The first time I cut my fingertip off with an X-Acto knife I was 18, up too late trying to cut a mat board within a millimeter of perfect. I got blood on the project and had to start over with printing and trimming and spraying and mounting. Now, at home and a million miles from the office, my drafting table still has X-Acto blades, brushes, straightedge, tracing paper. Analog. Physical things from when design was something you did with your hands. It was tactile. It had a smell. It was . . . physically considerable. The same design principles for analog certainly apply to all the digital that has come between me and my X-Acto blades, and these skills have served me and many a client well. But working in (and for the most part, living in) the digital world leaves an emptiness, vertigo. My existence there lacks a je ne sais quoi that I cannot find an English word for: a realism, a completeness, a sense of something like gravitas. At the end of my day there are no scraps of mat board, no scent of fresh prints, no Band-Aids.
My craft now is all pixel. I have a very practical awareness of the significance of what I do. I am a UX and visual designer for a not insignificant part of a not insignificant product at a not insignificant company. In fact, if I change the wrong thing, I’ll likely ruffle at least a few hundred-thousand feathers. Still, that does not tame my odd but nagging feeling that working in pixels and electrical currents is a sort of “make-believe.”
So, in contrast to my day job, my off-hours are filled with an absurd accumulation of hyperanalog, antidigital pursuits that I am using to ground these loose digital wires: mountaineering, foraging, animal processing, indigenous ethnobotany, wilderness first-responder training, and weekend-warrior hunts for cell-service-free old-growth locations. I wonder, often, how many people in tech are having the same metaphysical struggle.
Timothy Egan wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times back when we were all abuzz with the news that our digitally adjusted attention spans are now shorter than those of goldfish. Short attention is, admittedly, a slightly different problem, but to me it indicates the same unnerving rabid-gerbil-arms desperation for a sense of grounding, as if the mind is drowning in insignificant content. Egan writes, “I don’t know what the neuroscience has to say about this, but I’ve found a pair of antidotes, very old school, for my shrinking attention span. The first is gardening.” DIRT.
My instinct is that the lizard brain within needs weighty, tangible, messy moments, physical problems with serious consequences, actual irritation, sensory assault. It is unsatisfied with the comfy office chairs in climate-controlled buildings, uneasy with the free-coffee dispensers and golden handcuffs. We might find suitable postures in front of our keyboards and, like the sea squirt, conserve energy by digesting our own brains. But the lizard within calls to us: “Rage, rage against the complacency of the Retina LED light!”
I know and deeply respect that the digital world has given us unprecedented connectivity with each other and provided information, solutions. I very much know that it has been a miraculous magic wand, just as much or more than it has been a twisted version of Through the Looking-Glass. But from where I sit within the daily grind of the tech hive, digital seems a bundle of nerves and energy trying to stay one minute more relevant than itself. It is ephemeral, it is liquid, it is pathos, it is created in a moment and dies in the next, briefly begging its audience for one viral second of relevance. It is the endless mixing of batter and never baking or smelling or eating, but only imagining the cake and then tossing the concoction to begin again with the next-most-recent recipe. There are more and more chefs in these rapid-iteration, fail-fast digital careers every day. Books have been written about what this fickle, impatient, intangible space is doing to our relationships, our choices, our health.
Thus the wave of discomfort rose before me in reaction to the surge of digital ephemerality. Like Egan, I found dirt. It started with a little p-patch. Then I upped the ante by designing for cloud portals and online software. So the pendulum swung higher. I learned to slaughter and process ungulates. I learned to make medicines from things on the forest floor and start fire from nothing. I walked eight days to eat dal at 17,000 feet from a stove that burned dried yak dung. I became a mountaineer.
I know I’m not alone. Walk the streets of Amazon’s South Lake Union realm or the sidewalks of Google in Fremont or the promenade through Microsoft’s commons. How many logger/miner/fisherman impersonators do you see? What defines a hipster if not a desire for the tactile, the smells and scrapes and dirt and grease and splinters and fire of sweat-earned work? The more our lives resemble the Borg, the more we romanticize Grizzly Adams.
My most successful balancing weekends of late have involved broken crampons and pooping in “blue bags.” Does it work? Can I sit down on a Wednesday afternoon for another round of mock-up microedits and feel grounded? For now. But if I start working on VR, Zeus help me.