I’m riding a train this morning to work. Not the subway but an actual train from Philadelphia to NYC. It brings back potent nostalgia for Barcelona.
When I was a teacher I would take a regional train from BCN to Molins del Rei. I didn’t mind the commute, in fact I got excited every time I got on the train. I got excited because I was SO new that I could feel myself getting better every class I taught.
I also loved the small amount of money. I can’t remember but I think it was about €60. I got paid daily, in cash. The day that it was enough to cover rent that month, felt like such an accomplishment: one more month I could make it as an immigrant.
In the United States right now that can be a heavy word, immigrant, but to clarify my circumstance: I moved to Barcelona with two suitcases of clothes, a good amount of savings and a plan to support myself teaching English. I used my savings, taught English, but was unable to secure a visa. So, being undocumented really limited my travel. I couldn’t hop around Europe as I hoped, but Catalunya was enough for me. I also couldn’t go back to the USA until I was comfortable with the possibility I’d be barred from coming back to my new home in Barcelona.
When I filled my envelope under the mattress markered with RENT, the rest was mine. Each day I went to work was another 40 to 60 euros for cheap beer, jamón serrano, galletas Principe, wine, subway tickets, pay-as-you-go cell phone “top ups.” They had ATM style kiosks around shopping centers where you type in your phone number, insert the cash, and then your available balance on the phone gets updated. Wow.
So, each time I got on a train I would look out the window and soak up the sequence of quotidian landscapes. I didn’t know how long I would be there. Each day was an exciting step and I just wanted to keep going.
I can’t help comparing this feeling to present day. Now I ride a train and feel that nostalgia, but rarely look forward to work. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the daily reward and the Pavlovian effect has worn off. I definitely need work to pay the bills, but it’s no longer a day-to-day survival. I also don’t feel that daily progression that I did with being a new teacher. Now I work with a big company that only dares take incremental steps toward some undefined goal of “generate more money/customers.” Most employees aren’t needed for a specific day like a teacher is required each day for a class to happen. My work is spread out over the course of weeks, months, and then I don’t see a final result sometimes for a year.
There isn’t an inherent negative to taking the long view. In fact sometimes it is most valuable. [The Long Now Foundation] I also recall feeling a little lost in Barcelona, taking life in little pieces, with no idea how they added up to a big piece or what the next big piece should be. I’m sitting here on the train again, no longer at a loss for the big pieces, but missing the delight of the little ones.
Perhaps writing is one way to get them. Actually writing this very message feels like mixing the pallet of big and little, but to get meta about it, the act of writing is small in itself. I like that.
There’s a misconception that the practice of meditation involves clearing your mind of thoughts. There are amazing resources to learn all about it, but in short: the aim is to remain aware of thoughts as they come and go like clouds and not grab on to one and get lost in a train of thought.
Perhaps that’s not the best definition, but I think it explains how I’ve been this week. I used to meditate once a week at this place in Manhattan for about a year straight, and for whatever reason I lost the habit. Last Tuesday I returned and I’m already excited for next Tuesday’s sitting.
I’m definitely feeling more aware of so many thoughts passing by, but I’m very out of practice in letting them go. I feel some mental arms flailing around as I want to keep each one and nurture it into some nice, grand thought.
I heard something interested on a podcast recently about letting go of identifying with your thoughts. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, think of the House of Black & White where Arya is training to become “a girl” and lose her identity.
A girl may think a thing, but Arya does not. If you have a blog, podcast, or just love to talk a lot, you might notice how the further you elaborate a thought, the more you’re trying to inject your identity into the idea as though it is your own. At least that’s the case for me.
Of course, a specific thought at a specific time can only happen inside your head, so in that regard you are the owner of the thought. The idea however is likely to be shared by thousands. There’s a point where I disagree with the above however: I think sharing ideas is the most important thing humans can do. We developed the ability to communicate and that’s probably our best attribute.
So, on a personal note, I hope to put things here in a spirit of sharing, not identifying or owning, or to be an expert or visionary, but for the sake of the same ideas that reside in so many others to light up and become connected; which is how great philosophies can be born. Also, fully knowing that all of this can happen without me entirely, but for my entertainment at least, I’d like to learn and to listen.
Now that the meta is taken care of…
Minimalism and Wabi-Sabi
I’ve been reading Kenya Hara, and John Maeda lately. I also started getting into Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts, which hasn’t expanded much of what I learned from his first book, but has definitely rekindled my interested in thinking of this aesthetic applied to digital interfaces.
Just yesterday I saw this beautiful phone interface designed by Kenya Hara, for an elderly population, but something that I would love to use!
Now I have this crazy desire to make such an operating system in English, and include the sensibilities of Wabi-Sabi that I’m always talking about. I have no idea where to start in such an ambitious project and would probably need a whole design studio to be honest, but I think it’s going to be a fun concept to explore for myself.
For a guy that starts out a blog post about not identifying with thoughts, and letting them pass by, I’m really anxious to create more things. What can I say, humans are complicated.
I’ve had this idea for quite a while now, but I’ve set a deadline to complete a first episode by the end of January. The recording and editing will be done by then, and depending on the technicalities of publishing it, you may not see it until February.
In short, I’m trying this new style where I record a Voice Mail for a person, send it to that other person and wait for a response. With a few responses, or a few people, I hope to have something interesting that can be stitched together into a short episode.
This is inspired by old-timey hand written correspondence, but we’ll see how it really plays out. Recorded conversation is most interesting because it can have unexpected turns, and people can quickly adjust their stance on something and arrive at a natural conclusion. I’m afraid this won’t be as interesting to listen to, but I have a hunch that I could be different enough to still be interesting.
A friend sent me this book with the note that it’s one of his favorites and still picks it up again once in a while. That last part is most impressive to me, since I never read anything twice – there’s too many books in the world! I could immediately see why this one might be so re-readable.
I won’t give much background – descriptions and summaries you can find online – but I think I first heard of Rilke from the podcast Entitled Opinions. He was some German poet that left a lasting mark on his era, but I didn’t know much more than that. I know it’s sad, but I never pick up books of poetry. I guess I don’t know how to read it. Maybe it’s because poetry is work, and unless you sit and think and feel for a few days with the words in your mind, it never goes deeper than the surface. A story however will do the work for me, and I have a character to follow down deeper into some other experience. I would completely recommend this book to anyone that feels the same about poetry. This is Rilke’s only novel, and it holds my hand (somewhat) to where I need to go – as novels do – but along the way I can get an idea of some of the beautiful poetry out there that I’m missing.
Here’s my favorite paragraph so far. The only context that you need is that there’s a bit of fog in Paris.
“What such a small moon can achieve. There are days when everything about one is luminous, light, scarcely defined in the bright air, and nonetheless distinct. Even the nearest of things have the shades of distance upon them; they are remote, merely sketched in rather than bodied forth; and all things that do indeed partake of the distance—the river, the bridges, the long streets and the prodigal squares—have absorbed the distance within themselves and are painted on to it as upon silk. Who can say what a slight green vehicle on the Pont Neuf might be at such times, or some red bursting forth, or even a mere poster on the fire wall of a pearly-grey group of buildings. Everything is simplified, rendered into a few exact, bright planes like the face in a portrait by Manet. And nothing is of slight importance or irrelevance. The booksellers along the Quai open up their stalls, and the fresh or faded yellow of the books, the violet brown of the bindings, the more commanding green of an album: all of it is just right and has its worth and is a part of the whole and adds up into a fullness where nothing is lacking.”
When I slow down to look at my interaction with most web sites, I notice an incongruity for accomplishing the same end goal: publishing.
While different sites offer different levels of sophistication, I’ve noticed that creating or editing content on the modern web is bubbling-up closer to the surface. I liken this to term as used in Computer Science: abstraction.
At first, you had to write binary that worked directly with the processor. Then they created a language that allowed you to write logic gates which were converted to binary. The higher you get, the more programming becomes natural to humans.
As Nick sums it up, there is a pretty deep (and technical) background to programming that few of us think of today — even the programmers. Even though a well-versed developer that works in an Object Oriented language might know the logic behind the code, we have long since been removed from considering logic gates and binary code.
Translating this to web development, the abstraction layers could go as far as the binary code, but the fundamental difference between software and what we predominantly see on the web seems to start with HTML. Taking human steps back from HTML, by my count, we are just now seeing mainstream implementation of a fourth layer of abstraction.
HTML and other languages
It used to be that you had to write everything in the language our browsers speak. Yes, we still build websites like this, but you don’t have to know this language to write a blog or update your status. I consider HTML, CSS, and other browser languages to be the first or bottom layer of abstraction on the web. Kids used to learn HTML if they wanted their MySpace to look a certain way. Later, WordPress says, “no more!” Enter the second layer of abstraction.
Admin panels and WYSIWYG
WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) has been around before the internet, letting you select a different font style or change your margins, colors, and other preferences. Its implementation in Content Management Systems (CMS) brings about the second layer of abstraction. I’m sure you can count plain text input somewhere in earlier CMS platforms, but this is the more common method of creating content on the Web. Blogger might have been the first prolific example (above), but I haven’t spent enough time Googling to tell you for sure.
To be true to the definition of abstraction this comparison should only be made from language-to-language. In that regard, languages like SASS, LESS, and the like are another layer of abstraction on top of CSS. I’m using abstraction liberally to talk about the mode of interaction you have with a computer when creating content online. In that regard, SASS and CSS are in the same bucket of “manually writing out instructions for the browser.”
An important element of this second layer of abstraction is not only the WYSIWYG, but its placement within an administrator’s section of the website. On Blogger, WordPress, or even the relatively modern Tumblr, you must sign in and access a different side of the website to enter new content and publish.
What makes Tumblr interesting is that the primary experience of viewing and interacting with other posts within the community takes place in the same logged-in state / administrator view.
Other services fall elsewhere in the spectrum of a definitive edit mode and read mode. WordPress for example has a completely different experience in the edit mode or administrator side of the site, whereas Flickr was one of the first to blur the line and display the same interface for editing as reading — with minor differences when clicking on things.
It seems that in the development of a new content platform, there’s a defining choice whether to embrace the Content Management System (CMS) or to try and hide it as much as possible, creating the illusion that your draft could just as well be live, published content. This design decision is what carries some products from the Second Layer of abstraction and the Third Layer of Abstraction, where creating and reading content begin to merge.
Always logged-in + squishy CMS
As you can see above, Flickr has made quite a few changes over the years and I think it’s an excellent example of a third layer of abstraction to creating content online. Yes, there’s a smaller gap between this layer and the second than there was between the first two, but it’s distinct enough to deserve recognition.
In the Flickr example, people are still interacting with a CMS and they are logged in as an “administrator” of their content. What is significant however, is that our identities online have become more solidified and with a more liberal use of browser cookies, we are almost always identified when walking in to a website we commonly use. For example, WordPress, despite its many improvements, will still ask you to sign in to access the administrator part of your blog; whereas Facebook, Flickr, Medium, and many others will remember you, and what’s more: the main mode of interacting with those sites (communities really) is within the logged-in state.
As we lean toward an always logged-in state by default, the CMS necessarily has merged with the published content. Even when interacting with the CMS, it has become standard to do the composing or editing in the same place you’re viewing other content. When making a Facebook status, your browser doesn’t ask you to leave the newsfeed. When publishing a tweet, your browser no longer requires you to refresh the page to view that content. Overall, there a higher sophistication of Front-End web development being employed that makes these CMS interactions quite “squishy” compared to the very distinct moments you will have with a WordPress CMS and reading the blog, for example.
Sitting here in 2015, this doesn’t sound like much of a revelation. My apologies if I didn’t warn you ahead of time, but I don’t see myself as a visionary. I just think its important to document what we see.
If I am to follow this winding definition of creating content and getting further away from complying with computers to get things done, then the last layer as I see it must be collaborative documents. Hear me out:
Writing code – You’re using HTML, SASS, anything that’s meant for a browser and not a human.
WYSIWYG / Hard CMS – You’re filling in text boxes, clicking formatting buttons, previewing, publishing, and then going somewhere else to see how it looks.
Always logged-in / Squishy CMS – You don’t have to go anywhere else when finished creating or editing content. The line between browsing the web and composing has been blurred, but there is still a very strong line between you and your readers: the save/post/publish button.
Collaborative content – In this state, the CMS is the viewing platform and composing platform at the same time. There’s no line between browsing and composing, nor is there a line between you and your readers:
I think where this notion of the Fourth Layer feels a bit forced is that it’s not a typical use case. Collaborative tools such as Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, and the like are associated with professional use only, and even in a professional setting they are not the norm.
What’s interesting to me however, is a hypothetical type of social media where that line between author and reader is selectively removed. Let’s take Facebook as an easy target. Imagine if you didn’t have to click the Post button on a status.
Oh wow Rob, that would make my life 9,000 times easier!
Yeah, I thought as much. It might even do more harm than good.
Side-note: isn’t there some publication that uses data Facebook has on what people draft as a status update versus what people actually publish?
I think it would be fun in some safe spaces, such as a curated group of your best friends where you could post content live and anyone that happens to be on the page at the same time can be drawn into your activity and then instantly (or simultaneously) begin to respond/react/build on what you’re putting out there.
Okay, so let’s back away from the Facebook example a bit. I’m getting very specific just to try to explore what using the web would feel like if we managed to abstract ourselves just a bit more from the already ‘squishy’ CMS. Perhaps there will always be a line, a very minimum confirmation moment when an author does acknowledge something will be born into the Internet or not.
I think this depends on the concept of the web for most people. If you imagine it’s more akin to a book or newsletter than a dinner conversation or phone call, then yes, there will always be an interaction with the machine no matter how minimal. If you’re of the latter opinion however, then maybe at some point all lines will dissolve and we interact with the web as we do in person – maybe that leads to more explaining, and less editing, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
I didn’t want to get too technical while exploring these different ways of creating content online, but I’d like to acknowledge that these layers of abstraction do not imply that we’re detaching from machines, markup languages, or programming of any sort. If anything, a greater layer of abstraction requires more sophisticated code to support such an elegant interface on the outside.
Good design should not aspire to rendering a complicated system into a seamless one; on the contrary, I hope we continue to focus our attention to the seams and learn how to best mold them to fit our needs.*
We used to log in to create blog posts and that was a necessity for security and identifying the author. Now we are logged in everywhere, for social reasons, for our own sense of digital identity.
* I’d love to take credit for such an intelligent-sounding stance on design, but I first read about it here: Matthew Chalmers (2003)