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Dear Data: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to How Our Attention Shapes Our Reality

A celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet marvelously human details through which we wrest meaning out of the incomprehensible vastness of all possible experience that is life.

Dear Data: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to How Our Attention Shapes Our Reality

“Information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle,” James Gleick wrote in his indispensable history of how the age of data and human consciousness shaped one another. A generation earlier, the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler proclaimed in what remains the most resonant chorus to our age: “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe… Observer-participancy gives rise to information.” What we measure, monitor, record, and attend to is what colors our view of life. And so it is that “observer-participancy” has become the hallmark — the chief currency, the focal lens — of our Information Age: The quality of our attention and the nature of its recorded representation have become the informational infrastructure of our reality.

In the spring of 2015, I wrote about Dear Data — a wonderful project addressing this dependency with uncommon lyrical elegance. In their yearlong correspondence, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, chose a weekly locus of attention, visualized their respective data points on the back of a postcard, and mailed these self-portraits in data across the Atlantic.

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I ended the piece about the project with a beckoning: “Publishers, nota bene — this is the kind of project begging to be a beautiful book.”

Princeton Architectural Press took note and Dear Data (public library) is now a book, for which I had the pleasure of writing the foreword. Experiencing the project anew, in this beautiful analog form, only amplifies its deeply humane ethos of reclaiming the living texture of “data” in our everyday lives from the word’s unfeeling, algorithmic, non-human connotations.

Giorgia Lupi
Stefanie Posavec

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And, indeed, the “data” which Posavec and Lupi record are of the humanist, humanest kind — kindnesses (thanks paid, compliments received, smiles beamed at strangers), grievances (vanities, envies, self-criticisms), creaturely joys and vices (solitude savored, distractions succumbed to, beauty relished).

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Here is the foreword essay, as it appears in the book:

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” William James wrote at the dawn of modern psychology. And yet however perennial this insight may be, it is only a partial truth. Our experience is shaped as much by what we agree to take in as it is by what we refuse — what we choose to leave out — and both are only partly conscious choices. Our attention filters in a fraction of what goes on around us at any given moment and filters out, thanks to millions of years of evolution, the vast majority of the shimmering simultaneity with which the life of sensation and perception unfolds. This highly subjective, selective, imperfect filtration of reality guarantees that however many parallels two human beings may have between their lives, however much common ground, the paths by which they navigate their respective landscapes of experience will be profoundly divergent.

In their yearlong visual correspondence project, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, capture the inherent poetry of that subjective selectivity. Each week, they jointly select one aspect of daily life — from sleep to spending habits to mirror use — and depict their respective experience of it in a hand-drawn visualization on the back of a postcard, then mail it to the other. Out of these simple diurnal observations emerges the complexity of the human experience — nonlinear, contradictory, and always filtered through the discriminating yet imperfect lens of attention.

The creative constraint of the unifying themes only amplifies the variousness of possibility within each parameter. Despite the substantial similarities between the two women — both are information designers known for working by hand, both are only children, both have left their respective homeland to move across the Atlantic in pursuit of creative fulfillment, and they are the exact same age — their attentional orientation toward each week’s chosen subject is completely different, both in substance and in style. They deliberately use different visual metaphors and information design techniques for each week’s theme, producing is an immensely pleasurable duet of sensibilities — side by side, Posavec’s signature spatial poetics and Lupi’s mastery of shape and color elevate one another to a higher plane of meaning and delight.

A twenty-first-century testament to Virginia Woolf’s celebration of letter-writing as “the humane art,” the project radiates a lovely countercultural charm. Ours is the golden age of Big Data, where human lives are aggregated into massive data sets in the hope that analysis of the aggregate would yield valid insight into the individual — an approach no more effective than taking an exquisite poem in English, running it through Google Translate to render into Japanese, and then Google-translating it back into English; the result may have the vague contours of the original poem’s meaning, but none of its subtle magic and vibrant granular beauty.

Lupi and Posavec reclaim that poetic granularity of the individual from the homogenizing aggregate-grip of Big Data. What emerges is a case for the beauty of small data and its deliberate interpretation, analog visualization, and slow transmission — a celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet marvelously human details through which we wrest meaning out of the incomprehensible vastness of all possible experience that is life.

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Complement the poetic and humane Dear Data with Patternicity, inspired by Posavec and Lupi’s project, then revisit artist Lynda Barry’s field guide to keeping a visual diary and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to attend to life’s wondrous details by overriding the brain’s default blind spots.

BP

Jennifer Egan on Writing, the Trap of Approval, and the Most Important Discipline for Aspiring Writers

“You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon urged in what remains the finest advice on writing I’ve encountered. And yet for even the most gifted artists, the practice of that stewardship remains a constant and rather slippery domain of discipline.

Its elusive mastery is what Pulitzer-winning writer Jennifer Egan (b. September 7, 1962) explores in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library) — the wonderful anthology edited by Meredith Maran, which gave us Michael Lewis on the necessary self-delusion of creative work, Susan Orlean’s advice to aspiring writers, Isabelle Allende on how to summon the muse, and Mary Karr on the madness and magnetism of the written word.

Jennifer Egan (Photograph:  Pieter M. Van Hattem)
Jennifer Egan (Photograph: Pieter M. Van Hattem)

Beginning with the central question of why writers write — which has wrested some memorable answers from W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Egan considers the act of writing as a form of vital self-care:

When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again.

When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.

For Egan, as for many artists, this different mode of inhabiting reality embodies pioneering psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow — a supreme form of what science writer Diane Ackerman has called deep play, a state of essential evolutionary and existential significance. Egan speaks to it beautifully:

When I’m writing fiction I forget who I am and what I come from. I slip into utter absorption mode. I love the sense that I’ve become so engaged with the other side, I’ve slightly lost my bearings here. If I’m going from the writing mind-set to picking my kids up from school, I often feel a very short but acute kind of depression, as if I have the bends. Once I’m with them it totally disappears, and I feel happy again. Sometimes I forget I have children, which is very strange. I feel guilty about it, as if my inattention will cause something to happen to them, even when I’m not responsible for them…

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

Echoing Colette’s marvel at the the transcendent obsessive-compulsiveness of writing, Egan adds:

When the writing’s going well — I’m trying not to sound clichéd — I feel fueled by a hidden source. During those times it doesn’t matter if things are going wrong in my life; I have this alternate energy source that’s active. When the writing’s going poorly, it’s as bad or worse than not writing at all. There’s a leak or a drain, and energy is pouring out of it. Even when the rest of my life is fine, I feel like something’s really bad. I have very little tolerance for anything going wrong, and I take little joy from the good things. It was worse before I had kids. I appreciate that they make me forget what’s going on professionally.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Joni Mitchell’s reflections on the dark side of artistic success and John Steinbeck’s lamentation about the perils of public approval, Egan considers the psychoemotional aftermath of her Pulitzer win:

The attention and approval I’ve been getting for Goon Squad — the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes — is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing. And it’s dangerous. Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be my goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work. I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.

[…]

My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one. If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with Goon Squad, it’s never going to lead to anything good. I know that. Stop getting better? There’s no excuse for that.

With an eye to our propensity for what psychologists call the “end of history illusion” — best captured by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert’s aphoristic summation that “human beings are works in progress [who] mistakenly think they’re finished” — Egan adds:

We all have such a tendency to think the present moment will last forever. Maybe when I’m not the flavor of the month anymore I’ll be devastated and shocked, and I’ll forget everything I’m saying this minute. But my hope is that I have the tools to handle it.

She ends by offering three points of advice to aspiring writers:

  • Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do. If what you really love to read is y, it might be hard for you to write x.
  • Exercising is a good analogy for writing. If you’re not used to exercising you want to avoid it forever. If you’re used to it, it feels uncomfortable and strange not to. No matter where you are in your writing career, the same is true for writing. Even fifteen minutes a day will keep you in the habit.
  • You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.

Complement Why We Write with great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft, then revisit Maran’s sequel, Why We Write About Ourselves — some of today’s most celebrated memoirists on the art of telling personal stories that unravel universal truth.

BP

The Private Person and the Public Persona: Borges on the Divided Self

A timeless parable of the self-defeating quest for integration.

The Private Person and the Public Persona: Borges on the Divided Self

“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” And yet, inseparable as the parts may be from the whole, we each contain multitudes — not only psychologically, but even biologically — nowhere more so than when it comes to the bifurcation between our inner and outer selves. “Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Hannah Arendt observed in her insightful inquiry into being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display. For each of us, there is a public persona encasing the private person, an aspirational self radiating from the real self.

However integrated the our layered identity may be, our twined nature stands like a stereogram — two separate and noticeably different views, composed into a single three-dimensional image of personhood only through the special focal mechanism of our own consciousness.

No one has addressed this existential sundering more elegantly than Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) in “Borges and I” — his classic parable of selfhood, exploring the divide between private person and public persona that each of us must live with and live into. It appears in Labyrinths (public library) — a collection of Borges’s stories, essays, parables, and other writings, originally published in 1962.

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Borges writes:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

“Borges and I” went on to inspire some of the greatest writers of the past century to reflect on the divided self in hand-drawn self-portraits. Complement it with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of personhood in literature and life and Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Borges on writing, public opinion, and our private participation in collective joy and collective tragedy.

BP

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