What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Making
I tell this story a lot.
In 2011, I attended a conference for artists and designers interested in collaboration as a practice. I had a lovely time. We shared stories and projects, we tried out new methods on one another, we drank and ate.
On the last day during the last session, talk turned to Money or: the How Do You Make It Work conversation. I have never been to a conference with artists that did not involve this conversation. Sometimes it is on the programme. Sometimes it is there informally, in the corner of a bar. The recurring cast includes: jobs that don’t leave you too exhausted to make art, alternative income schemes, health care, getting by, trust funds, grants, barter, debt.
At this particular conference, the conversation happened during a Q&A period and I remember one Q in particular: What do you do, a woman asked, when you get a month long residency but the stipend isn’t enough to cover your rent for that month?
The room shared tips.
One woman explained that she used to identify as an artist but had worked extremely hard to become legible as a designer. The reason was: a 5–10x increase in expected income for identical work.
In 2014, I attended XOXO, a conference for independently-produced art and technology. I had a lovely time. We shared stories and projects, we hatched schemes, we drank and ate.
On the first day during the first talk, Kevin Kelly was describing his work on Cool Tools. He was comparing it to his work on the Whole Earth Catalog which he saw as a precursor. I paraphrase: It used to take thirty people a month to make the Whole Earth Catalog, he told us. Thanks to technology, Cool Tools took only two people. Moments later, he mentioned the name of the distributed copyediting service they’d used. I wonder how many people were on the other end of that transaction. I bet it was more than thirty.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why they didn’t get to count.
In 2014, I attended XOXO, a conference for independently-produced art and technology. Lovely time; stories and projects; hatched schemes; food and drink.
On the first day during the third talk, Golan Levin and Pablo Garcia shared their Kickstarter success story. They designed a cool product that needed a specialized part. Lots of people liked the thing. The Kickstarter allowed them to order an affordable manufacturing run from a factory in China. It was a fun story! A great success!
And then they showed the factory and the people who work there. The room went silent.
I can’t pretend to know why the room went silent, but here is an idea: XOXO is a conference for people trying to make their way under conditions of extremity. Many of the speakers have gone viral or might go viral. Some have sold their things for vast amounts of money, some hope to in the future. For many more, success has come modestly, or not at all. We know about this, this is the Internet. Power laws for attention, power laws for income, power laws for harassment campaigns.
It is a strange thing to be at a conference with orders of magnitude of difference for current or expected income/attention hanging silently between participants. It is stranger still when it is a conference about making a living (or at least making a life) doing these creative things which mobilize vast virtual and physical networks. When you introduce the labourers who make it possible, even via slide, the mind reels. My friend Quinn Norton taught me a term for this: context collapse.
This is an era of networked wealth, going to scale, first mover advantage, positive feedback loops, virtuous cycles, high concentration, and high disparity. These are some of the intolerable conditions of the time we call (with subversive hope) Late Capitalism.
I suspect that much of this essay will make very little sense unless you believe as I do that we are beset by wicked problems exacerbated by networks of sublime scale that have been built on top of millenia of injustice chaotically interacting with good works and hope.
I have spent a lot of my professional and hobbyist lives trying to grapple with networks of sublime scale. It’s probably James Burke’s fault. In a different generation, it could have been Leonard Reed’s fault. It is intoxicating to trace materials and people back towards their origins. You start with an iPhone in Brooklyn and end up in an open pit mine in Alaska, Russia, or Peru. You start with Silicon Valley and end up digging a ditch in Thailand. It is great fun, zipping along unexpected pathways to exotic locales. But Beware! Exoticization is one of the hazards of trying to grapple with networks of sublime scale. So are: oversimplification, marginalization, undue emphasis, overcomplication, obfuscation, and tedium.
Tim Cook has spent a lot of his professional life trying to grapple with networks of sublime scale. His success has resulted in one of the most powerful and effective supply chains on the planet. In order to accomplish this, he has had to delegate much and abstract away much else. From the perspective of the supply chain, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, a workers’ strike, and an overlong security line at the border are more or less the same thing. Tim must also avoid oversimplification, overcomplication, marginalization, and all the rest of it. When he gets it wrong, there are substantial human costs.
I am telling you about Tim Cook because he is a captain of industry and because the promise of things like Kickstarter and blogging and that service Kevin Kelly used and the Internet celebrated by XOXO is that we can all be captains of industry or media moguls. We too can access the tools of publishing and the means of production and find success as independents. We too can be small scale Tims Cook. Some of us who make the attempt will be made rich and some of us will be driven from our homes and some of us will putter along comfortably and all of us will have made our bed upon a great deal of human and environmental suffering.
I should note: The device I’m using to write this was made possible by the machinations of Tim Cook. I have no idea where the circuitry of the server that makes this visible to the Internet was made.
Something that journalists sometimes do is publish a disclosure statement. It’s sort of like an About Me page except it’s a listing of all their conflicts of interest—all the areas of coverage where you might have good reason to think they should not be trusted. It’ll say things like I once worked at Google or I’m married to an employee of Microsoft.
I have never written one of these but I have fantasies about doing a comprehensive one. It would be the length of a novel, I think. An endless and yet incomplete litany of all the blood, privilege, history, and compromise on my hands.
For example: I am affiliated with Harvard. One side of my family made its fortune by supplying the fishery that would eventually denude the Atlantic Ocean of cod. I regularly use products made from petrochem.
I do not think it is possible to feel empathy for 7 billion people. I know it is not possible to mourn the ~400,000 souls we lose to death every day on this planet earth. In a city like New York, it is not even reasonable to say Hi to everyone you pass on the street. Forget New York, it wasn’t reasonable to say Hi to everyone I passed at XOXO. There are too many humans. Boundaries must be drawn. Who are our friends, who is in the community, who gets to count. The boundaries can be drawn wider or narrower, and with more or less care. But the starting points of those boundaries are necessarily accidents of history, and history is pretty messed up.
Andy and Andy have been public about their struggles to redraw the boundaries of the community that takes part in XOXO. This year was better, they said, but still too male and still far too white. They are working to do better still if they ever do an XOXO again.
If they do, they will have to carefully consider who gets on stage and work with those people about what they have to say. Because people who make things is a broad remit. The mission of XOXO is an admirable one: to be a place where independent creators can find themselves amongst people like them; to give the participants the feeling that even though independence can be lonely, we are not alone.
But to be sat amongst a community who do not share your concerns is a terribly alienating experience, especially if the speakers on stage are claiming a we for the room that you do not feel. A greater diversity of speakers and a greater diversity of participants means by definition fewer common experiences and a more complicated we.
Chinese factory workers are not welcome at XOXO. This is a profoundly uncomfortable thing to say because it feels like punching down, but it is true. Chinese factory workers are not independent creators. What inspiration would they find in hearing John Gruber talk about Google Reader’s impact on his business model? What advice would they pull from Anita Sarkeesian describing the conspiracy theories leveled against prominent women on the Internet? What series of completely patronizing assumptions did I make when I wrote those last two questions?
Marketers, brand managers, advertising agencies, and social media gurus are also not welcome at XOXO. This feels less uncomfortable to say because it feels like punching up. Harassers are completely unwelcome and Andy and Andy took public glee in sending them away.
Community design is a tricky thing and the debate about incremental improvement vs radical transformation is far from settled. Figuring out how to ethically exclude people, how to effectively include people, and which intolerable conditions of ambient injustice to accept as given is a wicked problem. Working through it requires care and nuance and vigilance against derailment.
Derailment is when discussion of one issue is diverted into another issue. For example: if someone were to say, We need to work hard to increase the non-white percentage of conference attendees, and someone else said, Yeah, but what about the Chinese workers who make your devices?
Context collapse is an important way of making sure that marginalized people and issues aren’t allowed to disappear completely and an excellent derailing tactic. Arguing that an issue being raised is a derailment is an excellent derailing tactic.
A lot of the problems described by people on stage at XOXO would not have been problems if no one on earth should ever be at risk of starvation or lack medical care was not a radical idea. But it is a radical idea and it is not possible to mourn everyone. So boundaries are drawn and communities are constructed which help their members understand what’s possible and not everyone gets to count.
The inability to effectively address all of this is also one of the intolerable conditions of late capitalism.
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