Picture me at 37,000 feet in a United-brand flying tube hurtling eastward at 505 miles per hour. I’m returning home after a great time speaking at HIDC San Francisco. The woman sitting in the window seat of my row has decided that we don’t need to look out (and down), which feels like an unwelcome preview of these windowless planes I’ve been hearing so much about lately. I suspect I will not like those. Part of the irrationality of hating air travel is the need to constantly verify that you are not crashing. Professional worriers such as myself do this by fiercely gripping both armrests (gauge your grip by the bone-whiteness of your knuckles) and looking out the window every time there’s even the slightest bump. This is my own version of security theater. I’m a TSA of one. Now, on this particular flight, my other diversionary option is watching the one channel my little DirectTV has decided to be stuck on. So, Pro basketball. The system is broken, so I cannot change the channel. I also cannot turn off the monitor. Super-bright sportsball 10 inches from my face. It’s only been seven minutes. I am in agony. Is this why everyone hates United so? Well, I suppose it’s early yet. Plenty of time left for them to commence the beatings and humiliation and poisoning. You guys, I_am_being_sarcastic. It’s really not that bad up here. Other than it being terrifying, of course. But five hours from now and I’ll be home again home again, jiggedy jig. In the meantime, let’s think about the future. Oh wait, we can’t really do that…
We are all working for different futures. Some of us are working on food. And water. Some on education. Some on disease. Some on cities — roads, buildings, transportation — and connecting it all, of course. Some on energy to keep it all going. Some on money. Saving it, giving it away, multiplying it. Some of us are working on minds and hearts and souls. Sometimes all of this work looks regressive — conserving the past. Sometimes it looks like maintenance, preserving a present, a stability — or even barely keeping up — but surely not a foundation for tomorrow. Of course, that’s wrong. Everyone who works and thinks projects themselves forward in some way. Anticipating what’s next. Considering what can be done today to make tomorrow better.
And then there are the technologists. The purveyors of screen. They get all the credit for the future. They make grand promises. Their ambition is limitless, it seems. They want to change the world, one app at a time. Has no one told them that the world is large? Has none of them ever used Google Earth, for goodness sake? There’s a real tension between their astonishing ambition and their profound myopia, isn’t there? That somehow, through some strange magic, one could change the world — the biggest “thing” we know — through a 4.7” screen. Our tiny window to an enormous world. Yes, I realize all these companies have eyes on bigger things than smartphones. Yes, I know about GoogleX. But remove the small screen from the equation and all the money goes away. The moonshot money. Poof. Gone. Read Facebook’s press releases about how they’re going to finally give their shareholders the big profit they’ve been waiting for. Where does it come from? People staring at little screens. A future of distraction. Where time quickens to the pace of the notification. Remember when you were a child, before you had profiles to tend, before emails and updates and tweets and selfies? Remember how long a moment could be? And how vast the future felt because it was a sea of moments stretching out before you, no faster than your own biology? The world clock ticked in heartbeats, and tides, and sunrises and sunsets. We could still live like that. Food, water, education, even cities — none of these forces us out of harmony with the turning of the world. Turning away is our choice. So could be turning back.
Before I go too far into Fox Mulder voiceover territory, let me pause and tell you why I’m even thinking about this. It’s because of art. It’s too easy to think of art in terms of artifacts and of artists as simply makers. Artists are more than just the people who make the things that will be dug up later and used to understand the past. Art is so much more than object-making. Art is about thinking and engaging and experiencing. It’s a strange thing, really, that art is almost always thought of in terms of what it produces — a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music, a play, or a dance — when every artist knows the journey is the destination. It doesn’t mean you don’t leave a trail of breadcrumbs, but it’s not about what you make. It’s about where the making takes you. Really, art is the most futuristic of all pursuits. It’s not meant to be practical. It’s the opposite. Able’s call to “be proud of your weirdest idea” comes to mind.
I’m thinking all of this just moments in to Scott Snibbe’s talk at HIDC. His title is Music’s Visual Future. He’s just a moment or two into showing some Hans Richter clips and I’m already having to press my body into my chair. Because I want to leap up and cheer! Here’s Scott — a true artist — quietly sharing his work with an audience of design professionals who had absolutely no idea that they weren’t going to get right in to looking at wireframes and templates and buttons. Instead, they’re being taken on this journey that is about sound and image and bodies and exploration. I wanted to leap to my feet and turn to the audience and shout, “You guys! THIS is the stuff that computers and video and sound were made for! This is the stuff we should be looking at! This is the stuff that should challenge our thinking and our craft and push us forward! This is play. And it is just as important to what we do as grids and code and QA and gannt charts! If not more. Those things ground us to the tick of the clock and the cash register. The tyranny of the machine. Scott is showing us another way, where the machine can take us out of all of that. We need this!” But I kept my mouth shut, of course. Because of society. And because of Scott, who, in his quiet and gentle humility, was a much better bearer of that message than I in my Doc Brown mania would have been. He went on to share many more gorgeous and exciting things, including the Biophilia app he collaborated on with Björk. It’s an incredible thing, somehow simultaneously very much of the early 2000s web — something you might imagine started on a CD-ROM but made its way on to the web — and also very much of the future. Of an internet unencumbered by templates and CSS and search engine optimization. If you haven’t seen this thing and don’t feel like paying $13 for it on the app store, check out the app’s brief introduction narrated by David Attenborough. That’ll give you the vibe.
At the end of his talk, I asked him what he thought a room full of working designers should do with what he presented. What should they take back to their offices? What about art can they apply to their carefully scheduled production and client meetings? I don’t think Scott was ready for that question. He struggled with it a bit. And I don’t think I’d have been ready for it, either. What do we do with art? Where is art in design — or any 9-to-5, for that matter? Scott mentioned at one point that we’ve taken many diversions and distributed them throughout our day. We check Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Messages constantly, in between everything else we do. And yet none of that is restorative. It doesn’t feed into creativity. Not in the same way turning away from the screen and moving your body can. Those nano-breaks aren’t good enough. And he’s right. Take a look at your nearest gannt chart — amazing that it’s not unlikely you’ll know what that is and have one just a tab away — or your inbox or your calendar. Where is the space for anything? Mike Monteiro calls this the chokehold of calendars. And he’s right. We’re beholden to a system that wants to fill those blocks in and line them up nice and neat. But art isn’t neat, is it? Exploration and discovery aren’t neat, are they? They’re outside of the grid. So much of what we do rips the guts out of the very wonder and play that got our whole industry going. Industry needs art. It’s an investment, and you make that investment because you believe that play and wonder and exploration keep everything we do from being bankrupt in the end.
Scott made all this plain just by showing things he’s made and explaining how they work. What they are and why they are was self-evident. They are simply about play, and play is how we learn. He didn’t pontificate like I am. At all. His transcript would probably be one paragraph with no exclamation points. So, please forgive me; I’m stepping down from the soapbox now. But boy do we ever need this message. Spread the word, will you?
Heavy Rotation: Thanks to Scott, I clicked “play” on Björk’s Vespertine over and over again this week. Vespertine is my favorite of Björk’s albums, quite possibly my favorite headphone album, and likely the album I’ve played most as an adult. It was released just before the world changed in 2001. That year — for many reasons, both good and not-so — was one of the most emotionally fraught in my life. And so listening to Vespertine instantly takes me back to that time. I don’t necessarily want to relive every emotion or every painful moment, but going back brings a rush that I can feel course throughout my entire body. My breaths get deeper. I tremble. There’s a surge of energy and suddenly I’m 21 and staying up all night, bold, scared, infatuated, curious, filled with wonder. I want to do things like lay on my back, close my eyes, and float away. Everything is urgent. New ideas. New feelings. New people. All seizing at my attention, bending and warping what is true and pushing the edges of my little world outward so fast that I feel this terrifying reverse-claustrophobia, like I’ve been dropped in the middle of the ocean. And then there’s that sudden tiredness — that irresistible call to sleep you feel after you’ve finally let yourself cry. It’s a strange thing that all of that — that drama of youth — erupts out of a one-hour collage of sound carried in to my skull by tiny speakers and fragile wire. While the serious, adult bustle around me has no idea. So listen to Vespertine. It’s all of that, not just because it was for me — the 21-year-old falling in love at art school — but because of the story Björk tells. She’s falling in love, too. It’s a strange, gorgeous, and timeless piece of music.
On Screen: I saw Interstellar. It’s 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. On a positive note, I re-watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a week or so ago for the first time since it was released in 2000. Back then, I didn’t like it much and tended to make my entire review of it a sarcastic re-titling. With drink in hand I’d shout to a friend, “oh you mean Crouching Tiger, Hidden POINT?!?” So clever. But on this second viewing, I felt completely differently. I adored it. I wonder if its beauty, and the subtlety of the main characters’ aged and matured love were completely lost on 20-year-old me. The me who had yet to fall in love and yet to suffer its loss. Here is a film just as ambitious — but, obviously in very different ways — as Interstellar, yet has a real interest in human characters and enough restraint to preserve it.
Recent Tabs: Terraform is Motherboard’s new home for future fiction. A Case of Time Travel? I don’t think so, but cool story bro! “Now that nearly every piece of recorded sound is as easy to find as any other, everyone can finally listen to what we snobs wanted them to hear all along… The bad news is that…now that we all share the same record collection, music snobs have no means to recognize one another.” Taking this test reminds me of the time in ninth grade when my science teacher announced to the entire class that an ape would have scored higher on the test than I did. Basically, the only function Ariadne serves is to
ask questions be the audience. “Digital transformation of your organisation is inevitable. Your organisation will either become digital or be replaced.”