I usually save everything Sam Anderson writes for print, but I highly recommend listening his recent profile of Laurie Anderson, because it contains a wonderful intro that’s not in the original piece, explaining how Anderson has a list of 5 questions she asks to figure out whether what she’s working on is any good or not.
“Prêcher le faux pour savoir le vrai.” (“Preach the falsehood to know the truth.”)
I was on Twitter the other day (my first mistake) and I was thinking about how weird it is that sometimes if you ask a direct question there, almost nobody replies, but if you throw out some dumb opinion, you’ll get hundreds of replies.
For example, if you wanted to know about some good science magazines, you almost shouldn’t bother tweeting, “Does anybody know some good science magazines?” instead, you’d be much better off tweeting, “there are no good science magazines” and waiting for the reply pile-on of everyone ready to prove you wrong.1
It turns out that this phenomenon is called Cunningham’s Law: “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.” (A relative, for sure, of “Why wasn’t I consulted?”)
The writer Kevin Donnellan tested out the law and reported his findings in “I spent a week being wrong online.” The results were a bit inconclusive, and it’s worth noting that Ward Cunningham, the law’s namesake, denies its paternity, and claims it is a “misquote that disproves itself by propagating through the internet.”
What seems even more valuable is taking the position of the idiot, ignorant, but curious.
Here’s @tcarmody again:
besides getting people riled up, claiming ignorance is a good way to overcome people’s “they must already know about X” rarity threshold. They don’t think they need to be special, obscure, or original in their replies
I like this idea quite a bit — getting answers not by asking others to be experts, but by positioning yourself as a total noob…
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) August 30, 2021
* * *
- @tcarmody suggested “there are no good Ys besides X” as a good construction that gets results.
“Look out honey ’cos I’m using technology
ain’t got time to make no apology”
—Iggy Pop, “Search and Destroy”
Here is an illustration from my book Show Your Work! riffing off of John Lennon (“I’m an artist, man. Give me a tuba, I’ll get you something out of it.”) and Brian Eno (“A lot of my ideas start with looking at a tool and thinking what else you could do with it other than what it was intended for.”)
I was much more optimistic about technology in 2013 than I am now, and as I age, I struggle to maintain my curious elder ethos while also feeling that I need to focus my finite amount of energy and time on the inquiries I’m already making and the tools I’m already using. (In other terms: exploring vs. exploiting.)
Tik-Tok, for example, makes me feel ancient. I see many cool uses of it, but none that I’m sure I want to spend any time on. This weekend a good friend of mine, an artist, was trying to explain NFTs and crypto to me, and I felt like I was talking to someone in a cult!
Knowing what’s worth spending your time and attention on is half the game in life, and, for better or worse, and probably because I’m privileged enough to hustle a little less than I used to, I tend these days to err on the side of technologies that have been around for hundreds of years, technologies like paper and pencils.
The fact of the matter is, McLuhan was right: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
Technology is not just about things and devices, it is about processes and verbs. So you have to be a little careful about what technologies you adopt, because each technology is, broadly speaking, a way of doing things.
Much of my thinking about technology has been influenced by my readings of Ursula Franklin, Neil Postman, McLuhan, Ivan Illich, The Amish, Thoreau, etc., and a whole shelf-full of books my wife read in architecture grad school when she was studying Science and Technology Studies (STS).
One of the contemporary thinkers I find inspiring on the subject is L.M. Sacasas, who publishes a newsletter called “The Convivial Society.” Sacasas was recently a guest on the Ezra Klein Show, talking about his 41 questions concerning technology. Here are the first 10 questions:
1. What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
2. What habits will the use of this technology instill?
3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
4. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
5. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
6. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
7. What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
8. What practices will the use of this technology displace?
9. What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
10. What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?
(These questions, btw, would make an excellent structure for a book, something I hope Sacasas will consider.)
Neil Postman had his own questions for a new technology:
1. What is the problem to which technology claims to be a solution?
2. Whose problem is it?
3. What new problems will be created because of solving an old one?
4. Which people and institutions will be most harmed?
5. What changes in language are being promoted?
6. What shifts in economic and political power are likely to result?
7. What alternative media might be made from a technology?
And Wendell Berry, in his 1987 essay, “Why I am NOT going to buy a computer,” had a list of standards for adopting a new technology:
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
When I first read that list, three years before I wrote Show Your Work!, I wrote:
Berry is a farmer, practicing an ancient form of work. That is, he’s doing work that’s already been done before. Artists aren’t farmers: we’re often looking to do work that hasn’t been done before. That is, when we see a new tool, we don’t automatically think, “Well, what does it do?” we think, “Well, what *could* it do?” How could you push the tool to come up with something really interesting? (Think David Hockney and his iphone.)
How callow I was! Now I realize that some artists are farmers and some artists are pirates, and we all operate on a kind of spectrum. In the early days, I felt like I was more of a pirate, and these days I feel more like a farmer, tilling my little plot of land. (Or, okay, a pirate gardener.)
One thing I will say about these lists: they are written as a way of fortune and future-telling and anticipating what a technology might do. But you often don’t know the answers to a lot of the questions until you adopt the technology.
So it might be worthwhile to adjust the tenses of some of the questions, and use them to re-evaluate the technologies you’re already involved with. So, for example, Sacasas’s first question, “What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?” becomes “What sort of person is the use of this technology making of me?”
When I first started writing the thing I most wanted to know from other writers was: “How did you get published?”
Then, it was: “How do you write?”
Now, it’s: “How do you read?”
All reasonable questions, but I should’ve asked them in the opposite order.
(And, always: “How do you get health insurance?”)
Yesterday I was on the phone with a music producer I know. He’s starting an interview series with other producers and wanted to know if I had ideas for good kinds of questions to ask them.
I thought this was an interesting question itself: Is there a set of questions for creative people that are always interesting?
Much depends, I think, on the audience, and whenever I interview someone, I try to find some Venn diagram of what I’m interested in that the interviewee would be interested in that the audience would also be interested in.
Some things I came up with:
2. Storage and retrieval: How do they capture and keep track of ideas? Do they keep a notebook? Voice memos? (I recently read that Phoebe Waller-Bridge writes ideas down in a big draft email on her phone.)
3. Daily practice: What their day-to-day routine is like, any rituals they have, favorite tools, etc. (See: Daily Rituals.)
4. Troubleshooting: Overcoming block, what people do when things aren’t working. Weird tricks and constraints they come up with. (Example: Oblique Strategies.)
5. Hobbies: What people are interested in outside of work, how they recharge, how they spend their time away from the studio.
6. Personal life: What their parents did, how they grew up, did they go to school, did they like it, what they wanted to be when they were younger, etc.
7. Collaboration: I’m not much of a collaborator, honestly, so I’m interested in how people warm up to each other, the balance between making things comfortable and getting people “out of their comfort zone,” how much of your own aesthetic and ideas you inject into a project.
This last item was particularly funny in hindsight because this morning my son, Owen, who’s a budding music producer at the age of seven, asked if he could listen to a piano track he asked me to add to one of my songs.
“Yes, but I’m not sure if it’s any good,” I said.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he said. “If it’s not good, I’ll make it good.”