[T]he reason we suddenly need such a word [as “interactivity”] is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport—the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.
As Eno pointed out, by naming something you say, “this is now real.” We can define something just as much by what is than we can by what is not. Unhappiness, for instance, teaches us invaluable lessons about happiness. When, then, will “wireless” become extinct?
[T]he key to building great technologies is to first find your purpose. And you will not find it by polling your users.
The best surfers I know seem to have a sense of exactly where the next wave will be. They craft a style about their surfing and their life that seems to come directly from the water. Artists that I admire seem to be quiet and quiet and quiet, and then come up with something beautiful, as if the beauty came from some relationship with the silence. And the great programmers I know are always taking breaks from the screen to go walk in the woods, as if they receive the most difficult parts of their programs by osmosis, and then just go to their desk to type it up.
I think a lot about what I would teach the younger version of myself. How would I prepare her for what life has become decades later? I see her struggling, searching, working, doubting, stretching. If I met her, we would take a walk outside so I could explain how focus works. In order to see, you must not look. In order to focus, you must unfocus entirely. Choose a thing and turn your back on it. Walk outside. Walk a line in the direction of the sun, the rain, the surf. If only for a moment. And that in that opposite direction, in nature, you see yourself.
“Natural technologies arise from the heart of the builder” and when one’s head is down, it’s hard to feel your heart. Work it. Walk it. And build the world that can be.
It could be any dinner, in any place. Every person around the table wants intimacy. And every one of you—whether you came here with that in mind or not—no matter what your intended investment, wants a relationship of some kind although you’ve just met.
Yet by dessert and coffee, you’re challenged to recall either the first or last name of any person you shared a meal with. You look around. You are thirsty, but you can’t remember a single person’s name to ask for a refill. You are at once among friends and strangers. Nameless faces together. If asked, you might be able to identify each of their avatars, know where each is a mayor of, know how to friend each of them in any given social network, but as for their names? “Hey,” you say out loud to no one in particular, “I need water.”
Where once, a person’s name was his or her primary identifier, we’re now seeing the spread of that identity as people intentionally scatter selves, supported by social systems where identities are stored and accessed. As a result, acknowledging someone’s name is no longer the same sign of mutual respect or politeness. Nor is it a necessary signifier that indicates you’re invested in them. What we may be seeing is a death of a single primary name as key identifier. It has been decentralized and decondensed. In social relationships, what has replaced it? And in what contexts do we recall and use each identity?
In Emily Post’s 1922 edition of Etiquette and Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, Post outlines didactic manifestos for interacting with one another. Whether one is a lady or a man, married or unmarried, the Queen or the President of a nation, it is clear which fork, which name, and which manner of addressing one another is appropriate. Specific scenes in that text dictated the rules for behavior, and each was predictable: a business visit, letters, at dinner.
Yet correct introductions are meaningless in a culture where boundaries have dissolved and situations are defined only by the people present in a given moment. How to behave is not an etiquette we can memorize, it’s a sensitivity that starts and ends with being able to read people in an instant. How important is it then to remember someone’s name when that sign is retrievable via any social network, any device that is likely within arm’s length?
There is a new public. The new public is one of context, one perceivable by behaviors. Remembering someone’s name, or deciding we don’t need to, is no longer a given. Our business for behaving—as executives, as friends, as inventors and scientists and designers, as humans—relies on our ability to be sharply aware of that context and shift as appropriate.
We have come well past knowing only one another’s names. It seems to be we’re 300 colors richer in our understanding of knowing identities as explorers of the particulars of what and where they can be.
Through the shifts, people want to be polite. People want to call on one another in a way that’s meaningful. But they’re busy. And memories full. And now some people, bewildered. In a culture where work spills over into play, time zones overlap, and reference points intertwingled, they no longer have rules for calling upon one another. The rules, if any were followed at all, have changed, and our behavior for interacting is getting a serious redesign. There’s a new public for behaving. And using names as the primary identifier for one another, as one example, is becoming extinct.
But before getting caught up in rhetoric of “the death of” predictions, what is more imperative to consider is the role its demise can play in the larger evolutionary pace the Internet environment has allowed for. We’ve already seen radio give way to film, film give way to television, and television give way to the web. At least. Underlying it all is an evolving ecology that shifts and clicks along—humming at times, dragging at other—to keep up with the fast pace that is the shifting nature of the media ecology.
The death of the name is not an extinction at all then; it’s an adaptation. Just as etiquette is not dead; it’s simply evolving. The evolution of any new behavior—similar to what we saw with the introduction of radio, television, film—is bringing with it a whole new range of manners. Where once we relied on a prescribed code of conduct written by one and applied to many, that is no longer the case.
We are seeing what Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News, calls “user-generated context” take shape. These behavioral and adaptive systems are evidence that the complex dialogues among people are taking place in fundamentally new ways; lines between consumer and creator have merged, and context, not content, is taking over as a guide.
In a 1963 “What is Science?” talk, physicist and educator Richard Feynman explained the difference between simply knowing the name of something and truly knowing something.
The code of conduct has been replaced with a code of context. Watches have been replaced by the timepieces that are our smartphones. And while no one under the age of 12 is using those smartphones for email, we are using social networks like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn at a staggering rate to stay in touch. We’re not calling one another but we’re talking more than ever before. And with that, we are writing more as well. And we can confidently say, as these words are printed on this page, that the physical book is not going away; it too is evolving. To know your audience is not enough.
To the contrary
As a culture whose trades efficiency as currency, it’s curious that we’re creating more, not fewer, identities. Contrast that with Mongolian culture which has 300 words for color—and whose horses, as a result, have no name as we know it. They refer to them by color and age. Duly practical and nuanced. What we might see and consider as “white” in English, they see as variations of “ash white” and “snow white” and so forth. Perhaps we too are developing 300 words for social variation, with no one dominant name.
While technology is certainly affording us the ability to use only one identifier, and we uphold efficiency as one of our values, it would seem otherwise. Identifiers abound. Redundancy abounds. And we, in spite our ourselves, seem to value it. Multiple names, then, are a new currency.
Our signature files have out-charactered the text of our email. It’s not enough to sign a note, but to ensure that all forms of contact are known. Our own 300 colors are on display. Yet around a dinner table, it rare to have remembered even one name.
At the intersection of people, technology, and context, we have an opportunity like never before to create new identities and shape new publics. Whether it’s it user-generated context, the display of wealth by waste, or simply the exponential explosion of the name, there is a new pubic for behaving.
Is this proliferation waste, is it branding, or is it a display of power? Thorstein Veblen writer of The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899 suggested a position on the latter regarding wealth and power. He observed that simply amassing wealth is not enough. One must display wealth in order for it to be powerful as an act of status and power. “Wastefulness,” therefore, was a necessary part of of the display of wealth and power. Like the peacock’s feathers, he notes, “Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable it must be wasteful.” Therefore, in order to be reputable, we must be present waste. In other words, the amassing of identities—in part practical—may be in other parts, a power move. And it is in their display that there is power.
The new public
If power is in the display of multiple identities, where are they or should be be displayed? Prior to circa 2003 when social networks became popular, the mall and the movies were where teenagers would display their wealth. But since that time, the “networked place” has largely replaced these spaces. Networked publics are not a defined set of people in a bounded space, but rather a flexible category where people conceptualize the boundaries but do not control them. Because of this, networked publics allow knowing people both in the moment (e.g., around a table) and contextually (e.g., only ever at that table). The boundaries of the contexts online, however, are afforded by technology such that the practice dictates the boundaries, depending on the imagination of the individuals involved.
This new public can play a few roles:
First, in contrast to the Emily-Postian public of the past, they help us define ourselves by the boundaries set forth by the context of the group in the moment. The dinner table this evening creates one set of boundaries, and the people present set the conditions for behavior in that moment. The new public of the table made it alright for no one to know names. Change the table, change the people, and the public changes.
Second, the new public help us define ourselves in relation to the group. Because each group’s identity is both momentary and contextual, it is up to the group’s imagination to put boundaries on it. If everyone wishes to remain anonymous, but only speak about their passion about something specific, it can be so. At the dinner table, one person cannot be a name dropper; each person must image and abide by the same set of social conditions or the public will change.
Third, the new public helps us define ourselves in relation to society. Because each group helps define its context in relation to the context of the culture of a neighborhood or a city, it can do so. Therefore, if citizens wish to protest or to take action on any issue, they can do so. Their allegiance to the group remains strong and patriotism to the society unchanged.
The new public allows. Context is forgiving. Context is the new public.
This thought was first published by The Manual, Issue #1.
The night sky is a mnemonic device, a place to store memory and a holder of the alphabet of myths and beliefs of all, a culture written large across the sky. Meteors and comets were not predictable, and could add nothing insofar as a consistent bit of storytelling was concerned, though they certainly created their own stories in each observed appearance; they could also add punctuation and exclamation to whatever constellation they appeared in. For example if one appeared in a juncture with Jupiter, a major event for royalty would possibly be foretold. But as a permanent element to the visualization of the night sky, they had little power even though they seemed to be displays of fantastic energy and power in themselves.
We used to get as far out, as dark out, as we could. Crispy grass under our backs as we looked up. There was no choice; it was where the constellations were. If the night sky is the holder of stories, then here in this place the stars and the stories were most true.
Today our dense urban places are the keeper of our new memories.
Skies are skylines and constellations are points on spires. And while we start out in the dark, by morning, the stories, and the view, becomes clearer. What stories are we making?
In 2008, I was invited to join the School of Visual Arts (SVA) to invent and chair the MFA Interaction Design program. Since, I’ve continued a fairly active career as a consultant outside the school. Most chairs of academic departments at SVA have outside projects and careers; it’s encouraged as it supports the College’s mission to integrate academia with the profession.
Announcing that I’ve accepted a position as creative director for NPR, commencing January 2014, thereby ending my consulting career. I’ll continue to chair the MFA Interaction Design program in NYC, and be in DC on a regular basis, as well as maintain an active remote-working relationship.
Over the years I’ve worked on digital products and services, I’ve been fortunate to learn many things, but one thing above all: work only on what you love. Make time for ideas you care about; fight hard (and diplomatically, of course) for things you believe in; follow the people who matter to you; make time for projects you want to see in the world; take risks for what matters; be happy with your work. Do that one thing, and everything else falls into place.
NPR has been a critical and meaningful part of my life since … well … forever. In my new role, I’ll work in the digital media team, overseeing and guiding both the visual and user experience across all NPR-branded digital platforms and content. From NPR.org to news apps to multimedia reports, I’ll work with teams to ensure that NPR presents an experience on par with the excellence of its content. I’ll support NPR as we consider new standards in design and storytelling. I’ll be building a team, hiring an all-star group to join the already phenomenal team.
In 1979, I sucked up a crucifix. Schlawapffk is the sound it makes, FYI, when the special gift of a First Communion necklace disappears into the head of a 1970 Electrolux Deluxe Automatic 1205 vacuum.
It was an unassuming piece of jewelry, the kind that decorates not dictates Catholicism. Its delicate 14-karat gold choker nearly invisible, letting the cross pendant do its thing.
But then it happened. In a moment of what I would like to remember as devout responsibility, but was in fact a young me rocking out to a boombox while vacuuming my pink shag bedroom carpet, I knocked it off the dresser. And in one fell swish of wand and nozzle, all was lost.
It took me years to get up the courage to tell my parents about that necklace. What would they think of me if they knew? Just like it took me years to tell them that our hamster didn’t just die a natural death, but fell to her death one morning when I was trying to give her a hug before school. Et cetera.
What if they found out I wasn’t perfect? What if they knew I’d lost myself in music so deeply that I got carried away? If they knew I’d loved an animal so immensely that I wanted to be close to her. What then?
And henceforth imperfect aversion began. Better if I kept these things, and all, to myself.
Imperfection protection is a training regimen that requires constant attention. Let your guard down (fall in love, get lost, be in awe, get distracted) and your guard is down, susceptible to attack. Even after years of practice, pruning, trimming, training, the armor is vulnerable. The typos slip through. The hem shows. The human is.
More years and many regimens later, I can confidently say I’ve lived the most imperfect year on record. 2013 was a year of loss and tragedy. But it was also a year of honesty. Of saying what is. And of owning up to not being perfect.
Of course, much sooner than 2013, my family learned of the necklace, the hamster. What came of it wasn’t nearly what I had expected, but instead support and a profound connection.
Like the things we intend to be, but never are quite that, the things we do, but never fall quite right, these systems are ever in motion. And the key is not to focus on what is, but to be a participant in the exploration of change. The what that is in motion. To be present through transformation.
Imperfection is a constant. Look and listen for it, as it usually means you’re getting close to perfect.
It was a glass box. A house in deep woods. It was remote. It was designerly on the interior, animaled on the exterior. It was mine—for a summer. It was two summers ago, and it was intended for critical project studies. “I’m spending the summer upstate,” I would say, as some New Yorkers do. “To write. To play music.” “Where, again?” they would repeat, not being familiar with this particular breed of remote. They’d tick off train stations as I shook my head. No, this was not those. No, this was a remote summer alone from the city, designed to “Make Projects.”
And off I went, trailing instruments and sewing devices and writing material and dog. Yet sixty days later, I was back in the city. And just like that, it was over.
The remote remote
What people who make things know is that ideas fold you in a remote space—inside a cabin, at a writer’s corral, inside your head, at a coffee shop—then ideas press you back out into the world, rubbing your eyes on your behalf. To have an idea is, at some point, to retreat into quietude. With you is the material of the world, the people, their exchanges, the sound of footsteps, the thing people do when they get together, their life sounds. You fold those into your pocket as you fold yourself into your space. And the making begins.
The road leading to the summer house was windy, punctuated with weathered signs. “National Scenic Bypass,” you could make out, barely, on the days it wasn’t raining. The signs, proud proclamations once, were threadbare from weather, as this particular bypass of beautiful that I had chosen to live on was cursed with weather. The deep-mountain woods kind.
Expansive river views, long motorcycle roads, sunsets and rises, farmers’ markets, endless woods—these quickly lose their charm when it rains. Particularly for weeks at a time. Satellite internet, too, loses its certain magical property once rain and storms come. And power goes down. So many days, I would sit, “making projects,” with neither power nor internet.
Within a week, the project became just surviving. “Light!” That was a project. “Survived my first tornado…” “Rattlesnake!” These “challenges,” though, as challenging as they were, may not have stood between my creative project-making so distinctly if I had been listening.
To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It’s not passive but active, this listening. It’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. The word empathy originally meant feeling into, and to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses. To enter into, we say, as though another person’s life was also a place you could travel to.”
Rather than listening to the city, I left it. I didn’t meet the urban data halfway, making it part of me, but packed it up and moved its shells upstate. As it turns out, my material is urban. It’s loud, and it’s messy. It has feet and wheels and voices and opinions. It’s anti-pastoral. And without it, I have nothing to create against.
Ideas need material to draw upon first, and a place to draw them out second. And to take hold, ideas, like people, need a home.
What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges as it is to the audience when the comic says it. I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.
Whenever I find myself in a bout of nonwriting (not writer’s block per se, but an extended period of nonwritingness), I know it’s this. Not a lack of ideas, not a lack of the right space to write, the right drink, the right order, the right methods, the proper instrument, not a deficit of time. It’s simply my conscious getting in the way. I would be better off saying things more wildly, then looking at what I’d said. Do first, think later; many things can benefit from this method — falling in love, taking your first job, speaking up for what you believe in. Write first, think later. Repeat.
Exchanging small talk with people we’ve just met may be an unfortunate necessity, but with people we already know, it seems to suggest that they’re people to whom we have nothing to say. And yet if small talk is just talk that’s idle, insignificant and without stated purpose, then surely a substantial portion of the chatter that goes on between couples, friends and (or especially) families must count as small.
That’s Dora Zhang in a recent piece for The Point, digging deep on small talk, a social necessity, if not a linguistic oddity, in everyday social encounters.
But as our talk — from small to significant — moves substantially online when we can’t be co-present, small talk appears in digital expressions as well. Take email. There is:
The non-purposeful opening
I hope you’re well.
I hope this note finds you well.
Hoping you had a great weekend.
Hope you had a good trip.
The openings, so full of hope, that we layer into our email are a kind of linguistic greasing the wheel. While it’s meaningful for people to state social intention, to do some social grooming, these openings may be presumptuous. After all, this past weekend, the goldfish may have died, the car broke down, the game may have been rained out. When opening with small talk, consider how your subtle well wishes may be received. Then there is:
The aspirational closing
Hope you get some rest.
Hope the weather lets up.
Hope to see you soon.
Hoping you have a great weekend.
These aspirational closings help keep our conversations going; they’re necessary social cues that indicate we’re departing from the conversation and bid the person well. When they’re genuine and followed up on next exchange, even better.
The unwritten game rules in these remote collaborations seem to be to leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you can. Work with what you’re given; don’t try to imagine it as something other than what it is. … The fact that half the musical decision-making has already been done bypasses a lot of waffling and worrying. I didn’t have to think about what to do and what direction to take musically — the train had already left the station and my job was to see where it wanted to go.
He goes on to ask:
Is writing ever NOT collaboration? Doesn’t one collaborate with oneself, in a sense? Don’t we access different aspects of ourselves, different characters and attitudes and then, when they’ve had their say, switch hats and take a more distanced and critical view — editing and structuring our other half’s outpourings? Isn’t the end product sort of the result of two sides collaborating?
I like this. Collaboration as the caretaking and guidance of two parts of a moving train.
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. —Gilbert Keith Chesterton
They were right. As they’d predicted two decades ago in 2013, half of humanity now lives in cities with nearly 60 percent of our world’s population as urban dwellers. Cities have not only grown in size and population, their very interface has changed.
Back then, citizens were enthusiastic about the layered effect of our data so we could search, sort, friend, follow, retrieve, and archive it in the interest of exactitude. Google, Twitter, Foursquare were changing technology — which is to say, culture. These, and more, increased the opportunity for specificity as they decreased the chance for serendipity.
But humans grew uncomfortable. Things got smarter. Time sped up and time compressed as people became more informed, more efficient, more connected, faster. While the rise of the slow (at first, slow food, then slow web, slow cities) began as rhetoric, it took as a movement.
With more inhabitants than ever before, cities had become not a place for human interaction, but for precise location and retrieval. Entering addresses and finding exact points on the map (with recommended walk/drive/transit directions!) left little up to chance. As humans found more, they had less. Media inventors of any notoriety launched apps and services that provided shortcuts: shortcuts to getting lost, shorthand for privacy, short forms of disconnecting.
Meantime, undigital became luxury. Spas, once islands of tranquility and beauty, became islands of undigital luxury goods. Free “off the grid service” services sold out. This pastoral new concord has had an effect. Humans choose longer lines, the slow lane, practice inexact query formation. Because without the slow, the good was not recognizable.
The divide between the connected and unconnected continues to demonstrate an economic discord: those living comfortably are also living un-connectedly. Unubiquitious computing demands have inspired developers to rush to build unconnected communities. The new connected is to be disconnected. Deadspots are the new hotspots.
Moving toward is moving away, and hence, the notion of density and progress has changed. It’s our job to pause, coordinate, and design opportunities for chance.
In the future, you have access to all your data. Memory, or the lack thereof, is no longer discussed. It is only assumed, a feature of modern life, since you can now relive all your past data as experiences. But because of “technical constraints,” all of your experiences are taxonomized and merged for ease of efficiency/retrieval. To access your past, then, is to relive each experience — in real time, all at once.
You spend seven weeks holding your iPhone to your ear on hold.
You pull to refresh for seven months, click to refresh for nine.
You miss 30 Thanksgiving dinners restarting your laptop.
12 Valentine’s Days restarting your iPhone.
You swipe past iPad ads for 48 hours before ever seeing content.
You deliberate for two hours clicking the back button.
You waste four hours feeling guilty about not accepting invitations.
You go nine whole months accepting LinkedIn recommendations.
Six months seeing who’s followed you on Twitter.
One hour clicking away from ads you clicked accidentally.
For two months you stare at your browser default page.
You power through eight years of anxiety trying to unfriend people on Facebook.
You hunch over your desk for seven months downloading unregistered software.
Three straight weeks stealing someone else’s WiFi.
You tell friends you’re “off the grid” for 48 hours.
You scroll through Twitter for one year without clicking a single link.
There are 16 days you missed the point when your calls are dropped through AT&T.
And 14 hours of confusion as you try to work Skype video.
Three years of watching YouTube videos.
Sixty-five minutes liking.
Forty hours tapping.
Ninety-seven whole days right clicking.
You spend fourteen whole days without contact as you stare at the fail whale.
Three days confused as you update your WordPress install.
Two years behind updating your iPhone apps.
Seventeen months with strained eyes while you debug code.
Two years cursing Adobe Creative Suite.
You spend six months with slumped shoulders as you click “forgot password?”.
You reflect on older times. Passwords were forgotten once, and forgotten again — the next day, the next week, the next month. The thought seems idyllic. A life where small errors are experienced in lovely, small scales — one at a time.
As I wandered through this increasingly unfathomable book — if it has a thesis, I for one missed it — two elements of the bleeding obvious appeared to be missing. The first was the idea that most manners have evolved because most of us, whichever class we spring from, behave towards others as we would like them to behave towards us: so, unless downright barbaric, we do not defecate in front of other people, or vomit over them, or spit at them, or tell them their wives are ugly or stupid.
The second is that the most recent chapter in the evolution of manners is through what the right calls political correctness. The terms used half a century ago to describe ethnic minorities, or disabled people, or people of minority sexual orientations are not acceptable in most polite society today. Manners are made by fashion and by peer pressure.
“If it is not rude to say so,” he finishes, “[the book] should have been better edited and about half as long.” It may be, but perhaps well deserved.
The times displayed on Grand Central’s departure boards are wrong — by a full minute:
This is permanent. It is also purposeful.
The idea is that passengers rushing to catch trains they’re about to miss can actually be dangerous — to themselves, and to each other. So conductors will pull out of the station exactly one minute after their trains’ posted departure times.
You might call this time-hacking; you might call it behavioral engineering; you might call it comical. Regardless, it seems to be working. Grand Central boasts the fewest slips, trips, and falls of any station in the country.
Once heard Carnegie Hall starts their performances eight minutes early [or late] for a similar reason. Curious what other time hacks exist to accommodate New Yorkers.
[T]he brains of people in remote places seem ready to focus on the task at hand, while the brains of their urban counterparts seem prepared to explore the ever-changing conditions of city life. Certainly explains why some country folk find the city overwhelming, and some city folk find the country a little dull. Nothing personal — strictly neural.
[C]ity dwellers have developed a form of attention that puts priority on “the search for potential dangers or new opportunities.”
In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page. They were not necessarily the same sentences the professors pointed out, which would turn up for further explication on an exam. I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time.
That’s Jhumpa Lahiri, with a first piece in the New York Times’ Draft, a series about the art and craft of writing.
Constructing a sentence is the equivalent of taking a Polaroid snapshot: pressing the button, and watching something emerge. To write one is to document and to develop at the same time. Not all sentences end up in novels or stories. But novels and stories consist of nothing but. Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social. Sentences establish tone, and set the pace. One in front of the other marks the way.
I have to photograph it. It is my impulse. But rather than capture by underline, my reflexes have changed. Today, falling in love with a sentence, my instinct is not to use markup (analog or digital), but the quick snap-and-post with a device had became the embodiment of affection for me. Sentences do indeed remain unsettled organisms: alive, uncapturable, magic. Many years, many formats, and many sentences later, the sentence remains.
For many, perhaps the majority, of us, our suburban lives were spent sealed in air-conditioning, interspersed with moments of purported discomfort as we transitioned between the homes, cars, McMansions, big boxes, gyms, schools, Olive Gardens, and Arby’s drive-thrus that characterized our daily lives.
The wish for sustainability and energy efficiency has permeated our society and building profession. This has led us to the rediscovery of windows that can be opened and closed, a step towards unsealing our lives. Today’s less expensive mix of low-to-mid-rise buildings does not create the wind tunnel effect more expensive full-block towers create for pedestrians and inhabitants wanting to open windows. …. Being a pedestrian, or one of our ever increasing army of bicyclists, is a proven step towards unsealing ourselves from an air-conditioned lifestyle.
As we continue toward unsealing ourselves from suburban environments, perhaps we’ll see even more of the “outdoors” “indoors.”
“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”—Gilbert Keith Chesterton by way of Farnam Street. He continues, “Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable. It escapes the rationalists, but it never escapes till the last moment.”
My answer is not to cynically decry these wheels, but to consider them as the same exciting, moving observation points first explained by seventeenth century observers. Understanding their ongoing success — premised on fun and excitement — is consistent with my opening call for more studied reflection about relationships of people and the communities around them.
[W]hen we move by foot today … it always seem to involve brief, intense tromps motivated by a single purpose. We walk to the garage to get to the car. We walk from the mall parking lot to Best Buy. We walk from Gate 4 to Gate 22 in Terminal B.
We also seem to be losing our capacity for in-depth walking. Walking is now short-term scanning. Thoreau liked to spend four hours every day rambling, free of tasks and immediate goals. He lamented that his fellow townsmen would recall pleasant walks they’d taken a decade ago, but had “confined themselves to the highway ever since.” “The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of his friend. “If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.”
With respect to long walks, let’s consider the value of the short-term. The shortcut.
Shortcuts are sort of secrets for locals. A shortcut out loud might sound something like, “Oh, to get to the freeway, actually take a right instead of a left. It will be 10 minute shorter.” But a shortcut is never done. Once you’re let in on the shortcut, you want more. You can always save more time. You can always imagine a shorter way. And there probably is.
All secrets are not shortcuts, but all shortcuts are secrets. Perhaps then shortcuts are secret handshakes. Perhaps they’re secret handshakes for a public. A private public.
Consider that un-long walks are not anti-walking, then, but rather pro-shortcut. Pro-secret. Pro-belonging.
There it was — as persistent as it had always been. A stubborn, short, quiet hair on the arm of my jacket this afternoon. My hand went up to brush it away, and then it stopped. Routine interrupted.
There it was. Although several weeks before, my beloved red dog had peacefully passed away. My closest companion of 12 years had once shed — generously and unadulteratedly — across the things of my life. And while she was gone, here: her trademark doghair still stood.
How lucky I had been for the red hair. How lucky I had been for the loyalty two companion animals provide: commingled, intertwined, co-habitated. Shedding upon one another our lives such that when we went back into the world, we had these small red badges of courage.
In our dozen years together, this animal taught me more about being a person than any person I’ve known. Importantly:
Learn at least one impressive trick.
Shake when wet.
When off the leash, it is best to run to a loved one.
Accept treats from strangers energetically yet cautiously.
Roll in grass whenever possible.
Wonderful things can sometimes be found in the trash.
Barking is a last resort.
Know when the right time is to let go of what you love.
True life partners do exist.
Lucy passed away November 15, 2012. The loss devastated me so deeply and personally that I couldn’t speak of it at all. Now, I think back on what I have been known to say, “When in doubt, trust the one covered in dog hair.” Trust them, and know they’re carrying badges of much more.
Peer over someone’s shoulder — on subways, at desks, at kitchen tables — and chances are good you’ll quickly find a list maker. Inventories, enumerations, lists are sensemaking for nonsensical things.
Lists guide and advise. Not only do they provide temporal structures for moving through a day space, they demand coherence, story, and priority. “What’s your number one priority on this project?”“What’s your top ten list of apps?” “What are the top x of y,” people ask, the content mattering not at all, in contrast with a hunger for the list itself. We have numbered lists, therefore, we are.
Hence, when recently asked the “five things all designers should know,” I offered a list.
Leadership is 50 percent fiction/50 percent nonfiction. That is to say, leadership is the confidence in knowing what you know and what you know you’ll know. It’s the ability to speak confidently, knowledgeably, and easily about the latter that sets some apart. Be comfortable with the fiction.
2. Know presence from present.
It’s a relatively mundane thing, after all. It’s what we do when we show up — we’re present. However, presence is different from present. In both cases, one is there. But presence offers those also there the resonance and memory of something larger than just being there. When you show up to talk about your work, are you present or do you have presence?
3. Make practice spaces.
Design is only as meaningful as the way it is communicated. Think not of design reviews and presentations as the only opportunity to talk about your work. Consider every day an opportunity to talk about the thing you believe in. Look at the exchange with your barista, the dog walker, the phone call with your great aunt, the family dinner table all as opportunity to test out your idea in the wild. Life offers a practice space for an idea. Use it to practice live.
4. Find a yes threshold.
We do a lot of filtering. A lot of filtering out interesting from not interesting, smart choices from the less smart, good email from spam, nourishing from the draining. We have less practice saying yes. Instead of practicing filters, try practicing good ways of saying yes. Accept invitations. Say yes to the offer to have coffee, to write a post, to do a project. Practice saying yes and not only will you expand your networks, but you’ll learn your yes threshold so you can use it wisely.
This morning I had cereal, fruit, and milk. Same as yesterday. And five years yesterday. Truth is, I have the same thing every day. Little routines of sameness create a foundation that’s trustable. Trustable small frameworks make whatever unpredictability that happens throughout the day more doable. Whether its thank you gift, a way you take a photo, a song, frameworks create possibilities for what’s possible.
As for making any of these part of a daily routine? Add it to the list.
Obama, recently, revealed part of his framework for simplifying his decision making process,” namely: same suit, different day. Brian Eno nicely outlines the same as cowboys versus farmers:
Describing his philosophy of studio work, Mr. Eno tries out another big metaphor: cowboys versus farmers. Most of what happens in a recording studio is repetitive monotony, tilling the same soil over and over to make slight improvements — insufferably boring, in his view. Mr. Eno prefers to see himself as a cowboy — or, even better, a prospector — constantly seeking out new territory, never staying in the same place for long.
“In my normal life I’m a very unadventurous person,” Mr. Eno said. “I take the same walk every day and I eat in the same restaurants, and often eat exactly the same things in the same restaurants. I don’t adventure much except when I’m in the studio, and then I only want to adventure. I cannot bear doing something again, or thinking that I’m doing something again.”
We can’t make any life in New York without composing a private map of it in our minds.
An actual map of New York recalls our inner map of the city.
Simultaneously [New York is] a map to be learned and a place to aspire to.
A city of things and a city of signs, the place I actually am and the place I would like to be even when I am here.
Even when we are established here, New York somehow still seems a place we aspire to.
We go on being inspired even when we’re most exasperated.
If the energy of New York is the energy of aspiration, the spirit of New York is really the spirit of accommodation.
And yet both shape the city’s maps, for what aspirations and accommodations share is the quality of becoming, of not being fixed in place of being in every way unfinished.
In New York, the space between what you want and what you’ve got creates a civic itchiness.
I don’t know a single content New Yorker.
To make a home in New York, we first have to find a place on the map of the city to make it in.
The map alone teaches us lessons about the kind of home you can make.
Each summer, she visited New York. “What’s your diary like?" preceded overlapping calendars to find where we might place the visit. And each summer, I drew a map for my guest. Shopping places, seeing places, eating places, finding places, sitting places, secret places. The neighborhood diagrams charted my moves through the city — East Village, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens — and were as unknowable as they were temporary. Each summer, places dissipated into places they used to be. Drawn maps, a history of a moment. The ritual of the map became the truth that persisted.
“We experiment; we assume; we fail; we experiment some more. Finally, tentatively, we succeed.”—Megan Garber on the City of Tomorrow and the dead dream of the dirigible. She continues, “[They are] a timely reminder not just of the short, happy life of airship hegemony, but also of the crazy contingency of history. …. Like the hot-air balloons that preceded it and the wing-thrusted planes that would render it all but obsolete, the Zeppelin represented a hope for a future that might have been, but, finally, was not — an accident of history whose demise was as inevitable as humans seeking the sky.”
[Y]ou don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.
That’s Annie Dillard in her 1989 book, The Writing Life. In it, she tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student:
"Do you think I could be a writer?" " ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’ " The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that "if he liked sentences he could begin," and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. "I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’ "
[W]ouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything until something else has been added.
Frank Chimero and I came together over a shared commitment to jazz. But not only exchanges of music. We emulated the form. He would write a blog post. I would respond. I would improvise one of his hunches. He would iterate one of my posts. A call-and-response approach to a developing friendship.
We wrote like this alongside one another without ever meeting or speaking directly – much like many of us: we never meet the people we admire from afar. We read their stories. We watch their videos. We inspect their work. We make up the in-between parts. We improvise. Frank’s stories became my stories, our stories. This book is, partly, about making things out of stories, and using them to help us live well.
Without warning one day, a mail from Frank appeared in my inbox, introducing himself:
You know what I love about jazz and improvisation? It’s all process. 100%. The essence of it is the process, every time is different, and to truly partake in it, you have to visit a place to see it in progress. Every jazz club or improv comedy theater is a temple to the process of production. It’s a factory, and the art is the assembly, not the product. Jazz is more verb than noun. And in a world riddled with a feeling of inertia, I want to !nd a verb and hold on to it for dear life.
My conversations with Frank began to draw a line between the adjacent systems in the world and our own design process. Jazz. Tools. Art. Pizza. Announce a noun, and Frank helps trace its mutable shape to something more active. A verb! The adjacent process.
Deciphering and designing these systems is hard work. Done well, and one gets there “the long, hard, stupid way,” as Frank frames it in the pages to come, nodding to the gap between efficiency and the effort that compels us to make things with pride and compassion. Our process will vary, but steeling ourselves to persist is what Frank gives us the tools to do.
In that way, this book is not unlike a more ubiquitous tool and platform, the U.S. Interstate Highway System. Today, we take it for granted, mostly, but its numbering system at one point had to be designed. At a time when telephone poles lined dirt trails, Bureau of Public Roads employee Edwin W. James and committee were asked to come up with a more expandable system as roads were growing in the 1920s. They designed what we know today as the Interstate Numbering System. Prior to that, people relied on color codes for direction. Telephone poles ringed with color bands lined highways, corresponding to individual dirt trails across the country. As trails expanded, telephone poles became painted from the ground up, sometimes fifteen feet high, so trying to distinguish among colors became dangerous.
E. W. James changed that. He decided that motorists would be able to figure out where they were at any time given the intersection of any two highways. North/south highways would be numbered: with odd numbers; east/west with even numbers; and numbers would increase as you go east and north. The Interstate Numbering System was designed for expansion, anticipating the future contributions of people, cities, unexpectedness. It’s a tool. It’s a platform. And it’s still not done nearly 100 years later.
If you wish to use this book as a tool, by all means, put it down at any time. Leave the road. You will find your way back as the intersection of two points will serve as your guide. Then wander back. This is the point of any road or system after all: to take you to a destination in a time in need. Or, consider the book as a platform and musical score: respond to a passage, to a chapter. Consider Frank’s call your opportunity to respond, and each sentence your opportunity to create. That is the reason they were written.
I’m honored to say that since that original mail, there have been many Frank mails in my inbox. Later:
I see a platform and it tells me two things: first, other people’s contributions are important. Second, the world is not done. Wow. If I want to believe anything, it’s that.
The following is only an excerpt from The Shape of Design, a book by Frank Chimero about the Whys of design, published here with permission. It was delightful to be part of the shaping and will be responding to it for years to come. Hurry off immediately to read it in its entirety, bring some into your home, or just follow along.
A grand avenue like Fifth should be adorned with lovely, stately street clocks, right?New York business owners whose shops were located on this pricey stretch of real estate seemed to think so. These towering timepieces (which also functioned as advertising vehicles) sprouted up in the late 19th century until about 1920, when watches became more popular.
I notice the intersection of cities and timepieces when I’m running — in New York and elsewhere. I always head out first thing in the morning before commuters stir, the time a city betrays its secrets, bare with honesty, without its citizens clothing it with attitude. When I do, the relationship of that city with time stands apparent. Run through Brooklyn on a given morning, and you’ll go no further than eight blocks before a church tower, park clock, or intersection reveals the time. Yet other cities are void of public reveals. Time dissipates into the pockets of citizens, and the absence and presence of time and timepieces is just as tangible and meaningful as the time itself.
Japanese used to have a color word, ao, that spanned both green and blue. In the modern language, however, ao has come to be restricted mostly to blue shades, and green is usually expressed by the word midori (although even today ao can still refer to the green of freshness or unripeness — green apples, for instance, are called ao ringo). when the first traffic lights were imported from the United States and installed in Japan in the 1930s, they were just as green as anywhere else. Nevertheless, in common parlance the go light was dubbed ao shingoo, perhaps because the three primary colors on Japanese artists’ palettes are traditionally aka (red), kiiro (yellow), and ao. The label ao for a green light did not appear so out of the ordinary at first, because of the remaining associations of the word ao with greenness.
But over time, the discrepancy between the green color and the dominant meaning of the word ao began to feel jarring. Nations with a weaker spine might have opted for the feeble solution of simply changing the official name of the go light to midori. Not so the Japanese. Rather than alter the name to fit reality, the Japanese government decreed in 1973 that reality should be altered to fit the name: henceforth, go lights would be a color that corresponded to the dominant meaning of ao. Alas, it was impossible to change to color to real blue, because Japan is party to an international convention that ensures road signs have a measure of uniformity around the globe. The solution was thus to make the ao light as bluish as possible while still being officially green.
Discourse analysts view language as a kind of infrastructure. Just as a city needs roads and telephone wires and computer connections, and its that infrastructure that provides for the possibility of social living, our relationships and institutions require an infrastructure of interaction as well.
Wow. Back as a graduate student — or, I suppose any kind student — I’d only ever endeavored to create one independent study. This was Discourse Analysis. I still, today, consider it often. While I’m not so sure cities need telephone wires, language as infrastructure for interaction! The entire podcast series is pretty terrific.
“No one is a foreigner in New York. And in New York, you walk. Your rapport with the terrain is like nowhere else; you measure distances with your bones and your muscles. You build a physical relationship to the city.”—Emmanuel Schalitcf. “By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only traveling; namely, the strange.” —Jane Jacobs, via Jonah Lehrer
“It doesn’t matter the work — it matters that you work with care and hard and long and farther and keep learning. Always learn.” That’s my taxi driver speeding toward JFK today as I’m en route to Seattle. He’s telling me his story, as typical for these drives. I look forward to them. Saudi Arabia, hard years in Pakistan (but “most beautiful views”), and for now, New York. Here, he has become spiritual and is studying to be a pastor. But each stop, he’s taken in with open eyes and heart. How did he get here?
“There are some things you intersect with. You just know.”
Before flagging down that car, the news that Hillman Curtis passed away reached me. Hillman — generous filmmaker, teacher, designer, bicyclist, Brooklynite — has touched the lives of so many that our exchange is but one. Yet at one point, I am grateful to have shared some space with him. We talked one day of gifts. He revealed he had a gift to bring people together.
I’d always thought how lovely to be on the receiving end of those bringing-togethers, those serendipitous intersections. The playful, the curious, the driven, the learners, the humble, the magical — they all passed through the studio. And too, how lovely it was just to know and intersect with a person with such an enormous breadth of gifts.
The only other time I’ve been to Seattle was with Hillman and project team. Today, as I head there for the second time, I consider open hearts, open eyes, intersections, and the gifts we all have and those yet to come. Thank you, Hillman. And much love and condolences to his family.
It’s spring. And in schools across neighborhoods everywhere, students are wrapping up projects. This semester @svaixd, Gary Chou and Christina Cacioppo are teaching first-year students Entrepreneurial Design (they’ve even made the syllabus open to all). The final class project: students must raise $1,000.
I am very much the sort of person who is aggravated by sounds as seemingly tiny as the hard drive chatter on the Tivo in my living room, and by the throb of one particular fluorescent bulb that’s recessed into cabinets in my kitchen. When I bought my first iPod, I was stunned by how “loud” the hard drive was when I first turned it on (I was also a little unnerved by the device’s physical vibrations). When I switched from a desktop to a laptop years ago, my primary motivation was the relative quiet of the laptop’s internal fan. When I moved from one part of my neighborhood to another a year and a half ago, the noise level of the street was a deciding factor. (I liked one other house, until I noticed that a neighboring yard had a large cement structure that turned out to be a giant fish tank — just the thought of the sort of constant sound inherent in maintaining such a system nixed that option immediately.) I am very much the sort of person who has been kept awake all night thanks to a radio on a neighboring construction site that wasn’t fully turned off. But in the end, I simply don’t think of noise and silence as polar opposites, perhaps because I’ve read too much Cage and believe silence is an illusion.
Marc is reacting to George Prochnik’s book, In Pursuit of Silence, and its corresponding blog, which pursues silence across categories (or as he notes in an earlier post it might be less about pursuing silence than about escaping noise). Today, as New York City took to the streets, clustering around Apple stores, organizing itself in squares on blankets in parks, others in lines at churches for palms and around tables for family dinners, the city was not quiet but overlapping with sounds — birds upon hot dogs upon taxis upon church bells upon dog barks. But the pockets where people clustered were quiet, a form of noise.
Have heroes outside of magic. Mine are Hitchcock, Poe, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Bach. You’re welcome to borrow them, but you must learn to love them yourself for your own reasons. Then they’ll push you in the right direction…
Love something besides magic, in the arts. Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer. You will never be the first Brian Allen Brushwood of magic if you want to be Penn & Teller. But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of magic, we’ll THERE’S an opening.
Mine are Robert Adler, Robert Moses, Silverstein, Gertrude Stein, Glenn Gould, Jane Jacobs, Cage, Moog, Feynman. See good in everything and in everyone. But love only a few fiercely and determinately. Make them heroes. Find patterns among them. Stage hypothetical conversations, debates, between them. Have inspiration outside what you do. The way you do anything is the way you do everything. And if you want to be pushed, have heroes in anything, everywhere.
He argued we overreact emotionally to new risks (which are often low-probability events), and underreact to those risks that are familiar (although these events are more likely to occur). So, as Loewenstein explains, “this is why people seemed to initially overreact to the risk of terrorism in the years immediately following 9/11 [and the Bali bombings], but tend to underreact to the much more familiar and more likely risks of talking on the mobile phone while driving, and wearing seatbelts”.
But when thinking about difficult, exciting, interesting activities, such as investing in a new business, or perhaps buying a $10 million lottery ticket, the brain areas associated with emotion — such as the midbrain dopamine system — become more active.
Images, colours, music, even social discussion means that the midbrain emotional area becomes dominant, and the rational part of the brain finds it hard to resist the temptation. The emotional centres of the brain simply tell the rational part to shape up or ship out.
And then a funny thing happens:
The rational part of the brain agrees, and starts to look for evidence that supports the emotional brain — it becomes an ally in the search for reasons why the emotional choice is a good one.
The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right — enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways — the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant — not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism — that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.
Southwest at Carnegie Mellon, you can tour around the still-new Mack Scogin-designed computer science buildings. Surely, you’ll find heaps of zinc and glass, pathways haphazard and intentional. For me, one thing has stayed with me: the offices have unexpectedly large doors. It turns out that when the architects were interviewing future users, they found that meetings often took place from the office doorways. Drivebys. Unplanned conversations. So how could the environment encourage them? Apparently, something as simple as making space for spontaneity.
If you’re rushing to make a train, you have to be there before the last moment. Five seconds too late is too late. The cost of error is absolute.
If you’re hurrying to meet a train, though, there’s a soft deadline. Five seconds is no big deal. Thirty seconds might be annoying, particularly for someone returning from a long journey. And five minutes is really rude.
Too often, we treat our obligations as meet, not make. We impose a sliding scale, a soft penalty, and we not only show up just a bit late, we show up a bit behind on quality or preparation.
Making is a discipline. Meeting opens the door for excuses.
While there was a codename vote early in Chrome’s development, none were finally chosen (I’d love to know what they were). Instead, it’s said by Glen Murphy that they chose Chrome because one of the design leads liked fast cars. They then ended up sticking with the codename for the final project launch because 1. they’d grown used to it, 2. they associated it with speed and, 3. because it minimised the amount of browser UI (sometimes called chrome).
[N]o one seems to know the exact origins of “Safari”, though the Beach Boys’ album seems like a reasonable guess — surfing the web, Surfin’ Safari … get it? The WebKit blog is named Surfin’ Safari, which might lend some credence to that story, but the name also nicely ties in with the notion of exploring the wild and connotes some of the same images as “explorer” and “navigator”.
Chen […] thinks that if your language has clear grammatical future tense marking […], then you and your fellow native speakers have a dramatically increased likelihood of exhibiting high rates of obesity, smoking, drinking, debt, and poor pension provision. And conversely, if your language uses present-tense forms to express future time reference […], you and your fellow speakers are strikingly more likely to have good financial planning for retirement and sensible health habits. It is as if grammatical marking of the difference between the present and the future insulates you from seeing that the two are coterminous so you should plan ahead. Using present-tense forms for future time reference, on the other hand, encourages you to see that the future is just more of the present, and thus encourages you to put money in a 401(k).
A potentially exciting correlation. (As designers, I believe we seek these correlations and assumptions often.) But is it? Geoff Pullum respectfully reviews Chen’s work and pointedly points out what concerns him. His greatest concern:
None of these briefly summarized worries about Chen’s work, however, disturb me as much as the appalling journalistic misrepresentations that David Berreby offers us. His title is: “Obese? Smoker? No Retirement Savings? Perhaps It’s Because of the Language You Speak.”
A lesson for any designer who synthesizes user research to inform design.