May 7, 2020

The Shifting Signals — Will We Show Off Differently Post-Pandemic?

If we consider the possibility that everything we do is about status-seeking, do world-changing events like the COVID-19 pandemic shift the signals we try to give off in order to match new values?

The Primer on Signaling

In his breakdown of signaling, Julian Lehr references the book The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler and specifically two key arguments that it makes:

  1. That most of our everyday actions can be traced back to some form of signaling or status-seeking.
  2. Our brains deliberately hide this from us and others.

The ‘signaling’ aspect of this dynamic implies that many of our actions have the deliberate effect of showing off with the aim of increasing our social status. Lehr lists three areas to illustrate:

  • Consumption: luxury items or not, we conspicuously certain products and from certain brands to illustrate our values overtly, whether or not we believe in the values communicated. We may wear athleisure for instance, but do we actually care about fitness?
  • Charity: the difference between whether we actually care about the causes we support or at least just want to show we care a lot.
  • Education: despite the widespread availability of (free) knowledge, there is something to be said about the continued emphasis on reputable schools and standardized metrics of evaluation (that might have little to do with actual competence)

Regardless of the specific area, his article makes the case for how we unconsciously strive to communicate certain positive things about ourselves through our actions, however obliquely we might act.

Paying for Amplification

Things get trickier when we start to look at the way we signal through software and other digital channels. We might be able to show off pictures of our new physical purchases on our feeds, but we can’t quite signal as effectively with a web subscription like you would niche magazines, though we suppose you could show how seriously you’re taking cooking now by posting a New York Times Cooking subscription.

Regardless, for most digital experiences where the barrier to entry is the same for everyone, you can only stand out (and it’s assumed you want to) by paying to amplify your signal, whether that means being able to send more or longer messages, getting access to other networks, or even something cosmetic that shows you can afford to seem different.

More Noise on the Horizon?

Ana Andjelic explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has killed the modern aspiration economy — of which signaling undoubtedly plays a big part:“In less than a fortnight, it exposed the vulnerabilities of trading in social, cultural, and environmental capital. ‘Access over ownership’ and ‘experiences over possessions’ make great sense if there is access and experiences to be had.”

The crisis has certainly cut off previous pathways of signaling because going out and living it up with reckless abandon has become shameful when compared to the last decade. Does this then mean that our signaling inevitably shifts its weight to different values to boast about (such as health, generosity, and social responsibility over individualism and going against the grain)?

Will the pathways for signaling shift to digital if the consumption of physical experiences never comes back the same? Could the online landscape start getting a little noisier with louder signals from new beacons that just discovered themselves in quarantine? According to Andjelic, it’s already happening with our decisions to self-distance or not.

The Takeaway

This topic has been one we’ve been mulling over a lot recently. In Making It Up #121, Eugene and Charis discussed the role nature/nurture play in signaling, and whether certain products we consume have inherent signaling baked in through the way they’re produced and marketed. For example, while a high-end hand bag is meant to convey quality and luxury, does this message get lost when people buy it because of an influencer’s messaging?  We’re inclined to think (or hope) that most of what we do is the result of at least some part hedonism in that we do stuff because we enjoy it — and not necessarily because we hope we’re gaining social recognition points in the process.

But since we’re only human, we do acknowledge that there are many things we do unconsciously that are neither right nor wrong, but that something else decided for us. Even knowing that this much is true, is there a way we can act genuinely without signaling?

March 19, 2020

The Case for Usability and Accessibility

Accessibility and usability are often confused and used interchangeably. We break down the difference between the two and make the case for accessibility being a positive design constraint.

The Difference Between Accessibility and Usability

We’ve previously talked about Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface Design (1994) could apply to emerging technologies like VR to create more immersive experiences, but before and we consider the potential for creating, we should also consider that those exciting new experiences can’t be enjoyed by many people who’d otherwise want to.

This is because usability and accessibility are related but not interchangeable:

  • Usability: concerned with “user-friendliness” in that a given interaction is designed so a user can easily figure out how to negotiate that interaction (and remember how to do it) — while deriving a feeling of satisfaction.
  • Accessibility: in the context of the Internet, the World Wide Web Consortium defines web accessibility as encompassing all disabilities that affect access to the Internet such as:
    • auditory
    • cognitive
    • neurological
    • physical
    • speech
    • visual

Something could be very user friendly for an even broader population of users, but it can’t be user-friendly for additional segments of that population because it’s not accessible to them (i.e. not even usable). Just as importantly, web accessibility also accounts for people without what might be defined as legal disabilities (such as temporary injuries) and situations that otherwise affect usage for everyone (loud environments or sunny conditions). In short, accessible design means designing for all.

Compromise Versus Constraint

If we recall the seven principles of Universal Design, we find that accessible design is really an outcome of good design in general. The Interaction Design Foundation relates each principle to accessibility as follows:

  • Equitable Use: accommodates users with diverse ability levels
  • Flexible Use: ambidextrous to accommodate right and left-handed people
  • Simple, Intuitive Use: simplified and structured delivery of complex information and prompts that help complete the task
  • Perceptible Information: make vital information readable and reinforce it redundantly such as using both pictures and text
  • Tolerance for Error: arrange and configure elements that minimize accidents such as making sure someone could only book something in the future
  • Low Physical Effort: reduce tedious actions
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use: accommodates different types of bodies and mobility ranges

Yet not just obeying these principles but taking them to the next level to increase accessibility needn’t be seen as a limiting factor, but as a constraint. As Jesse Hausler says:

“Accessibility will not force you to make a product that is ugly, boring, or cluttered. It will introduce a set of constraints to incorporate as you consider your design. These design constraints will give you new ideas to explore that will lead to better products for all of your users.”

The Takeaway

Given the sheer volume of potential users of a publicly available digital experience like a website or app, the emphasis on accessibility in those contexts is understandable. However, it’s important to also realize that accessibility applies beyond those contexts. It’s a mindset of allowing more people to use and enjoy what you’re making in a way that absolutely does not play into the risk of “if it’s for everybody, it’s for nobody.”

In a competitive environment where we have to stand out or target specific niches, that will still be possible and a challenge regardless — “boring” is a consequence of comprehensively boring design or marketing, not because of maximizing accessibility. Besides, we’re already moving past the importance of surface-level “delightful” design towards design that favors user experience, which inevitably should include the experience of diverse users.

As long as we continue to emphasize accessibility and inclusion in designs for people, especially in non-digital contexts such as fashion, we’re going to see more and more options of how innovative (and sustainable), beautiful and accessible design will look and feel. This means new avenues of creativity and innovation. Whenever we get that combination right, humanity benefits and the designers that find it will get paid.

March 12, 2020

Balancing Tradition and Progress — On Becoming Cultural Editors

Tradition and progress are in perpetual conflict and today is no exception. Each period of historical tension forces us to ask tough questions about the beliefs we’ve held for a long time and whether they’re worth changing or not. We make the case for creatives becoming the cultural editors of the groups they’re part of.

Generational Habits

Tradition is frequently defined as the transmission and observance of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. These offer, among many things:

  • Continuity: traditions give us at least one way to add structure to our lives. For those of us who don’t live close to family, the holidays still hold gravity that builds anticipation and draws us back to them at key times during the year. What would life be like if we had no traditional holidays or if we stopped commemorating special occasions?
  • Community: many traditions and rituals stem from group interactions and over time, observance of and respect for them can strengthen bonds in a community through shared experiences.
  • Inspiration: traditions are intertwined with history and beliefs that inspire us, our work and our lifestyles. Without them, the absence of traditions or strong connection to them that has led people of this generation to look to the past of their own and of other cultures to fill the void. And where it isn’t necessarily culturally specific, people are also forgoing cosmopolitan big city life for simpler traditional lifestyles.

However, as we’ve seen throughout history that’s echoed itself in today’s events, tradition and the sway that comes with it has drawbacks too:

  • Impractical: many traditions if executed to a tee are time-consuming, laborious or expensive and have since been shortened. Anyone who’s ever supplemented (or replaced) a festive meal with store-bought or delivered food is aware of this.
  • Used for different agendas: the defense of “it’s tradition” or the longing for “how things used to be” has and continues to be used by populist movements to set the clock back on areas that tie into social progress and tolerance. It also goes without saying that many traditions are grounded in beliefs that are problematic.
  • Unpopular: shifting mindsets and priorities have meant people don’t see the value in certain traditions anymore or they’re drawn towards more popular things instead. For one, American millennials are breaking the cycle of leaving and returning to religion after key life events.
  • Unethical: for whatever benefits they may confer, a lot of traditions require committing acts that are no longer deemed ethical such as the preparation of certain foods like shark fin and foie gras.
  • Restrictive: For example, people take up family businesses — or are forced to — in order to “keep the chain going.” This means a person loses their agency and freedom in the name of upholding a legacy. Of course, there are many other more severe and restrictive cultural and religious practices still common around the world.

Put simply, like many of our own personal habits, traditions are “generational habits” that can be helpful or harmful according to not just the people affected but their historical context too.

Traditional vs. Technological

We might not normally think of traditions as innovation, especially with traditional methods or design, but many of them were just that at the time they were invented. Relied upon and reused for enough decades, they become regarded as “traditional,” even if they continue to be useful today. The difference is because of progress, they can be revisited and benefit from:

  • Mass production: mass production means production can scale easily where, for example, essential but rare ingredients at the time might be easier to produce now.
  • Acceleration: many methods once done by hand or with animal labor are accelerated by being done by machines and robots.
  • Stacking: traditional methods can benefit from technological advances in other areas that when stacked together, improve the whole process.
  • Globalization: being able to source expertise, equipment and ingredients from around the world makes it possible to revive certain traditions in places where it’s no longer feasible.

With today’s emphasis on sustainability and doing more with less, researchers and innovators are looking back to the past to rediscover forgotten ways to solving age-old or modern problems — what we might now consider “traditional methods.” The renewed attention paid to our food supply and production that followed backlash against mass production of our food, for instance, has breathed new life into traditional ways of producing, purchasing and consuming food.

These events show us that traditions needn’t always be regarded as permanently outdated once their “heyday” has passed any more than we regard our current methods as the very “best” just because they’re the newest.

The Question of Utility

While we’re discovering traditions that are proving more useful to us than some of the things we can come up with today, this is where we get to the hardest question surrounding traditions and the cultures they influence: do they have to be useful?

After all, most of the actions in our waking life is composed of habits that are not necessarily the most utilitarian — and we know this, but still go about our days anyway. Similarly, we don’t necessarily hold the “best” or purest beliefs that would improve our lives, but we go on believing them and acting on them simply because we’re used to it (and because we’re forgivably human).

Just like us as individuals, cultures still practice traditions that for outsiders, aren’t inherently useful or even make any “sense.” And that’s okay. Just as our quirks make us unique as individuals, the diverse traditions of different cultures make them unique in the greater community of humans.

If we were to only protect and retain traditions based strictly on the basis utility or even enjoyment, there’s a high chance we’d eventually end up with something of a hedonistic monoculture. However, just as we have the individual power to adopt, shape and discard habits, we also have the power as members of a given culture to do the same to traditions new and old.

Our Generation’s Role

Not everything in the past is “backwards” and aspects of it can be more forward thinking than we are now, but at the same time, traditions can also get in the way of progress or worse, attempt to undo it.

Yet abandoning traditional beliefs and methods completely risks us throwing all of our eggs into one basket — even if that means believing solely in science and the objectiveness of reality — which closes off several doors to community, experience and inspiration.

As a generation of creatives that are able to bridge different cultures and subcultures, we have more power to influence the direction of their conversations and movements than we think. Part of our role as members with deep-seated interest and knowledge means we get to decide what mix of values is important to remember and pass on to the next generation — or what’s best left to the history books. In other words, we get to audit and propose “edits” to culture if not embody them ourselves.

As cultural editors, we have to ask ourselves what traditions (and the beliefs that go with them) are worth keeping and which should be abandoned? How can some be updated but retain their character? Which are useful, and which aren’t but we should hold cherish anyways? And lastly, how can tradition and progress continue to work together?

As a revolutionary technology, blockchain offers a lot of benefits for different industries, especially the creative economy. Sure it’s been synonymous with scams and extreme market volatility, but at its core are a few ideas that can benefit the creative industries.

March 5, 2020

Embraced, Deployed and Discarded — Do Murals Risk Becoming the Next Graffiti?

As more cities embrace mural art to beautify themselves and jumpstart economies, where does graffiti come into play? We unpack the complicated dynamics that include shifting perceptions of quality and the interplay between public art and community.

The Spectrum and the Perpetual Argument

We have to look at the different visuals and terminology in play and some (loose) definitions:

  • Hate Speech and Slander: Symbols and script, damages the surface, more overtly targets a vulnerable person or group of people.
  • Vandalism: Hastily and amateurishly scrawled words, graphics or even a fill. Meant to deface the surface and the act can be meant to target a group, person or idea.
  • Graffiti: In the popular understanding, refers to popular and historical styles associated with tagging, especially through spray paint, though the manner used to create graffiti differs. Most often done without approval.
  • Street art: Like everything above, street art is often created in public without the requisite permission, but includes any manner of styles or mediums including three-dimensional work not confined to a wall.
  • Murals: Often refers to the size of the art, which is often two-dimensional and covers most if not all of a wall. Increasingly commissioned.
  • Public Art: Like street art, not confined to a specific style or medium, but created by an artist commissioned by an authority and executed on a space that has the relevant approval.

It’s because of the fluidity of definitions that allows different publicly executed visual art to be packaged differently. Understandably, there’s a lot of endless debate and confusion between what constitutes vandalism, graffiti and street art and every other point around them.

Malleable Perceptions of Quality

Graffiti predates murals as a historical counter-cultural means of expression commonly associated with urban and underprivileged youth, and its perceived “edginess” has been appropriated and discarded as needed by commercial interests.

The case of 5Pointz , a former complex of run-down factory buildings turned exhibition space in Long Island City, Queens, New York City. That conversion happened in 2002, when building owner Jerry Wolkoff commissioned spray-paint artist Meres One (Jonathan Cohen), who helped 5Pointz become a renowned place where street artists could paint legally. But in 2013, Wolkoff had workers whitewashed the over 10,000 paintings there to make way for demolition and the construction of condos.

While the landmark USD $6.75 million lawsuit against Wolkoff was recently upheld, that doesn’t replace what street artists need aside from money: space. As Claire del Sorbo reports in in a Fresno Collective story: “Many of them found work for property owners looking to beautify their buildings, but only under the condition that they would paint aesthetically pleasing murals instead of their trademark graffiti.”

Granted, graffiti was largely seen in a negative light by wider society since its beginnings, and even today, criticism of the art form either writes it off as straight-up vandalism that costs a community or takes specific aim at its trademark style, which is deemed ugly or threatening. But the new commercially and civically-fueled favor given to muralists and their styles — along with the resulting economic displacement of graffiti writers — means there’s going to be hierarchy of styles guised as “quality assurance.”

“It is quite clear that murals are being treated as the solution to graffiti,” says del Sorbo. “In doing so, they are not only helping to gentrify neighborhoods, but murals themselves are a gentrified form of graffiti.”

That comparison is an apt one, especially when we consider the possibility that murals could become what they were meant to replace. In some cases such as the global mural festival POW! WOW!, their influence has been largely a welcome addition to the community as it celebrates its 10-year anniversary. For others, the murals aren’t so clearcut. Columnist Marc Holberg thinks that even in Philadelphia, where its civic embrace of murals means thousands across the city, there needs to be some direction when dishing out that freedom to create on public walls:

“Too many of the newer, trendy ones don’t seem very warm or inviting. I’m not feeling much heart or warmth from this cool (if not cold) blend of graffiti, tattoo art and sci-fi, absolutely beautifully rendered for sure, but oh-so deliberately quirky and edgy and ambiguous. And sometimes, as we see above, deliberately unsettling. Art should move you. But public art shouldn’t move you away. It should enhance our municipal feng shui, not diminish it.”

Ensuing Standoffs

When public art moves into a community, it’s sometimes at odds with the celebrated event we’d imagine. And as our valuations of graffiti and murals as well as of permissible and illegal art become rigid, there’s going to be all sorts of potential in-fighting across different dynamics:

  • Developers vs. residents: Buying out or tearing down homes and businesses for new projects. Alternatively, this could involve commissioning street art to beautify or revitalize an area.

  • Client vs artists: Nothing new, but even when artwork is commissioned, a lower perception of value means there are brands that will try to get the street cred of graffiti for free somehow.
  • Residents vs. artists: Some long-time residents of a community (who might have their own collective art projects) can be concerned when demand for more public art means a draw for more creative types, which impacts the character or economics of that area.
  • Local vs. non-local artists: These long-time residents of a neighborhood can include artists themselves who might not take favorably to the influx of non-local artists who don’t understand the area’s history and dynamics.
  • Graffiti writers vs muralists: When muralists are chosen (or not) to create work in areas frequented by local graffiti taggers or bombers, there’s another layer to the “local vs outsider” dynamic. Most graffiti writers are self-taught while a lot of commissioned muralists might be formally trained. This means there’s not only a dynamic of institutional versus grassroots artists, but also a conflict between words and images.

Graffiti writers, muralists and street artists who’ve been in the game for a while know the unwritten rules of how to respect each other and share the playing field such as by not marking over their peers’ work (for the most part).

The point is that artists that use public surfaces to create — either out of preference or necessity — are categorized based on decisions from largely non-artistic entities. These decisions inevitably connect back to the threat and fear of gentrification displacing long-time and disadvantaged residents or not (another hotly debated topic). 

The Takeaway

One of our previous Analyses on the importance of diverse graphic icons highlighted the importance of space — when something is given a share of limited space, it’s given a platform. As Erika Kim puts it in her original Noun Project article, “Quality representation and visibility in these spaces — especially public or highly visible space — implies legitimacy and value, which translates to influence.”

By no means should everyone be forced to go digital (where space is also restricted, according to Kim) to ensure a continued place to create, but there’s also a limit to what physical space can handle in the eyes of the public in terms of quality and content. 

As more cities hop on the mural art trend as means of economic development (such as in Detroit), it’s going to take a desire for consensus between creatives, communities and cities to ensure there’s always room to paint, the space looks great — and that the mural art of yesterday doesn’t become the graffiti of tomorrow.

March 2, 2020

It's not Game Over yet — The need for utopian narratives

As popular fictional narratives about a bleak future seem to leap off screens and pages and into reality, it’s never been more important to consider that all is not lost. We look at why dystopian narratives are popular and why we need to re-invest our imaginations in utopian ones.

The primer on dystopia

Dystopia isn’t necessarily always about the nightmarish doomsday scenarios that dominate popular media like where AI, infectious disease or natural disasters have gotten out of control (that’s apocalyptic fiction). Instead, the word simply describes “a bad place,” a society that’s largely functioning but has basically lost its way so much that it sucks to live in it. Most of the time, this is brought about by a society’s ruling powers that exert unshakeable influence on:

  • Economics: where rigid controls on the economy create huge class divisions.
  • Family: where entire families and even the definition of “family” is systematically controlled.
  • Religion: where faith becomes either a basis for persecution or for oppression through a theocratic government.
  • Identity: the expression and actualization of an individual’s essential being are strictly controlled.
  • Violence: as an institutionalized means of maintaining control or “balance” à la Battle Royale or The Hunger Games.
  • Nature: nature including animals (and human instincts) are centrally controlled.

Without the more visible (and easier to dismiss) high-concept apocalyptic images we see in film, TV, and games, it’s easy to see alarming developments in some societies that resemble what was depicted in dystopian literature written in the past two centuries.

Why we’ve been here before

If you do find yourself looking at dystopian or speculative fiction, you’re going to find prolonged conflict — an essential element for most stories and arguably what helps them sell. And this hasn’t just been the case recently, it’s happened several times in the last century. Yvonne Shiau details the motivations that drove several successive phases of dystopian fiction in Electric Lit:

  • The genre is defined (’20-30s): George Orwell and Aldous Huxley would explore themes that would regularly appear in the genre, each touching on a different fear. Orwell feared our destruction at the hands of the powers that be, Huxley at the hands of our own comfort and complacency.
  • The threat of war and technology (’50-60s): The end of World War II inevitably fueled speculation about World War III and worse outcomes. Major technological advances like the first satellite, the invention of the first personal computer and the Turing test for intelligence in computers fueled authors’ suspicions about technology.
  • Corporate impact on our bodies (’70-90s): Public concerns shifted from war to other issues such as the environment, economics and the impact of private corporations on how we value and perceive our bodies. Works from this period include The Handmaid’s Tale and Neuromancer (which gave way to cyberpunk).
  • Youth against the world (’00-10s): The genre becomes heavily associated with youth and their conflict with the cruel world gone awry, possibly following in the wake of events such as 9/11. Works like The Hunger Games are adapted and continue to fuel renewed interest in the genre.

While dystopian fiction has regularly allowed us a way to explore our fears about the future, the issue is that those narratives have the capacity to be pervasive enough that they become self-fulfilling prophecies when people accept them as inevitable. And when they dominate the media discourse and thus the mainstream public consciousness, it will inevitably seep into ours as well despite all our attempts to think critically — or optimistically.

Why we need to imagine utopias

All of these factors point to one overarching angle: it’s mentally expedient and commercially viable to imagine more pessimistic outcomes, especially when those themes are already present around us. And as Eleanor Tremeer points out in her Gizmodo article, we never get to see “what happens after the victory,” when our protagonists triumph over evil and a new age begins. Arguably, doing that takes as much effort as it does imagination. But it’s not impossible.

One of our biggest tools in fighting the urge to worry lies in the fact that yes, “we’ve been here before.” Our recent Editor’s Letter touched on history’s capacity to repeat itself (or at least “rhyme”) with our emotional reactions following suit. This is true in the sense that every generation has feared the “end of the world” only to see it lead to another generation where the ensuing prosperity (or at least improvement) makes us forget what happened last time.

As creatives and artists, it’s often our job to tell stories and tell them in certain ways. But we also have the ability to tell powerful new stories and create new realities through our work that doesn’t yet have a perceivable basis in reality. We just have to ask ourselves, “what does the best case scenario look like,” and then temper that with reality and the relevant constraints.

The Takeaway

As humans, we’re naturally susceptible to worry as much as the next person — and there’s certainly a lot to worry about these days. But history has shown that every generation has confronted fears of the world headed for an untimely end, and eventually recovered. Without being able to live those phases in history and see the ups and downs, it takes a lot to resist the urge to internalize our current dread that no, “it’s for real this time. We’re screwed.”

So then, what’s the cure for despair? Some of the solutions we once dreamed of may no longer be feasible in their current state due to our current considerations of sustainability or ethics, but that’s no reason to abandon those trains of thought outright.

Instead, it might be helpful to view utopia and dystopia as push-pull forces that lead us forward: We might not be able to avoid all of the bad on the way, but we can absolutely imagine a future that isn’t just ‘okay’ but in fact, great. As one Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton) famously put it in Terminator 2: Judgement Day: “There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves.”

February 27, 2020

Hype and Shame — What our aversion to poetry means

It’s a pretty widely accepted idea that most people don’t like poetry, but why is that? More importantly, what does its evolution mean for that medium and for our aversion to art forms that we couldn’t access before?

Why people typically don’t like poetry

Most people who don’t like poetry can list a few reasons such it being snobby, meaningless, difficult or unremarkable. So, how did it earn such an ignoble reputation? Poet Rebecca Roach contextualizes this modern aversion to poetry in six factors:

  1. Dubious cultural value: beyond simply being “culturally important,” schools don’t instill students with the importance of poetry.
  2. The classics are over-taught: despite the value in their universal timeless themes, the same classics and lines are taught so much that their novelty and their importance wanes.
  3. Self-aggrandizing: Roach refers to the tendency of commenters on poetry to inflate their language in a way that deliberately makes poetry seem harder and creates barriers to discussion.
  4. Dogma: students there is only one correct way to interpret a given line, metaphor or message (likely again, because classics and the like have already been extensively researched to form crystallized conclusions on meaning).
  5. High Expectations: poetry’s historical reputation means people those writing it as a personal outlet have high expectations for it to accomplish something.
  6. Shame: whether someone’s trying to teach, understand or produce poetry, Roach says in the American context, the high standards wrapped around poetry plays into a general culture of shame and being “not good enough.”

In short, the intersection of tradition, education and shame leads to only two possible and very limited takes on poetry: “the problem is with poetry” (it’s too pretentious) or “the problem is with me” (I’m not smart or cultured enough).

How it’s evolving

Despite the inherited baggage behind poetry, like many other arts, it’s evolved with the times and with technology in a way that’s changed its reputation and made it more approachable:

  • Length: instead of almost 7 stanzas of 4-6 lines, some poets now employ only 8-10 lines (or less) for a single poem, making them shorter and sweeter.
  • Structure: modern poetry sets aside a lot of the form and structure conventions of the classics including rhythm, rhyme schemes.
  • Subject Matter: the subject matter has expanded beyond the popular nature and epic themes of the classics to include happenings in modern life that also emphasize social issues.
  • Platforms: poetry now has greater reach thanks to social media as shown by Rudy Franscico, who gained a following through Instagram.

As you’d might expect, these changes in the art form is also bound to trigger claims that it’s also “dying” with particular criticism directed at the rise and current popularity of unstructured free verse and the focus on seemingly mundane personal experiences. Not surprisingly, it’s a familiar new school vs. old school clash we’d find in any search for “the decline of (insert art form here).”

What is “poetry” to you?

At the end of the day, poetry is just another means of thoughtful expression through words, much like its much more popular sibling prose. Unfortunately, our pre-existing notions of what it is and who it’s for — possibly combined with some negative experiences — have closed off entire branches of the art to most of society.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a poet or style of poetry for you, just that you’d have to dig for it and nothing, least of all poetry’s existing “image,” should stop you. Sure, it helps to eventually lean into the history, accumulated wisdom and yes, even some of the existing baggage, but there’s nothing wrong with starting to enjoy a medium on your own terms — something we can thank our highly personalized online experience for.

The same applies outside of poetry: each of us has that creative medium that resembles “poetry” to us, something we love but everyone hates and vice versa. For one, we’ve talked about how Eugene, an admitted non-appreciator of music, had a very unexpectedly strong reaction to a moving live performance.

He might not be taking up piano anytime soon, but it’s at least one positive if random experience on the board. At the small cost of withholding our expectations (and unlearning what we think we know), we’re bound to find genuine appreciation and then some.

February 10, 2020

The uncanny resemblance in editorial and product illustrations

Thanks to the ubiquity of tech products, we’re all familiar with the flat colorful illustration style that accompanies them and now, many other situations that call for illustrations. How did this style get popular and how did it spill over into editorial drawings too?

What the style is

In his blog Subtraction, graphic designer and former Design Director for the New York Times Khoi Vinh calls the style “safety minimalism” and tracks this trend on a Pinterest board aptly titled “monoculture illustrations.” This style is defined by its particular approach to:

  • Colors: range from primary to bright pastels
  • Figures: clean drawing, and frequently rendered with vectors
  • Details: highly abstracted
  • Shading: geometric if used at all
  • Composition: minimal with occasional limited elements in the background

Khoi summarizes the style as having a sense of infantile simplicity despite the fact it’s used to “depict grown adults doing ostensibly grown-up things.”

How we got here

It’s not necessarily clear when or how this trend started, but Jared Long of The Startup for one, thinks it could go back to a renewed interest in screen printing along with a departure from vector-based 3D skeuomorphic (meaning to look more photorealistic) designs back in the early 2010s. At this period, the move towards a flatter aesthetic was to stand out, as most things do before they become popular.

Since then, however, the style has become widespread and has a particularly strong association with tech products, particularly due to efficiency. This makes sense given that doing illustrations this way ticks off the following:

  • Approachable: the “safeness” of safety minimalism means the illustrations are easy to understand and approachable, which is important for tech products that are more complex. It’s also worth mentioning that simple graphics are much easier to animate as well, which also play into the accessibility factor.
  • Adaptable: the simplicity of the style means it could be executed in-house, where designers could theoretically learn to imitate the aesthetic if not adapt it from readily available stock assets. Designing it digitally also removes the unpredictability of analog mediums, allowing for precision and creative control.
  • Economical: saving on the time of researching and hiring an illustrator with a particular style as well as the cost of producing large amounts of the illustrations needed.

Vinh suggests that the illustrations could, in fact, be handled by the same designers that also designed the app they were promoting versus a professional illustrator. All that’s required is the same tools available to every designer: a vector drawing and an image editing app. “Everything in these illustrations is very carefully controlled and moderated, with nothing left to chance,” Vinh says. “That, whether intentional or not, says a lot about these products.”

The jump to publications

In a Quartz article by Anne Quito, she echoes the aforementioned factors that have made the “flatter, sharper, and arguably more generic” illustrations ubiquitous, but also adds others that explain how the style also increasingly appears in publications:

  • Versatility: simpler graphics not only scale better on all types of displays, they tend to load faster as well.
  • Deadlines: digital illustrations are (assuming they’re layered and organized) easier to make modifications to, allowing illustrators to address client requests faster.
  • Taste: flat illustrations have always appeared in publications. Qito cites the influence of graphic designer Ikko Tanaka’s clean shapes in the 1980s, considered “a pleasing counterpoint to the scrapbook punk aesthetic of the decade.”
  • Social Media: in the article, illustrator Xiao Hua Yang points out illustrations that are well received on social media will inevitably spark curiosity into how they were made.

However, Qito concludes that it is in the end, all about economics, citing a 2018 global survey of over 1,400 illustrators by Ben O’Brien where 70% of them believed they couldn’t survive on drawing alone. Further, she found that New York magazine, when adjusted for inflation, paid 30% more in the ’70s for smaller spot illustrations than what they offer today.

The Takeaway

Despite the fact we see this flattened visual style everywhere, this is by no means an indictment of the style itself and especially not the people who produce it, whether it’s their personal style or they create in it out of necessity. After all, if it ensures a regular stream of income, why not?

Unfortunately, what we see as current trends are often the four-way collision of economics, audience and client tastes, increasingly sophisticated digital tools and the needs of creatives. There’s no shortage of homogeneity around us whether it’s Instagram, cafes, or just general bits of design.

We recognize illustrators and other artists creating with the stroke of a pen, brush, stylus or mouse have the unique power to create very appealing and specific visual images by themselves and often without having to leave their workspace. Through their work, they have the ability to bring us deeper into text stories that would otherwise be passed up by today’s shorter attention spans that are compounded by declining literacy.

For that reason, despite our emphasis on photos, we’ve made efforts to employ and fairly compensate illustrators to create work in a style that values their abilities as much as their time. This has ultimately helped us to tell better stories that might otherwise not have been possible with any other medium. As such, we’ll close by inviting you to check out some of our stories that have been visually brought to life by Charis Poon, Jeremy Leung, Joan Wong, Naomi Otsu and Jonathan Jay Lee.


February 3, 2020

Do culture and nature evolve in the same way?

A recent study argues that culture actually evolves very slowly — at almost the same rate as nature. But does cultural evolution work so neatly in our current culture?

The Study

In a recently published study titled The pace of modern culture, a group of British researchers used metrics designed by evolutionary biologists to compare the rates of change in a species of bird, two kinds of moth and a snail to:

  • Popular songs: They reviewed Billboard Hot 100 songs from 1960-2010.
  • Cars: They tracked changes in the traits of cars sold in the States between 1950-2010.
  • Literature: They also looked at American, Irish and English novels published between 1840-1890
  • Clinical articles: articles from the British Medical Journal published between 1960-2008.

Their conclusion? The two evolve at about the same rate, which means according to Armand Leroi, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London and one of the researchers on the study: “We are surprisingly conservative about our choices, and what we like changes very slowly.”

He also likens cultural artifacts to organisms in that they evolve and survive according to whether conditions are hospitable to change or not: “When we make something new, be it a scientific paper or an artwork, we take that thing and throw it into the world and it either lives or dies,” Leroi says. “Its success depends on whether people want it or not, just like natural selection.”

Despite the results, however, Leroi is not concerned about the speed of evolution so much as demonstrating the potential to use tools from one field (in this case, evolutionary biology) to study and track changes in another such as culture.

The other side

Arizona State University human and cultural evolution professor, Charles Perreault holds a different view. He concluded in 2012 that human culture actually moves 50 percent faster than biological evolution. This applies even when controlling for the phenotypic plasticity (the ability of an organism to change in response to its environment) of species with shorter lifespans. Basically, these sorts of species can “iterate” faster and more often over these shorter intervals, but Perreault argues that our cultures still evolve faster in our longer generation times (measured in spans of 20 years).

In his abstract, he also contrasts the biological “vertical” sharing of genetic information (through reproduction) with the transmission of information in culture:

“While cultural information can be transmitted from parents to offspring, it is also transmitted obliquely, between non-parents from a previous generation, and horizontally, between contemporaries. This transmission mode gives cultural evolution the potential to spread rapidly in a population, much like an epidemic disease.”

The Takeaway

Looking at how culture evolves through this lens certainly draws some interesting parallels that support both arguments: for one, the culture of a given society can be slow to adopt change even if it’s constantly exposed to different stimuli and yet it also has the potential to disproportionately influence another or more societies.

We’ve seen the rise of “strong” and “viral” culture exerting undue influence throughout the world, which would lend some troubling evidence to cultural evolution’s problematic origins that followed shortly after the emergence of Darwinism. Is it really a matter of the loudest, most popular (and most funded) culture that survives?

One thing we’ve discussed at length is the idea and impact of media fragmentation. It’s harder than ever to get people on the same wavelength because there’s literally an infinite number of wavelengths for you to tune into. This makes the consolidated sharing of ideas much more difficult than ever.

While history has shown many unfortunate tendencies of this, the power of technology has the power to both perpetuate this trend and amplify smaller, lesser known cultural products and ideas to exert disproportionate influence (to “reproduce”) elsewhere. If these dynamics could be reduced to a science, should we be trying to hack the formula to get the results we want, or should we willfully “devolve” and let cultural nature run its course?


January 20, 2020

With all of our tech, why are we still so short on time?

In the technologically advanced first world, we somehow still haven’t reached this expected utopia when it applies to our mix of work and leisure. With all the time-saving resources at our fingertips, why do we still feel starved for time?

Three theories on time starvation

Writing for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson offers three theories of why Americans are finding themselves short on time. Unsurprisingly, they all relate to work and society has been here repeatedly throughout history:

  • Better technology = higher expectations: Inventions like automated washers and refrigerators meant better standards for cleanliness and food preservation, but meant more time re-invested in buying more clothes (larger loads) and more trips to the supermarket for fresh produce.
  • Class and status maintenance: our fear of downward social mobility through a loss of status, class and future income means we are constantly working to ensure we and, if we have or decide to have children, that they don’t face the same.
  • The powers that be, set the standards: the government sets policy, policy sets the workweek, bosses set the workload. All of these are carried out independently of technological improvement or stagnation.

Thompson also explains that underlining a similar discussion on the lack of time is the ongoing push and pull between Self-Helpers and Socialists (or put another way, individualists and collectivists). The former believes everyone has the ability to “solve their problems and can reduce their anxiety through new habits and values” while the latter holds that “all modern anxieties arise from structural inequalities that require structural solutions.”

Contentment needs to follow

For those who already enjoy a degree of financial stability but still find themselves feeling starved for time, there is at least one answer: contentment. We have to ask ourselves if we’re okay with what we have or if we’re okay to “do a little worse than the Joneses” if it means having more free time and the freedom to actually enjoy it.

Technology has both the power to make our lives easier but also to put us ahead in the race; how we use this power is up to us. For instance, if you found both habits and technologies that accomplish your main work in half of the time, what would you do with the remaining half saved? If you feel compelled to fill that half with a new task and then used the same means to halve that time, you’re left with some extra time yet again, albeit significantly less to allocate to leisure.

And what about our status? Are we comfortable with the social cost of no longer investing time and money in the same activities as our peers or worse, suggesting new ways of doing things together that might be seen as boring or dumb? If you feel your personal relationships wouldn’t survive downgrading the elaborate network of time-consuming image maintenance, this might also be able to explain those feelings of time starvation.

The Takeaway

Regardless of what causes the anxious sense of being without enough time, it’s important to realize that society has been here before through history with each major shift in culture or technology. To be fair, there will always be people who want more and will happily do more to get that.

But for those where the ‘want’ isn’t coming from a deep-seated conviction and more from of a more pervasive case of FOMO, it becomes what’s been called time famine. Without honestly addressing our own personal intents and actually pushing back against culture with our decisions, that famine risks starving us before we realize we’ve already had our fill.

January 13, 2020

Small audio big change — the impact of headphones and small speakers on our music

With listening experiences now emphasizing the small and the intimate, how does that factor in how music is produced now? We take a glimpse at how the prevalence of headphones and small speakers have changed music.

The Small Speaker Effect

Nowadays, we bring music with us everywhere we go and it’s not hard to find at least one friend at a gathering who brought a portable Bluetooth speaker. The ubiquity of not just these personal speakers but also the even smaller ones we find in laptops, tablets and smartphones means music production is catering to lower common denominators.

In a Quartz article by Dan Kopf, he notes some of the key technical impacts:

  • Drivers: Drivers are the key component of sound devices that emit audio. Quality varies, but it’s safe to not everyone is an audiophile and therefore uses cheaper headphones with lower quality drivers. Further, integrated speakers in a laptop aren’t usually that great simply because there’s no impetus to improve on them.
  • Highs/Lows: Because of the limitations of lower-quality speakers, they can’t accurately reproduce the treble and bass (high and low frequencies) that were mastered in the studio. The result is unpleasant and harsh sounds.
  • Reduced Dynamic Range: This means songs are mixed with less dynamic range, and that music production involves testing with smaller speakers such as on smartphones to see if the sound is still perceived as loud or present.

The Podcast Effect

The rise of the podcast as well as listening for therapeutic effect has emphasized privacy and a sense of intimacy around our listening habits, which of course, means a greater role for headphone and earbuds. In an article for The New Yorker by Amanda Petrusich, she points out some of the effects on music production, which again, cater to the needs of the listener:

  • Performance: he notes Selena Gomez and Billie Elish’s tendency to sing closer to the mic almost as if whispering (not unlike ASMR, cut less potentially creepy).
  • Lyrics: the cultural emphasis on the personal narrative means songs might be trying to make “one-on-one” connections between artist and listener. Petrusich notes the highly personal, introspective and confessionary lyrics of Drake and Kanye and wonders if headphone-centric listening encourages certain music genres.
  • Privacy: In a similar vein, she references former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (who wrote How Music Works) on how certain music genres encourage headphone usage because well, no one necessarily wants to blast their overly emo, offensive or sensual music tastes for everyone to hear (and judge).

The Takeaway

Unsurprisingly, music as a medium is going through shifts directly impacted by the way we experience the world more privately, through smaller personal devices including smartphones. This isn’t too unlike the decision to stay at home and watch certain genres of movies while we’re only willing to go to movie theaters for big epics.

But aside from just being a matter of personal preferences (to which the music needs to adapt, as it always has), there are, of course, negatives that include the real physical dangers of constantly tuning out the rest of the world as well as early hearing loss for both listeners and the people mastering for headphones.

Yet, on the other hand, headphones could simply be a necessary adaptation in an increasingly noisy and distracted world and as mentioned before, can invite us to look inward (which isn’t always a bad thing).

Unless you’re an audiophile, you might not care if the sound of music dramatically shifts as long as it sounds fine and gives you what you need. But just like the risk of going through life wearing rose-colored glasses, there is something to be said about spending too much of your day with a drastically altered soundscape in your ears.

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