Why We Create

Before the year ends, read Jia Tolentino’s searing essay Worst Year Ever, Until Next Year:

In any case, someone will tweet “worst year ever” every few minutes until 2016 is over, and then people will begin tweeting “worst year ever” as soon as 2017 begins. They will type “worst year ever” because of spilled drinks and late Ubers, a new Trump story, a new dispatch—if she miraculously manages to survive until then—from Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl in Aleppo who’s been tweeting, with her mother’s help, her fears of imminent death. There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it—no guidebook for how to expand your heart to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience; no way to train your heart to separate the banal from the profound. Our ability to change things is not increasing at the same rate as our ability to know about them. No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the Internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all.

Perhaps it is the horror that swells, perhaps it is our awareness of it.

Yet I have friends who agree that this year was terrible culturally, and declare that it was their most fulfilling and happy year personally. This doesn’t diminish the personal pain that many others have gone through, but allows that there is a limit to the usefulness of abstract empathy. Despair is a passive verb. Even anger is more useful. One can both mourn and feel joy.

A shitty year is the most compelling argument for building oneself a joyful refuge. It doesn’t help anybody to freeze out in the cold.

It might be your best year ever. Please, fiddle while Rome burns. More than ever we need your songs.

What Came Next

And then one year, all the stores raised their prices for Black Friday.

Everything was 100%-800% more expensive. During the month of November, the stores hyped their Black Friday mark-ups: $3001 for a bulky, standard-def TV; $801 for a blender.

Thanksgiving evening, the overnight lines for Black Friday “doorblocker” sales (6 AM to 8AM, minimum 30 per customer) were meager. A few stalwarts huddled in the cold, driven more by stubborn tradition than genuine enthusiasm.

The bulk of Americans stayed home that Friday. They made breakfast with leftovers. They sipped coffee and chatted on Messenger. They wondered how to spend their free time.

The best Black Friday of all: so much time saved.

Why We Fuck Up

In the bloodless war between computers and referees, computers win 100% of the time.

Research shows that baseball umpires are less likely to call a strike after they’ve called the previous pitch a strike.

Soccer referees flub offside calls all the time. Why wouldn’t they? They are asked to judge a split-second half-centimeter difference in player positioning from twenty meters away.

Funny thing is, after the blown call, the TV broadcast rewinds and replays the action in slow motion. Neon lines materialize and frame the play. High-definition lenses confer with powerful computer servers, and we have a near-instant, perfect judgment of what we just watched. The information is both thrilling and useless, like finding out a high school crush really liked you, 20 years later.

Why don’t we simply replace those near-sighted, weak-willed meat bags with infallible, unswayable robo-refs?

Because deep down, we like the chaos of it all. Because when shit goes sideways and our guy or gal misses the line by a nose hair (or did they?), we need a person to blame, a human voodoo doll to stick our pins.We need an idiot.

Ideally, computers would watch Them, and nervous humans would watch Us. At the end of the day, we want a fair game. But for Them, it should be extra fair.

Why We Act

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes since I learned about them last night.

Smash cakes are whole cakes that parents give to their babies on their first birthday to mash into with their faces, dig into with their hands, to messily revel in, like a tiny infant hurricane tearing through a frosted beachside villa.

99 times out of 100, I’m sure parents just want to have a fun day and a cute photo op.

But, parental intent be damned, there is more than just batter in this cake.

What is a smash cake made of?

1. Vicarious indulgence: Every single 30-year-old I’ve talked to about smash cakes has replied with some variation of, “Jesus, I want that immediately.” When we watch an infant grip her cake with two small fists and smear her cheeks in frosting, we are reminded of how rarely we let ourselves plunge recklessly, shamelessly into pleasure. Cake smashes are no doubt fun for the baby, but they are cathartic to the adults hovering behind the highchair, cameras in hand. For ten minutes, our imaginations smash the cake too, fully present, carelessly free. Just like Pixar movies and trampoline parks, smash cakes are really for us, not them.

2. Ritualized destruction: I am reminded of sand mandalas, the exquisite, kaleidoscopic depictions of the divine universe created by Buddhist monks over days or weeks. After completion, mandalas are destroyed, brushed into an urn, and poured into a river to demonstrate the impermanence of all things. Similar rituals of artistic destruction appear throughout history and across cultures, all the way to present day festivals like Burning Man. Smash cakes carry this lineage of sacred ephemerality. One could argue that infants are better participants than monks to carry out this act of destruction, for even their memories of the event are lost to time. Parents, as usual, miss the almighty point by documenting the occasion like a Kardashian wedding.

3. The first hit of sugar: Smash cakes provide many babies with their first taste of processed sugar. Parents see this as a moment to celebrate. I can’t help but mourn. For most in the Western world, sugar is less a treat than a chronic toxin, strongly linked to the wave of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity that is crushing entire communities. While sugar doesn’t create the physiological dependency that opioids do, the taste preferences and habits we acquire as infants are arduous to reprogram as we age. In this context, watching a cooing parent push a frosted slice under their reluctant child’s nose recalls the dread of a slasher flick. I yell at my screen, tell her to run, run. The protagonist is deaf to my cries.

4. Shut up, it’s just meaningless fun: You read all this and sigh, come on, man! It’s not a ritual or a meditation or a metaphor for jack shit. It’s a fucking cake and it’s a fun, silly thing. Shut up. It’s meaningless. But (I reply) that is meaningful. (You are on the verge of punching me at this point.) I continue: a first birthday marks the symbolic end of an age of meaninglessness.

We demand nothing of infants. They act on impulse, gleefully free of the cultural ideas and interpersonal norms that shape our every shudder. Outside of a few sensations (the sight and sounds and smells of parents prime among them), very little has meaning to them. They could crash a Rolls Royce into the last living polar bear without breaking a sweat, and no jury would convict them because they understand what none of those things are.

Around 12 months old, babies begin to develop mental representations of the world. They notice that Buzz Lightyear continues to exist even when he is hidden behind mommy’s back. They form a hazy understanding of cause and effect, of goal and intent. As they begin to comprehend that a world exists beyond their field of vision, that world starts to place basic expectations upon them about how to exist. We snack on the fruit of knowledge, and suddenly we’re told to put on some damn underpants.

A first birthday is our grand entrance into civil society, with its rules and taboos and demands. In this light, smash cakes form the centerpiece to a sort of baby stag party, one last sensuous celebration of egocentric independence, a hedonistic abandon that will soon be wrenched away forever.

This means nothing to them. What a gift.

I can’t stop thinking about smash cakes.

Why We Act

When a vote is held on the floor of Congress, the result is almost always known before the votes are cast. Party-line votes are more common than at any point in history. In a system where loyalty is prioritized over effective decision making, the details of laws, the stories from the people they affect, and the possible consequences twenty years down the road matter less to our representatives than what the person sitting next to them is voting for.

We legislate by attrition. It often appears that the role of congresspeople isn’t to evaluate and decide on a course of action, but to show up, be a warm body in a seat.

We demand the same from our peers. During an election season, we tend to chastise those who show ideological uncertainty. We mock undecided voters, who seem to require a little more evidence before they make a decision.

Yet, when we look at the habits of our congresspeople, you wonder whether we could use a little more indecision up and down the political ladder. A few more people that wanted to learn more. A few more people open to either outcome. To alternative outcomes. A few more cautious optimists.

We get frustrated at undecided voters, but it might be marvelous if we were able to elect more of them.

Why We Learn

There’s a reason that Stanford sells sweatshirts and spends as much on athletics as it does academics: loyalty. Universities aim to create a sense of shared identity, of allegiance to a tribe, and most importantly, prestige for the university itself.

In education, the locus of authority, of popularity, of loyalty is the school, not the teacher.

This won’t last.

In the old world, companies built their brand for decades, then leased their good name to their employees. You were a reporter for the New York Times or a writer for TV Guide. What was your name? Who knows. Why should anyone listen to you? Because you worked for an outlet we trusted.

Then, the internet happened, and journalists no longer relied on the endorsement and employment of established news companies. Instead, they built direct relationships with their audience via social media. They developed their credibility through good work, and their devotion through the intimacy, authenticity, and unscripted candor that the internet provides. Their fans followed them from project to project, platform to platform.

People used to trust brands. Now they trust faces.

The dominant media corporations are just beginning to topple. In time, every profession dominated by institutions will transform.

And no field is more ripe for renaissance than teaching.

Higher education shares many of the same characteristics that news media once did. The institution dominates; value flows to and from the school. While students cross their fingers Harvard or Berkeley – few applicants know the names of the specific professors who will teach their courses. Teachers derive their reputation from the schools in which they work. Unless they write a best-selling book, they must remain inside academia in order to retain credibility and income.

Authority is even more concentrated in primary and secondary schools. A family might move to attend a “good school”, but rarely because they seek a particular teacher. Even when teachers are beloved by their students, the value and scale of that popularity ends at the borders of their school district. If a physics teacher in New Jersey moves to California, her reputation doesn’t proceed her, and her students won’t follow. Her previous school keeps the reputation for excellence that her work created.

The next decade will upend this dynamic. The next wave of superstar teachers will distribute their lessons on Youtube, full of recurring jokes. They’ll hold office hours on Facebook with two thousand students across the world. They’ll share their academic and non-academic hobbies on Instagram. They’ll create weekly podcasts, nerding out on their favorite subjects and discussing the ways in which their field shapes the news and affects real people. They’ll earn a living through exclusive lessons on Patreon, individual and small group tutoring over Google Hangouts, and monthly private donations. Sal Khan started Khan Academy by uploading lessons to his family on Youtube. The next Sal Khan will build his following on Snapchat.

This change will bring about many of the same practical and ethical issues that have emerged in journalism over the past few years: does training and licensing matter? How do we enforce standards of accuracy and objectivity? What happens when a popular teacher accepts advertisers on their podcast? If these questions disturb you, then start thinking about them now. Ask an executive at Sony Music or the Washington Post: you can’t fight the internet, you can only prepare for it.

Unlike record stores, brick-and-mortar high schools aren’t going away any time soon. Stanford will still be sought after for the next several decades. Yet, more educators will opt to work directly with students at scale, rather than serve the needs of a stodgy bureaucracy. Salaries of the savviest teachers will rise as they create side incomes as podcasters and tutors. Schools will compete for teachers that command a loyal, global audience. And students will have direct access to the best teachers in the world, no matter what town they live in.

If you are a school administrator, then this all sounds rather stressful.

If you are a teacher or a student (and we all are, always), then the future couldn’t be more exciting.

Why We Act

You would though.

Given the right set of circumstances, you would vote for an erratic, dangerous, anti-democratic nitwit, assuming that she or he represented the majority of your political priorities.

So let’s build a liberal Donald Trump.

First off, it wouldn’t be Donald Trump, because an old white male would have difficulty channeling the younger, less-white, less-male Democratic base. However, this person could have all of Trump’s other qualities: narcissism, inexperience, troubling attitudes toward women, bluntness, and the ability to entertain large crowds by saying nothing.

Look: Kanye West would be liberal Donald Trump.

And what would be the characteristics of a Kanye candidacy? In order to appeal to a liberal base in a Trumpian fashion, we would see appealing far-left positions framed with a naive understanding of policy and diplomacy.

On the Kanye platform:

  • Monetary reparations for Black, Native, and Asian Americans
  • A promise to end to “all war”, including suspension of drone strike program
  • Federal legalization of marijuana and psychedelics
  • Expansion of women’s rights, including equal pay, parental leave, and greater access to reproductive health care (unfortunately including an off-color joke about being the cause of many abortions himself)
  • Amnesty to undocumented immigrants and uncapping the number of work visas granted per year
  • Commitment to move U.S. energy sources to “future shit”: solar, wind, etc. by 2030
  • Free Tidal accounts for all citizens (taxpayer subsidized)

Sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? The fact that he is a musician and entrepreneur with no political experience no longer strikes you as a deal-breaker. His inability to discuss these issues with any clarity or nuance on the campaign trail becomes easier to overlook.

But are you willing to overlook his more disturbing habits? Let’s also imagine:

  • An open war with police unions, including public musing over whether he will “shut down” the NYPD and prosecute officers for biased policing
  • Insults toward any opposition, including families of fallen officers
  • A full-throated defense of celebrity rapists
  • Behind-the-scenes recordings of him making demeaning comments about women and bragging about sexual exploits with questionable consent
  • A pledge to outlaw paparazzi and jail media outlets critical of his albums
  • 3AM Twitter ranting on biased journalism
  • A disgusting insistence that he will finally sleep with Taylor Swift as president
  • First Lady Kim Kardashian

You’re on the fence now. When 2024 rolls around, you don’t vote for Kanye in the Democratic primary, but he wins the nomination on a wave of (now-greying) millennial support. And who does the Republican party nominate?

Bionic Dick Cheney.

It has to be him. It has to be him because Dick Cheney makes liberals shudder the way Hillary makes conservatives furious. Their records aren’t equivalent, but they both represent the worst of the opposition party, and they have for decades.

We now have a 2016-style election between a dangerous asshole who you mostly agree with as long as he keeps his mouth shut (which is rare), and a literal zombie that hates everything you stand for.

You could, of course, make a protest vote. But you balk at people who do that. After all, there really is no such thing as a protest vote: Either Kanye West or Dick Cheney is going to be the next President of the United States.

And you aren’t going to vote for Dick Cheney. No way. No way.

You are going to vote for liberal Donald Trump.

Why We Love

My cousin moved into an adult dorm.

My friends fantasize about sharing giant house. Perhaps it overlooks the eastern coast of Oahu. We meditate in the tangerine sunrise. We bake our own bread every evening.

And The Atlantic reports that young adults are flocking to communal living spaces around the country.

Thank Facebook. In fact, thank the entire constellation of apps and social networks that have led a generation of college grads into an uncanny valley of personal relationships. The more Facebook and Twitter and Tinder attempt to simulate the dynamics of human interaction, the more they push us to the precipice of disgust. In our monkey brains, we know the difference between face time and FaceTime. We feel connected as long as we lock eyes with our phones. Then we look up, and the room is empty.

What Came Before

History classes mistake what happened for what people cared about.

NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership might be the most significant and widely impactful international agreements of our generation. And I have no idea what they do.

I say this because people who study economics and globalism say things like this. It’s entirely possible that they are correct; NAFTA and TPP could alter the course of human industry and events in ways it will take centuries to fully understand.

Yet, if a time-traveler from 200 years in the future appeared on my doorstep and asked me to teach them about what was important to people of the early 21st century, trade tariffs would be among the last of topics that I would cover. Far better to tell them about Beyonce, Harry Potter, Fox News, The Wire, and Dave Chappelle: the voices that spoke to us and through us. Even better, I’d open up my Macbook Air (they’d no doubt gasp at seeing the ancient device outside of a museum) and show them the stories and the songs we sing to each other.

No, the time traveler might say. What do you think about NAFTA? We learned all about NAFTA in seventh grade.

I would regretfully inform my friend from the future that their history class has failed to teach them anything about the past.

Why We Do Better

“It’s not rocket science.”

Maybe they’re right. Perhaps the challenge you’re working on isn’t Literal Actual Rocket Science With Rockets.

But if it feels like rocket science, like success requires defying your own personal gravity, then remember this: it takes a team to build a rocket. To put a satellite in orbit or ten toes on the moon, you need a hell of a lot of brains.

So to you, lonely novice, daring changer, rocket scientist, you damn fool – understand this. It’s time to assemble your team.