Everything becomes magical again: A year in letters
Miles Davis: “I’ll play first, and I might tell you about it later. Maybe.”
2013 began with a loose idea that I managed to actually build upon, one that settled in by the end of the first quarter and cemented itself by the end of the year. I chose focus over multi-tasking. When writing I embraced mindfulness over rapid-fire typing. I took long pauses before answering interview questions; asking journalists to provide interview questions in email is a strategy that I recommend. It gives you time to mull and research, to find a way to not answer a question directly but to tease it out and find the real question hidden amongst the rhetorical weeds. I closed my Facebook account. I looked at the world outside my personal bubble. I read more older novels. I didn’t attend SXSWi.
A class I taught – Interface & Design – in the Bachelor of Arts program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art had me considering small screens, tiny screens, television remote controls, car dashboards, why we could never program the clock on a VCR, or in a car for that matter. Frank Chimero reminded me that language is an interface too. (The Miles Davis quote above comes from Frank’s wonderful book The Shape of Design.) And language is a very important personal extension of ourselves that can get overlooked in a ‘digital age.’ As John N Gray wrote: “in evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side effect of language. Today it is a by product of media.”
I am sharing all of this because when I took a look at my 2012 end-of-year essay I notice now that it is a collection of “digital” ephemera; URLs used as substitution for thoughtful description. There’s lament where there ought to be celebration for a year well spent. I can see now that I was also subconsciously suggesting our pocket devices throw shadows onto our celebrations. They have come between us is the subliminal message at the heart of that year-end wrap up.
Perhaps that’s why I chose mindfulness as a goal for 2013. I ended 2012 with a challenge to myself closing the essay with … to put my money where my mouth is, as they say, I’m looking forward to being more mindful, sifting through the clutter and improving my grammar. After all, Caesar non supra grammaticos. [tr.] My grammar may not have improved but I stuck to my goal.
“The kind of writing I like tends to resemble nothing that ever happened on earth before, and that work is very difficult to talk about in workshop settings, because we can’t subject it to the same tired bits of advice (Change it to the third person! Start here! Maybe you need the present tense!), that we have so overused before.” From an interview with Rick Moody.
The year in letters began when I wrote this essay in January; an essay about a book about a film about a journey to a room. The book is Zona by Geoff Dyer. I’m going to fall into hyperbole here, but that book changed my life, and I’m not referring solely to the book’s content; reading Dyer and dissecting his method and prose taught me how to improve my writing. (Hint: Tight sentences. Drop the ands and buts.) Should I meet him I will thank him for that. With Dyer in mind I went on to write an article for the Oregon Humanities where I considered the opportunities and ethics of internet music streaming. That essay was the beginning of a new way of considering the endless to and fro of the ‘musicians versus the internet’ debate for me.
After re-reading Heraclitus (logos, everything flows…) I considered how the building blocks of the present rest upon the foundations of the past and how Heraclitus realized that Nothing endures but change. That led to an admission that I was wrong about Spotify. (Not admitting one is wrong is but one stark result of our current media frenzy. That’s another essay though.) As an experiment I went out on a limb and conflated some popular culture icons – Mad Men, Spider-man, Anne Carson – with the Classics and Advertising. I believe the experiment worked, but then I would say that. I spent time with Sarah Bakewell’s lovely book on the great essayist Michel De Montaigne and considered constant unknowing, then waded through My Struggle, a magnificent Proustian outpouring of words onto the page by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
After my Geoff Dyer Zona essay, another favorite (if I may say so,) was Musicians and hunters as artisans where I wrote about the parallels I saw when two sectors of society are faced with technological change. I also tried to get beyond the rhetoric that suggests that the ‘internet is destroying all creativity in the world’ and how ‘Silicon Valley must be stopped, or creativity will be destroyed.’ Those statements didn’t come from The Onion by the way…
2013 was apparently a lost year for tech. I wouldn’t know as I wasn’t paying attention. What I do know is that “innovation” and “disruption” are two words that become meaningless when used out of context – please handle with care.
I traded correspondence in email for a few weeks with my friend Rick Moody where we considered the music distribution problem in an internet age. The result was this interview for The Rumpus. Shortly afterwards I was a participant in an interview with Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker. In email Sasha moderated a discussion between me and two musicians – Damon Krukowski and Jace Clayton – where once again the topic was music streaming. David Byrne wrote an article for the Guardian that I disagreed with. I had a video interview with Boing Boing and Engadget. And to round out the year in interviews, Scott Timberg held a Salon Q&A with me.
In the spirit of transparency I should add that I am now a contributor to The Guardian Comment is Free section. And as a result of that Q&A I am now a writer for Salon. (In case you’re wondering I still work for NORTH of course.)
Teaching and shallow polymaths
If I found one thing to complain about in 2013 it was the continuing influence of “specialist” authors and “curators.” In short, I do not need any books by Malcolm Gladwell or a “curated” Brainpickings email from Maria Popova. Give me Jonathan Swift any day. This is not to deride Gladwell and Popova as I’m certain they bring some measure of interest to readers. I am just critical of their methodology and the esteem they are held in. I am not alone: We live in a cut and paste world. Today, everyone is a ___________.
The idea of the shallow polymath sprang from a conversation I had with my new-found friend Ashley Tackett. (Thanks bcc parties!) In January, Ashley will begin teaching a class at the University of Oregon in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. We’ll be U of O neighbors. Over drinks one evening we were discussing how the world, especially online, is becoming populated with self-styled strategists and specialists. Further discussion led us to this: what is required is a world of more polymaths and less specialists. These thoughts emanated from my discovery that “…some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.” [Link]
“College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” said Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.
I believe that a broad-based education is very important these days (as it ever was.) I also believe that universities and colleges need to have curriculums that prepare students for an ever-changing career landscape, not just job preparation courses as Pauline Yu points out above. Yes we need doctors, scientists, engineers, financial experts etc., but as businesses are challenged by the rise of new technologies, people with a broad range of talents will win out in a shifting jobs marketplace. Let’s be clear here, it doesn’t mean prodding students into learning how to code. It means persuading students to broaden their education. A deep understanding of anthropology and history can be applied to many disciplines in a world of technological advances; user behavior for instance is, as always, about people. None of this is pro or anti-technology rhetoric. The internet gives access to the greatest amount of knowledge in the world. A broad-based education could lead to more serendipity. The internet provides access to a broad knowledge base. A good education will help with knowing what to research online and knowing what to do with the results when you find them.
“When computers are properly used, in fact, they are almost certain to increase individual diversity. A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind’s factual knowledge available to students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds. Then, the human brain will not have to serve as a repository of specific facts, and the uses of memory will shift in the new education, breaking the timeworn, rigid chains of memory may have greater priority than forging new links. New materials may be learned just as were the great myths of past cultures-as fully integrated systems that resonate on several levels and share the qualities of poetry and song. We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” Marshall McLuhan, 1964.
Reading and writing fire our synapses. Google is our new memory.
The designer, author and inventor Buckminster Fuller often spoke of an epiphany he had, where a voice spoke directly to him, and declared: From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth. You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.
Fuller stated that this experience led to a profound re-examination of his life. He ultimately chose to embark on “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” [Link]
Make what you will of the “voice” but what a manifesto for a life well lived. Here’s an example of one of his serendipitous moments that perhaps came about because of his personal manifesto:
Fuller was profoundly impressed by the danger of overspecialization. He was once asked to speak at a convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the experience provided one of his best parables. Whether by luck or through Fuller’s characteristic genius for detecting significant patterns, he happened to encounter two papers with a striking similarity presented at different sections of the conference. The reports, on biology and on anthropology, both happened to discuss the phenomenon of extinction: the former investigating various extinct species, and the latter, extinct human tribes. Both papers concluded that the cause of extinction was overspecialization, which, taken to an extreme, precludes general adaptability. Fuller took the message to heart.
We are therefore deliberately designed to be “comprehensivists” while all other creatures are specialists. [Link]
Systems and patterns surround us and broad thinkers are required to help decipher them. Fuller was a broad thinker; we might call him a polymath. Unlike some, he had no nostalgia for an imagined golden age; the death from polio in childhood of his daughter Alexandra surely sullied his worldview, as he took personal responsibility for her death. He was a futurist and the fact that he was the second president of Mensa speaks volumes for the respect he garnered from his contemporaries.
In an internet era adaptation may be more difficult for the specialized. This could be debilitating for some. I’m not suggesting that the lack of adaptation will lead to the literal extinction of specialists, but it may be a barrier to success in the new markets.
Let the last word here on specialists be by Robert A. Heinlein from his novel Time Enough for Love: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Sticking with mindfulness
As we enter 2014 there will no doubt be an influx of predictions. They will arrive in the form of lists as web users love lists. Those who run sites that thrive on click-throughs will set up these lists one page at a time so that one has to click to the next one and the next one and so on… If you dislike this apparent disservice to mankind you have to take a look in the mirror to find the culprit behind this folly. For it is you and me. We click therefore clicking opportunities are provided. It’s like a disease. If we could scratch and sniff our device’s screen after clicking we would use the word miasma to describe its effect upon our olfactory senses.
In 2014 I hope to spend less time on the web. I will certainly keep writing and posting the results to this blog and other outlets that have given me the opportunity to express my opinions, but it feels like a good idea to retreat from the constant white noise.
I also have many, many books to read and films to watch. I want to become a better teacher. Here’s why as Robert Frost puts in a poem:
Now I am old my teachers are the young.
What can’t be molded must be cracked and sprung.
I strain at lessons fit to start a suture.
I go to school to youth to learn the future.
On that note I’d like to leave you with an observation from the author and essayist Martin Amis. Although, unlike him I have not reached my 60s, I still find solace in his insight and I hope to see the same has him when I get there:
“I find that in your 60s everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again. And it’s imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance.”
Happy New Year!
There are a two items that I have read recently that acted as prompts for this essay. You may enjoy them.
Looking to the past: T.S.Eliot wrote this poem about the modern man and his tensions in 1920 – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
And looking to the future: The Clock of the Long Now a ten thousand year clock.
[Update 12/31/13] I just found an article about Brian Flaherty, the owner of Portland’s Schoolhouse Electric company. He has a Fire and Water room, perfect I would say for periods of mindfulness.