Monthly Archives: April 2018

What I’ve been thinking about

Sorry for the absence. I’ve been busy for the past year and I expect to be busy until 2019. When I finally have free time, here is some of what I hope to write about:

  • The main theme of these ideas is stagnation: bad things are catching up with good things, but good things aren’t getting any better. In some cases they’re even getting worse. Is aesthetic stagnation real? If so, is it caused by a cultural shift away from exploration and risk-taking, or are we simply running out of things to explore and risks to take?
  • While impressive, progress in media synthesis AI seems focused on creating ersatz versions of things that already exist. The optimistic view is that AI will democratize access to visual effects, leading to a creative renaissance. But is the limiting factor for a renaissance really a lack of access to expensive rendering tools, or a dearth of original ideas? Have cheaper tools always led to great works by unknown artists, or merely a handful of great works in a vast sea of banal hobbyism? Is the ratio getting worse over time?
  • South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have cleverly pointed out the “rule of replacing ands with either buts or therefores, a maxim of attention manipulation that as recently as the last decade would have seemed like artistic common sense. Lately, however, there seems to be a trend away from such contours and toward a kind of miasmic, ambient vibeyness. In general, works have fewer “buts per minute”. They’re less likely to subvert themselves or utilize overt surprise. I’ve noticed it in music as well as storytelling — contemporary pop feels more like riding a train than a rollercoaster. Is the vibe trend real? Is it a deliberate rebellion against the tyranny of narrative? A backlash against previous generations’ irreverence and distrust of religious ecstasy? Mere risk aversion? Or is viable innovation so scarce, artists have been reduced to doing things wrong on purpose to stand out, like an engineer responding to technological stagnation by making machines less efficient on purpose.
  • What defines the boundary of an idea? To be clear, I’m not talking about intellectual property (though IP law may be instructive). Idea units in narrative are something more like macro-arcs and micro-arcs. Think “premise, but twist” but at multiple levels. What makes these fractal twists weaker or stronger? Can artist/audience symbiosis develop to the point that all pretend to not notice when a twist is weak?
  • In theory, noticing cliches should act to move production away from those cliches. But in practice, the cliches are “kosherized” by noticing them and nothing changes. Why?
  • I’m a fan of the explorable explanations scene. I’m excited because they have the potential to deliberately optimize art’s ability to make you think. In this sense, they seem to reside on a continuum with network narratives like The Wire — a continuum I hope will be filled in with new tools of varying intellectual “expense” as it undergoes market segmentation. Since one of their primary features is the opportunity to expose oneself to complexity, and people react to complexity in different ways, how will the artists and technologists who create these tools handle user reactions to it? With regard to political complexity, what if they just spread apathy? What if spreading apathy is actually good?
  • I’m fascinated by the border between what can and can’t be measured. Are more things becoming measurable over time? What kind of power does measurement give us, and what kind does abstaining from measurement give us? Are measurable things seen as less “sacred” than unmeasurable things? The Two Cultures seem to be made of quantitative thinkers and qualitative thinkers. Each are sensitive to a different kind of nuance and rigor, but the qualitative thinkers are the de facto guardians of the (temporarily) unmeasurable. Will they perform the necessary sacrifice of nuance that measurability requires, even if it means jeopardizing their jobs as gatekeepers?
  • Fandom, fetishism, and nerdism are all essentially the same belief: that the local optimum is the global optimum. They may value noticing that one is in a system, but they don’t value jumping out of it. How does the prevalence of cultural patterns such as these interfere with aesthetic innovation?
  • I’ve noticed two fundamentally different attitudes toward aesthetic experiences. One is primarily focused on recording, collecting, and “respecting” one’s own experiences, as well as the experiences of others. The other is primarily focused on the design and optimization of experiences for widespread consumption. The two have an odd symbiosis. Without designer/optimizers, collector/respecters would have nothing to collect and respect. Conversely, it’s hard to optimize without some form of customer feedback. When and how does “respect” interfere with optimization?
  • Every day, millions of people have the same deliberately designed experiences for almost exactly the same reasons. Despite this, many still believe subjectivity is sacred, unknowable, and infinitely diverse. Why? What might become possible if they didn’t?
  • When people use the word “representation”, they’re usually referring to one of two things: an abstraction technique or an individual who serves the interests of a larger group. Nowadays, concerns about the latter seem to be outcompeting concerns about the former. Has the technological progress of portrayal itself slowed so much that the only progress left is in who gets to be portrayed?
  • Civilization advances according to what it makes optional. This process has two major trade-offs: it depletes the meaning generated by having no choice, and it forces people to be responsible for their own connoisseurship. Are recommendation engines and algorithmic content really the best way to cope? If machines only give us what we’re capable of articulating precisely, will we get better at identifying and expressing our desires?