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Power of Design Media Coverage — 4/23/14

Posted by Wolfsonian Staff, filed under General Posts


Highlighted Media Coverage

The Miami Herald, “Wolfsonian’s Power of Design ‘gripe fest’ will focus on solutions,” January 2, 2014

Fast Company, “The Art of Whining: Top Designers Visualize Their Biggest Complaints,” February 14, 2014 

The New York Times, “Greasing a Squeaky Wheel,” February 25, 2014

The Miami Herald, “Major discussion at the Wolfsonian-FIU to explore whether the Internet is a blessing or a curse,” February 27, 2014

The Miami Sun Sentinel, “What's the big idea?” February 27, 2014 

The South Florida Business Journal, “Digital ‘prophets’ talk in Miami is free to public,” March 18, 2014 

Miami.com, “Wolfsonian-FIU's Power of Design 'gripe fest' focuses on solutions for Miami,” March 19, 2014

WLRN, “FIU’s ‘Complaints Choir’ Shows the World its Whine List,” March 19, 2014

WLRN, “Micro Theatre, Macro Complaints,” March 20, 2014

Travel + Leisure, “Complain for Change at the Power of Design Panel,” March 24, 2014

WLRN, “The Most Adorable Complaint Ever And Other Highlights From Our Pop-Up Complaints Booth,” March 26, 2014

The Atlantic, “ ‘NO WIFI? UUUUGGGH!’: The Important Art of Complaining,” March 27, 2014 

MetroCitizen.net, “The Wolfsonian–FIU Presented First Ever 'Power of Design' Festival Featuring World Renowned Visionaries,” April 2, 2014

Design Observer, “Inalienable Rights, Wolfsonian-Style,” April 4, 2014 

Miami Rail, “Designing Complaints,” Spring 2014 

All Media Coverage

The Miami Herald, “SOLVE THIS MIAMI! $25,000 grant application,” January 31, 2014

The Miami Herald, “Wolfsonian’s Power of Design ‘gripe fest’ will focus on solutions,” January 2, 2014 

Miami New Times, “SOLVE THIS MIAMI! $25,000 grant application”, February 3, 2014 

Knightfoundation.org, “The Wolfsonian–Florida International University to create deeper community connections and idea exchange through Miami’s first-ever ‘Power of Design’ festival,” February 4, 2014 

Fast Company, “The Art Of Whining: Top Designers Visualize Their Biggest Complaints,” February 14, 2014 

The Miami Herald, “Power of Design: Kick-Off,” February 20, 2014 

Urbandaddy.com, “You’re Not Complaining, But…,” February 20, 2014

SunPost, “Social: Wolfsonian–FIU Power Of Design Festival Featuring World Renowned Visionaries,” February 20, 2014 

Miami Socialholic, “Don’t Miss: Funkshion: Fashion Week Miami, Wolfsonian-FIU Inaugurates Power of Design 2014, MOCA Presents a Night of Music, Miami-Dade County Youth Fair & Exposition and Miami Rescue Mission, and Afrojack Launches Capsule Collection at G-Star RAW,” February 20, 2014 

The New York Times, “Greasing a Squeaky Wheel,” February 25, 2014

The Miami Herald, “Major discussion at the Wolfsonian–FIU to explore whether the Internet is a blessing or a curse,” February 27,2014

The Miami Sun Sentinel, “What's the big idea?” February 27, 2014 

Cultured Magazine, “The Wolfsonian Ideas Festival,” March 10, 2014 

Soul of Miami, “Power of Design 2014: Complaints at the Wolfsonian–FIU museum 3/20/2014-3/23/2014,” March 12, 2014 

The Miami Herald, “Power of Design: Kick-Off,” March 12, 2014 

The Miami Herald, “Power of Design: Solutions! New Ideas and Art Made From Everyday Things You Might Otherwise Throw Away,” March 13, 2014 

Sofla Nights, “Power of Design 2014: Complaints at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum,” March 13, 2014 

The South Florida Business Journal, “Digital ‘prophets’ talk in Miami is free to public,” March 18, 2014 

TransitMiami.com, “Event—Power of Design 2014: Complaints,” March 18, 2014 

Miami.com, Wolfsonian–FIU's Power of Design 'gripe fest' focuses on solutions for Miami, March 19, 2014

WLRN, “FIU’s ‘Complaints Choir’ Shows the World its Whine List,” March 19, 2014

WLRN, “Tell Us Your Complaints About City Life! Live Chat 10 a.m. Saturday,” March 20, 2014

WLRN, “Micro Theater, Macro Complaints,” March 20, 2014

Social Miami, “Complaints! An Inalienable Right—Exhibition Opening,” March 20, 2014 

The Miami Herald, “Power of Design: Kick-off,” March 20, 2014 

Refresh Miami, “Power of Design 2014,” March 22, 2014 

The Miami Herald, “Panel to focus on watchdog journalism,” March 22, 2014 

AP (syndicated), “Miami forum looks at how complaints improve life,” March 23, 2014

Travel + Leisure, “Complain for Change at the Power of Design Panel,” March 24, 2014

WLRN, “The Most Adorable Complaint Ever And Other Highlights From Our Pop-Up Complaints Booth,” March 26, 2014

The Atlantic, “ ‘NO WIFI? UUUUGGGH!’: The Important Art of Complaining,” March 27, 2014

Sun Post!, “Social: Wolfsonian–FIU Power of Design Festival Featuring World Renowned Visionaries,” April 2, 2014 

MetroCitizen.net, “The Wolfsonian–FIU Presented First Ever 'Power of Design' Festival Featuring World Renowned Visionaries,” April 2, 2014

Design Observer, “Inalienable Rights, Wolfsonian-Style,” April 4, 2014 

AzureAzure.com, “Power of Design Ideas Festival,” April 4, 2014

Miami Rail, “Designing Complaints,” Spring 2014 


Caption: Painting, Strike News, 1937. Minna Citron, artist. Oil on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.


Reflecting on Complaints: A Conversation with Kurt Andersen — 4/3/14

Posted by Shawn Clybor, filed under Events




I had the opportunity to sit down with author and cultural historian Kurt Andersen for coffee on the morning of Sunday, March 23, the concluding day of Power of Design. A longtime admirer of The Wolfsonian, Andersen served as emcee and moderator of the ideas festival. We discussed some of the themes and “big ideas” that emerged during the festival, and the weirdness of staying in a Miami Beach resort hotel during Spring Break.

Shawn Clybor: Did you have any connection or affiliation with The Wolfsonian prior to your work on Power of Design?

Kurt Andersen: No. One line from my professional life has been writing about design. I was contacted by [museum director] Cathy Leff early in the process. At that point the festival was not totally figured out. When she told me that the theme of the festival was “complaints,” I though it was really interesting, and her irresistible enthusiasm for this still-germinating idea gave me a good reason to be in Miami at end of winter. And then I found out part of my job was to talk to my friend Andy [Borowitz]. We just get to sit around for an hour and talk? That works.

Clybor: How have you enjoyed the festival overall? Were there any highlights? 

Andersen: The scene in our hotel lobby on Saturday night was an unanticipated field study! [Spring Break in Florida. You get the picture.] Otherwise, I would say last night’s Prophets of the Digital Age event. At first I was not sure about doing it because I was already doing the other events during the day. But getting to talk to Clive Thompson, Jaron Lanier, and Michael Chabon in an open-ended way was really attractive to me. 

Clybor: It was an extremely lively conversation, to say the least. At one point Clive and Jaron were battling for the microphone, and I thought it was going to get violent.

Andersen: It got out of control. They were really arguing. I warned the speakers beforehand that they disagree in fundamental ways. And I knew already that Jaron is very convinced of his own correctness. I kind of made a joke to Clive beforehand: He’s gonna call you what Dan Aykroyd used to call Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live

Clybor: Good prediction. At one point Jaron told Clive he wasn’t going to answer one of his questions because it was “stupid,” so they weren’t too far away from that. But, moving away from the drama, what did you take away from Prophets of the Digital Age?

Andersen: For me a highlight was Chabon’s description of how we go down useless rabbit holes with Internet research, and then serendipitously find Internet nuggets that we never would have found any other way. Our time wasting versus our eureka moments. This is my experience as well. It wasn’t new to me as an insight, but it was amusing, and he put it cleverly. 

Clybor: It was so wonderful just to hear him speak. 

Andersen: The organizers really went into left field for Chabon. He’s not someone you would think of when you think “Internet.” 

Clybor: Yes. I have to say kudos to them for the research they put into organizing the panel. It wasn’t just three famous people who have something to say about the Internet. These individuals were selected intentionally because they represent sharply different opinions.

Andersen: The organizers were incredibly on the case and thorough about managing the whole process. Panels can be really boring. Really, though, all of the panels for the entire festival were well curated. People think it’s easy to organize panels. You just put people together and one talks after the other, as opposed to thinking about it as an intellectual and theatrical craft. I’m asked to do panels and roundtables a lot, and I’ve learned to say no ninety percent of the time. This festival was, for a lot of reasons, really well and thoughtfully considered. For a beta version of something, I thought this was cool.

Clybor: So now that we’re discussing the event as a whole, did you notice any common themes or threads emerge during the festival? For instance, I heard you mention a few times during the festival the tension between the need for a Robert Moses–type governmental figure to cut through bureaucratic red tape to resolve citizen complaints, versus a more “bottom up” approach that allows citizens to fix their own problems without government getting in the way.

Andersen: Yes, and another theme was how to fight against our ongoing need to codify and code everything. The smooth friction of the digital universe is created by trillions of lines of coding, and yet in life we are saying “less coding.” Andrés Duany [who cofounded the New Urbanism movement and spoke at the Cities and City Life panel] has been critical for a long time about the damage caused by encoded bureaucratic impulses. I also remember when Dickie Davis said something [she is director of public and customer relations at Miami International Airport and spoke at The Air Travel Experience panel] about how federal immigration staffing at Miami International Airport is a disaster. You seldom hear someone in her position say that. I was happy to see that degree of frankness.

Overall, I would say that political economy was a really major theme. And this axis [between top-down and bottom-up] looks quite different from our standard “public” versus “private” debates. This is not about some Mad Max radical libertarian thing, but at the same time let’s not deny that bureaucracy is not a dead hand of regulatory inertia. Let’s get beyond the tired, sclerotic Fox News and MSNBC talking points. That’s why I loved the Cities panel. They weren’t just some tired politicians; they were practical people asking, “How do we do this?” 

Clybor: My last question: Do you consider yourself a complainer?

Andersen: No, I really don’t. I’ve been a boss. I learned a lot from having employees. People who complained about their job, my reaction was: “Fix it. Propose a solution, or get over it and see this as a temporary thing.” Don’t just be in a situation and complain about it. Which is not to say that I’m the person who accentuates the positive. I call a spade a spade. It’s more that I’m inclined to be around cheerfulness. 

Shawn Clybor is a cultural historian of East-Central Europe and a former Fulbright-Hays Scholar. He has published several articles on the relationship between art and politics in communist Czechoslovakia and post-communist Czech Republic. He is currently cataloguing a private collection of Czech avant-garde books and teaching at the Ross School. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in 2010.

Barking at the Bad Guys: How Watchdog Journalists Spotlight Community Problems and Seek Solutions — 3/31/14

Posted by Andrea Gollin, filed under Events


On Sunday afternoon, a group of South Florida investigative reporters and editors gathered in The Wolfsonian’s auditorium to discuss ways in which journalism responds to complaints, which they loosely defined as societal, political, and environmental wrongs.

The panel was moderated by The Miami Herald’s Jane Wooldridge, who also coordinated Power of Design’s Solve This Miami! competition, which awarded a $25,000 grant from The Wolfsonian to a local nonprofit. Members of the panel were Dan Christiansen, founder and editor of Broward Bulldog; Jim DeFede of CBS4; Carol Marbin Miller, investigative reporter with The Miami Herald; and Alicia Zuckerman, editorial director at WLRN.

“Watchdog journalism is important to our community and to the civic health of any community,” said Wooldridge in her opening remarks. She described the journalists on the panel as “driven to do the work that they do because they feel it is important to the community” and “people who give up all kinds of personal time and personal lives to do work that is incredibly important.”

Each journalist discussed examples of his or her work, much of it recent, including investigations into the abuse of children, environmental concerns around global warming, terrorism, and ethical violations by police officers.

A good portion of the panel was devoted to an ongoing Miami Herald investigative series titled Innocents Lost about the deaths of nearly five hundred Florida children in the past six years, following a shift in Florida welfare policy; in all cases, the Florida Department of Children & Families had received warnings about the families of these children. Carol Marbin Miller, co-author of the series, has spent many years reporting on abuse, neglect, and wrongful death of children and vulnerable adults.

Rather than focusing much on particulars of the investigative or even her motivation in covering these topics, Miller repeatedly encouraged the audience to be part of the solution. “You all have to do and say something if you care about our children. The primary goal of government, and of any civilized society, is to protect those who can’t protect themselves. We have all let this happen. If we do nothing then we are complicit,” she said.

“Let your feelings be known to the legislature and the governor. The situation has to be made too painful for the state legislature and the governor’s office to do nothing. They have done nothing for decades. If I were a civilian I would be sitting in the governor’s office right now. I would be in court representing these children. I would go to the hospital and hold infants as they withdraw. There are a million things you can do to help.”

Jim DeFede, in addition to discussing recent work, talked about how in the past, when he was a columnist with The Miami Herald, he would often tag-team on Miller’s stories in order to keep them “alive.” If a story runs in the newspaper only once, often “politicians will say all the right things when a story hits, but will they do anything?” What effects change, DeFede said, is to keep “hammering” at the story. “It’s a lot more annoying for officials if we keep doing it. We have to keep at it. The challenge when we hit with a big story is, how do we keep it up?”

Dan Christensen of the Broward Bulldog then summarized an ongoing story he’s been investigating about a family living in South Florida that abruptly disappeared just prior to 9/11—ties to the 9/11 hijackers have since surfaced, but much remains unknown. “This is an example of an investigation that can take a lot of time and doesn’t necessarily lead to a complete answer,” he said.

Alicia Zuckerman of WLRN focused on the extensive series of recent radio programming titled Elevation Zero: Rising Seas in South Florida, which ran for a full hour each day for a week, in addition to eighteen additional stories online and in social media. “How do you cover a slow-moving threat? Our approach was to look at it through the lens of science, policy, and individual stories,” she said.

One audience member complained about the type of news stories that come out of South Florida, including the frequent pieces on Medicare fraud and ID theft. Christensen’s response was to look to the lack of strong leadership. “This is a transient community,” he said, citing a study reporting that Florida is the most disengaged state in the nation and South Florida is the most disengaged part of the state.

“As a journalist, I’m glad that we are rife with corruption and scandal,” DeFede said. “Florida is a place where people go for second chances. And we want so desperately to be substantive, to be a world-class community, that we are easy prey for hucksterism.”

Zuckerman noted that for journalists, it comes down fostering a relationship of sorts between public officials and the public, while pointing out the responsibilities of each group in terms of responding to the complaints exposed by watchdog journalism: “As journalists, we hold public officials accountable. We are letting the public know what we find out and giving the public the tools to do what needs to be done.” 
 
Andrea Gollin is the writer/editor for special projects for The Wolfsonian, including the Power of Design website and blog.

Complaints! An Inalienable Right — 3/31/14

Posted by Wolfsonian Staff, filed under Posters

Installation view of Complaints! An Inalienable Right in The Wolfsonian's lobby. To see all of the posters in the exhibition, go to the Posters section of this blog. Photo credit: Lynton Gardiner.

Complaints! An Inalienable Right is a poster exhibition curated by Steven Heller in conjunction with Power of Design 2014: Complaints.

Solutions! New Ideas and Art Made From Things You Might Otherwise Throw Away — 3/31/14

Posted by Mariam Aldhahi , filed under Events






Todd Oldham, in addition to his work curating BUMMER in conjunction with Power of Design and participating in two panel discussions (The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints and The Air Travel Experience), spent Sunday morning creating bracelets out of multi-colored pipe cleaners and decorating with duct tape (as pictured above).

The designer led two children’s craft workshops, held back-to-back in the lobby of The Wolfsonian. Solutions! New Ideas and Art Made From Things You Might Otherwise Throw Away, attracted more than fifty kids and their parents. Oldham, with a little help from a few Wolfsonian staff members, managed to ignite creativity while using unexpected materials, much of it recycled (and donated by Florida International University’s recycling department). The workshop was co-sponsored by the Miami Children’s Museum. 

 

Oldham explained that although it’s fascinating to see what children are capable of when given free rein to just do, growing up distracts. “We un-teach children. Humans have natural creative abilities and society undoes it,” he said. Oldham has held similar programs in many different locations and said that youth-stemmed creativity is universal, although parental support is crucial.

The creations that resulted from Solutions! ranged from jewelry to robots riding skateboards. One six-year-old boy created a giraffe using toilet paper rolls and yellow construction paper. A ten-year-old girl transformed a cardboard box into a rather fashionable purse by using patterned duct tape (from Oldham’s personal line) to hide the worn marks of the throwaway container. 

Below are a few of Sunday’s accomplishments, designer and all.


Iris, 7: A bracelet and mini-art installation made from tape, pom-poms, and pipe cleaners. 
 
Jonah, 6: A basketball hoop with a backboard and support. Jonah chose to use pom-poms as basketballs and remembered to attach a cup to the bottom for efficient storage. 

Sebastian, 6: A giraffe in its natural habitat made from recycled toilet paper rolls, construction paper, and felt.  

India, 8: Treasure chest made from a tissue box, duct tape, and paper. Treasure included.
 
Isabella, 9: Two purses with duct tape flower decoration and zip-tie straps.

 
Anaiya, 8: A desk with a cup holder and a robot made from an old Gatorade bottle and tape.

 
Alessandra, 5: Rainbow snowman made from a plastic juice bottle with pom-pom buttons and a hot air-balloon made with two upside-down bottles and construction paper.

Photo credits: Top two photos, Manny Hernandez. Photos of kids with artwork, Mariam Aldhahi.

Daily Poster - Complaints! An Inalienable Right — 3/30/14

Posted by Wolfsonian Staff, filed under Posters

Sincerely by Andrew Blauvelt

Andrew Blauvelt is senior curator for design, research, and publishing at the Walker Art Center, where he previously served from 1998–2009 as design director and curator. A practicing graphic designer, his work has received nearly one hundred awards and has been exhibited and published in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Commenting on his poster, which reproduces a museum constituent's 1962 letter of outrage sent to the Walker Art Center in reaction to an avant-garde "Happening," along with the director's response, he says, “It has been said that without complaints and offense there would be no advancement in the arts. Complaint, a free speech right, meets freedom of expression. A defense of positions sincerely held.”
 

Complaints! An Inalienable Right is a poster exhibition curated by Steven Heller in conjunction with Power of Design 2014: Complaints.

A Walk on the Beach with Michele Oka Doner — 3/30/14

Posted by Mariam Aldhahi, filed under Events



Michele Oka Doner’s guided walk on the beach was one of the optional activities on Saturday afternoon during the break between panel discussions. Blogger Mariam Aldhahi tagged along.

Artist Michele Oka Doner (b. 1945) was raised on Miami Beach, just minutes from The Wolfsonian. By channeling her deep connection to the natural world, Oka Doner has created many public art installations inspired by South Florida’s flora and fauna. One of her better known pieces, A Walk on the Beach (1995–2009), is a fundamental part of Miami International Airport’s image. A mile long, the dark terrazzo walkway, inlaid with cast bronze elements and scattered with mother-of-pearl, draws its inspiration from the artist’s longstanding love of the beach. 

Based in New York City, she maintains ties to the Miami art scene. She is a member of The Wolfsonian’s advisory board and longtime friend of its founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., with whom she co-authored the book Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden. Few people are better versed on Miami Beach’s history, ecology, and in the growing emergence of Miami as an art and design powerhouse. These factors combined make her the ideal tour guide for a Power of Design walk on the beach. 

Oka Doner made three main stops on a trek that delved deep into the artist’s psyche by going back to where her journey began: Ocean Drive. 

Stop One: The coral rock walls that stretch north to south along the western edge of the beach are among the few remnants of the pre-gentrified strip of Ocean Drive. Each piece of coral, so deeply embedded into the walls over thousands of years, evokes the artist’s major terrazzo installation at the airport. Oka Doner, though, rather than discuss her art or inspiration, relayed fond childhood memories of her mother teaching her how to lie on the wall like a lady. 

Stop Two: Palm trees along the beach may spur admirers of Oka Doner’s work to consider the large scale and types of structures she often gravitates to in her work. For her, however, the trees are mature versions of what she witnessed being planted decades before as a young girl—and a new driver—practicing her automotive skills by traversing Ocean Drive in her father’s Cadillac. 

Stop Three: The scarce greenery that dots the shoreline sends Oka Doner back to a time when the entire stretch of beach was covered in spiky plants and shrubbery, since wiped out by development. Oka Doner provides insight into her inspiration for her jewelry design when she shares stories of summer days spent on this same beach gathering natural materials for her very first personal collection. Even now, she says, she sometimes prefers seaweed necklaces over more conventional options. 

The walk was refreshing, enlightening, and created a peculiar sort of nostalgia—a longing for a time we were never part of. By visiting vital locations of an artist’s childhood that continue to inspire her work, we were given a peek into the mind and creative process of a Miami Beach native whose art owes much to her South Florida roots.  

Mariam Aldhahi is a graduate student in the MFA in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts. This coming summer, she will be working at The Wolfsonian as part of her thesis research.

Daily Poster - Complaints! An Inalienable Right — 3/29/14

Posted by Wolfsonian Staff, filed under Posters

Would you fucking mind by Jane Gittings  Robert

Jane Gittings Robert has been working as a designer since 1981. She spent her early career in Chicago working for the offices Robertz Webb and Bagby and Company. Since 1997 she has run her own firm, concentrating on package and book design. She has won numerous awards from the AIGA and the STA, and her work has been published by the AIGA, the Type Directors Club, and Graphis. Her most recent book was published by Chronicle Books for the restaurant Salpicon in Chicago. She is married to the photographer Francois Robert (who also contributed posters to this exhibition).

Complaints! An Inalienable Right is a poster exhibition curated by Steven Heller in conjunction with Power of Design 2014: Complaints.

Complaint: Modern Life — 3/28/14

Posted by Jon Mogul, filed under Wolfsonian Collection



This is a painting on view in our permanent exhibition, Art and Design in the Modern Age. It’s alternately called Suicide with Skyscrapers or Man on the Ledge. The artist is Stuyvesant Van Veen, a New Yorker who was best known as a mural painter.

This painting is remarkable in how strongly it invites the viewer to engage at the level of narrative. What’s going to happen next seems pretty straightforward. Either he’s going to jump or he’s not.

But how this young man got there is more of a mystery. And the painter makes it even more of a mystery by electing to portray face from an oblique angle. By obscuring the expression on his face, Van Veen deprives us of the kinds of psychological indicators that might help us figure out how he got to this place, what brought him to the ledge. The clues are found not in the way Van Veen rendered the human figure, but in how he painted the surroundings—in other words, in social psychology rather than in individual psychology.

In particular, the painting embodies a trenchant complaint about life in modern times, one most associated with the French social theorist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s wrote a book in 1897 called Suicide. In that book, he introduced the concept of anomie, as a way of getting at one of the more disturbing aspects he identified in urban, industrial societies. In such a society, the values, the ideologies enunciated by the larger community can lose their connection to the experience of individual people. And as a result the norms that govern behavior lose their hold over individuals. Where that happens, social deviance—crime, drug abuse, suicide—can flourish.

So here is my narrative. Look again at the painting. Here is a young man in the heart of New York, one of the biggest, most crowded cities on earth. Perhaps he’s moved there from a small town, a place where everyone knew everyone else, and where everyone was in everyone else’s business. Maybe the promises that brought him to New York—success or glamor or love or sex—have been broken. And here he is—not another soul in sight. An individual without community, a portrait of anomie.

Jon Mogul is The Wolfsonian's assistant director for research and academic initiatives.

Caption: Painting, Suicide with Skyscrapers [Man on the Ledge], 1940. Stuyvesant Van Veen. New York, New York. Acrylic on canvas. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.

Does Personhood Exist on the Internet? A Response to Prophets of the Digital Age — 3/28/14

Posted by Shawn Clybor, filed under Events



Jaron Lanier, Clive Thompson, and Michael Chabon gathered for a conversation moderated by Power of Design master of ceremonies Kurt Andersen to discuss whether now is the best of times or the worst of times when it comes to technology and its impact on our lives and minds (Prophets of the Digital Age took place Saturday, March 22, 7:00–8:30pm).

Something struck me about the Prophets of the Digital Age event co-organized by The Wolfsonian and Intelligence Squared London as part of Power of Design, which attracted a full house—more than 350 people showed up at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) for the event. Despite the “ultra-partisanship” of American life, we rarely get to witness a genuinely passionate, off-the-cuff disagreement in which none of the participants has an advantage over the others.

Power of Design emcee Kurt Andersen sat down with Jaron Lanier, Clive Thompson, and Michael Chabon to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of digital technology. The sparks began to fly within the first five minutes. 

Lanier, a pioneering computer scientist turned Internet skeptic, called upon the audience to acknowledge the “empirical realities” of the twenty-first century: social inequality has exploded and the general public is increasingly ignorant when it comes to science. Thompson, a technology writer and firm proponent of the digital age, countered that these were political problems; when it comes to digital technologies, the general public has acted in inventive, unanticipated, and liberating ways. Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, argued that because humans created machines they reflect human nature—like us, Internet is equally horrible and wonderful.

After Chabon spoke, Lanier interjected passionately that Thompson was not looking at the larger, structural effects of digital technologies, and that Chabon was too resigned—improvements can and should be made to make the web a better place for everyone. Emotions got heated, especially when two of the speakers’ microphones stopped working. With only one microphone between them, the speakers had to share (which they did with varying degrees of willingness). In the long run, I think this had a positive effect: no matter how angry Lanier and Thompson became, they had to “pass the torch.” This act of forced sharing helped de-escalate the tension. At points, I half-expected bloodshed.

One of the interesting themes that emerged during the discussion (and which also surfaced during Andy Borowitz’s discussion earlier in the day with Kurt Andersen) was how users of Twitter and Facebook are generating free content that, according to Thompson, equals “more writing than has ever been produced in human history.” Lanier agreed that once we, as a society, are able to place a fair price the data that we are currently giving away to billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, we will be able to create a more adequate space for “personhood to exist” in the digital universe. This really struck me, and I have been thinking a lot about how (and whether) this problem really can be avoided without avoiding “social” forms of online media altogether. (If you have any ideas, feel free to send me a message, preferably not on Facebook or Twitter.)

Overall, I’m a huge Chabon fan. As such, I enjoyed his contributions the most. One of the highlights for me was his response to an audience member’s question as to whether it was possible to reinvent oneself, or to keep secrets, in the digital age. Chabon responded that secrets, and their concealment, were a central plot device in literature—affairs, illegitimate children, sordid past lives, etc. But, he asked, how are such secrets possible in the digital age, when young people no longer care much about discretion?

At the same time, he noted, novels are losing their ability to blur the boundaries between fact and creative liberty. When he published his award-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in 2000, a number of people thought he was writing historical fiction based on real people, and asked him where they could buy comic book art drawn by the novel’s protagonists. With Google, this is no longer possible. (When he said this, it reminded me that I was one of those people: when I first read the novel, I looked up the lead characters to make sure they didn’t actually exist.) When Lanier responded to Chabon that falsehoods and myths are created online every day, Chabon quipped, “So maybe the novel is no longer a good way of fooling people.” For me, it was this sort of pensive melancholy that made Chabon’s contributions so delightful.

Shawn Clybor is a cultural historian of East-Central Europe and a former Fulbright-Hays Scholar. He has published several articles on the relationship between art and politics in communist Czechoslovakia and post-communist Czech Republic. He is currently cataloguing a private collection of Czech avant-garde books and teaching at the Ross School. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University in 2010.

Photo credit: World Red Eye