How else would I know to buy?? But then, at 55:34, “One more thing…” The Apple Watch. “We believe this product will redefine what people expect from its category… It is_the next chapter_in Apple’s story.” He rolls the absurdly hyperbolic video (the Earth turning from space, guys!) and afterward, a standing ovation. Fist pumps! The works… For a watch. I dunno, it felt like Apple was standing in front of a mirror, saying, “You’ve done it, Apple! You’ve cracked it wide open!”

The disappointment of now… On the same week that Apple gave us a watch to buy, we lost BERG. That sums up the disappointment of now perfectly. I’m not in any position to eulogize them (see Warren Ellis for that), but I will say this: BERG was interesting because they were trying to make technology invisible. So that the experiences the technology produced could be seen and felt in the environment. You couldn’t have a more different objective from Apple than that. Apple’s approach to technology is so visible that interacting with it pulls you out of your environment and into theirs! And in their world, that’s called “beautiful” design. I’m not excited about the Apple Watch because, let’s be honest here, it’s just one more thing to pull our gaze away from our loved ones. Or the road. Or whatever else is in front of us. You know the eye-slide right? When you’re talking to someone and their head sort of slowly slides down and to one side and their eyes drop to the phone they’re holding and all of the sudden you realize they’re someplace else? Same thing is going to happen with the watch. It’s no more efficient a device than the phone, except THANK GOD I don’t have to waste one more half-second pulling something out of my pocket OH WAIT that’s about how long it takes to lift my arm, turn my wrist, look down, and focus on a screen the size of a postage stamp. Boy, this progress we’re making is fantastic, isn’t it! I should wrap up my rant now. But two stray observations: (1) Apple Payments. What a revelation! It’s so new they have to give us images of credit cards so that we know what on Earth is going on there. (2) Will this be the first Apple device ever that doesn’t prop up a case economy? Fingers crossed!

Heavy Rotation: Besides The X-Files Files? ;) Ok, I listened to Mezzanine, by Massive Attack this morning on my run. I still love that album. Almost 20 years old and it still sounds futuristic to me.

Recent Tabs: The “Busy” Trap, by Michael Babwahsingh. Krulwich is signing off. Leftist anti-sharing ideology.

Written by Christopher Butler on September 25, 2014,   In Essays

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