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?
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.