Craftwork

I just got back from a week-long vacation in New York City, which I really needed in order to recharge, reset, and get remotivated.  I got pretty burned out coding Galapag.us and am now going to work on some smaller experimental projects just for fun.

I made sure to spend plenty of time just walking through the city, as I prefer to do, getting a feeling for the rhythm of the city, how it works, and challenging myself to figure out where I am at all times and where I think I can find my next destination just based on sensing where people are heading, what the intuitive design is telling me, and where it’d make most sense to go next.

The city’s organic and designed layouts make a lot of sense.  Contrast it with DC.  DC is very much a bureaucrat’s city — it feels less as though conveniences were put in certain places because people found they belonged there, and more like some planner thought it’d be a good idea to overlap his system onto the underlying existing city.

Another aspect I picked up on was how visible different peoples’ crafts were in NYC.  Certainly DC is like any large city in that it has its own trades, but most of the people who live in DC are incredibly smart (having the highest density of highly-educated people in the nation) but not very creative, with professions geared towards analysis, policy, law, and communications.  Their skills are to jiggle with what exists towards whatever constituency they represent at the time.

But NYC seems truly to be a rich ecosystem of trades.  Everyone seems like a pro there.  Merchants, bakeries, patisseries, bankers, writers, cartoonists, designers, public parks workers, architects, shoeshiners, even the homeless.  It’s beautiful to watch the city flow, and I imagine that’s what Jack Dorsey loved to study when he professes his love for cities:

The boy who would one day invent Twitter was attempting to build a living map of New York. He wanted to capture the urban blur that had fascinated him from a young age, the buzz of vehicles, people and commerce that animates city life. Dorsey digitally reconstructed paper maps street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, then populated the thoroughfares with floating dots.

“I get so energized and inspired by cities, just walking around them and experiencing all the energy and life,” said Dorsey, 33. “I wanted to be able to visualize that.”

Contrast this with DC, which feels like it’s still recovering from being punched in the gut, with a strange and stark stratification of gentrifying neighborhoods, hopeless others, and a political class that notices neither.

I haven’t written much lately — I quit my job a couple months ago to work on Galapag.us full-time — but have recently been unhappy that I can’t point to any trade or craft of my own.  I mess around and play with code and design, but am not too happy doing them for other people.  Analysis for most in DC, even in counter-terrorism and general intelligence, is not a very tangible craft.  Like most of my peers, I know a little about a lot but not much more than that.  Not a chef, not a craftsman, not a really good player at any sport.

Is that as good as it gets?  Is that what I have to look forward to?  Now I know that some computer workers get satisfaction in their jobs.  I just finished Peter Seibel’s interviews with some of the most famous software developers of all-time, in his book Coders at Work.  These folks, most blessed with time early on in their lives on the first room-sized computers, are all asked whether they see themselves as scientists, programmers, artists, craftsmen, etc.  Most will say they are craftsmen above all — although they tend towards more artistry than science, holding science in high esteem as a technical, rigorous, academic discipline.  So at the highest level of software development, it can become a craft.

I think I’m going to have to mix things up a bit.  I need to work with my hands a little more.  There was something pretty fulfilling in the Army about using your hands (and whole body) a lot.  Rifle training, room-clearing.  Squad movements, building dumb stuff, digging dumb holes, carrying heavy stuff for dumb reasons.  At least you felt fulfilled at the end of the day, for some reason.

I found a program at New York University (NYU), the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), which looks VERY cool.  It stresses play, experimentation, and blending of art and culture with technology.  Classes with Python, Arduino, industrial design, web mash-ups, augmented reality.  The sorts of stuff you really wouldn’t expect an academic program to use, since we all know universities tend to lag behind when it comes to incorporating stuff off the internet.  So the class list has me as excited as I was about the international affairs program I went to, but this is definitely more tangible, more creative.  So I think I’m going to apply — it helps that I’m now eligible for the new GI Bill, which will greatly help foot the bill of going to school in Manhattan.

I just refuse to believe that life consists of sitting at a desk every day doing analysis and having promotions consist solely of pay raises and not ambition/usefulness promotions.

I’m 32 now so I’m getting a little old…but I can’t help but think I have to keep pushing, not really knowing where it’ll all go.  I’m more comfortable with the fact that I’ll never be good enough to do a lot of jobs or crafts, and I respect more as I get older the people who fall into certain trades.  I love that people become refined at their own crafts and are rewarded personally and spiritually and financially by them.  But which craft will be mine?  How will people know me?  What will they identify ME as?

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