Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Technology and Wonder

Firstly, let me admit that my relationship to technology is a bit unusual. It was once said of me that I am more “Telegraphs and Fountain Pens” than “iPhones and Facebook”. While that is true, at least in an aesthetic manner, I am not above being glamoured by gadgetry. And so I have been.
I have gotten a new phone that is clearly governed by Alien Space Magic.  Among it’s many  capabilities, it makes calls (of course), takes better pictures than I have ever taken (even with a good camera), plays music, and checks my email for me. This means that never again do I have to open up the computer with trepidation wondering if this is the very moment Agent X (or Y or Agent 99) has sent me a message requesting a manuscript. I only have to wait for the angelic electronic trill to tell me.  Additionally, this object also seems to have a time traveling ability – it can play old radio programs like The Shadow or Dragnet – ones that I have never owned or downloaded. Just pulls them from the ether of time and space.
But there has been something a bit disquieting about my own behavior in regards to this. Much of my relationship with it, indeed most of my time with it, is spent…well…setting it up. There must be something else it needs to do. Like be a voice recorder. Or play a Sherlock Holmes game. Or take notes for me. There must be something better to play the music. To show the pictures. To log the calls. To make it look different. To make it look less like a phone. What Android Theme defines me as a person?
I have seen a great deal of talk lately: books, interviews on NPR (about the aforementioned books, usually), blog posts – speculating on whether Today’s Technology is making us Smarter or, conversely how it’s making us Stupid. I really think it’s neither of these things. So often we think that the problem is the object: this computer, this iPhone, this mp3 Player.  We’ve had the same ambivalent feelings about technology for centuries. (See Jonathan Kaplan’s take on Thoreau on Mail, or one of my favorites, Introducing the Book )
All too often our attitude to technology is one of either Utter Terror (Look out! The machines will rise up against us!) or Entitlement (This doesn’t anticipate my every need and work perfectly every moment of its life. *tantrum*tantrum*) . The first way is problematic, certainly. I see this a lot in libraries. This kind of black-and-white thinking. E-readers are an evil enemy sent to destroy us, or All books should be pulped and replaced with Kindles.  But those are thoughts for another time.
Perhaps we should spend more of our time in wonder and in awe of what these things can do, instead of what they can’t. Allow ourselves to wonder at them, at the Alien Space magic we hold in our hands. This is Star Trek, stuff, Readers. This is Science Fiction, sitting right next to me on the charger.
It’s an amazing thing, really. I’ll try to remember that.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Regarding Failure

I am not a great commenter of blog posts. Neither am I, for that matter a great reader of them, although the ones I read, I do so with some regularity. There are several reasons for this: often, I feel that what I have to say does not actually add to the conversation. There seems to be little room for anything other than “Eee Gads! You’re terrific!” or “Great Caesar’s Ghost, you’re a moron!”. But this week after reading one of Catherynne Valente’s excellent blogs, it started me thinking about things like excellence, and more particularly, failure. The entire blog post can be seen here, but I shall quote a foreshortened relevant passage below. Be advised, the words here are not her own, but those she quoted from Jacob Clifton from Television without Pity:

"I mean, it's just a TV show. Surely not every episode can be a home run, right? And my response would be: Why the fuck not? When did we get to the point where excellence gets graded on a curve? Why give yourself, the show, anything that pass? Why give yourself, the show, anything that pass? I am so violently opposed to this concept of "everybody screws up now and then," it's not even funny. What a nasty, masturbatory, self-aggrandizing, lazy, stupid sentiment. I'd rather not have the conversation at all, if that's the only option, because at that point you're defending the indefensible: I like the show enough to lie and say this wasn't that bad. Who does that help? How does that induce transformation? How can you rise, when you give yourself the option of taking a nap? You fuck up, you learn, you try harder, you get better, you get stronger. You don't lay down and go to sleep and close your eyes and shut down the conversation: you evolve. This episode couldn't be worse, but it could be a great fucking deal better: Why isn't it?

I think there’s a great deal to think about here. I think that he’s right: the way we get better is by trying, fucking up and learning and trying again. But as for the “why the fuck not” response to the question, “Why can’t everything be a home run?”…here is where we may divide.

I agree, that this is how we get better. At least it would be, if this were the way it actually played out. But not everyone is Jacob Clifton or Catherynne Valente. In fact what I’ve seen trawling the message boards and blogspaces of Internet is just the opposite: It’s an entire mob with pitchforks chanting “U SUCK! U SUCK!” This, by and large, is not helpful. This, by and large, does not make anything better. At all.

I do think that ignoring failures in books, movies, television shows – any kind of art or media the public engages with– is extremely problematic. But we need to not just point them out, not to just acknowledge failures, but applaud them -- Not as false successes but as the failures they ARE. If a culture started applauding failures, perhaps artists would be more likely to risk something. When something fails, someone risked. This is what is valuable.

But I find that we expect our artists and entertainers to be IMMEDIATELY and CONTINUOUSLY AWESOME. This is not ever going to happen. This is because art is made by people. Actual people, struggling in their studies, their studios, at their notebooks and computers with day jobs, rent to pay, crying babies and barking dogs. Making stuff is hard. Making great stuff is harder. It takes time to develop sometimes, it takes practice to sustain. And all too often, when I hear the chanting of ‘U SUCK! U SUCK’, what I actually hear is “Make yours like mine.”

And when these things (made by people) turn out to be less awesome than we would have liked, instead of wondering why (as Clifton does) or trying to have a dialogue (not just with the artist, but with each other) about how it might get better, we just point our pitchforks and begin the chant again. U SUCK. U SUCK.
No one wants to hear this. And I don’t mean that we should not give or get criticism, even fact, quite the contrary. But the ceaseless chanting, all too often is not helpful, and meant only to hurt, and make the chanter feel like they have some power. (Has anyone else noticed that only Stupid People Like Things? That if they were Smarter they would know that it actually Sucked?)

Because of this, people, if they make anything at all (because really, why bother when posting snarky reviews about everything that SUCKS is just as great, not as difficult, and you’re certainly not risking anything), they make things that are wildly mediocre – which can get consumed, and possibly condemned as part of a larger Mediocre Group (“Oh, that Urban Fantasy!”, “Oh, those Reality Shows!”). But rarely will they be looked at closely on an individual level. Shew. Now you are safe from the pitchforks and torches and the l33tspking mob.
As a writer myself, I know just what a feat writing a whole book can be. Much less writing a book that sings, that is beautiful and great. Hold writers and artists to a standard of excellence. Raise that bar of excellence higher. And I think this means having compassion for failures. But I also think it means, more importantly, to try harder to Fail more Spectacularly.

Try to figure out what something is before you point your finger and begin the chant. Shut up for a minute and LOOK at it. Then look at it AGAIN. Sometimes, it’s not the piece of work that’s “not interesting”. Sometimes it’s the viewer. Learn the difference between “I Like It” and “It is Good.” Applaud failure. Encourage it on epic proportions. And Fail Spectacularly, yourself.