Curation trumps creation in a connected world

[Originally posted elsewhere November 2011]

We have become accustomed to being astonished nearly every day. Without even exerting much effort, we are exposed to the most amazing feats of strength and agility on YouTube videos, and read about the most outrageous exploits of men, women, and children the world over.

And why not? We have the entire world’s events at our fingertips to choose from. The Internet has made it possible to disseminate interesting and astonishing content with such ease, that none of us give it a second thought. In other words, the sample size has increased from a single village to all the villages in the world.  This is largely because the tools of creative capture and production have been put into the hands of ordinary people the world over – the cameras that most of us carry around in our pockets, attached to our phones, are more powerful than any cameras on the market were just 10 or 15 years ago.

The result? We have become completely accustomed to being astonished.

I happen to believe that many of these “astonishing things”will continue to be astonishing no matter how many other amazing things we encounter, because they tap into our innate beliefs about the ways that the world should work. When we see or hear something that conflicts with these innate understandings, astonishment is the result.

However, there is probably also something like “astonishment habituation”. In much the same way that the quiet hum of a fan in the room disappears after we are exposed to it for a minute or two, we are so used to astonishing things that the nearly amazing does not register quite the way it might have otherwise.

One really important result of this is that it’s very difficult as an individual contributor to astonish an audience on a regular basis. In fact, those that are most successful at astonishing audiences do so by honing a single astonishing feat and repeating it over and over again, rather than astonishing the same audience time and time again.

In this environment, being a creator of interesting things is a difficult proposition. However, with such an explosion of interesting things to sort through, the job of filtering for the truly astonishing is an important one – curation really matters.

The bottom line – unless you have an astonishing act that you can take, circus style, from town to town, maybe the best role for creative types today is curation, or finding amazing things that touch you in interesting ways and sharing those with some commentary with others.

The end of vintage as we know it

Instagram became the photosharing site bought by Facebook for $1 billion not by helping its users produce the most realistic photos of the world, but by supplying users with filters that serve mainly to reproduce the feel of vintage photos. In our nostalgia, we go out of our way to avoid reality rather than trying to reproduce it perfectly.

And this kind of nostalgia isn’t limited to photos – anyone who has paid any attention to music over the last 30 years will easily be able to pick out the vintage sound of the 80s or 70s. Modern bands go out of their way to reproduce these sounds.

What’s more curious to me is that everything we consider to be vintage – to be evocative of an earlier era – seems to have looked or sounded the way it did because of the limitations of technology at the time.  The good people at Polaroid who made the first instant cameras probably weren’t trying to create images that were oversaturated, with fading at the edges.  I have to imagine that they were trying for perfection, and oversaturated images with fading at the edges was just the best they could do with the technology of the day. Sometimes I forget that the 70s wasn’t an oversaturated decade – it just looks that way based on the photographic evidence.

This idea holds true for music as well – when the first keyboard synthesizers were created (think 70s classic rock or 80s pop), they had certain hard technological limitations.  So they were capable of just a few sounds, like the square wave, which most of us will recognize immediately as a staple of 80s pop or the only sound most early computers were capable of making. Another early limitation that defined the sound of the era was that early synthesizers were only capable of playing a single note at a time (which is to say they were monophonic).  This led directly to the classic sounds of bands like Rush and Steve Miller (listen to Rush’s Tom Sawyer at about 1:32 for a great example of monophonic, square-wave based sound). Contemporary musicians who want to reproduce these sounds have polyphonic synths with filters and settings that make them mimic the limitations of earlier monophonic synths.

So what I’m curious about is where we go from here.  If vintage is all about viewing or listening through the filters of old and imperfect technology, and new technologies have allowed to to essentially reproduce reality perfectly, what kinds of images and sounds will evocative of 2013 in, say, 30 years from now?  Or is this the end of vintage as we know it?

Making deposits in the cultural bank account

The news today that Marissa Mayer is considering buying iPhones for every Apple employee reminded me of an idea I’ve had for a long time about the importance of culture.

While business culture is instrumental in helping businesses not behave like sociopaths (more on this in another post), it’s also a huge intangible asset when it comes to helping a company navigate hard times.

Generally speaking, hard times bear a cost that needs to be offset.  The same group of employees in a company that is the darling of the stock market are much less happy if the same company is the dog of the industry — and the only way to prevent attrition is to offset the “cost” of negative concerns with benefits like extra pay or better hours.  This is at least one reason why garbage collectors make reasonable salaries – there has to be an offset for the perceived negatives.

There are, however, other benefits that can be put to work that don’t cost a company as much money.  My favorite by far is great culture.

It has been my experience (and surely the experience of many, many others) that its possible to navigate otherwise impossibly tough times when the culture is strong.  At Clickability we survived through two massive downturns that decimated our industry, largely because we invested heavily in culture.

I began to think about culture as an account that we paid into over time.  The more we focused on building culture, the bigger the account became.  And we were incredibly grateful we made those investments, because we actually had to draw down on them during tough times — we were able to ask employees to make some sacrifices and didn’t lose any key personnel as a result.

So how full is your cultural bank account right now?  What’s stopping you from making some more deposits?

What would Borges tweet?

I was first exposed to Jorge Luis Borges in college, where I read most of the stories in Labyrinths instead of spending time on any of the other classwork I had that quarter. It was the first time I realized you could write fiction about ideas.  I was spellbound.

Among my favorite stories was the “The Library of Babel,” which conjures a fictional library that contains every possible permutation of a book that fits certain constraints (each and every book in the library has 410 pages, and each page has a fixed number of characters, including spaces).

Because every possible permutation of the book exists in the library, some magical things result.  As is the case when an infinity of monkeys bang away on typewriters for all eternity, most of the books are pure gibberish.  But (by definition) there also exist copies of every story ever written in every language in history; and likewise copies of this blog (come to think of it, if I could comb the library easily, it might improve my posting rate).

“The Library of Babel” relies on at least one fancy trick of language — that a finite number of symbols and ideas can be assembled to represent concepts that are infinite (any linguists in the audience care to comment?)  It works because the universe Borges crafted is finite, but the atomic units (characters) can be assembled into something that feels infinite.

But why 410 pages and (say) 25 lines per page, and (just guessing here) 80 characters per line?

Why not update the idea in modern terms and reduce the universe to just 140 characters?  In other words, what happens if we rethink Borges’ “Library” in terms of tweets?

Well, here’s what we can say more or less definitively:

  • Twitter is pretty serious about the 140 character limit.  So we have to stick with that.
  • We have a limited number of “choices” as to what character can be put into each available slot in the tweet, but its a little hard to figure out exactly how many choices we have.  Twitter says that it counts characters based after a tweet has been normalized to something called normalization form c.  That’s all fine and well, but what does it really mean? Well, it looks like there are 109,975 graphics characters defined in unicode, which is a lot.
  • The total possible number of tweets is therefore 140^109975 (easiest way to think about this is that there are 109,975 possibilities for the first slot and 109,975 for the second slot, which means 109,975 * 109,975 possibilities for the first two characters alone; add another character slot and you multiply by 109,975 again; and 109,975 * 109,975 * 109,975 is 109,975^3; that means for 140 characters, we get 109,975^140.  More on permutations here)

This turns out to be a very big number — the library of Babel, Twitter style, has 6.042X10^705 possible tweets.  For those keeping track, that’s a number that is a little more than a 6 followed by 705 zeros.

When you compare it to the number of tweets that have happened so far (a little more than 29 billion as of today, per Gigatweet’s counter) its clear we’ve got a ways to go.

But just how far do we have to go?

Well, if we exclude the fact that a lot of tweets are retweets, we discover something discouraging.  29 billion tweets can be written as 2.9×10^10.  That’s a drop in the bucket compared to 10^705.  Actually, its much less than a drop in the bucket — there is no bucket large enough nor drop small enough that would make the metaphor fit.  Even the difference between the smallest theoretical distance (the Planck length, or 1×10^-35 meters) and the estimated diameter of the universe (8.8×10^26 meters) is a mere 61 orders of magnitude, whereas the difference between tweets to date and the number of tweets we’d need for all possible tweets to be . . . er . . . tweeted is 695 orders of magnitude.

So I’m afraid that the only way that we can hope for a Twitter library of Babel is for the rate of tweets to continue to rise exponentially — maybe someone wants to take a crack at figuring out how long it would take if the tweet rate continued to grow exponentially? In the meantime, keep tweeting . . .

A (not terribly) grand statement of purpose

I’m not much for grand statements of purpose, especially of the blogging kind. But how else to set an anchor and take a position on what will and won’t be noted? I suppose I could just start writing.

But before I do, here are the rules, faithfully committed to digital ink more for my benefit than for yours:

  • I aim for a 50-50 split between curation and original ideas.  I have no doubt that I will fail to achieve this goal almost immediately, given that there is surely some rule of the Internet or other that states “anything remotely interesting that can be thought of and committed to writing in a blog has been, at least statistically speaking.”  So, the important caveat — the original will be original to me, which is to say that its something that’s popped out of my head before I’ve been exposed to any information that it’s already popped out of someone else’s.
  • I care mostly about the ways that technology and culture intersect — it is of very little interest to me that Intel is coming out with its latest chip and has hit snags in production, but very interesting to me if the production has been snagged for uniquely human reasons.
  • This is a blog of connections.  Over time, I hope to have your help in connecting the ideas presented here with their close cousins in other corners of the web.
  • If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it.