The Maker Illusion
Making things used to be difficult—and you had to work through challenges on your own. There weren’t many learning resources. Self-publishing options were limited. You couldn’t edit video unless you had expensive hardware. The tabs for songs weren’t downloadable. As a result, not too many bothered. In fact, making stuff used to be uncool and nerdy.
Now, everything’s possible. This makes some of my generation (and those before it) jealous of those who’re young—because they have access to tools and resources we didn’t. Sure, I appreciate the new tools, means of distribution, and ability to connect with others. I also bemoan how creativity is now a sort of lifestyle choice. It all seems so self-congratulatory. Whereas, I still feel like it’s something you do for its own sake.
Let me clarify: Everyone should know the joy of making things. I don’t want to take that away from anyone. Unfortunately, most don’t so much make things as they pretend to. Instagram, for example, allows you to (sort of) make something—and get rewarded for it. But, it’s actually a short-cut that’s not all that worthwhile.
Let’s go back to the mid-’90s, for a moment. I spent a lot of time then painting in my basement. Someone might drop by and go, “oh, I like that one.” Mostly, though, I was on my own. At the end of a year, or so, I’d amassed a body of work. I’d then rent a space and put on an exhibit of my own. This took about 4 months to prepare for. Or, I could apply for a gallery show. If accepted, the show would take place about 2 years later. Some would visit the exhibit and say something nice. These moments were gratifying, but fleeting. Mostly, I spent time in my studio, listening to music, drinking coffee, and working.
Contrast this with how we now show what we’ve “made.” I take a nice photo of a rock, meal, or sunset. Then, I apply a filter and press Share. In less than two minutes, anyone in the world can see this image. A moment later, I’ll see names next to a heart… Instant gratification! This should be amazing, but it’s not—because it circumvents the important part of the creative process.
What matters most in any creative endeavor, is the making. That’s the magic. That’s when you achieve a flow state. That’s when you might discover something new. And, for someone like me—who’s not spiritual—this is a powerful experience. It’s the closest I get to feeling a deep sense of connection to the world around me.
Services like Instagram make the creation part easy. Actually, that’s inaccurate: Services like Instagram offer the illusion of creation. Instagram isn’t a place for great photographs. Instead, these are mediocre snapshots, with a filter taking care of the rest. You’re not making anything when you use Instagram (or any of its analogs). You’re just using someone else’s product.
Services like this have trained us to expect immediate gratification—without needing to do any of the hard work. Look at other things that do that, and you’ll see why this is cause for concern: Crib notes. Fast food. Books on tape, Fat burning “shaker” machines. Meal replacements. Gondolas that get you to the view—without needing to hike. Vitamins. Cholesterol medication. The short-cut might get you to a similar end-point, but it’s not the same as if you did the work for yourself.
So, I’m kind of offended by pop-up shops, hipsters, artisan products, beards (I know… I know…), skinny jeans, Shoreditching, “creativity” apps, homogenized style, and all this pretend artistry. Because, it’s all bullshit. Those I know who make stuff don’t look that creative—because they’re more interested in actually making stuff. Whereas, those who look creative tend to be posers and hacks.
I’m not immune to the shortcuts of the day. Truth is, I kind of feel good when I post a neat looking photo on Instagram—even though I know I’m cheating. For a while, I played with a camera, taking what I consider real photos. They aren’t necessarily any good, nor are they as finished as the ones I have on Instagram. But, to me, they feel real. That’s in part because I made decisions about shutter speed, aperture, aspect ratio, size, color, contrast, composition, cropping, and edits; whereas, in the square ones, I mostly chose whichever presets looked nicest.
I also spend way too much time on Twitter. I do this because I can get a quip down while it’s still fresh in my mind. But, I can’t pretend that I don’t enjoy seeing such a thing retweeted. Again, though, this is an empty gesture. Even if your tweet goes viral, it’s still not a substantive work. Yet, a Twitter personality with 100k followers might convince himself that his activity on this network is of real significance.
Will this change? No. Most of us would rather buy a new pair of runners than go for a run. So, selfie-sticks are here to stay. Snapchat will get even bigger. And those who believe “personal branding” to be a meaningful activity aren’t going to change their minds.
But, some of us are here for the run itself, and not the medal/t-shirt that others sport as a token of accomplishment. Why do these people bother? Why do they put in the time, and toil, when they could instead take a short-cut? If I need to explain it to you, you’ll probably never know.