December 9, 2019

Alternative Platforms: Could Public Social Media Be a Solution?

With all of the issues currently plaguing the largest, most popular social media networks, a public alternative could be the solution to a for-profit one.

The problem with “free”

Part of the reason why today’s most popular social platforms got to how big they are right now is that they are free to use. But because these platforms are more accountable to stakeholders and not necessarily users, it means the platforms are predominantly focused on:

  • Attention: The constant battle for our attention through algorithmically-driven content that favors our history and interests over our betterment means the potential to be served content that’s misleading or downright false.
  • Data-collection: Keeping us on a platform helps to build a profile of our behaviors with each interaction, valuable data that can be sold later.
  • Good/Bad Press: All engagement is good engagement, even if that engagement is toxic and influential at the same time.

Because there are specific dynamics for-profit platforms encourage with how they structure, moderate and monetize the experience, free to use doesn’t necessarily mean free of cost.

A public alternative

In an article for The New York Times, Mark Coatney, a former director of Tumblr, believes the solution to the ills of social media isn’t trying to wrestle those for-profit platforms into shape, but to instead provide public alternatives that serve the public good as media has in the past: “Public media came out of a recognition that the broadcasting spectrum is a finite resource. TV broadcasters given licenses to use the spectrum were expected to provide programming like news and educational shows in return,” Coatney explains.

But with the limited resource now being our attention, he says this context that’s optimized for the aforementioned engagement makes it easiest for “the loudest, scariest voices” to win. Coatney identifies two halves to a public social media solution:

  • The easy part: the experience would be better structured around sharing things of interest or that we love instead of trying to gain attention and rack up numbers. He personally would have such an alternative resemble Tumblr or Instagram.
  • The hard part: public social media platforms would be grounded in its local community, overseen by an entity similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This would, in turn, be funded by a blend of government and foundation grants as well as member donations. The board would be held accountable over service to the public. 

The Takeaway

From radio to television and then to podcasts and streaming, public broadcasting has adapted to the introduction of different media throughout history (such as PBS expanding from TV to YouTube content and NPR, from radio to podcasts), but has curiously stopped short at social media. Is it the nature of the medium, or do we just need to find the right approach?

Enrique Dans, for one, believes a public model just might not be a good fit for social: where public TV and Radio are controlled, limited in scope and strictly unidirectional (audiences only consume), social is the opposite where the platform thrives on users producing content of their own unhindered. Achieving this balancing act while keeping commercial interests disguised as user content at bay means a public solution isn’t so straightforward.

That said, just because Facebook, Instagram and YouTube still command significant attention doesn’t mean that there isn’t demand for new social platforms, as the rise of TikTok would demonstrate. We previously talked about the IndieWeb, which includes independently-created social platforms that similarly provide an alternative more-regulated social media experience on a smaller scale.

Users including ourselves want a more positive experience of the Internet again — and not just for ourselves, but for the greater majority of users too. Whether independent or publically-funded platforms answer that call, options are always welcome.

December 5, 2019

"Wonder Material" Graphene: Will it Change or Break the Game?

As the thinnest yet strongest material on Earth, graphene includes a plethora of other amazing properties. Widely considered a “wonder material,” how will it impact the physical world we know once it’s incorporated in everything from batteries and medical sensors to windows and condoms?

What is graphene?

Graphene is an allotrope (a given physical form) of the carbon element. You likely own or have encountered other allotropes of carbon such as the graphite in pencils, charcoal-cooked yakitori or the diamonds you might find in a set of grills. Yet, graphene is a “new arrival” that actually has been produced by accident for centuries through applications of graphite. It was observed in 1962 before being rediscovered, isolated and characterized in 2004. There are so many special properties packed into such a relatively “simple” composition, most notably:

  • Thin: At one atom “thick,” graphene is basically a super-thin sheet of linked carbon atoms (pictured above) and is currently the thinnest known material.
  • Strong: It’s also the strongest material known to exist proportionate to its thickness at 100 times stronger than the strongest steel.
  • Low Density: Again, compared to steel, the material is significantly less dense.
  • Conductive: Is an amazing heat conductor and great conductor for electricity too.
  • Permittivity: High permittivity means it stores electric potential energy in a magnetic field. Combined with graphene’s thinness and high surface area, this means the potential for better batteries.
  • Semi-Permeable: It’s still porous enough to allow water through while filtering other substances.

There are, of course, many other properties of graphene that we simply don’t science enough to be able to explain properly, which makes it suitable for a lot of yet undiscovered uses.

How could it be used?

  • Sex: Among other companies, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has looked into using graphene to make even thinner but stronger condoms, offering a double whammy for both pleasure and protection.
  • Military and Law Enforcement: The material can absorb twice the amount of force as Kevlar, the current most commonly used material in bulletproof vests.
  • Fashion: The material’s properties make it a no-brainer for techwear (such as with Volleback’s Graphene Jacket), but we’re curious to see other fashion contexts where it could be used.
  • Medicine: The material’s thinness and conduciveness pave the way for wearable dermal sensors that help us discreetly track our health and fitness.
  • Sports: With such a high strength to weight ratio, the material has been used professionally as early as the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, when it was used to construct a medal-winning sled.
  • Desalination: the fineness of the structure might be able to let water through but filter out salt, which could potentially revolutionize desalination and increasing freshwater supplies.
  • Hair Dye: While not as seemingly game-changing, graphene offers a comparable and non-toxic alternative to hair dyes, while giving hair anti-static and thermal resistance properties.

Are there drawbacks?

With so many potential uses for graphene, it’s not hard to see why it’s hailed as a wonder material, alongside eco-friendly favorites like fungal mycelium. For all this potential, though are there costs to this wonder material beyond simply the current financial constraints of producing it?

The risks surrounding graphene tend to start with their potential to harm us simply because our body doesn’t know what to do with such a “novel material.” For one, it’s brittle and being thin and strong makes it super sharp when fractured — sharp enough to pierce cell membranes and interfere with their function. As with initially helpful materials like fireproofing asbestos, upon further research, graphene has the potential to be toxic when inhaled in large quantities and the body can’t get rid of it.

Then there’s of course, the uncertainty of how the needs of scientific progress, commerce, creativity and industry will combine to produce unpredictable results — especially when it comes to drawing inspiration from nature, playing with genes and involving other living things aside from us.

For example, researchers added graphene to a spider’s drinking water, allowing it to produce silk strands that could hold the weight of a human. This makes it significantly stronger than BioSteel, developed in the early 2000s, which comes from goats genetically modified to produce silk from Orb Weaver spiders in their milk.

The Takeaway

We’re always excited to hear about new technology especially when that tech takes the form of a substance that can be applied to different contexts.

Graphene represents one of those materials we imagine when we think of a fantastical future where everything is functionally efficient to the point of otherworldliness. Note that this isn’t the same as how non-stick Teflon became the trendy material in cookware before it fell into disrepute for being toxic and heat-insulating silicon became popular.

Graphene incorporates so many desirable traits into one tiny material that maybe one day when it becomes easy enough to create (even say, in our own homes), there’s a high chance it will be quickly incorporated into just about everything. This can happen in a way where it can seamlessly integrate in both a functional and artful way.

December 2, 2019

Scratching the Surface of Growing Fan-aticism

It’s easy to write off fandom as a passionate if slightly silly appreciation for a person, group or subject matter. But left to grow in the unchecked recesses of the Internet, toxic fandom has the potential for destructive real-world consequences that mirror political or religious extremism.

“Regular” Fandom

Fandom and fan culture in principle are relatively benign and enjoyable things. At all layers of investment, they provide everything you could ask for in a community centered around a traditional culture:

  • Common interests: no explanation needed.
  • Sense of belonging: a sense of camaraderie and acceptance from like-minded peers.
  • History: the continuity from a pool of shared knowledge.
  • Fashion: a costume, uniform or outfit that indicates and celebrates membership.
  • Language: a visual, textual or spoken set of symbols, words and mannerisms.
  • Artwork: any manner of artistic output that’s inspired and influenced by the subject of interest.
  • Products: themed merchandise from tees and caps to duct tape.
  • Events: gatherings both formal and informal that incorporate all of the above. These can mark certain times, honor more long-held traditions or be inspired by similar events in other regions.

Each of these factors gives a would-be fan any number of things to latch onto and explore upon “entering” the culture. There’s something for everyone in the sense that some fans will choose to geek out over the technical minutiae like sports stats, the creators’ life, production notes and such, while others are drawn to the greater energy that defines the group.

Fan Activism

If we start to move away from the idea of fans and fandom as a means of uniting around and celebrating something, fan activism is one more step towards bringing the “magic” of that culture into the real world and one aspect of fandom rooted in actively driving change with respects to:

  • The Subject Itself: examples would be petitioning to say, bring Family Matters to Netflix, stop Ben Affleck from becoming Batman, or change plots in a given story.
  • The Industry: fans of a given industry might seek to drive change in how the industry that surrounds their favorite things functions such as equal pay for female athletes.
  • Society: For one, the Harry Potter Alliance uses “elements of our favorite fictional universes as metaphors for making sense of complex, contemporary issues,” and encourages fans to contribute their talents and skills toward changing society and the world.

The last case is notable because it repurposes the passion, talent and connections formed from the original fandom and applies it to a different context. In a similar vein, the 501st Legion is a costumed group of Stormtroopers (villains from the Star Wars franchise) that also does charity and volunteer work.

Fan-aticism

Whether you call it toxic fandom or fan-aticism (our coining), this aspect of fandom is where strong views boil over into the real world and pair the same desire to directly effect change of activism with the threatening, destructive, physical and potentially illegal behaviors of extremism.

“Fandom is a pure and precious thing, and no one should feel conflicted about being invested in a pop-culture figure or property,” explains a Wired article on toxic fandom across different fields. “If you express that investment by being a worse person, though—treating appreciation like warfare, demanding dogmatic purity tests, attacking people, or seeing yourself as some kind of a crusader—than it’s probably time to take some time and re-assess things.”

While toxic fandom grabs the most attention with singular events that expose that aspect of the culture in all its ugliness, they all appear in a larger context of other moving cultural and political parts.

  • Sports: Soccer hooligans can either be a toxic presence at a game regardless or be steered towards political ends.
  • Music: From Beliebers and One Directioners to the man who tracked down a Jpop star from IG photos, toxic fandom has the potential to harm regular people, fans, and creators alike.
  • Fiction: Sci-fi is particularly visible culprit with “old guard” Star Trek and Star Wars fans being hostile to new diverse fans and developments.
  • Gaming: GamersGate similarly underscored misogyny and backlash against diversity from fans against those the industry (we won’t get started on the bile found among gamers).
  • People: Even outside the entertainment world, there are legions of fans of famous people that will defend their name such as with entrepreneur Elon Musk.

This list of fields and examples within each are certainly not exhaustive, but in all cases, we can see that in all cases, situations frequently are boiled down to tribalistic “us vs. them” dynamics.

Where we’re going with this

We see that fandom can offer an uplifting common ground for people to unite, share and create around (and even do good), yet it also has the potential to turn sour, producing the same zealot-like devotion we’d see in extreme political, religious and criminal groups like gangs.

While we’re sure most readers are huge, even massive fans of certain things (even if you wouldn’t want to admit it), we know there will always be people who take things too far and worse, they’ll take it offline into the real world. This matters because as industries like professional sports, gaming and tech fields continue to make strides in certain directions, by and large that are more inclusive, large moves like that will cause friction with disgruntled so-called “true fans”.

We’ve been quite fascinated with the depths we’ve plunged thanks to the role tech and social media has influenced our world. The use cases have generally turned out pretty negative. But that’s not to say we can’t find the silver lining and utilize all this technology for something great. It’s time to align the right incentives.

November 29, 2019

Making It Up 110: Access instead of ownership and reseller luxury

On Making It Up 110, Charis and Eugene talk about an article written by Alex Danco titled “Everything is Amazing, But Nothing is Ours” about how technology has evolved to be about access at the expense of ownership. They also discuss reseller platforms such as The RealReal and what their relationship is to the primary luxury market.

Timestamps

00:01:05 Nothing is ours

00:21:53 Reseller luxury

00:40:18 Banter

Links

November 28, 2019

On the Need to Diversify Standardized Visuals and "Re-Image" the World

Whether we realize it or not, widely copied and distributed visual elements like graphics and photos represent and shape our consciousness. With the rise of diverse emoji, there’s never been more momentum to give these “standard” visuals a much-needed update.

Sharing the Space is Important

Icons are distilled representations of reality, usually used to efficiently communicate and be easily recognized in highly visible places. Copied and distributed often enough, they repeatedly influence our consciousness, both online and off.

“Space also includes the digital world, which unlike physical space, is theoretically limitless.The digital realm is governed by an audience’s access and attention, and value is determined by the reach and visibility of competing content,” says Erika Kim, head curator for the Noun Project. “Quality representation and visibility in these spaces — especially public or highly visible space — implies legitimacy and value, which translates to influence.”

In her article on gendered depictions of different jobs and roles in icons, she lists three ways graphic designers can even the playing field:

1. Make equal depictions in terms of quantity and quality: Male and female equivalents of a given role such as astronaut, as well as even application of design principles to avoid unintended meaning (which elements are larger, in front, or placed in a position of authority or power?)

2. Appropriate depictions:  Aside from ending the blatant perpetuation of outdated stereotypes (say, anachronistic or inappropriate depictions of women in certain jobs), Kim encourages creating less commonly seen depictions that challenge rigid gender roles.

3. Meta Data: Consistency in the titles and tags between variations on a common image. For instance, a male and female icon titled as “business person” would have similar tags or synonyms such as ‘manager’, ‘leader’ and the like instead of a different set of meta data for each.

It’s a big lift, but it’s not that heavy

If the popularization of emoji is any indication, similar updates in diversity to standardized assets are quantum leaps, stepping stones or no big deal at all, depending on who you ask. After emojis became more widespread beyond Japan with Apple’s iOS 5 in 2011, the world adapted to using the icons in addition to just text and the more basic emoticon.

After Apple introduced racially diverse emoji in 2015, there were concerns over whether they would be abused or introduce new problems into a space that didn’t have them before. That said, some studies have shown they’ve been largely used as intended and have been a net positive for inclusiveness. Just like the many special characters than your computer is capable of producing (you’ve never heard of the interrobang‽), even if you don’t need to use them, someone else most certainly does.

Similarly, having images that represent the diverse people in the real world means a lot to those traditionally excluded from these spaces. For one, TONL is a stock photography company that features culturally diverse people. But more importantly, it represents both a demand for that diversity from paying customers, but also that there’s still room for change in seemingly calcified symbols representing objective truths.

The Takeaway

Whether it’s emoji or stock assets like photos, footage, icons and graphics, these elements are intended for wide distribution and can appear at multiple corners of online spaces, shaping our collective consciousness. This analysis isn’t the end-all be-all take on how to approach diversity in standardized visuals, and there are likely to be hurdles and friction on the way, but we recognize the need for that diversity and that the updating process is long overdue. The ever-shifting ways in which we communicate about a complex world is going to require more nuance, and that can only be conveyed by having greater diversity in our visual choices.

November 25, 2019

You Have a Problem: Reframing Gear Acquisition Syndrome

We take a much-needed look at G.A.S., what causes it and how to pass it. We promise that this will likely be the last double entendre involving the word “gas” in this article.

What is G.A.S?

It’s not quite the common cold, but it can make us just as miserable. G.A.S stands for “gear acquisition syndrome” and is a strain of addictive retail therapy commonly associated with photographers. It involves purchasing gear at a rate that’s higher than needed and often distracts from the activity the gear’s intended for.

Yet this type of acquisitive behavior can easily affect non-photographers as well, such as people who work with audio. Rob Power and Matt Parker of Music Radar outline the 7 signs of G.A.S. which just as accurately represent phases of G.A.S. We’ve listed them here with examples from our own experience with G.A.S. (aggregated so we don’t single anyone out, Nate).

  1. Dissatisfaction: you’re dissatisfied with your current equipment.
  2. Desire: you see a new piece of equipment that will “complete” you.
  3. Research: you suffer hours of paralysis by analysis wading through options.
  4. Purchase: you break the deadlock with a rapid series of smaller purchases or a single big buy.
  5. Guilt: the gaping hole in the credit card or bank account leaves you pondering your decision, which may take you back to #3 to confirm if you made the right decision.
  6. Acceptance: you come to terms with what you’ve done, and might be filled with newfound and unbridled optimism toward your creative output in the vein of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”
  7. Relapse: your unresolved dissatisfaction quickly returns to attack your new creative implement, potentially as you discover that one missing feature that will completely upend your career.

What causes G.A.S?

Photographer, neuroscientist and writer Joshua Sariñana gives a highly detailed breakdown for G.A.S. and also explains the neurochemical mechanisms for how stressors trigger impulsive behavior and how purchases tap into our brain’s reward center. But of the many possible causes for those stressors, he proposes the most likely culprit in creatives: the fear of creativity itself.

Uncertainty: The creative process is already fraught with uncertainty and this uncertainty gives rise to fear of failure, criticism or even critique.

Catastrophizing: This is a common behavior where we always imagine the worst-case scenario. Combined with an existing cognitive bias against ourselves, this behavior repeats and small challenges seem insurmountable.

Avoidant Behavior: Like most living things, we tend to avoid discomforting things, even if that very thing is beneficial to us.

Buying Gear to Ease the Pain: Sariñana notes the potential for buying new gear to resemble drug abuse in the sense that we quickly acclimate to the ‘hit’ that comes with our new purchase, only to seek out bigger and better rewards.

How to get past gas

If you or someone you know has G.A.S., here are some ways to tackle the problem. Some involve dealing with the physical objects themselves while others focus on the mindset that leads to G.A.S.:

Realize you may have it: Even if you’re not a “gear head,” you might be acquiring services, plugins, memberships and subscriptions just as you would physical tools.

Validate yourself: Remind yourself that you are enough, even if your tools were to magically become primitive tomorrow. You have the talent to create something good with what essentials you have right now and the resourcefulness to improve on it later in the polishing phase.

Unplug: Our constant exposure to iconic, famous and professional-level content or simply content that we love constantly reminds us of how painfully inadequate our work is. Accompanying this, the democratization of creative tools means new markets to be targeted with marketing.

Be deliberate: Whether it’s finding references in the planning phases or only searching up in designated phases, if you find yourself stressing more about gear than creating, then it might be time to unplug from your media exposure.

Each item becomes a promise: Realize that each piece isn’t just an obligation to use it: you will have to maintain it and some items might require more purchases to keep them in good condition. If you have too many promises to keep, KonMari (Marie Kondo’s Shinto-based tidying methodology) your gear, digitally if you must: gather all your tools in one place (or start with one category of them if you’ve got that much) and notice how much you have. Keep the essentials, followed only by the ones that stir positive emotions. Take everything else out of play.

Get creative: this doesn’t just mean actually going out or staying in and doing the thing you bought the gear for. This means finding workarounds for limitations in the entire creative setup that includes gear, you personally and your situation. Consider using creative constraints to your advantage.

Borrow or rent: This might help you to let go of the idea that you need to have (as in own) a given tool to validate your creative title, and be comfortable with the fact you just need to use it for that project — especially true if you need to beef up your tiny mirrorless camera just so a client takes you seriously on that day. Likewise, borrowing or renting lets you “try before you buy.”

Co-buy or own: Or, if you’ve thought ahead and are sure you want something and will use it for the long-term: commit to making a few key purchases, either yourself or with someone, and then commit to using them for many years. Once you’ve committed, you’ll come to appreciate and acknowledge their limitations in conveying what you put into it. Assuming you’ve been using this gear this whole time, you’ll come to love it so much you won’t want to lend it out or replace it.

Make shit: Learn to be comfortable with making highly flawed and imperfect work with no intention of sharing it (or the possibility that nothing will come of it). The obsession with constantly making work for display to reinforce a given title may lead you to want to always “put your best foot forward” and buying new tools can add that polish.

The Takeaway

It’s okay. Everyone has suffered a bad case of G.A.S. or several relapses over the years (we’re pretty sure we’ve had a few). What matters is that you catch yourself early or you tweak your rate of acquisition to match your growing skill level or the actual demands of your jobs or career aspirations.

Regardless of what stage you might be in, for those who think you might be catching it, we highly recommend this detailed recount by “gear addict turned photography addict” Olivier Duong.

In writing this, we found a disproportionate amount of literature connecting G.A.S. to photographers and to a lesser degree, musicians. But this problem extends far beyond those two fields and even beyond physical “gear” as we know it to include subscriptions, plugins, services and software.

Whether you’re an artist that’s bought maybe a hundred Copic markers too many or a hobbyist sewer that’s filled their basement with more bolts of fabric than they have projects for, we’d like to hear any experiences with G.A.S. you’d like to share or suggestions on a broader term that captures this insecurity-driven acquisitive behavior in creatives.

November 22, 2019

Making It Up 109: Feeling no pleasure in music and the anatomy of a TikTok hit

On Making It Up 109, Charis and Eugene talk about musical anhedonia, the condition where people feel no pleasure in music, and whether that has implications on the world of audio. They also discuss the anatomy of a TikTok hit and what kind of music goes viral on that platform.

Timestamps

00:00:55 Musical anhedonia
00:27:34 TikTok hits
00:41:19 Banter

Links

November 21, 2019

How to Avoid Climbing Up Mount Stupid
or Into The Fraudster's Cave

We look at the relationship between knowledgeability and confidence, including the pitfalls of both overestimating and underestimating ourselves. We look at the risk of climbing up Mount Stupid and climbing into The Fraudster’s Cavern.

Mount Stupid and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Often charts that feature Mount Stupid place “knowledge” or “experience” of a given topic on the horizontal X-axis and “confidence” or “self-perception of competence” on the vertical Y-axis. Mount Stupid is an anomalous region of the graph where the Y-axis is a lot higher relative to the X-axis. In short, it’s a peak where people are overconfident in their competence despite lacking significant experience or expertise. Webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal also frames the chart around the “willingness to opine on a topic” against actual knowledge of said topic.

The chart featuring Mount Stupid is often used to illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people lack the self-awareness to realize their overconfidence in their cognitive ability. It was originally described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, who also studied the effect’s prevalence in different cultures.

The Fraudster’s Cavern and Imposter Syndrome

Charts that include Mount Stupid often depict the “land” that follows as an upwards curving line that implies exponentially increasing confidence as expertise rises. But these charts don’t include another anomaly, one that accounts for a related if not opposite phenomena of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Imposter Syndrome. The term “impostor phenomenon” first appeared in 1978 in “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” an article by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes.

Imposter Syndrome is another common bias where highly competent people who are externally recognized as such incorrectly believe their success has been achieved by pure luck or by perpetually deceiving (or defrauding) others into overestimating their competence. In short, they’ve only been “faking it ‘till they make it.”

For the sake of our graph, we’ve put this anomaly near the far right side of the graph where it can potentially pop up. In keeping with topographical metaphors, we’ve called this The Fraudster’s Cavern to illustrate how those with Imposter Syndrome underestimate their competence and thus may also be a lot less willing to opine about it.

The Culture Factor

In later studies, the prevalence of both the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Imposter Syndrome (and their associated “symptoms”) was shown to differ by culture.

Depending on what our given society emphasizes, be it a high level of self-esteem or self-criticism, these values have the potential to influence individual tendencies and actions, such as whether repeated failure leads to self-directed improvement or moving onto other things.

Independent of the cultures we grew up in or are influenced by, it also goes without saying that everyone and anyone is vulnerable to barking up Mount Stupid or slipping into The Fraudster’s Cavern at some point in time — even if we don’t suffer from something that pervades our lives longterm such as the Dunning-Kruger Effect (or the opposite known as the Jonah Complex, which involves avoiding applying one’s talents).

The Takeaway

It’s not hard to see how these two tendencies can crop up in the world of creatives. Certainly, creatives are no strangers to the sense of self-doubt, but against a cultural background that often encourages or forces us to have an opinion on a variety of topics, there is always value in admitting you don’t have all the answers — yet.

We’re at the point where the speed at which we absorb information far exceeds the time we commit to mulling over, challenging and consolidating that information, must less our perspective on it. As a result, it’s not hard to see why we risk unwittingly becoming mountaineers or spelunkers. The keys to solving these? Seeking out quality feedback from honest peers and being willing to take constructive criticism well.

With every achievement, comes the belief that you need to reassess where the next goal or peak lies, should you aim to dedicate time and resources towards improvement. While we agree that life itself changes dynamically in the face of a goal, there’s often a lot of additional baggage with the relentless pursuit of goals. It’s perhaps an oversimplification of the belief that at some point, you have to come to terms with how your life looks and how your relationships play out in the face of “growth.”

November 18, 2019

How Class is Limiting Performing Artists

We look at how class plays into the lives of performing artists, specifically actors, and what does it mean for shaping culture through media. By examining the realities of a career as a performer, we talk about why it’s important for diverse viewpoints to stick around for the long game.

The Reality of Performing Artists

Interviewing and pitching clients is part and parcel with any creative career, especially if you’re independent. But for performers, there are a few factors that when combined, make the economics of staying in the profession particularly difficult (which of course, includes getting low-balled like all other creatives).

  • Training: just as being a photographer isn’t just about clicking a shutter button, being a performer isn’t as simple as doing your best impression or showing off your best dance moves.
  • Maintenance as Lifestyle: One key to getting repeat or more lucrative work is specializing in a given style or role. Depending on the demands (either of physicality or difficulty, for instance) that means adjusting an entire lifestyle towards the maintenance of their primary creative tools: their body and their mental health.
  • Pay-to-Play: Staying in the game costs money independent of maintaining the aforementioned healthy lifestyle. This applies whether you live and work in a place that has strong industry regulation that includes guilds (labor unions) or, like Hong Kong, where there’s little to no support.
  • High Rejection Rates: Rejection comes from all kinds of factors independent of how well someone auditions. Even if a performer learns to cope with it as a matter of life, the reality is each rejection means one less paycheck.
  • Constant Spec Work: Auditions are similar to design contests in that you have to rehearse and train to shape yourself to compete with others for the approval of the client (i.e. casting director). Combined with the aforementioned high-rejection rates, this results in a lot of free work that might not be used at all.
  • Job-to-job: Full-time roles are limited as well, unless you’re able to join a theatre or dance company, a media company as a host or, subject to qualifications, behind-the-scenes or administrative roles.
  • Career Limitations: Constantly keeping schedules flexible to allow for model castings, auditions and ideally, important but high-commitment “plum” roles means performers frequently work other jobs where they may have to artificially cap hours or aspirations.

Why this matters

You might not watch live theater or watch movies, but these mediums have institutional power that retains a lot of influence over the creative output of a given society and what the public sees. And since the audience is effectively the market for creatives, their culturally-shaped tastes, affect which stories get ordered to be made, how many roles are created and which performers get hired.

It’s worth mentioning that the competition for limited roles has also sparked debate over race and nationality (specifically between the US and UK) at the Hollywood level. Yet, the class-wide decline of actors from certain backgrounds is an issue that can have long-term consequences.

Scottish actor James McAvoy, himself the son of a builder and psychiatric nurse, put himself through drama school working at a bakery. Although he emphasizes he has no beef with the success of actors educated at prestigious schools, he warns of what happens when only one group of people become responsible for all the artistic output:

“That’s a frightening world to live in, because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part, and that’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

The Takeaway

Regardless of the creative field involved, we think it’s important that people get onto a career path that aligns with their aptitudes and passions. The issue is even when both of those are present, not everyone has the same socio-economic opportunities to carry them out all the way, whether that means going through the formal education route that leads to a career after or learning on the job.

It’s not a simple matter of being able to afford individual items like new drawing tools or dance classes in the early stages once you’ve decided to pursue a creative career. It also means having the means to support yourself between dry spells to stay in the game for the long term once you start working.

Even as working creative professionals continue to struggle with the validation of the industry, we likewise have to be wary of the next generation of creative storytellers having opportunities to make their voices heard by being hired. We often talk of the need for diverse viewpoints in the media and the need for stories to be told by different people as well — not just in terms of what they look like, but the circumstances they came from that enrich their work in ways you just can’t imitate.

November 14, 2019

The Fungal Future — How mycelium helps us rethink design

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The recent Dutch Design Week saw the debut of “The Growing Pavilion,” constructed out of a variety of natural materials including fungal mycelium. We take a look at what the sustainable material means for the environment and the future of design.

The Growing Pavilion

Dezeen’s Augusta Pownall gives the run-down of The Growing Pavilion, a pop-up performance space that debuted at Dutch Design Week 2019 in Eindhoven. The drum-shaped building was also created to demonstrate the potential for bio-materials.

  • Creators: Set designer and artist Pascal Leboucq and Erik Klarenbeek’s Known Design studio. The two met three years ago when Klarenbeek and Leboucq began working with bio-based materials.
  • Construction: mushroom mycelium panels, timber frame, floors made of compressed cattail. Panels can be disassembled and repurposed later.
  • Features: Benches made from trees felled by a storm earlier in the year, furniture made from manure and clothes made from bio-materials.
  • Waterproof Coating: comes from a bio-based product originally developed by the Inca people of Mexico and imported from there, which Leboucq argues is a situation where an imported natural product can be better than a locally-made polluting product.
  • Safe for Consumption: Company New Heroes, a storytelling platform of which Lebouq is a member, helped schedule events including the daily harvesting of mushrooms growing on the panels. These were cooked and sold at a nearby food truck.
  • Carbon offset: The CO2-absorbing properties of mycelium offset the building’s carbon footprint by capturing twice its weight back in carbon dioxide.

What is mycelium

Mycelium is the massive branching network of thread-like hyphae that colonies of fungi use to breakdown organic material and absorb nutrients. In fact, that’s one of the most important aspects of their role in the ecosystem. Mycelium breaks down dead matter and puts the nutrients back into the environment.

Here are some of the properties that make it useful as a material:

  • Shapeable: mycelium is easy to grow into the shape of whatever mold it’s put in.
  • Strong: Relative to its weight, mycelium is stronger than concrete, giving it some potential for use in construction. It also kills and repels termites too.
  • Resistant: because has fire retardant properties that make it safer and more cost-effective than other materials that use synthetic polymers.
  • Easy to grow: it grows fast and on just about any waste product we feed it.
  • Insulator: it forms a foam-like material that can work as an insulator such as Greensulate.
  • Detoxifying: A lot of petroleum products and some pesticides are carbon-based molecules that fungi can potentially remove from the environment.

Taking More than We Give

In the past, we looked at how Econyl, a completely recyclable nylon fiber, has become one of fashion’s favorite synthetic fibers. Made from recovered ocean plastic, it represents a case where we’re making something “new” out of materials formed out of a problem humans have created, similar to bioplastic Bloom, which draws from the algae population that’s exploded with warmer climates.

It’s a scenario one where we try to take more harm out of the environment than we put back in. While that dynamic might not be perfectly efficient just yet, it shows we can always either create by using a product that’s no longer of use (waste products) or putting to use something that already occurs naturally, meaning it needs fewer resources to produce.

The Takeaway

We acknowledge we’re probably late to the party in recognizing the potential of mycelium, but it’s gotten us thinking about a future where the cities around us won’t necessarily be this idea of “perfected” space-age design. These buildings often come across as sterile with buildings of glass, porcelain-white panels, and metal. Instead, we could very well go in a radically opposite direction, one where the buildings around us are organic (or even living) because of our need to “use what we have” and create with materials that have always co-existed with our environment.

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