Years ago, I read somewhere that the word ‘essay’ comes from or is the French word for ‘to attempt’, or ‘to try’. I was in maybe the fourth of six years of my meandering, start-stop undergrad education and had come to think of the essay as little more than an academic chore—a form of writing that, if it hadn’t been designed as such, had at least since become little more than a weak-but-better-than-multiple-choice mode of proving and evaluating learning. To write an essay was to collect your thoughts into something tidy and coherent for a specific audience (a teacher) to read and assess in a specific way. I was never fond of school, in part because I’m rather lazy and as such didn’t foster my own curiosity until my early 20s, but mostly because I’ve always had a problem with authority, in both the conventional civic and social senses as well in a deeper, more primitive way, that, like sex, violence, and air, seems both cosmically large and atomically small in how it affects and is affected by virtually everything in our lives in some perversely Eschered Newtonian symbiosis. I joke with friends that I’m still an angsty teenager at heart, but the way I feel when I’ve been told to do something by someone whom I’ve given the power to do so—regardless of whether it’s something I want to—isn’t so much petulant indignation as it is a physiological revulsion that often generates a very real nausea or exhaustion, like a monosyllabic grunt from my hindbrain telling me that that fish is probably unfuckable, or that even though that douchebag is drunk, he could probably still kick my ass, or that I should hold my breath when I enter an office bathroom after someone’s just left it visibly sweating.
But ‘to attempt’? What a fresh perspective; how crudely I’d misapprehended the form. Here I’d been led to believe an essay’s worth lay in the harmony of its soundness and validity, that it could be practically and succinctly (and even quantifiably, in the case of numeric scoring) evaluated, and that it was necessarily self-contained (or guidingly referential) and complete, when the very goddamn name of the thing implies—nay, says—that it is, at best, optimistically indeterminate. Because save for some notable exceptions, like making conceptual art, falling in love, and picking your nose, the event of achievement, of an attempt’s success, obviates the call for discussion of or reflection on the attempt itself. So an essay, if true to its nymic roots, ought to be an inconclusive forward gesture at a future which remains forever undetermined within the boundaries of the text, or it ought to be a failure in its own present, with its very existence serving as a meta testimony to its inadequacy. In a capitalist civilization, an essay ought to be inherently defiant and anti-authoritarian in its permanent conditions of ambiguity, unproductivity, and irreducible complexity. An iridescent floating stone.
We are raised to live our lives writing tedious, myopic, and defensible academic essays to be graded by teachers whom we select from a short list of names we don’t recognize, and if we do, it’s because one of them published an unremarkable exegesis of an esoteric critical theory book and is now in residence at our school while rewriting it into a preface for that book’s second edition of 20 copies, five of which will be given to other institutions to sit unread on dusty shelves until their libraries are scanned and demolished and 15 of which will be listed on an Amazon Marketplace storefront with zero previous sales for $150 each and will there remain until one of the teacher’s former students orders one eight years later and contacts Amazon when it doesn’t arrive after two weeks and Amazon’s customer service team isn’t able to reach the seller because he died three years earlier from an aneurysm or some other terrifyingly mysterious but also mundane thing and his widow doesn’t really even understand what email is so they refund the student’s money and close the storefront, or it’s because we heard one of them is known for fucking his worst students and trying to fuck his best ones, and that’s if we’re lucky enough to even get a choice—usually we aren’t. And it’s fine if you want to write those essays, but I can’t—I get that feeling in my gut, that reptilian instinct—and my only choice is to write essays which embrace their etymology; essays which are loose, wayward, reckless, self-indulgent, and failing attempts at the unachievable.
I lean over the sink in the bathroom and watch the glass vibrate me into something softer but more immediate. My mouth is dry as though I’ve been speaking, the way a muscle is weaker unworked. I feel the sub through all my contacts, but more in my bellwether guts, these slick spinning pouches in dead and polluted sunset hues which bounce with anatmospheric velocities through blood somehow classically scarlet and default web green, DVD player screensaver endocrinology. Above the sub a gaussy whorl of antialiasing importunement cedes and grades with the dumb blunt hashes of a detuned rotary against a flat wet rubber which misconducts the choir into sixth echo returns, returning all at once, a discharged battery of billions. O billions. The billions on my skin, skinny billions skinning billions, my softer skin, me more immediate. The door opens and everything is just a song again and a woman takes this chance to ask why I’m in here and I explain I used to be a whatever boy with static pages full of killers and killeds scattered on my bed, floor, whatever, and that I am now a whatnever man with a desk that extends to both walls, covered in a desperately clinical tessellation of dynamic pages full of lovers and money-lovers who live so good it hurts me in unnamed places. The woman laughs and then uses the bathroom and then kisses me and then leaves and then the door closes. And then more above the sub a gay seraphic boomerang tears the balm and forth from it a hot blue open of precisely terrifyingly yes exactly thank billions exactly and forever exquisitely this yes—and then cooling, and then closed, and then no, and then what.
I’ve read a number of large, seminal novels over the last few years. Three of them are Gravity’s Rainbow, Dhalgren, and Underworld. Each of these books, in its own way, features a fear of the bomb—through war and rocket fascinations in Gravity’s Rainbow, through the staled and curious aftermath of an unknown cataclysmic event or series of events in Dhalgren, and through good old Cold War dread in Underworld. Where plain history falls short, culture teaches me that 40 years of our parents’ generation was in some way defined by the pervasive fear of nuclear annihilation and fallout.
What fear will define our generation? What fear should define our generation?
There’s a lot of shallow wisdom on the internet (and in print) about the creative process. I try to avoid it, but I’d be lying if I hadn’t found myself looking at one of those charts, thinking, “Well if a brisk afternoon stroll got Freud to sit back down and put words on the page, maybe it’ll do the same for me.” The reality, of course, is that I have to make rent and fill my bovinely bottomless stomach and so I spend far more afternoons than I’d like working on commercial projects, often times in—gasp—offices, so brisk afternoon walks are difficult to take, justify, or remember to take.
There is one creative process cliché I can get behind, though, and that’s the idea of purging all your shitty work. The idea that if you just keep at it, you will eventually produce something worth the effort. I’ve lost sight of this over the years and have gotten precious with my artwork and art effort in a way Past Will would’ve found laughable, and then infuriating. I have a sketchbook right now—it’s about 1/3 full—that I’ve had since mid-2014. I’m going to see how quickly I can fill it.
Sometime last year, an old friend asked me to do an album cover for him. He’d been working on a set of songs for a while, and was looking to put it all together and do a proper release, inasmuch as (truly) independent musicians have those these days. At the time, I was overworked and understimulated and couldn’t manage to find the time, effort, or creativity to do a decent job of it.
We got in touch again after the first of the year, around when I quit my job. I had some free time coming up and decided to take on the project. Most of my early commercial creative work in the ‘00s was for my and my friends’ bands in our local music scene, so I’m always thrilled to get more music projects after working in tech for so long.
This friend of mine is big into astral projection, and that and his faith and relationship with Christ are very important to him and his music, so he asked me to bring all that into the artwork. I’m not a Christian myself, but I have a great fondness for Christianity’s rich history of symbolism and visual metaphor. It feels like cheating, drawing from this bottomless well of analogical conceptualization which transcends centuries of art movements. Illuminated texts, woodblock prints, cathedral frescoes, VeggieTales—the list goes on. But seeing as it’s a feeling of cheating that keeps me coming back to art and design, I’m okay with sneaking into the teacher’s office to steal the answer sheet.
I won’t rot your teeth you with all the nuggets baked into this cookie, but I will mention that it features seven scripture selections written in seven languages seven times. English, Latin, Greek, and Esperanto were pretty straightforward to write (read: trace), given my native tongue, but it took some learning to figure out how to handle strokes in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic. More difficult than the writing, though, was finding some of the translations. More difficult than finding translations was finding an Aramaic typeface that was (somewhat) stable in Photoshop. My computer ultimately couldn’t handle a text field with 49 pieces of scripture in seven languages and four typefaces, so I had to send the file over to a friend with a more powerful machine to rasterize the layer for me.
Anyway, my buddy’s kinda done a soft promo launch of this album by posting a few tracks on his Soundcloud account. You’ll notice I’m featured on one of the tracks currently posted—it’s one of two for which he asked me to write and perform poems based on his conceptual prompts. The one live now is an intro to the album, and is the first sonnet I’ve written. Maybe I’ll share it someday. But for now, here’s the album art.
Among other things, I design screen interfaces to make money. When I started doing this kind of job, there were far fewer screens, and far fewer of those screens were calling for interface design.
This past Thursday, Big Fruit announced their latest computers. I currently do all my work on an old (archaic, by today’s standards) Big Fruit computer which—stable and trustworthy as it has been—is starting to show its age in many of the same ways humans do: it is mechanically and cognitively slower and less reliable, it is more stubborn and more forgetful, and it somehow manages to hum along peacefully in the privacy of its Hadean woodshed of hoarded email clippings but immediately shits itself whenever I try to take it out in public. So I’ve been keeping an ear to the ground, ready to warn my credit card company to expect an irresponsibly large but not-fraudulent charge. And finally the day came, and it came with the touchscreen function row.
I’m not here to talk about whether Big Fruit has fallen off, or to explicitly talk much about Big Fruit at all, for that matter. What I am interested in discussing, though, is the fact that there is now yet another fucking screen on the mainstream market.
Setting aside my fondness for tactile feedback and mechanical inputs, I’m going to jump straight to my biggest concern: yet another screen means yet another degree of complexity added to my already ironically complex job as an interface designer. For many designers, this is exciting, as it means more learning, more experimenting, more goofy loading animations. But for me, it means I have to design more limited, incapable, unintelligent, tangentially half-baked versions of whatever products I’m working hard to design as singular, powerful, capable, intelligent, focused, and no-batter-on-the-toothpick experiences.
Starting at the computer level (the distinction between desktops and (true) laptops (not tablets with keyboards) is mostly inconsequential anymore) and stepping down all the way to, I don’t know, digital picture frames or something, we see interfaces decay in usability and, with a few exceptions, capability, until we’re developing entirely new hardware for ionic bits of software which are fundamentally (deliberately) incapable of working as well as or being as useful as their more robust ancestors. (“Ancestors” here alluding to the implicit evolutionary chronology which Big Fruit and its peers would have us accept as obvious and obviously what we want, where the computer is an ape and the smartwatch is a human, and that more functionality means more confusion, and so less control, and so less power, when the opposite is true.) Furthering this dissection of functions are my employers and myself; the companies and individuals behind branded, proprietary experiences which distinguish themselves from their competition through their own contextual neutering and isolating of the meager functionality with which the makers of the hardware have bestowed them.
And at the end of it all is the user. The user who is compelled to purchase every screen and learn every increasingly monetized, decreasingly capable, obfuscating visual interface which, if designed successfully, doesn’t even require her to be able to read the words beneath her fingers as she scrolls, swipes, and taps. Because why would she? Big Fruit and friends say if she needn’t, she shouldn’t.
Over the last few years, I lost sight of many of the things that once mattered to me. I’ll likely discuss many of these things in future blog posts, directly or indirectly, but for this first post, it seems appropriate to (very briefly) touch on one in particular: the corporate centralization of communications technology.
As best I can figure, I’ve been blogging in one way or another, on one platform or another, since 2001. So for over half of my life, I’ve semi-regularly published confessional epistles, insensitive rants, short-sighted expositions, notebook sketches, candid photo portraits, and—I hope—a handful of insightful essays to deviantART, LiveJournal, Xanga, MySpace, Blogger, Facebook, Tumblr, and probably several others I’m forgetting. Most of these platforms were (are) massive products managed and maintained by large corporations. They were easy to set up, cash-free, and included social features like following and befriending. They were also very successful and boasted large user populations, or potential on-platform followers. (Why these services were so popular is a huge topic in itself, so I’ll save that for another post.) And it was that ease and popularity that kept me on those platforms, and hopping between them as trends shifted. I published on directly rented servers with and without CMSes as well, but none of those blogs lasted more than a year.
The problem I have with these platforms, and the reason why I’ve decided to start this new (and hopefully lasting) blog on a directly rented server, is that I do not believe we should be publishing our content on centralized corporate communications platforms. These platforms are cash-free because they make money by selling our activity/information to third parties so they can sell things to us on and off-platform and by using our content to acquire new users whose activity/information can be sold to third parties so they can sell things to us on and off-platform. As a platform grows and becomes more visible, its competitors are obscured, and independents who weren’t even competing with them often vanish. The result is a small set of powerful companies growing more powerful through soft monopolies on published content and information on what should be the most level playing field in the history of mankind—the internet. And so what may start as 50 people saying 50 different things in 50 different places ends as 50 million different people saying the same thing in 5 places. The democratic enabling of these technologies is—on paper—a great thing, especially when you focus on the chance to give silenced people megaphones, but the potential for inversion and exploitation is terrifying. In a time when most of us internet users get and share most of our information from and on the internet—and so from and on centralized publishing sources like these—the gross dependency we have on the corporate systems which are controlling our information (and so networks, connections, friends, families, lives) has us vulnerable in 1000 ways we’ve long been, but that the internet could free us from being, and infinite new ways we’re lucky we haven’t yet learned.
I’m not expecting to blow your mind here—this isn’t news, and most people are acquiescent to these exchanges—but I feel it’s important for anyone publishing on the internet (virtually everyone with an internet connection these days) to consider whether a centralized, data-monetized platform is the best option for her. I have decided it is not the best option for me.
I am hosting this new blog (and the rest of my website) on servers rented from NearlyFreeSpeech.net. I am running this blog on the Ghost CMS, an open-source blogging platform created by a nonprofit organization. As with most of my blog posts, I wrote this rather quickly, and with little to no editing, so I apologize for any typos, half-baked ideas, and leaps in logic. If you’re interested in continuing the conversation or asking me anything, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I know I’m going to miss Tumblr’s Ask feature, so until I get something like that built (likely never), feel free to ask me questions via email, and I’ll either reply directly or publish my answer here.