World Building in a Crazy World is a series of vignettes about the state of the digital world in 2009.
They are based on a talk I gave at UCLA on October 27, 2009, as part of the Mobile Media lecture series organized by Casey Reas. The vignettes reflect my state of mind while building Cowbird at Caldera in Sisters, Oregon, where the photographs were taken.
Before getting into anything digital, I'd like to tell two short stories about my fourth grade teacher, Baz.
Baz and I recently got together for lunch, after 14 years with no contact. He was 84 and I was 29. His big white beard still spilled out under his classic gray fedora, but now he was thin like his handwriting. Instead of towering over me as he once did, we now saw eye to eye.
I asked him what was the secret to being a great teacher, and he said, “Well, you’ve gotta bring yourself to class every day. Your whole self. Your problems, your opinions, your stories—all of it. When you’re a full person, your students see you as an equal, and they trust you like they trust each other.”
He told me about being a young playwright, living on Long Island with his new wife, Corinna. One day he came in from the garden while Corinna was making lunch, laid down on the table, looked up at the ceiling, and suddenly started to cry. He had been writing ambitious plays about big ideas, but the finished works always disappointed him. Leaning back with eyes wide open, he said, “I was trying to make the audience go ‘Wowww!’, but in fact I needed to make the audience go ‘Wowww...’”—this time he leaned forward and squinted, like he was straining to hear a secret.
“I was trying to impress the audience with smart answers to life’s big questions,” he said. “It was all hype. But then I realized I didn’t have the answers to life’s big questions, and instead of writing plays that pretended to, I had to write plays that simply asked the right questions. I had to bring the audience up on stage with me, include them in the answering.”
I had been living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in New York City, for five years, and finally the city became too much for me.
As a certain kind of artist, you try to run out ahead of society and look back at it so you can get a better view of it and try to say something about it. But as everything started moving faster, it became harder to run out ahead, and I suddenly had to try to understand things from within.
This got to be too hard, so I quit the race, bought a car, packed up my place, and headed west. Since mid-September, I’ve been living in a small log cabin in the mountains of Oregon, at 3,500 feet, next to a 350-foot deep crater lake, which is spring-fed and very cold. I work all day, go for hikes and swims to clear my head, cook my meals and eat alone, and most days don’t see anyone.
Despite the natural setting, I think constantly about the online world.
The Internet is causing mass homogenization of human identity, making us all look the same.
We use the same tools and social networks, fitting into the same templates, designed by companies to maximize page views and profits (with some notable exceptions like Craigslist).
Most online experiences are made, like fast food, to be cheap, easy, and addictive: appealing to our hunger for connection but rarely serving up nourishment. Shrink-wrapped junk food experiences are handed to us for free by social media companies, and we swallow them up eagerly, like kids given buckets of candy with ads on all the wrappers.
These experiences are sensitive neither to individual humans nor to the human collective, but only to page views and growth (in a corporate, not personal sense).
It is fitting that these companies call their customers “users”.
As we fill in the same boxes, answer the same questions, and express ourselves in the same generic ways, we might think this convergence of identity is a good thing, leading to some kind of global unity or mass empathy. But true empathy comes not from forcing people all to be the same, but from helping people to appreciate their differences.
Our online tools do a great job at breadth (hundreds of friends, thousands of tweets), but a bad job at depth. We live increasingly superficial lives, reducing our relationships to caricatures and our personalities to billboards, as we speed along at 1,000 miles an hour.
We trade self-reflection for busyness, gorging ourselves on it and drowning in it, without recognizing the violence of that busyness, which we perpetrate against ourselves and at our peril.
For the last 100 years—from letters, to phones, to faxes, to emails, to chats, to texts, to tweets—communication has been getting shorter and faster, but we are approaching a terminal velocity.
I doubt there is a shorter means of communication than the tweet, unless we start to make monosyllabic grunts at each other or communicate silently, brain to brain. Brief gestures of communication can be beautiful, but can also be shallow. So what will happen next? Will we stop at the tweet, or will we bounce back in the other direction, suddenly craving more depth? I’d bet on the latter.
But even if we start to crave more depth, we cannot run away to a more primitive time.
The momentum of technological growth is too strong for us to prevent it from defining our future. Like it or not, our future world will largely be digital.
Instead of fleeing to the forest, we must find the humanity in the machine and learn to love it. If we decide the humanity does not yet exist there in the ways we expect, then we must create it.
The digital world, like the physical world, belongs to all of us, and not only to the companies who currently dominate it.
The digital world is not some magic land that evolves alone. The digital world is composed of the things we build there. Just as architects define the built landscape of a country, digital architects define the built landscape of the web.
Unlike the physical world, the digital world can support a boundless set of worlds within worlds—worlds for every human need. Many human needs are already answered online (though the elegance of the answers can always be improved), but many others are still without good online answers.
Human needs that have to do with authenticity, self-reflection, depth of communication, and real relationship-building are especially poorly answered online (at least currently). Maybe these needs cannot be answered online and require physical contact in all cases, but my sense is that they can, if only we design the right worlds to encourage and support them. Some such worlds probably exist already (indeed, the web is so vast that one can find examples of just about anything), but even if they do exist, they have not become widespread, and the predominate thrust of today's web is not around satisfying these needs.
Today's web feels more like one giant cocktail party, full of chatter, gossip, and he said, she said.
It is often called the social web, but “garrulous web” might be more appropriate. Yes, there is more social communication now than at any other time in the history of the world, but much of that communication is chatter. There is nothing wrong with chatter (and beauty often hides in chatter), but there needs to be a place for deeper, longer-lasting communication too.
You could argue that people will do what people will do, and that trying to change people's behavior is arrogant and foolish. There is truth to that, but people's behavior is largely influenced by the context in which they live. People who live near a ski slope are more likely to ski, as people who live in a city are more likely to hang out at bars. When we design spaces (real or virtual), we need to take responsibility for the types of behavior those spaces are likely to encourage.
We cherish our capitols, cathedrals, museums, monuments, and parks, but who will build structures of this stature in the digital world?
Ancient and beloved fields like journalism, publishing, and music are drowning in this tsunami of change. Students of journalism are wondering whether they should study computer science to stay afloat. But they should have patience. It is the job of journalists to do great journalism, and not to build platforms to disseminate that journalism. They should be able to trust those who build platforms to build them great platforms. But this has not happened yet—the digital world needs great builders.
Speaking especially to young students of computer science, art, architecture, and design—I would encourage you, as you imagine what you want to become, to consider becoming digital world builders.
Help construct our future digital world. Build honestly, naturally, authentically, beautifully, not motivated by page views or ad revenue but by what the digital world should be, in its purest, noblest sense. Articulate digital spaces that nurture the soul and the spirit.
Don’t leave it to today’s companies to solve these problems, as they will only perpetuate the same habits they have already adopted. There needs to be a new vision for the future of the web, one that is sensitive both to the human individual and the human collective, just like real life.
Toward the end of his life, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright often said that with 20 more years he could rebuild America, and give it an architecture that was organic, natural, and truly its own. Others called him arrogant for making these claims, but he would respond that a great nation should expect its great architects to build it great buildings.
The same is true for the digital world. The rest of the human race—the struggling journalists, the embattled authors of books, the makers of music, the normal folks who have been robbed of their individuality by today’s web—should expect its digital world builders to build them beautiful, honest, nourishing worlds.
Simplicity is hot right now, made fashionable by RISD president John Maeda and companies like Apple and Google. But there are some things to be said about it.
First, simplicity and minimalism are not equivalent, though they’re often conflated. Minimalism is a child of simplicity, but simplicity has other children too, the most versatile being organic or natural simplicity. Nature is more complex than anything humans could imagine, but nature is precisely as complex as it needs to be and not one bit more, which makes it simple. As Einstein said, “Make things as simple as can be—but not simpler.”
I admire minimalism as an art movement. Donald Judd, its founder, is one of my favorite artists, and Marfa, Texas, the town he shaped in his image, is one of my favorite towns. But minimalism can be a dangerous dogma in the context of world building. Unchallenged, it can lead to the same aesthetic solutions for very different problems and situations, producing a boring, soulless landscape.
In architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright’s natural, site-specific approach battled against the booming voice of International Modernism, which worshiped geometry and universal proportions, spitting out generic glass boxes for every project, regardless of the setting. This strict adherence to minimalism has left us with the drab corporate landscapes of many modern cities. On the Internet, this adherence to minimalism has left us with the drab homogenous landscape of the social web, in which the major sites all look and act more or less the same, encouraging and producing the same types of behavior.
In architecture, the basic trait is matter and the basic need is shelter. Online, the basic trait is interaction and the basic need is connection. The homogeneity of modern architecture has to do with aesthetics. The homogeneity of the web has to do with behavior.
When building tools (like Google or Wikipedia), minimalism makes a lot of sense. But when building worlds to house our digital selves, minimalism quickly crushes our individuality and leads to the kind of blah undifferentiated landscapes of shopping malls, corporate office parks, and many of today’s social networks. When building worlds, minimalism for its own sake should usually be avoided.
Finally, there is a difference between simplicity based on familiarity and simplicity based on universal truths. The lemming-like aesthetic conformity of today’s digital world has more to do with the former. True simplicity comes not from imitation, but from understanding. Certain situations will suggest a minimalist approach, but others won’t. Our digital worlds should feel like they sustain life—not just geometry.
Worlds need languages to function. A language is basically a system for expressing ideas. A good language is succinct, highly expressive, and intuitive to learn.
There are obvious languages like English, Spanish, and Mandarin, and less obvious languages like film, photography, music, dance, HTML, Flash, and Java.
When the world changes, sometimes a new language is needed to handle that change. For instance, telegraphs spawned morse code, airplanes spawned air traffic control signals, and computers spawned machine language, C++, Java, and many others.
When building a world, you need to decide which language you will use. Foreign novelists and filmmakers have long faced this question, weighing the comfort of writing in their native tongue with the larger potential audience of writing in English. Online it is no different. If you use Java or Flash instead of HTML, you will be able to build more nuanced worlds, but your audience will likely be smaller.
You have to decide if you want to make operas that affect a few people deeply, or folk songs that spread far and wide.
You may decide that no existing language can satisfy the needs of your world, and so you may choose to become a language maker, which presents its own challenges.
Or you may decide that an adequate language does exist, but you don’t know it yet, and so you may choose to become a language learner. If you choose this path, remember there is a difference between learning a language and actually using that language to say something, and that saying something is far more important (and difficult).
Don’t get stuck like the schoolboy, endlessly practicing grammar and learning vocabulary, but never writing a poem, a play, or a novel.
In movies, we’re familiar with the concept of special effects. In today’s online world, special effects are things like sound, animation, motion, and certain kinds of interactivity and layering.
I consider a special effect to be any expendable deviation from essential simplicity.
I see a certain obscenity in unrestrained special effects.
The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky sought to make his special effects seem banal and ordinary. Speaking about his 1972 sci-fi film, Solaris, Tarkovsky says he tried to make boarding a spaceship feel like boarding a trolley. Most directors fetishize gadgets and technology, explaining away every contrivance as if they had to show you the blueprints. The result is that Tarkovsky movies still feel ordinary and timeless, while movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey now feel like products of the 1960s, as movies like Minority Report in ten years will surely feel like products of 2002.
Special effects are not all bad, and a few well-chosen effects, used sparingly and for good reason, can really bring a world to life. Again, it is useful to remember Baz’s advice—beginners strive for the easy Wowww!, while masters seek the more difficult Wowww...
When I was living in Brooklyn, I found it hard to have opinions. With so many perspectives and new bits of information constantly to consider, earnest opinions felt foolish. How could I have a firm stance about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, about climate change, the Big Bang, or abortion, when I could so easily argue both sides?
But just because you can’t have opinions about all things doesn’t mean you can’t have opinions about any things. There are some things we know for sure. These might be minor—how to treat your parents, how to grow tomatoes, how to build a house. We each have a few such things. Start there with your feet firmly planted and see how it feels. Then take a few small steps until you reach a place that still feels firm, but where nobody else is standing. Then try to make something beautiful with what you see.
If you can find a place where you’re all alone, that’s usually a good place to be.
These days it’s unfashionable to have beliefs, largely because we worship science and we don’t like to worship more than one god. Some people believe only what they can prove and like to scoff at mystery, because mystery is what they don’t understand and what they don’t understand scares them.
Scientists should cherish mystery, as it represents the potential of science, temporarily filling the gap between knowledge and possibility. Without mystery, there would be no wild hypotheses to test and no strange new worlds to explore. Our future hides in mystery, and we ignore it at our peril.
I believe in mystery and generally keep an open mind even to its wildest suggestions. Mystery can be a valuable tool for making work, especially if your work is less about how the world currently is, and more about how the world someday could be.
Millions of dollars are spent each year at conferences that people attend to be inspired, to learn the latest memes and speak the latest jargon. They stand around in hotel lobbies, drinking bottled water and swapping business cards. They look at what everyone else is doing, and try to figure out how to apply what they see to their own particular endeavor. These conferences lead to what I call “city ideas”.
City ideas have to do with a particular moment in time, a scene, a movement, other people’s work, what critics say, or what’s happening in the zeitgeist. City ideas tend to be slick, sexy, smart, and savvy, like the people who live in cities. City ideas are often incremental improvements—small steps forward, usually in response to what your neighbor is doing or what you just read in the paper. City ideas, like cities, are fashionable. But fashions change quickly, so city ideas live and die on short cycles.
The opposite of city ideas are “natural ideas”, which account for the big leaps forward and often appear to come from nowhere. These ideas come from nature, solitude, and meditation. They’re less concerned with how the world is, and more with how the world could and should be.
Many people try to imitate the masters they admire, but this is a mistake. As the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd said, “If you imitate a person you admire, the best you can possibly hope for is to become a bad imitation of the person you admire. What you need to do instead is to locate the same level of inventiveness as the person you admire, and apply it to a new domain.”
If you need to copy, copy precisely what you need, do something new with it, make it your own, and move on.
You will become known for doing what you do. This sounds obvious, but is useful to understand.
Many people think that before they can do what they want to be known for doing, they first need to pay their dues. The problem is that once they start paying their dues, they never get around to doing the thing they always wanted to do.
If you are lucky enough to know what you want to be known for doing (and this is a very hard question), then start doing that thing immediately!
At first you will probably have to work nights and weekends, and make certain sacrifices. But eventually, if you do that thing prolifically and beautifully, you will become known as a person who does that thing prolifically and beautifully. Then, people might hire or pay you to do that particular thing (or by that point you might not even care, because the work itself will be sustenance enough).
I am not a big fan of irony. It’s a slippery slope that quickly leads to sarcasm and cynicism.
Paraphrasing the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, irony can occasionally be used by the master to drive home an already sharpened point that much further, but should generally be avoided by the beginner, as it is obvious and simple (in the worst sense).
Most irony falls into the category of “city ideas.”
Remember it is much easier to critique than to create.
I have three main principles that guide my work. When I was working at Fabrica in Italy, my boss was a British man named Andy Cameron. One day I was excitedly telling him about my ideas, and as I talked he didn’t say much. When I finished, he said, “Jonathan, when you’re considering a new idea for a project, ask yourself if it’s something the Italian everyman could understand.”
I asked Andy what he meant by that.
He said, “Ask yourself if you could explain your idea to one of those old men standing around in Piazza Signori on Sunday mornings. If you can make him understand and appreciate your idea, using only your bad Italian and his broken English, then you will have hit on something very powerful. If you can’t, you might have hit on something powerful, but your odds will be diminished.”
Andy’s lesson became my first principle—that each project should be based on a universally understandable idea.
The next two principles followed from there—that each project should be executed as simply as possible, and that each project should possess an element of play, nostalgia, or beauty to humanize it and bring it to life.
So—a universal idea executed simply, with an element of play, nostalgia or beauty.
Those have been helpful guidelines, but they’re not dogma.