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.

November 14, 2019

The Fungal Future — How mycelium helps us rethink design

Source:

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.

November 7, 2019

Where are we now with on-demand apps for creatives?

While the growth of the gig economy has produced many platforms that connect clients with creatives, we’ve curiously only come so far for on-demand apps for creative industries. We take a look at what’s available currently and some possible reasons for why we’re just getting started.

The Rundown

Ian Burrell writes for The Drum how Stringr, the Uber-style news footage sourcing app, opened a UK office in May and has since recruited 7,000 new videographers to the platform.

Stringr is named for stringers, freelance journalists, photographers or videographers that contribute reporting, images or footage to news organizations and are paid individually by the piece that gets published. Here are some key points about Stringr from Burrell’s article:

  • How it works: Videographers get alerts to assignments through the app, should they accept, they get to the location, shoot the footage and upload it. Videographers get paid if and every time a client downloads the footage.
  • Feedback: Like with Uber drivers, Stringr videographers get ratings that factor into how assignments get distributed based on their skill (as judged by Stringr’s Curation Team composed of experienced journalists), proximity and current traffic conditions.
  • Reuters Connect: Stringr is integrated with Reuters Connect, which helps clients to source text, photo and video content from other media organizations including Reuters. It also provides bespoke video production for clients in partnership with video editing tool InVideo and Amper Music, which leverages AI to generate soundtracks (making them rights-free).
  • Reach: Stringr is currently in Los Angeles, New York and now the UK with the opening of its Notting Hill office in London. It has further plans to expand to France and Germany.

Hasn’t this been done before?

Not as much as we’d think. Searching for “The Uber of (insert creative skill or job here)” nets no small number of platforms in website form that promise to connect clients with a vast network of creative talent not unlike Fiverr. But in terms of the truly “on-demand” nature of smartphone apps, it seems fewer platforms have tried to bring the convenience and efficiency of Uber to the creative industry as opposed to other personal services like home maintenance, delivery, pet-sitting.

Unsurprisingly, going the extra step of developing an app on top of the back-end booking and order management system requires a great deal of resources, meaning there naturally needs to be a fair amount of demand to justify it. This list isn’t exhaustive but gives a cross-section of the type of on-demand platforms apps other than Stringr covering the creative industry:

  • Snappr: Australian startup that sources photographers (and another app jumping on the dropped ‘e’ naming trend) by the hour. Co-founders Ed Kearney and Matt Schiller expanded into the platform after working together on GownTown, their previous venture that acted as a ‘one-stop graduation shop’ selling gowns to graduating students.
  • GigTown: Founded by former president and vice chairman of Qualcomm Steve Altman and his son, GigTown connects musicians, event planners and venues. The app was started after the founders went through the troublesome process of sourcing a live band for a diabetes fundraiser.
  • Sofar Sounds: London-based Sofar Sounds differs in that it books and sells tickets to secret concerts around the world in hosted venues that include everything from retail stores to living rooms. The founding intention was to cut the bloat of most live-music events and increase intimacy between audiences and musicians. The typical format of a concert (branded as a “Sofar”) includes three diverse curated and no headliner.
  • JinzZy: This app, which serves India specifically, books live entertainers (specializing in characters like superheroes) within a window of anywhere from four hours to months in advance. Bookings range from the usual corporate and family events to campaigns and hospital visits.

The Pros and Cons

Looking at this very small cross section of on-demand apps covering creatives, we’ve come to a few broad conclusions about this diverse segment of the growing “gig” economy for the time being.

  • Connecting People: While every app is ostensibly founded with the goal of “connecting people” the smooth connection between client and service provider through Uber-like searching, quoting and booking systems makes that aspect especially smooth. But as Sofar would show, it’s not like Uber where you’ll hire and forget your driver (or delivery person if you got EATS). You have the potential to create longer-lasting and richer connections depending on the nature of the platform.  We’re also interested to see how future apps can have the potential for bringing people more in touch with their communities and surroundings.
  • Work for Free: Platforms like Fiverr get a particularly bad rap not just because of the race-to-the-bottom dynamic the bidding war encourages, but because it means a lot of spec work for free. Stringr has this dynamic too in the sense that you may work for that hour but not be paid for it (and the time geting to the location) if the client doesn’t want your footage.
  • Testing the Waters: With rates as low as $45 USD (with a quota of 60 shots) per hour, established photographers are unlikely to use Snappr. But for talented fresh-starters wanting to get their feet wet and earn something for their trouble, it can be a new avenue to explore.
  • Terms: Of the figures we could find, GigTown takes 13 percent per booking while Snappr takes 20 percent per booking, but it’s not just about the take-home pay but the entire workflow experience. Stringr pays the next day via PayPal, Snappr handles insuring photographers which can be harder for the individual and of course, some of the apps handle a part of the sourcing and negotiating phases. It all depends on if the exact package a platform offers is a good fit for the creative.
  • Drop Everything: the “drop everything and work for potential peanuts” scenarios that could have creatives tripping over themselves to compete for jobs and even produce work that might not be compensated with even a kill fee is a worst case scenario and we might decry the potential for devaluing creative services. But the reality is there will always be clients wanting to pay less and someone willing to work for that much.

The Takeaway

We’re still in largely uncharted territory with creative services in an on-demand format because the nature of that work is so specific with countless variables (and additional work to accomplish the finished product.

By comparison: if we’re ride-sharing, it involves the closest Uber of 3-4 service types getting you from point A to point B (or point C if you change your mind) within a reasonable amount of time. Even for all the bells, whistles and good conversation, those are all attempts to win your approval for that time you’re in the vehicle, which the driver is paid for. There will be idle time between passengers, to be sure, but we think it’s safe to assume it’s going to be less than the time between gigs for say, a photographer or live band.

It’s all about the packaged relationship between expectations, the work done and the compensation. The original goal for Fiverr founders Micha Kaufman and friend Shai Wininger was to give freelancers a way to slice their skills thin and sell them. Stringr might be the closest to on-demand we might get for now (because videographers go, shoot and upload, but the client does the editing) but the comprehensive nature of a lot of creative work makes it hard to carve a skillset so cleanly that it can be done on location. This is likely why most creative fields don’t do “on-demand” apps and are more represented on freelancing platforms instead.

Still, there is some veracity to the argument that the prices for creative work is in a race downhill, but there’s also a difference between a highly commoditized service provider and a creator who provides not only the requisite skill set and professionalism, but also a strong point-of-view and style.

October 28, 2019

The Need for Slow Journalism in an Age of Fast (Media) Consumption

What’s New in Publishing looks at the rising importance of slow journalism in an age of decreased attention spans, information overload and news avoidance. We weigh in on the value and importance of slowing down.

The Movement

The slow journalism movement is one aspect of the greater “Slow movement” that includes sub-movements including everything from food, cities and travel to cinema and fashion. It’s a direct response to the decreasing quality of journalism that eschews original reporting in favor of clickbait or the repackaging of other source material (known as churnalism, the irony of which we are keenly aware).

One of the most prominent drivers in the slow journalism movement is UK-based quarterly magazine Delayed Gratification, which launched in 2011, which prides itself on being “the last newsroom to break the news.” Since its founding, there have been multiple slow journalism projects that have popped up in Europe and North America.

The Issues for Audiences

  • Information Overload: The amount of general noise from multiple sources in terms of both news and non-news media.
  • Decreased Attention Spans: The new normal.
  • News Fatigue: a Pew survey found seven in 10 Americans felt overwhelmed and “worn out” by the news.
  • News Avoidance: The Reuters Institute 2019 Digital News Report found that news avoidance shot up 11 percentage points from its report two years ago and that 58% of British respondents that avoided the news did so because of the negative impact on their mood.

The Issues with Current News

  • “Being First:” Media is adept at breaking developments (what just happened) but falls short of explaining their significance and context.
  • Text Avoidance: The 500-word count problem for the 280-character Twitter age and another by-product of the decreased attention spans as news outlets trim article lengths so readers do less reading.
  • Content-to-Length Balance: News content is emphasizing shorter digestible pieces with significantly less space to include detail, color — and facts.

Is Acceptance of Slow Journalism Simply a Creative Problem?

For Slow Journalism to gain wider acceptance, there will need to be a few major factors accounted for:

  • Long-form Repackaged: We’d say that there may be little hope for attention spans reversing course and agree that hope for long-form journalism lies in digital (as opposed to the still-worshipped print). That said, to make long-form palatable for text-avoidant audiences, it needs a lot of supporting media like illustrations, animations and strong layouts.
  • Monetization: Paying for all the illustrations, web development, writing and editing to help make that longform content more palatable, not to mention the journalism that sources and vets that very information, requires money. This money in-turn comes from investors or advertisers as well as audiences willing to either pay directly or accept ads in their viewing experience.
  • Content Over Form: The preference for consumption on mobile devices and the need to reach audiences through those platforms withstanding, the focus on good ideas, stories and people will always take precedent over the exact form it takes. Quality curated content will always be valued over quantity, even if the latter is made accessible via paid access.
  • Cultural Shift: Greater awareness of a problem was enough to make us use consume with fewer plastic straws and cups, but unfortunately, building awareness for the need to reduce overconsumption of fast media will take significantly more effort — simply because very few mainstream media platforms would encourage more moderate use of their platform.

MAEKAN’s Take

We are not a news organization, but we do recognize the importance of media literacy in a world that’s both digitally and globally connected to the point it will eventually implicate us — if not us as creative workers then us as regular albeit curious people.

That said, it’s important that we’re seeing the bigger picture and comprehending the full story instead of just being the first to know and react. Doing this takes the patience to resist our the human urge to know things, which savvy media and news outlets capitalize on when they inundate us with day-to-day updates on hot topics, for instance.

By switching to slower news, you could call it the “whole foods” approach to media dieting. Snacks are small, sweet and easily digestible, but we’ll be hungry again soon if we eat a few or feel sick when we get full on them. Regardless of what media types you prefer to consume, be it text, sound or images, we encourage you to snack less and seek out and support higher quality information sources — even if that means making more time for only a few comprehensive stories. Once you’re done that long-form news story or two, get out and get on with your day.

Because the only thing worse than adopting a news-avoidant life out of disillusionment with a constant information churn is veering towards a completely news-free one.

October 18, 2019

Food is the Next Frontier for Multisensory Art

These days when we think about multisensory experiences, our first thoughts might start to gravitate towards the audio-visual interactivity of AR and VR, but what about food? As a medium, it remains a rich but comparatively underexplored frontier if we think outside the box of cuisine and restaurant contexts, even if they’re innovative. What makes food so special and why should we use it as a mode of expression?

Why Food Might Be Getting Left Out

A New York Times article written by William Deresiewicz in 2012 argued that despite the emergence of a new dearth of literature, awards and media surrounding food and food culture that mirrors that surrounding art, our efforts to elevate our appreciation for food have only hit a cultural ceiling composed of varying layers of foodie-ism.

“But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion,” he wrote. “An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one.”

While he is correct to point out that in many ways, our obsession with food has not led to art but replaced it as a “vehicle of aspiration and competition,” we’d say there is still strong potential for it as a medium, as has been explored throughout history.

Food as Visual Medium

Let’s start with how we might come to perceive food (still discernible as food) as a visual medium:

  • Food as the subject, where it’s stylized and presented in its raw or prepared-dish form as the primary focus of the work.
  • Whole foods or images of food that are used to complete larger works.
  • Ingredients as the medium such as sculpted sugar or chocolate, and other instances where the ingredients are valued for their physical properties as a working material.
  • Consumable “almost too good looking to eat” items such as cakes incorporating strong influences from other fields such as fine art, architecture and hard sciences.

The point is that however they’re used, so long as we can discern it looks like food, food evokes an immediate understanding and intimacy whether we consume them physically or just visually. For those that understand the context behind certain foods, their visual forms become just as codified and capable of carrying nuanced messages as other mediums.

Experience and “Performance” Revolving Around Food

In the mainstream, we might be put off attempts to “say something through food” with the likes of Dining in the Dark or Ichiran’s ramen-booths-for-one some might write off as gimmicky hedonism. But if art is meant to express and change perspectives, the ability for that to happen through food can’t be ignored when we can directly participate.

We’ve written about Virgilio Martinez’ Central, which takes diners through the layered ecosystems of the Peruvian Andes as well as “Hawai’i” Mike Salman’s Chef for Higher cannabis dinner parties meant to heighten the senses while decreasing inhibitions. These and other unique concepts that are coming out of culture look to reimagine how we approach food from the dining perspective. As with any multi-sensory installation, we pay for admission to restaurant concepts that increasingly resemble galleries, where everything from the serviceware to music is curated from other artists. Here, we’re simply paying to experience the chef’s “set” that encodes history, culture, and vision through their take on genres, their trademark mix of flavor, texture and scent notes.

Even outside of the restaurant context, however, there are plenty of ways artists are exploring themes in ways that are uniquely designed around food as the medium, even if we might not label it as art right away. Take LA-based art collective Fallen Fruit Collective as an example: its Public Fruit Jam encourages strangers to negotiate and collaborate on making a fruit jam using each participant’s respective ingredients. Similarly, their Endless Orchard project allows citizens to plant, map and share fruit trees, making it both public art and social initiative.

Distilling and reassembling flavors and scents

Lastly, we see culture, constantly in search for new experiences, immersed in a phase of experimentation. Whether they’re rooted in the culinary or scientific tradition or both, globally-minded artists and audiences alike are taking to different combinations of flavors, smells, and textures, whether they’re old or new history.

It’s this deconstructed approach to the sensory properties of food — and necessarily, smell — that remains a vast playground for exploration at the individual level. They divorce our existing preconceptions around food and use their elemental flavors, textures, and aromas as emotional notes with which to assemble sensory experiences for different purposes:

  • Isolation: From trending flavors like yuzu-flavored everything to beanless coffee made by the same people behind Impossible Meat, both instances involve isolating the flavors we recognize and like while removing those we don’t.
  • Sense memory: Copenhagen-based “flavor company” Empirical Spirits seek to bottle scenes and memories through its science-influenced approach to taste and aromas.
  • Translation: Oki Sato of Tokyo and Milan-based design studio Nendo created chocolates that embodied Japanese onomatopoeic words to describe texture, effectively using food to translate meaning between formats.
  • Augmentation: Sometimes, these elemental properties are used to add an extra dimension to other art, such as Art of Bloom’s use of scent to support its recent AR exhibition in Long Beach.

The Takeaway

As we can see, food is difficult to frame artistically once it leaves the context of the farm, kitchen, dinner table and restaurant, but we’d argue that yes, it absolutely exists as art we’ve only begun to explore. Whether we get to taste it or not, food can be used as a medium of great depth and complexity as with any art.

If we were to compare it to sound, the next most powerful emotional medium we have, we have the ability to manipulate emotion through food with flavor and aroma notes, textures as timbre, the whole spectrum of color, the Scoville scale, among other factors. Combined in thoughtful ways, they record memories, encode messages, drive narratives and shape culture all the same.

October 14, 2019

Artificial Intelligence Isn't the Creative Savior We All Thought It'd Be

For creatives, automation and AI have already made our lives easier in a lot of ways, but as we further incorporate them into our workflows to tackle the menial stuff, we might only be left with the hardest tasks. We look at an example of how introducing AI into Kickstarter’s approval process took away some of the joy and some of the darker consequences of leaving humans with only the toughest jobs.

No More “Slam Dunks”

For some time, we’ve tried to take a more optimistic stance on how AI will actually free us up creatively by saving us the effort of doing menial “soul sucking” tasks, leaving us to focus on the more enjoyable creative tasks. But an article in the Atlantic by former Kickstarter vice president of data Fred Benenson suggests our optimism might be misplaced. As it turns out, the most creative tasks are actually the hardest ones and enjoyable depends on how much challenge you still enjoy when tackling only these becomes your “one job”.

Benenson talks about how five years ago, it was company staff that were deciding which projects were approved to start soliciting money from the public. But when the number of both investors and investment-seeking creators exploded, they turned to AI to deal with the increased number, including periodic surges in new ideas.

  • Holiday weekends meant the approvals team was backed up with hundreds of proposals and the same number of frustrated creators waiting for a response.
  • Benenson oversaw the development of an automated system that considered each project’s stated purposes and its creator’s track record, among other factors.
  • High-scoring projects would immediately get approval, meaning the system soon took over 40 to 60 percent of the manual approvals for incoming projects.
  • Although it sped up the process, it also meant a dramatic drop in the average quality of projects that human reviewers would see. These were the ones that needed more nuanced consideration.

The outcome? It meant no more “slam dunks” — as in no more instances where a project was so strong or excited staffers so much that approving them was a no-brainer. What was left for them were all the tough calls or others with a dubious or even questionable level of promise.

The Balance of Mastery, Challenge and Enjoyment

In an email to Benenson, author and clinical psychologist Alice Boyes talked about the need for balance: “Decision making is very cognitively draining, so it’s nice to have some tasks that provide a sense of accomplishment but just require getting it done and repeating what you know, rather than everything needing very taxing novel decision making.”

Humans need a blend of mastery, challenge and enjoyment for a healthy mood. The exact mix differs, but all of those ingredients need to be there in some measure. What throws off the ratio is the introduction of AI systems that pass unclear or low-confidence decisions to humans, a trait of the best of these systems, according to Benenson.

Small and regular challenges that are well within our abilities, give us the sense of mastery and continuity (the feeling of progression) over our work as well as needed breaks from harder tasks. On the flipside, if every task we manage to complete is by the skin of our teeth because of exceeding difficulty, we never develop a sense of regularity or that we’re gaining something. We’re constantly fumbling over one finish line, unsure of how to get to the next one or where it is.

The Darkest Implications

To see how bad this could get once there are no more “easy calls,” consider the job of a Facebook content moderator. Where the platform’s AI is pretty adept at flagging certain content that obviously violates its standards, the technology just isn’t up to par. What’s left for the human moderator is to deal with not just a lot of the NSFW or NSFL content that ends up there, but a lot of stuff that isn’t objectionable at first glance, but that needs to a nuanced understanding of different contexts to see if it actually violates Facebook’s Community Standards.

In several articles for The Verge, Casey Newton has written extensively about the misery these contracted workers experience when they constantly need to tackle such tasks that are so granular or downright traumatic and perform them with a high degree of accuracy and efficiency. The issue is less that humans are being made to do these tasks (someone has to do it, to be sure), but the sheer volume of these tasks combined with a lack of ways to off-set that stress.

The Takeaway: AI as Subcontractor

Technology has always been about enabling us to do more, but perhaps this should be clarified to “greater” in the context of creativity whether we’re artists or creatives.

  • There is still some enjoyment in small challenges and some of the menial work because it reinforces our sense of mastery.
  • From plugins to machine transcription, Automation and AI still have a valuable role in saving time on repetitive, menial or low-difficulty-but-tedious tasks. But the question is what we do with the time saved (or gained, depending on how you look at it).
  • It’s tempting to feel obligated to fill that extra time indiscriminately with more projects or tasks (with no direction), but what about the act of distancing, switching to other tasks within your workload, or further refining the work that’s already completed?

To simplify this: where we’re sure we can do so, we subcontract parts of bigger projects to handle the workload. If we treat AI as a subcontractor (albeit a very efficient one), then we retain the power in the relationship as we should.

The problem is that issues arise in “no excuses” scenarios where we are subcontractors alongside AI where “it’s already done the ‘easy’ work for you. Why aren’t you handling an increased load of harder stuff?”

October 7, 2019

Can Creatives Do With Less Travel and Still Help the Planet?

As the environmentally-conscious push to reduce air travel gains traction, some artists are forgoing it altogether which can drastically alter how they work. We attempt to weigh the social, creative and environmental costs against each other to find a middle ground.

Can Creatives Do With Less Travel and Still Help the Planet?

As the environmentally-conscious push to reduce air travel gains traction, some artists are forgoing it altogether, which can drastically alter how they work. We attempt to weigh the social, creative and environmental costs against each other to find a middle ground.

The Choreographer’s Not Coming

In a piece in the New York Times, Roslyn Sulcas highlighted the story of French dancer and choreographer Jérôme Bel who changed the entire scope of his career after realizing that despite other lifestyle changes such as eating organic or reducing heating, air travel was the largest footprint — for him and his full-time assistants flying across the world to stage shows. So he gave it up and had his team avoid it as well.

With projects underway already, including a US tour with French dancer Elizabeth Schwartz, they had to find a to avoid flying the performer there. Schwartz proposed New York-based Catherine Gallant instead. And so began choreography and rehearsal via Skype: suffice it to say, their efforts were hampered by a limited camera view, poor Wi-Fi and mic problems.

“It’s not the same as being in a room together, especially generationally, for someone like me,” said Ms. Gallant, 63. “But I realize that this opportunity exists for me because of what Jérôme decided.”

It’s Not A One-Off

Bel’s example is one where an artist forgoes air travel, even when the nature of his work is highly contingent on being in the same room with the artists he’s guiding. And yet, he isn’t alone. British theater director Katie Mitchell refuses to travel by plane as well.Belgian choreographer Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker and her dance company Rosas recently decided to travel only by train in Europe, increasing travel costs and time. Bel has followed suit, convincing theater directors and presenters to allow train trips for upcoming tours under the reasoning that they’re justified by visits to multiple cities on the way.

Conscience or Culture?

While there is mounting popularity (or flight shame) to change the way we travel for the sake of the planet, it’s also hard to ignore how much humanity has benefited immensely from the ability to traverse large distances. Aside from maintaining close ties to family and friends spread across the world, air travel has enabled us to make new connections and experience new ideas that are instrumental to our creativity. It’s hard to suddenly cancel that dynamic overnight.

In a Vox article highlighting the movement to dissuade people from flying, Umair Irfan sums up the conundrum we’re currently facing perfectly: “Compared to other personal concessions for the sake of the environment, reducing air travel has a disproportionately high social cost. Give up meat and you eat from a different menu. Give up flying and you may never see some members of your family again.”

So, what can we do?

For artists and creatives, we are unlikely to stop flying anytime soon and it’s by no means a call to end a convenience we enjoy simply because someone tells us to. But instead, we can see it as an opportunity to also rethink how we derive the benefits we seek or reduce the costs we want to avoid — all at the same time.

For starters, short-haul flights leave a much larger footprint relative to their flight time with over 25% of a plane’s fuel used in taking off. Then there are the diminishing returns on convenience when we factor in all the extra non-flight time we forget to attach to these flights. Finally, it has to be said we don’t have to necessarily jet off to exotic faraway locales to derive the creative benefits of travel, just that we need to find ways to break up the monotony that leaves us wanting for inspiration.

In the digital age, we’ve found the creative class to be highly adaptable — so long as we have a passport, money, a laptop, and ideally decent internet — we can travel and work under many different circumstances, even if that’s on a bus, boat or train.

Forcing the Future of Work Through Environmentalism

This “future of…” is an interesting topic that we’d all like to have an understanding of. It’s clear that physical interactions are in themselves a precursor to a certain type of work culture. But with the idea of these interactions moving online, we’re now left to rethink how we build a strong decentralized work culture.

There are many nuances that are simply unaccounted for when we’re face-to-face, where subtle moments in the interaction help diffuse the situation. Slack, Zoom, and various communication tools bridge the gap. But in light of these changing scenes, the question becomes: what’s the closest we can come to replicating these experiences without the element of physicality?

September 30, 2019

The “Lucas Effect” in Creativity is a Real Thing

While it might sound strange to read it, there is such thing as “too much” creativity, specifically too much left unchallenged on a large project. George Lucas is considered the father of the Star Wars series with the first film that started it all, but it’s easy to forget the checks and balances that made the first trilogy iconic and that were absent on the trilogy that followed.

What is the Lucas Effect?

On Premium Beat, John Francis McCullagh describes the Lucas Effect — coined after George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars series — as what happens when you allow a single creative voice having overwhelming or complete creative control over the direction of a large scale project. In this case, it refers to a comparison of the iconic first trilogy in the Star Wars film series (episodes IV, V and VI) and its comparatively less popular — and frequently derided — prequel trilogy (episodes I, II, III).

“The Lucas Effect is wild creativity with reckless abandon. It’s not knowing how to edit your story, not realizing when you’ve gone too far — or if you’ve crammed too many characters and subplots into one story,” McCullagh says.

What happened?

The Star Wars universe is certainly the brainchild of George Lucas, but what many might not know is that he actually only wrote the first film, “A New Hope,” and other talented artists were charged with taking that vision to completion over the next two films. Here’s why that trilogy succeeded and the second, modern trilogy didn’t:

  • Juggling: To make sure his story was told, Lucas had to step away from directing and writing to focus on being a producer for the first three films due to financial and technological limits.
  • All in one basket: For the prequels, he wrote, directed and edited all three films.
  • Everyone believed the hype: Because of the success (and track record) of the first three films, everyone believed Lucas would succeed again.
  • No checks and balances: Without the distribution of creative vision and control, there were no voices to challenge Lucas’ ideas, some argue too many of which, ended up in the final films. There’s also a good chance that there was decision fatigue at play too.

To see how this effect pops up again, the Indiana Jones series was another where Lucas played a strong role in the writing process. That said, director of the trilogy Steven Spielberg, acted as a gatekeeper for a lot of his friend’s ideas, but by the time remakes became the formula a full two decades later, he’d given more creative control to Lucas, who also wrote the fourth film.

The Carry Over

We might not all be filmmakers, but the key idea that can carry over to other projects is simply that if you’re the “boss” of a project, it helps to understand (if not try) as many of the other positions involved as possible. For filmmaking, there’s an especially important triangle of the writer, director, and editor, but other large undertakings will likely have a similar key creative structure.

Walking in another artist’s shoes lets you make informed decisions and interact better with other people on the project (read: you know how hard their job is) when it comes time to relinquish responsibility, which will need to happen eventually. This also means you’ll get more value out of input and you might see some good ideas where you might have been tempted to just dismiss it right away with “it’s my vision, my call.”

The Takeaways

  • On bigger projects with more moving pieces and people, there’s no harm in allowing input even if you don’t have to entertain it all, especially from people who understand you and the project’s potential well.
  • But on personal work, there’s merit to figuring things out yourself and finding your vision without overanalyzing, before finally looking to references once you’ve definitively hit a wall.
  • If you don’t have someone to challenge your ideas when you want, find someone or distance yourself from it so you can come back with a less attached perspective.
  • The rush of creative flow is exhilarating, but that doesn’t mean you need to implement your first or even all of the ideas that come of it.
September 10, 2019

Deciding a New Official Definition of the Museum is Divisive

Source:

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) recently decided to postpone its decision to update the definition of a museum after a fierce debate between its members. Some believe the definition no longer applies to the 21st century while others believe changing it would be a disaster.

What is the ICOM?

The International Council of Museums is an NGO founded in 1946 that plays a central role and reference for museums and museum professionals worldwide. It has formal relations with UNESCO and partners with other organizations such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, INTERPOL, and the World Customs Organization.

Its international public service mission includes fighting illicit traffic in cultural goods and promoting risk management and emergency preparedness to protect world cultural heritage in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

The 25th General Assembly of the International Council of Museums took place in Kyoto on September 7 with 40,000 members representing more than 20,000 museums attending.

The Words in Play

The council’s definition of a museum hasn’t really changed over the past few decades except for minor amendments: “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

Danish curator and museum director Jette Sandhal believes this definition needed to be updated. “As museums become more and more conscious of the strong social role they play, there’s a need for a more explicit platform of values from which we work,” she said. “Saying that museums can only fulfill traditional functions or play these new roles is what I feel we’ve outgrown in the 21st century.”

Sandhal led a commission that proposed the new definition:

Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”

The Opposition

After a long debate, 70% of the participants agreed to postpone the decision to redefine the museum. Many have opposed the new definition for a few reasons.

  • The verbiage is too vague, political or ideological
  • It doesn’t distinguish the museum from a cultural center, library or laboratory and more importantly, omits the aspects of education
  • The new definition was chosen from within Sanhal’s committee despite ICOM crowdsourcing proposed definitions

One particularly vocal opponent of the new definition was François Mairesse, a professor at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle who left Sandhal’s commission back in June: “A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterizing an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.”

The Bigger Picture

On one hand, rigid definitions are important because the exact wording does affect legislation, which affects funding. We’ve talked about this before where museums actually do store and display stuff that isn’t necessarily of great value to humanity, but have obligations to other stakeholders to maintain that funding.Further, many highly-regarded traditional museums like the Louvre are not able or willing to fit the requirements of a drastically new aspirational definition.

However, the contentiousness of voting on this also comes against a backdrop where historically underrepresented communities calling on European and U.S. museums to be more accountable, such as the Museums Are Not Neutral campaign in the U.S. Globally, we’re also seeing greater demands to have artifacts plundered during the previous centuries returned to their native countries and have ties severed with controversial donors.

The friction in the council between the sides that are eager or reluctant to change the definition is understandable. Museums, like many other brands, companies, and gatekeepers with long histories, are going through a transition where they have to evolve their roles to meet the changing demands of the period. However, whether we are regular visitors or not, most can agree the museum, like the art gallery, the library and the cultural center is a place where knowledge and inspiration are concentrated, remembered and shared with the public. At the end of the day, what is displayed makes history, what isn’t does not. This central issue is likely to fuel debate and for some time to come after the ICOM re-convenes and makes its decision.

September 2, 2019

Techwear's Still Falling Short of its Vision

At its core, Techwear is all about a skew towards practicality — especially the emphasis on forward-thinking, technology-infused garments that indiscriminately enable the wearer. Put another way, it doesn’t matter what your body type is: you should be able to derive the functional benefits of this kind of garment. The problem is in the execution, as techwear keeps coming up short by over-emphasizing limited styles, fits and influences.

Current Issues

Techwear’s core problems show that its execution and the products that come from it are at odds with its purported principles of inclusion and functionality.

  • Gender: Techwear is still very male dominated in terms of its association with the term as well as its vision and execution, carrying over some faults from mainstream fashion. For instance, androgyny and unisex are marketed as “for everyone” when they’re really “borrowing from the boys.” This hard reference point naturally ignores any female and non-binary considerations that could factor into tech wear.
  • Body Type: Overlapping with gender is an emphasis on thinness. This means a body type without too many curves (“featureless,” if you will) becomes the norm and favors only a limited set of proportions.
  • Performance: Performance and functionality are similar, but nuanced. When we think performance fabrics, we might think of sweat-wicking and odor fighting properties, but functional elements like storage and zippered vents might not fit into the same garment (thus, performance remains nebulous at best).
  • Limited looks: A common issue is trying to buy and wear the functionality of techwear without looking like you’re going to climb a mountain or going to war. Your closest bet right now might be athleisure, but then again, we’re not always “on standby” for the gym, are we? It also goes without saying that there is still an imbalance between Techwear and Athleisure’s respective gender associations.

Sports brands leading the charge

While mainstream fashion is still sorting itself out, there is movement in the space; unsurprisingly, sports brands are playing a large part:

  • Adidas by Stella McCartney: Has been a leading presence in designing functional apparel for women with adidas since 2005.
  • Johanna Schneider x NikeLab: Schneider has also designed for ACRONYM as well as Stone Island Shadow Project.
  • Sacai x NikeLab: Channels Chitose Abe’s design language into garments that carry strong aesthetics in addition to being made of performance fabrics.
  • Aday: Works to create clothing that is technical, seasonless and sustainable.
  • Charli Cohen: Creates technical-wear, born out of a need for evolved clothing and progression within the fashion industry.

A Carton-ful of Chicken and Egg Problems

For techwear to reach its next phase, we might have to figure out a few cyclical issues first:

  • Culture-driven supply and demand: If a common issue is that women’s clothing doesn’t have as many pockets, for example, and designers were to say something like “women don’t need/ask for pockets since they frequently carry purses,” or “the introduction of pockets would ruin the lines,” are these reasons or excuses? Does more vocal demand for more function come first, or more designs including them by default?
  • Sizing: Similarly, designing new fits and sizes takes resources for a brand, for sure. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a market for it—because in the States at least, there is. Again, this might be another question of whether the cultural shift (media etc.) towards representing different body types or the demand for it comes first.
  • Adjustability: Short of getting things custom made, a perfect fit off the rack is nigh impossible to be fair. This would likely be the case even if there were more diverse fits. Is there a middle-ground between extra stretchy but form-fitting and revealing and looser and adjustable but being overloaded with straps, snaps and zippers?
  • Influence-agnostic directions: The promise of techwear also lies in its shedding of tradition combined with its full-blown sprint towards the future (or what we imagine it looks like). It might take a while before we all hang up our jeans and tees for good and start wearing the latest textile tech, though.

The Takeaway

Techwear shows promise of going in bold new directions that mainstream fashion would be hesitant or slow to. Currently, the segment has made some strides through the work of certain brands, even outside of sportswear, but to reach the next level and truly embody its ideals, diversity is needed: This means more interesting explorations of what the techwear “look” can be beyond the influences of old stylistic influences, gender and physique norms and concepts of functionality.

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