As I take a few weeks off from posting here at “Ms. In. The Biz” to finish some big projects, I revisited this piece and found that it still resonated – it still made me excited to be a creative and pushes me to step up my game changing work. It inspired me, even though I wrote it. So I hope it inspires you. See you in a few weeks!
I have had such a hard time beginning this post. A 1000 words have come and gone over the past few days but nothing feels quite right.
Feel…the word feel makes me think of emotional vibrations, the perfect pitch of prose or cinematic moment that resonates within me, which makes me think of string theory, which makes me think of physics- which I researched all last week if only to once again attempt to grasp quantum mechanics. Why quantum mechanics you ask? Well because it interests me, is relevant to a bunch of different projects I am writing and I because I can. I can spend the entire day on 100 different websites attempting to learn about entanglement, the Schrodinger equation, string theory, the tenth dimension, M-theory, and singularity (not THE singularity- that is for another post) I can read articles, download Yale lectures on iTunes, watch videos. The grand yet ‘quarky’ study of the laws that attempt to explain our universe (and the possibility of others) is researchable through a simple click- no libraries or lecture halls needed. And this phenomenon of the last 15 or so years isn’t relegated to simply academia. Information, data, content on almost everything, by almost anyone, is at your finger tips. All you need is a computer, smart phone or tablet and a (net neutral) internet connection…and the world and its database is at your disposal.
But you know all this right? Even if you take our digital fountain of data for granted, you know that whatever piece of information on whatever topic you are looking to find, unless it is classified (and maybe even then) you will probably be able to find it online. In a mere nano blink of an eye (ie. 18 years), human life and its components have become digitized, categorized and searchable. You quickly browse through your email, twitter, facebook and RSS feeds everyday, skimming relevant news, developments, articles that pertain to your life, your career and your social world. We are deeply submerged in an information era where we struggle to keep up, keep abreast and pinpoint what’s relevant, and then add to our personal database of life. That database, like the websites, the apps, and the data streams we consume, continues to exponentially expand, as if cells in rapid mitosis.
So how ironic when I read (but I can’t for the life of me find the article) that information itself is no longer key, it is the critical deconstruct of that readily available information, and the application of it, that is now of value. As the amount of information proliferates and the number of internet users grow and become mobile in the US and around the world, data access and knowledge is no longer a luxury, it is a given. Anyone can win at trivia these days if you have an iPhone handy, but what it all ‘means‘ is a different matter.
This notion made me laugh because in high school, my stellar grades were mostly due to my ability for rapid and massive information recall. When I got to college, however, I was screwed. It took three semesters for me to learn how to actually apply the knowledge I knew to another problem, to actually understand what the information’s macro and micro relevance was (I always prefer the macro view hence the more nebulous nature of my posts). Outside the proverbial ivory tower, however, I didn’t much care for lofty analysis. Critical thinking was relegated to the classroom, the Lexis Nexis terminal and the bar (during a wine infused debate). The rest of my life was devoid of critical thought. It just didn’t seem necessary for everyday life.
Perhaps I didn’t want to see the bigger picture. Now, I have to.
Did you know that Google co-founder Sergey Brin has a 50% chance of developing Parkinson’s? According to this brilliant article in WIRED, Brin has the genetic mutation marker for disease. He hasn’t developed Parkinson’s yet but the mutation on his KRRK2 gene suggests a 50% chance that he will. With that sobering knowledge Brin has set out to fight the odds, by making healthy changes in his life and by focusing on revolutionizing Parkinson’s research…and ultimately medical research as a whole. He doesn’t have a biogenetics or medical degree, but he is using computational science and the idea behind that powerful ol’ Google search engine to challenge the way in which medical research is done.
The classical scientific methods of research have been unchanged for centuries: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, results. In recent decades, that traditional approach has been a six year process from hypothesis (and grant application), to peer review and published results. Brin is challenging this stagnant process with his penchant for algorithms and massive data streams. He aspires to move towards ‘high-speed’ science, where the process starts not with an observation based hypothesis, but with data, massive amounts of data. And it is already being putting to use. Google has a non-profit research arm where an idea called Google Flu Trends is being tested. What it mostly entails is pulling key phrases and words from Google searches that point towards a potential flu outbreak, in real time, and it is supposedly outpacing the CDC’s predictions by a two week interval. It is successfully finding patterns in vast amounts of noisy data. As more people go online to self-diagnose, to research alternate cures, to join online support groups, even to sign up for an online diet journal or exercise program, more subsets of relevant data will be floating in the clouds for scientists to analyze, or as Brin suggests:
“Each of our lives is a potential contribution to scientific insight. We all go about our days making choices…generation what is inelegantly called data exhaust. Any experience (ie with a drug), all those things are individual pieces of information. Individually they’re worthless, they’re anecdotal. But taken together they can be very powerful”. Sergey Brin WIRED July 2010
Brin’s mission was partially fueled by research done by Jim Gray, a former database software pioneer and Microsoft researcher. Grey, before he was lost at sea three years ago (yes a bewildering true story), gave a speech where he discussed his hypothosized Fourth Paradigm: an evolving era where an ‘exoflood of observational data’ is forcing change in the scientific community as this flood threatens to overwhelm scientists. He argued that the only way to cope with it was through a new generation of scientific computing tools that would manage, visualize and analyze the data flood. Dr. Grey’s goal was distributed computing — that is clusters of computers linked — where all scientific research, data and literature — the data that is proliferating at such exponential levels, –is online and ultimately shared.
Supporters of the missing scientist have compiled essays into a book called The Fourth Paradigm where contributors stress the importance of sharing the massive amounts of data that are being produced and captured by the new breed of computer/ sensors – like the Large Hadron Collider- especially when coupled with reduced computing and communication costs.
Once again we have this idea of an exoflood of data, of information, and that we should harness the data, share it and find new way to analyze it. Dr. Jeanette Wing argued that “implicit in the idea of a forth paradigm is the ability and the need to share data”. (I’m not properly footnoting quotes so consider me sharing.) And Jim Gray, himself, argued “computing was fundamentally transforming the practice of science”.
Can computing, the abundance of data and the ultimate sharing of it transform the practice of art, and maybe even art itself?
In some instances it already has. Joseph Gordon-Levitt posits that “the creative pioneer of the new era is the DJ, the curator, the remix artist, the person who confronts the superabundance, plucks out the gems and puts them together in such a way that means something.”
For those who aren’t familiar with the Hollywood actor’s other artistic pursuits, he runs a collaborative production company called hitREcord* where people can submit, remix, and collaborate on creative productions- videos, music, graphic art, poetry, text- anything can be a ‘record’ and any member of the community can remix someone else’s work- nothing is sacred. From watching him online I can assure you that he believes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts- the end result is a licensed collab of new work where the ‘cream rises to the top’ (though its final distribution is controlled by the production company with profits being divvied out much like any webseries revenue share agreement). His brainchild is pointing to something innovative yet also reminds me of another form of online entertainment, one that definitely struggles to be recognized as art- the mashup.
Ahh, the mashup and it’s goofy step sister, the parody. From Auto-tune: The News, to the Facebook movie trailer parodies to Machinima, to Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, the mashup and parody is everywhere. It seems to be our way of commentating on art, entertainment and culture…and these videos pop up as soon as something (like the Social Network trailer) strikes an online emotional chord. These visual entities exist when content has risen through the terabytes of ho-hum and hits the masses with a bang. So is it art itself? People mashup and parody only the content that resonates, they target the material that has made millions feel something. And in giving that material on whatever level (script, music, visuals) a new spin, it might remind the viewer of the original piece’s essence, but it now adds a non-verbal commentary, often comical but not always, that layers in a new level of emotional resonance. I know we watch these videos, laugh, then click away (or look at the view counts and sigh in frustration as our carefully crafted original content has one tenth of the views…and then click away). And it’s not real art, right? It’s just a few minutes of entertainment, even if some people are monetizing it, even if there is a community of fans around it giving it their immediate feedback.
But again, it’s not art right? It’s not the crafted, arched, nuanced stories that we endeavor to tell over a number of episodes. Right, it’s not. But what and who defines art? There are quite a few (just google or bing the word), often nebulous, and almost always circular, definitions of the noun but I tend to like this one from the mother of all mashups, Wikipedia:
Art is the process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions and/or intellect.
This definition would seem to be inclusive of the aforementioned mashup and parody work, wouldn’t it? It would seem to include anything created that elicits an emotional or intellectual reaction. No definition that I found included the word ‘original’ in it (what is original anyway, everything is inspired by or derivative of something), but almost all the definitions talked about the ‘affect’ that said creation needed to have on someone, on society. Just look at the number of commenters on a popular video on YouTube…people are being affected. People are revealing what moves them and the feedback is immediate. By ‘Liking’ something, becoming a fan, writing a comment, shooting a video response…data is being created because of other data…art is getting created because of other art…and all of this is searchable.
So we can search this ever growing digital database for art — these arranged symbolic elements that move people. But can’t ‘arranging symbolic elements’ also be called ‘creating a pattern’? Patterns are what allow us to give definition to our physical life, we are who we are because of patterns of DNA. Physicists, computer scientists, geneticists all work towards deciphering the pattern…wave and particle patterns for physicists, amino acid patterns for geneticists. Sergey Brin and Jim Gray’s supporters are looking for answers to scientific questions by looking for patterns in massive data streams…find the pattern, find the meaning.
Applying this thought to our creative world, what was one of the first art projects you did as a child? You connected the dots. And in drawing lines between these seemingly random dots you drew your first picture. You didn’t know what you would ultimately find but you had faith that those points of reference, when connected, would yield something of relevance. One of the central themes of William Gibson’s book Pattern Recognition is the natural human propensity to search for meaning among patterns. The protagonist, a ‘coolhunter’, a spotter and savant of trends, searches for meaning in a set of mysterious, fragmented and surreal video clips that are appearing online. Are they part of a bigger, grandiose movie, an over-arching artistic statement…or are they simply random? I was excited to find this site last week dedicated to patterns and their creative relevance where they stated: ‘PATTERNS are not yet trends; they are burgeoning themes that result from working across diverse domains and immersing ourselves in business and popular culture.’ Immersing themselves in the stream to see what the future might bring…
Thus with the copious amounts of data that we now have access to, shouldn’t we as artists, as content creators, be taking advantage of the behemoth amount of art available to us online and looking for patterns, connecting the dots to what will resonate, to what the new present future definition of art will be?
There is a collective conscious that is digitized and searchable right now that we can’t ignore, that we have to mine Take advantage of this NOW, before the walls close in and the web is replaced by the app, by the Verizon and AT&T controlled pipes and bandwidth (please read the excellent article in WIRED on the Death of the Web if you have not already)
Technology is relentlessly affecting our day to day lives. Unless you want to move to a cabin in the woods in an electromagnetism free zone, you can’t ignore it. Yes, it’s hard to keep up, but you have to.
But bringing technology as a ‘device’ to the forefront of your creative work isn’t always the answer. Hearing a character talk about Facebook, or watch a video on their phone always falls flat for me. I believe it is about capturing and building upon the way that new technology makes us feel. That’s why the Social Network trailer is so effective. So how do we do that, create work that makes us feel in the cool and connected way technology does? If I knew specifically I wouldn’t be writing this post, I would be selling something for a lot of money. But it would probably be something along the lines of The Wildernessdowntown project or Lost in Val S’Inistra, personalized entertainment experiences, where it’s not just about the content but about the context. Don’t you feel more connected and affected by a movie or even a performance when you know the personal story behind it? That’s why DVD commentaries are always an added bonus; they give more meaning thus add to the emotional experience.
So when that added bonus is YOU, with your digital thumbprint somehow inserted into the narrative, your connection to the piece increases ten-fold, and you want to share. Yes, the technology behind the Wilderness Downtown costs a lot of money but there have to be other ways (just check out the number of personal stories in the comments on BlackBoxTV where the viewer is asked a question related to the story or theme of the specific episode).
I honestly believe that the secrets we look to unlock in how to survive and flourish as online storytellers are right in front of us. We know that money is coming into the space, that advertising budgets are returning to their pre-recession levels, and that a greater percentage of those dollars are now being shifted to the online space, as are audience eyeballs. So we must become valuable and relevant by recognizing and then deciphering (remember not just the information but the meaning of it) what the collective conscious living in this digital landscape is telling us. We have to immerse ourselves to find it…and share our finds. The powers that be haven’t done it yet. The web doesn’t recognize their status so the PTB are quick to dismiss it. But we can venture in to the matrix, connect and then become discoverable. If you already have a great idea, don’t shut yourself off and work on it in a vacuum. Use the copious amounts of information and stimulus at your fingertips. Go online. Research, then research more, follow the odd, mysterious trail you find yourself on, connect with other artists. Push past your original idea and see what else it can become. Be your own mashup artist, or a renaissance multi-hyphenate by educating yourself in something that has nothing to do with your work…and everything to do with your art.
See the big picture. Find the pattern, find the future.
Now one of you please go and write the algorithm.
Be back soon
(Or better yet, share your thoughts…this post craves some conversation)