Prison and Paradise

18th Century Instagram, Collab Houses, and WFH

In my collections is an oversized, wooden key.  It’s not an actual key, but it was once attached to one.  I accidentally took it home from a compound of bungalows in Tanzania.  Situated on the coast of eastern Africa, the bungalows promised what we in The West imagine as one type of paradise.  Sandy beaches, warm waters, and tropical drinks under a straw hut.  Instagram hovers this perfection as a #passionpassport.

Our trip was nothing like that.  Torrential rains flooded the bungalows.  Malaria-wielding mosquitos swarmed bed nets.  Showers pumped salty waters straight from the sea.  Mosques blasted calls to prayer at all hours of the day.  Overpriced food and warm lagers were the only things around to consume.  The wooden key reminds me that paradise is a marketing strategy.  At least now, we have the Fyre Festival documentaries to prove it.  

Paradise wore many masks over humanity’s existence.  Religious tomes preached it across stone and paper.  Paintings and sculptures dangled it across civilizations.  Before Instagram, there were landscape and cityscape paintings in the 18th century called vedute.  Like early virtual reality, these sometimes were commissioned as postcard-sized for the elite to use as luxury souvenirs.  The landscapes were often exaggerated by the artist to be more beautiful or populous.  That way, the owner could boast about their exotic travels.

Social media unleashes vedute in real-time.  The “collab houses" that take over LA mansions fill their sprawling marble bathrooms with TikTok memes that tease luxury.  The dream of making millions from improvised dance videos while living in a mansion is a Gen Z reality.  From the outside, it all appears idyllic on social channels.  But when it’s your job to sell paradise on Instagram, it starts to feel more like an emotional prison.  The writer Aaron Sorkin put it this way in a recent NYT interview:

“The problem I had when I wrote “The Social Network” was that this thing that’s supposed to bring us closer together is pushing us further apart. It gives everyone the impression that everyone else in the world is having a better time, and that if you are not cataloging your life, then you’re not really living it. People are going to show you only pictures of themselves having a great time at the best party with the coolest people eating, for some reason, avocado toast. They’re also not going to experience empathy.”

FaZe, a popular e-sports agency, fills its LA estates with signed talent that are required to stream content on a regular basis from their individual rooms.  Other popular streamers, or even the CamGirls that preceded them, build their empires from their bedrooms.  In order to keep it though, they must publish regularly.  FaZe Jarvis, a former pro Fortnite player, was banned from the game after using an aimbot hack.  His defense?  He felt pressure to feed more entertaining content to his fans.  Even if that’s true, Jarvis made a bad choice and suffers the harsh consequence of losing the platform that fuels his income.  

Reality shows like Love Island: Australia, which I’m guiltily binging on Hulu, further embody the paradox.  The concept is tired: put a bunch of attractive people in a fancy house, give them some loose competitive framework, and edit all the emotional carnage into an episodic narrative.  The language contestants develop over time refer to life inside vs. outside the villa, not unlike how incarceration is communicated.  Collab and streamer houses feel eerily similar with their isolated ecosystems of work. 

“You’ll rot your brain watching that,” my Australian friend tells me when I ask him slang questions.  I learn that a “sparkie” is an electrician.  The show is actually my nightmare: being trapped inside a house and forced to socialize with others for an audience without productive work to do.

As the coronavirus enters the pandemic stage, workers able to execute their jobs in isolation are now confined to the walls of their homes.  The lifestyle of “WFH,” as companies abbreviate it, is upending domestic schedules.  Canceled schools are tasking families with remote learning, making work from home even more difficult.  Universities are evicting students from dorms and sending them home early.  Take note from writer Jenny Offill, whose balance as an author, mother, and environmentalist exhales through her body of work that I’m currently devouring.  In a recent NYT Magazine interview, she says:

“Sometimes I come out of the tumble of family life, and I think it’s amazing I have this tumble…Even as it feels overwhelming, it feels like life. I feel like I got more life than I thought I was going to get.”

There’s a palpable tumble in the air.  Especially if you’re at a Costco, where people are confusingly stockpiling toilet paper.  

My WFH life requires solitary thinking about difficult problems outside of those that are consumed by it.  When critics of big technology companies wonder why more innovation isn’t happening, it’s a pretty easy answer.  Disruption.  Not of the technological kind, of the cognitive kind.  Meetings, emails, and the dreaded “Hey, do you have a minute?” crush the deep work that often needs to happen.  

We should be learning from Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, who said in a Time interview of the late designer Gunpei Yokoi:

“It’s not that Mr. Yokoi was against new pieces of technology. Sometimes, when he would get a new technology, he would just stare at it for an entire day. For example, he had this magnetic object that would float, and he would just put it on his desk and stare at it and play around with it and really observe it. In that sense, I felt like a lot of people were able to trust him, because he was really open and keen to observe things.”

This ability to just stare at something and think undisrupted for a while is the service our firm Blue Trot Group provides.  It’s why technology clients pay us to help them solve the difficult equations of why something isn’t becoming more popular.  We have the time to think, ask people their thoughts, and digest everything into a narrative.  Our best projects result in unanticipated directions thanks to our ability to laser focus on a single question.   

As someone that works almost entirely from home, I clearly have a preference here.  I often give the example of the theoretical physicist that won a Nobel from the confines of his study, but this is confirmation bias.  Really, I just like the freedom to problem solve without disruption.

Recently, Facebook’s Oculus CTO John Carmack departed the company, noting that he was leaving to integrate domestic life into his work.  He said in a CNET interview:

“I am going to be going about it 'Victorian Gentleman Scientist' style, pursuing my inquiries from home, and drafting my son into the work”

The antiquated term “victorian gentleman” reflects the privilege of financial independence paired with a thirst to contribute.  For Carmack, WFH is a choice to still lend his knowledge to society through thought.  The debate about remote work recently ignited by the coronavirus is divisive.  Research studies show conflicting productivity gains for remote workers.  Companies also claim conflicting reasons for their spectrum of WFH policies.  

Artists don’t care either way, they’ll keep creating wherever they can.  The art machine is already paradoxical, as an NYT Magazine piece highlights:  

“part of the reason art confounds us is that it is essentially paradoxical in nature: private, mysterious, even largely subconscious in genesis but socially attuned and publicly affirmed. Reflective of this is the way in which many artists go about their work in a seasonal, cyclical way: a period of going deep in the studio followed by a period of public exhibition followed by a period of rest and reappraisal.”  

Art reminds us that paradise is not in the thing that is paintedInstead, it is in the choice to paint at all.  Streamers, influencers, and WFH’ers should view their opportunities similarly.  In Shantaram, the novel opens on the protagonist reflecting about this freedom while physically imprisoned:

“I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them…that freedom is a universe of possibility.”  

It’s easy in the tumble of life to look at that sandy beach on Instagram and think, if only.  Peer behind the veduta though, and you’ll find the cracks in its facade.  

I have the wooden key to prove it.


(Thoughts Cited)

Text:

Video:

  • Love Island: Australia (Hulu)

  • FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix)

  • Us (HBO)

Interactive:

  • Disco Elysium (PC)

  • Fallout 4 (Xbox)

  • Fortnite (PC/Xbox/Switch)

(Images Cited)

  • Image 1: Cody Karutz

  • Image 2: WikiCommons

  • Image 3: New York Times

  • Image 4: Pexels

Hello, Unrecognizable World

The Launch Post

There’s nothing I love more than suspending my disbelief when it comes to narrative.  This likely comes from being a voracious young reader, when I couldn’t wait to rip open a new Michael Crichton or Dean Koontz book from my mom’s shelf.  The pacing of a thriller let myself be swept in the story. Video games and film felt similar, I didn’t mind submitting to the illusion to feel like I could go anywhere.  Especially since our family didn’t have the means to travel much. Illusion was how I could see the world.

After spending last month in the High Sierras, I was surprised by how flimsy the illusion of wilderness felt.  I’ve spent a lot of time outside, both recreationally and professionally. As a rookie backcountry hunter, I spend a lot of time off-trail getting lost and following game tracks.  Or as a previous guide for Big City Mountaineers, I would take inner city teens out backpacking for the first time. But I have to always shift what being “wild” means on the John Muir Trail or the Sierras at large, which can feel more like a highway than a series of remote trails.

Sure, I’m in the middle of nowhere but I just dug up someone else’s human feces.  Backcountry illusion SHATTERED.

I didn’t go to the Sierras to feel wild.  I went there to support my partner, who struggles with a neurological disorder that makes walking hard.  We didn’t go out there to “thru hike” it like others or assimilate into the culture of huge mileage days.  Our speed was just our speed: an overall average of one mile an hour. We were out there to be with each other, and to face what her disability means for both of our lives together.  

Finishing the trail and emerging into Yosemite among the swarms of visitors brought overwhelming shock.  Our one mile an hour pace quickly eroded from the chaos of park gift shops and parking spot battles. Ongoing California wildfires also brought power outages, and the lengthy gas lines in rural towns outside the park brought an apocalyptic reorientation to the frontcountry.  We felt like tourists in an unfamiliar country.

With deep sadness and frustration, my mother once said to me, “I don’t recognize this world anymore.”  Every generation likely feels similarly eventually. An inflection point is crossed in technology, politics, or globalization that creates this sort of dissociation from the world.  It could happen in an instant, where you look at this pizza delivery robot in the e-face and panic with unfamiliarity.  

Millenials are now handing over the cool keys to Gen Z, where LIT is cringey and Tik Tok has surpassed Snapchat in clout at high schools.  VSCO girls rock Hydroflasks and eSports Arenas are the new LAN centers, but with Fortnite instead of Starcraft. This transition, which seemingly happened last month while I was pooping in the woods, reminds me that everything comes from something else.   

There’s a post-it center stage on my desk that says:

Everything Changes

Everything is Connected

Pay Attention

I don’t know where I stole the words from, but they help me be okay with feeling left behind.  I think back to my mother, and to older generations that did not grow up with the internet, only to remember how much harder this world must be for them.  Teenagers that win millions of dollars competing in Fortnite whilst the American middle class largely erodes doesn’t make much sense to me, either.  

It’s my job to understand how consumers change over time, and even I fail at managing it.  The first time I used an Amazon Locker, I stood paralyzed at the kiosk trying to figure out how to unlock my package.  After a few failed attempts at using the kiosk screen, I found a real human. When I approached the staff member for help, she scoffed at me and said, “Do you even own a smartphone?”  Despite being a millenial, I couldn’t have felt older. 

New stuff doesn’t come easy, but it’s easier if you remember it comes from old stuff.  My research firm, Blue Trot Group, was founded on the idea that there needs to be a bridge.  Consumers and users need bridges from what they used to know, to what they need to know with something new.  Virtual reality is a great example.  Devices like the Oculus Rift assault users with too much new stuff.  New inputs, new viewing mechanics, new expectations for media content.  I don’t have time for all that (even though it’s my job), and you certainly don’t either.  

I do have hope. Like James Baldwin once said, I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.  So I’m forced to be an optimist.  It’s my hope that all this new stuff doesn’t just get built for the people that initially use (or fund or supply) it the most.  

This essay series highlights my work and life in helping people understand the future.  We’ll pick apart gadgets, objects and trends, look back to where they came from, and try to make some sense of a bigger societal picture.  

It’ll probably be biased, flawed and messy.  I’ll quote too much Michael Crichton and Aldo Leopold.  I’ll critique Mark Zuckerberg and his dry toast. I’ll praise The Pokémon Company and The Hallmark Channel in how they have mastered the feels of change.  But mostly, I’ll just try to make the world more recognizable by pointing to the past.   

Like Leopold once wrote (I warned you!):

“How like fish we are: ready, nay, eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time!  ...Even so, I think there is some virtue in eagerness, whether its object prove true or false. How utterly dull would be a wholly prudent man, or trout, or world!”

If any of this sounds even remotely fun, let’s make like trout and shake down upon the river of time together.  Also, please share with other fish that would like to join the swim:

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(Thoughts Cited)

Text:

Video:

Interactive:

  • Fortnite (PC, Switch)

  • Untitled Goose Game (Switch)

  • Stardew Valley (Switch)

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