“If you want to watch what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph.”

Merlin Mann, Roderick on the Line (1:12:30)

The conventional take is that social media presents us with only half a story. We see their view from the summit of Mt. Shasta, their tiny espresso on Rue Mouffetard, their group photo in Napa, friends arm in arm, wide smiles. We see their joy and their fulfillment (this line of thinking goes), and we miss the other half: the stumbles and struggles, the insecurities, the boredom.

What if our friends have been showing us all along?

Yes, our Instagram feeds our curated. Everything, from our subject, to our framing, to the filter we apply, each choice is the story of a moment – not as it was, but as we need to remember it. Each photograph captures a feeling we fear might slip away.

There is a second half to every photo, a face in the vase.

We may feel closer to our friends when we consider the choices that went into their photos. Why here? Why this moment? Why do they want to hold onto this, remember with this lens? What happened just outside the frame? What is it they fear to lose?

Consuming media for which we are not the intended audience is a type of cultural eavesdropping.

Every article we read, movie we watch, and album we listen to is an interaction between a speaker and an intended audience. Sometimes a speaker’s intended audience is “everyone within earshot,” anyone capable of listening. But often, a speaker’s audience is more narrow: teenagers navigating body image issues, white-collar professionals with child care concerns, first-generation college students coping with campus life, LGBT millennials looking for a decent movie to watch on a Saturday night.

How often do we listen to music we are not fans of? Read books that impart lessons that don’t apply to us?

Until recently, the only people motivated to do this were those eager to learn about the world around them, expand their tastes and perspectives, or those with a public presence and the means to respond.

The internet has thrashed this dynamic. Now, we are able to do more than simply eavesdrop. Whether on social media or in comments sections, now we are able to interrupt conversations.

The social contract around eavesdropping in physical public spaces is fairly clear:

  1. Don’t make it obvious you are eavesdropping
  2. Don’t interrupt the conversation, no matter your personal reaction

Follow those two rules, and you are free to listen comme vous préfèrez: record a surprising perspective in your journal, livetext the conversation to a friend, despair at your inability to parse this year’s slang.

Alas, humans (specifically their brain parts) experience a profound difficulty transferring lessons from one domain to another. What we follow in the real world we forget in the digital.

A common scenario: A rap blog publishes a glowing review of the latest, hottest trap record. The comments section below the review fills with people complaining that the review is biased, that this blog always rates trap music highly even though it sounds terrible, and why don’t they review the latest Wye Oak album, which is way more relevant in 2016? Interrupters.

Or: Lena Dunham posts a message on Facebook about her experience as a female screenwriter in her 20s. She directs the message toward other women. In the comments, hundreds of men respond with their hot takes. Interrupters.

What we frequently fail to recognize is that we are not part of every conversation that we are able to observe online. Sometimes, we are eavesdropping. And as in the physical world, we must follow the social contract:

We may listen. We may learn. We may not interrupt.

Should you spend an afternoon wandering through any internet forum, you will observe the breadth of human interaction at play. Friends and strangers buzz with tension, disagreement, snark, and bile. Also: encouragement, condolences, anticipation, and gratitude.

Yet there is only one place I know of where people share apologies.

In the game Journey, you wander the pale, sun-baked desert. In solitude, you slide over sand dunes, scale ancient dust-choked ruins, soar through rose-gold valleys. Against the desolate and uncaring plain, we are reduced to a survival instinct. Perhaps the curiosity of what lies beyond the next hill propels us forward for a little while, but in the long stillness even that falters.

And then, suddenly, there is more. At a key moment you find yourself floating beside a red-cloaked companion, a real person playing the game alongside you. Your companion is unnamed. You pass through each other, like ghosts. The only way you can communicate with each other is with a melodic chirp.

As you travel together you can help each other navigate obstacles, but your partner is more than a tool to advance through the game. In this lonely expanse, this anonymous internet stranger becomes your beating heart, a reason to keep caring, to keep moving forward.

Wordlessly, relationships form. One guides the other. Or, you dance like fools in the air, for a moment unconcerned with the temple in the distance. Or, you chirp back and forth, la, la-la, perhaps the first song these sands have ever heard.

Perhaps the first anonymous kindness you have ever received.

That feeling of connection, so deep and unexpected, has led some to quit the game entirely after accidentally separating from their partner. And in one corner of the internet, people apologize to their companions. For the spotty internet that left them alone, for the bungled jump that stalled their progress, for “real” life calling them away.

All with a single melodic chirp.

After Journey, it is difficult to return to the roaring furnace of social media. The wordy diatribes, the looping gifs, the winking emoji, it’s all Times Square loud. Boisterous and garish and menacing. You wonder whether we really need any of this.

You have a golden memory of a friend in the desert. We sang to each other. For a time, it was all we needed.

After several generations of wearables with abysmal battery life, a breakthrough: researchers studying the effects of calisthenics on mice stumble upon an energetic process through which we can power our devices through ingested food calories.

We simply plug our devices into the USB hub on our hip and charge them with our body’s catabolic process.

Finally: lasagna and Krispy Kreme, Big Macs and burritos, chocolate shakes and triple-cream cheese: all in the service of full batteries.

Bacon-wrapped, deep-fried, fudge-stuffed, Texas-style: all to keep our phones glowing, cars rolling, keyboards tapping, apps tracking.

Best of all: we devour whatever we crave and gain no weight. Our appetite unclasps from our personal caloric requirements; we now eat for civilization’s pulse. After a long day’s work, we sit on the couch and plug into our apartment to power the lights, the TV, and the dishwasher. And, of course, we gorge. Steak and Steak’ums, Nutella and Cheez-Its, pizza and bagels and pizza bagels.

We gotta keep the lights on.

And then, a matter of some concern. Communities once suffering from staggering rates of obesity are now afflicted with chronic malnourishment. We simply can’t eat quickly enough, obscenely enough to power all of our devices.

The public begins to adopt elaborate habits and routines around unplugging. Some unplug after five in the afternoon. Others decide to only plug in with friends. A few unplug entirely, a variety of tech veganism that gains a small but vociferous group of adherents along the coasts. But many, an unfortunate many, simply can’t or won’t accept a disconnected life. For them, life goes on as normal, mostly, until one morning they begin to feel rather tired. They notice their phones won’t keep a charge even after a trip to Olive Garden. Their kitchen lights dim at increasing intervals.

It all takes about forty years.You can hover a few hundred miles above the Earth and watch. Blip by blip, each city begins to go dark.

Let’s test some alternative definitions for technology and art !  Let’s see. Simply:

Technology facilitates closure, completion of tasks.

Art opens, creates unresolved tensions, new tasks to complete.

With these definitions, we free ourselves from the thorny cages of silicon versus ink, steel versus string, function versus aesthetic. Can toilet seats be art? Can a poem be technology? Can the camera be a work of art, and the photo be the technology?

A personal essay that helps people find closure in the deaths of their family members? This is technology.

Simone Giertz’ shitty robots, the goofy, miserable contraptions that inspire people to build, to fail, to leap? Art.

Art and technology, questions asked and answered.

When we look up:

“When we [look at stars in the night sky], we feel ourselves pleasantly diminished by the majesty of what we contemplate. As we renew our connection with immensity we’re humbled without being humiliated. It’s not just us, personally and individually who are diminished in comparison. The things that trouble and bother us seem smaller as well.”

The Book of Life, On Stars

When we look down:

“When [space physiologist] Russomano met Buzz Aldrin, he told her of how, as he stood on the Moon, he held his finger over the distant globe of Earth, effectively erasing it from view. Nothing in an astronaut’s training, he suggested, could possibly prepare a human being for such an immutable revelation of our own smallness, our own fragility, amid the endless universe. ‘This is, according to psychiatrists, something too big for a human to experience,” Russomano said.”

– Leigh Alexander, never go to space it’s terrible omg

Career aspirations, relationship fulfillment, choice of movie on a Friday evening: there is much that is capable of making us feel our insignificance. Grandeur or terror. Humility or dread. It’s not the stars that change. It’s where we look.

“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

Also true of criticism, professional or personal. From restaurant reviews to workplace gossip, criticism is a mirror, not a microscope. What criticism reveals are the needs and values of the critic, not the qualities present or absent in the critiqued.

We may both believe the critic, and remember that any resemblance to actual persons or events is…

A confession: I used to be a person that rolled my eyes at the superstitious. When friends searched for wood to knock on, or kept a charm around their ankle, or pointed out the presence of a full moon, I’d puff my chest and poke holes in their mystic caution.

I might ask: Well, what exactly do you think will happen if you don’t touch wood? Why would that have any effect? I’ve never done that and nothing bad has happened to me, isn’t that weird, hm?

With the asphyxiating condescension of a true nerd, I’d insist on reason, logic, proof.

Later that weekend I would watch professional wrestling.

The next morning I’d bark to blank faces about the heart-rending rivalries between these athletes: years-long tales of kinship and betrayal, cowardice and grit, of heroes and heels scratching and clawing, inch by inch, setback after setback, toward the grand prize, the golden belt, the roaring fans, to immortality itself.

My friends reply: “Mm, yeah it’s fake, right?”

In that moment, I understood the meaning of a full moon:

Superstitions shine a light toward the limits of our understanding. They are a ritualized reminder that disconnected events can share an unseen bond and harm us (or help us) in ways we can’t predict. Take them literally, or don’t. Like pro wrestling, to challenge the reality of superstitions is to miss the idea entirely. In their unreality, they amplify our human truths.

In a scientific age, our superstitions form a lonely tribute to the weird, the wonderful, the dancing inexplicable.

How might we resolve the chef’s dilemma, the asymmetry between the effort it takes to make something and the effort it takes to consume it?

Here are three common strategies:

  1. Make it faster: If we reduce the time, care, or attention we spend on our work, then we approach a balance in the amount of time they’ll take to enjoy it. We can make things faster by refining our technique and producing our work more efficiently. Beware, however, that we usually end up hating processes that we try to make more efficient.
  2. Make a million: For some, a million people enjoying their work for a few minutes will be more satisfying than a thousand people enjoying their work for years. To appeal to the largest possible crowd, we may need to make a few compromises, but the reward and the renown are certainly unparalleled.
  3. Make them wait: Here’s a secret – for an artist, a delay is a way of getting even. A chef whose restaurant has a three month waitlist feels no shame. The line around the block, the album delay, each fan’s frustration is a small measure of justice. Once they’re inside, we create ways to slow their experience. We keep them at the table for four hours through fourteen courses. Small spoons. Tiny bites.

A little less care, or a little more. A little less time, or a little more. Chef’s choice.

You prepare your chicken stock by boiling four pounds of excavated chickens with onion, carrot, leeks, and fresh herbs. You simmer that for a full day. The following evening, you reheat the chicken stock. As it warms up, you mince garlic, onion, and red peppers. You crush saffron and add it to the stock. In a large cast-iron pan you heat some oil and sauté some chicken thighs. You slice a chorizo, grate a tomato and toss both into the pan, along with the vegetables. When that browns, you add several cups of uncooked rice and let that sizzle with everything else. Once everything gleams and steams, add the stock into the pan. Let that simmer for 30 minutes. Once the rice has soaked everything up, tuck some shrimp, piquillo peppers, and anything else you fancy in there. Make sure not to disturb the bottom of the pan. Keep the pan over that heat. You want to hear a sizzle. Thats the rice at the bottom of your pan caramelizing. That crust, called the socarrat, is the key to a perfect paella.

You bring the hot pan to your eager friends. They’ve been talking and laughing and sipping (okay, slurping) white wine while you conjured your magic in the kitchen. Exhausted and excited, you plop into your chair alongside them. Salud.

They scarf down your creation in five minutes flat. Noisily, gleefully, gratefully… and rapidly.

The chef’s dilemma: they will spend less time, care, and attention eating your food than you will spend making it.

He spends four years on his followup album. They listen to it once while responding to emails and burp out an opinion over their lunch break.

She spends the better part of her twenties observing, sketching, painting. They walk through her debut gallery, stop in front of each piece for fifteen seconds and nod.

That violent asymmetry of time, care, and attention. A devotional injustice. The chef’s dilemma.