The Dailies

The Dailies will be concluding on November 5, 2019. As part of our closing, we're compiling a "Greatest Hits" collection, so send us your favorite items from our six year history.

Word of the Day

Precocious (adj., pree-KOH-shuss)

Showing interests or skills beyond what's usually expected for that age. Reading at 3. Walking at 9 months. Coherent grammar at 2.

Gif of the Day

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Link of the Day

IV. Keep Earth weird

Friends, I’m gonna be honest: this essay was supposed to run on Thursday this week, but I couldn’t get it to work. I’m still not sure I’ve been able to. I think that’s fitting, though, because it’s about the modern obsession with optimization, process, and technique and how it cripples art and exhausts humans.

It all started back in April. Someone on MetaFilter started a thread entitled “I just really like this genre” that listed a few videos of experts reviewing movie scenes in their particular discipline for accuracy and realism. A former Manhattan prosecutor reviewed courtroom scenes while rock climber Alex Honnold offered thoughts on rock climbing scenes, and Bear Grylls reviewed survival movies (which was largely panned by the thread). I’d noticed something similar. I’d always meant to write it up but never got to it. I had a couple items that I wanted to post, including Honnold, but I’d have to figure out which clips to include, rewatch all of them for content warnings, and write up something. None of those things happened, but the idea always stuck with me. When I first started planning out the last week of The Dailies, it was the first item on the list but also the last one I sat down to write.

I suspect some of this is because I have mixed feelings about these videos. I enjoy many of them quite a bit. One of life’s pleasures is being able to watch or interact with someone who’s really good at something. They will always surprise you with how their mind works and how many things they are accounting for that you never think of. Take, for example, this annoyed answer from Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson to a question about why he thew particular routes during a game:

Keep in mind that all this happens in Watson’s brain on a 2.3 second-per-play basis. But even in things that don’t demand that quick of a reaction, what people reveal is fascinating. A few astute commenters noted both some of the interesting things this former CIA official looked for in a disguise but also a carefully worded answer to a direct question:

This stuff is right in our wheelhouse. We’ve run a website built around discovering things and thinking more deeply about the world for six years. But it runs directly opposite what we do in another angle, and that’s where the mixed feelings start: an obsession with optimizing technique.

Most websites on the internet are built around content, and that content is built around dependable, easily reproducible information. The quality of it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it can be easily packaged and sold. This runs completely counter to what we like to do here, but it is the way of the world. The “experts reviewing things” videos are a perfect form of content. They’re video (we’re visual creatures) in a specific form (which you know already) from an established site (which you trust already) critiquing movies (which you’ve seen already). The videos are interesting, but they were designed to be interesting. Next week, there will be another one, and you’ll watch it too, even if you don’t know the person or the thing they’re critiquing. The aggregators have done their job. Good luck getting something of true value or thought from that site.

Content didn’t just emerge overnight, though. It came from this era’s scientism mixed with social media. We care about being objectively the best so we can share how good we are to others. And this leads us to the spiritual origins of content: life hack websites.

The founders of original “life hack” websites worked in well-regarded technology or media companies doing analytical or creative work. They were, in a word, quirky. The life hack idea made perfect sense when you saw them in interviews or writing. They were the people whose brains just never shut off, always tinkering or going “huh.” when they looked at the world. It was a game between them and another version of themselves. Over time, though, the sites shifted. Some stayed niche, some exited, and some got huge (sometimes with the founders leaving). The ones that got big tended to have a different type of reader. These readers were less interested in competing against themselves and a couple steps farther towards competing against each other or the world. It wasn’t enough to simply be different at doing something. It was important to be recognized as better at doing something. Similarly, the goal wasn’t necessarily to get a better outcome but rather to do the right process because that’s how the better outcome would happen.

There is wisdom in this “trust the process” approach, but it’s blunt. There’s little concern for why something is done. Even the act of learning a skill or improving oneself is less important than being better than someone else. It’s science detached from art or philosophy: without the question of why something matters, all that’s left is an equation. Without the understanding of the beauty of an imperfectly balanced system, the only thing that matters is perfection.

Optimization, process, and technique are the backbone of the content industry. Just as design is business considerations applied to art, content is process-based optimization applied to art. The result is a commodity. The point of content is not to show the beauty of the world; it is to get pageviews that will drive revenue through a carefully studied formula. The “technique critique” videos are less interested in if the movies or scenes they’re showing are compelling or well-done than whether they followed existing practices. If this is depressing, consider the labor side of it. The goal is not good art, so proven talent isn’t needed. The formula makes it easy to reproduce, so labor should be cheap and fungible. Don’t like making it? In with the next one. And is it any surprise that we have content networks that follow similar publishing models and patterns?

A formula would have made this site much easier to make each night (and perhaps more sustainable and more profitable), but it ran opposite what I wanted to do. The goal was never optimization. I never added statistics to this site or promoted it other than word of mouth. The definitions were always “illustrative” rather than textbook. I wanted the site to be mine, not to necessarily be an aggregate of three other popular websites. That meant it was never going to grow big. I was ok with that, and I’ve learned to be more ok with that over time. I’d love to have had the same success with this that some of my friends have had with their creative projects, but I wouldn’t have traded the pressure that comes with those fans for it. The things that drive good content lead to burnout and depression when you can’t measure up. My internal critic is as savage as a trapped weasel, but he’s nothing compared to the internalized critic of others’ expectations. Being insignificant has been a good thing for this project.

There will be no grand words of advice or “what I learned” at the end of The Dailies. I don’t want to see anyone try and copy it, either. Do your own project. Do the project that only you can do in the way only you can do it. I’ll sign up. That’s what we were about from the start: people doing excellent, interesting work. The pursuit of excellence will resemble the pursuit of optimization for a while, but it will always diverge. One results in an endless treadmill. The other will take you through the woods on a trail run over rocks and tree roots. It’ll be harder, but the air will be clean and the surroundings will give you chances to marvel at nature. Where would you rather be?

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