Engines All Around

"Issue": 054

Spread out on the front lawn. The sun is spreading across the back of my neck, warming my entire back. This is in stark contrast to my fingers sliding between blades of grass. I push them deeper and deeper. Noticing how lush the layers of growth are. Incredibly different than lying out in Prospect Park, where perhaps it takes a single wiggle to reach the soil, which is hard and dead. No, this takes effort. I see the roots of previous blades before I can feel the cool soil. I look back up to see my friends, caressed by this green bed that extends to the stone wall up the hill. I rejoin the conversation while my mind tumbles over how we could render the feeling of the lawn I was experiencing in Maine. If my avatar would move different on this landscape, if I could feel that difference in my controls.

Two years ago, I was completely ignorant to what building a world really meant. I didn’t know Unity or Unreal Engine even existed. But working with game developers, technical artists, and the entire scene… has exploded my understanding of not only software/product development, but my lived world.

I took the photo above while I was laying out on that same lawn. Having finished my water, I looked at the way light was coming through my glass. Holding it up towards the sun, I held my phone camera up through several different angles. Simply admiring the complexity of the image.

When you realize that it *waves hands all around*, is an engine. You build a new appreciation for creation and perception.

In “Understanding Media: the extensions of man”, Marshall McLuhan dedicates a very brief essay towards games.

Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture. Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man and the body politic, as technologies are extensions of the animal organism. Both games and technologies are counter-irritants or ways of adjusting to the stress of the specialized actions that occur in any social group. As extensions of the popular response to the workday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of the whole populations in a single dynamic image.

Reading this, a visualization of a release valve came to mind. Allowing the flow of built up pressure to cascade over itself. Bubbling and crashing into a new arena.

To pull one more quote from McLuhan… (this is what I’ve become). This one is from “Reflections on Religion”, which I’m enjoying annotating next to the previous annotations from AZL.

De-Romanization is a fact ever since the telegraph. Any speed-up of communication de-centralizes. Slow forms of communication centralize: information is localized and the decision-making takes place at the centre. All this is reversed by electric speed when information becomes available at the same moment everywhere. Decisions can be made at the periphery the same as at the centre.

I wanted to hold these side by side because in the margins of the quote above I wrote, “there is no center of the ocean, you’re just in water”.

Once you’ve extended beyond the body, outward into the arena of play. There is no center there. You’ve broken the membrane. You realize that the trail was not the park.

A couple of months ago, I was watching a stranger go through the public beta onboarding. The onboarding map was constructed as a triangle with platforms to accomplish tasks.

After the account creation, text pops up that tells you to go to the right to select an avatar. And despite this, I watched this person turn left. Lose their sense of place, and then turn to me and ask “what’s supposed to happen next”.

For anyone that has designed anything, this is when you crack a molar from clenching your jaw so hard.

We gave too much world too soon. They thought they were in the park already, but they had only started the path. Little did they know, they had fallen off the bridge.

In a previous issue, I mulled over the idea of interfaces of perfect response. This same attraction that I believe makes computing and good design so compelling, is the very thing that cannot exist within play.

Perfect response renders play lifeless, and dull. It is that which you don’t expect to enter the arena that evokes emotion. It is here you remember that you are “in it” and that there are many others factors that can impress upon you at any moment.

To use the machine for control is to be controlled by the machine. To operate a machine one must operate like a machine. Using a machine to do what we cannot do, we find we must do what the machine does.

— Finite & Infinite Games, James P. Carse

Or a super tight way of saying it — code is law.

But what happens, when code is supposed to be play. Not pull down to refresh, tap tap tap to sew seeds of future interaction within the Twitter garden. But instead to spatially understand form and presence and manipulation.

Law is dissociative. I see myself rendered in my profile, confined by the set code that instructs my conduct. Measured information, and knowing is the aesthetic. The path.

What working with my team has shown me… Play is proper extension. It is breaking through the membrane. I cannot consume myself, I can only act as part of the world. Play is the possibility and the aesthetic. The park.

This is equally the goal beyond constructed product, but seeing life as the potential that it is: infinite interactive play.

This brings me back to meditating on the joy that is working with the Eternal team. In order to produce an environment of infinite play, work must hold that similar spirit.

What you discover is that work is kind of like an undeveloped park. And you’re not exactly sure how the path is supposed to look, where to lay the bricks, to maximize how much of the park we can see.

If you start laying brick too soon, you never see the park for what it could be. If you start laying them too late, well… in our reality… the park could close before the path makes it around that first interesting bend of trees.

I saw a tweet that said something to the effect “a good game only needs two buttons.” I thought this was incredibly powerful in thinking through the two repeated actions we take daily that allows a wide array of interactions that are both satisfying and tension building.

I think it applies to work and design as well. What are the two buttons that we return too, when we think of laying down a brick. The nugget of law that allows the park to function. These buttons can be a value, a mantra, the core thesis. You have to know what you’re actually laying the bricks down with…

I believe if you have that at the center of how you play, the park will show you where to lay the path.

Taking a short break from the zine exploration. I don’t do edits really, so excuse typos and things that don’t make sense.

Thanks so much for giving me your attention. I hope it was worth it, if not… unsubscribing will not hurt my feelings, and will give you back time you literally cannot have back.

Much love.

Cybernetic Drives Towards Referential Objects

"Issue": 051

I sit down at church. Staring up at the cross. Knowing my salvation is fully tied to this act. We hoist this reference to a physical vantage point of awe. I must tilt my head up each time I look for the cross, creating a natural position of reverence. From my vantage point I understand my worth, what I must do in reflection and dialogue with the cross.

In consuming this, I am told what is required of me. My actions can be measured, adjusted, confirmed. I sin, I repent, I press onward. Faith is fully knowing. And therefore, I am fully aware of my destination and the path defined by the word.

I am pulled by the cross, this referential object, towards a guiding set of actions that will close the distance between me and the medium.

I believe we can look at this relationship, between referential objects and the subsequent cybernetic drive, across many structures of design.

3D Tadao Ando - Church Of Light | CGTrader

At the beginning of the month I jokingly tweeted this below, then realized I fully meme’d myself to a T.

Quickly, to make sure we are sharing a language. When I speak of a “referential object” — I am referring to a central and identifiable artifact that orients any system. In the case of the church, the referential object is always the cross. In which the crucifixion is the overarching message of salvation. To illuminate an everyday example for some of you, look at what may exist at the core of one of your group-chats. Why and how is everyone there? The referential object here might be twitter, shared college experience, previously being co-workers. This is what the group, whether explicit or implicit, is revolving around. Many times as the referential object goes, or we distance ourselves from it, so goes the revolving system…

When I speak of “cybernetics” or a “cybernetic pull/drive” — at the core it comes back to a reinforcing loop that has a sense of direction, in which your inputs are receiving feedback and thus you are adjusting them consistently towards some end point. Cybernetics is incredibly cross disciplinary, spanning developmental psychology to architecture to governance.

Why is this relationship important to think about?

As I’ve written about before, all design is birthed out of a need to embody a set of values. We can hold two chairs side by side and build an understanding of desired posture. If it affords the room for two people to cuddle closely. If I can throw my legs over the arm. These all bring up questions and structured responses to how this chair is now guiding me, the sitter.

This is ever more true in a product like Twitter, GPT-3, or Robinhood.

What drives us within these systems — both in the act of constructing them, as product designers + interacting with them, as active consumers — is the conscious choice of developing the referential object. In which the entire system is then geared towards. Both within and without.

10 Iconic Tadao Ando Buildings You Should Visit

Design Around The Referential Object Sets The Culture

I would like to start simple. The culture of Twitter. What is the referential object that we gear ourselves towards? Resonance.

Perhaps not in the macro-network sense, but always seeking a resonance with the niche of Twitter we’ve landed in. Our actions are measured in likes and retweets. I would argue that the first widely understood quantified self, rests in our social networks. This quantified self however, being the display of identity over the biological reading that the term suggests now. The cybernetic feedback loop within our networks is the exact point of it’s existence, a measure of input towards future interaction… in perpetuity.

But this design continually collapses in on itself, and Twitter actively benefits from this contextual collapse as it maintains the referential object of resonance.

As LM points out, the very design of commentary on commentary on commentary. Quote tweet on quote tweet on quote tweet. Is we stray farther from the original act that was seeking the referential object. But in doing so, can still trigger resonance within our structured audience.

This should beg questions regarding the culture of the system itself. Which is what I believe we are seeing with Twitter’s new prompts of “reading before retweeting” but also at the same time defaulting to quote tweeting, thus lending itself towards this commentary collapse. This tends to be the dominant culture of Twitter: commentary collapse within a socially quantified self.

This isn’t surprising given Twitter’s product development history, but it either shows a complete lack of understanding their own referential object or a darker answer of knowing that in the context collapse we reach a different sort of resonance.

If you’re wondering, well what are other networks referential objects? Some are incredibly obvious — Snapchat relied on streaks as a symbol of sustained relationship, but some (like I would argue for Twitter) are a bit more subtle than raw “virality” or “status”.

The Royale’s Finite Perfection

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

— James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Battle Royale games are probably the perfect example of cybernetic drives towards referential objects. I want the crown at the end. To get there, I must find the golden chests, to shoot people better… before they shoot me.

It’s the cleanest finite loop. One person stands alone, crowned. And then we replay. Each previous loop I participated in, guiding my actions in present play. The feeling of a well earned crowned, sustaining my desire for more. While the despair of getting knocked incredibly early in a round, fires me up to prove it was just a fluke.

When the finite loop is that strong, we can manipulate the variance of the experience through… narrative expression and expansion. In royale’s we see this all the time. The Marvel story line within Fortnite, creating new tools within the game itself and thus changing potential paths to the referential object. Or the medieval knockout within Fall Guys. Which is structured in a similar way. A maintenance of the core cybernetic drive, but impressing a narrative variance.

The equivalent within a social network would be a new meme format to riff on or audio to strip from a TikTok video. The variance comes through the unlocking of a new narrative expression. And all networks to date have relied on the audience to produce this very variation…

Tadao Ando (1941-) - Architectural Review

Technology’s Lack Of Narrative Expression… "Progress Without Direction

Go to Open AI, you’ll be met with “Discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence. Our first-of-its-kind API can be applied to any language task, and currently serves millions of production requests each day.”

Yesterday morning, I was thinking about GPT-3 in the shower. What was it really coming back to? To me it just feels so obviously religious. An interface of perfect response, and at times cryptic message. Our obsession with agi can be boiled down to our search for a god that responds to our liking.

This being evidently clear to me, I had to go to the Open AI website. To my disappointment, finding their self description so incredibly rote.

In the search of universal scale and influence, technologists have made incredible strides to make themselves invisible. From Mark’s grey t-shirt to any other faceless techno-billionaire. It reverberates down to the toothless policy that governs these same interfaces.

We are left with an incredible lack of direction outside of the capitalistic directive of “bigger”. This is the referential object for most of technology today. It’s inherently tied to an understanding of distribution is king. But we lose so much when we choose to accept that strong distribution with a shitty product, beats the beautiful product still figuring out distribution. I don’t want this to come off as a complaint within a hyper-competitive market, but rather an observation that our cybernetic pulls are simple being built around a narrative of achieving scale. But rooted in what values… well Coinbase would pay and argue for: none.

This is perhaps why I think the small group of tech twitter that participates with an equally willing media side in beefing so interesting. One side doesn’t tell their story well at all, while the other’s entire job is to produce narrative. Both resonating within the Twitter drive to their respective audience… and this can go on forever unfortunately.

What is genuinely exciting are narrative generative programs like Stripe Press. This being a very literal (and literate) translation of narrative expression… but it is a start. And it’s a start that holds an incredible through line of shared values to hold up as referential objects for others.

Closing Thought

What I believe the next phase of products and the internet at large holds for all of us, is a deeper understanding of the referential objects we use to embody our values. And the subsequent systems that exist to participate within. Not chrome, devoid of opinion and belief. But rich narrative that is both crafted from within and generated through participation.

Tadao Ando Architect & Associates reveal their design for China's He Art  Museum

This piece is an expression of many conversations I’ve had while in Maine for the entire month of October with truly incredible peers. If you’ve seen my Twitter at all this past month, I’m sure you can piece together those that have influenced me deeply recently.

All images are from the work of Tadao Ando, a Japanese Architect.

I don’t do edits really, so excuse typos and things that don’t make sense.

Thanks so much for giving me your attention. I hope it was worth it, if not… unsubscribing will not hurt my feelings, and will give you back time you literally cannot have back.

Much love.

The Meme Template is the Medium

"Issue": 050

co-written with Aaron Lewis

I don’t do edits really, so excuse typos and things that don’t make sense.

Thanks so much for giving me your attention. I hope it was worth it, if not… unsubscribing will not hurt my feelings, and will give you back time you literally cannot have back.

Much love.

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