Until They All Have Faces

Hello, friends! I’m grateful that there are some of you who notice when I miss a weekly post, like my mom, who will reliably send a text: “no post this week??” or like a few of you who write, “Thanks for taking a week off so I can read the backlog of your long-ass posts.” Tell your friends. And your moms.

Current status: At the coffee shop on Tuesday morning; long line of the to-be-caffeinated; raining outside; sounds kinda like this with a little of this.

CB, November 6, 2015

Work is an incredible drug. They say it takes two weeks to come down from it. I’ve never been able to verify this because I’ve only ever taken that long; by the time I’d theoretically be “coming down,” I’m coming back. But I just entered my third week off, and so now I can verify that the old come-down adage appears to be true.

The first two weeks of my sabbatical were a bit fraught. With uncertainty, with discomfort, and with backsliding into bouts of busy-ness, both purposeful and not-so. Your basic existential struggle. Fleeting moments of “this is great” and “I should die.” But I’m past that now. I’m in the third week. I’ve read that people who break through the quitter’s ceiling emerge into an almost euphoric experience. Their senses rediscover the world unencumbered by whatever substance had lied to them before. They see, hear, touch, smell, and taste anew. I’ve never experienced that before, either, but I imagine that this past Monday — Day One of Week Three — was my emergence, perhaps no lighter on the physiology and lies. Because something happened in my brain, and I’ve got the TextEdit docs to prove it. It was like an explosion of ideas, of inspiration and fresh, clear thinking. And, boy, was that welcome. One sign of burnout had been the drying up of the idea tap, to the point where I wondered what, exactly, I have to offer. I’d lost the sense that opportunity is everywhere. That purposes evolve and offerings are invented. It’s good to see things that way again.

Most of the ideas that came with my emergence won’t do me much good. For instance, every now and then, I send myself a “Startup Opp” message when I run into something in the world that irks me, like, “Startup Opp: spray bottles that actually keep working ’til the very last drop,” or “Startup Opp: autotune for verbal ticks like your guys’s and a whole ’nother level,” or “Startup Opp: a rearview mirror coating that tones down the blinding shock and awe campaign of the jabroni behind me who drives with his brights on all the time.” You know, snarky post-Seinfeld stuff that might be funny if we all had a few cocktails in us…with maybe a nugget of legit QVC fodder. Well, there were a bunch of those that came with my emergence that, like those that came before them, will remain archived. And then there were some other ideas that, when they came to me, I thought, “you know, that’s not bad.” But I also have to be honest and admit that many of them are probably not that original — surely you’ll read some and think, “Duh, who hasn’t thought of that?” — and, of the ones that are, I’m probably not the guy to make them happen. I wish I was, but alas, I’m probably the wrong age, with the wrong skills, and on the wrong coast. Having gotten them out of my system, though, I’ve been able to explore some things that I will take back to the office with me, things that I’d bet wouldn’t be very exciting to read about. So I’m going to share the fun stuff with you instead, in no particular order of importance. Which means, like a mixletter, feel free to hop about and skim. I welcome any and all responses — from, “DEAR IDIOT…” for all the things that don’t make sense or can’t be done or are already being done, to “Dude, let’s make that!” I’d be game for a side-project.

Idea (1) The Return of Album Art

Album art basically died when the word “album” came to mean something conceptually, rather than objectively. Sure, those of us who bought compact discs in the 90s spent plenty of time pouring over those tiny little booklets, but honestly, it was a lousy experience. Cheap paper, blurry printing, fussing to get them back into the case, staples. All of it pretty lame. By the time iTunes reduced album art down to a single thumbnail image, it seemed like no big loss. After all, it was about the music, right? And with a tiny screen on your iPod, what more would you need? But now that we can experience music through much larger screens, it seems there’s a real opportunity to explore how album art could make a comeback.

Whenever we entertain guests, my wife and I tend to put on music using the Google Play app on our television, which feeds into our Sonos system. It’s great — music all over the house, with the playlist visualized on the TV for those who are interested to look. Besides offering suprisingly great playlists (having bought Songza), one other nice thing that Google Play does is display images of the album or group that is currently playing. Some of them look pretty great on a large, horizontal screen, and some of them don’t. But whenever I see these images and find myself wanting more, I realize that this is the opportunity.

I would love to sit and listen to music while exploring imagery intentionally paired with it and optimized for the wide aspect ratio, or have it run as a slideshow that I could occasionally glance at. But no tiling or Ken Burns effect or collaging of squares. I want edge-to-edge, 4k beauty. I would even buy digital “boxed sets” of some artist’s catalogues that included album art reformatted for wide, horizontal aspect ratios, as well as behind-the-music images of the group, perhaps recording or on tour. These visual packages could include video, too. This seems like a pretty big opportunity for artists, designers, and photographers to collaborate with musicians, and for production companies to produce these packages.

Idea (2) The Closed-Circuit Home

Here’s the thing: self-sufficiency, off-the-gridness — whatever you want to call it — it’s all the rage. Thank goodness. But, for the most part, it’s all shorthand for energy. Using less, harnessing wind and solar, loosening the clutches of our coal-burning, price-gouging overlords. Which is all great. But if we can get off the electrical grid, that leaves one more grid we might want to consider: the water grid.

The majority of the water we use at home we wash or flush down the drain. A small minority of it goes into our bodies. What if we could treat and recycle the majority of the water we use? What if we could even drink our wastewater? I know it’s possible — Bill Gates proved it when he happily drank water that used to be feces. Granted, it came out of a machine the size of a tinyhouse, but hey, baby steps people. The point is, it can be done. So. I want a house with its own water supply, stored somewhere under the structure, that is supplied, treated, and recycled, all on-site. A closed-circuit. While a system like that wouldn’t be 100% efficient — treatment is going to “burn” water — it could get darn close, especially if the system was designed to intentionally grade water along a use and purification spectrum. Faucets -> Showers -> Toilets -> Grounds Irrigation. We could even capture steam and humidity within the house and return that moisture to the central water storage. When the standard water level drops, then the system can either tap in to the grid, or, if possible, a well. Sound gross or great? C’mon, this is some Captain Planet stuff right here. Seems like we could make this affordable and standard before our kids ask us for help with their down-payments.

Idea (3) Throwaway Gardens

While we’re being part of the solution, not the pollution (heyo, Planeteers!), let’s tackle throwaways. I don’t mean trash in general. I mean the stuff we burn through every day that has a use-life of minutes. Paper plates and napkins, plastic utensils, coffee cups — that kind of thing. Recently, while traveling for a talk, I sat at a city coffee shop for about an hour working through my notes. As I studied, I watched a barista empty the trash at least three times in an hour. And this barrel was pretty big. What do you suppose was in there? Mostly paper and cardboard and plastic, much of which had barely lived long enough to make it from one counter to another. I was horrified, not because this particular coffee shop was producing more trash than any other coffee shop, but because I imagined every other coffee shop in every other city producing the same amount at the same time and good lord where does it all go? We can do better than burning and burying this stuff. What if we could grow it, use it, treat it, and regrow it, from itself?

What I have in mind are 3-D printers that use vegetable matter as their base. Something compostable and, I guess technically edible. Your local Starbucks could print out its own cups and lids and stirrers and what not, and then, when they’re thrown out onsite, break them down again, treat the material, and reload their printers with it. Just like the house, there’s going to be some efficiency loss. Fine. That’s when you order more veggie base from the supplier. What is this base exactly? I dunno. Shit, how about corn? I mean we already run a surplus of that every year because the government would rather heaps of it rot than offer subsidies for any other crop. When it comes to 3-D printing, I hear all kinds of moonshot stuff, like, we can 3-D print orbiting structures in space, saving us from having to lift anything but the printer off the surface of the Earth. Well, cool. But how about we start with a few more mundane applications first?

You know what? Let’s just go ahead and end all throwaway plastics. The plastic in bags, pens, running shoes, toothbrushes, water bottles, spraybottles, deodorant canisters, toothpaste tubes, earbuds and charge cords, bottle lids, etc. Any plastic that doesn’t have a use-life expectancy of less than 5 years should be compostable, don’t you think? Things that have a longer expected lifespan, like glasses, watches, clothing, kitchen tools, furniture, etc., plastic is a pretty good material because it’s cheap, malleable, durable, and easy to maintain. Plastic gets a bad wrap because we use it for too much and end up burying most of it. And, of course, because plastic has come to mean stuff we make out of petroleum. But if we could get away from oil and make truly organic plastics, we’d be on the right track. I mean, don’t we already produce tons of this stuff every Halloween and dye it brown, orange and yellow? And then we eat it! Ok, I’m kidding. I realize there’s no corn in candy corn. Anyway, Plasticorn! The crop of the 21st century. You read it here first.

☺ ☹

Idea (4) Anthropotech

A few months ago, I was ready to get rid of our old vacuum cleaner. The suction had weakened considerably, and the motorized pet attachment — which is essential in our house — just wasn’t getting the job done anymore. After a few lame cleaning frenzies (I’m the Butler of the house, so I get to call them whatever I want), I began to resent the vacuum. I came to think of it as a diseased object that must be excised from our home before its contagion spreads. I had already researched replacements and was ready to order one when I thought to myself, let me just try one more time to figure out if it’s fixable. After some Googling, I gathered a few DIY tips, tried them out, and voilà, the old vacuum was as good as new. Just a few days ago, as I was frenzying through our living room, I looked at the vacuum fondly and thought, “Well, old boy, you lived to see another day.” I’d like to think that if our vacuum had a face, it’d be smiling.

So, why doesn’t it have a face? Careful readers will remember that we also have a Roomba, which we call Norby. Norby is great at floors, but he can’t get up on furniture or do stairs and windowsills and what not. So the old Hoover Windtunnel still has work to do. Norby was easy to name, though, because it was designed to have personality. When Norby is running out of batteries, an 8-bit dirge plays over his slowing gears. When he docks, he celebrates with a major-scale fanfare. He’s got this little spinning brush that sticks out and seems like a fussy sea creature’s appendage. The guy’s got character! He’s Norby! Hoover, though? Not so much. Sure, Norby’s got a major advantage in being autonomous, but I think we could do better with Hoover. We could start by giving him a face. I’d bet I wouldn’t have been so quick to consider kicking him to the curb if I had to look him in the eyes first.

So here’s what I’m thinking: Tamagotchi + household appliances. Simple. Cheap, last-forever LCD screens and 8-bit sounds. Each one could have a face, and just like your 90s keychain pet, tell you when it’s happy — in good working order — or sad — needing maintenance. Don’t remember Tamagotchi? They were huge, and kind of the epitome of doing more with less. Kevin Slavin, in his talk, Reality is Plenty, Thanks, marveled at the immersion created by the Tamagotchi, especially when you recall that it only had an 8x8, black and white pixel grid to work with. He said, “it becomes real by behaving real.” I’ll say. They sold 70 million of those things. Kids were so obsessed with their digipets that a bunch of schools had to ban them in order to reclaim their students’ attention. What’s the lesson there? Well, you don’t need much to bond with something. Our instinct to nurture and protect is strong, and just a few visual and auditory cues can trigger it. What if we harnessed that for the sake of extending the lifespan of the things we buy? How much good could that do our world — especially if we’re still making vacuum cleaners out of plastic? And how much deeper could the bond between user and tool become? There’s a lot of brand loyalty to be gained. But not until they all have faces.

Idea (5) Smartwatch 2.0

I’ve had a Fitbit. It wore out after seven months, and so I chose not to replace it. Fool me once or whatever. But then I bought a smartwatch. I wore that thing for a couple of weeks. Fool me twice. I returned it. Why? Oh, man, for so many reasons. It was big. It was glitchy. Its battery barely lasted a long day. It drew me in to notifications and texts and emails and fitness tracking constantly, when all I wanted to know was the darn time. Oh, and it never just told me what time it was. They tell you that you can just turn your wrist and the watch will sense that and activate the display. Right. That basically never worked. So then I’d have to tap the screen and see the time… and everything else. No, I did not have the discipline to not swipe through the everything else. Ultimately, my problem was that the smartwatch is sold as a simplification tool. Something that will offer you information more easily when you need it, and gracefully fade into the background so that you can be more present (and keep your phone in your pocket) when you don’t. Perhaps I misunderstood the pitch, but I did not find any of this to be the case. Instead, I found myself looking at screens more — because I had a new one on my wrist — dismissing notifications in more places, and constantly worrying about battery life. No thanks. But I’ll tell you what, I am grateful to the smartwatch for reminding me how much I appreciate the simplicity of a device that does one thing really well. Like, you know, a watch.

I realize, though, that we’re really just at Smartwatch 1.0. It needs to mature. And I’m convinced that maturity is going to come by way of deconstruction. After all, the silliest thing about the Apple Watch is the panoply of options you have in customizing it. It’s the oddest thing — the continued austerity of Jony Ive’s Braun homage paired with a gaudy Sears catalog of metals and straps. I’ve got two words for you: rose gold. Nast. Apple has always excelled by its focus. So why are they trying to consolidate the entire supply chain of the watch industry? Because they want you to buy their device and they know you won’t unless it looks good with your knit cat sweater. But what if Apple didn’t have to worry about that?

Smartwatch 2.0 deconstructs the watch and reduces it down to two things: screens and sensors. Apple can leave the screens to someone else. They already do with their other devices. They partner with companies like Samsung, who know how to make a good screen. Some display company should partner with Corning to supply watchmakers with a great, sapphire glass (as in, clear) display that can be used on all watches. Meaning, they sell them wholesale to Timex, Seiko, even the artisanal watchmakers running their Kickstarter campaign from Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Apple can focus on shrinking the sensor — and really, it’s a computer, but whatever — down to something that can be stuck on the back of the watch case and communicate (hey, here’s a chance to do better than bluetooth!) with the glass when needed. That way, you get your watch — the one you like — all the time, and the “smart” stuff when you need it. Not the other way around. Think about it: don’t TVs already work this way? Our TV is just a display. Everything we watch on it comes from shrunk down computers we buy from Apple and Amazon and Google that plug into the back. They already have a working model for this. In fact, sell me the sensor for $100 and charge me $10/month for the data service. That way, you double your revenue per year with each customer, and make it affordable for them to upgrade the device itself every year. This is basically the Apple model anyway, it’s just an especially egregious business model when the device costs $500. Smartwatch 2.0 should be one part timeless, mechanical watch of your choice, and one part Chromecast. Looking at the Apple watch, which is a dead, black screen most of the time, it seems so obviously a clumsy rough draft of where it wants to be.

Idea (6) Selfie Buttons

This has gotten really long, so I’ll make this one short. Selfies look dumb. Oh, there you are, standing weirdly in front of a mirror with your arm stuck out flashing your phone like a badge. So natural. Let me help you with that: here’s a stick. Nobody’s laughing at you, I promise.

Since narcissism isn’t going anywhere, but indulging it has become so darn cumbersome, it seems like the obvious next step is to distribute the camera. What if you could discretely clip one on, like a button on your shirt, or a pendant on a necklace, or a pin on a tie? Google Glass tried to do this but then you had to wear Google Glass and there are times you should not wear Google Glass. Like always. But if we can get a camera down to the size of a tie tack, which we can, I suppose we can get one in your Warby Parkers. The point is, we use our phones as cameras because we always have them handy. But there are plenty of other things we always have on us, like clothes. So we can shrink these cameras down a bit more, control them with our phones — “Hey Siri, take a picture.” — and get better selfies. Yay. Yes, we’ll still have to use mirrors, but isn’t that, like, the essential component of narcissism? I mean, god, you can only get so reductive before things lose all their damn meaning. Anyway, I’m not saying I want this. I’m just saying it’ll get made. After all, as many of us are out there actively mocking the selfie stick, more people are out there using it. Wearables. Blagh.

Recent Tabs: IKEA’s 60-page report on play is interesting reading, in particular, the second section on “Safety, Concern and Risk Aversion,” which I must admit to finding pretty depressing. Thanks to the recommendation of reader Josh, who wrote in after my last letter, I lol’ed heartily at Chuck Klosterman’s A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Raiders of the Lost Web. A man takes a long walk in between jobs, and as is his way, does something interesting with internet objects to report on it and then underplays the thinking he did out there. Escape from Mercator. Secrets of the Ring Road. Big Data, No Thanks. So, Selfies reveal your device passcodes. Sleep tight. What makes a life significant? Your friendly guide to great podcasts. A few choice quotes on retrogradia: “If it doesn’t have a keyboard, I feel that my thoughts are being forced out through a straw” and “My first concrete step will be to eliminate variable information rewards from my computing life” and “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.” Other than glossing over the deficit vs. national debt reality, this makes for a decent 2015 Democrat’s manifesto.

Written by Christopher Butler on November 6, 2015,   In Essays

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