Brain Pickings

Jonathan Harris: World Building in a Crazy World

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Simplicity vs. complexity, mental junk food, and how to be your own person.

We love artist, thinker and digital experimenteur Jonathan Harris — he’s one of the great storytellers of our day. His latest project, World Building in a Crazy World, is a simple yet philosophical reflection on the current state of the digital world, wrapped in a vision for our shared future.

Based on a recent talk Harris gave at UCLA’s Mobile Media Lecture Series, the project consists of a series of 15 short vignettes, each capturing a different and often unexpected facet of our digital reality and reflecting on the intangible interconnectedness of things.

Our Digital Crisis calls out a glaring truth that we all, at least on some level, sense but choose to closes our eyes to and click on.

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.

This idea of homogenization is something very near and dear to us. And we see curation — the smart and systematic culling of off-mainstream interestingness — as the only real antidote to the “Digg mentality” dominating the vast majority of web content consumption, where a small number of highly vocal people regurgitate the same content, causing it to float to the top of our collective awareness and feeding it down to that broader “junk-food”-hungry audience.

In Baz, a very personal story about Jonathan’s recent encounter with his 84-year-old fourth grade teacher, Harris reveals some universal truths about the nature of human experience, the wholeness of personality, and the value of asking the right questions rather than shooting for the right answers.

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.’

Simplicity explores a much-trumpeted concept, popularized by companies like Apple and Google, from a little-considered vantage point, making a case against the knee-jerk dismissal of complexity driven by trend rather than true consideration.

… 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.

1.2.3. explores the three fundamental principles that guide all of Harris’ work.

We love TED, but in Ideas, Harris makes a well-argued point about a sore shortcoming of such idea-conferences, which he says generate “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 case Harris makes for “natural ideas” — ones that come from solitary meditation and nature — is really a case for authenticity of thought, a personal resistance to the homogenization of beliefs, ideas and opinions. And we think that’s a skill, not a hard-wired trait — something we work at daily, by indulging our individual curiosity about the world and exploring the unique stories we tell about ourselves, each other and life at large.

Explore World Building in a Crazy World in its entirety for more modern philosophy on the building blocks of reputation, the tricky thing about having opinions, the evolution of language, and other integral parts of being.

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