So much of my design career has hinged on writing. My first real exposure in the design industry came from writing opinion pieces for The Industry; my first job in a design agency came after the CEO read something I wrote and asked if I’d be willing to sit down and talk.
I’ve been writing less lately, since product work takes up most of my day and I jealously guard my personal time otherwise, but it feels good to see something I wrote in-the-wild occasionally.
A section of the Florida coast has suddenly, inextricably reverted back to nature. All traces of human
life have begun to degrade, and the region — now behind a shimmering border of unknown origin — is only
accessible via a hole of indeterminate size and stability.
A government agency known as the Southern Reach has been sending in expeditions to determine the cause and
properties of the phenomenon. Each expedition has failed, plagued by disappearances, deaths, cancers, and
mental trauma. We pick up with the Twelfth Expedition, comprised of four women known only by their functions:
the Biologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Psychologist. What they encounter inside the
phenomenon (known as Area X) can only be described as weird.
That’s the beginning of Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy by author Jeff
VanderMeer. The trilogy is stranger and more unsettling than can be conveyed in those two introductory
paragraphs. VanderMeer is a writer of weird fiction, picking up the mantle left by authors like Edgar
Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
It’s hard to pigeonhole the trilogy into a particular genre. It’s science fiction, I suppose, but only in that it’s
fiction that involves science. I’ve heard it described as “bio-horror,” which sort of fits, since it deals a lot with
bizarre and macabre elements of biology: animals that appear to be plants. Plants in the shape of humans. Weird
chimeras of unknown origin.
VanderMeer has crafted a world that’s so fully-realized that leaving the book feels like waking up from a dream. It’s
been two months since I put down the last book, and I still find my thoughts drifting back to it.
The lighthouse. The brightness. The strange fate of Saul Evans.
There’s a movie adaptation of Annihilation coming out starring Natalie Portman, and I probably won’t see it.
It’s not that I don’t want to. I loved every page of the Southern Reach trilogy. But it was also the most unnerving,
dread-inducing, existentially horrific book I’ve ever been unable to put down. VanderMeer is an expert at creating
a tone of mystery permeated by fear and dread. There were parts that made me nauseous. There were parts that made
me short of breath. I have no desire to see those things brought to life on-screen.
There’s also my fear that the trilogy can’t be properly adapted into film. So much of Annihilation takes place
in The Biologist’s head, and so much of it involves being able to make connections between words and phrases
and thoughts in the character’s interior life. For a book so thoroughly about the nature of communication,
something’s bound to get lost in translation.
Finally — and this is even though Jeff VanderMeer himself has given the movie his seal of approval — the movie was
written based on the first book alone, ignoring the second two in the trilogy. The trilogy was released over the
course of an 8-month period, and functions as a cohesive whole. The first book is informed by the second and third,
so creating a standalone work without understanding the latter two makes it a different thing than the books. I suspect
it will be more of a tonal successor than a strict adaptation.
I loved the Southern Reach trilogy, but I also don’t know if I can recommend it outright. As with any media, I think
it’s wise to consider how it will affect you: Will I be a better person for reading this?Will reading this be
time well spent?How will this affect my spiritual life?
Had I known how disturbing the book would be, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen to continue reading it.
On the other hand, had I predicted the richness of the experience, I don’t know if I could have chosen to do otherwise.
I’ve always preferred to use different devices for production and consumption: I like to use the computer to create things and do work, and my tablet/phone to consume content (read articles, watch Netflix, listen to podcasts, etc).
I don’t like to muddle those two modes — it’s too easy to get sidetracked. If I use the same screen for production and consumption, it’s far too easy to start working and find myself on YouTube, or reading Hacker News.
Recently, I decided to divide up those tasks further. I don’t want to use my phone for consumption anymore, but just for communication. As I wrote previously, I want to embrace boredom, stay aware of my surroundings, and not feel compelled to spend every moment consuming information.
With that in mind, here’s the new division of labor between my devices:
Macbook Pro — Writing, design, code, etc. Anything industrial-grade related to work.
iPhone — Communication. I removed Tweetbot and Instapaper, and reinstalled Moment to remind me if I’ve spent more than 15 minutes using the phone for anything besides its intended purpose.
iPad Pro — Consumption. I’ve got Tweetbot, Reeder, and Instapaper installed (plus the usual video services). If I want to read, I’ll do it here.
It’s working well so far, but it’s only been a few days. Keeping the division sharp between those modes of thinking feels cleaner, somehow, than using every device for every purpose.
One heuristic I find useful for making decisions is: will this increase or decrease my optionality?
In other words, will a given decision open up the range of future options available to me?
I have a friend who lived, for several years, off of 50% of his salary. This gave him several options that most of us don’t have:
Each year he worked gave him enough money in the bank to spend a year not working, while maintaining the same quality of life. (Or, in his case, working entirely on personal projects without drawing a salary).
He could take a much lower-paying job without having to adjust his lifestyle. If he found a job he was passionate about that paid only half his current salary, he could take it without downsizing his life.
Conversely, if someone is living off 100% of their salary, their options for other jobs are constrained — they either need to find work with equal or higher salary, or they need to downsize.
Debt is the prime example of a constraint on financial choices. If I take out a loan, it may increase my short-term optionality (I have more immediate funds to work with), but decrease my long-term optionality (a larger chunk of my income is now devoted to repaying debt)
Money is an easy example, but there are plenty of others:
If I have a pet, will it constrain my ability to travel?
If I take on volunteer commitments, will it constrain my ability to spend time working on a side project?
If I take a trip and plan out what I’m doing every hour, will it hamper my ability to make choices in-the-moment and do what seems interesting?
I suppose this is all related to opportunity cost — time and resources are finite, so we can’t do one thing without reducing our bandwidth to do other things. Optionality is about understanding your priorities.
It strikes me that life is largely built around choosing where we’re comfortable reducing our available options, in order to open up more options.
I choose to work a full-time job because, even though it reduces my available time by 40 hours a week, it increases my available resources to spend on the other 128 hours.
I choose to work on my side projects because I value them more than I value whatever diversions I could spend that time doing.
At any branch in the path, though, I still find it useful to ask myself: will this increase or decrease my range of available options?
Most of us live in a constant state of Continuous Partial Attention.
Rather than focusing on one thing at a time, our attention is constantly scattered among a variety of sources, each of which
only has part of our focus.
We’re at work, but we’re also keeping tabs on a text chain.
We’re reading a book, but we’re also checking Twitter or Instagram every two paragraphs.
We’re in a conversation, but our eyes keep flicking up to the TV on in the background.
Maintaining a state of Continuous Partial Attention is rarely a choice, but our current media environment seems specially designed
to keep us in that state. We keep our phones in our pockets like a totem, our hands and minds constantly reaching for them as soon
as we feel the mildest itch of boredom.
We can no longer bear to be doing nothing. We can’t just stand in line, waiting, without checking some other source of information.
We’ve sacrificed solitude — not even true solitude, but just being alone with our thoughts — at the altar of being Always On.
Checking our feeds makes us feel like we’re in control. Really, they’re just making us scattered and docile.
Ironically, it’s this same media environment that’s connected to the massive upswing in jobs that are considered “knowledge work.” And knowledge
work requires more dedicated attention than other jobs. It’s hard to write, or code, or design without reaching a state of flow. And yet the things
we’re writing, coding, or designing seem best suited to preventing others from reaching the same.
A professor of mine used to say:
You can’t use a hammer without getting a callous.
What’s the callous our current tools are giving us?
###All this is to say:###
I’m tired of never being fully present. This week, I’m issuing myself a challenge: only do one thing at a time.
If I’m eating, I want to be eating — not reading or watching Parks and Rec or doing something else at the same time.
If I’m working, I don’t want Twitter on in the background. Or Slack. Or email.
If I’m watching TV, I don’t want to be on my phone as well.
You are the framer of the Constitution in this world that you are building. You are the Abraham in the series of begats.
I’m a big fan of Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale.
In the most recent episode, featuring Caterina Fake (of Flickr fame), they discuss how cultures form in online communities.
Social networks become their own “civilizations,” and the founder is “the Abraham in the series of begats,” carving out
the culture and mores which will define the community.
This idea has been on my mind a lot since I launched the Hudson Valley Talentbase.
The early tone of the community sets the tone for the entire project — attract trolls early, and it becomes
a platform for trolls. Shut them down, and they’ll congregate elsewhere.
Talentbase is still young, and there are only a handful of users that I’d consider “active,” but I’m already seeing
the seeds of what the community could become. Some users are engaging with the platform in interesting and unintended
ways — using the “Post Your Work” feature to post nascent ideas, for instance, or using it as a blogging function. The
norms are already being set. I’m no longer the one controlling the experience — I’m just setting up the framework and
watching how users interact within.
My fear of setting the wrong tone early was part of the reason I first launched it as an invite-only platform. I wanted
the initial population to be made up of people I trusted, and the people they trusted, so that I could establish
Talentbase as a place to showcase high-quality work and have high-quality conversation. Hearing two well-pedigreed
social media founders discuss this exact idea is validating.
Some other ideas I found interesting from the episode:
Towards the beginning of Flickr, there was a large userbase in the United Arab Emirates, but also a large
number of photos of Britney Spears with a bare midrif. Those turned out to be mutually exclusive populations —
by allowing the midrif photos to continue, Flickr caused their UAE userbase to migrate elsewhere.
There’s no such thing as an objective platform. Every online community stands for something, based on the
rules it chooses to enforce, but only some communities know what they stand for.
Every founder of a social network understands what lines can’t be crossed. Only some of them vocalize those
boundaries and codify them for the rest of the community.
Near the beginning of Flickr, Caterina Fake made a point of greeting each new member personally. This is a great
idea for making a community feel personal (though I’d be tempted to automate the initial contact, and then respond
personally to those who answered.)
It’s food for thought for anyone starting an online community. What tone are we setting, and how will it
propogate throughout the platform?