From the monthly archives:

September 2009

In a recent tweet referring to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics, I hinted at what I think is absent in digital systems:

My tweet on what digital systems lack...

One of my post-WordCamp Portland tweets

My meaning wasn’t entirely clear in the context of that tweet, so I decided to expand on it.

First, by “digital system” I mean any system built around the processing of numerical data. Examples include the internet, search engines, and the IRS.

A purely digital system is deterministic. The same input will produce the same output every single time. (I’m leaving out faulty parts or accidents for the moment.)

Whether a digital system does exactly what you think it will do or want it to do is another matter.  It’s only going to do what it is programmed to do.

While predictability is a desirable quality in an ATM machine or a heart defibrillator, it’s less useful when our goals are to be innovative, evocative and inspiring.

Preserving the quirky

How can we reduce the predictability?

Unreliability is one option: Poor quality parts can cause frequent and possibly interesting failures.

Intentional chaos is another method: If you build enough complexity into a system, or aggregate enough simple components, the system will start behaving in unpredictable ways. This is not an approach you want to take if you’re designing the braking system of a car, but it can be an effective way to generate a set of ideas you might not have discovered otherwise.

The most common — and in my view, the best — way to add ambiguity, uncertainty and maybe even serendipity back into digital systems is a thoughtful integration of people: allow human beings to be curious and playful and peculiar and idiosyncratic in their use of the system.

Quirky human beings breathe life into routine systems.

What worries me about some (but not all) of these guidelines around SEO, or any set of rules that we allow to burden our self-expression, is that they force us into certain predictable areas where our work becomes less interesting.

They encourage us to make decisions that dilute our ideas and diminish who we are, like watering down a well-aged whisky to meet some arbitrary local regulation thought up by the head of a temperance council.

Less than Human

Most music software packages have a feature called quantization. When enabled, the software alters a recorded performance according to certain settings: it can make all the notes equally loud, for example, and move them around in time so that each lands precisely on a beat.

Playing new ideas into a computer in a steady rhythm can be very awkward. Quantization has saved musicians countless hours of fiddling, editing, and reprogramming, especially given how crude the editing tools where when it was first introduced more than a decade ago.

But it’s also had negative effects.

The message of a system that will quantize you is that you can be sloppy. Don’t worry about drawing a straight line, or playing in time: the machine will fix it for you.  (Auto-tune, a more recent phenomena, applies the same logic to pitch correction.)

When “perfection” is a few mouse-clicks away, it can be come the default expectation, at least for a while, until everyone starts to realize that music “fixed” by machines tend to be very boring and repetitive.

So a few years after software companies introduced quantization, they released the antidote: another feature called “humanize”.

The computer goes through a performance that’s been previously quantized, or one that was played to a metronome or click track, or maybe even typed directly into a computer, and it adds random elements to the data: it plays each note a little softer or a little harder, or shifts it a few tens of milliseconds backwards or forwards in time to give it a sense of imperfection and “human-like” variation.

I love that it’s there, and I love the concept of it, but it’s always seemed like a peculiar thing to have to do. It was a recognition that computers tend to make our self-expression less than human. Feebly, we go to the Edit menu, and select “Humanize”, hoping that an artificial randomization routine can recover what we’ve lost.

The Norms That Lurk Within

Digital systems want to quantize us: they want to put us in boxes, attach us to tags and keywords and categories and clusters.

They ask us questions, and expect us to respond with a yes or a no, or by selecting from a short list of choices which don’t match our current situation. They apply algorithms to us, and expect us to conform to certain inputs and outputs.

Slowly, our instinct becomes one of self-surrender: we voluntarily algorithmize our own lives, if you will, so that we fit better inside their framework.

Of course, the real source of these algorithms and limitations are the designers of these systems which, in most cases, are still human. But we interact with the machine in front of us, not the person who told that machine how to behave. In this context, I’m personifying the systems, because they embody the designers’ decisions about the norms and constraints.

The Simultaneity of Square and Squishy

Machines and searchbots are a fact of life, and I’m not proposing that we all jam our shoes in their virtual gears.

The solution, it seems, is to explore the interplay between the deterministic and the chaotic, the predictable and the surprising, the explicit and the ambiguous.

There’s a quality present in many Caribbean pop songs that represents a kind of ideal to me: crisp drum machines form a structure as precise as the engineering of the chips inside of them, while above those relentless patterns, musicians add laid-back basslines, horns show up from time to time, and languid vocalists ease in and out of each entrance.

It’s lovely because it isn’t either/or: the musical interest comes from the tension between what’s on the grid, and what’s not on the grid, from the simultaneity of square and squishy.

I hear this same pattern elsewhere: In Joy Division, characterized by the contrast between the precision of Stephen Morris’ drumming and the mercurial vocals of Ian Curtis.

Or in Italian Baroque opera, as a soprano gracefully unfolds a melodic line over the tick-tock continuo of harpsichord and strings.

I see this quality, too: even Jackson Pollock used square canvases.

Systems and process provide order. It’s up to us to be a little quirky and chaotic within that, to keep it interesting.

Acknowledge the rules. Flirt with the guidelines. Follow some, avoid others. And remember: in the digital realm, conformity is built-in, and needs no allies.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by rules, how-to lists, keywords to include, tradition, convention or a statistical analysis of retweetability, please just stop.

Stop.

And instead, choose to be the most interesting thing you can be: Human.

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A few days ago, I happened across an old episode of the Guardian Books Podcast which featured authors choosing and contemplating “a key word that opened up the literary territories” they’ve explored in their work.

I particularly enjoyed the delightful obstinancy of Olivia Rosenthal’s exploration of “no” and Anne Weber’s “Attend Attentive” which I quoted on the scrapbook blog yesterday.

And then there was the opening volley of Arthur Japin’s piece about the unreal:

“Reality already exists. What’s the point of describing it one more time? The common place is all around. Why would you want to imitate it? What kind of challenge is truth? It is already there!”

I bristled at that initially — until I understood where he was headed.

Truth and reality would only be boring if we could perceive and understand them in their entirety. And we can’t.

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

Imagine a dozen people whose only experience of the world is wandering through the British Museum. After ten minutes, each in different rooms, they meet out front to compare notes. One person starts enthusiastically describing the Rosetta Stone, another asks “Who are the Egyptians?” and yet another mutters: “Greeks? Never heard of them…”

Common Place

Here’s a less contrived example: Imagine a group of people in the same room for a few minutes. How many details do they each notice? Five? Maybe ten?

Let’s be optimistic and say ten. Do they all notice the same things? Unlikely. And that’s what we have to share with each other.

Reality and truth exist in some physical sense. (I’ll leave philosophical debates about the details for another time.)

But they don’t exist in a way that is always present and complete and comprehensible in our minds. None of us individually can perceive and understand everything.

Ideas emerge from the gaps in our common perceptions, and those ideas become the ingredients of the stories we tell, the art we make and the perspectives we share.

Imagine someone that lives two thousand kilometers (or miles) in any direction from you. Is their daily life so much like your own, do you have so much in common in every thought and action, that they would learn nothing from you, and you nothing from them?

There is no such thing as commonplace, at least not one that we can perceive in any depth or detail.

To the extent that we do perceive a commonplace, it is something we construct by telling each other what we notice about our lives and our work, whether we do that through blogs or tweets or dancing or sculpture or music.

The actual content of the writing on the Rosetta Stone couldn’t be more mundane: an announcement of the specifics of a tax amnesty. That’s right: it’s an Egyptian IRS memo that just happens to be in three languages we find interesting more than 2000 years later.

We learn its significance not from our own direct experience of reality and truth, but by assembling ideas from teachers, historians, archaeologists, and writers.

Abstraction and Truth

I don’t mean any of this to be a criticism of Arthur Japin. Despite my initial reaction, I suspected there wasn’t all that much distance between my own thinking and his.

When I enter a museum or gallery, I usually walk straight past all the figurative work towards the abstract and conceptual, the absurd and surreal.  While my verbal brain defends capital-R Reality and capital-T Truth, my feet follow orders from my deeper aesthetic instincts.

Japin has an explanation for what makes the mysterious so compelling:

“The further characters are from me personally, the more I want to know about them. The less clear they are, the more I strive to fathom them.”

He then imagines stopping a man on a street, showing him a “vague, smudged, coffee-stained daub” and asking: “Is this you?”

Japin describes the effect on the man:

“Before he can seek a likeness, he has to think about himself. And if he eventually decides that he can’t recognize any of his features in the portrait you have shown him, he will still walk on with a different image of himself than the one he had when you stopped him.”

But doesn’t a realistic portrayal of Iranian women’s lives, or a documentary about a devastating hurricane, or even a series of films about growing up do the same thing? Or more?

When we encounter an artist whose exploration of Truth and Reality implicitly asks us the same question — “Is this you?” — and our reaction is similar to what Japin describes,  we haven’t just changed our image of ourselves. We’ve changed our image of the world.

An idea or piece of art that prompts us to perceive our own likeness in unfamiliar pockets of reality and human experience can have a much more important outcome than self-reflection: empathy.

So when Japin demands: “What kind of challenge is truth?”

I respond: The most important kind.

And, from my perspective, it’s far more elusive and illuminating than the unreal.

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