Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘social web’

28 MAY, 2013

Amanda Palmer on Creativity as Connecting Dots and the Terrifying Joy of Sharing Your Art Online

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“We can only connect the dots that we collect.”

“How are we so brave to take step after step? Day after day?,” Maira Kalman pondered. “How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip, and then get up and say O.K.?”

In her wonderful keynote at the 2013 Grub Muse literary conference on creativity and the marketplace, Amanda Palmer — she of great wisdom on the art of asking without shame — considers why creativity is the product of connecting dots and addresses the quintessential question of how to put yourself and your work out there, in the Wild West of the internet, fully knowing how messy it can get and yet how wonderful, how open to cold criticism it can leave you and yet how capable of warming others.

Some thoughts, highlights, and dot-connecting below:

Buried in the generally brilliant argument of her opening parable is a specific unfair assumption: What Amanda describes as the supremacy of art’s disposition over that of science applies not to science vs. art but to bad science vs. good art, for “the impulse to connect the dots and share what you’ve connected” is not only what makes a great artist or writer but also, unequivocally, what makes a great scientist.

She recounts reactions to her recent experience of the Boston bombings:

To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the act of making art.

She notes with equal parts eloquence and poignancy the duality of the internet’s promise and the tsunami of trolls that can come with each wave of attention:

For every bridge you build together with your community of readers, there’s a new set of trolls who sit underneath it.

“Every line and word is vitally connected with my life, my life only,” Henry Miller observed in his timeless reflections on writing, “be it in the form of deed, event, fact, thought, emotion, desire, evasion, frustration, dream, revery, vagary, even the unfinished nothings which float listlessly.” Beloved graphic designer Paula Scher likened creativity to a slot machine of subjective lived experience. Amanda eloquently echoes these sentiments in her own creative credo:

We can only connect the dots that we collect, which makes everything you write about you. … Your connections are the thread that you weave into the cloth that becomes the story that only you can tell.

She sums up what it all comes down to on the internet:

In order for it to work, the door must remain unlocked. People might enter without knocking, they might crash your party and drink your wine. Let them in, and let them drink — because you might meet somebody interesting.

Creating art in a time of trauma, she argues, illustrates with greater poignancy than anything what makes the internet beautiful:

People might shout, “This is not the time for metaphor! This is not the time for art! And this is certainly not the time for art about you!” But once you’ve shared your art and it’s resonated with a single person, it’s no longer about you — once you share it, it’s about everybody. And if your art is found by a single soul, shared with a friend who links it to a friend, and the response is whatever it is, you start to see how art becomes about everybody — just through the act of being shared.

(Cue in David Foster Wallace, who famous wrote, “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”)

But, ultimately, Amanda’s most pressing point is about dismantling the antiquated structures that tell us how to touch people with what we create and building from the ground up this new ecosystem where the only thing that matters is that we touch them:

Self-publishing without authentication and without that wand of legitimacy brushing your shoulder is truly scary. And there’s self-publishing a book, which at least resembles something real, and then there’s posting your shit to the internet. But I’ve found, what resonates resonates — the format doesn’t matter. … I’m not suggesting in the slightest that you forsake your painstakingly edited work and your protected, well-groomed and agonized-over treasures, and post them to the internet tomorrow. … But you can, if you want — if you’re brave — you can yell down into the marketplace and find your friends, and the crowd that would resonate with you, without permission from on high. Because anything you write in any format can change somebody, can change an opinion, can scratch an opening in a scared up heart of a human being — and it doesn’t matter how you do it.

If your writing is good, if it resonates, if it connects the dots for anybody out there, the lovers will come, the haters will come, support will come — sometimes in the form of money, sometimes in the form of something less expected — and it balances.

A resounding secular Amen!

Amanda is one of the good humans. You can support her by buying, as pay-what-you-will downloads, some of her gorgeous music and enjoying her writing.

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Anaïs Nin on the Meaning of Life & the Dangers of the Internet (1946)

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“We believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people… This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us.”

Last week’s widely reverberating meditations on the meaning of life by cultural icons like Charles Bukowski, Annie Dillard, Arthur C. Clarke, and John Cage reminded me of a passage from the altogether sublime The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us this poignant reflection on why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

In an entry from May 1946, Anaïs Nin once again challenges our presentism bias by thinking deeply and timelessly about issues we tend to believe we’re brushing up against for the very first time, from the pitfalls of always-on communication technology to the pace of modern life to the venom of procrastination.

Even more interesting than the striking similarity between what Nin admonishes against and the present dynamics of the internet is the fact that she essentially describes Marshall McLuhan’s seminal concept of the global village… a decade and a half before he coined it.

The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.

For more on Nin’s timeless insights on life, see Lisa Congdon’s stunning hand-lettered diary quotes.

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18 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Steven Johnson on the “Peer Progressive” Movement and What the Internet Wants

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“When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably.”

Such is the nature of the reader’s ego: Whenever your favorite author comes out with another thoughtful, beautifully written, culturally relevant book, it’s potent and gratifying validation of your preference for his or her work and, by proxy, of yourself. This week, I have Steven Johnson to thank for gratifying my ego with Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age (public library) — an absorbing, provocative, and unapologetically optimistic vision for the society we have the capacity to build if we use the remarkable tools of our age intelligently and wisely. Driven by what Johnson calls “peer progressives” — a cohort of people who are “wary of centralized control, but [are] not free-market libertarians,” who identify as entrepreneurs but work mostly in the public sector, who believe in building “a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy” — this new groundswell is using the power of networks as a problem-solving tool for civic society, and one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time has taken it upon himself to tell its story.

In the introduction, Johnson reminds us of something crucial Anaïs Nin observed more than 70 years ago — namely, the importance of understanding the role of the individual in making sense of mass movements:

Most new movements start this way: hundreds or thousands of individuals and groups, working in different fields and different locations, start thinking about change using a common language, without necessarily recognizing those shared values. You just start following your own vector, propelled along by people in your immediate vicinity. And then one day, you look up and realize that all those individual trajectories have turned into a wave.

One paradox of the digital age Johnson examines is the challenge of whether it’s “possible to believe that the Internet and the Web are pushing us in a positive direction, without becoming naive cyber-utopians.” To resolve the dissonance, he turns to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “affordances” — the deeply engrained tendencies of each new medium, which shape the message it conveys in consistent and predictable ways. Among television’s key affordances, for instance, was the strong bias for the visual and spoken over the textual. Johnson reflects on Neil Postman’s golden-age-of-TV bestseller, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

You do not need a ‘thorough theoretical understanding of the context’ to assume that the introduction of television will diminish the role of the written word in a given society.

On the web, however, these affordances get murky. It’s a medium that at once allows meticulous micro-customization — like, for instance, those Google AdSense ads that
“know” your search history and preferences, pushing you products and services increasingly more tailored to your tastes — and spews out endless, mass-produced spam. Johnson puts it wrily:

For every website that knows exactly what you want to read right now, there are probably ten penis-enlargement ads sitting in your inbox.

But, he points out, the web is after all software and, as such, it’s malleable and nimble enough to be able to thrive on these schizophrenic affordances:

Software interfaces are not fixed properties; they are possibility spaces, open to a near-infinite range of experimentation, which means that the defining affordances of the medium are more elastic than those of traditional media.

[…]

But this capacity for reinvention does not mean the Internet and its descendants are without affordances altogether. In fact, one of the Net’s affordances flows directly out if its shape-shifting powers. Because the software networks are more malleable than earlier forms of media, they tend to engage more people in the process of deciding how they should work. In the days of analog telephony or radio, the number of people actively involved in the conversation about how these technologies should work was vanishingly small. If we have too much of anything on the Internet, it’s engagement: too many minds pushing the platform in new directions, too many voices arguing about the social and economic consequences of those changes. A medium that displays a capacity for reinvention tends, in the long run at least, to build up a much larger community of people who anted to help reinvent it.

Ultimately, Johnson poses, then answers, one of our era’s most profound questions:

So what does the Internet want? It wants to lower the cost for creating and sharing information. The notion sounds unimpeachable when you phrase it like that, until you realize all the strange places that kind of affordance ultimately leads to. The Internet wants to breed algorithms that can execute thousands of financial transactions per minute, and it wants to disseminate the #occupywallstreet meme across the planet. The Internet ‘wants’ both the Wall Street tycoons and the popular insurrection at its feet.

Can that strange, contradictory cocktail drive progress on its own? Perhaps — for the simple reason that it democratizes the control of information. When information is expensive and scarce, powerful or wealthy individuals or groups have a disproportionate impact on how that information circulates. But as it gets cheaper and more abundant, the barriers to entry are lowered. This is hardly a new observation, but everything that has happened over the last twenty years has confirmed the basic insight. That democratization has not always led to positive outcomes — think of those spam artists — but there is no contesting the tremendous, orders-of-magnitude increase in the number of people creating and sharing, thanks to the mass adoption of the Internet.

The peer progressive’s faith in the positive effects of the Internet rests on this democratic principle: When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably. Yes, when you push the intelligence out to the edges of the network, sometimes individuals or groups abuse those newfound privileges; a world without gatekeepers or planners is noisier and more chaotic. But the same is true of other institutions that have stood the test of time. Democracies on occasion elect charlatans or bigots or imbeciles; markets on occasion erupt in catastrophic bubbles, or choose to direct resources to trivial problems while ignoring the more pressing ones. We accept these imperfections because the alternatives are so much worse. The same is true of the Internet and the peer networks it has inspired. They are not perfect, far from it. But over the long haul, they produce better results than the Legrand Stars that came before them. They’re not utopias. They’re just leaning that way.

Future Perfect, which comes on the heels of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010) and The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next (2011), goes on to examine the wide-reaching impact of the peer progressive movement through a fascinating cross-section of Johnson’s characteristic seeming-deviations-that-turn-out-to-be-brilliant-allegories-for-the-core-argument, spanning everything from the history of early aviation to New York’s mysterious maple syrup event of 2005 to what the “pothole paradox” tells us about the future of journalism.

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