I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. ~ Thoreau, Walden
Work (on something that matters)
I’m interested in the capacity of knowledge and narrative to shape the behaviors of groups and individuals. If there is a single word for this, it is probably communication. However, all too often communication evokes images of speaking, but not listening, reflecting, and incorporating those reflections to change how we live our lives. Another word, admittedly, is propaganda, our ability to get others to do what we want. I am more interested in the power of knowledge and stories to convince us to aspire to become “the better angels of our nature” — more empathetic to the needs and desires of others.
This fundamental interest has drawn me to a number of projects, most of which are related to participatory media and participatory governance. You can read more about those projects here.
I rather arbitrarily divide my intellectual interests into five main areas, all of which are related to communication. The above diagram is my attempt to make some sense of those areas and the many sub-categories within each one. In list form.
- Communication: storytelling, literature, blogging, film, conversation, identity as narrative
- Accountability: social contract theory, open data, institutions, investigative journalism
- Cities: public space, innovation, social & physical mobility, participatory planning, public transit, quantified cities
- Knowledge: epistemology, history, education, media literacy, instructionism vs. constructionism, linguistics, semiotics
- Access: anti-censorship, copyright reform, the commons, gift economy, libraries
- Psychology: attention economy, decision making, empathy, cognitive biases, habit formation, incentives
A number of assumptions help guide my daily decisions, but I try to revisit and question those assumptions at least once a year. I believe, for example, that prosperity and dignity are more important than equality for the sake of equality. I believe that power corrupts, and must be held in check by accountability; the powerful should account for their actions to the powerless. I believe that rights are responsibilities. The right to life is the responsibility to not kill; the right to work is also the responsibility to work. I believe that those who have inherited wealth and power have also inherited responsibilities to the less fortunate. I believe that liberalism and conservatism are complementary forces that lead to necessary debates about what should change and what should remain the same. I believe that criticism is a first step, but that it is ultimately more rewarding to be constructive than critical. I believe we are mostly egotistical creatures, concerned with our own self-advancement, but that we can reduce our egotism by asking questions, listening deeply to what others tell us, and by striving to understand a situation from another’s perspective. I believe our character is the sum of our genetic inheritance and our personal experience. I believe we are not conscious of the why that lies beneath 95% of our actions, and that one of the purposes of life is to become more conscious of the roots of our behavior.
Life (is more than just work)
Here’s another assumption: meaningful work is the basis of a meaningful life. But that doesn’t mean that leisure is not important, or that work should dominate our lives. My problem is that I have more pastimes and pursuits than time to pursue them. I firmly believe that life is too short to be busy, and yet, sadly, I still complain at least once a week that I am too busy.
Here’s a list of some of those pastimes and why I enjoy them:
- Running — I try to run three times a week every week, though my Nike+ app keeps me honest. Running clears my mind. If I am feeling anxious, or if I can’t concentrate on my work, then going for a run is usually the best remedy. During about half of my runs I listen to audio books or podcasts, during the other half I listen to music — usually hip-hop or electronic. I have run a number of half marathons and one full marathon (in Carlsbad). At some point I’d like to run the Big Sur Marathon.
- Reading — I love what Proust called “that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude.” I am cautious of anyone who spends more time writing and speaking than reading and listening. I read for the thrill of realization: peeling back the rind of ignorance page by page. I also enjoy fiction and its capacity to instill empathy for characters that are one part reality, one part possibility. I don’t buy the argument that the novel is in decline. My favorite writers — Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Franzen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dave Eggers — are all contemporary. I am also fond of Milan Kundera, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, JM Coetzee, and Roberto Bolaño. I try to review most books that I read on GoodReads.
- Cycling — I avoid cars as much as possible. I dream of a future in which all our travel is split between airplanes, trains, and bicycles. For urban cycling I have a Brompton folding bike that accompanies me on most trips. Rare is the day that I do not use it. For road cycling I have an Orbea frame with Campagnole components. I dream of cycling across the country. Any country. I use Strava to track longer rides.
- Hiking, mountaineering, trekking, sauntering — if I have a clear destination in mind, then it doesn’t count. I enjoy walking for the sake of walking , whether it is in the city, forest, or on the side of a mountain. I have found that my best thoughts come to me while I am walking, and many of my most meaningful conversations have also occurred on walks. Increasingly I try to schedule meetings as walks. My longest walk lasted 30 days in Nepal, and it felt plenty long, though I still dream of longer walks across the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachia Trail, Camino de Santiago, and the Tea Horse Road in Yunnan, China.
- Coffee — Of all the world’s drugs, coffee is my favorite. Sadly, I abuse coffee to stay awake and increase productivity more than I enjoy it as an occasional social and solitary ritual. I have worked in about a dozen independent coffee shops. I love the characters that coffee shops attract, the public sphere they create. I completely buy the argument that the Enlightenment was the natural consequence of Europe switching from beer and gin to coffee.
- Music — Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that music was his only evidence of god. I couldn’t agree more. I can think of no evolutionary reason for the way that music makes me feel. If I find the right song or album at the right time, it can completely alter my mood, just like a drug. And Sunday mornings are always reserved for reggae. Except for when they’re reserved for bluegrass. You can see some of the music I listen to at Last.fm.
- Photography — Those of us who call ourselves photographers (and these days who doesn’t) are announcing a kind of visual appreciation, a palate of the eye. We look at life through a frame of colors, contrasts, background lighting, and geometric juxtaposition. For someone like me – who concentrates mostly on portraits – it is a way to study the play of light as the 52 or so facial messages work their magic each and every millisecond to reveal or betray some deeper significance rooted in emotion. These days I mostly shoot with the crappy camera on my iPhone. Occasionally I still use my Canon 7D. I upload most photos to Flickr and also use Instagram.
- Meditation/Mindfulness — Compared to everything else on this list, meditation is my most recent pursuit. It began when I read Jon Kabat Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. Most days I mediate for 20 – 45 minutes. I spend most of my day in “evaluative mode,” constantly reflecting and critiquing. Mindfulness is a way to escape that constant judgement and just experience the sensory world.
- Writing — And here I mean writing as a craft, as a pleasure derived from process. I enjoy the pen and paper in the same way that a ceramist enjoys the potter’s wheel and a chef appreciates a good kitchen knife. I savor the slowness of writing, the challenge of expressing an idea clearly and evocatively. I believe that clear writing comes from clear thinking and, inversely, that unclear writing stems from a lack of clarity in thinking. I believe that most academics write in coded abstraction because they don’t want to be understood. I believe that the rules of grammar can restrict creativity and reduce meaning. “Wordsmith” is a great compliment. Unfortunately, most of my writing over the past few years has entered a gray area between what I am passionate about and what I am paid to do. My writing has suffered as a result. Today I mostly draft humorless memos, but I have several outlines for books — both fiction and nonfiction — that I hope to eventually write. I am in awe of sweeping, ambitious novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and Milan Kundera’s The Joke.
- Travel/exploration — I spent the majority of my 20s living out of my suitcase. I traveled to (and occasionally lived in) over 70 countries. It was exhilarating and exhausting. The experience of new cultures and geographies awakens the senses. It gives us insight into what is common and unique across cultures and individuals. It is also extremely tiring. At the end of 2009, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to spend more time exploring the details of a single city. A year later I moved to Mexico City where I remained from 2010 – 2014. Some of my travels are listed here.
- Rock climbing — as is true with many sports, I enjoy the gradual advancement, the feeling of competence, that accompanies the ability to effortlessly climb a route that was once so challenging. It is meditative; I rarely think of anything else while I am climbing. It gets me out in nature. And there is a special bond that comes from putting your life in the hands of others.
What all these activities have in common is that they require time. The more they are rushed, the less they are enjoyed. And the more there is to enjoy, the less time there is to enjoy it. The great paradox of choice. What they don’t capture is the importance of community, family, love, and friendships. Once everything else is stripped away, what is most important to me is to love, to be loved, to never stop learning, and to become wise through reflection.