Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

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Thoughts on design, programming, business, and culture.

Digital Terroir

Hello, CatskillsConf! This is the written version of my talk, given on October 20, 2018 at 4:00pm. There might be some slight differences between the written version and the spoken verison. All images are from Unsplash, except for the Hudson Valley image, which I took myself from the top of the tower at Mohonk.

How many of you have ever been to, or ever seen, a coffee shop that looks anything like this?

Coffee Shop

You know the one I’m talking about. It’s probably got white walls with some artwork on it, reclaimed wood somewhere, concrete floors or something else similarly industrial chic. They all have the same smell — coffee, predictably enough.

I think everyone’s been to a coffee shop like this. And it’s not surprising, because these things are everywhere.

I’m not talking about Starbucks, where it’s a chain, but coffee shops that have independently developed this same hipster coffee shop aesthetic.

You can find these in New York; you can find them in San Francisco. They’re in Chicago and Dallas and Detroit. You can find them in Sydney, Singapore, Dubai, Frankfurt.

I’d call it an epidemic, except I actually love coffee shops like this. They have great music and great coffee. The baristas have great beards.

But the world is getting flatter. Our culture seems to be compressing, regressing to the aesthetic mean. It’s easier and easier to find things that look the same, no matter where you go. Not just in terms of Wal-Mart being everywhere, but in terms of things that are totally independent and would’ve previously had their own personality, don’t really have their own personality anymore.

But we’ll get back to that.

I haven’t introduced myself yet, have I? I’m a designer and programmer, and I make apps and websites for a living. I’ve had the privilege to work with a variety of companies and clients, from independent creatives to startups to global megacorporations. So today I’m here to talk to you about… wine.

Well, not wine exactly. I know almost nothing about wine. But something tangentially related to wine. I’m here to talk to you about terroir.

Terroir

Terroir is the idea that wines made in different places will taste like that place; they’ll assume the characteristics of the geography and culture in which they were produced.

Wines made in Bordeaux, taste like Bordeaux. Wines made in Napa, taste like Napa.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Wine comes from grapes, grapes are grown in the ground, so the growing conditions of the grapes will influence the taste of the wine. Things like climate — the precipitation and temperature the grapes were subject to. Even the nutrient composition of the soil will alter the taste of the wine.

But terroir is deeper than that. The local bacteria will impact the taste of the wine. Different places have different strains of bacteria floating around in the air, and present in the soil. Those bacteria will alter the growth of the grapes, and involve themselves in the fermentation of the wine. You could say that the essence of the place imbues itself into the wine.

And so wine is the product of the bacterial culture in the environment, but it’s also the product of the human culture of the environment. Wine is cultivated by a vintner — a winemaker — and so that winemaker’s instincts and methods, their approach to making wine, greatly affects the resulting wine. The winemaking culture in which they were trained will imprint itself on the wine.

You can take identical grapes and make wine using the same recipe in two different places, and those wines will not be the same. That’s terroir.

Other things besides wine have terroir.

Beer has terroir. There are varieties of beer that are fermented in open air, allowing any local flora and fauna to fall in and influence the flavor. Coffee has terroir, tobacco has terroir, and cannabis has terroir. Cheese has terroir. Even vidalia onions have terroir.

I think we can expand this into a more general principle:

The things we make are imbued with the character of the places in which they were made, and the people who made them.

Music takes on the character of the place and time in which it was written. Writing can’t help but be part of an oeuvre. British film feels different than American film feels different than Japanese film or French film. New York pizza tastes better than any other pizza on earth (come at me, Chicago.)

Anything handcrafted, whether it’s wine or cheese or furniture, has terroir.

The things we make feel like the places where they were made. And, moreover, they are imbued with the character and personality and culture of the people who made them.

I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately. Being a designer and developer, I wonder: do digital artifacts also have terroir? Obviously they wouldn’t be impacted by the bacterial environment or the precipitation in which we code a website, but does the culture and gestalt of a place impact the websites and apps made there?

I had big plans for this talk. I was going to get screenshots of websites from all over — Russian websites and Indian websites and Japanese websites and French websites, and websites from different cities in the US — and put them up on the screen, and triumphantly declare: “Yes, software does have terroir!”

But instead I found… this.

Nope!

Everything looks the same! It’s not just that everything shares the similar, Bootstrappy layout — full-width header image, center column of text, blocky layout — but that everything looks like it’s trying to copy the same sites. Everything’s trying to look like Stripe or Medium. Everyone’s looking at the same inspirations on Dribbble and copying the same code snippets from Stack Overflow.

This isn’t meant to sound like an indictment of similar work, by the way. It’s not wrong that the whole English-speaking Web seems to have coalesced around the same limited sets of layouts. It makes sense that websites should have a common vocabulary, so users don’t have to relearn the interface every time they visit a new website. It makes sense that apps use the same set of UI conventions, or that every piece of desktop software doesn’t look vastly different than its peers.

It’s not wrong, but as someone who likes the world to have some character, it is kind of disappointing.

For the first time in history, we have instant access to things made in places all around the world. And for the first time in history, things made in those places all look exactly the same.

It makes sense. A startup in Mumbai isn’t just competing against other startups in Mumbai, it’s competing against startups halfway around the world. Websites and apps aren’t really aimed at a local audience, they’re aimed at a global audience, so the place they’re trying to feel like is just: Earth.

But I can’t help but feel like the world would be richer if the digital products we build were imbued with a sense of the place in which they were built, and the people who built them.

And so we’re back to the beginning: the world is getting flatter.

There was a time when you could drive coast-to-coast across the United States, and if you kept your radio on, you’d hear different things in different cities. Let’s say you started in Kingston, New York — you’d hear a Kingston radio station, with music selected by a Kingston DJ. As you’d drive, Kingston would go out of range, and a new radio station would fade in. You’d hear music selected by a Pittsburgh DJ, probably with some local flavor mixed in. You’d keep going and hear different music in Saint Louis, and Detroit, and eventually California.

Each place would’ve had its own sound, and in addition to the geographic place-building happening in your head, you’d be building a cultural map as well.

If you try that again today, you’ll find something very different. There are pockets of independent radio, of course, but by-and-large you’ll find the same thing in every city. Pittsburgh? IHeartRadio with Spyder Harrison, playing some Taylor Swift. Saint Louis? IHeartRadio with Spyder Harrison, playing some Taylor Swift. Detroit? IHeartRadio with Spyder Harrison, playing some Taylor Swift. California? Well, probably some M83 or something, but you get the drift.

Am I romanticizing a little to make a point? Yes, absolutely. Maybe we never lived in a utopian world of local DJs with impeccable, geographically-informed taste. Then again, maybe it’s just hard to remember a time before demographic data ruled every decision and “mainstream taste” was defined as whatever the most people find inoffensive.

That’s where we are now. Lots of coffee shops that look the same, because Instagram can bring in foot traffic, and this is the style that gets lots of likes on Instagram.

Popular fashion that looks the same, because it gets lots of pins on Pinterest.

Places and things in the physical world optimized for algorithmic engagement, where the only thing that matters is that they are similar to other things that have gotten lots of engagement.

One of the great promises of the Internet was that anyone could find their tribe. We’d no longer be bound by whatever suited mainstream culture — we could watch shows that would never find an audience on TV, and find songs that would never get played on the radio, and meet people who shared the same obscure, esoteric hobbies.

And yes, that happened, to a point. But as the long tail got longer, the mainstream got flatter. What was local, got more local; what was global, went more global.

And so the culture flattens towards a unified, global aesthetic; a pleasant mediocrity is favored above distinctive personality. It’s better to have something that a lot of people kind of like, than something that a few people love and a few people hate.

“Algorithms are great at giving you something you like, but terrible at giving you something you love.” — David Perell

In agriculture, there’s the concept of “monoculture.”

Monoculture

In traditional farming, a single plot of land would support several types of crops. These crops would be rotated seasonally and annually, and because different crops take different nutrients from the ground, this would ensure that the soil never got worn out. Rotating crops actually strengthens the soil.

With industrial farming, however, came the rise of monoculture. Huge swaths of land are planted with the same crop, season after season and year after year. It’s more economical to do things this way when producing food for a huge market, but it wears out the soil. Farms need to add chemicals to the soil to replenish the depleted nutrients, making things less natural and less environmentally sound.

Monoculture is fragile, too. If you grow multiple types of crops in a year and one crop is hit with blight, you won’t lose everything. If you only grow one thing and it gets wiped out, though, you’re done.

Our culture right now is a monoculture.

I’m not saying that the Internet will one day get struck with a blight and suddenly all the Bootstrap websites will go away. I am saying that it’s all just a little… boring.

The Internet is the predominant culture-making force in our society. Want to learn something new? You go to the Internet. Looking for entertainment? Go to the Internet. Need to shop for something? Go to the Internet. As the Internet goes, society goes also.

The movies we watch, the books we read, the clothes we wear, the products we buy — all suggested to us by algorithms. The Internet keeps giving us more of what it thinks we want, based on the aggregated taste of people just like us. We’re trapped in an echo chamber of our own making.

This is the part of the talk where you start tuning me out, because I sound like I’m getting all doom-and-gloom about the present and romanticizing the past. I promise that’s not where I’m going with this!

Where I’m going is here:

Let’s say we’re all agreed that the world would be a richer, more vibrant place if our digital artifacts had a sense of place, like our physical ones. How would we go about doing that? How would we go about encouraging terroir in the things we make?

We should start by considering the character and personality of the places we inhabit. For me, that’s the Hudson Valley.

Hudson Valley

When I think of the Hudson Valley, I think of places like the Ashokan Center. I think of towns like New Paltz and Beacon and Rhinebeck, which each have their own personality but still share the values of the Hudson Valley. I think of the places to hike, and the places to eat, and the farmers’ markets and independent stores.

The Hudson Valley is about small farms, slow food, and good neighbors. It’s about doing good work, but avoiding the mentality of “growth at all costs.” The pace is a little slower here than in New York City, but thanks to the easy train access, we still have the cultural benefits.

Wherever you’re from, you know that place’s character and personality. And you can express that character and personality through your work.

For the Hudson Valley, that might mean a few different things:

On the superficial level, we could make color and typographic choices that reflect the environment. Use colors that are present in the local environment, typography that’s authentic to the history of the Hudson Valley, etc. We can even go so far as to use visual forms that reflect the geography of the region.

But all this sounds a little contrived, doesn’t it? You can’t just tell a client, “I’m going to use lots of greens and blues, even though those aren’t your brand colors. And I refuse to use Helvetica, because that’s a Swiss font, and this isn’t Switzerland.”

No, we have to go deeper than that. Just like with terroir — it doesn’t hit you over the head, but it’s the subtle undercurrent. The things we make can be imbued with the character of the Hudson Valley. We can make software with breathing room, both in the design and in the user behavior it encourages. We can reject the idea of “growth at all costs” and instead build products that promote our users’ wellbeing. We can design and program things in a way that respects work-life balance, and helps people to thrive, for no other reason except that they’re people, and people have infinite worth. We can make software that shares our values, knowing that our values are influenced by the place that we’re planted.

I can’t tell you what terroir looks like for you. I don’t know your place as intimately as you do, and I don’t know how it might express itself through your work. Honestly, these are just ideas that I’ve been chewing on, and I don’t have any final conclusions yet.

But that’s a poor way to end a talk, so what I can tell you is this: If you consider terroir and consider the character and outlook that you’re putting into your work, the world can be a richer and more vibrant place. Our corner of the Internet can start unflattening, and gain more character. It might start to feel a little more like the early days, when the Web was wonderful and weird.

I never told you the literal translation of “terroir,” did I? It’s a French word that means “of the earth.”

Isn’t that perfect? “Of the earth.”

Just because we build digital products doesn’t mean they can’t be rooted and grounded in the soil beneath our feet.

Thanks

Thank you.

Resources

Hurry Slowly Interview with Adam Greenfield

Adam Greenfield, author of the book Radical Technologies that I quoted recently, was interviewed on the Hurry Slowly podcast.

The conversation retread familiar terrain from the book, but it's always worth a reminder. The episode focused mainly on the sociology of the smartphone, and I found two parts particularly interesting:

  1. The idea that we're losing some of the "thinginess" of the world by allowing so many of our interactions to be intermediated by abstract bits floating around a noncorporeal network. We used to carry so many things in our pockets: credit cards, photos of loved ones, access cards for buildings or public transit. Many of the artifacts we used for navigating the world have been replaced by a homogeneous set of gestures performed on the same screen. We read the news and check the stocks on the same device that we find love and hail a cab. Everything is taking on a bland sameness.
  2. The way we live is being shaped by a tiny group of homogeneous people in a handful of nonrepresentative places. Our new "normal" is being defined by young knowledge workers in Western tech hubs who assume that everyone needs things like constant calendar notifications, email in their pocket, news alerts, etc. It's getting hard to remember a time before those things were normal — it's now sort of assumed that everyone should run their lives like a Silicon Valley designer or engineer.

Fascinating, and worth a listen.

The Generosity of Making

For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?

Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

This quote is about making food, but I think it goes for making anything: artwork, music, or even an app.

It’s easy to get caught up in the abstract side of what we do, but it’s so important to remember that behind every email answered, line of code committed, and pixel pushed are the people we’re doing it for.

Radical Technologies

I’ve been reading the book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield, and I thought this quote insightful, on how smartphones shape our lives:

It’s easy, too easy, to depict the networked subject as being isolated, in contact with others only at the membrane that divides them. But if anything, the overriding quality of our era is porosity. Far from affording any kind of psychic sanctuary, the walls we mortar around ourselves turn out to be as penetrable a barrier as any other. Work invades our personal time, private leaks into public, the intimate is trivially shared, and the concerns of the wider world seep into what ought to be a space for recuperation and recovery. Above all, horror finds us wherever we are.

I started reading the book a while back, but life got in the way and I’m finally picking it up again. It’s a breakdown of how nine different technologies are reshaping the world in invisible ways, from how the Internet of Things promotes a worldview of “unreconstructed logical positivism” (the belief that everything can be perfectly measured, and thus perfectly controlled, and human bias can be eliminated) to how smartphones make us nodes in a network, rather than discrete individuals.

Most books in this genre are either too optimistic or too pessimistic for my taste, but this one is neither technophilic or technophobic. Also unlike most books in the genre, it doesn’t read like a BuzzFeed article (“You won’t believe how these 9 technologies will make your life awesome!!!”)… it feels more like something Marshall McLuhan would write.

All-in-all, it’s been a lot to chew on, and I’m left with the feeling that it’s an important read. It’s certainly changing my understanding of the technologies that are coming down the pike. I’m a particular fan of the chapter titles, which sum up the thesis of each chapter and contain gems like:

  1. The internet of things: A planetary mesh of perception and response
  2. Digital fabrication: Towards a political economy of matter
  3. Automation: The annihilation of work

With a last name like Greenfield, it’s no wonder the author writes about high technology.

How to Find a Book to Read

Reading is the best.

I grew up reading a ton — one of the benefits of being an only child, and of having been born in the days before YouTube and Buzzfeed existed to divert one’s attention — and loved the sensation of sinking into a good book. You’d open up page one, find yourself gripped by the story… and emerge hours later, unsure of where the time went. You’d have knowledge you didn’t have before, or empathy and understanding for minds other than your own. Books can change you.

My reading fell off in college; there are few things that can suck the magic out of a book like someone forcing you to read it. But the past several years, as I try to counterbalance the mental effects of working on the web, I’ve been reading a lot more and rediscovering the joys of a good book.

Here are some thoughts on how I read , why I read, and how I find books I’ll enjoy. Your mileage may vary.

How I Read

  • I prefer paper books to ebooks, because I find my retention dramatically decreases if I’m reading on a screen. I suspect it has to do with the topography of the page — words on a physical page are tactile and have a location in physical space, whereas on a screen everything appears in the same ever-changing glowing rectangle.
  • I make heavy use of the library, and generally only buy books that I think I’ll want to have in my personal collection. The exception is the two books a month that I get gratis from work (thanks, Dwell!)
  • I use the online library catalog a lot, and hitting the “Request Book” button scratches the same itch as “Add to Checkout” on Amazon. Much cheaper, too.

I generally leave the library with three or four books at a time, with some diverse offerings to make sure that I can switch gears if I feel burnt out on any one book. I like to switch up the topics I’m reading about, too, so I don’t get caught in a rut. I know some people like to dive deep into a single subject at a time; I like to dabble, and see how connections form between the different subjects in my head. Maybe that makes me a dilettante; I prefer to think I’m just well-rounded.

Why I Read

There’s a difference between reading to read and reading to have read — in other words, reading for purpose vs. reading for pleasure.

Most fiction, I read to read. Much nonfiction, I read to have read. I’m trying to close the gap between the two — ideally, everything I read would be for pleasure, and not solely because I want to accumulate the knowledge therein.

I find that there are three reasons I typically read a book:

  1. For pleasure — the mere enjoyment of reading.
  2. To grow my breadth of knowledge — to expose myself to something new.
  3. To grow my depth of knowledge — to expand my knowledge on a subject I already know something about.

Most books check at least two of those boxes. Some books — Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example — checked all three. That book deepened my knowledge of some ideas that I’d already encountered through Michael Pollan’s writing, introduced me to broader knowledge of sociology and anthropology, and was also a magnificent romp of a read. If I read it again, it’ll be for the sheer pleasure of it.

How I Find Books to Read

I keep a running list of books I’m interested of reading. It’s currently tracked in Things, using category headings to keep things organized, but anything will work.

It’s a flexible list — I add books liberally, remove occasionally, and feel no pressure to read everything on the list (good thing, too, since it’s got more than 80 items now). I just want a way to keep track of recommendations and interesting-sounding titles so I always have something new to read.

I also go off-list very often; if I see something interesting, I’ll read it. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s systemized every aspect of his life… that seems like a surefire way to suck all the joy out of it.

There are four ways I typically find books I’m interested in reading:

  1. Personal recommendations. If someone I know recommends something to me, I always put it on the list.
  2. Podcasts. If a podcast I like mentions a book, or has an interview with an author, I’ll often add it to the list.
  3. Other books. If a book cites another book, and I’m interested in going deeper on that subject, I’ll consider adding it to the list.
  4. A random walk through the library. Sometimes I like to just wander the library and look at the shelves. If a title or cover pops out at me — boom, new book to read. I’ll occasionally do this with a shelf I rarely visit, just to see if there’s some new subject I may be interested in pursuing. It feels like browsing the course catalog at college again — full of possibilities.

I try not to pay much attention to Amazon’s recommendations because I know they’ll be books that I like… which means they’ll probably be books that reinforce my existing taste. I’d rather broaden my taste by reading a wide variety of books than get into a rut by reading the same sort of thing over and over. I do have genres and authors I keep going back to, but I want to supplement those with non-obvious choices that no algorithm would think to recommend for me.

Bonus: A Few of My Recent Favorites

  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt/Theodore Rex/Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Biography)
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (Geography, Sociology, Anthropology)
  • Cooked, Michael Pollan (History, Food)
  • Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (Science Fiction, Weird Fiction)
  • Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (Science Fiction)

Leaving Twitter

I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago. Before leaving, I removed Tweetbot and Instagram from my phone — anything with a feed, really, including Slack and email etc.

As expected, my mind felt clearer almost immediately. Without Twitter close at hand, I lost the constant urge to see what’s going on elsewhere. Without Instagram ready to go, I stopped unconsciously evaluating every moment for how well it would look on my Story.

Coming back, I’ve decided to end my relationship with Twitter for good. It’s been almost ten years — I started in college, quit after a little while, and then rejoined again. (All part of my usual love/hate relationship with all things social.)

Things were good back then. I followed lots of web people, and learned about things like web standards. There was less vitriol and more collegiality, less corporatism and more direct access to real, interesting people.

In many ways, Twitter kicked off my career. It’s how I discovered the people and publications that taught me my craft. It’s where I first connected with The Industry, which would be my first real contribution to the design community. It’s how I’ve found and referred work, and met people who’ve been influential in my professional life.

Part of the joy of Twitter was its openness towards third-party clients. Don’t like twitter.com? Use a different app.

I’ve been a loyal Tweetbot user for a long time. Even as Twitter switched to an algorithmic feed, and added Moments, and added advertising, Tweetbot felt like the old Twitter.

It was well-designed, chronological, and sane. Even before Twitter had built-in muting, I had robust filters on Tweetbot that would filter out almost anything political, histrionic, or otherwise obnoxious. It made Twitter feel more like the early days.

Of course, this story ends predictably — Twitter changed its policy towards API access, severely crippling Tweetbot and its ilk. No more automatic timeline updates, no more activity tab. They clearly want everyone to come back to their subpar first-party apps.

So with that, I’m done with Twitter. If it’s a choice between using Twitter in its current form — poorly-run, blood-pressure-raising, user-hostile — or not using it at all… well, I choose not using it at all.

There are other reasons. I don’t like what Twitter does to my brain. During periods when I’ve been using it heavily, I can feel a shift towards thinking in Tweetable phrases.

I want to think in paragraphs, not sentences. I want my brain to pursue complex trains of thought, not quips designed to maximize engagement.

For the foreseeable future, I’m turning Twitter on autopilot. It’ll publish links to my blog via a Zapier integration, but I won’t be posting or checking otherwise. I’ve pinned a link to my email newsletter, which I’m resurrecting for anyone who wants to still get updates from me.

Yes, this will shrink my reach a little (not that it was exactly huge to begin with). But better to have a handful of followers who truly care than a multitude who won’t notice if I’m no longer in their feeds.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d rather have my thoughts archived on a corner of the web that I own, rather than homesteading on some company’s land.

My priorities will never line up with Twitter’s. If I have something to say, then, I’d rather say it here.