Archives for posts with tag: art

Perhaps the meaning of life is that we have the capability to ask, “what is the meaning?”

This is a question that an artist or scientist tackles every day.
– Why create art when you could do something more “practical”?
– Why do science or philosophy when you could be half as smart, use half the effort and become exponentially richer by choosing a career in finance?
– Why be greedy if everyone around you really just pretends to care about you because they want a slice of your financial pie?
– Why strive for recognition and fame when you’ll likely end up a narcissist surrounded by preening swans looking to steal your spotlight?

What is the meaning?

Answers are inevitably arbitrary. Emotionality (including the suppression of emotion), grandiose ideologies and positive/negative thinking dichotomies provide wrong or inadequate answers. The mental faculty of questioning entails an ability to encounter a full range of experiences, including the possibility of finding a meaning. Even if meaning remains beyond our grasp, the process of extending our knowledge is itself the manifestation of a uniquely human and intrinsically meaningful act.

It may be the case that the art of living begins here, in a process of discovery that ends only in death. This artful path begins with a realization that the question of meaning is an accessible challenge for all human beings, and it lives within us as long as we allow it to move us in whatever direction the path takes for itself.

Emotions

Emotions don’t create meaning. “Happiness” is little more than an interpretation of an emotional perception; the emotional perception is founded in biological sensations that, themselves, have no intrinsic meaning. Sensations and emotional reactions can help keep us alive, and they can just as easily lead to dysfunctional or destructive outcomes. As emotions come, so do they pass. There is no deeper meaning in sensations, inferences about emotions, or evaluations of the imaginary worth of an equally imaginary “self”. The meaning of life is neither emotion, control or manipulation of emotion to create a sustained feeling of “being happy”, nor a lack or suppression of emotion.

Grandiosity

Grandiose pronouncements of some permanent solution tend to lead to fundamentalistic conclusions that necessitate the dehumanization and even murder of those who disagree. Some religious people proudly and piously declare that without religion — no, without their particular religion — life is hopeless and meaningless. From there is only a small semantic hop to the belief that non-believers are not fully human. And from there awaits either repentance and indoctrination or the bullet, the gas chamber, and the furnace. Metaphors can become literal reality all too easily in situations where faith (“faith” is absolute belief despite absence of compelling evidence) overrules or preempts the use of moral reasoning in the march from mindful contemplation to mindless obedience.

Positivity

“Positivity” and happiness are secular terms that are also synonymously meaningless. Some individuals even go so far as to define positivity as some sort of “science of happiness”, which of course means nothing at all.

Most worthwhile activities do not feel “positive” in the moment: studying can lead to a heavy-headed sleepiness. Acts of creativity can be as exhausting as running a marathon. Physical exercise can result in a tired body and next-day soreness. These are crucially useful activities that don’t feel “positive” or “happy” in the moment. Partying and taking drugs can be the most “positive” experiences of a person’s life, yet they offer no sustainable solutions, create nothing that develops or sustains human life, and helps no one beyond the moment of consumption.

Positive without negative is homicide/suicidal mania. Negative without positive is homicide/suicidal depression. Neither holds any value as a method of partitioning human experience in search of meaning.

Arbitrary or meaningful, or both?

Life itself is arbitrary. There is no one “real” meaning to life, just as no one human being is more “real” or “more human” than another. The ability to ask questions of our existence entails a comprehensive sense of self that can extend to the limits of the known universe, and perhaps even beyond it.

Only humans can use complex linguistic forms to explore realms of pure imaginative speculation, such as the notion of an “after-life”, which is absurd by definition — at least, until we find reliable evidence to the contrary. Only we can hear the vibration of a voice or other musical instrument and conceive of cosmic communication with the greater Universe. Only we can look beyond what we have thus far proven capable of seeing, by using curiosity to build questions that drive us to find new answers. Those answers then form the scaffold for new questions.

The wonder of life is at our fingertips at all times. The answer is the question itself. Imagine if you knew the “true” answer. How boring! ;)

To spend a life wondering, maintaining curiosity, learning, creating paths to new ideas and questioning the answers that we find along the way: this is a life that remains challenging, fascinating and constantly renewed at every moment.

This way is a path of science and fiction, emotional art and artful logic, love for life itself and the fulfillment of always maintaining a beginner’s mind.

The question is the answer.
Maybe.

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Have you ever wondered why creative people always seem to come with the label “crazy” attached?
Isn’t it a little weird how “sanity” seems to entail the bland sameness of conformity to social norms?
Is it possible to for a human mind to be both creative _and_ sane, preferably at the same time?

We can deal with practical considerations first: how to do more creative work in less time.

According to Pareto’s Law or the “80/20” rule, most people obtain eighty percent of their results from twenty percent of their time and effort. I like this idea and have probably mentioned it before. Pareto’s Law (or “Pareto Principle”) describes the amount of “wasted” time that an artist spends daydreaming. Daydreams are the invisible generative work of sketching out new ideas.

That eighty percent also includes time misspent following ineffective advice.

If twenty percent of creativity is visible, how can the other eighty percent be used more effectively?

The Inverse 80/20 Rule

Metacognition means “thinking about thinking”. Someone who designs a school curriculum is thinking _about_ the best way for students to think about a given subject, with the purpose of learning that subject. It may sound confusing because most people rarely question their own ways of doing things. Lack of metacognition may be the largest blind spot slowing your creative development and abilities. Most people blunder about taking advice from authority figures and popular icons rather than learning to evaluate the (possibly flawed) thinking that led to the advice.

Solution: spend eighty percent of your time on the metacognitive skill of learning how to reach better results in the other twenty percent of your time.

Example:
The average writer is often told that to be a better writer requires you to write a certain quota of words per day.

Using a metacognitive approach, you might ask, “instead of just writing more, how do I learn to write better stories?” The task would then be a deliberate, daily study and refinement of the question itself.

Further questions: Do I need to write better stories, or do I need to learn what stories are made of? Are there different types of stories? If so, which types to I want to learn to write? Are there any role models for me to learn from? How do they learn to write? How are those role models similar and different to me in my journey as a writer? How do the parts of their skillsets fit into my approach? If I alter my approach in one way, what effects will that have on my prior ways of doing things?

You will discover masters of the craft. You will find the first principles of your art, and every word you write will stand on that foundation. Look back in a few years and you may no longer recognize those old works as your own.

You may only spend twenty percent of your time writing. Instead of pouring the other eighty percent into the abyss of “consistent hard work”, you can rest assured that every finished piece will echo forward from the greatest sources that you have been able to find.

The real skill development is not the skill itself, but continual improvement of the learning process.

This is true in engineering as well as the arts, and especially in areas where there are no established best practices. Many artistic fields have no obvious blueprint for what’s “good” and how to create works of high quality. You will have to create and continually refine your own set of best practices, and hold yourself to them with each new effort.

Sanity for artists: what your therapist won’t tell you (and why artistry is not a direct route to psychotherapy at all)

In the world of psychotherapy, great emphasis is placed on psychological “abnormality”.

In the non-therapeutic world, the idea of “normal” is a social control tactic used to shame those who deviate from the majority’s consensus on how a “sane” person “should” (or really, _must_) act.

From the time of Sigmund Freud onward (actually, Aristotle), it has become fashionable to psychopathologize creativity as a form of madness. Hollywood further nurtures the “crazy artist” stereotype because it makes for a cheap dramatic thrill and easy comedic punchlines. This closely tracks the fallacy that successful artists and scientists are “geniuses”, and all geniuses are also crazy.

There is some truth to the idea — a disproportionate number of great artists have been manic-depressive (and perhaps some familial association with schizophrenia), for example.

The number of mentally ill artists is miniscule compared to those who simply love art and want to create it.

So how can you keep sane in a world where any hint of being “artsy” will prompt the manipulative idiots in your life to whisper, scream and howl about how “crazy” you must be?

Simple answer: realize that they are simply acting in a normal, socially manipulative way, and that’s how people are when there’s more than one human in a room.

Vital Contact

Artistry — and science, and engineering — often requires turning away from the world for extended periods of time. In order to acquire skill in a domain, this “introversion” must be enacted for hours every day, over a period of years. Some estimate that roughly a decade is required to rise from novice to attain practical mastery.

Psychojargon regards this intensive introversion as a “loss of vital contact will reality”. Expert armchair psychoanalysts (like your parents, perhaps) may mis-diagnose an artist’s mentality as a form of psychosis or dissociative disorder.

Many, perhaps most, creatively successful and prolific people have learned to turn inward. This is often due to some involuntary form of isolation from the outside world in their youth or young adulthood.

“Normal” people find other, more ordinary external stimuli: aimless socializing in desperate need of others’ love and approval; materialistic greed for status objects and money; and normal human obsession for sex and reproduction. Creative people somehow re-route that time and energy into artistic and/or scientific pursuits.

In other words, all successful artists, scientists and engineers are at heart, a bunch of hardcore geeks and nerds.

Social Butterflies and Inner Demons

Collaboration is often essential, yet a supremely well-socialized person will be inevitably be constrained by the collective opinions of those in his or her peer group. It’s harder to be creative when you’re balancing other people’s expectations against your own creative impulses. Creative isolation provides oxygen for the spark of an idea to ignite within a well-prepared mind.

The average person recoils at the prospect of being alone with their own thoughts, in no small part because their own minds are foreign resonance chambers of unfounded fears and imaginary enemies. A creative person, however, can choose not to be self-destructive — the abuse of drugs or other people, for example — in favor of accepting all of those “voices in my head” (although if the voices feel as though they are not yours, please seek professional help). Acceptance frees the mind from self-censorship and internal persecution regarding any strange or unexpected thought. This is a separate skillset that I may tell you more about later.

The Perfect Passion Project

The process of rising to a level of creativity where others care about your work may, paradoxically, require you to stop caring so much about what others think of your work.

Re-route the passion for approval, money and sex into the creation of a world that must first become more than real in your own mind.

A science fiction filmmaker doesn’t stare wishfully at the moon or sit on the couch getting high and drunk with friends while watching movies. The filmmaker spends years working on the skills (perhaps using the “Inverse 80/20 rule” above) to make real his or her own vision of Moon, Mars, Pluto and beyond.

A writer doesn’t fret about not having the “right” friends or sit on dating sites wishing for Prince or Princess Charming to magically appear. The writer learns to build fascinating character relationships and construct story worlds so compelling that the reader will never want to leave.

A visual artist or illustrator doesn’t fall into the typical consumer’s traps. Consumerist traps include trying to find mass-produced beauty in fashion magazines and engaging in the endless fool’s errand of shopping in boutique stores. The artist learns to take even simple objects and discover the perfection of what can be seen within them. This requires a re-wiring of the mind from demanding perfection outside, to creating perfection inside and learning to express it in visual form.

“Perfection” here can be the perfect tension of asymmetry or a marvel of the immaculately grotesque. The work itself does not attempt perfection. Perfectionism is perhaps the only truly debilitating illness to afflict creative people. Perfection here is the embodiment of the question: “how close is this work to the vision that compelled me to create it?” and that is the essence of a lifelong pursuit. Perfection is infinite, in that it always lies one step down the path; at the next step and then the next. This is a life in art. If that is madness, why would anyone settle for the consensual hallucination of creativity-deprived “sanity”?

Further Reading:

1. Bipolar Disorder and Creativity. Written by Neel Burton for Psychology Today.
2. Do Creativity And Schizophrenia Share A Small Genetic Link? Maybe. Written by Angus Chen for NPR.
3. Secrets of the Creative Brain. Written by Nancy C. Andreasen for The Atlantic.

A question that has proved vexatious over the past few years: is it better to do as you please in life, or sacrifice yourself to help others?

Equally relevant is the side question, “does art really matter at all?”

Answers: The dichotomy in the first question — selfishness versus selflessness — is false, and art may be the only road to creating a scientifically-literate society.

There are more enough self-help gurus in the world today. Many ventures of dubious value tend to adopt the glossy show-business angle of selling a “new you”, from entreprenuerial religious figures to celebrities shilling for the pharmaceutical industry.

Everyone wants to change the world in some way, usually starting with you.

If there are so many “success” gurus and self-declared “experts” giving inspirational TED talks about your awesome brain, how is it possible that we’re not all gorgeous happy millionaires by now? Shouldn’t the privileged one-percent have edged at least somewhat closer to being the “self-made hundred percent”?

One answer is that the game is rigged to keep almost everyone at the bottom. This is obviously part of the problem.

The other part is that humans refuse to learn.

If you want to have an impact in the world, you have to effect change in the behavior of others. The fabeled “neuroplasticity” touted ad infinitum by the TED talkers is essentially fancy jargon for a very old and pragmatic word: that word is “learning”.

And learning, especially learning anything worthwhile, is hard.

It’s no surprise, then, that you can practically hear the doors of young minds closing somewhere in the early-to-middle teen years. Schools are partly to blame, as anyone who has been to school in the current system knows. The other problem is a social one, or perhaps more accurately, a psychosocial one.

Think back to when you were in your mid-teens. What was happening around that time? People around you were starting to have (lots of) sex, everyone seemed to be in a rush to create an identity and become part of some clique or other, and suddenly you realized that you were old enough to start making money. Money meant that you could get more of the things that led to sex with desirable partners. Money also could enable buying objects that could help you “fit in” better — clothes, a car, gadgets and pocket money for “cool” things like drugs and partying.

The new sexual compulsions and socially-facilitated greed eventually forms a belief system that congeals later into a nearly cultish consumerist mentality. Get rich, get laid, and get more-better-newer stuff than your peers: this is the new value system that replaces the curiosities and desires of an otherwise intelligent and inquisitive child.

By the time the average kid leaves high school, the pattern is set. Sex, greed, and the obsession for egotistical social dominance become reframed as “being a grown-up”. The rat race is mistaken for what it means to live a “normal” life.

I used to vacillate between the idea of becoming a scientist or engineer, versus an inclination toward artistic pursuits. Who made a stronger contribution to society: Einstein or Mozart? Amelia Earhart or Britney Spears (I mean, Christina Aguilera)? Alexander Graham Bell or Sidney Poitier and Jay-Z?

Again, the dichotomy is false, because the constraints arbitrarily focus on the wrong set of options.

The predominant myth of modern society is the “self-made” person. It’s a variant of the “rags to riches” story that leads poor people to dream about being filthy (as in, wealthy) in the most short-sighted and cutthroat ways. The only way to be “exceptional” is to be better than everyone else — or to steal their share in a zero-sum game. And there can only be a very small percentage gloating at the top of any given population.

Accordingly, we have fairly boilerplate mythologies spun around people like Einstein, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. The same is true for cultural icons like millionaire actors, platinum-selling rockstars and mixtape-famous rappers. Have you ever stopped and listened to the strangely similar plot points in the hagiographies of your favorite cultural superheroes? We’ve had the equivalent of Photoshopped photos long before software nipped, tucked, deleted, fuzzed and pushed pixels into pleasantly implausible shapes. The “genius” illusion is one that has inspired confused adoration and misplaced idealism (eventually giving way to cynical disillusionment) in young people for generations.

So you _still_ want to change the world…

If you want to change the world, you first have to accept the fact that you most likely will not change the world. Denial of reality leads to the distortion or willful ignorance of empirical facts. If you become some kind of persuasive zealot or denialist manic attempting to fulfill a titanic vision, the likely outcome is its opposite. Hubris leads to the de-valuing of others, which leads to ruthlessness and corruption. Even religions that emphasise pacifist ideals like “turn the other cheek” can be misused by their adherents to justify murder and genocide. The idea of a “superman” reliably creates secular religions that rationalize the displacement and destruction of anyone who is different or raises a voice of dissent.

I realize now that mobilization of a population is far more powerful and important than any individual.

Rather that one “genius” Einstein, imagine an entire society of people who are scientifically literate. Instead of one brilliant Bill Gates, imagine a culture that valued rationality and sought practical solutions for a better life both at home and abroad.

There could be thousands of young Einsteins and Gateses who never learn to care about science and technology until it’s too late — instead, they waste their professional lives building high-tech toys, privacy-destroying “social networks” and schemes to con people into clicking on ads.

To change the world, young children are really the only ones who can be trusted to learn anything at all. Adults are almost invariably trapped in the so-called “grown-up” world of sexual obsession (prudes and perverts alike), tribalistic religiosity (from organized religion to mass consumerism) and twisted irrational thinking (from lionizing corporate greed to normalizing the “fat acceptance” movement).

The only real hope may be to use art — music, films, novels, video games and other storytelling media — inviting and seducing the audience to seek a different path. Replace the dysfunctional melodrama of narcissistic self-indulgence with the lifelong beauty of seeking truth in the real Universe.

Forget the idolatry of Einstein and the pseudo-prophetic proclamations by clever self-promoters like Elon Musk. To massively change the world, society can shift in relatively small ways. Waiting for a benevolent billionaire to hand us our future is undoubtedly the worst of all possible capitalist worlds. Trying to re-make the world in our image is not only futile, it’s a power fantasy that leads to immorality and murder.

What’s most amazing is that nearly no one seems to have tried this truly revolutionary idea: use art as a means of seducing society to become more rationally-minded and scientifically inclined rather than less.

There’s a great video online of a bearded dragon marauding a field full of innocent crickets. The video has subtitles that give voice to the thoughts of both the dragon and the crickets. The dragon is thinking, “Food!”, while the crickets are thinking, “Ruun! Run for your lives!”

At one point, the bearded dragon ignores a cricket, who runs away. The cricket appears to escape by running under the dragon’s tail in a daring maneuver in which it “bypasses doom”. As the dragon turns around and sees the cricket, the text onscreen shows “NOPE” as the cricket is speedily devoured.

That reminds me of the way that creative people are treated in the larger world of passive observers.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only “The Man” — meaning the stereotypical powers of oppression like the government, your teachers or your boss — will try to keep you down. The fact is that society itself is defined by, and operates fundamentally by, keeping people in particular places. If you’re not born in a privileged environment full of useful influences and mentors, society will put you in the “worker bee” slot and tell you the standard mantra of “work hard, get ahead, live happily ever after.”

We all know that mantra is a lie.

Most people work hard for every dollar. This means that for every dollar, they sacrifice their time. Dollars are literally expendable; you can never make more time. So exchanging dollars for time will always leave you behind unless you’re doing what you love.

Capitalism is designed around paying as little as possible while getting as much as you can (i.e. everybody wants the best possible deal). People consistently fall for the idea of “free” (although nothing in life is free) so they put up with advertising online that steals their privacy and profits from selling their identities. And unless you work for yourself, your boss is almost certainly underpaying you. It’s just how capitalism is designed. Other socioeconomic systems are usually even worse because they ignore this fact, and so greed rears its head anyway under the name “corruption” or “graft”.

This is the life of the worker bee. I’ve also written more about this elsewhere, so we can leave it at that for now.

Is your boss oppressing you? Maybe. Think, though, about what you can see online every day. The presence of “haters” and “trolls” has come to define the Web, largely by exploiting the ideals of privacy (i.e. anonymity) and effortless communication (i.e. places like 4Chan and Reddit). You see haters constantly antagonizing celebrities for no real reason (see: Zelda Williams being driven off Twitter after her famous father committed suicide).

Think also about offline forms of trolling, like hecklers at a stand-up comedian’s show, or those who try to distract actors and musicians who are performing onstage.

These are all signs that point to one fact: people at the bottom are just likely to oppress creativity as those at the top. An old metaphor for this is the “crabs in a barrel” idea where crabs at the bottom will grab and pull down any individual crab who tries to claw out of the container, rather than help each other reach the top.

Why do people do this? One reason is related to the narcissism that propels social networking. Everyone wants to be (and is told that they are) “special”. We love the idea; it’s why we worship anyone who is successful — as long as that person “humanizes” him- or herself by pretending that “it all just happened” rather than being a combination of hard work and luck. If it “just happened”, it could happen to you, too.

Obviously that’s not how the real world works, and we’re constantly reminded of it. If you have ever studied any creative domain (take the cello or violin as an example), you know that it takes years to start to get good. Most people, though, desperately want it to be as easy as a video game where you can learn and be a virtuoso in a matter of hours.

When the non-creative person realizes that “hey, this ‘art’ stuff is hard!”, they fall into another trap: they elevate artists to the level of “the gifted ones” who have some innate “talent” that is inborn and therefore unlearnable. Notice the terminology: An actor, writer or musician isn’t considered to be “skilled”, he or she is “talented”. It’s really just an easy way for most people to rationalize their lack of desire to put in the time and effort required to learn; even a genius has to put in years of study before being able to operate at an elite level. The rest of us can’t rely on prodigious raw ability, so we have to find a different way. Whining about how everyone else is “gifted” is a sure sign of someone who isn’t doing their part. And that’s fine — just be sure that person isn’t you.

During a recent conversation, I found a directly relevant analogy that might make sense to non-creative people, just as it’s already a self-evident fact of life for you and me.

Why can artists rightfully expect to be paid for their work?

Often, the damage done by piracy is brushed aside with glib arguments like, “well, if your work is good enough, people will pay for it.” The conclusion that “if you’re not getting rich from your work, maybe your work just is just no good.” The insinuation is that anyone who isn’t making massive money from their art is some kind of “dilettante” who needs to admit their lack of skill and quit whining about their inability to get paid like the superstars do.

One part of that argument is true. The vast majority of artists aren’t at the top of their field. By definition, most people won’t be the best in any field, because the realm of the best is reserved for a small number of individuals who are better than most of the others.

The problem with that perspective is twofold:

1. In reality, most people aren’t the best at anything.

Telling artists that they need to be the “best” before they can expect to be paid is shown as false when applied to the rest of the workforce. If you work a nine-to-five, are you one of the top performers in your field? Is there even any way to quantify that distinction reliably? If not, why do you expect to be paid for your work?

If you’re not a CEO of a Fortune 50 corporation [or for that matter, if your employer doesn’t perform at that level], you should expect to give your work away for free and go compete for a “day job” in some other market sector.

Right, that sounds pretty ridiculous — and that’s exactly the logic used against artists when people want to justify stealing their work.

There’s a further technology-based implication that you’ll see further down.

2. Practically no one who is a novice in any field will be the “best” right from the start.

If you look at any high-achiever, you’ll see that they probably weren’t amazing for the first five to ten years of their time in the field. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Albert Einstein has to sink time and effort into learning, studying — and crucially, making mistakes — for years before they attained sufficient ability to be considered great.

The ‘Genius’ Fallacy

Geniuses aren’t born; they’re made. A prodigy may have higher innate aptitude than the average person, but if they don’t spend years honing that capability, they’ll get nowhere — just like the average person who gives up before manifesting any ability at all.

Roughly, ability consists of strategy and experience.

If your strategy points you in the wrong direction, no amount of experience will overcome that fundamental error — Da Vinci could build flying contraptions for decades, but without the idea of some sort of engine to power them, his ideas never left the ground to become the empirically-based science of aeronautics.

Experience is necessary to take part in the domain such that your skills improve over time. Even more important, experience enables the creation of better strategies. An expert knows how to detect patterns more quickly than a novice, and the ability to detect patterns is a process that is impossible to shortcut beyond a relatively low level.

Regardless of aptitude, everyone has to put their time in before becoming proficient at any complex skill.

What this means, then, is that if you only pay someone when you think they’re the “best”, you’re actually stifling everyone else’s ability to reach and overcome the plateaus along the path to skill. Simply put, if an artist (or scientist, or engineer) has to spend large amounts of time trying to merely survive, the amount of time and focus they can use to improve their skills will necessarily be foreshortened. This results in a general drain of ability in the domain itself. Skill-building falls prey to time-shortage, and with it comes the inability to amass the experience required to reach high levels of proficiency. If no one can make a decent living creating art, the emergence of new great artists erodes as well. And then we’re left with pop-culture icons whose music consists of over-autotuned voices and shallowly looped samples; adults who unabashedly prefer fiction written for teenagers (the young adult genre); and derivative visual media that is too inept and afraid to do anything new. Eventually, advertising is the only “artform” left standing, mainly because it sells.

Information Wants To Be Free? Your Boss Just Said The Same Thing About Your Job

The mercenary approach taken by music/movie/book pirates in regard to the arts is a mirror image of the corporate disdain for human labor. Many people are justifiably afraid of the fact that mechanization and artificial intelligence are starting to outpace the human ability to re-train and compete. At some point, machines will almost certainly be able to perform the vast majority of jobs that require repetitive cognitive or physical labor.

What we’re seeing now is that corporations are replacing people with robots or intelligent software systems. In the remaining workforce, employers are increasingly hiring only the most overqualified applicants and forcing them to work harder for stagnant wages. This is exactly the same mentality that the average piracy-loving consumer takes when using technology [i.e. the Internet] to steal works from artists with the justification that, “if your work was as good as the best artist out there, I’d gladly pay for it. You’re only ‘good’, though, so I’ll encourage you to become ‘great’ by only paying those who’ve earned that ‘best-in-class’ status.”

The corporate earnings machine now uses the power of technology in order to force the average person to either be the “best” or face inevitable obsoletion (or in the interim, minimization of their prospects for earning a sustainable wage). From unpaid internships to forced overtime, we all have to contend with the idea that either you’re an elite member of your profession, or you don’t deserve to make a living. And it’s all packaged with the bright branding of “positive thinking” in which we’re tantalized by fantasies of a wonderland where we’re all winners, only we’d work just a little faster while smiling harder and desperately denying that ninety-nine percent of us are actually falling farther and farther behind.

Exceptionalism Has A Name, And Its Name Is “Machine”

It’s a sort of cold consolation, then, that when a generation of artists finds themselves unable to make a living wage, it’s only a decade or two before the same ideological axe falls on the hand of the average man and woman. The fallacy of exceptionalism doesn’t incentivize better work. It incentivizes a mercenary mentality that uses technology to increase “productivity” while enslaving and eventually discarding the humans whom that technology was originally designed to serve.

This isn’t an engineering problem of computing power, or false Social Darwinist arguments about “the natural evolution” of progress, or some alarmist propagandizing about the decline of man and the rise of machines. This is a human problem of how we decide to deal with questions about the nature of value, and how we decide to approach those questions as a society. From artist to salaryman to CEO, the “superstar mentality” that only rewards those at the top will eventually create a world where the majority are trapped at the bottom. Every time you pirate a song from an independent musician, steal a book from an self-published author, or pilfer a film produced by a small studio, take note of the fact that your mercenary mentality toward art will one day come back to haunt you — and unless we collectively change our actions, that day of reckoning may come sooner than you might think.

The Internet was designed as a robust communication network — not as a commercial medium. “Data” can be anything passed between two computers. It just so happens that music, books and movies can be digitally encoded as “data”.

Since the Internet is merely a network (not a market), and can transport any data via its networking protocols, is the Internet also cannibalizing all forms of data, including music, books and movies?

All future generations will potentially be able to download any accessible data for the price of an Internet connection.

Life is short. The creation of anything valuable requires time-intensive work. This effectively shortens your lifespan by the number of hours it takes to finish a project.

Many children now learn to use file-sharing apps and networks before they learn the scarcity and value of time. Time, energy and effort are never free, but many people who are not “creative” seem not to recognize the potential value of time unless it has an hourly wage attached. If they did recognize time’s value, how would anyone seriously claim that someone else’s creative work could be free?

Given the scarcity and value of time, the mantra that “information is free” is immediately shown as false. Massive corporations can afford to use major marketing and PR to their advantage; hence, they will survive and get bigger. Individuals and independent artists/scientists who are working after-hours from their garage simply cannot compete with companies that can pay to have their upcoming products spammed across millions of screens, billboards, radio channels, and Internet advertising platforms (including paid ads on social networks).

More importantly, the farther a company’s reach, in terms of marketing, the smaller percentage they have to earn in order to turn a profit.

Imagine that you can realistically hope for 5% of people to buy your work after they hear about it.

At $7 per copy, an indie film made for $100,000 would need 14,285 viewers to recoup their budget. You would have to reach approximately 285,700 people in order to break even if 5% of them paid for your film. To make a $100,000 profit would require over half a million people to know about your film. And that’s only if you could reliably identify a target group of people who might plausibly be interested in your particular work; otherwise, you might not even get 5% to care.

Even in the age of the Internet, a half-million is a lot of people. And the $100,000 covers only the production costs — not the years spent crafting the concept, bringing together a group of skilled people, and then managing the project.

Enter the Internet. You’ve sunk years of effort and $100,000 of funds into the film. Within days, someone buys your film, rips it, and posts it online. People who would otherwise have paid for it can now download for free because they’ve convinced themselves that accessibility is equal to morality. People who wouldn’t have needed a “moral” stance before doing the right thing (i.e. paying for a creative work) can now say that “information wants to be free” and thereby ignore the human cost entirely.

This is like a clerk leaving a jewelry store unattended, and as people crowd in to clean off the shelves, they get caught — then complain that “diamonds want to be free” or “I own the diamonds because this ring weighs practically nothing” or “this diamond ring sucks. I wouldn’t have bought it anyway, so now that I have it, I should be allowed to keep it”, or “it’s not fair. The jeweler didn’t make all these diamonds. He didn’t dig them from the Earth or cut and polish them. He’s trying to make a profit by selling them for more than he bought them. Diamonds want to be free. So beyond an arbitrary amount, he shouldn’t be able to make any more money from them. He should give them away for free to anyone who wants them.”

Making copies of data is “free”. Creating information — the meaningful shape of data that gives you science, films, music and songs — is never free.

A major studio can afford to buy exposure to millions of people and absorb massive losses in revenue in order to get five (or six, or ten) percent of potential customers to buy. So even in the Internet era, big players can make a tidy profit on blockbusters and superstars. And then the big players aim for the lowest common denominator in creating mediocre “safe bets” like yet another Transformers movie or another string of comic-book franchises rather than anything more risky or artistically viable than “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

Meanwhile, indie artists and scientists don’t have the luxury of such a wide loss-margin. The trick is in the percentages: five percent of everyone who looks at a screen that you can reach — that’s a far bigger pie if you can reach most of the screens. It’s practically nothing if all you’ve got is e-begging on Kickstarter and panhandling for “Likes” on Facebook.

Not every work is amenable to the “value add” that many are desperately trying to use to entice people to buy. “Buy my new album and you’ll also get to have a drink with me, only if you pledge [x] amount” is a ludicrous way to try to substitute for lost revenues over the span of a career. These are all strange ways to compensating for the fact that your fans are simply stealing from you, and refuse to even acknowledge it unless you sell them an “experience” that’s not so easy to download.

And that’s why I don’t get the idea that the Internet “should” make everything free, as if this were some kind of “natural” evolution. There’s nothing “natural” about telling people that** they shouldn’t be able to earn a living because their work can be made into a stream of data, and data “wants to be free”.

** …unless they work for a massive corporation that can carpet-bomb the planet with a marketing blitz, that is…

Life is short and nothing is free, unless you steal it. The definition of stealing is that someone suffers while another person gains from that person’s misfortune. The World Wide Web is over fifteen years old now. The lack of alternatives means that access to art and science is now, more than ever, the exclusive domain of large corporations that can thereby exert even more control over what is and isn’t produced, promoted and sold.

This is the larger issue that very few people seem to even see, much less care about.

It’s also hardly the outcome that anyone could tout as a benefit from stealing someone else’s work under the banner of “freedom”, but that’s exactly what’s happening. The problem isn’t only that information is “free” — the problem is that it still isn’t free (and never was, and never will be). Artists lose a livelihood, scientists lose funding, and corporations make a killing based on the greed of the average person’s desire to get something for nothing, while being conned into using fake moral arguments that also make them accomplices in the crime.

Sounds like business as usual? It may be. Only now thievery is instant, worldwide, and even has a convenient pseudo-moral ideology to rationalize it away, rather than inspire people to work toward a better approach that would give artists and scientists a way to make a living. You may say “screw the corporations” or not, but at the very least, don’t screw the little guy. Or maybe at the very, very least, don’t give him the short end while pretending to do the world a favor.

After a recent conversation online, I realized that there are
several excruciatingly simple ideas that can help anyone
get their creative project off the ground. These tips
are operative regardless of your industry, niche or
experience level in any particular field.

If you miss any of these easily overlooked items, your chances
of success will most likely suffer. Make your creative
life easier by having a glance at this “top ten” list (in no
particular order) of points and see where you might
have room to improve. I’ll definitely be doing that myself
throughout my own creative life. Maybe you can benefit from
having this post as a quick reference, too.

Note: These came from the tip of my tongue after a few hours
of the ideas bouncing around in my head, so there may be
a bit of repetition; revision will probably take place
over the next few days.
.

10 Blindingly Simple, Easily Overlooked Tips From a Fellow Creative

1. If you want feedback from others, be prepared to receive it.
If you don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it.
If you get feedback
that you don’t like, accept it gracefully; above all,
recognize that egotistical whining (usually in the form of
self-justification or blaming others for your problems) will only
annoy people who would otherwise have been able
and willing to help you.

2. Don’t fall in love with impressive tools at the expense of
simple concepts that work regardless of what technology
or medium you’ll use.
The most important question is:
who are you and why does anyone care? If for some reason
you can’t present a list of past achievements,
you’ll have to present convincing evidence of your
abilities (see point #4). E-begging for funding on Kickstarter
or cross-posting to every community on Reddit isn’t
going to make your life any easier unless people
care enough to say “yes”.

3. If someone buys one of your artistic pieces, ask them
if they’d like to be contacted when you create
your next one.
Build a list of people who already
want what you have to offer and stay in touch
periodically until you’re ready to launch your
next work of art.

4. If you’re a relatively unknown artist, be prepared to
give before you get.
Give samples of your work
to prospective readers/viewers. Give samples to
prospective collaborators. More generally, give
people as many ways as you can to get past their
initial skepticism about whether or not you’re serious
about your craft, and whether or not what you do
is what they want. Find out how to navigate the difference
between giving away enough and giving away too much.
This depends on your purposes and how you want to
distribute your work. Suffice to say that it’s far from
all-or-nothing; you can give a valuable representative
sample of your work without having to give it all away for free.

5. Don’t try to “convince” people that they want what you’ve got.
Spend time finding people who want what you’re creating.
Learn how to present your creations to them
in a way that encourages them to respond favorably
and strongly. Don’t waste time with people who tell
you “no” or “maybe”. There are exceptions to this
rule, but they are few and far between. Eventually, you’ll
find that “no” sometimes means “tell me more” and “maybe”
sometimes means “there’s one more thing I’d like you to say
that I haven’t heard yet.” There’s a reason why marketing
is its own discipline, and if you don’t have that expertise,
you need to find it if you want to succeed on a larger scale.
In the meantime, focus your time and energy on the “yeses”.

6. If you want to get paid, act like a professional.
The specifics of “professionalism” can depend
on your audience. At the most basic level, make
sure that anything you show to potential readers/viewers
is at the level of what you want them to buy. The format
and presentation (personal blog versus complete website,
for example) often matters as much as the content of your art.
Again, this depends on your audience and how you want
to present yourself. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your
readers/viewers. If you were going to gladly buy a creative
work, who would you buy from and under what conditions
would you (or wouldn’t you) buy it?

7. If you want to get paid, make sure you get paid, and
make sure that the payment you receive reflects
the value of your time and effort.
This means that if you want to step up your
creativity to the level of getting paid, don’t
be fooled by encouragement from people
who aren’t paying you. Make sure that your
ego and desire for attention aren’t substituting
for positive sales figures.

8. If your skills are deficient in a particular area,
find someone who has those skills
— and be prepared
to pay them (or barter) for those skills. Ask yourself: is it
better to fail and have the consolation that you tried
your best, or is it better to succeed by doing the
needful to reach your goal? Even if you do everything
necessary, you may still not reach your goal. The skills
you learn from being able to accurately identify your
weaknesses and find people who can help overcome them
will make your next effort that much more likely to
succeed. Playing it safe and making excuses for a halfway effort
only teaches you how to make excuses for future failures.

9. If you can’t find others to help (or lack the funds and
resources to buy or barter), assess whether or not
you really want to do it all yourself
. These can be
tough questions: is the goal attainable if you want to
be a one-person team? Is it true that you can’t find
anyone to help, or are you not looking in the
right places? Is your ego telling you that you need
to do everything yourself in order to bask in the
imaginary glory, when the reality is that without
help, you may never even reach the finish line?
Be prepared to stretch yourself artistically and in terms of
how much effort you’re willing to pour into your work.
Eventually you’ll get where you want to be — mainly
because most people give up far too soon. On the other
hand, knowing your limits can help you overcome them
without breaking you in the pursuit of greatness.

10. Don’t rush to create a masterpiece on your first try.
Hone your talents on smaller projects first.
This requires you to first identify those talents
that you’ll need to hone. There is one major difference
between a hobbyist and a pro: people want what the
pro has to offer enough to pay for it, and the pro
knows how to place a number value on their work
that people are willing to pay. Getting to that
level will take years of dedicated effort.
Thankfully, you love what you do and would have
been doing it anyway, so stepping up your skills
is an expected and exciting part of the game.