PETE: Did you ever wonder what you’d be working on if you lived in a different generation? Like suppose you were the same age in 1969?
ME: Hmm, ya. Maybe somehow involved in the civil rights movement, or the space program. I also just wonder about how I might be doing something totally different had I met different people or had different experiences in this life.
In college, I studied creative writing and had this thought, I’ll probably never write a novel, because the only people that read novels are college students. Film seems like a form with broader reach and appeal.
PETE: Aren’t you inverting the natural order of things? The idea comes first and requires a certain form. Certain ideas may require a novel. They can’t be expressed through a painting, for example. If you bend an idea to a particular form to optimize for mass appeal, you risk corrupting it. It seems a bit techno-centric to be so concerned with scale.
ME: I don’t mean to give the impression that the only parameter I optimize for is reach, but I do care deeply about impact.
The fundamental desire of human nature, I think, is to share ideas, to both give them and receive them. Some people express their ideas through words, some through pictures, some through business, government, law, mathematics, music—but as a species, we are trying to map all of the ideas. And the good is just the successful sharing of ideas that benefit the species.
It’s easy for me to imagine working on something completely different, because when I think about the giving of ideas, I think about sharing ideas with as many people as possible, more than I think about the mechanism for sharing them.
PETE: Don’t you think some artists pursue a form for the love of the form itself, though, regardless of impact or reach?
ME: You could argue that, but I think an infatuation with a particular form and with craftsmanship is untenable. If you are not destroying all of your work, sand mandala style, you have admitted to placing some value in the sharing of an idea, in which case, you should be thoughtful about reach.
I myself have no desire to create beauty and then destroy it without sharing. The net good of the idea is the product of the positive influence of the idea and the reach.
PETE: So, I’m guessing you don’t have much respect for the bespoke?
ME: That lies towards the mandala end of the spectrum. I have noticed an obsession with the artisanal. The desire to devote your life to becoming a cobbler or a small batch chocolatier, for instance—the type of things you see people doing in Portland or the hipster shops of San Francisco—is a Luddite reaction to technological progress. I guess it’s the result of feelings of techno-industrial alienation.
PETE: Aren’t these feelings of alienation justified? Couldn’t craftsmanship just be someone’s way of asserting their humanity?
ME: The desire to seek the creative is the right reaction, but it’s misguided when it’s directed towards something machines can do better. Offloading work to machines should be freeing us to do the creative things that are uniquely human, not compelling us to celebrate repetitive labor.
One of the best things I have come across in a very long time is this incredible speech by Charlie Kaufman, where he says,
So I think the danger of craft is that it needs to be in second position to what it is that you’re doing. It’s seductive to put it in first position, often because what you’re doing is meaningless or worthless, or just more of the same. So you can distinguish yourself by being very, very good at it.
I was telling a friend about this speech and he said that was exactly why Jiro Dreams of Sushi made him sad. The idea in the film is that you’re supposed to admire the discipline and dedication to excellence—which is formidable, in Jiro, no doubt—but towards what end?
PETE: Ah! So your conception of the good entails doing excellent work and sharing ideas, but you’re also in favor of the technological, industrial, automation, etc. But, if we succeed wildly in our technological efforts, won’t we get to a point where machines and software are doing all of the work, and there’s no good left for us to do?
ME: That’s an excellent point. I think technological unemployment will challenge our concept of human dignity. But until the survival of the species (including our ability to escape this planet) is on lockdown, I’m still in agreement with Charlie Kaufman about craft.
PETE: Hmm… I wonder what Kaufman would have to say about your idea of a calculus for choosing modes of artistic expression. Doesn’t it sort of kill the romance of artistic expression? Wouldn’t he despise this as “marketing?”
ME: That’s quite possible, but if you value sharing your ideas at all, it seems foolish not to do the calculus in order to find the newest and craziest ideas that are the right ones—uniquely right for you to do right now. I’m not sure he’d object to this train of thought:
What ideas excite me? I expect I’ll work more passionately in a form that excites me, rather than in one that might be noble, such as medicine, that just doesn’t personally energize me.
Does the form fit my style and tendencies? If I enjoy working alone, perhaps I’d discard ideas that require large teams to execute.
Do I have the optimal skills for required? I probably wouldn’t choose to be an astronaut if I didn’t have 20/20 vision.
What are the tastes of my generation? This was my point about film vs novels.
Is the timing right, technologically and culturally? The timing to work on biotech research was probably not optimal 15 years ago, but maybe it is today.
And so on.
PETE: And what if all of the things that interest and excite you are beyond your capabilities?
ME: The story of Icarus is our modern tragedy.
PETE: Ha, OK. To be a little more optimistic, suppose you put all this effort into figuring out the right form for you, and you go exploring for ideas amenable to that form, but then you find a brilliant idea that calls for a different form?
ME: I was running in circles debating this exact question a few months ago, because I finally had an idea for a film I wanted to make, but I thought it might be too late. Do young people even watch films anymore? Shouldn’t art be web and mobile native, more participatory and interactive?
I was at an impasse. Then, I happened to watch La Notte. Antonioni addresses the same dilemma:
Giovanni: I don’t consider myself that important. There are other solutions. A writer of today constantly wonders if writing isn’t some sort of irrepressible but outdated instinct. This lonely craft of painstakingly joining one word to another that absolutely can’t be mechanized.
Mr. Gherardini: Are you sure of that?
Giovanni: No. But you industrialists have the advantage of constructing your “stories” using real people, real houses, real cities. The rhythm of life today is in your hands. Perhaps even the future.
Mr. Gherardini: Are you one of the many worrying about the future? I’m building my own future, though the present keeps me plenty busy. Besides, the future will probably never come. Who knows what the future holds? Perhaps our privileges will be swept away. That would actually be a good thing. When I was young - long ago, now, sadly - I imagined a world like this, and I set to work creating such a future. Bah!
On the one hand, the characters in the film agree that writing is “outdated,” but by expressing this opinion via narrative in a film, Antonini also takes the other side as an artist. Antonini plays it both ways.
PETE: Film is dead. Long live film.
Perhaps we’ll find a similar answer to the question about human dignity in light of technological unemployment.