Deborah Rutter on ‘Recode Decode’ with Kara Swisher

The latest episode of Recode Decode includes a fantastic interview with Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in the United States.

I had no idea about the Kennedy Center prior to listening to this but I found it absolutely riveting. On the show, Swisher asks Rutter not only about the centre’s history, but also about her varied career and the ways in which she believes that technology can enrich the performing arts. Later in the episode, they discuss the centre’s new collection of free, ‘immersive learning spaces’, called REACH, which is a great example of technology and the performing arts working together to engage diverse audiences.

This was a stand-out line for me, spoken by Rutter:

Technology is a way for you to figure out what you want to do with your primary activity. Don’t try and build technology for technology’s sake but to advance what you want to do with whatever your art form is.

As someone who loves digital devices, I can really relate to this. I don’t want my social accounts and computers to rule me; I want to use them in a way that helps me to be creative and engage with others.

Check out the episode.

Rumination 51: Fabricating/Inventing

I recently finished reading Beyond Good and Evil by Friederich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Frankly, it was one of the most profound, challenging and at times abstract texts that I’ve ever read.

Throughout the book, I came across numerous sections that seemed almost prophetic (aside from some of the more outdated and even offensive sections about women). On the more positive side, Nietszche seemed to have an unbelievable ability to see into human nature, balancing arguments of morality, history, nationalism, science, knowledge, prejudice and nobility. What stood out to me particularly, however, was the way that he argued how people view the world (and thinking about it today, how little has really changed). Section 192 (p. 115) in the chapter On the Natural History of Morals is the best example of this:

‘ As a little as a reader today reads all the individual words (not to speak of the syllables) of a page — he rather takes about five words in twenty haphazardly and ‘conjectures’ their probable meaning — just as little do we see a tree exactly and entire with regard to its leaves, branches, colour, shape; it is so much easier for us to put together an approximation of a tree. Even when we are involved in the most uncommon experiences we still do the same thing: we fabricate the greater part of the experience and can hardly be compelled not to contemplate some event as its ‘inventor’. All this means: we are from the very heart and from the very first — accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.’

Nietzsche published his book in 1886, prior to all the brilliant scientific, technological and medical advancements of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Today, I believe that many people still take for granted a range of technologies that enable us to see, appreciate and interact with the world in all of its complexity, be they satellites, smartphones or medical imaging equipment that takes things down to the most microscopic level. With all the knowledge that we have accumulated and that is now instantly accessible on the Web, people still view the world in a way that is general, narrow and even prejudiced.

Going back to what Nietzsche says about the words and syllables on a page: think about the way that you read online and perhaps are even reading this right now. People now skim over and scan through texts hurriedly, searching for keywords and not always paying the finest attention to each word on the page. We are always in a rush, constantly aware of the next possible piece of content in a feed or upcoming video recommendation. In every text, word choice is deliberate and we don’t always read texts in a way that is critical, appreciative or respectful of the author.

In the excerpt above, I paid particular attention to the words ‘fabricate’ and ‘inventor’. I would argue that many people use our powerful communication tools—smartphones and the Web, specifically— as tools of their own fabrication and invention. Social media, whilst possessing the enormous potential for good and global connection, have become the ultimate channels for lying and misrepresentation. Consider filters on Snapchat, stories on Instagram, sensationalist threads and ‘fake news’ on Twitter and controversial live streams on Facebook: all of these media now offer influencers and casual users alike a way to reduce the complexity and beauty of the world to marketable bits and fabricate desired identities, world-views and narratives.

Beyond the simple, typical use of things like filtered photography to present a preferred image of yourself online, we now see people misusing technology to the point that it distorts their own view of lived events. This ranges from viewing an entire live concert through one’s screen whilst video-recording (affecting appreciation and memory of the event), all the way to live-streaming a massacre on Facebook. What should be tools for connecting people end up becoming either banal habits or ways of publicly destroying people’s lives. As Nietzsche put it, we see ourselves as the inventors of events.

In a world that now requires a relentless stream of new content, producers and viewers now risk a distorted view of the world, opting for ‘an approximation of a tree’ rather than appreciating its entire composition. These mainstream, digital tools, as Nietzsche put so well, have now shown that really ‘one is much more of an artist than one knows’, fabricating and inventing narratives as one sees fit. We are now artists of our own existence. We use new technologies to exacerbate and perpetuate our worst behaviours.

My question is: how many people today are aware that they are fabricating their own world and how many have lost sight of it? The next time that you go to post something online or quickly skim through an article, stop to think about how your production and consumption habits are affecting your own (and others’) view of the entire tree. Look beyond the approximation.

Support Great Storytelling at ‘The Nib’

Image source: ‘The Nib’ and Gemma Correll
Image source: ‘The Nib’ and Gemma Correll

I’m a huge fan of The Nib. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a daily, online comic that features political cartoons, graphic journalism and essays. It was founded by cartoonist Matt Bors in September 2013.

Whilst originally on Medium, Bors moved the digital publication to its own website under First Look Media, along with a membership package called The Inkwell. I’m a very happy subscriber and love to receive the latest edition in my inbox. It covers a range of political, social and historical issues in great detail and with a fantastic satirical style. The first three issues covered the topics of death, family and empire, including a range of amazing stories from the grisly, troubling history of U.S. executions through to ludicrous and hilarious development of reality TV programmes like The Bachelorette.

The other day, however, I was saddened to receive an email from Bors at The Nib, which included the following excerpt:

I have some important news about the future of The Nib and I wanted you to know first.

After three and a half years, First Look Media has decided to no longer fund The Nib at the end of July and me and my team will be let go as part of a broader shift at the company.

They are, however, working to hand the publication over to me so that I can continue The Nib. This will be a major setback but I will be devoting all my time to continuing this publication with contributions from all the editors and cartoonists who have made this publication what it is.

The work that goes into this publication is staggering, with a range of really intelligent, creative illustrators and writers contributing their own stories and style to each edition.

In a world where it’s super-easy to get news for absolutely nothing, consider paying a small fee for a publication like The Nib. I’m not being paid to write this; I just believe in paying for at least some of your news.

Check out The Nib today.

The Conversation: With cryptocurrency launch, Facebook sets its path toward becoming an independent nation

Writing at The Conversation, author Jennifer Grygiel of Syracuse University contributed this fantastic article about Facebook’s announcement of its new cryptocurrency, Libra.

This is a particularly powerful section:

Facebook’s entrance into the financial industry is a threat to democracies and their citizens around the world, on the same scale as disinformation and information warfare, which also depend on social media for their effectiveness.

It may be hard for world leaders to understand that this is an emergency, as they cannot see the virtual powers aligning against them. But they must huddle quickly to ensure they have – and keep – the power to protect their people from technology companies’ greed.

Grygiel goes on to describe how Zuckerberg is essentially building something similar to the Roman Empire, with a central bank, currency and himself as the corporate dictator.

Ever since reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I wondered what would come after the nation state. As our world becomes increasingly globalised, do we really face a future of megastates? It seems like we do, however we haven’t really considered the possibility that such nations won’t be national in the traditional sense. What if this dystopian future of surveillance—which is already upon us in many ways—actually gives birth to a new type of nation: the ‘corpornation’? Indeed, will we start to see ‘corpornational’ wars between Facebook and the likes of Google, Amazon and WeChat in the future?

This may sound ridiculous but people around the world are increasingly losing their belief in traditional institutions and political systems. The leaders of the future may be corporate rather than parliamentary.

My advice is simple: delete your Facebook account. Be a part of the open Web instead.

Riceboy Sleeps Live in Sydney

Last night, along with my sister, I had the privilege of seeing Jónsi and Alex Somers perform their ambient album Riceboy Sleeps for the first time at the Sydney Opera House. The album was released in 2009 and the performance was part of a tenth-anniversary celebration tour, which coincided with Vivid Sydney.

For the live performance, Jónsi and Alex were accompanied onstage by a 21-piece orchestra, a 12-member choir and conductor Robert Ames in the Concert Hall.

To be clear, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to hear this music live. Both musicians have various other musical projects and so much time had passed since its release.

They certainly did not disappoint. Aside from a brief, quiet introduction to the show and a minor break after the opening segment—their All Animals EP—the entire instrumental album was played from start to finish with no spoken interruption.

The orchestral arrangement was absolutely beautiful, with Jónsi and Alex contributing electric and bass guitar (and the signature cello bow) for particular pieces. The percussionist was particularly fascinating to watch, as he stood at the side of the stage and swapped between xylophone, bubble wrap, wobbleboard and a bag of metal items to add extra motifs and character to the music. I had always wondered what had been used to create certain unusual sounds on the album.

There’s no real way to explain this music live other than to say that it seems like music that almost barely exists. Whilst similar to the post-rock catalogue of Sigur Rós, Jónsi and Alex have put together a live show that is somehow both ethereal and deeply resonating. Low strings and bass lines drive the emotion and fill the room, whilst higher-pitched, ephemeral elements twinkle and flicker, almost like a candle that’s about to go out.

One of the highlights, in my opinion, was the song Indian Summer, which opened with piano by Jónsi and escalated gradually into a full orchestral piece with his signature falsetto—an altogether awesome sound.

At the conclusion of the show, Jónsi, Alex and the accompanying musicians received a well-deserved standing ovation. It was one of the most astoundingly beautiful performances that I have ever seen.

As we exited the building, suddenly surrounded by the noise and spectators of Vivid, I couldn’t help but think about how time and space had melted in the theatre. They really transported us to another place.