"The artist says, 'I can do very little about the chaos around me, but at least
I can reduce to perfect order this square of canvas, this piece of paper, this chunk of stone.'"

-Kurt Vonnegut

Given enough time, you begin to realize things are more difficult than they first seemed to be.

This is not by design. That's the first step: realizing there is no great conspiracy. There are no elders seated at a round table, pushing buttons and destroying nations. There is no secret handshake, no special code. There are no forces working against you. You are seeing all there is to see.

Michelangelo was given a piece of marble, flawed and irregular. No one else would touch it. No one else could touch it. Maybe the world knew it was his, and let it go until he could find it. Maybe he was the only one with an ego big enough to make the attempt. I don't know. It doesn't matter. He took that marble, and he gave us David.

You see?

Maybe that's not clear enough. Look at David. Look at his distant eyes and his broad, drooping shoulders. Notice the way he leans forward, about to take a step, about to move and slay the giant. He has not acted yet. He is deciding. Weighing his options. Can he win? What if he doesn't? Is it better to walk away a coward than to die a brave death? Notice his smooth white skin. Try and find the flaws. Look for cracks and misshapen sections. Is his nose slightly crooked? No. Is that a bump on his upper thigh? No.

Now do you see?

I think you're beginning to understand, but let's keep going. James Joyce sits down to write Ulysses. He is going to change your world. Maybe he knows this already. Maybe he doesn't understand this yet. He has paper and a pen. This is all he is given. Paper and pen and partially formed thoughts that struggle to emerge, fully formed and powerful, like a thousand tiny Athenas.

How many times, do you suppose, did Joyce lament the limitations of mere paper and pen? How many places, do you suppose, did he stop and say, "Damn it, I can't work under these conditions! Why don't they go ahead and invent television already, so I can show the world what I really mean?!"

Or maybe Joyce would have made a better movie star. Why didn't he move to Hollywood and set fire to the silver screen?

You know the answers to these questions. You know where I'm going with this.

Michelangelo didn't paint his David pink because no one in real life is that pale. Joyce didn't roll his cigarettes with his manuscript because words are never really enough. They grew up in worlds that said, again and again, everything worth doing has been done before, a pessimist mantra passed down by people who want to believe they've scaled the highest mountain. This is what matters: they didn't believe it. No one else will touch that marble? Well I will find the sculpture in it. All the modes of human thought have been documented and filed away? Well I will invent new ones, or show you the ones you've been too scared to look at.

Do not try so hard to change the world to fit your mold. Learn to love the limitations that have been placed before you. Not the limitations of imagination - never those limitations. Explore the boundaries of the medium. Look at the edges and corners of the block of marble or the piece of paper. Hold your pen a new way, or toss it aside and write in blood or sweat or semen or tears. Try what you haven't tried. Try what you have tried, but do it upside down. Or in a mirror. Or while drunk or under the influence of heavy drugs or while making love or while dangling by one hand from the Brooklyn Bridge or while buried beneath a mountain of shit or while you're dreaming or while you're skiing or while you're sunbathing nude on the beaches of Italy or while the world destroys itself with nuclear bombs or while you destroy your lover with terrible curses or while the audience laughs at the jokes you just made or when none of it matters anymore because all the people of the world can't find enough passion to care. That's when you need to work harder than ever, because there is no defeat until you're broken or dead. There is no victory until every heart has turned. There is no ending until you find a reason to begin again.

Find a dusty corner that you haven't seen before. Clean it out. Fill it with dreams from your childhood and the songs and words and love that inspire you. Write it all down, then burn it and start again. Chisel it out of stone, then crush it and glue the pieces back together. Do not give up because the stone is too white, because the paper is too dry, because the people don't understand you, because there might be a better way if only you could change this. Do not give up because you think maybe possibly you could make it better, if only they would listen. Forget all that, at least for now. Maybe there is a better way, but that's no reason to go there so soon. Work within the limitations of the medium. Find everything there is to find. Do not give up so quickly just because the world won't change to suit your needs. Show us all what we could be by showing us the things about where we already are we have not seen before.

You are a genius. You know you are. Now go and show the world what they've been missing.

Whenever there's a competition of some kind, be it in art, sport, culture, or on Everything, some competitors will try to change the limitations. On one hand, they want to be at the summit of that specific competition, but on the other hand, they make it a new competition by bending the rules in their favour.

True mastery comes from exploring what you can do within the limitations. If you do something extraordinary with respect to the rules, that was previously thought to be impossible within those rules, then you can call yourself an expert in that discipline.

If you "relax" the rules just a little, someone else will bend them a bit more, until the original competition has become unrecognizable. To quote Storm:

"And then, for the next olympics, we'll get rid of all the events and just give each athlete 10 minutes to do whatever he likes to impress a panel of judges."
- Storm, a demoscener, on the decision to combine the PC and Amiga compos at a demoparty

Writing is an exhausting process for me. I love reading, thinking about things, taking notes on paper, drawing diagrams and outlines. But when it comes to sitting down at the computer to write, words start colliding in my head and a sense of dread verging on terror creeps in. Ideas that seemed so clear before become seven-headed medusas. When there are so many ways to say one thing, which is the better one? I think and rethink a phrase until it dissolves into a cacophony of echoes.

I was trying to write a paper the other day when I noticed the lights shining faintly underneath some of the icons positioned on the Mac taskbar.  I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed these lights ever before. They’re subtle, but present to the ‘trained eye’, indicators that tell the user which applications are in use. There is a setting on my laptop that adjusts the brightness of the screen based on the intensity of the ambient light. On the day in question, the weather was constantly changing.  Moments of strong sunlight alternated with cloudy shadows. The screen was struggling to keep up and I only noticed the faintly glowing icons because the changes in the lighting made them flicker slightly. It was quite beautiful, a bit like seeing fireflies at dusk during summer. It made me look differently at my computer – more tenderly, if you will, and some of that feeling transferred to the task of writing being mediated by the computer. Whenever I got stuck, I would look at the lights on the taskbar and start to feel a bit better.

Three levels of emotion (visceral, behavioral, reflective)

On D. Norman’s view, emotion can be the outcome of processing at any of the three levels of the brain: visceral (encompassing basic automatic response mechanisms necessary for survival); behavioral (consisting of response mechanisms based on a more sophisticated analysis, though still unconscious); and reflective (conscious thought) (Norman, 2003, ch.1). Visceral emotion is a general feeling of well- or ill-being affecting the neuro-motor system, a feeling of being relaxed, at ease, in a pleasurable physical state, or aroused and tense. At this level, emotion is generated by perceptual stimuli. At the behavioral level, emotions with a similar phenomenology are generated by (and directed at) more complex actions: here, we have the stresses or pleasures of doing. Reflective emotion is emotion generated by conscious reflection on perceptions and actions.  The three types of emotions exist in a dynamic interplay: situations that generate negative affect at the visceral level can have the opposite effect at the behavioral or reflective level (why else would the personal trainer shout “feel the burn!” as encouragement?); and the reverse: pleasurable sensations at the visceral level can generate negative reflective emotions (guilt, for example).

Norman’s theory of emotions helps explain the experimental finding that attractive things work better. Things that produce positive visceral emotions put their users in a relaxed, happy state; this state makes the user’s interaction with those things more smooth and successful. If the interaction runs into problems, the happy, relaxed users will be more likely to problem-solve creatively, ultimately achieving their goal without frustration.

Analysis

In the following analysis, I will discuss how my interaction with the computer has changed for the better as a result of the aesthetic enjoyment afforded by the glowing taskbar icons.

When I’m trying to write, my emotions are negative at all three levels. At the behavioral level, there is the negative emotion of unsuccessful action, of trying and failing to do something. At the reflective level, the predominant emotions are those of self-criticism, disappointment in oneself, and envy of people who don’t seem to have similar troubles. At the visceral level there is anxiety, partly induced by the activity at the reflective level; also, a generalized feeling of ill-being generated by the effort required to sustain focus and by the physical discomfort of sitting on a chair and staring at a screen for long periods of time. 

None of these negative emotions can be directly attributed to the malfunctioning of the computer. But the computer – or, more precisely, the text-processing software - enters the equation as the tool for the action that is the emotions’ source, and as such it will shoulder part of the blame for the action’s failure. There is a natural tendency to think that better tools will improve the outcome of our actions. In my own case, the performance of the computer/word software was not in any objective way changed, and yet there was a subtle shift in the way I perceived my tool that ultimately made it more effective.

The softly glowing lights on the taskbar are a source of aesthetic pleasure, both visceral and reflective. The attributes I use to refer to them explain their impact at the visceral level.  In context, the pleasure they afforded entailed a change of state, from tense and inefficiently hyper-focused to more relaxed and open. Once I released my grip, more room was made for inspiration. Norman discusses at length how automatic positive affect enables creativity and reduces the “tunnel vision” that can have negative effects on problem solving (Norman, 2003, ch.1), and my experience is in line with his findings.

The emotions at the reflective level are more complex. The visual similarity with fireflies brings back pleasant memories of summer evenings in the park. The critic in me admires the tastefulness and subtlety of the graphics. I also feel a slight discomfort as I wonder why I haven’t noticed these lights before.  I continue to deplore my tendency to get stuck, but now with relief and gratitude for being out of the hole. I’m reminded that I don’t have to be stiff and I don’t have to hate writing. Out of this comes a renewed appreciation for my machine: it’s not really the fault of the computer that my fingers are not flying all over the keyboard. My computer can do neat things; who knows  how it will surprise me next? Sometimes getting excited about the tool also makes you excited about the activity for which the tool is intended.  

References

Norman, D. (2003). Chapter 2: The Multiple Faces of Emotion and Design. Basic Books. In Emotional Design (pp.17-60). New York: Basic Books.

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