January 16, 2020

So you're curious? Turns out there's just something "wrong" with you.

We’ve always thought of curiosity in a certain way that implies a rational process. But a recent study by a team at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research suggests that our curiosity comes from failures in that very rational process, what could be considered mental errors.

The Slot Machine

A study by a team at Inserm (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) has shown that most of these choices are not motivated by curiosity but by errors caused by the brain mechanisms implicated in evaluating our options.

  • The Setup: around one hundred subjects played a slot machine-style game where they chose between two symbols representing uncertain rewards.
  • On the Left: The left-hand symbol won them money previously, so choosing this implies exploiting known options.
  • On the Right: The right-hand symbol hasn’t been tried recently and implies exploring uncertain options.

The researchers recorded the participants’ brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging. They found that the same brain regions that activated when the participants explored uncertain symbols were the same ones that activated when they committed errors of reasoning.

Why this is important

“This finding is important, because it implies that many choices in favor of the unknown are made unbeknownst to us, without our being aware of it—our participants have the impression of choosing the best symbol and not the most uncertain, but they do it on the basis of wrong information resulting from errors of reasoning,” team leader, Valentin Wyart said in a statement.

In other words, the results of this study lend at least some evidence against the more popular hypothesis that curiosity is a more rational process where we seek out stimuli that will help us weigh our options and make better choices. It potentially adds another theory as to why we’re curious which include:

  • Curiosity-drive theory: we desire coherence and when that’s disrupted, exploring and making sense of this undesirable certainty gives us back that coherence. For example, “I have to find out the truth about what happened.”
  • Optimal-arousal theory: this theory suggests that even without the presence of uncertainty, people are looking for the just the right amount of mental stimulation from simply exploring. For exampe, always trying new things.
  • Integration of the reward pathway into theory: this theory ties the desire and seeking of new information into our reward centers where we assign value to new information as reward. For example, “t his book could help me get ahead.”

The Takeaway

While the study does imply a lack of rational control over the curiosity that might lead us to some incredible discovery (history is replete with these kinds of accidents), it doesn’t explain the case for all of us.

After all, we’ve likely experienced curiosity due to some mechanism described by the other theories mentioned, and there is acknowledgment of different types of curiosity prevalent in different people and situations.

Regardless of how we decide to interpret the study, we could simply take it as a good thing: Even if it’s actually the result of a glitch in our brains, if we tend to willingly explore the unknown and that means there’s something “wrong with us” then it’s a fault we’ll embrace along with our many others.

January 9, 2020

The Darker Side: Malevolent Creativity

We commonly think of creativity as a purely positive, enabling quality, but can it be used in a way that’s explicitly harmful? We unpack the idea of malevolent creativity and how it manifests in today’s world.

What is Malevolent Creativity?

To understand what malevolent creativity is, it helps to set out a few terms:

  • Malevolence: the intent to harm people
  • Imagination: involves generating sensory experiences (though not strictly “seeing”) in varying degrees of vividness that aren’t real,
  • Creativity: the ability to produce original ideas out of other ones using that very imagination.

Taken together, malevolent creativity relies on the imagination to come up with new ideas that are explicitly meant to harm people when executed. In a paper on the subject, researchers David H Cropley, James C. Kaufman, and Arthur Cropley describe it as: “Such creativity is deemed necessary by some society, group, or individual to fulfill goals they regard as desirable, but has serious negative consequences for some other group, these negative consequences being fully intended by the first group.”

How it manifests today

While blatant examples would include the aforementioned cons or new, more efficient weapons for use in war, malevolent creativity is of particular concern when channeled through the power of online media, especially at a time when it’s never been easier for the average person with an internet connection to create and distribute media on their own.

To understand how bad this could get, it helps to look back to 2012’s Innocence of Muslims, a film by convicted fraudster Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (who is actually Mark Basseley Youssef, who also initially claimed to be an Israeli magnate named Sam Bacile). Over the course of the production and into its release and promotion (both on and offline), stakeholders were repeatedly misled as to the film’s content and intent, with actors having their lines dubbed over in post production to contain anti-Islamic messaging. Despite the abysmal production value, the notoriety behind the film and its deliberate positioning as a legitimate feature film retelling the life of the prophet Muhammad triggered violent reactions throughout the world, resulting in protests and deaths.

Unfortunately, the same sort of provocative and malevolent creativity is just as pervasive in 2020’s divided societies — it’s just that it rarely presents itself as blatantly as a definable “work” as the above film as we’d associate with an author or artist. Instead, it’s a mindset where imagination, intelligence and technical skill — all in differing amounts depending on the creator — to do something negative to someone.

In these cases, the products of that malevolent creativity, whether it be crappy memes, shoddily re-edited videos, fake news, or technically polished if defamatory Photoshop jobs. And if it’s none of these types of throwaway content, it’s bits and pieces of text or voice dropped off at different corners of the Internet — all of which have neither helpful intent of critique nor the finesse of satire, but are often disguised as such. To griefers, trolls and bigots, their invective is, despite how unrefined it is, still about finding innovative ways to cause damage to those they interact with and it’s sadly been working.

The Takeaway

Make no mistake, we aren’t saying that all creativity and its products should aim to inform, inspire or entertain others. It’s also perfectly fine to create with the simple aim of expressing yourself and even using it as the very solution to the negative creativity we apply to ourselves (such as catastrophizing or self-loathing). And to be sure, your work could also strive to draw attention to an issue, criticize ideas or people, or just not sit well with the sensibilities of a certain audience.

Those are all perfectly valid reasons to keep on creating and creating good work at that. But for those who create with the express aim of building bridges between people, now has never been a better time to double down on that goal. Malevolent creativity (and the malevolence that catalyzes it) is still not as widely understood or researched as benevolent or positive creativity, but at least one study, titled “Why Social Threat Motivates Malevolent Creativity,” gives some evidence to what we’ve believed for a while:

  • We all have imaginations we use to picture things good or bad.
  • Many people use their imagination to create new things.
  • We are motivated to find solutions to fulfill purposes or solve problems we perceive.
  • Motivation increases with a sense of urgency.
  • Urgency can be shaped by our perception of threats, which can also be shaped and misinformed.

In short, when we perceive there’s a fight to be won at this moment, that can get our brains working in ways that find solutions to benefit us at the expense of others; the harder we think we have to fight to beat someone, the more harmful our solutions can become.

December 19, 2019

How the new gig economy law impacts other freelancers

The future of work is in the process of being defined with a new series of developments in California. The flexibility of freelancing (naturally with all of its downsides) is now being rewritten and redefined, which may limit those who are somewhere between being free enough to contribute a substantial amount but aren’t considered valuable enough to some companies to go full time.

What happened?

Vox Media recently let go hundreds of California-based freelance writers and editors that used to cover sports for its SB Nation blog network. The reason? Compliance with California Assembly Bill 5 ( commonly known as AB 5). The law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020 was originally meant to target ride-share giants such as Uber and Lyft, forcing them to treat their contracted drivers as employees with the appropriate benefits.

The bill does have larger ramifications beyond drivers, however: It would also apply to writers and potentially affects other knowledge and culture workers, according to Jori Finkel. “The law already carves out many exceptions for particular professions, including accountants, real estate agents, insurance brokers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, private investigators, salespeople and commercial fishermen,” she explains. “In the cultural sphere, architects, graphic designers, grant writers, and fine artists are identified as exempt, as are photojournalists and journalists who contribute fewer than 35 times a year to a particular company or publication.”

The gist of AB 5

AB5 is meant to give protections to contracted workers who don’t receive the same benefits for the amount of work they do relative to regular employees, such as minimum wage, worker compensation, insurance, paid vacation and sick leave.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of California ruled to impose stricter requirements for the classification employees, which gig workers were previously excluded from. The court made a 3-part test (known as the ABC test) where employers had to prove that their workers were properly classified as independent contractors under these conditions:

  • The worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact
  • The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business
  • The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity

This newer test doesn’t apply to jobs falling within a select number of categories. That said, even after passing ABC, the hiring party might have to demonstrate they’re classified properly under the Borello test, an older standard.

Flexible Freedom vs. Structured Protection

Some supporters say that aside from the protections offered above, the bill would prevent the state from losing billions from payroll taxes the contractors and companies hiring them do not pay. Comparatively, opponents say it would increase labor costs by 30%, which would be passed on to customers while reducing service and flexibility for workers.

Some believe that the bill signals “the death of the gig economy.” Brittany Hunter, for one, emphasizes the difference between employment and contracting, the backbone of the highly developed gig economy, which was never meant to be a traditionally structured sector.

Ultimately, it’s challenging to assess whether the bill is good or bad because it depends on how we think the parameters should lie with respects to work:

Protection versus Exploitation: Similar to how tax avoidance is legal and tax evasion is illegal, many companies will likewise try to legally limit how much they have to pay to benefit from the services of a worker. But of course, the sometimes ambiguous nature of contract work, especially how it unfolds in the relatively recent gig economy, means there’s room for exploitation, which is what drove some of the need for the legal protections offered by AB 5.

Structure versus Flexibility: Arguably one of the big draws to remaining a contractor is the flexibility that the over one-third of Americans have used to build or supplement their incomes. For some, the lack of commitment of a formal employment contract means a lack of the same benefits and protections, but also the lack of obligations like minimum working hours or for some, the need to even work at all.

Quality versus Quantity: By making it more expensive to employ people, in theory, fewer people will create output for the media industry, this means less content, and perhaps worse content if freelancers played a crucial role in driving certain facets of a business. Alternatively, this could increase a reliance on passionate but unpaid workers, which of course, isn’t a good look for any industry.

The Takeaway

Vox’s move to cut writers showcases how compliance with new laws largely meant for one segment of an industry (the ride-sharing and maybe food delivery aspect of the gig economy) spills over into creative work.

The law offers protections in the form of structures that both employer and contractor (or employee) have to abide by. But when companies that benefit from the gig economy “take it out” on contracted workers to adhere to laws, it can mean less freedom (and work) for those who don’t want or need the protections of those regulations. But more crucially, it puts yet another stressor on workers who can’t secure more permanent jobs and are in the gig economy out of necessity.

This is bound to raise questions as to how much or little intervention is needed in the free market that produced the colossal gig economy we see today, especially depending on whether we view gigs as a symptom of today’s widespread job insecurity and the need to work for life at all costs or the key to being our own bosses and shaping our own careers free from bureaucratic corporate jobs.

December 16, 2019

A Creative's Dilemma: To Declare Multi-Hyphenate or Not?

Now that our side-hustle(s) have gone full-time, what meaning does “multi-hyphenate” have for creative careers? We look at how several titles could indicate both an interest in building a career in a lot of things or the need to cling to several lifelines at once.

Moving away from specialization

In her article for The Outline, Nikki Shaner-Bradford summarizes the transition away from assembly line-style specialization (“Fordism,” in honor of Henry Ford) as aligning with our transition towards an economy based around knowledge, information and the production of content.

As to whether being a multi-hyphenate is a good or bad thing, let’s look at some possibilities as to what the term implies:

  • Specificity: By including fields that capture the scope of your capability and expertise, being a multi-hyphenate provides another branding differentiator that can help prospective clients immediately understand the breadth of your skills. In an era that emphasizes the personal brand, embracing being a multi-hyphenate communicates exactly what you’re good at and who you are — a three-word resume for the 280-character world.
  • Survival: The flipside is that, depending on who sees the title, being a multi-hyphenate could be seen as both an outcome and symptom of the gig economy, one where people need multiple side hustles to make ends meet. In this case, the forward-facing image of an assured multi-hyphenate rests on an undeclared base of useful and interconnected talents, but which are all rigidly aligned towards getting paid work.
  • Ownership: Where you’re able to make a living from your talents and assuming your strike that much sought-after work-life rhythm, the best case scenario for a multi-hyphenate creative is being able to make enough money from something you love without burning out.
  • Insecurity: Because there are just so many “full stack creatives” (remember that word?) the catchall multi-hyphenate identity may be a means of compensating for the fact that when we all do largely the same type of work, we might not have a particularly unique selling point.

As Shaner-Bradford puts it: “The rise of the “multi-hyphenate” has ironically eliminated the need for any specificity at all, instead implying a complex creative identity grounded in a jack-of-all trades ideal that conflates production potential with individual worth.”

Employability and passion entangled

The reality of the multi-hyphenate is complicated because the prevalence of the term alone is the product of a culture that both encourages multi-hyphenates to do what they love and penalizes them for doing it by under-recognizing and under-valuing their work.

Furthermore, not all multi-hyphenates get to benefit from the term, as Shaner-Bradford points out: “the term inherently privileges certain skills over others, particularly those of knowledge workers who often hold secondary degrees, and idealizes a form of labor that becomes absorbed into personal identity, diminishing work-life balance and generating further barriers to worker solidarity.”

This is true when you take a look at the litany of plausible multi-hyphenate titles you could see nowadays where the aforementioned “three-word resume” tells a story but doesn’t give a complete picture of a person. Compare terms like photographer-neuroscientist-writer, DJ-model-yoga instructor, and filmmaker-blogger-podcaster — the combination of titles, the order and the fields they stem from all give a different impression depending on who reads it.

The Takeaway

Financial insecurity and uncertain futures mean that many creatives are constantly evaluating and preparing for near eternal employability. Granted, upgrading skill-sets and constant training are a reality in any profession, even a specialized one, but it’s a question of whether monetizing certain skill-sets is out of desire or survival.

It’s up to the the multi-hyphenates themselves (which include a lot of creatives) to define what the term means to them and the rest of society. One way to see how much the multi-hyphenate title is weighted toward your personal identity, your career or both is to ask yourself: would I still call myself this even if weren’t working on a project at the moment or didn’t have a client lined up?

For those who don’t want to  declare themselves multi-hyphenate, what’s the alternative? MAEKAN’s Charis Poon finds usefulness in describing the nature of your work in actions as opposed to titles, which allows you to factually and specifically communicate what you do (regardless if you’re being paid to do it or not) without limiting yourself to the connotations of a given role.

 

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 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 4, 2019

The Importance of the Daily "Brain Shower" aka Sleep

The Wired’s Sara Harrison breaks down the results of a study by Dr. Laura Lewis on the importance of sleep (as if you needed another reminder). Lewis and her team at Boston University Lab have revealed how our body clears toxins out of our brains as we sleep.

The Study

The study aimed to test the role of non-REM (deep) sleep in removing toxins in the brain by examining sleep cycles that were as realistic as possible. Here’s how they did that:

  • Late nights: to ensure the sleep cycles were as realistic as possible, subjects were instructed to stay up late the night before so that they could drift off easily at midnight, when the tests were run.
  • Non-invasive: Participants had to lie down and fall asleep inside an MRI machine and were fitted with an EEG cap to measure the currents flowing through their brains. The test was as non-invasive as possible, even forgoing the use of injected dye commonly used for mapping out the body during MRIs.
  • Isolating Metrics: the MRI measured the levels of oxygen and cerebrospinal fluid — the clear liquid found in the brain and spinal cord — in the brain. This was to better understand their relationship during sleep.

Harrison notes how Dr. Lewis sacrificed her own sleep for science to conduct the late night study, running tests until 3am before sleeping in the next day: “It’s this great irony of sleep research,” Lewis says. “You’re constrained by when people sleep.”

The Findings

Lewis found that during non-REM sleep (also known as deep sleep), the following took place:

  • Neurons synchronize:These specialized cells that transmit impulses start to switch on and off at the same time.
  • Blood flow decreases: When they switch off or “go quiet” they have less need for oxygen and as a result, blood flow to the brain decreases.
  • CSF fills in:  When this happens, cerebrospinal fluid rushes into the added space and washes over the brain in large slow waves.

The results builds off of a previous 2013 study led by neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard that showed toxins like beta amyloid, a potential contributor to Alzheimer’s disease, was cleared out in mice during sleep. Suffice to say sleep is as important for humans as it is for mice.  “[The paper is] telling you sleep is not just to relax,” says Nedergaard. “Sleep is actually a very distinct function.”

The Implications

Harrison notes that this study only focused on non-REM sleep in healthy young adults and not on other sleep cycles and in older people, which means more research is needed. Still, the findings might help improve treatment for conditions such as Alzheimer’s: where previous medications just focused on targeting certain molecules like beta amyloid, understanding the important role cerebrospinal fluid plays means a new path towards other treatments. For one, Nedergaard says, future treatments might emphasize increasing the amount of cerebrospinal fluid washing over the brain.

Where we’re going with this

Even if we don’t have Alzheimer’s, we can’t ignore the important relationship between sleep, healthy brain function and mental health, issues of which are exacerbated by sleep problems especially in those with pre-existing conditions. To add to that, workers in our creative industry are more susceptible to certain issues such as depression.

Even for those who don’t suffer from said issues, it’s unlikely we’ll hear the conclusive end of the debate on how much sleep is good for creativity, with some arguments broadly praising the benefits of less sleep and others suggesting it depends on the type of creative. For that reason, we’re not going to flat-out suggest you get more sleep than you need to feel good nor will we be penning an Analysis titled “Why You Don’t Actually Need to Sleep That Much” anytime soon.

Rather, we take this study as proof of the overall importance of a good night’s sleep, which now that we see how cerebrospinal fluid is involved, could be affectionately (and accurately) called our daily “brain shower.” Just like a real shower, the exact length varies by the individual and you take as long as you need to start/end your day feeling clean, refreshed and creative.

October 31, 2019

Smart Brevity & "Dumbing Down"

We look at how Dr. Ian Bogost views the misplaced academic fear of needing to dumb down ideas for wider audiences and how to reframe that perspective. We also break down how to approach gaps in knowledge in situations where we assume the role of educator or expert.

Smart Brevity vs. Dumbing Down

Speaking about academics lamenting the need to dumb down their work to reach broader audiences, editor for The Atlantic Ian Bogost (and scholar himself), argues that if you write from a place of contempt, your information might not be so valuable and you might not be so smart after all: “Doing that work—showing someone why a topic you know a lot about is interesting and important—is not “dumb”; it’s smart,” he says. “If information is vital to human flourishing but withheld by experts, then those experts are either overestimating its importance or hoarding it.”

We can’t ignore the fact that we have unprecedented access to information and people have a need to know — whether out of genuine curiosity or anxiety out of not knowing. As such it’s become equally important for audiences to be able to absorb large amounts of complex information and media to process that for them, especially on relevant if specialized topics.

We previously wrote about the importance of slow journalism, the long-form content it tends to produce and the need for audiences to make time to actually process information again. Axios, for one, was launched with both the intention of sharing important (and accurate) information efficiently. In fact, this very Analysis series was inspired by Axios’ approach to “smart brevity” with the aim of helping readers make sense of the world around them.

In short, if you’re frequently in a position where people turn to you for knowledge, it’s less that you have to deign to “dumb down” your ideas — not too far off from the fear of “watering down” the craft for exposure that many creatives have — but rather, you have to get creative with how you package them if you deem them important enough to share.

Dumbing down is not as big a threat as imagined

To debunk the myth of dumbing down as being necessary to impart knowledge (especially if coming from a more formal context of expertise like academia), Bogost says scholars need to keep two key things in mind:

  • Context is Key: Where scholars need to write and publish a means of gaining the reputational currency to fund their careers, writing outside of the academic context is for different purposes. Similarly, what you do as an artist (title or not) will differ what you do if and when you do client work or collaborations.
  • We’re All in the Same Boat: Bogost notes that unlike other experts, academics are often teachers and as such, are involved in careers that emphasize helping people anyways. He also points out that writers and journalists write with the same core intention as well, even if yes, their work does also serve double-duty for career advancement.

We personally recall some professors in junior courses that would instruct us to write as if we were talking to non-experts and others in later courses emphasizing the need to speak directly to the expert grading them. It’s less about which approach is correct, but that the audience — the very people listening to our message — should be at the center. So in the context of creatives, we’d add another special point:

  • Don’t Throw Them Into the Deep End: As creatives, you need to communicate ideas of varying complexity to all types of people. Thinking of how to move the narrative (or production) along begins with something shallow but progressively, you’re bringing them deeper into the story, opportunity, or workflow. This isn’t a hard-fast rule because naturally, some things are common knowledge and others can be inferred, especially if you work with someone closely and regularly.

The Takeaway

When it comes to different contexts where knowledge is exchanged, whether it be in a public talk, in a private meeting or on set, there will always be scenarios where someone doesn’t get it or wants to know more. It simply comes with the diverse territory we work in.

Yet in all cases, sharing of knowledge — assuming it’s that it’s true to the name and not flaunting how much you know — has to come from a place of sincerity that takes effort to:

  • Get to the point intelligently: to render the most helpful amount of knowledge and in the most helpful terms necessary for a person to understand its importance if not do something with that information.
  • Reserve judgment: not everyone is a serial Googler (or reader of decks and briefs, sadly). You will always encounter situations where there will be a gap in up-to-date knowledge, expertise or understanding, and you will be on either side at some point. There’s no certificate or badge of honor for you to rattle off what you casually absorb on Reddit, in your news feed or anecdotally and yet be unable to actually explain that information to the uninitiated.
  • Reach understanding: means actively and dare we say, creatively, searching for new angles or means of communicating ideas, intents, and emotions so that we reach understanding — even if we don’t reach consensus.
  • Direct frustration: We aim to keep anger and frustration to a minimum projects in a way that’s distinct from pointing out gross errors or maintaining a sense of urgency on tight deadlines. Try as we may, we still might not reach understanding, however. But if you’re redirecting frustration at the situation rather than people, you’re more likely to focus your limited energies on immediate problem-solving as opposed to “hunting for the screw-up.” Save that for the debrief.

The final caveat is, of course, if you’re creating as an act of expression and less of communication or if you’re doing so for a niche audience. If you as an expert in your style or your work isn’t intended to be understood or engaged with by a broad range of people, then by all means, stay true to your vision and don’t let the need for greater exposure cloud that.

October 25, 2019

The Coming Age of Fake Faces and Voices

As AI and machine learning become better at reproducing human likenesses and speech, we wonder how society and the creative industries will cope once the technology becomes widespread. We look at the possible ramifications of Deepfakes and the lesser-known Adobe speech engine VoCo, dubbed “Photoshop for the voice”.

Deepfakes and VoCo

By now, the Internet is no stranger to Deepfakes, whether it’s through hearing about its baser use cases or laughing our way through “re-cast” scenes from iconic films. The technology uses multiple images or footage of a person’s face to create an animated model that can be superimposed atop the original. But few seem to be aware of a similar and arguably, more powerful technology: fake voices. When it was announced in 2016, VoCo was touted as Adobe’s “Photoshop for voice” and while updates have been sparse since, other similar platforms have stepped in, such as LyreBird.

To get a feel for what Voco can do, check out this video where the technology was first debuted at Adobe MAX 2016. It shows the speech engine replicating the voice of actor and director Jordan Peele (who co-hosted) to make him say some funny but embarrassing things he has never said before — all using only 20 minutes of his recorded speech. Coincidentally, Peele also made a PSA where he provided the voice of a deepfaked President Obama in an effort to underscore a renewed need for media literacy in the age of Deepfakes.

Misinformation, Echo Chambers and Social Fallout

We’re continuing to keep a pulse on the potential for big data to amplify narratives, sway conversations and change culture for better or worse. Unfortunately, in the age of fake news, fact-checking is playing a losing game of cat and mouse with dubiously factual content or straight-up misinformation.

We’ve always used a combination of technology and creativity — well-intentioned or malicious — to shape reality, whether it means “cheating” shots to get a certain look on a budget or doctoring media for libelous reasons. Yet every generation has also had experts that keep us informed of how these things are done. The issue that’s most worrying is both that the tech is improving and we’re not listening anymore: even when shown evidence against their beliefs, people will dig in their heels and defend them.

Social media’s information silos and echo chambers threaten to become even worse once the average tech-savvy netizen is able to Deepfake and VoCo-lize with ease. When we lose the ability to trust our senses that much more (something we’ve already been losing as of late), it makes even the most engaged of us despondent to the state of the world and eager to just shut everything off.

The Potential Creative Outcomes

All said, it would be cynical to conclude that the only uses for these technologies are nefarious ones. “Hate the player, not the game,” as they say and we see a lot of potentials for Deepfakes and Voco to assist artists and creative workers.

For creatives providing their likenesses or voices and the people processing them, we see this new dynamic going one of several ways:

  • Quick Fixes: Not unlike content aware tools for Photoshop, Deepfakes and VoCo-like technology can help patch up more severe mistakes that can’t be done with conventional editing of the source material. This will evidently, lower the cost of reshoots and other production expenses as Adobe originally stated for VoCo.

As always, getting things done right the first time will always prevail, and for that there will be someone still thankful for not having to Deepfake or Voco correct hours of poorly captured footage, not to mention it still might not replace the real thing (which is why practical film effects still have an edge on CGI in many cases).

  • Updated Terms: We imagine there is a need to update contracts down the line that prevents someone from creating derivative content off of the images provided for a given project. For instance, an agency could create advertising materials out of video footage of us from say, a music video — so long as we’ve signed off on it.

But as the legal stance on deepfakes and similar content catches up, we could see the addition of key clauses that stipulate something to the effect of : “the client shall not create new material generated by AI taught using the artist’s likeness, voice or previous work.” Or if we allowed it, we could negotiate to be compensated depending on how much content is generated against a portion of our day rate (we’re going to assume the original voice of Siri, Susan Bennett was paid handsomely for her efforts).

  • Composite People: If Generated Photos’ 100,000 Faces project (which generated as many portraits through machine learning) has taught us anything, it’s that AI is getting better and better at generating realistic likenesses of people (albeit portraits of them). We can and should protect the rights to our unique selves and content generated from them, but what if we become less than a thousandth of a generated person in body or voice? Perhaps we could be entitled to a thousandth of the royalties, depending on the platform!

The Takeaway: A Re-Shuffling of the Creative Landscape

All in all, we still don’t know how much machine-generated personalities will change the creative landscape just yet, but we doubt it will be a clear-cut net positive or negative. Take our previous example of digital clothing collections made for the gram: in cases like these, the designer keeps their job, the pattern maker loses theirs, and the 3D modeler posing outfits onto customer photos gained a new one.

Even once we get to the stage where we’re using fully-posable photorealistic models of digital people using text-to-speech that nails personality, we predict the most-respected work and their creators will continue to pride themselves on employing, connecting with and working with real humans that can think for themselves, versus simply doing or saying what they’re programmed to do.

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