After working with drawing, painting, and sketchbooks for many years, he was robbed at gunpoint while traveling in Central America in 2003 — prompting a shift away from physicality towards the digital world.
These projects explored the ways in which humanity was evolving into a single planetary ‘meta-organism’ — which could be probed and represented in real-time through the troves of Internet data that it was producing.
Around 2007, he began to re-incorporate the physical world in his work through a series of experiential storytelling projects that helped to establish the field of ‘interactive documentary.’ These projects (such as The Whale Hunt, Balloons of Bhutan, and I Love Your Work) utilized rigid rule sets to govern data collection in the physical world (in much the same way that his computer programs were instructed through algorithms to gather data online). Through this process, he was interested in mingling the methods of man and machine.
In 2009, he began to document his own experience of life more directly — through a simple practice of taking a photo and writing a short story each day, posting them online each night before going to sleep. He called the resulting project Today, a ritual he continued for 443 days.
Today evolved into Cowbird — a free (and ad-free) storytelling platform for anyone to use, providing a more contemplative alternative to existing social media environments. It grew into a ‘public library of human experience,’ amassing nearly 100,000 stories from 15,000 authors from 185 countries, leading TIME Magazine to name it one of the 50 best websites of 2012.
As our collective euphoria about the Internet soon gave way to screen addiction, attention economies, fake news, and filter bubbles, Jonathan decided to close Cowbird to new contributions after five years of operations, while keeping it online as an historical archive. He further explored these dynamics in the 2012 essay, Modern Medicine, which compared software to a new kind of drug.
His dawning ambivalence around the medium he’d been using for more than a decade led to a difficult period of creative block, which he described in his 2014 essay, Navigating Stuckness. He also explored the limitations of so-called ‘Big Data’ in 2013’s Data Will Help Us, commissioned by The New York Times.
Working at New Inc in 2015, he and Gregor Hochmuth created Network Effect — a portrait of the psychological effects of widespread Internet use on humanity. Using the familiar aesthetics of data visualization, the project questions the ultimate utility of data, while gesturing at what might lie beyond it — and received a 2016 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography.
For much of 2015, he and Greg created proposals for data-based projects with Netflix, Google, Twitter, and U2 — all unrealized for one reason or another, a string of rejections that seemed to be pointing him back into life.
Working with life
On March 5, 2016, Jonathan moved home to Vermont — where his mother died that very afternoon, after a long illness.
Following her death, he faced the complicated inheritance of her ancestral family home, High Acres Farm, which harbored a difficult history of alcoholism, divorce, and depression. Haunted by its patterns of suffering, yet inspired by its future potential, he began to use the embodied technology of ritual as a way of transforming the life situation at High Acres Farm.