Making Art Without a Body

My co-founder Nadja Oertelt interviewed the artist Rachel Rossin a few months ago:

NO: Do you think VR is uncomfortable enough that it will prevent us from staying in those spaces for too long?

RR: Yes, and I hope that virtual reality doesn’t get better. I think it should stay uncomfortable and ugly and awkward. The fact that it’s uncomfortable is a good thing for now. The risk with VR turning into something easy or something that feels like a part of our body, or even when it’s no longer screen-based—that’s where I start to get a little uncomfortable. Because I think that’s when it will become an experience where people start forgetting how to walk.

I love the idea that discomfort is an intrinsic quality of VR: either it’s the discomfort of using it for long periods, or the discomfort with the potential for it to become so comfortable that it’s easy to get lost in.

Command Line Therapy

Things have been moving pretty fast and chaotic lately, so I took a few days vacation after the holiday last week. With the extra free time, I set up a private server for myself, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for months but never found the time for. For the first time in a long time, it felt like I was playing with computers again.

Now, my website is running on my own private server, and its so exciting. I was able to publish something by writing a few lines into a dark terminal, hitting enter, and letting it fly. It felt like casting spells. Now I have my own private space, a little treehouse to pass time with, seclude myself within, and make my very own.

There’s a therapeutic effect to this kind of work: surrounded by craziness, this is a space that I can control. That’s comforting.

I saw a similar thought expressed (definitely more eloquently) in an issue of Craig Mod’s newsletter, in an excerpt he pulled from an unfinished essay on the therapy of server work. The way he puts it:

It’s a meaty task, a task for grunts, thankless, and one that requires strong focus. Most everything happens in the terminal, on the command line. Every action is key-precise. It can make a person weak in the knees to think about how much of the world’s smooth operation is contingent on typing (or clicking, as we’ve seen) accuracy. But it is, and when you move through the guts of your Linux flavor, you can’t help but stare gape-mouthed at the absurdity and beauty of the crisscross threads that keep the web and most of our digital (and by proxy, physical) infrastructure afloat.

Therein lies part of the attraction: moving through that jumble — with all of its language of grep and vi and git and apache and .ini — and doing so with talent, with a kind of fingers-floating-across-the-keyboard balletic grace, is downright exhilarating. It feels like you’re getting away with goddamn alchemy. And you are. You are typing esoteric words — words that can feel like an affront to nature in their nonsensicalness — into a line-by-line command interface, like an old Infocom game, except instead of finding Excalibur you’ve just scaffolded a publishing platform that can be accessed by a vast percentage of humans worldwide.

Server work provides a feeling of control, power, and autonomy—of freedom—that’s relatively easy and inexpensive to achieve. It’s not a financial or political freedom, just one that’s easily accessible. I don’t know if that’s good or bad—it’s probably both, and neither. But having explored this newfound freedom, I now have a better sense of what’s possible—and increased my ability to read the magic spells that everybody around me is conjuring into other products and businesses I find myself relying on day to day. I now find myself imaging replacements for the daily services and tools I use daily—email servers, music streaming, file storage—that makes self-reliance seem more feasible, even in an age when everything is interdependent.

Right now, my server is my therapy. And I’m kinda excited about that.

Dark UI

More and more, the phone apps I use have adopted dark user interfaces, often with pure black backgrounds and dimmer whites. I’ve really come to love this! I often keep my brightness as low as possible, to save both my battery life and my eye balls, and these darker interfaces really look greater when the brightness is lower. Most of my apps added their dark UI because on OLED displays (which the fancy new iPhone adopted) pure black pixels are turned all the way off, which can further maximize battery life.

Beyond technical reasons, I also love the aesthetics of dark UI. Since the pixels turn off, the boundary between the edge of the screen and the body of the phone disappears—it blurs the line between hardware and software and is a very cool effect. It also references the historic tradition of computing. Developer applications like text editors and terminals usually default to dark interfaces, following user preferences and a long legacy of software development tools, going all the way back to the first digital displays. It was only when our graphical screens started to go WYSIWYG and simulating the look and feel of ink on paper that dark text on white backgrounds became the norm, continuing to today.

Dark interfaces are also more honest to the display hardware we use today. Screens emit light, rather than reflecting it, which means they have intrinsic properties totally separate from ink on paper. That’s why screens use RGB, an additive color model, rather than the subtractive CMYK color model that’s used in printing. Of course, this is the kind of detail that only people like publishing nerds really pay any attention to.

That’s not to say there’s no validity to dark text on light backgrounds, especially when accessibility is a concern. In my own, cursory research I found up a conclusion from Jason Harrison, Post Doctoral Fellow, Imager Lab Manager at the Sensory Perception and Interaction Research Group, University of British Columbia:

People with astigmatism (aproximately 50% of the population) find it harder to read white text on black than black text on white. Part of this has to do with light levels: with a bright display (white background) the iris closes a bit more, decreasing the effect of the “deformed” lens; with a dark display (black background) the iris opens to receive more light and the deformation of the lens creates a much fuzzier focus at the eye.

It’s important that people be able to read in the way that’s most comfortable for them! Whether it’s somebody with astigmatism who finds dark-on-light easier for them, or whether it’s me wanting as low a brightness as I can manage.

That’s part of the reason why, on Massive, I recently added a light switch to the menu bar. Partly, it was to test out my style cascade and experiment with more radical theming that we’ll be using for Reports and other features. But also, it’s because while I wanted us to default to a light-on-dark default that’s familiar to readers, I myself wanted the ability to turn the brightness off! I’ll probably copy that light switch over to this site at some point soon, too.

That being said, I’m really pleased that the cultural trend is starting to swing back from dark on light to light on dark. There’s always going to be WYSIWYG and the inefficiencies it introduces—we’ve got to design for users where they are rather than expect them to adapt to our arcane “best practices.” Even if nobody else cares, I’m at least glad I’m getting the option more and more, since I’ll take it every chance I get.

Overthinking It

Scribbly scribble

Oh boy, I am just not satisfied by the bare minimum. It feels like a really odd thing to say, but doing less is something I something I need to get better at. I put together this new website over the last month, and the whole time I feel like been fighting against myself! I keep trying to add on all this structure and overwrought complexity onto this thing, when all I really want—the reason I started over in the first place—was that I wanted to give myself an excuse to journal again.

I’ve done this before! And it’s turned out poorly! As soon as the “fun” part of building the site is done, I totally lose interest in it. That’s why I’m always blogging in these 2 week stretches after I redo my site.

There’s two options, I guess. The first one is to just build empty websites for myself, and keep tweaking them and fiddling with them but not really accomplishing anything of lasting value (because I’ll fiddle it away eventually). The alternative it to actually focus on improving my habits with the hope that I’ll benefit from those changes in the long run.

It’s my grasshopper brain v.s. my ant brain. I’m always rooting for my inner ant, but my inner grasshopper is always winning.

Fortunately, having gone through this process a few times and come out the other end of it kinda dissatisfied with myself, I think I at least understand my impulses a little better and, in turn, can deploy some strategies to avoid falling prey to them again. I think about them like personal anti-patterns. Here’s the two I’m facing right now:

The first one is over-structuring from the get-go. Premature optimization is a bad habit I’ve been learning how to fight against for years (hopefully I’ll write more about that!). If I submit to that anti-pattern, I’ll end up spending all my time coming up with a really baroque data structure but without any data to fill it. I mean, I had to just literally stop myself from putting a navigation on my website, even though I have nothing to navigate to! LAME!! I realized my time was better spent scolding myself for doing this in my journal, which solves the problem of not writing more, at least.

The second one is caring about the quality of what I’m doing here. THAT’S NOT THE POINT DUMMY. The point is to make a space for practice so that I can eventually write the things I want to. I get so self-possessed and self-conscious that the things I’m writing are too meta (I literally can’t help myself from doing it right now), too boring, or too inelegant. I have to abandon this pretension and ego and just GO FOR IT. The only way I’m gonna get to that place is by putting in the hard work and letting go. That’s kinda scary, tho, but at least I’m gonna try to not impose too much pressure on myself.

This whole thing reminds me of something I heard about starting a new note- or sketch-book, feeling all anxious and worked up about making it the perfect journal, and scribbling over the first page to relieve that anxiety. There’s nothing you can do that can be worse than the scribble. Pressure’s off.

I’m trying my best to not over think it.