Jeffrey Inscho built his first website in the late-90s and has been working on the web ever since. Currently, he leads digital engagement efforts at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Mildly obsessed with the collision of art and technology, Jeffrey works to ensure cultural heritage institutions are adapting and thriving in the digital age.
Ocean waves embody the balance I strive to achieve throughout my life. They are dependable with respect to their tides, yet random in their frequency and unpredictable in their approach.
Waves are the fingers of the infinite ocean, crafting the stability of land over time. They create because it is inherent within their nature. They eradicate with that same nature.
Tides are both powerful and gentle. They bring and they take. They seek their own level because they know nothing more.
These are the qualities toward which I work.
We Make the Road by Walking
Roads, as we know them today, are common necessities. These manicured paths we traverse day-in and day-out have become public infrastructure that allow societies and culture to grow and thrive throughout the world.
While trade routes and migratory paths existed as early as 5000 BC, the Romans are credited for dramatically improving road technology. In order to move armies quickly and efficiently in their conquest of the known world, Roman roads were made from deep beds of layered crushed stone to ensure smooth and dry wheeled chariot travel.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Roads now guide us as we travel around the world. It's become second nature for us. Roads lead us to knowledge institutions like museums and libraries. They lead us to business ventures and recreational activities alike. Their benefits are analogous to a real-world internet that facilitates analog connections between people and places. Roads, alongside the advent paper, have perhaps done more to support the democratization and dissemination of ideas throughout physical space than any other technological development in history.
In a practical sense, roads are awesome. We wouldn't be where we are as a global culture without them. Metaphorically, however, and in the context of the modern technology landscape, I think the concept a road or a predetermined path that connects point A and point B deserves some examination.
Computer scientist Bran Ferren is noted for saying:
Technology is the stuff that doesn't work yet.
I love this quote. Scaling Ferren's thesis out a bit, we can infer that technologists are the beating hearts that take the stuff that doesn't work yet to a place of functional distinction. Through passion, obsession and an inherent need to make, technologists dedicate their lives to building things that impact our lives. Software and hardware often get the glory, but let us not forget that human spirit and ingenuity have tread the ground leading to these palaces of pixels.
As Ferren's quote implies, the most compelling technology projects solve new problems, often in surprising and exquisitely considered ways. Creative technologists regularly need to be transported to a place existing roads won't take them.
When it comes to true innovation, there is no city grid. Google Maps won't help you. Macadam turns to asphalt turns to gravel turns to dirt turns to lush old growth. Instead of following existing roadmaps, we are required to forge new paths. We reverse engineer our future. And as our feet fall from common trails, we press our soles into the new fresh earth. Quicksand and jagger bushes be damned.
Turn off your GPS. Disable location services. Carry a machete. Take a step. Then take another. And then one more.
We make the road by walking.
The internet is intentionally pervasive. His far-reaching tentacles evolved through Darwinian-like design. The internet is also persistent. He is ubiquitous, pwned by no one. He is everywhere. All the time.
The network will not apologize. The network is proud of this persistence. This ubiquity. He's earned it.
These traits are what make the web beautiful. By and large, they're why pixel workers like us do what we do, day in, day out. We carry meaning forward through ones and zeros to communities at scale. Seven billion potential participants interacting with the things we make. All the world's knowledge, democratized and in our pockets.
But in the face of all the internet's promise and charm, do you ever dream about giving it all up? Walking away for good? Finally and forever, severing the digital tether?
Every single day.
Some people dream about winning the lottery. Putting cash money in the bank. Others long for a perpetual vacation on a tropical island. Sand between their toes. An umbrella delicately placed in their cocktail.
I daydream of awkward silences and unbroken eye contact. I dream of focus and undivided attention. My thoughts fix on being unreachable and independent, and fully in the moment with the people I'm with.
However, the network commands constant attention. He pings, we check.
I want less real-time, more real time. I want to be here. Right now.
I want to make things with my hands, things that last and have a tactile presence in the world. Things with physicality. Things that take up space. Does it ever bother you that so much of what we labor so hard to make in the digital space is so fleeting, swept away like sand under the waves of browser updates, new operating systems, and software versioning?
The network is proud of this progression and is unforgiving. As he consumes his previous self to sustain her future iterations, we're left with one choice: Jump on or get
left behind run over.
Sometimes I dream of letting go and allowing him to crush me under the weight of his pixels.
In this fantasy, I'm standing still and alone in a swirling digital vortex. I am in the eye and I am calm. Around me swirls the madness of our omnipresent digital fabric. Hexidecimals, source code, selfies, ping, emoji, uploads, likes, ping, navigation menus, status updates, browser widths, ping, downloads, emails, WiFi connections, analytics, ping, retina screens, ping, that goddamn watch, ping, tweets, git push, ping. Faster, louder, swirling all around my still frame. Eyes closed, teeth clenched. Faster, louder. I am still. Swirling. Dizzy. Disorienting. I am still. Ballooning with every rotation until one final pixelated, glitchy gasp.
And there I stand. Still. Calm. Enveloped in silence. I am alone in the quiet calm of the disconnected dawn. No longer a statue. No longer paralyzed by persistence, I take a step.
I am finally and forever untethered.
The Gestalt of You
You are an awful developer. In fact, to call yourself a developer is a complete fabrication. You're not formally trained in code or capable of building anything more sophisticated than a baseline website. You're a self-taught hobbyist whose curiosity has led you far enough to be dangerous.
You are a mediocre designer. In fact, to label yourself a designer would be skewing the truth and devaluing the work of those true artisans who meticulously craft delicate digital artifacts. Those perfecters of the pixel. Those framers of the future.
You are an average writer. You formulate and convey clear thoughts through the written word, however Hemingway you are not.
Your entrepreneurial and business acumen is nothing to write home about. Marketing doesn't scare you, but you don't enjoy it. It makes you feel dirty. Many people have made much more money in their profitable ventures. And you don't seem to mind.
In light of these things you are not, you are able to see past the horizon. You understand how puzzle pieces fit together. You connect people with projects and resources with ease.
You're not afraid of hard work or sacrificing to get better. Your drive is a thing of wonder.
Your sense of direction is unprecedented. Some call it strategy. Others, management prowess. You leave it undefined, but know deep down it's this nebulous mass throbbing in your chest that makes you special. It makes you different. It's a thing of professional desire.
You're not a great coder, designer, writer or entrepreneur, but you might just be a great combination of those skills. Move forward with speed and confidence.
We Were Promised Hoverboards
It’s the year 2015. Let’s just stop and think about that for a moment. To some, there is nothing impressive about this year over, say, 2014. However to me and many other 30-something creatives, the weight of this year is substantial. 2015 is the year we were promised hoverboards.
Like many kids growing up in the mid-to-late 1980s, I spent a good portion of my youth reveling in the classic motion pictures of the day – films like Indiana Jones, the Goonies and The Karate Kid. No other cinema franchise stemming from 1980s, though, was able to capture my imagination like the Back to the Future trilogy. It was parallel to John Hughes but pre-Tarentino. It was sci-fi meets pop culture. It was a truly golden age of adolescent cinema. I vividly remember pedaling my Huffy BMX in the driveway, pretending its wrapped foam chassis could withstand the stress of it hitting eighty-eight miles per hour, hurling both it and me through the space-time continuum.
In my humble opinion, the original installment in the Back to the Future trilogy is close to perfection. The narrative soars with intricacy and wonder. I think almost anyone in the 30-something age bracket would agree. I’d suspect fewer would herald the greatness of the subsequent installments, but Part II, released in 1989, is where the Back to the Future franchise begins to transcend “great trilogy” status into “influential masterpiece” for me. Let me explain.
You’re telling me you built a time machine, out of a DeLorean?
First, let’s not overlook the fact that Doc built a time machine out of a freaking DeLorean. Talk about a hacker ethos. This might be the most important lesson we can glean from Back to the Future.
Doc Brown’s DeLorean is the first instance I can remember of hacking a desired outcome from an undesired environment. It’s a pure example of using available resources for maximum gain. So much of what we do in the digital creative space is making stuff up as we go. I can’t tell you how many times my team has used hardware in ways it wasn’t intended or the number of times we reverse-engineered existing technology to create a new solution to help us realize a project.
Ninety percent of my career is held together by bubble gum and toothpicks. If you’re a digital creative, I’d wager your percentage is similar.
Roads? Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads.
In the final scene of Part I, Doc Brown sets the tone for what’s to come in episode two when, confronted by Marty with the fact the road didn’t have the distance required to achieve the time warp speed of eighty-eight miles-per-hour, he declares with matter-of-factness:
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
With that statement, the DeLorean rises from the earth, pulls an erratic 180º turn and flashes off into the distant future of 2015.
Twenty-five years after taking in that scene, I can look back over my career as a technologist and acknowledge just how impactful those words were to me. As an impressionable 10 year-old in 1989, I didn’t know I’d end up creating dynamic experiences for a living, but those words connected with my subconscious and stuck with me over the years. Those words were there when I began developing for the web in the late-90s and they’re here today as I work to create dynamic, technology-infused experiences for museum-goers.
To me, not needing roads is a prerequisite to making compelling work into the digital future. Roads are limitations. Roads confine us. Roads dictate where we’re going. We need to think above roads and fix our eyes on the possibilities that exist in areas where the roads don’t go.
We Were Promised Hoverboards.
Once Marty, Doc and Jennifer arrive in 2015, they’re greeted with a future that, to a kid in 1989, was awe-inspiring. Unimaginable things like flying cars, self-lacing Nikes, phone glasses, holographic movie posters and hoverboards were all commonplace in this future.
This future was a place in which I wanted to live...a place I wanted to help create. In order for this future to be realized, some big thinkers needed to be working on and solving some big problems. I wanted to be one of those people making magic become reality.
Just think about how much progress we’ve made. Our cars don’t fly, but they drive themselves. Self-lacing Nikes FTW! Our display ads have gotten pretty advanced. Google Glass, for better or worse, is a thing. And somewhere along the line a little thing called the Internet was invented.
While we might not yet have hoverboards, we’re most certainly living in the future. Our future. A future we made together.
But what about thirty years from now? 2045? I believe that our collective efforts now should be focussed on working to create a world that fills today’s kids with as much excitement, wonder and awe so they’re empowered to make their unimaginable future a reality. I can’t wait to see what they build.