David Liedle


How we stopped making art when we started making money

Why do we write things down? The spectrum of human expression is so vast that I don’t believe any one person can know all of it. We admire paintings, symphonies, sculptures, architecture… then one day we learn of the existence of Tibetan throat singing, origami, and layered sand art and our universe expands. One thing almost all of us share in common is the expression of thought through writing.

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Writing itself takes many forms. Some experiences are so strong we have an expression: “words cannot describe it.” But you know what I mean when I say that, and I used words to express the thought. Writing is an art form, and whether or not we feel good at it as individuals we can all relate to the desire to express our inner thoughts, feelings, emotions, and opinions through the medium of writing. There’s something special about making our mark; something outside of ourselves that exports the experience we’ve had for consumption by others.

“Real artists ship.” — Steve Jobs

The distribution channels of the written word have been through quite a journey. When stone and clay were the medium of inscription, a single copy existed as the source of truth until time was invested to painstakingly duplicate every mark, every line, and every curve. The role of the scribe was sacred in some cultures, and their product was rare by nature. Things that are rare have an intrinsic worth beyond any other objective measure of value. A pencil may sell for millions of dollars if it was the one and only pencil used by a famous person to write a famous thing.

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The advent of the printing press changed everything. Suddenly we had machines doing massive amounts of labor in a highly efficient manner, and our values shifted. It was no longer the rarity of the written word itself that carried value — it was the author.

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Whether it is humans or machines doing the work to make copies of written words, we understood for millennia that only words of value go through the process of duplication and distribution. To be considered worthy of having your words copied and distributed was a very high honor.

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I remember several distinct careers that I considered prestigious as a child in the 80’s. Actors, musicians, authors — all of these roles were achievable only by those who were “good enough” to fulfill the demanding scrutiny of a society that would support these pursuits financially by purchasing the products of work.

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Like the printing press, the World Wide Web brought another leap forward in technological empowerment, and with it yet another shift in value. Suddenly it was possible for anyone to make their words available to the entire planet, regardless of any objective value contained in the words themselves.

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“lol i no rite kk hmu later bro u mad i no dis a hard time 4 u but u gots 2 b strong an b tru 2 urself kk l8er peace” — Teh Internets

Something interesting happened as these values shifted. The people capable of writing stayed the same. Well, broadly speaking. The scribes who possessed the training and technical skills were given honor and trust by the rulers who employed them. The craftsmen who knew how to construct, operate, and maintain the printing press were ultimately in the same position of technical prowess, and the same can be said of those who knew how to change a typewriter ribbon or publish a website in the early days of modern technology.

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One thing has never changed: the power of the written word itself. Whether it was decreed by royal edict, copied religiously by hand, pressed on paper, typed on a machine, or brought to your home by telephone line and a cathode ray tube, words survive a shocking variety of paradigm shifts in our world.

We often attribute greatness to the things we feel strongly. Here’s a couple of sentences to illustrate my point; which one makes you feel something?

While the Document Object Model has served us well in traditional browser models, the availability of WebAssembly within all major browsers opens the question as to whether we even need the DOM to deliver modern apps on the web. — Illustration 1

Anything? Here’s the second one:

The kitten was so excited to taste freedom in the backyard that we encouraged him to run around for exercise, not realizing that the chain link fence was loose enough at the bottom for an alligator to press its snout and wriggle through. — Illustration 2

For some reason we seem to have an emotional wall erected when words simply state facts. When we tell stories, our emotions engage and we almost need to find out what happens. Great.

The kitten was fine. Don’t worry.

When the Internet enabled the World Wide Web to flood our lives with words from any and every source without reason, without purpose, and often without skill as a filtration mechanism, our brains were presented with something unique: for what may arguably be the first time in history, we are experiencing instant worldwide connections with an exponentially explosive growth in the number of content creators.

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That’s really quite amazing.

I don’t quite know how to process that. It’s a new thing, this mesh of human thought.

Your experience of surfing the web is probably vastly different from mine. Your social groups, interests, and even the language you speak at home may be entirely foreign to me. But here we are, together, in these words, sharing a link between our brains whether you’re just outside the door of my home office (hi, Katya!), experiencing summer while I’m in the middle of winter (hi, Marcelo!), or on the other side of the world (hi, Liela!).

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Much of the frantic struggle to self-organize on the Interwebs has centered around the promotion and presentation of curated content. If you ever found your way to one of my first web pages, you quickly learned that some content is a waste of your time, and you probably felt a little sad or angry that the magic happiness machine that you paid so much money for wasn’t doing its job.

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Rather than convincing a select group of individuals in power to compensate us as they gambled on our ability to connect with an audience, we found ourselves in a massive popularity contest where hate speech, racism, bigotry, and even direct threats of violence were bubbling to the top of society like scum on a pond.

In the comfort of our own homes, we unknowingly stood on the stage of eternity as we instantly, permanently, and very publicly enshrined our least refined thoughts and our basest emotions. There is value in that honesty, to a startling degree. Much like the cameras that followed the cast of the TV series The Office, we’ve been given the gift (and the surprise) of a rather more detailed record of our lives than we would have otherwise had available, and we are surprised by both the scope and nature of these reflections. We are perhaps most surprised by the value of the negative recollections. After all, positive memories have been captured in stories and art since long before the Internet was around.

This novel lens that allows us to observe ourselves and others has a fascinating effect on our group dynamics and personal psychology. I would be very grateful if you’d point me to some good reading on this topic from professionals in the field of sociology and psychology that are examining this effect on the human experience. My perspective is simply technology and business related.

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I’ve been subject to the same social temptations as you during this cultural shift. I wanted to be a rock star or an F-16 pilot or an author when I was young. Part of that was an interest in the activities of these jobs, but a lot was really just pride and the belief that I was special. The fact that I wasn’t a very good singer, too tall to be a jet pilot, and prone to pedantic soliloquies didn’t phase me. The Internet made all of us famous overnight.

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When we see what I’ll refer to as “good” content, we have a positive experience. We could say “bad” content is that which is harmful, poorly prepared or presented, or perhaps inaccurate. Why am I reducing content into the boolean good/bad labels? Because that’s how the Internet feeds on everything we produce. That’s how we process information. There’s good, bad, and mediocre, but mediocre is bad so we’re back to these two. Upvote or downvote; like and share, or report and ban. Retweet, or rage tweet. We’re sifting ourselves.

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Have you ever seen a clip art collection? It’s a pretty foreign concept on the web today, as we can just search for images and illustrations ad hoc and embed them into our media without really thinking about it, but I remember flipping through my grandpa’s Corel Draw printed clip art book and writing down the floppy disk number where I could find a cheesy paperclip or telephone drawing to add to a paper. I like to imagine that somewhere out there, an artist with a penchant for minimalism found their calling and really went to town on those clip art drawings. I’m guessing at some point the list of items needed to complete the set did a bit of the driving though.

It is possible to trick the eye into believing strange things. Sometimes the trick is to make bad content appear as though it is good content.

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This flood of content we wade through every day is often motivated by financial gain. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a different sort of creature from a poem or a drawing your kid made that says “I love you” in glitter and paste.

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There are various levels of balance between “click here/buy now” and “…wiping the tears back from her eyes, he confessed his love at long last…”, but the psychological lock-in of anecdotal affirmation is strong.

Curiosity is also strong. What are 3 ways you can save save time, save money, and be more disciplined over the holidays? I’m not sure either, but that sounds like a great article that somebody should write.

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Then there’s the mysterious “actually…” factor. “Shocking new study proves apples aren’t what doctors fear most.” Great for water cooler domination, but little else. Well, according to sources.

My favorite? Real, nutritious content. No preservatives, no artificial ingredients. Art. Creations that were made because the author cares deeply about the subject.

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I think Technology Evangelism is a great space for real artists to ship good content. Are you a code poet? Do you like writing about technology? Do you look forward to your days off so you can build software projects in multiple languages? Evangelize.

Looking for quality, guilt-free content with purpose? Track down an Evangelist and follow them. I don’t mean the kind that want you to send them private jet money for magic faith oil. I mean the kind that respond to “Show me!” with “Ok, check this out.”

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I think this role-category is a very healthy manifestation of the struggle against the thin veneer of many vaporware sites, products, and services of the dot com era.

When a company genuinely cares about the art and science that goes into the technology their customers use, it shows. It “tastes” different than the other brands. Don’t think that it detracts from traditional marketing and sales at all. It actually sets those roles free to be more transparent, more forthright, and more grounded. Content creators stopped making art when we started making money, and then we started making art again. I’d like to see more creative, artistic, scientific, and engineering roles established as society embraces this mindset.

Ok, but what’s the solution for artists, creators, and authors in general? Technology Evangelists have found the sweet spot, but what about “the rest of us”? Perhaps if we do the opposite of clickbait, things will balance themselves out? I wrote an article about how we stopped making art when started making money. What happened next will surprise you.

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