Being Prepared

January 28, 2013

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Not long ago, most everyday problems were solved with little more than one’s wits, a dose of common sense, and one’s own two hands. Virtually any appliance or piece of equipment in a typical home could be serviced with a little mechanical know-how and a basic toolkit. Do-it-yourself guides such as the Time-Life Home Repair and Improvement series provided all the instruction one needed to tackle even more complex electrical, plumbing, and carpentry projects. Of course, the guides left out how much actual time, sweat, and trial-and-error it would really take to get something done.

I was fortunate growing up to have an industrious grandfather who took every opportunity to school me in the ways of the handyman. He gave me my very first set of tools — a ballpeen hammer, flat and Phillips-head screwdrivers, a crescent wrench, socket wrenches, small vise clamps, some metal files, and a saw — all neatly housed in a metal Sears Craftsman toolbox, with plenty of room for additional tools as my skills grew. In our basement workshop, he would teach me the basics of repair, from simple woodworking to soldering, but the most important lesson of all involved no tools. It was how to be resourceful.

When MacGyver first aired on television, it was love at first sight. I devoured every episode with the hope of learning some clever trick or inventive use for an everyday object that might one day get me out of a similar jam, as young boys often imagine. With my parents’ permission, I got my hands on a Swiss Army knife. I didn’t want just any model, not even the one good old MacGyver carried around (apparently, there were several). I chose the biggest, baddest model available at the time, aptly named the SwissChamp. At 3.5 inches thick and boasting 33 tools, it was guaranteed to serve me well for a very long time. About twenty-five years later, it hasn’t let me down, although I still haven’t used every tool on that thing.

My tinkering tendencies have mellowed considerably over the years. The scope of problems I can fix with my own hands has shrunk to what I have the patience and time for, which usually involves common plumbing repairs, light woodworking, and anything that can be mended with superglue. Don’t even ask me about car repair.

Today, I rely most on the modern-day multi-tool: my iPhone. Nearly six years since its debut, the iPhone still amazes me; as a physical object, it does little more than provide a mirror reflection on its screen, but as an electronic device, it houses a telephone, television, radio, computer, address book, notebook, calculator, camera, camcorder, compass, level, flashlight, video game console, and much more. It won’t help me install a new washer and dryer, for instance, but it will help me search for a local appliance dealer, review customer ratings, buy the appliances, call to schedule installation, and set a reminder in my calendar for the appointment. Not that I’m proud of this pinnacle of human achievement, mind you.

The MacGyver instinct never goes away, though. I’ve recently become fascinated with the phenomenon of every day carry, or EDC, which promotes and even glamorizes preparedness for “situations ranging from the mundane to the disastrous” using a compact but high-performance toolkit. Whereas a simple pocket knife may have been more than suitable for daily needs a century or so ago, the modern “carry” typically includes a smartphone, a sturdy folding knife, a multi-tool, a flashlight, a pen, a manly wristwatch, and the occasional handgun. There are even preferred brands and discussion forums dedicated to the subject. I’ll admit that, except for the weapons, many of the items and the level of rigor and design that goes into them are impressive, but I wonder if the coolness factor of survivalist gadgets and shiny metal objects overshadows the spirit of utility and resourcefulness that every day carry embodies.

The ability to rise to the unexpected challenges of everyday life and figure out a solution on the spot, sometimes under pressure and with few resources, is becoming a lost skill. Technology can only carry us so far, but we may eventually find ourselves stranded, over-dependent and helpless to fend for ourselves without it. Real preparedness is more than having all the right tools for every predicament or every imaginable supply in abundant stock to counter existential risks. They mean little without the presence of mind to grasp a situation, determine the right action, and get the job done, however big or small.

How might we re-learn to be more capable, self-sufficient thinkers and problem solvers when we take our modern conveniences for granted? Boy Scout training for grown-ups, perhaps?


The Content Conundrum

January 18, 2013

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I have a love-hate relationship with content. One of my favorite things as an information designer is to dive into piles of content, analyze it, look for patterns, and visualize the stories buried within. The process of transforming raw content into usable information is not unlike the alchemical transmutation of lead into gold, and for nerds like me, no less magical.

But it’s a whole different ballgame when it comes to generating and managing my own content: there’s never enough content flowing out of my brain, and there’s far too much to squeeze in. Despite all the inspiration I get wandering through libraries and bookstores, visiting museums, and poring over countless websites, I can’t seem to channel all that creative fuel into sustained output. Equally vexing is the information bottleneck between all the unread books, Evernoted articles, RSS feeds, and random PDFs I’ve hoarded and my helplessly low-bandwidth brain (speed reading isn’t my strong suit). For every article I actually do read in the course of a day, I probably find about five more to add to the queue.

This predicament is just one symptom of a larger problem I call the content conundrum — the opposing, imbalanced urges and behaviors that characterize our current technology-driven relationship with content. Some of these examples might sound familiar:

  • Constantly accumulating more content than you can realistically get through… in a lifetime
  • Feeling simultaneously motivated by a wealth of great content and paralyzed to make productive use of it
  • Storing large amounts of content in many different places, but dreading to go looking for anything (Googling it instead)
  • Sharing content frequently on blogs and social media to stay relevant, but feeling overwhelmed by people who overshare or re-share the same things

What’s particularly fascinating to me, and confounding, is the peculiar psychology of the whole phenomenon — the paradoxes and contradictions that many of us voluntarily participate in every day around content, and which are just widely-accepted consequences of living in the Information Age. With the fluidity of information and always-on access becoming a comfortable reality, the hunger for content is never satisfied; as soon as one curiosity is indulged, a new one is born. Such is the perpetual craving for mental stimulation: find, consume, digest, repeat — hence the troubling rise of “snackable content.” Thanks to services like Evernote and Instapaper, whatever doesn’t get uploaded to the memory bank right away can be saved for later, whenever that happens to be. Technology doesn’t just enable us to do what we want — it passively aids and abets our bad habits and uncontrolled tendencies. As long as there’s storage space, we’ll keep filling it up. And as publishing becomes more effortless, we’ll keep loading up those servers to our heart’s content with every type of content we please, from food photos to PhD theses.

I’m not entirely sure if the content conundrum is simply the early stage of a tech/web maturity model, only a few decades old, or if it’s really an age-old phenomenon propelled by the printing press and intensified by our high-speed, web-powered lifestyles. Either way, it’s still a human problem with very real consequences. The more time and effort we spend warehousing content and repacking it into nuggets to scatter across the web, the less time we spend reflecting on the commodity itself: Is it lead? Is it gold? Does it matter any more? That also means the less time we’re investing in cultivating the stillness of mind to process and synthesize what we do absorb, so that we might convert it to useful knowledge and creativity. It would be a worthwhile exercise to compare the number of times a day spent gobbling up and firing off content nuggets (e-mails, tweets, Facebook posts, etc) versus the moments of deep concentration. Then compare the feeling and physical sensation produced by both types of activities. As Louis C.K. might put it, web surfing isn’t over when you feel tired and your eyes are weary. Web surfing is over when you hate yourself. But those hard-won “aha’s” after long stretches of serious thought? Priceless.

We will continue to struggle with content for a long time. Technology will further optimize the content cycle, making output (not necessarily creation) more rapid and access more ubiquitous. Humans, however, are locked in a molasses-slow evolutionary process; unlike the speedy timescales for software and hardware upgrades, our own wetware takes considerably longer to show any significant changes, and they aren’t always bug-free. If we insist on moving at the pace of technology, we’ll need a hefty boost from neuroscience and a broader mainstream acceptance of transhumanism. A recent take on such a future, the H+ digital series on YouTube, paints a more grim than promising picture of the broken boundary between consciousness and connectedness, made possible by a tiny but powerful implant that links the nervous system to the internet. I think I’ll pass on that if it ever comes true.

Are we doomed, like the lotus eaters of Homer’s Odyssey, to remain victims to our own appetites and become trapped in a content-saturated lull? Or will we eventually crack the content conundrum and learn to manage our content and ourselves better?


Boundaries

January 2, 2013

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Our lives are defined by boundaries — where we stand firm, where we yield, where we can tread, and where we are forbidden. Over time, we get a feel for the guardrails along our path, the hard edges of business and government and the softer edges of our social and personal lives. Every little decision we make, whether to cross a boundary, preserve it, push it further, or create a new one, shapes who we are and who we become. Of course, there are moments when life decides to redraw the lines in the ground.

For me, the past year was a continuous test of boundaries. Professionally, I’ve had to define more clearly what I do and what I want my career to look like. I have also tried to make sense of the divisions between visualization practices and develop a sharper view of information design (an ongoing project). Personally, Hurricane Sandy pretty much changed the game for me. The tidal surge from the storm crossed geographic borders and property lines alike, causing widespread damage that still lingers today. It made me reconsider once impermeable boundaries.

Today, I welcome the transition to the New Year and the chance to map the course for the next twelve months. I will be erasing some lines, darkening others, and charting new paths into unexplored territories. Rather than resort to New Year’s resolutions, I opt instead for some basic ground rules to light my way throughout the year. The number one guiding principle for this year, in work and in life, will be to separate the important from the unimportant — to make the people, pursuits, and ideas I care about my top priority. In practice, that will mean setting some non-negotiable limits on my time and attention and widening my comfort zone. It won’t be easy, but navigating the journey through 2013 will certainly be interesting.


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