I like things. Full disclosure: a lot of things. More things, perhaps, than can be reasonably liked by one person. To me, rose-colored glasses have always seemed a curious concept as the world seems shiny enough without them. So I steer clear of conditions that might increase the likelihood of increasing the world’s sparklehood.
Choice then, becomes the primary tool to navigate like, as it gives each thing its priority, assigning an algorithm for liking, for doing, and for being in the world.
You see, for the like-striken, it’s hard to say no. Everyone and everything is interesting.
As I suffer from this condition myself, something a friend said to me several years ago has stayed with me:
“It’s easy to say no if you love something.”
Wrong. Wrong, I thought at the time. If you love something, say yes. Say yes to everything. Yet what did he mean about loving something, I quietly wondered. Did he mean to imply that having a focus for one’s passion also functioned as a tool to help make better choices?
Making a life
In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe said there are two kinds of writers: putter-inners (like himself) or leaver-outers (like Fitzgerald). These categories, like all categories, are of course oversimplified, but they still illustrate a great point. Just like saying yes, saying no creates your story. It’s what you leave out, not just what you put in, that forms a story, that makes a life.
Creative pursuits hold an inherent need for choice, whether we consider music, art, literature, dance, or design. Every great story is surrounded by white space of some kind. Blank spaces are powerful. The author and designer choose not to lay out a page with text to every edge. Its white space is part of the story it tells. What we choose to leave out creates the story.
Making a story
Consider your favorite novel. You probably don’t recall the most memorable character in the book doing the most mundane of tasks—eating breakfast, getting dressed, using the bathroom, tying shoelaces—day in and day out. The author made an intentional decision to leave these details out. He or she, the leaver-outter in that situation, crafted a story about another arc that didn’t need those ordinaries.
As a reader, you didn’t consider those absences, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Their presence, like the silent subjects of sentences or the silent strength of typographic scaffolding, creates the supporting structure to guide the main story, the primary choices, that the author, the artist, the creator is making.
The same is true in layouts in design. In pauses between crescendos in music. In absences in architectural archways. In blanks in the maps of oceans. Rather than fill the spaces with unnecessary distractions, their creators have chosen to leave these areas blank. And the blanks speak for both what is and what is not there.
Choice-makers are doers. And doers seem to also be leaver-outers.
I’ve always paid attention to and wondered at the leaver-outers of the world, so I do often come back to that phrase:
“It’s easy to say no if you love something.”
No matter what it is—be it a business, a person, a piece of art, a career, a song, a family, a way of life, or a pursuit of any kind—it’s easy to say no to all the other choices that will present themselves if you truly love something.
Finding that thing is the hardest part. But that’s another lesson.
[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.
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.
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.
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.